Battlefield Touring on a Motorcycle – Chapter 1 The Western Front 1914-1916 (Get out there!)

Chris

Chris Cherry

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Chris Cherry is the author of the Amazon bestselling The Mad Game series of three novels, factually set in the Great War. He undertakes meticulous battlefield and social history research, all on his trusty Honda Blackbird, to ensure that his novels are historically and militarily accurate, reflecting the true history of the times. Intended to give readers a real sense of being there, on the Western Front, living the war with the characters. He is also an IAM Observer, volunteer Blood Biker with Blood Bikes Manchester and a historian of early twentieth century history.

Battlefields on a Bike

Call us bikers, motorcyclists, riders or mad. But show us an open road, a clear sky (mostly) and a full tank indicator and we all see the same thing. Freedom, fun and all possibilities are on, especially if we have a fellow biker to share it with.

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Longueval Pit Stop. This location saw the bitterest of fighting in 1916

In this first article in the series “Battlefields on a Bike”, Chris Cherry explores the Great War battlefields on the Western Front by motorcycle and offers some advice, handy hints and tips as well as a couple of ideas for a visit to the Great War battlefields. He invites you to follow in his wheel tracks and then go and make some of your own.

Covered in Flanders mud - Wjtschaete

Covered in Flanders mud – Wjtschaete

In the summer of 1914, the British Empire (as it was then) embarked on a massive mobilization of troops, supported by millions of workers and family back home. Somewhere near to ten million troops and support staff crossed the channel to France and Belgium. Commonwealth countries sent millions of troops to support the bulk of the fighting which took place across Eastern and Western Europe and the Middle East. Trenches were dug in response to the changes in warfare tactics and the advent of heave artillery and the machine gun, which could destroy troops, horses and equipment in almost an instant. The digging in created an attritional, immobile and devastating war, leaving scars to this day across Western Europe. The majority of Western Front battlefields are located in a narrow strip of between 40-60 miles stretching over 400 miles from the Belgian channel coast to the Vosges Mountains in Switzerland. Trenches existed on the beaches and on the snowy slopes of the Southern Alps.

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The First Battle of The Somme (Battle of Albert) July 1916

The battlefields are very accessible to visitors. Much work has been done on the roads around the sites of the major engagements, especially in Verdun, around the whole Somme region and in southern Belgium. They are especially accessible to motorbikes, and being only an hour or so from the coast, make a fantastic venue for a weekend away, or a remembrance trip. Albert and Cambrai can be reached in just a couple of hours of dual carriageway riding from Calais. You can reach Ypres (Ieper) from Calais in an hour as well. In fact, you can ride the whole length of the Western Front on a bike in a day (I have done it).

If you are planning a trip to the battlefields, it is a good start to refresh your knowledge a little of the war before you go, this will help you to choose where you want to go and what you want to see. The locations are often now simply farmland and field, but still just beneath the surface is a wealth of history and tragedy, that is deeply moving to understand. The Somme has many little villages with an incredible war history, but with little to see of the actual war nowadays on the surface, so knowing the geography helps to locate the major sites and cemeteries to visit. It is also worth knowing a little about the divisions who fought there (and when), as there are monuments, statues and memorials everywhere. A wealth of web resources are available, as well as Facebook pages and the written record, such as the newly published War Diaries. As the front moved back and forth so frequently over the course of the war, over relatively short distances, the engagements are very mixed together, and as a result the cemeteries are as well, with graves located from all years of the war. The cemeteries are always worth a visit, for reflection and remembrance. Try and visit French and German ones as well as those from the Commonwealth. It is interesting to see how other nations remember the sacrifice.

So, are you going?

You have decided to go. Excellent. What should you do to prepare? First of all, obviously, make sure your bike is up to the trip. Plenty of rubber on the tyres – some of the roads in France and Flanders are narrow and prone to mud and dirt from tractors (there are a lot about), especially in April and October. Check oil, water and take all of the usual care. Make sure if you are going two-up or taking a lot of luggage, you check if you need to adjust your suspension settings, or your headlights. If you don’t ride with all-up weight very often, practice at home before you go. Bikes can respond differently with weight on the rear. It might also help you decide if a tail-pack, rucksack or tankbag/panniers are the best options for your comfort on the trip. There are no modifications needed to your bike for France and Belgium, but remember that traffic comes from the left, more than the right, so practice left shoulder checks, which should become a paranoid habit on the continent, for safety and good progress to your destination.

