A Cycling Tour of Flanders Field

Oliver Webb-Carter

Our editor cycled around northern France and Belgium recently, and here is his story.
Menin Gate at Midnight, by Will Longstaff.
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A Cycling Tour of Flanders Field

Our team of three set off from the town of Calais, destination Ypres, having spent a glorious night there. Dinner at L’Histoire Ancienne had featured one of our company attempting to help with Anglo-French relations by speaking his schoolboy French:

“Madame, Donnez-moi beurre.”

Five minutes later.

“Encore beurre.”

These demands were met with a non-plussed look by the waitress (by the way, she was clearly in her early twenties).


As we headed north east to our lunchtime rendezvous with Freddie at Cassel, the clouds darkened, and it looked to be a miserable trip. We had thought of cycling via Dunkirk, but discounted the detour for two reasons. Firstly, there’s not a huge amount to see at Dunkirk other than the rather nice museum. Secondly, we couldn’t be bothered to cycle the extra few hours.

Cassel proved to be a gorgeous little town, with charming cafés, a brutal ascent and a bone-juddering descent across giant cobblestones, each one looming up to loosen fillings.

As we approached the Western Front, we saw more and more Commonwealth war graves. Keen on stopping whenever a cemetery was sighted, I was overruled by one of our party (he of the schoolboy French), who wanted to get back on the road to reach a destination that was never quite defined throughout our trip.

Cycling across the border into Belgium, and then soon into Ypres, the Great War became more apparent, as increasing numbers of CWGC sites appeared, and as we entered into the city we were greeted by a large British Legion mural as seen in the attached image, the font so reminiscent of wartime posters and leaflets.

Ypres is an extraordinary place. Pretty much flattened in the war, it was rebuilt with great care and respect for the past. Buildings going up even now look as they did in August 1914, thereby proving local authorities can get it right – Ypres council should have been the model for many a bombed out UK city.

Neuve Chappelle

In Ypres stands the Menin Gate, currently under refurbishment. This monument to the 54,896 Commonwealth names of those lost, and beautifully depicted in Will Longstaff’s painting, at 20:00 every day plays host to a remarkable ceremony attended by hundreds. That’s each night, week in week out since 1928 (apart from during World War Two – the ceremony resumed at Brookwood Barracks in Surrey) and even now it attracts the crowds. During our pilgrimage it was representatives of the Ulster Division who played the Last Call and laid wreaths. This was particularly poignant for me since my grandfather served in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, and was seriously wounded, aged only 19, in 1917.

After an evening of drinks and pool, we were back on the bike the next morning, bleary eyed and sore of head. Soon the Belgian air refreshed us and we headed south again, to France and Arras. On this leg of the journey, I was granted permission to stop at a beautiful memorial to the Indian Army, the Neuve Chappelle Memorial. Built in a distinctive style, quite different from British and ANZAC cemeteries, it contains the names of 4653 names across all states of modern day India and Pakistan. Close by is a memorial to 1831 troops of Portugal who gave their lives in the First World War. I texted a Portuguese friend who had no idea his country had even entered the war – in the event 56,500 formed the Portuguese Expeditionary Force of 1916.

Before we reached our destination we cycled up another unforgiving hill to Vimy Ridge and site of the massive Canadian memorial. This vast structure (behind which sits a tribute to Moroccan troops) is awe-inspiring and moving both because it holds the names of 11,285 troops lost with no known grave, and for the symbolism of the sculptures by Walter Seymour Allward representing why Canada fought: Hope; Freedom; Justice; Faith and Peace among them. Mike, our Canadian, recorded a guest contribution to my podcast. The First World War was a hugely momentous event for the Canadian nation. Given the Canadian Corps’ sacrifice (60,000 dead), it could no longer simply be a Dominion and after the 1931 Statute of Westminster, the country effectively became autonomous. The poem In Flanders Fied by Lt-Col. John McCrae, a Canadian physician, is prominent.

As we arrived into Arras, the town square was bathed in a glorious sunlight, populated with the gorgeous young and we sat downing beers with them. Pretty waiting staff navigated their way through busy tables serving frothing pilsners. Having been largely responsible for the team going over-budget, I agreed to take it easy that night, and so we returned to our AirBnB at 1am having been thrown out of our final watering-hole.

With Uncle Desmond

On to the Somme the next day, and again our fuggled heads were cleared quickly by cycling through the French countryside via Arras cemetery to visit my great uncle Valentine (read his story here). Our destination was Dernancourt, but before that we had to take in both Thiepval and the Ulster Tower.

The 36th Ulster Division consisted of many of the volunteers inspired by Sir Edward Carson to dissuade the British government to pass the Home Rule Bill of 1914. My grandfather joined the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in 1916, but within three weeks of arriving in the trenches had been seriously wounded by a grenade in an attack that we only recently learnt was ‘friendly fire’ from our French allies.

To end our trip we found Dernancourt cemetery containing the body of my other great uncle Desmond. Only 19 when he died, Desmond had served in the Royal Engineers having won the sword of honour at Woolwich. His commanding officer had written movingly about how his death had affected his battalion.

As we returned to Blighty via ferry, all three of us reflected on what we had seen, and it was the sheer number of graves, both Allied and German, that had the most impact. The new Western Front Way is a new route for both walkers and cyclists, and so for anyone contemplating a visit, the poignancy and hospitality to be found should be temptation enough.

Oliver Webb-Carter is the Editor of Aspects of History.

A Cycling Tour of Flanders Field