After a great gap, I have finally returned to logging our story of the Western Front cycling trip in May. The first couple of days in Belgium surprised me, even though I know the history of the region around Ieper in the First World War. I think what was so surprising is how frequently we encountered British cemeteries (Commonwealth War Graves) of all sizes. I had been to Tyne Cot and seen the Menin Gate before, but the cumulative effect of riding past cemetery after cemetery on a bicycle makes the personal tragedies seem more real.
Belgium has well-marked routes of memory for cycling to World War I sites, and British sites are also well marked. The vast tourist industry surrounding World War I in Flanders is in marked contrast to many other areas we visited later in France.
Some of the more moving places in Belgium for those interested in British history include 1) Tyne Cot cemetery, which is vast and which has a soundtrack playing continuously of the names of the dead; 2) The Pool of Peace crater, which is a beautiful peaceful site formed by the wartime explosion of a underground mine; 3) Passchendaele (the museum at Zonnebeke is a good starting point) where so many soldiers drowned in mud in 1917. By riding bikes, one understands the reason for some of the battles -- even the smallest rise or hill in a flat landscape becomes important to military strategy.
When our bicycle trip began, our first memory sites from World War I focused around Belgian sites. From the Brussels Airport, which was festooned with a field of poppies hanging from the ceiling, it was impossible to ignore the war's centennial. Belgium made cycling the front accessible, with marked signs on roads and bike paths, and many interpretative signs helped explain the significance of what we were seeing. Our small group was lucky enough to have guides the first day from one of Nieuwpoort's local cycling clubs, the Kon. Vrolijke Wielrijders Nieuwpoort. Roger Maes and his three cycling friends escorted us for about 30 kilometers to important sites in Belgium's war history on our way from Nieuwpoort (on the coast) to Ieper.
When Germany invaded Belgium in August 1914, the Belgian army fought back. Cemeteries from Liege to Antwerp testify to the early losses of Belgian and German soldiers in the first months of the war. As the front moved through Belgium, the government under the leadership of King Albert I made plans to withdraw to a safe location. For most of the war, the government presided over a small coastal strip of Flanders from its headquarters in De Panne, where we started our cycling on May 16, 2015. Just up the coast at Nieuwpoort, there is a memorial to King Albert. Also outside Nieuwpoort, one finds the sluice gates that controlled flooding in the plain around the IJzer (Yser) River. In 1914, Belgian army engineers opened these gates and flooded the plain between the German and Belgian armies, creating a flooded No Man's Land that would remain for the entirety of the war. Other memorials, such as the Dodengang 'death trench' museum and the memorial to the first poison gas attack in April 1915, provide more context for the Belgian war experience. Finally, the IJzer tower, located just outside Dixmude, promotes peace today with its "No more war" slogans, but it also reminds visitors of the divisive nature of the war within Belgian's linguistic and cultural communities.
Our first two days from De Panne-Ieper ended with visits to sites on the outskirts of Ieper, many of which were British, German, and French, so I will discuss those in subsequent posts.
Our cycling adventure and memory trail continues during Week 2 into Eastern France, along the Rhine, and ends in Basel, Switzerland. Week 1 overwhelmingly centers on the Belgian and British Empire experience of war, but Week 2 takes us to sites that are sacred to the memory of the French, American, and German roles in the war. From Reims we move into Verdun, with its scarred landscape and massive ossuary, then on to the two big American cemeteries at Romagne-sous-Montfacon and St. Mihiel. If we time our cycling correctly, we are hoping to attend the Memorial Day ceremony at the US cemetery at Romagne. At Pont-a-Mousson, we will have a shorter day with some rest before beginning our foray into the Vosges Mountains, the site of intense fighting between French and German troops throughout the war. We will visit the Hartsmannwillerkopf museum in the mountains, then descend into Alsatian wine country before finishing our trip in "neutral" Swiss territory.