When it comes to planning the route, I personally use Tyre (with a Tomtom Rider 5). The main reason is not so much the navigating, but I can plan waypoints to visit (for my research) beforehand at home. I can then work out the timings to help manage a day’s riding in the field. That way, I don’t miss what I want to see and if something interesting pops up, as it always does, I can always get where I need to be in plenty of time. It is also fun researching locations beforehand and adding them in to the itinerary. It really does enhance the visit when it comes to setting off.

Tyre

Tyre Screen Grab

So your bike is in fine fettle, you have your route in the can, or mapped out on your tankbag, what next? I use my route to plan my crossing in advance. I have found two ways to cross to the continent for battlefield visits. It partly depends on where you live, but both have advantages and disadvantages.

Route 1 – night ferry Hull-Zeebrugge. The crossing is not cheap, at approximately £250 for a motorcycle. But it is at night, leaving at about 8pm and arriving in the morning at about 9am. You arrive in Holland early in the morning, refreshed (if you have not hit the bar too hard) and ready for the three/four hour blast down to Belgium. Morning traffic is light and if you have the weather, you will have sunlight from morning to dusk, the land is very flat, without hills to spoil the view!

Route 2 – Dover-Calais. This is a cheaper option, coming it at around £30 for a timed crossing, or about £50 for a “turn up and go” option. The ride down to Dover alongside HS1 around the M25 is a bit dull. If you go via Dover, try to include time for a visit to Folkestone, just along the coast from Dover, about 20 minutes ride away. It was here that most soldiers departed throughout the war. The Slope (the road down which soldiers marched) has been renamed the Road of Remembrance and an arch is to be constructed in memory of the part played by Folkestone in the war and the sacrifice of the soldiers passing through. A ride up and down looking out over the old war harbour should be part of any trip.

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The Slope in Folkestone – now re-named the Road of Remembrance

 

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The Slope c1915

Ferry across the water

For either crossing, don’t forget to take a couple of crocodile straps to help tie down the bike. Most ferry staff are brilliant at helping to tie down a bike, but loading is a busy time. They will give you a strap for the bike (it will be dirty and oily/rusty) with a hook on either end that goes through an eye (like a ground anchor) either side. Make sure it is over the lowest point of the seat, with an old glove under it to protect your seat. Some like the bike on its sidestand, some centrestand. If given the choice, use the centrestand and chock the wheels. I also tie a shoelace between the stand and the front wheel preventing the bike rocking forwards, the only way it can roll off. But it is unlikely to happen, so don’t worry. Take your lid with you, or lock it in your panniers. Objects do get moved around and you don’t want your lid knocked without you knowing. Leave the alarm off. it isn’t likely to be stolen! I always pre-book, as it is cheaper. In the week, crossings are quieter. I always filter up to the front of the assigned lane. Most loaders let you on first as well, I always try to make contact with the loaders anyway. The ramps are metal, sometimes wet and slippery. Keep calm. You should not have problems, but set your gear, use the clutch to manage engine speed and ride steadily, avoiding sharp throttle movements. Use any grip-strips provided on the ramps. If you are on the upper decks, the slopes on the ramps can appear to be alarmingly steep, but they really are not too bad. Almost always, you are first into the coffee lounge, to recover from the loading. All modern ferries are gyro stabilized with driving planes, so seasickness is unlikely.

What to pack…

What to pack? This partly depends on weather and your approach to risk. Belgium and France are bike-friendly and drivers are aware of bikes more than the UK, I have found. But, general driving may seem more erratic.

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Guillemont Road Cemetery (Somme)

At the time of writing, bikers did not need to carry any special equipment or to modify the bikes, such as warning triangles, hi-viz or reflective patches. A breathalyzer kit is still required, but as yet, the Law is not enforced through penalties.I personally try to avoid infringing the Law, but you must decide what is best for you. Here is some official advice from the IAM…

Neil Greig, IAM director of policy and research, said: “The law for carrying breathalysers will no longer be enforced through fines, but in order to comply with the law we still recommend that you keep a breathalyser kit on the bike whenever you’re travelling to or through France.”

