Cycling the Last Hundred Days of 1918 battlefields with the Royal Regiment of Wales

I have just returned from three days cycling the 1918 battlefields with a group of ex-officers from the Royal Regiment of Wales. Our focus was primarily the Last Hundred Days, the most successful period of the war for the British Army as it forced the enemy into a series of crushing defeats culminating in Germany’s capitulation and the signing of the armistice in November 1918.

Cycling past poppies on the Somme

Our tour focussed on the Battle of Amiens (August 1918), the breaking of the Hindenburg Line (September – October 1918) and, a pet subject of mine, the Canadian push from Arras to Cambrai and beyond from August – October 1918. Knowing the ground well, I was sure that we would meet very few other battlefield visitors once away from the main memorials. I was right – we only saw one other couple in the entire three days!

Crossing this ground by bike gave me time to think. My overwhelming sense was that these men who fought such titanic baffles have been somewhat forgotten by so many. I have no doubt that over the three days of our tour the 1916 Somme battlefield and Ypres were inundated with their usual coach groups and pilgrims. On the bike, it felt like a travesty that the very men whose actions paved the way to ultimate victory are so neglected. The gentle undulating lanes and big, open fields have a resonance all of their own. It is sacred ground.

Each day started with a briefing of our planned route and how the battle unfolded

The Battle of Amiens, August 1918

With the excellent self-catering holiday home Guillemont Halt as our base, we headed out with the bikes on the car roof every day to our starting point. Our first day covering the Battle of Amiens began at the Villers–Bretonneux Australian National Memorial before looping into the Canadian sector and following their tremendous advance of 8 August 1918. Favourite stops included Hangard Wood Cemetery where Pte John Croak VC, 13th Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada) is buried.

Grave of John Croak VC, Hangard Wood Cemetery

My grandfather fought with the 13th Battalion (although three years earlier) meaning I have an affinity with that unit. And who can fail to be impressed with the fighting capability of the hard drinking, hard living John Croak, described by a friend as ‘a remarkable man. There was not a phoney bone in his body. He was a roly-poly guy, feared nothing, and didn’t give a shit for anybody’.

Croak’s Victoria Cross Citation:
“For most conspicuous bravery in attack when having become separated from his section he encountered a machine-gun nest, which he bombed and silenced, taking the gun and crew prisoners. Shortly afterwards he was severely wounded, but refused to desist. Having rejoined his platoon, a very strong point, containing several machine guns, was encountered. Private Croak, however, seeing an opportunity, dashed forward alone and was almost immediately followed by the remainder of the platoon in a brilliant charge. He was the first to arrive at the trench line, into which he led his men, capturing three machine guns and bayoneting or capturing the entire garrison. The perseverance and valour of this gallant soldier, who was again severely wounded, and died of his wounds, were an inspiring example to all.”

Climbing out of Demuin to Hill 102 offered fabulous views of the battlefield before we pushed on to Beaucourt and Le Quesnel, the site of the Canadian memorial stone commemorating the battle.

Cycling from Hill 102 to Beaucourt

After a picnic lunch in Hillside Cemetery on the Caix road we crossed the fields to the secluded and beautiful Manitoba Cemetery where we looked in detail at their 9 August attack on Hatchet Wood.

On the tracks up to Manitoba Cemetery and Hatchet Wood on the trail of the 8th Battalion CEF

Battalion losses were heavy, particularly among officers (including their CO, former competitor from the 1908 Olympic Games, Lt-Col Thomas Raddall DSO). The attack was also the site of two 8th Battalion Victoria Cross actions – those of Fred Coppins and Alec Brereton.

Officers of the 8th Battalion CEF in Manitoba Cemetery with Hatchet Wood in the distance

Having stopped at Warvillers Churchyard to visit the grave of Henry ‘Ducky’ Norwest MM & Bar, the Canadian sniper, we continued westwards before heading north into the Australian sector of the battlefield, passing through Harbonnières. Our final stop before returning to the cars was Le Hamel Memorial Park and a look at the Australian Corps’ innovative 4 July attack on the village. Once the bikes were fixed on the car we topped our day off by climbing the Villers–Bretonneux Memorial which offered superb views over the landscape over which we had just cycled.

