A century ago the bloodiest battle in human history took place in Northern France on the banks of the River Somme, with the British and French Empires fighting the German Empire. The Battle of the Somme was one of the largest battles of ‘The Great War’ in which more than 1,000,000 men were either wounded or lost their life. Early in September, John Moore a member of the Warrington Temple Lodge No 6420, paid tribute to those brave men. In his own words this story is the very moving diary of John’s cycle ride.
Early in 2016 a friend and I were challenged by my brother and fellow Freemason, Paul Moore of Rowland Burdon Lodge No 3960 in the Province of Durham, to ride 250 miles from the Imperial War Museum, London to the Thiepval Memorial to honour the Cycling Battalions of the Great War. There was no doubt that this would be an emotional journey for us both and we were signed up the following day to raise vital funds in aid of the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, (SSAFA) helping ex-servicemen and women, veterans and their families following recent conflicts.
We met at the ‘Somme Recruitment Centre’ at the Imperial War Museum. We took the opportunity to have a quick look around the museum and it wasn’t long before the banter began to flow as everybody settled into their groups and got to know each other for the journey ahead. It was great to find that all three Armed Forces were represented by everyone from an airman and a private to a brigadier and we even had our very our ‘cycling chaplain’. We had two tandem teams too, one of which was piloted by Charles, a retired colonel, with his friend Beau riding pillion. Beau was truly an inspiration to us all due to his blindness and it was a real pleasure to ride alongside these extraordinary guys, as Charles dictated a beautifully accurate running commentary for the entire journey, painting such a vivid moving picture. My ride partner Dave Bickel and I settled in straight away and supported those who needed a helping hand up a hill or just needed a little encouragement. Soon enough everyone knew that the Sappers were there!
After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, day two saw us cycling 86 miles from Rouen to Amiens. With more hills than day one, further encouragement was needed for some and the tools were out for a few mechanical issues too, but still we all pedalled towards the frontline following the route taken by those Cycling Battalions a century ago which provoked some heart wrenching thoughts of what they must have been through. We had a support van carrying our kit and 10 or 20 gears on our bikes which had aluminium or carbon frames weighing next to nothing, but those who went before us had to carry their own kit and only had two gears on a steel framed bicycle, plus they had to stay alert in case they came across ‘Jerry’.
European traffic lived up to its reputation with waving hands and horns aplenty as we passed through some busy road junctions, but once clear of any towns the roads ahead were clear and rolling enabling us to spread out and even learn some peloton drills for those who had never ridden in such a large group. As they say, every day is a school day!
Once we reached Amiens I left the group to find the bar and I pedalled on for my own personal goal, to reach 100 miles in a single ride and to mark one mile for every year since the bloodiest battle in history. An hour later I returned to the hotel to be greeted by four other riders each with a celebratory beer. Mission accomplished – they’d found the bar and the teamwork continued for several hours into the evening and a splendid time was had by all.
Our final day in the saddle would be a circular route starting and finishing in Amiens, taking in as many sites relevant to our group riders as possible. Climbing the hill to our first stop, Dive Copse, emotions were running high and we regrouped so that we could ride in together before taking a brief rest stop and a tour of the beautifully kept cemetery.
The Mametz Wood Memorial, specifically commemorating an engagement of the 38th (Welsh) Division was a very special place for our contingent of ladies from the Women’s Cycle Club in Swansea. Some were paying their respects to lost relatives and others remembering the men and boys who had not returned to the towns and villages of South Wales 100 years ago. Our resident historian and official ‘mad professor’ Huw Bowen gave a very detailed account of the attacks made by the Welsh Divisions on the German defences.
The Welsh Division had lost about 4,000 men who were killed or wounded in the five day engagement and today a Welsh Dragon stands proud on the hillside opposing the Mametz Wood to keep a look out over those who gave all.
Having never cycled more than 40 miles, by this stage of the journey every one of the ladies from Swansea had accomplished some real personal goals and overcome some challenges which had seemed almost impossible 24 hours earlier.
Delville Wood, sometimes known as Devil’s Wood was next, where the fighting was particularly ferocious. The majority of the wood was eventually taken by South African soldiers on the 15 July 1916 and they held on grimly during numerous German counter attacks, until they were relieved six days later. Today there is very little sign of any battle, only row upon row of well-tended graves. This is a memorial to those who died, rather than to those with no known grave. There are no panels listing the names of the missing, but instead all names are written in a book kept at the Delville Wood Museum, which is dedicated to the many 1,000s of South African soldiers who fought.
Following a tour of the Delville Wood Cemetery and a brief opportunity to top up our water bottles, we set off again to cover more miles and move ever closer to our final destination at Thiepval. Before this however, we would stop again at the Memorial at Pozieres. This ride was after all to remember the cycling soldiers of the Somme and I, along with another rider, Julie Williams-Porter, were asked to lay a wreath on behalf of British Cycling. A short service was held by the cycling chaplain, the Very Reverend Geoffrey Marshall, prayers were said and together Julie and I fought back the tears and laid the wreath with great honour and pride in our hearts.
Bob Howden, British Cycling President quoted: “In honour of those who made the greatest sacrifice as part of the Army Cyclist Corps, we are forever indebted and will always remember them.”
The Ulster Memorial was next and specifically the café to the rear of the tower where a light lunch of soup and bread was gratefully received by all. With the sun high in the sky, the café all but sold out of ice cream too and it never tasted so good, as we rested, chatted and took in the sights and information surrounding another glorious memorial.
There was to be only one more stop on our commemorative journey, the culmination of our ride at the Thiepval Memorial to the 72,246 missing British Empire servicemen of the Somme. We had visited half a dozen cemeteries and memorials; we had shed some tears and shared some hugs of support. Emotional doors had been opened and others had been closed, but despite everything we had been through, nothing could prepare us for the enormity of the Thiepval Memorial and the emotion we shared together and as individuals in our own way. A memorial service was held and followed by readings from some of our group, individuals were remembered, hymns were sung and prayers were said.
Throughout the journey we were accompanied by a production team from the BBC and Helen Skelton, who had joined us to cycle parts of the ride and to produce a program for Countryfile, which may be transmitted on 13 November.
I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to all brethren of the Warrington Masonic Group and to all for their support. I would advise anybody that if they haven’t already done so, please take the time to visit, to pay your respects and to be truly humbled by those who gave their todays for our tomorrows.
My final thoughts were those from ‘For the Fallen’ by Robert Laurence Binyon (1914): “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning. We will remember them.”
Now that all the sponsorships are in, John and Dave are pleased to say thanks to everyone who supported them and are proud to announce the total figure raised by them is over £4,300 in aid of SAAFA.