Re-check before you depart. Take a first aid kit for general use and a tyre pressure gauge (or mobile inflator). Bike shops are plentiful. I found a genuine Honda brake lever in a Piaggio dealer in Arras, as bikes are everywhere. Always take your full licence, V5, insurance and MOT if needed. Keep to speed limits everywhere. Speeding fines are on the spot and can be costly.It is a trip of remembrance, so it is always polite to mind the revs in villages. Anyway, many folk want to come and speak to you, if they know you are interested in the War.

I always carry a SANEF Liber-t tag for the Peage. These tags work by remotely triggering the barrier. Keep it in your pocket or tankbag, but don’t bury it. You can opt to avoid the Peage if you want to, it does not make a great deal of difference. There has been a lot of discussion about bikes and Liber-t tags at peage booths. Here are my experiences of Liber-t Tags:

  • Handing the tag to an attendant in an attended lane always works perfectly, but this can put you in a queue. You get charged the reduced motorcycle tariff (Class 05).
  • Using an automated (non-height restricted) credit card lane works perfectly, but it can take 30 seconds to recognize the bike, so don’t worry if the barrier does not lift immediately. You get charged the motorcycle rate most of the time. You can get this adjusted afterwards, if it incorrectly reads your bike, or a car comes in behind you.
  • Using the express lane works perfectly and you do not have to even stop for the barrier to lift. You get charged the standard car tariff every time (Class 01). Usually, you can’t get this lane type adjusted.

You get an invoice, which is paid at the end of the month automatically. The tag avoids queues, as lanes can get very busy. Early morning can be tricky as well, as can peak season with UK tourists all on the wrong side of the car, or needing change for 50 Euro notes.

This is the official word from Liber-T…

You can use a Liber-t tag with a motorcycle with some limitations, the main one being that to avoid being charged as Class 1 vehicle you must use the manual lane and hand over the tag to the person in the toll booth.  They will use a barcode scanner to read the tag and will charge you as a Class 5 vehicle.  The main advantage is that it saves you fumbling for cash / payment cards with gloves on but you should not use the automated lanes. If there is no manned lane, use the automated Liber-t lane. When using the automated lane on a motorcycles just hold your tag up to the gantry, label side facing you.   Take care the vehicle (or other motorbike) behind is not too close as the equipment in the automated lane may register you as a larger vehicle and charge for a car (class 1). You can check your transactions in the ‘My Account’ area a few days later.  If this happens you would need to contact us and request a toll adjustment.  If you use the automatic lane then we can only request a toll adjustment if you have used the non-height restricted Liber-t lane, all vehicles using the 2 meter height restricted lane will be classed as class 1 with no option to adjust this.

Take all the usual clothes for biking, don’t forget your camera with lots of space for cards/film. Load up the panniers evenly, check the suspension, check you are comfortable and can ride at walking pace without a wobble, adjust the load to even up (always use the manual) and off you go!

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Ready to Go!

What do I do?

My preferred route is from Calais. I try to arrive in Calais in the morning, but as long as I leave two hours of daylight to get to Albert or Cambrai, I know I will be fine. Riding in the dark in France is no problem, but you are likely to be tired and looking out for your stop, so give yourself every chance of a trouble-free trip. I will often ride down to Arras first, stopping at the Carriere Wellington for a visit to the museum. This commemorates the use of tunnels under the town to hide some 25,000 soldiers prior to the Battle of Arras in early April, 1917. Don’t forget the main military cemetery. Parking is tricky, down the left-hand side. Sometimes, I will go to Ieper (Ypres) first, taking in Lille and Armentieres as well. Both are dual carriageway rides, with historical sites almost every mile.

Accommodation when in Belgium and France is a personal choice. Some hotel chains are better appointed on the continent, than they are in the UK. Some bed and breakfast accommodation is luxurious and bike friendly. I often stay in the Ibis in Albert. It is literally on the front line of the Somme battlefield and I can be on the line in five minutes at La Boisselle. There are places to stay in Bapaume, Cambrai and Amiens, all within a few minutes ride of the front lines. Again, worth thinking about which regions you want to see. Often a combination with a longer trip can work well also, a comfy bed, good food, or location, the coice is yours. Expect to pay £60 a night whatever your choice.

