What it was like to cycle the Western Front – knowing my uncles dug trenches there

When they reached northern France, one of Tom Heap’s fellow cyclists had to stuff tufts of grass into his underpants on the 621-mile Western Front Way. The unfortunate cyclist’s modern touring bike seat had bruises on his rear end.

It was a moment of great joy for Heap, who traversed this newly planned route – which meanders south to north across the breadth of France from the Swiss mountains to the Belgian coast at Nieuwpoort – on a 1920s rod-geared bicycle with a steel frame and a metal-sprung leather seat.

Heap had feared his new vehicle, which weighs 17kg compared to today’s average of 10, would be a bumpy ride, but it drove like an “absolute delight”. “They made these seats surprisingly comfortable,” he laughs.

Those hardships were nothing to the experience of the men who inspired these two commemorative walking and cycling routes that will begin on November 7th. During the 51-month duration of the war, nine million men died from fighting and disease on the front lines: a 400-mile stretch of trench systems that formed the main theater of war.

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Heap’s two great-uncles were among the First World War casualties: an athletic young man named Thomas Cunningham Gillespie, who was killed near La Bassée in north-eastern France, and his intellectual older brother, Alexander Douglas Gillespie, a student barrister who became an officer in 1915, whose commission was delayed by a year due to his short-sightedness.

A witty correspondent, Alexander Douglas Gillespie wrote a series of letters from the front in the summer of 1915 to his family and the former headmaster of Winchester, including a spate of missives laying down his dream that no man’s land would become a pilgrimage country , a via sacra, at the end of this brutal war.

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“These fields are sacred in a way…” Gillespie wrote to his former headmaster from the Loos trenches. “I wish that when peace comes, our government will join forces with the French government to create a long avenue between the lines from the Vosges to the sea… a nice wide avenue in ‘no man’s land’ between the lines, with paths for Pilgrims walk upon it, and… trees for shade.”

The Western Front

In 2014, following the celebrations of the centenary of the First World War, historian Anthony Seldon, who stumbled upon Gillespie’s correspondence while writing a book, and Heap, who is a trustee of the Western Front Way charity, began the lengthy process the realization of Gillespie’s dream of 1915.

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Today, with the help of local French and Belgian partners, the two Western Front Ways (thewesternfrontway.com) – cycling and walking routes that partially overlap – have been mapped in length and presented in an app with images, audio reminders and social history snippets (e.g. home letters from young men at the front) as well as recommendations for monuments worth seeing and hotels along the way where you can hang up your muddy boots or bicycle helmets.

The hike from the mountains to the coast takes about 40 days, the bike route about 12 days.

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