Mons, Cambrai and The Somme
The rain overnight in Thulin was something special. When I went to bed my room was hot so I had opened the window. I was woken just after 1am by the combined noises of the window rattling and the rain soaking the curtain and falling onto the inside of my window sill. Those noises however paled when compared to the incredible noise and light show of the massive storm that was raging directly overhead. I watched the display out of the bedroom window for a bit before (mostly) closing the window and trying to get back to sleep. I think the storm carried on for a while as when I awoke again in the morning I knew I had had a restless night. It wasn’t just the tired legs feeling that a solid day’s riding can leave give. The room had heated up again after my closing the window and so, feeling hot and stuffy I had a shower and then wrote up my diary for the previous day’s ride (I carry a small notebook with me to record my trips and serve as an aide memoir for writing this blog).
Breakfast was a simple self service continental buffet. An English speaking guest, an elder gentleman who I suspect might be part of the furniture at the hotel, showed me the ropes. A group of workmen alternated between eating bread and cheese on the table opposite and venturing outside for one of a large number of cigarettes they worked their way through over breakfast.
The overnight rain had stopped but the morning was grey and overcast and the temperature was nothing like that of the previous day. After breakfast I finished my preparations, took my bike from the outbuilding that it had spent the night in, and made ready for the off. After a matter of only metres I passed the village store so deviated in to get supplies: some bread rolls and bottles of pop: I still had some crisps, cheese and salami from the shop in Eisengen that I stopped at yesterday.
The first few miles were easy enough going although I was pushing into a small headwind. Just outside of Thulin I passed a field, marked with a number of wind turbines, which my host at the hotel had told me was the site for a part of the Battle of Mons; one of the first battle fields of the First World War. Here in 1914 the British Expeditionary Force had a very early encounter with the German Army. Losses here led to the B.E.F. retreating back to the coast.
A few small villages followed and somewhere around here I passed the border into France. Crespin was the name of the first French village I entered. I had thought that the border might have been the pretty bridge I stopped at on its edge but my maps now tell me I had crossed over about a half a mile beforehand. My stop at the bridge took longer than planned. A quick and pretty photo opportunity became a major frustration as my main phone/camera refused to work. Fortunately I was aware that it was starting to reach the end of its life and had brought an older phone with me to serve as my GPS recorder for the trip. That phone was now going to double up as the camera for the rest of the day. It was whilst cursing my faulty handset that I looked into the village and noticed that the signs were slightly different. That was my first indication that I was indeed now in France. I then realised that all of the car number plates were also now French registered. It’s quite impressive that despite the easy and fluid nature of international travel here that everyone seemed to have the correct license plates.
The first miles in France were fairly uneventful taking me through Vicq and Onnaing and then following the main road towards Valenciennes. The outskirts of the town (twinned with Chatham!) are fairly plain. Rather than trying to navigate around some side streets I stayed on the main road until I came to the inner ring road. The first section proved easy riding as roadworks had closed the carriageway to everyone bar cyclists. Further around the ring road I rejoined the traffic and passed a section of the old town wall. I then had to navigate around a tricky, busy, roundabout, but was soon heading back out of the town again having avoided the town centre. I made my way onto a canal tow path at just the right time to choose to stop for a quick bite to eat.
I was only to follow the L’Escaut Canalise for a short distance; although it was long enough to find my way blocked by a tree which had, presumably, fallen in the overnight storms. With no easy alternative route I had to push my way through the foliage in order to carry on to the edge of Thiant where I left the towpath and rejoined the local roads.
Upon leaving Thiant I came upon my first proper, and quite unexpected, stretch of Pavé. Unlike the short section outside Waterloo yesterday there was no avoiding these cobbles. I braced myself for the shaking and rattling but did actually find it to be quite good fun. The cobbles lasted the remaining miles into the next village though and by the time I dropped down the bumpy slope into Haspres I was glad to see the end of them. I mentally revised my plans for the day.
After watching the Tour de France route come near this way during Stage 9 just a few weeks earlier I had planned the next part of my route to take in the first two sections of Pavé that the Tour had taken on its route between Arras and Roubaix on that day. It was easy to add the first section in with only a minor detour, however adding the second section had involved including an additional 5 mile detour.. Having now already completed one good section on the cobbles I therefore made the decision to abandon that detour and include only the first section.
With that in mind I headed stragith on through Avesnes le Sec towards Iwuy. My water bottles were starting to get low now. I rode up and down the main street in Iwuy but there was no shop. Instead I stopped at the village church and had some refreshments. I was going to be riding into Cambrai within a few miles so I was sure that I would find something there. t turned I did not even have to go that far. As soon as I turned the other direction out of Iwuy I came upon a small supermarket and was able to stock up there.
A very short distance later I hung a right to head into the pretty village of Thun. This was the short diversion required to take me to the section of pavé that I was keeping on my route. I hit the cobbles on the outskirts of the village as they made their way up a slow rise. The Tour riders had come the other direction but I was glad to be slowed by the hill; hitting these at speed must be something else – but the Tour de France riders aren’t carrying panniers and they have easy access to mechanics if required.