Australian Corps Memorial Park at Le Hamel

Breaking the Hindenburg line, 29 September 1918

Day two focused on the breaking of the Hindenburg line on 29 September 1918. Starting in the Somme village of Epehy we headed east to my favourite cemetery on the Western Front – Pigeon Ravine with its neat rows of men of the 2nd Worcestershire Regiment killed close by.

Pigeon Ravine Cemetery, Epehy full of the men of the 2nd Worcesters killed 29 September 1918

From there we rode up the grassy (and somewhat muddy) Gloster Road to Targelle Ravine and Villers-Guislain. The contrast between the quiet lane with banks laden with blood-red poppies and the accounts of the lane choked with dead and wounded was stark.

Riding up the sunken Gloster Road to Villers-Guislain

Somme American Cemetery, Bony

Other stops included the Somme American Cemetery at Bony, Riqueval Tunnel and Bridge before crossing the St-Quentin – Cambrai Road and following 32nd Division’s advance up Springbok Valley to Joncourt.

Riqueval Tunnel and the St Quentin Canal

Our focus was on the 15th Lancashire Fusiliers’ attack on the village on 30 September as well as war poet, Wilfred Owen’s MC action there over the subsequent two days.

Maissemy German Cemetery

The huge German cemetery at Maissemy with over 30,000 burials offered a stark contrast to the beautifully maintained and more personal CWGC battlefield cemeteries. Heading north we rode through the villages of Villeret and Hargicourt before stopping at Templeux-le-Guerard to visit the grave of Major Valentine Fleming DSO MP, Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars, father of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond 007. From there it was a few kilometres back to Epehy and our cars.

Templeux-le-Guerard British Cemetery

Breaking the Drocourt-Quéant Line and crossing the Canal du Nord on the trail of the Canadians, August – October 1918

Our final day started in the small village of Chérisy looking at the Canadian advance from Arras to Cambrai. Previous days had started with a mist which burned off by mid-morning, giving way to beautiful weather. This day remained the exception with a mist that never quite cleared. However, quiet roads and tracks made it easy to traverse the battlefield as we headed up to Upton Wood before looking at the 15th Battalion (48th Highlanders of Canada)’s incredible attack on the Crow’s Nest which opened up the way to the Drocourt-Quéant Line, the breaking of which on 2 September 1918 was, in my opinion, Canada’s finest hour of the war. Riding along the tracks that criss-cross this area with densely sewn crops growing nearby it was hard to visualise the close-quarter and bitter actions that took place in those fields. The isolated Dominion Cemetery sitting right on the Drocourt-Quéant Line with so many men of the 16th Battalion who attacked through this spot bears testament to the ferocity of fighting.

On the pavé from the D-Q Line to Cagnicourt

Quickly crossing the ground given up by the Germans as they fell back to the Canal du Nord before following in Canadian footsteps by crossing the canal at Inchy-en-Artois we looked at their assault of 27 September.

Crossing the Canal du Nord at Inchy-en-Artois

After a picnic lunch in the beautiful Quarry Cemetery we headed across to the key ground of Bourlon Wood before dropping down to Anneux. Between the two I told the group of the incredible endeavours of Lt Graham Thomson Lyall, 102nd Battalion ( North British Columbians ) who, in two days of operations, captured three officers, an astonishing 182 other ranks, twenty-six machine-guns and one field gun!

On the pavé to Sancourt British Cemetery

Looping northward we headed up to Sancourt with its cobbled track leading to the cemetery (a test for any cyclist) and its rows of 1st Division men including the grave of Native American, Private Albert Kick from Wisconsin, USA who enlisted in the CEF in 1916.

Sancourt British Cemetery – final resting place of many 1st Division men

Working our way westward, we headed back across ground captured at such heavy cost including the village of Dury to our final stop at the Vis-en-Artois Memorial which bears the names of nearly 10,000 men who fell in the Last Hundred Days in the Advance to Victory in Picardy and Artois, between the Somme and Loos, and who have no known grave.  It seemed an apt place for our final stop – a nod of the head to those who had fought the Germans to a standstill in summer and autumn 1918.