Now that you have your bike fettled, all packed up, tagged and bagged, accommodation sorted, what to do once you roll off the ferry, or appear from the tunnel?

In Flanders Fields…

If you are going to Belgium, then there is a wealth of history to visit. But, are two spots that you must visit, and they are only a half an hour apart. First is Tyne Cot cemetery, which is the biggest cemetery on the British part of the Western Front. Formerly a casualty clearing station run out of a captured German concrete bunker (which is still there), it became the central location for burials from all around the salient.

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Row upon Row at Tyne Cot

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Memorial Wall at Tyne Cot

The memorial wall to those with no known grave is very impressive and sobering. Its location within a modern housing development is typical of Belgium, but the view from the cemetery itself is fabulous over the salient and across to the Passchendaele plains. The car park is small pea gravel, but otherwise bike-friendly, so make sure you pack a sidestand puck – most cemeteries are gravelled. The visitor centre is packed full of information about the region and the cemetery.

Second is the Last Post ceremony in Ypres itself, at the Menin Gate, located in the centre of Ypres. In the evening, you can park bikes on the main square near the Cloth Hall, three minutes walk away. There are many fabulous Belgian coffee shops and bars around to suit all tastes.

The Menin Gate

The Menin Gate (Ieper)

 

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The Last Post Ceremony (20:00 daily)

The walk from the Cloth Hall to the gate follows the route taken by most soldiers leaving to fight on the salient. The gate itself was built as a memorial and at 8pm each evening, the Fire Brigade buglers sound the Last Post. The musicianship is wonderful. Normally the service starts at 7.15-7.30 and can be busy. It is a nice spot to park in, so go early and be on the front row to see the invited bands and the young people of the Commonwealth, who perform alongside the buglers.

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The Cloth Hall and me!

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Riding The Menin Gate

There are cemeteries and museums all over the salient and you can find a lot of information about them on the web. Belgium has many private museums, of variable quality. These sprang up after the war, when battlefields were cleared and made safer. An example is at Hill 62. The trenches are just corrugated iron ditches, although there are many photos and piles of shells and equipment.

Hill 62 Museum

Hill 62 Museum

Hill 60 was the scene of bitter, terrible fighting. Found again in the middle of a housing development, it has a small car park. You should visit, although it might be difficult to imagine the scale of the battle now. Much of the battlefield has been rightly reclaimed by the citizens and is quite noticeable in Belgium, in and around the Ypres salient.

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Messines Ridge Cemetery

Hill 60 Inscription

Hill 60 Inscription – Visit and take a deep breath

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Hooge Crater Cemetery & Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ridge of Messines is another site of incredible history and unimaginable suffering. The southern tip of the mining operatios in June 1917, the Germans were literally blown off this ridge. There is a peace centre open on the ridge itself, it is one of the highest spots in the area and the slope on the far side is relatively steep. The Messines ridge cemetery is small, chiefly because many bodies were simply never found. The ridge was heavily mined, you can still find the depressions if you take a good look around. There are other memorials in the area, to the Irish and the wider Commonwealth, as well as to the miner engineers who dug the mines in appalling conditions.

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16th Irish Division Memorial at Wijtschaete

There are others and I will feature them in other posts.

En France…

In France, most of the villages on the Front, especially around the Ancre and the Somme valleys, are tiny and the archaic “priorite a droite” may still apply. This essentially means emerging traffic at roundabouts and unsigned junctions has right of way to join the carriageway. Normally, though, you aren’t riding fast through villages anyway and as long as you are aware and concentrating, nothing will happen unexpectedly. Most drivers look to give way anyway, as the rule is rare in France nowadays. The majority of signs state that the rule is inoperative. Look out for these at roundabouts.

France has a wealth of sites to visit. For a biker, there are a few worth mentioning in particular. You must ride the road from Bapaume to Albert. It was this road that formed the very centre of the fighting in the (First) Battle of the Somme in July-November 1916. Along almost the entire length (denoted by Front Line notices), there are thousands of bodies left and right, still in the earth. The closer to Albert you ride, the more that this is the case. Stop to pay respects to the Australian Memorials on the road near Pozieres. An unimaginable sacrifice, in many ways, greater than that at Gallipoli and as costly as Fromelles, or Bullecourt.

