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.