In the Trenches of the Somme

There are few events that leave such lasting impressions on a landscape as do the scars of war. Nearly every kilometer that the Tour de France touches has some association with either World War I or World War II. But Stage 5 of the 2015 Tour is synonymous with the Great War. It was on this relatively flat landscape that became immortalized as the Western Front. In fact, the 189 kilometer (117 miles) Stage route perfectly contrasts the two sides of World War I and visits some of the most recognizable sites associated with the physical and emotional scars of the region.

For those at home, the Tour helicopter will offer fantastic views of memorials and large-scale war remnants. For those traveling to the Tour, the Stage is rife with opportunities to explore many of the smaller cemeteries that seem to come every kilometer, not to mention the craters and trenches that caused so many of these deaths. Perhaps one of the best ways to explore this past is cycling and hiking the Remembrance Trail, which offers organized self-guided regional tours.

Sites along the Tour route come soon after leaving Arras. Beginning only 10 kilometers outside the city is Vimy, which offers the Canadian National Memorial and depictions of front line conditions, including trenches and shell holes. From here, the generally southeastern flow of the peloton from Arras, before turning west to Amiens, aligns with the famed Hindenburg Line, which came to defend the Western Front if not define it. Beginning in late 1916, the Germans began constructing the Hindenburg Line as a massive defensive line behind the maze of trenches. Some of the last vestiges of the Hindenburg Line, several blockhouses, can be seen in the farm fields to the southeast of Arras along the road between Heninel and Croisilles. Further to the west, as the peloton approaches Albert, is the battlefield of the Somme. It was here that some one million men were killed or wounded during four and a half months in 1916. Just north of Albert are many World War I locations, from the immense Lochnagar Crater to the Thiepval Memorial and the preserved trench at Auchonvillers.

The most dramatic story of this Stage, however, is the tale of these two host cities. Arras was a city literally on the front lines while the aim of German army was its neighbor to the southwest, Amiens. True enough, Arras was only occupied by German forces for about one month, but saw significant artillery barrages that nearly obliterated by the city. Likewise, Amiens was largely destroyed and saw some early German occupation. During the war, however, it served as a crucial railroad nexus for British forces accessing the front. Only late in the war was Amiens threatened as Germans took nearby Villers-Bretonneux during the world’s first duel-sided tank battle. It was then that Australian troops sacrifice themselves to re-take the city on April 24-25. Importantly, April 25 is internationally remembered as ANZAC Day, celebrating the Australian-New Zealand Army Corps and the lives lost during the 1916 Gallipoli landing. The town, too, celebrates its gratitude to its brothers from Down Under and is now home to the Australian National Memorial and Franco-Australian Museum. Fittingly, an Aussie claimed the sprint the last time the Tour arrived in Amiens in 2004, but something special will have to play out if one hopes to win again in 2015.

Leave a Comment

Start typing and press Enter to search