Pozieres - Australian Flag over the Memorial to the AIF

Pozieres – Australian Flag over the Memorial to the AIF

Pozieres Military Cemetery

Pozieres Military Cemetery

The Lochnagar Crater at La Boisselle

The Lochnagar Crater at La Boisselle

 

 

 

 

 

 

Along the way you pass Pozieres, Martinpuich/Courcelette (first use of tanks), La Boisselle and Albert itself. Turn left towards Martinpuich and Contalmaison and you travel the main sites of the continuing battle, through Bazentin, Longueval, Delville Wood and High Wood. Turn right and you go towards Ovillers and Thiepval, where gains on the first day were negligible, the defences and terrain were just unsuitable for attacking. At La Boisselle is the Lochnagar Crater and the La Boisselle Project. The mining tunnels are being excavated and the mine itself has been acquired as a permanent memorial to the divisions that fought the first day on the Somme (particularly the 34th Division).

Pozieres Military Cemetery

2013-10-24 09.31.27 You must visit Ovillers Cemetery, where many first day graves are located. Also, Pozieres, so dear to hearts of Anzacs, the fighting was appalling for each yard gained. Delville Wood and High Wood also, sites of unimaginable horror, so peaceful they are today. If you park at Caterpillar Valley, looking out towards High Wood, you look over ground covered by a cavalry charge on 14 July, 1916. This ground was almost taken on the first day of the battle, undefended as it was. It then took two months and unimaginable casualties to take it finally from the Germans.

Caterpillar Valley

Caterpillar Valley Cemetery out to High Wood

The locations all around here, within a mile or two are evocative to the British and Commonwealth. Troncs Wood (Trones Wood), Bernafay Wood, Delville Wood, Flers, Ginchy, Guillemont, Bazentin-Le-Petit. All are worth a visit. Mind the cemetery car parks, they are red gravel and can be slippery for a bike. Remember that puck! You should take time to visit Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. It can be seen on Thiepval Ridge from all around. The 64 stone panels are densely packed with names of soldiers without a place of rest, or who remain missing. Right on this spot were the trenches and some of the scars in the land can still be seen. If you go to the end of the cemetery there (which is relatively small) that is very close to the advance of the British up and over the ridge, which was not achieved on 1 July.

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Thiepval Memorial to the Missing

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The Northern Hawthorn Ridge towards Y Ravine and Newfoundland Park

Just north west of Thiepval is Newfoundland Park and Beaumont Hamel. Here is a typically beautiful and respectful Canadian Memorial of a proud Caribou looking out over the battlefield. The trenches are original, but time has taken them over somewhat. Go right to the end to the Memorial to the Highland Division. The 51st Division have many memorials over the Western Front, so great was their sacrifice. This newer one is truly fabulous. Go along to Y Ravine and picture the struggle over it in November 1916. Just about here was the site of the Hawthorn mine, detonated early on 1 July (7.20 instead of 7.28). It has been captured on film and is worth a view.

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New Memorial to the 51st Division

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Canadian Caribou overlooking the advance of the Canadians on the Somme at Newfoundland Park, Beaumont Hamel

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The Ulster Tower, operated by the Somme Association

There are other locations, too many for a single list. The Ulster Tower is on the site of the Irish attacks during the First Battle of the Somme. Bodies and artifacts are found almost daily right on that site. Further along is Serre and Gommecourt, the disastrous diversionary movement to deflect attention away from the Somme.

As you ride north, pretty much along the Front Line, you pass Arras/Wancourt and the surrounding areas. The Battle of Arras in April 1917 was a momentous push around the Scarpe River to take the higher ground. The battle included the attack on Vimy Ridge. The ridge itself and the Canadian visitor centre are worth looking at, especially the line of mines. The memorial on the ridge is windswept and exposed. Imagine taking the positions in 1917. 2013-10-25 09.31.34 I hope this first article has made you think about taking on a bike trip. You should go, especially in these memorial years. What is to stop you? What is your bike for? Good luck, ride safe and send me your photos!

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Chris Cherry at Dover, October 2013

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