Vis-en-Artois Memorial

So much is made of Canadian success at Vimy Ridge – it can be argued that this is to the detriment of their other endeavours – that many are unaware of their key role in the Last Hundred Days of 1918. These actions, so often overlooked, produced over 46,000 Canadian casualties. An astonishing figure from only four divisions and one that should be better appreciated by Canadian and Briton alike.

A number of the group had cycled with me in previous years around the Ypres Salient, the Somme and Arras. The overwhelming feedback received was how much they had enjoyed crossing ground and appreciating distances and terrain involved as the British and Dominion armies advanced in the latter part of 1918. As former army officers they could fully appreciate the difficulties of manoeuvre across ideal defensive countryside. And as for me, I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to share some ‘new’ battlefields with clients. The men of 1918 really do deserve it.

“Thank you once again for another fantastic trip! All of the guys loved it. The areas you covered and the routes chosen were spot on, and even the tracks were relatively easily navigated by all – although I’m still amazed at how well a road bike can tackle mud!”

“Thank you for a brilliant tour – the perfect balance of historical interest and cycling. It was my first trip to the battlefields, but well worth the wait and you’ve got me hooked. Count me in for next year!”

It was a terrific three days with great company, many laughs and, on occasions, a few tears. We are all looking forward to next year’s trip. Now all I have to do is work out where we are going to cycle…


Cycling tour to the Somme and Arras battlefields

Having cycled the Western Front for years I bit the bullet in April 2015 and guided my first organised specialist cycling trip. Nine intrepid souls joined me for the weekend. This blog was previously published on my own website but is offered here with the launch of ‘Cycling the Battlefields’ in February 2018….

Our base was the delightfully comfortable Les clés des places in the heart of Arras. The Somme was our destination on Friday, leaving the neglected battlefields of Arras for the Saturday.

Day One – The Somme

Friday morning dawned with beautiful weather. With the bikes fixed to the cars we headed south, crossing the ground voluntarily given up by the Germans as they pulled back to the Hindenburg Line in 1917. Parking at Serre Road Cemetery No.2, we got the bikes ready and headed off.

Our first stop on day one. Serre Road Cemetery No.2

I had sent our proposed route to the group beforehand so everyone was aware of the distances involved. After an introduction of the battle and practices of the CWGC at Serre Road No. 2 we headed across Redan Ridge with its isolated ribbon of battlefield cemeteries to the small village of Beaumont Hamel. As one of the Somme’s most well visited sites with a highly evocative story the Sunken Lane offered our first chance to get to grips with the actions of July and November 1916. After hearing a 1st Lancashire Fusiliers officer, Lt E.W. Sheppard’s description of the 1 July attack we rode via Auchonvillers to Newfoundland Memorial Park where we had a good walk around the trench system, visiting all three cemeteries. The descent to Hamel was fun; infinitely more so than the climb up the Mill Road to the Ulster Tower! One of the group had previously served in the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment so I was able to show him the Pope’s Nose and discuss the 1/5th Battalion’s attempt to capture the position in September 1916.

After a visit to Lutyen’s imposing Thiepval Memorial and our first (and only) puncture of the day we headed via Mash Valley for lunch at the Old Blighty Tea Room in La Boisselle. Subsequent stops included the Lochnagar mine crater, Becourt, Fricourt and Mametz.

Thiepval Memorial

From the bottom of Dantzig Alley Cemetery we surveyed the undulating ground in front of us, a familiar view to the British in July 1916. Dominating the landscape is Mametz Wood, scene of so much heartache and horror for the 17th (Northern) and 38th (Welsh) Divisions. Our tour continued up to Montauban and Trônes Wood before a stop at Guillemont Road Cemetery where we paid our respects at the grave of Raymond Asquith, 3rd Grenadier Guards. Raymond, the son of the Prime Minister H. H. Asquith has been described as ‘one of the most intellectually distinguished young men of his day’. He had been mortally wounded at the start of the Guards’ attack on 15 September 1916 and died on his way to a dressing station.

