Circuit des Champs de Bataille: the toughest race in history

Lecomte took a lantern from a hook by the door, and stepped outside. Pulling his hat down against the flurries of sleet and rain borne by a biting north-easterly gale, he peered into the night. Nothing. No sign. Where the hell were they? They should have been here hours ago. He lifted the lantern, as if hoping its modest glow would summon the riders from the gloom. Still nothing.


Out on the road, Charles Deruyter battled on. He was cold. So cold. And so tired. He had been riding since dawn, and still had 70km to go. He hadn’t seen any other riders for hours, nor any of the commissaire’s cars. All he had seen was the destruction and chaos of the battlefields. And, through the gathering darkness, row upon row of hastily-dug graves amongst the shell holes and wire. It was hard to pick a good line through the ruts and mud when you were shaking uncontrollably.


Deruyter’s lonely suffering stretched to the endless bleak horizon, and he wondered if feeling would ever return to his fingers. The sleet whipped around him as he slipped and skidded on the treacherous surface. Please God, make it stop.


Returning to the light and warmth of the Café de L’Est in Amiens, Lecomte stamped his feet and shrugged off his thick overcoat. “Il pleut encore,” he muttered to his fellow commissaires, gathered around a table near the fire. Degraine checked his pocketwatch and wondered, not for the first time, whether this race really was such a good idea.


That idea, the seven-stage Circuit Cycliste des Champs de Bataille (roughly translated as the Tour of the Battlefields), was intended to reinvigorate bicycle racing in France, Belgium and Luxembourg after World War One, to honour those who had died on those battlefields, and to sell more copies of Le Petit Journal newspaper.


There had been very little racing during the war years, and the pre-war peloton had been hit badly by the conflict. Tour de France champions Lucien Petit-Breton, François Faber and Octave Lapize were just three of 67 pro riders morts pour la France. Countless other lesser-known riders perished in that conflagration, and still lie beneath Flanders’ fields.


There was a political aspect to the race, too. Alsace-Lorraine, territory long disputed by France and Germany, had been returned to the French at the end of the Great War after 50 years as part of Germany. The Circuit des Champs de Bataille would traverse much of the area, thumbing its metaphorical nose at the vanquished foe on the other side of the new border. The route would take the riders in a 2,000km loop anti-clockwise from Strasbourg to Luxembourg to Brussels to Paris and then back to Strasbourg via the Vosges Mountains. There would be seven stages of around 300km per day,with a rest day between each stage.


To attract the best riders that had managed to survive the war, the paper offered a huge purse: the winner would return home with 8,500 Francs, the equivalent to four years’ wages for theaverage man. In a post-war Europe blighted by war and shortages, this must have been a prodigious attraction. Small wonder then that nearly 140 riders signed up for the race, that was to take place between April 28 and May 11 1919.


As it turned out, only 87 riders made it to the start in Strasbourg. Decent racing bikes and spares were in very short supply, for most riders there was little opportunity for training, and Europe was in the grip of the Spanish Flu pandemic that killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.


But amongst those 87, there were some big names: Oscar Egg, Swiss national champion and multiple stage-winner in the Tour and Giro; Jean Alavoine, winner of 17 Tour de France stages and yellow jersey holder for five days; Charles Deruyter, Belgian star and second in the 1913 Paris-Roubaix; Ali Neffati, the eccentric Tunisian who rode wearing a fez; and Paul Duboc, winner of seven Tour stages and the man who was famously poisoned on the descent of the Aubisque during the 1911 Tour.

Tour de France 1919

The race upon which these 87 were about to embark was later described as the toughest in history, and yet it remains one of the least well documented. North-eastern France and western Flanders lay in ruins. Four years of war had reduced towns and villages to little more than rubble, and an estimated 500 million shells fell on the Western Front, obliterating great swathes of countryside, wiping roads, woods and farms off the map. In many places, a large red smear of brick dust in the mud was the only sign that a farm or village had once stood on that spot.


By the time the peloton reached Metz, a strong wind had sprung up, bringing spells of sleet. Thick snow was falling as Oscar Egg struggled to the finish of Stage 1 in Luxembourg, followed a few minutes later by Jules Vanhevel and Lucien Buysse, who had surrendered a 16 minute lead over Egg when they lost their way. The riders were provided with very basic route instructions, and at crossroads they would often have to dismount and search through piles of rubble in the hope of finding a signpost or a clue as to the identity of the ruins.


The Circuit des Champs de Bataille was becoming a race of attrition, a battle for survival by the riders. The unseasonable cold was made worse by strong winds and driving snow: a metre of it fell on northern Europe in late April, turning pavé to ice and unmade roads to a sticky, slippery quagmire.


Le Petit Journal described “terrible weather, broken roads, freezing wind and icy conditions.” Considering their primitive bikes, lack of food, and woefully inadequate clothing that comprised wool shorts and a long-sleeve wool jersey, it’s astonishing that any of the riders continued in the race.


Slick advertising: Pirelli’s vintage posters


The substantial prize money proved to be a powerful incentive. Early leader Oscar Egg crashed near Liège and broke his handlebars on the second stage, forcing his retirement. Albert Dejonghe took the win in appalling conditions and 30 minutes after he crossed the line, the spectators were treated to the extraordinary sight of Charles Deruyter pedalling across the finish line wearing a full-length woman’s fur coat, which some kindly soul had lent him to keep out the cold.