There had clearly been a large number of Bob Jungles fans here as his name was painted a number of times on the cobbles (his was the only name that I saw). I carried on jolting and bouncing; mostly enjoying the experience but glad that I was only doing a couple of short sections of cobbled riding.
At the end where the cobbles stop someone had painted the words “Are You Ready” on the road. For the Tour de France riders on 15th July this was just the start of 15 sections and over 22km of cobbled roads awaiting them. For me the question was too late. That was my Pavé adventure complete.
I rode the short distance into the centre of Cambrai. Cambrai now doesn’t stick in the memory. Passing by I stopped to look at, and have a break at, the main town church but I was soon back on the way and, as seemed to be becoming habit on this ride, left the town by joining a waterside path; this time the towpath of the Canal du Saint Quentin.
There was only a handful of miles alongside the canal before I reached the bridge which marked my turning off point.
Leaving the canal I started a nice gentle climb back up onto open countryside. I crossed over a motorway, and rose up onto an open plateau marked with wind turbines and the occasional roadside chapel/shrine. The wind was still in my face as it had been all day and I felt its effects more on this exposed land. Then, suddenly, right in front of me (well just off to the left in reality) I saw the first of the many, many war cemeteries that I was to encounter along the remainder of the day’s riding.
Whilst I was aware that a very large number of graves were spread across a great number of cemeteries I had not realised just how many cemeteries I might be passing and over how large a stretch of the land they covered. In planning my ride I had picked a handful of key sites around the Somme and Ypres to visit. How foolish I was to think that those pre-planned sites would be the main part of the remembrance element to my trip.
The cemetery of Flesquieres Hill itself is relatively small; a mere 589 men are buried here! I would come across many larger in the days ahead so in some ways this turned out to be good preparation. The cemetery is raised up above the ground a little and only upon climbing the steps up did the beauty of the site become apparent. The work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and the various French and Belgian bodies with whom they work to maintain these sites, is truly inspiring.
Just to the side of the cemetery and built down and into the land on which the cemetery sits, is the new museum, named “Cambrai Tank”. “Deborah” a Mark IV tank, was involved in the fighting here in 1917. Fatally damaged (her crew are all buried in the cemetery) her remains where left buried after the war until 1998 when they were excavated, leading to the building of this amazing museum dedicated to her and the story of the new mechanised beasts of the Battle of Cambrai. I wasn’t originally sure about going in as I knew that I had a lot of riding still to do but I am so glad that I did and cannot recommend the museum highly enough. The building itself is amazing; replicating the concrete bunkers Deborah was attacking and is quite stunningly laid out with a mix of brilliant interactive displays setting the scene, and then the beautifully arranged remains of Deborah herself.
Leaving the museum and bowing my head again to the cemetery I continued heading West across the open countryside.
In Havrincourt, from its gates I looked down to the Chateau de Havrincourt. At first glance the Chateau is typical of many such French buildings, however this one dates only from 1925 when the new building was made to replace the one destroyed by the Germans in 1917 when the Hindenburg line was built straight through the village and the original structure.
Slightly further west again I crossed high over the Canal du Nord which was itself the subject of heavy fighting.
The next site for me to stop at was another cemetery; the small but lovely site of the Beaumetz Cross Roads Cemetery. I was beginning to realise now that there might be more cemeteries around the area than I had anticipated.
A couple of villages later I stopped in Villers au Flos. I had only stopped here opposite the church as it was one of the places at which I needed to swap over the pages of mapping in my handlebar map holder. As I was about to set back off I noticed a sign pointing towards a German War Cemetery. I wasn’t sure how far away it might be but looking at the road it was signed down I guessed (correctly) that it wouldn’t involve a long detour so I went to explore.
The smaller cememteries at Flesquieres and Beaumetz had not prepared me for this; my first large scale war cemetery. The German cemetery was as beautifully and peacefully laid out as the CWGC ones. Indeed with many more trees planted around the site, the layout felt even more relaxed and very friendly. Instead of the stone headstones used in the allied cemeteries, the Germans are buried under iron crosses. The effect is to increase the space between the graves which allows you to see more at any one time. There were many, many crosses here and it took my breath away.
I thoroughly despise the jingoistic, nationalistic crap that has enveloped and soured the U.K. since the referendum to leave the E.U. It is the biggest mistake of our generation and here lay the reasons (several thousand of them) why. These men here were as much our brothers as those under the clean white stones of the Commonwealth graves. This whole trip was to be a constant reminder of how we must never allow Europe to be so divided again; and yet here we are in the U.K. architects of the opposite.
Just as this deep sorrow was coming upon me I wandered further into the cemetery and then noticed something that had initially escaped my attention. Beyond the first line of crosses I had encountered next to the main path, all of the other crosses bore not one but two names. There were twice as many dead here as at first appeared. 2449 men are buried here. I did allow myself to cry a little. Not for the last time today.