The grave of Raymond Asquith, Guillemont Road Cemetery

One of our group was a former Coldstream Guards officer and so we deviated from the original plan, heading to the Guards Memorial between Ginchy and Lesboeufs. The exposed position on the ridge to Lesboeufs is in the centre of the ground over which the Division fought in the second half of September 1916.

Guards Memorial, Lesboeufs

Our route back across the battlefield took in Delville Wood, looking a perfect picture of peace in dappled sunlight – the polar opposite of summer 1916.

Away from Newfoundland Park and Thiepval the roads were quiet. Bikes at Delville Wood.

Next up was High Wood where I described the ferocious fighting that had raged there through the high summer of 1916. The wood and Switch Line proved such a bulwark to advance that British efforts resorted to siege warfare techniques; employing Vincent and Livens Large Gallery Flame Projectors in the wood along with the use of tunnellers to plant a mine under German positions. In the late afternoon light of a perfect spring day it was hard to imagine the carnage in these quiet mellow fields and woods.

A walk in Delville Wood

Crossing the Roman road we headed via Courcelette to Miraumont, along the Ancre valley to Beaucourt before a gentle climb up past Ten Tree Alley en route back to the cars. The conversations that night over a much-needed dinner and drinks all touched on the benefits of cycling in helping everyone’s appreciation of the battlefield.

Day Two – Arras

We awoke the next morning with slightly aching legs and for some of the group, aching heads. There was no need for cars as we would be setting out directly from our hotel. Whilst the touristy spots of the Somme were packed with coaches and school groups the empty fields around Arras are a very different proposition. I assured our travellers that other than farmers and locals we would have the Arras battlefield to ourselves. Heading south via Beaurains (a bike path runs alongside the road for much of this) and London Cemetery we rode to Neuville-Vitasse, a village which in April 1917 was wired into the German defences with the main Hindenburg Line running just behind it.

The bumpy track up to Neuville Vitasse Road Cemetery

Heading up the bumpy track to Neuville-Vitasse Road Cemetery was fun. From its dominating position I spoke of the 30th Division’s attack on 9 April 1917, the start of the Battle of Arras. The closely packed graves of the cemetery are predominantly made up of men from the 2nd Wiltshires and 18th King’s (Liverpool Regiment) who suffered grievous losses nearby.
I explained the connection with Hugh Dennis’s grandfather, Godfrey Hinnels, whom I had researched for the television programme, ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ Godfrey’s unit, the 1/4th Suffolk Regiment were tasked with salvage and burial duties in the days after the main attack. As such, it was likely he had been involved with the burial of the men that now lay in the cemetery’s walls.

Neuville Vitasse Road Cemetery

Next up was Cojeul British Cemetery which is the resting place, amongst others, for two Victoria Cross recipients – Horace Waller, 10th KOYLI and Arthur Henderson, 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. Climbing Henin Hill we visited the remaining German pillbox (MEBU) before our next stop, the isolated and beautiful Cuckoo Passage Cemetery. This small battlefield cemetery, full of Manchester Regiment killed on 23 April 1917 lies at the limit of the Manchesters’ advance. I read aloud an account by Private Paddy Kennedy who served with the 18th Battalion describing events that day. Many of his comrades lay around us within the cemetery.

Bikes could only get us so far. Walking the last bit to Cuckoo Passage Cemetery

We returned back towards Heninel before picking the road up to Chérisy where I discussed the terrible events of 3 May 1917, the Third Battle of the Scarpe. Described by Cyril Falls in the Official History as ‘a melancholy episode’ the attack that day was an unmitigated disaster for the attacking British forces. British dead for the day reached nearly 6,000 for very little material gain.

Continuing towards Hendecourt our focus changed for a short time as I described the Canadian successes of August and September 1918. Stopping at Sun Valley Cemetery I pointed out the formidable obstacles of Upton Wood and The Crow’s Nest (the latter captured with great daring by the 15th Battalion (48th Highlanders of Canada) on the morning of 1 September 1918). Passing Quebec Cemetery we dropped down for our picnic lunch at the idyllic Valley Cemetery between Vis-en-Artois and Chérisy. This spot is the final resting place of a number of highly decorated officers and NCOs of the 3rd Battalion, Canadian Infantry who were killed nearby at the end of August 1918. Amongst the 3rd Battalion men buried here is the 23 year old Lieutenant Edward Slattery, DCM, MM & 2 Bars. From the decorations received whilst serving in the ranks and his tender age he appears to have been quite some soldier.

