Monday, 28 June 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 4 Route

After a day off (to an extent) from prominent battlefields, the fourth day of our ride to Switzerland along the route of the First World War's Western Front takes us to one of the bloodiest encounter between the allies and Germans - Verdun.

Like the Somme for the English, for the French Verdun has come to symbolise the horror of war (or, to use a later example, France's Stalingrad).  While it was a battle that the French ultimately won - in the sense that the Germans failed to accomplish their goals - it was at a terrible cost, with a quarter of a million dead and at least half a million injured.

The iconic photograph capturing the death of a French Lieutenant, during the battle of Verdun
Verdun was a crucial point in the French defences against the Germans, with a string of forts around it.  In 1916 the German offensives elsewhere on the front had stalled so they planned to attack Verdun to 'bleed France white' with a battle of attrition (or so they claimed after the war, they might very well have hoped for a breakthrough).

But in the event, the French held - making the reputation of  General (later Marshall) Petain, who went on to ignominy as the collaborationist leader (whatever his motivation) of Vichy France during the Second World War.

Anyway, back to the day's cycle, which takes us 86 miles from Sainte-Minehould to Nancy.  It's mainly flat countryside with short sharp hills around Verdun and before Nancy:

Bike route 385870 - powered by Bikemap 

After leaving Sainte-Menehould we have thirty miles before Verdun.  As well as the town itself, James is keen to see the Ossuary at Douaumont a few miles north, which is a memorial to the men who died, from both sides, and contains the skeletons of around 130,000 unidentified men.

Douaumont Ossuary, Verdun
Unless we start very early, we won't have much time to linger as we have another 15 miles before lunch and 40 miles in the afternoon before we get to Nancy, which looks very beautiful from the guidebooks, to stop for the night.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 3 Route

The third day of our cycle to Switzerland continues to follow the route of the First World War's Western Front. But, because this was a relatively quiet sector of the front, hopefully our focus can be more on the countryside than the suffering of the young men who fought here nearly 90 years ago.

The route is 87 miles - a few more than previous days so hope we've found our touring legs - from Soissons to Sainte-Menehould.

Bike route 385868 - powered by Bikemap 

The city is, as the French might say, "très historique" - and one that has been fought over for nearly 2,000 years. It was well established by the time of the Romans, was wrecked by the Vandals and the Huns.

Reims cathedral became the site where French kings were crowned, rather like Westminster Abbey for us Brits.

Reims Cathedral
Of course the Germans made a terrible mess of the town, but it's been pieced back together and the champagne still ferments in miles of caves under the city streets.  Anyway, should be a good spot for lunch...

The afternoon is more of a blank, an area overlooked by t'interweb and guidebooks so much that a cartographer might mark it 'here be dragons'.  All I know is that there's another 40-odd miles of gently rising countryside to our overnight stop at Sainte-Menehould...

Monday, 14 June 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 2 Route

Continuing the routes for our cycle to Switerland next month, here's the route for Day 2, from Arras to Soissons, around 80 miles in total (luckily it's nice and flat, as you can see on the elevation):

Bike route 385866 - powered by Bikemap

While Day 1 takes us through the World War 1 Flanders battlefield, centred around Ypres, Day 2 moves on to the Somme battlefield. The Battle of the Somme, which ran from July to November 1916, was the first major test of Kitchener's volunteer army. The two (yes, two!) mile advance cost 420,000 British casualties.

The Germans had two years to prepare their defensive system of trenches, and the casualty figures show how the military leadership was struggling to adapt to the new realities of war.

The battle also marked the debut of the tank.

A British tank at the Somme

The route takes us south from Arras through Bapaume, Peronne to finish in Soissons (which is apparently one of the oldest towns in France).

Here are German troops (hard to mistake them with their pointy helmets!) marching through Peronne during their occupation:

Having cycled near here in 2006, I know it's a beautiful area and almost impossible to link to such pointless death and devastation on a sunny summer's day...

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 1 Route

It's only 6 weeks until I, with my brother James, set off to cycle from the channel coast of France to Switzerland to raise money for Leukaemia research - 550 miles in 7 days. The route follows the Western Front of the First World War.

Training is going pretty well and I'm feeling ready - just need to book the travel and the hotels.

In the meantime, here's the route for the first day.

Bike route 385863 - powered by Bikemap 

It's 75 miles from Dunkerque (Dunkirk in English) to Arras, pretty much flat.

Of course this is an area with a lot of history. Dunkerque is obviously famous as the site where over 300,000 British and allied troops were evacuated from the beaches in May and June 1940 during World War Two, turning defeat by the German Army into an almost mythical victory.

From there we head South East to Ieper (Ypres - known as 'Wipers' to British troops) in the Belgian province of Flanders. It was the site of three major battles in the Great War, which saw the first use of gas on the Western Front.  The poppies that grew on the shattered ground inspired the poem In Flanders Fields and the poppy used to commemorate the war in Britain.

Chateau Wood, Ypres in 1917
Almost completely destroyed, the town centre has now been restored to its former glory.

Ieper ruins in 1919
Further south we will pass the striking Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, dedicated to the 60,000 Canadians killed in the Great War, including nearly 4,000 who died capturing Vimy Ridge in 1917.

We finish the day in Arras. Another beautiful medieval town reduced to ruins during the Great War, and since restored. The city was a centre of the wool trade, and it provided the name for the wall hanging behind which Polonius was killed by Hamlet.