While our bicycling trip is planned as a World War I centenary event and while we plan to follow a portion of the Western Front, we also will find ourselves in territory that featured prominently in the Second World War. Today, May 8, marks the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day, and commemorations will be held in multiple nations. Last year we watched the wreath-laying ceremony in the Tiergarten at the Soviet memorial as survivors of the war and dignitaries solemnly remembered the millions of Soviet war dead in the "Great Patriotic War." This year, we'll see the faded remains of these VE wreaths at cemeteries and monuments in France. Todd's grandfather, who died a year ago, fought in France, and my uncle (who was one of my dad's best friends), is buried in Lorraine in the US military cemetery there. As Americans traveling through France, that Second World War remains a presence as we investigate the first Great War.
I've already written about our first day of cycling, but I thought I would lay out the rest of our planned itinerary for week one. Next week I will highlight week two, and then we leave on Friday for the trip. I'll include stories and photos when we return about the highlights of what we actually see and do.
From Ieper (first overnight stop)--we proceed through an area of Flanders that saw intense fighting in a small zone. Our route visits the craters created by explosions of mined tunnels dug by the British -- the most well known is the Pool of Peace. We shall also follow a part of Messines Ridge (near Mesen today) and visit cemeteries dedicated to the French, the Irish, the New Zealanders, and the Canadians. One place I am eager to visit is Arras, not only for its cool Flemish architecture, but also to visit the Carriere Wellington, a complete underground network of trenches and bunkers. From Arras we proceed to the Somme zone, where we will visit a sampling of the memorials and cemeteries in the region -- Thiepval, Newfoundland Park, etc. Our overnight stop is in Peronne, so we will visit the WWI museum there, the Historial de la Grande Guerre. Our route leaves Peronne and heads toward Soissons, where we will proceed along the Chemin des Dames, an important road and supply route during the war. Week 1 ends with a visit to Reims and its reconstructed cathedral.
As I write about France and use a French guidebook on World War I sites to help me plan the trip, I would be remiss if I didn't pay tribute to Mme. Vicki Barmann, my high school French teacher who died earlier this week. Mme. Barmann not only laid the foundation for my French language learning, but she helped arrange a scholarship for me so that I could go to France for the first time in 1986 as part of a group of students from my high school. That trip and her teaching really inspired my love of European history, and I owe her a great debt.
Which "Western Front" should we cycle? That was the first question to be tackled when we decided to plan a bicycle trip along the World War I front in Belgium and France. While I often emphasize to students the static nature of the front throughout much of the war and the small territorial shifts, when viewed from the seat of a bicycle, the "front" is full of possibilities. We could follow the Hindenburg Line or perhaps some of the salients created during the war. We could get a map of 1915 or 1918 and find ourselves on quite different paths.
Ultimately practicality won the day. With a few impractical eccentricities. Using the excellent guide by Dutch author Kees Swart, Fietsen langs de frontlijn van de Eerste Wereldoorlog, we plotted a practical route that avoided major highways and that travels to many of the sites that are important to the war's memory. We chose one town for an overnight visit in case the little couscous place we enjoyed a decade ago is still there. Another stop features wine and medieval towns as a break from the miles of cemeteries and battlefields we'll see on the trip. Our previous bike trips have taught us that detours are a "given" and that there are always more miles than one thinks. In the pre-trip planner, however, we have clocked "our" Western Front experience at roughly 1120 kilometers (just under 700 miles) over the course of two weeks.
We've got a couple of weeks until the trip, so I'll try to post some planned highlights of the trip. If you read this and have suggestions for additional sites nearby, please comment.
The trip begins in Nieuwpoort on the Belgian coast where we can dip our bicycle tires into the English Channel before starting our ride. Our first few kilometers will traverse the polders of the Westhoek where in the autumn of 1914, the Belgian army opened the levees and flooded the land to stop the German army's advance. Sites we plan to visit include the Yser tower (IJzertoren) and the German cemeteries near Langemark and Vladslo, where Kathe Kollwitz's sculpture "The Elders" resides. We will circle around Ieper (Ypres) to Tyne Cot Cemetery before entering the town in time for the nightly "Last Post," a ceremony at the Menin Gate, which contains the names of more than 50,000 dead from the British Commonwealth. Overnight stop will be in the Ieper City Center.