Highly decorated Canadians from 3rd Battalion, Valley Cemetery, Vis-en-Artois

Suitably refreshed we headed back towards Guémappe and across the Route National towards Monchy-le-Preux. We headed west where I explained about the village’s capture and the terrible loss of British cavalry in its narrow streets on 11 April 1917. Having visited the impressive 37th English Division memorial and the Newfoundland Caribou in the village we rode eastwards, up Infantry Hill where I was able to regale the party with the story of the ‘Men who saved Monchy’: the disastrous 14 April 1917 assault by the Newfoundlanders and 1st Essex Regiment.

Infantry Hill is a special spot for me, the scene of so much concentrated fighting and yet, like so much of the Arras battlefield, it remains rarely visited. It was in these fields on 3 May 1917, that disastrous date for the British Army, that one of our group’s great uncles, Private Thomas Clark, 8th East Yorkshire Regiment was killed. Standing close to the spot where the 8th East Yorkshires went over the top I was able to explain the actions that day, reading from the war diary to enable everyone to appreciate the disaster that befell the attacking British troops and the magnificent defensive performance of the German forces.

Extract from the 8th East Yorkshire Regiment after-action report for 3 May 1917 action on Infantry Hill, east of Monchy-le-Preux

The Battalion moved forward at Zero hour [3.45am] but owing to the heavy smoke combined with the darkness they found it difficult to move on any definite point or points.
A platoon commander of the right-hand leading company found himself advancing up a small ridge which is to the south of the copse in O8 Central where he ran up against machine-gun fire. He was joined by a KSLI officer and some men. They moved forward together, the KSLI officer was killed as well as a number of men and as the place was bristling with machine guns and the copse occupied by snipers he stayed down in shell holes, returning at night to HILL TRENCH with 11 men on receipt of orders to do so from Battalion HQ…
…The men were in good heart and moved forward readily. I attribute the results to the heavy smoke, combined with the darkness which prevented people locating their points of direction. In addition to this the enemy barrage was very heavy to which must be added the very effective use of machine-gun both from the front but also enfilading attacking troops.
Casualties: 35 killed, 161 wounded, 39 missing

After some time to contemplate we returned to the village before riding down the Scarpe Valley to Fampoux where we looked at its capture on 9 April 1917 by the 2nd Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. Next up was another special spot; the Seaforth Highlanders cross overlooking the Hyderabad Redoubt, Greenland Hill and Roeux. Whilst there I explained the disastrous 11 April 1917 attack and read aloud the wonderful description left by Seaforth Highlander Private James Stout of events that day.

Descending the Sunken Lane, Fampoux

It is a great shame there is nothing at the former site of the Chemical Works, so bitterly fought over during the battle to show the ferocity of fighting and losses sustained to secure its possession. The site is now a Carrefour mini supermarket where we bought a cool drink and snacks before our ride via Athies back into Arras.

Our final stop of the day was the Arras Memorial where Private Thomas Clark and a further 34,765 men are commemorated. One of the group found the grave of his great uncle in the adjoining Faubourg D’amiens Cemetery. Tired but satisfied at the ground we had covered we headed back to the hotel before a good evening meal and much chat.

Thanks to Jeremy for bringing alive the Somme & Arras for us. They have gone in a few short days from being just names, albeit iconic ones, to truly meaningful places which will always evoke memories of the dreadful and heroic events which took place there in the First World War.
Alex Vandeleur, Hampshire

French National Cemetery, La Targette

Our final day was overcast and rainy. Bikes were attached to cars before we visited the huge German cemetery at Neuville St-Vaast and French cemetery at La Targette. Next up was the preserved battlefield on Vimy Ridge before our final stop at Walter Allward’s masterpiece, the Vimy Memorial atop Hill 145. My thanks to the wonderful group who showed such generosity in looking after me so well. By this, I mean, I never went thirsty through the entire weekend. Roll on the next one….