Having regained my composure I headed back out of the small gate from the cemetery, mounted the bike and headed off on my way. Outside of the next village, Le Transloy, I came across my first French cemetery. This was mostly the main village cemetery but at its front was a large open area which was apparently the mass grave for several hundred men killed in the war; their names carved on a large stone behind.
I only had to pass through one more village to come across the next major cemetery; the CWGC Guards Cemetery at Lesboeufs. This is the final resting place of 3,137 casualties, of which 1,644 remain unidentified. Most of the photos I took here appear to be out of focus; I’ve included the best remaining ones here. I can only assume that I must have been crying again.
At the top of the hill a short ride from the cemetery is the monument to mark where the main fighting that led to the full cemetery I had just left took place. The cross now sits on the edge of a picturesque field; 100 years ago this landscape would have been anything but lovely.
From here it was a short ride to Delville Wood.
Delville Wood was the first of the sites that I had actually put as a point on my route plan. The wood was the site of one of the bloodiest engagements of the Somme in 1916. It was almost completely destroyed in the fighting but the trees have since been regrown. Only one tree remains from the original wood. My detours had meant that I had turned up too late to visit the Museum in whose grounds the tree sat but there was more enough memories to take in here. The main feature of the battle site now is the massive monument to all of the fallen of South Africa across the whole of the Great War. The monument is a massive structure that reveals more and more of itself as you get closer.
The original monument did not contain any names but an addition was made to mark the centenary of the battle on which the names of all the South African fallen are recorded. It’s a big list. The photo below shows only a fraction.
I didn’t stray far into the wood as I had left my bike unlocked at the gate; and whilst I didn’t really expect anything to happen to it I didn’t wish to tempt fate. I walked just far enough to ascertain that the marker stones I could see were recording the names of the ‘streets’ that had been made in commemoration of the trench lines: Regent Street, Rotten Row, Princes Street, etc.
Across the road from the monument and on a direct line with it is the battle field cemetery (for those whose bodies were recovered; for a great many more men the wood remains their final resting place – if resting is the right word). The cemetery, containing the bodies of over 5,500 men, was yet another vast and stark reminder of the huge loss of life here (remembering that only one half of the fighting is represented in this plot). The sun was starting to lower now and the low light made the strange beauty of the cemetery even more powerful. I sat here a while and would have happily stayed longer but I still had a few more miles to ride into Albert so I pulled myself up from the bench I was sitting on, walked along just a few more of the very many lines of the dead, and headed back onto the bike.
At the junction just beyond the cemetery I came across the recently installed memorial to the ‘Footballers Battalions’ – the 17th and 23rd Middlesex – who included in their ranks a number of professional London based footballers (and indeed from other clubs). The monument was added in 2010 by the Football League.
The sign to another monument led to me adding an extra mile or two of detour; the monument to the fallen of New Zealand on the top of another hill just to the North of Longueval and Delville Wood.
I headed back in the direction of Albert but again did not go far before coming to another of the massive cemeteries; this time Caterpillar Valley. Another 5,573 men are buried here; 3,798 of whom are unidentified. The names of 1,200 fallen of New Zealand are also recorded here. As at Delville Wood the low, late summer sunlight added to the power of the setting and situation and I sat down and had another little weep.
Another few smaller cemeteries were sited a short way off the road; Thistle Dump. Flatiron Copse. Gordon Dump. I didn’t stop at any of these. I didn’t have the physical or emotional energy left to make the detours. A long day riding into the wind and all the tears were taking their effect now.
I did however make one final turning for the short trip to the final site of the day; the massive hole in the ground known as Lochnagar Crater. The result of tunnelling and exploding underneath German trenches, a hole 330 feet across and 70 feet deep remains as a permanent memorial. The explosion occurred on the first day of the Battle of the Somme; 2 minutes before the main fighting started. Unknown numbers of Germans were killed both in the explosion itself. Thousands more died in the fighting that then occurred in the immediate aftermath. As the British tried to take the ground their advance was scuppered by the massive crater. The new obstacle largely served to leave them brutally exposed to the German guns.
By now I was physically and emotionally exhausted. Fortunately my bed for the night was not far away. Albert was the main town at the heart of the Somme region and the Ibis hotel that I was aiming for was on this side of the town. I quietly and reflectively rode the final mile or two and silently glided into the hotel car park.
I checked in, showered, and returned to the bar and restaurant for a rather rubbery steak (but some nice fries) and a beer. Unsurprisingly perhaps the bar was full of a couple of coach loads of other Brits on tours around the battle sites. However I was too in my own thoughts from the day to engage with them and so quietly slipped back upstairs to my room and to my nice comfortable bed.
- Distance: 73.95 Miles
- Ride Time: 6 Hours 28 minutes and 45 seconds
- Average Speed: 11.4 mph
- Ascent: 1,774 feet
- Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/1758995873