Cycling is one of the most peaceful ways of visiting war memorials – Andrew Webster, author of Shot & Grape Tour: Bordeaux to Burley-in-Wharfedale, cycled the battlefields of the Somme
A great introduction to battlefield touring in France by bike is the Battle of the Somme. Fought in 1916 during the First World War, it covers an area of about 200 square miles with the front line being about 30 miles long. Lord Haig, the Commander in Chief of the British and Commonwealth Army, launched his attack on the first of July with 100,000 troops. By the end of that day, 60,000 were casualties of which 20,000 died. It was the worst day in the history of the British Army. Hardly any ground was captured from the Germans and entire communities were decimated due to the practice of keeping men from the same town together in each unit, the so called “Pals” battalions.
An ideal starting point for a cycle tour of the Somme – which falls largely in the Picardy region – is the medieval town of Arras. On the northern edge of the battlefield, it is 65 miles from the ferry port in Calais, and 74 miles from the port in Zeebrugge, Belgium. There are battlefields at Agincourt and Waterloo from earlier periods to consider on your way to the Somme. For those cyclists not wanting to carry their luggage with them, I suggest using Albert as a base – it's a bustling town in the centre of the battlefield area.
Leave Arras south west on the D3 to Gommecourt where you start to pass the first of over 200 cemeteries that cover this battlefield.
Continue onto Hebuterne and on the D28 and D174 to Auchonvillers for tea at Avril Williams famous tea rooms. After your refreshments, you can find nearby the location of the famous crater of Hawthorne Ridge, caused by a huge mine detonated at 2.20am on the morning of the battle. Just down the hill from the crater is the famous lane occupied on the day of the battle by the Lancashire fusiliers who were captured on that famous and haunting black and white footage just before going over the top.
Follow the D163 to Beaumont-Hamel and onto Newfoundland Park, a large area of preserved battlefield south-west of Beaumont-Hamel. A bronze caribou, bellowing out across the battlefield, commemorates the Newfoundlanders heroism here that day. A short walk out across no-mans land, past the “Tree of Death” marks the limit of their advance there that day. Do visit the excellent museum and talk to the young Canadians who run the memorial site and museum.
Begin by crossing the River Ancre to visit the Ulster Tower which commemorates the actions of the 36th (Ulster) Division during the battle. There is a good little museum just behind it. Continue up the hill to Thiepval the site of Sir Edwin Lutyen’s Memorial to the Missing which bears the names of 73,412 British and South African officers and men missing on the Somme in 1916/17. Here you will also find the largest museum commemorating not only the Somme but the whole of the First World War. There are computer facilities to search the database for relatives who fought in the war.
Follow the D151 south to Aveluy and onto Albert for your overnight stay.
After breakfast and a visit to the museum at the side of the Basilica Notre Dame, head north out of Albert on the D129 to La Bouselle. Snake through the village and follow the signs for La Grande Mine. Lochnagar is the largest surviving crater from the war. It was created by 60,000lbs of ammonal exploded beneath the German front line allowing the Tyneside Scottish to take the position.
Head back north now to Longueval via Montauban de Picardie. Delville Wood lies east of Longueval. Amongst the troops that fought for 'Devil’s Wood' are the Scottish, South Africans and New Zealanders.
Then head back west to Pozieres on the D20. Here you find the Australian Memorial and the idiosyncratic Burma Star Cafe full of artefacts and trench recreations.
Take the D929 north east to Bapaume and your final night’s stay before returning to Arras. As you cycle north-east, glance to your left and you may well see the Thiepval Memorial. On a bad day the weather reminds you that on that sunny day in July 1916 there was utter desolation to the west. By the time the battle finished soldiers were dying of exhaustion and exposure. Let us remember them.
After breakfast and a stroll around Bapaume, follow the D1 and D919 north to Arras with clusters of cemeteries along both sides of the road. Arras is an interesting medieval town, the ancient capital of Picardy. Visit the Grand Place to view the wonderful buildings restored to pre-WW1 conditions. If you have time head north out of Arras to visit the Vimy Memorial honouring the Canadian action there in 1917. It was an action often said to mark the beginning of Canadian nationhood.
Both Michelin and IGN (Institute Geographique National) provide an excellent range of maps for cycle touring in France. Michelin's Regional series (1/200,000) gives an excellent for overview, the Michelin Local series (1/150000) is excellent for detailed tour planning. See also IGN's (1/100000) Tourism et Decouverte Series, which includes Amiens/Arras, and IGN's Carte de Promenade series – the best option for detailed cycle planning. There's also an IGN 1/250,000 Nord-Pas-De-Calais/Picardy overview.
Lastly for those wanting to venture across France visiting other battlefield check out iGN 908 “France Lieux de Batailles which shows over 100 battles over the last 200 years together with background information and sites of memorials.
Shot & Grape Tour follows my own trip from Bordeaux to England, via the Somme. There is also Walking the Somme by Paul Reed, but don't be put off by the title as it's been written with both walkers and cyclists in mind. It features 16 separate day routes around the Somme, taking in all the major memorials and covering off an amazing amount of war history related to each itinerary. Paul Reed is also the author of several other titles in the same series, including Walking Arras and Walking the Salient. All are published by Pen & Sword, a company that specialises in books on military history.
See also Lonely Planet’s Cycling France, The Complete War Walks: From Hastings to Normandy by Richard Holmes, and Major and Mrs Holt's Battlefield Guide to the Somme for some fantastic maps, suggested routes and itineraries.
Cycling the Somme is a useful site set up by cyclists visiting the Somme battlefields to raise money for the Royal British Legion. Terence Munson’s webpage also has a useful itinerary and helpful notes for rail, ferries and B&Bs. Somme Battlefields is th official website for war tourism in the area, and has some useful links and accommodation options.
Guided cycling tours of the battlefields in French, Dutch and English can be arranged by Fietsen in de Frontstreeke.
Andrew Webster completed a 1100-mile journey through France in 2006. He has since cycled hundreds of miles in the south-west of the country. He is the author of Shot & Grape Tour: Bordeaux to Burley-in-Wharfedale, which includes his cycle tour of the Somme.