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A fascinating tour exploring the battlefields of World War One. Varying daily mileage with some longer days, plenty of history and poignancy. Almost a century on it is still humbling to see the places where such sacrifice took place in such terrible conditions. With plenty of stops to see the sites, and a benign terrain, this tour is within the great majority of cyclists. 5 days' cycling; 6 nights’ half board with wine; luggage transport, full back-up and assistance throughout the day.
We can tailor our itinerary according to your wishes or any personal connections you may have. We can also focus on particular nations - for example, we have had South African, New Zealand and Canadian customers for whom we have included in the tour places of special interest to them, whilst at the same time showing the places of global significance. The Western Front is a huge subject and we are keen to share it with you in a way that brings it alive for you. Below is our standard itinerary.
Day 1: Arrive Lille and transfer to Ypres to our comfortable hotel in good time to attend the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate – a tribute to the dead and missing of the Ypres Salient that has been enacted every day since 1928 except during the German occupation (and then it was re-instigated even as the Germans were retreating from the other end of the town in 1944).
Day 2: The Menin Gate bears the names of some 55,000 soldiers with no known grave. In fact, it was not large enough to inscribe all the names of the missing and another 35,000 were recorded at Tyne Cot, one of the largest cemeteries of the First World War. In addition to these names are 12,000 graves. This remarkable and sobering place is located at the heart of what was the hell of Passchendaele of late 1917.
Our route today is a leisurely one as there are so many things to see. The Belgians have an excellent network of cycle lanes and quiet roads and we benefit from these to ride in a large loop north and east of the city. First stop is Essex Farm, another cemetery famous as the place where John MacRae wrote the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ which eloquently established the poppy flower as the symbol of remembrance whilst he was working at the aid post there as a surgeon. The aid post has been reconstructed and sat underneath the artillery positions, and we then pass the point where the Germans carried out the first gas attack in the second battle of Ypres in 1915. Had they known at the time, they could have rolled up the salient there and then as the defending forces had fled.
We also pass the Langemark cemetery where 44,000 German soldiers are buried following the 1914 attack when the allies held their position and the salient was established. From here it is on to Tyne Cot, then passing the memorial to the tunnelling companies along a quiet back road we arrive at Sanctuary Wood where some trench systems are preserved as they were at the end of the war. (41 km / 26 miles).
Day 3: Yesterday we covered the northern salient and today we set off from Ypres en route to our next overnight stop near the Vimy Memorial. On the way, we visit some of the key points in the southern salient including the mine craters of the Messines Ridge. 4 Victoria Crosses were awarded on 7 June 1917 during the attack on Messines, and the prelude to this battle was the detonation of 19 huge mines in sequence, with the blasts reputedly heard in London. The ridge was tactically important as it held the high ground on the southern arc of the Ypres salient, and the battle was strategically important as it diverted German troops from the Battle of Arras. British and Commonwealth troops, notably Anzacs, achieved their objectives that day by advancing behind a creeping artillery barrage. We visit the New Zealand Memorial at Messines; in it are two German bunkers from which is a fine place to appreciate the battlefield.
We skirt ‘Plug Street’, as the Tommies called Ploegsteert, seeing the site of one of the Christmas Truces of 1914, and south of Armentieres the rows of pillboxes remain in open fields showing where the front lines were as we first visit Fromelles, scene of yet more bitter fighting by the Australians; then at Neuve Chapelle the Indian Memorial is another reminder that the whole of the British Empire was involved in the conflict. En route to our overnight stop in Arras we visit the incredible spectacle of the Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge with its lunar landscape of craters all around. The monument itself is awe inspiring and humbling. The memorial park contains sections of trench and tunnels (which it is possible to visit) and a small museum and is a ‘must-see’. (88 km / 55 miles, possibility to ride 2 shorter sections.)
Day 4: South from Arras we enter the area which more than any other battle is talismatic of the sacrifices made in the Great War as it saw the largest single day loss in the history of the British Army – it is important to remember that this includes men from all over the Empire, as it was then. Here, the artillery barrage was ill judged and too far forward to offer the protection desired. When it had passed, the German infantry rose from their dug outs in plenty of time to confront the advancing enemy, with the resultant catastrophic loss of life which will forever be associated with the word Somme. We pass through Gommecourt and then Serre, with its haunting cemeteries and the memorials to the Pals Battalions. We pass the venues of many more fierce battles before arriving at pretty Beaumont Hamel and continuing past the Hawthorn Ridge mine crater (the explosion of this is often shown in documentary films), Auchonvillers and then climb up to the Newfoundland Memorial Park, where the Newfoundland Regiment was all but wiped out with all of its officers and 90% of its men killed or wounded on 1 July 1916. In November the Highland Division finally took the objective and a memorial exists to their bravery too. The trench systems here show the close proximity of the front lines. We progress to see the memorial, which together with the Menin Gate, is perhaps the most important of the Great War at Thiepval. Views of the open landscape are seen through the soaring arches where the names of 75,000 missing are carved, giving a real appreciation of the terrain so fiercely fought for. (55km / 34 miles).
Day 5: We explore the sights to the east of the Albert - Bapaume road, starting with the Lochnager mine crater at La Bioselle. We pass Fricourt, Mametz, High Wood and Delville Wood, into which 3,500 South African troops entered and 125 came out days later after intense close-quarter and often hand-to-hand combat. The South African memorial with its museum here is worth a visit. Continuing onto a high plateau with fine open views we arrive in the area of the Cambrai tank battles of 1917, passing places such as Havrincourt and Flesquieres, to our overnight hotel in Cambrai, where our host explains how he discovered the Flesquieres Tank some 90 years later, and his acknowledgement from HM Queen, and answers questions on his unsurpassed extensive knowledge of the Battle of Cambrai. (86km / 53 miles).
Day 6: Riding back to Lille there are more reminders of the war as we see Bourlon Wood and the Canadian Memorial following the Hundred Days' Offensive of autumn 1918. Remnants of the Hindenburg line remain, to which the Germans fell back in 1917 before their Spring Offensive of 1918. Once beyond these we are behind German lines and although there is more traffic from here on, the run-in to Lille is along quiet lanes or cycle paths to our hotel. (77km / 48 miles).
Day 7: Departure.
Transfers to / from: Lille, Calais
Requested Single Supplement (see our FAQ page): £255