Up to this point the race had been run over comparatively unscathed roads and towns that were far behind the front line during the war, but Stage 3 was about to change all that. Starting at 4.30am from Brussels, and expected in Amiens at 3pm, the riders would race across the battlefields of Ypres, Cambrai, and the Somme. Scarcely five months after hostilities had ended, the parcours required the riders to negotiate a landscape of muddy tracks and a million shell holes.


One can only imagine the misery of traversing 323km of this brutalised land in temperatures barely above freezing, a strong wind and persistent sleet and rain chilling the riders to the bone. What was going through their minds as they passed through the remains of the Menin Gate in Ypres, negotiated Hellfire Corner and struggled up the Menin Road, past the vast mine crater at Hooge and the blasted remnants of Sanctuary Wood? Away to the right, Messines Ridge and Hill 60, to the left, Tyne Cot and the pile of shattered bricks that once was Passchendaele. Half a million men fought and died in these “fields”.


On the roads, the riders battled on. The enormous physical effort of riding through inches of mud on terrible roads meant that the riders arrived in Lille, the halfway point of Stage 3, three hours later than expected and completely exhausted. For the riders who had only recently been demobbed, the misery of slogging through the sticky Flanders mud, soaked to the skin, must have been an unbearable reminder of earlier horrors.


After Cambrai, the riders turned west and crossed the eerily deserted Somme battlefield. Either side of the road, the detritus of war was everywhere. Twisted tree stumps, fields long since obliterated by shelling, burned-out vehicles, concrete pill-boxes, mine craters, wrecked gun carriages, clothing, bones. And still the sleet and rain fell. And still the wind blew, unchecked by trees or hedgerows, which had long-since been shelled to oblivion.


The landscape here was a Dantean vision of hell. Before the war there were rolling hills and streams, with woodland dotted amongst the fields and farms. An idyllic vision of rural France. When World War One lapsed into a static form of trench warfare, the front line ran straight through the middle of this picturesque area. Anything that afforded cover, or the potential to be used as a lookout, was targeted by the guns and pounded to dust. Month upon month of shelling and terrible weather turned the Somme into a featureless morass of chalky mud as far as the eye could see.


For mile after mile, the previously charming countryside had been replaced with a stinking primordial swamp of mud, corpses and metal. The trees were reduced to blasted stumps; belts of wire and duckboards zigzagged crazily in all directions. There was no colour, no respite, no comfort. Hastily-erected crosses littered the landscape, and the names of the tiny villages and woods became the stuff of legend, and nightmare: Contalmaison, High Wood, La Boisselle, Delville Wood, Mametz, and Beaumont-Hamel — they all became synonymous with suffering and slaughter.


Henry Williamson, author of Tarka The Otter in 1927, was a lieutenant in the Machine Gun Corps on the Western Front. He returned to the battlefields shortly after the war in an attempt to lay his ghosts to rest. Describing his return, he wrote: “The wraith of the War bears me to the wide and shattered country of the Somme, to every broken wood, and trench and sunken lane, among the broad straggling belts of rusty wire smashed and twisted in the chalky loam… Again I crouch while the steel glacier, rushing overhead, scrapes away every syllable, every fragment of a message bawled in my ear, while the gaping, smoking parapet above the rim of my helmet spurts and lashes with machine gun bullets.”


Eddy Merckx: photos from a family album


Such was the relentless ferocity of the onslaught that many bodies were never recovered, blown apart over and over again by the endless bombardment. The Thiepval memorial on the Somme is carved with the names of 72,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies were never found. On the Menin Gate there are 54,000 more, and at Tyne Cot, 35,000. As the riders passed, in the early days of 1919, these fields were still populated by the ghastly broken corpses of 10,000 dead. A dank, rotting smellof death and mud and oil and cordite oozed from the lifeless earth.


In the Café de L’Est in Amiens the commissaires waited for the riders. Each time a car passed, it was flagged down and the driver asked whether he had seen any of the riders. None of them had. Darkness fell, and still no sign. And no break in the weather. Karel Van Wijnendaele, a pre-eminent sports journalist at the time, wrote: “When it turned dark, there was no one to cheer them on and there were no houses in sight, besides the wooden barracks and coloured people from the French colonies who aided the reconstructions. Cyclists had to climb poles to see what was written on the traffic signs. It was inhuman.”


As they waited, the organisers became increasingly concerned that no one would make it, and that their high-profile race would be a washout. A public humiliation. They were on the verge of giving up all hope when the door of the café burst open and someone yelled “Ils arrivent, ils arrivent!” At 11.10 in the evening, 18 hours and 28 minutes after he set off from Brussels, Charles Deruyter crossed the finish line in Amiens. A small but enthusiastic crowd carried him shoulder-high into the café, and Degraine helped Deruyter sign in. He was too cold to hold the pen.


The man who finished in fifth place arrived at 8.00 the next morning, having spent an uncomfortable night sheltering in a trench somewhere on the Somme battlefield. The last-placed finisher took 36 hours to complete the 323km stage. To keep the race alive, the commissaires were forced to extend the time-cut and allow the riders an additional rest day.


This is an extract from Rouleur issue 44, published in March 2014. Illustrations by Tom Jay.

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