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THE WESTERN FRONT, FRANCE & BELGIUM

Ready for war? Or just curious to find out why we humans must continually war with each other? Are we not wiser, after several thousands of years of brutal wars around the globe? Is it buried so deep in our genes, enabling us to effortlessly and viciously beat other people to death for a cause, no matter how big or small it is? Is it our lust for power and money, or is it just a kind of congenital stupidity, we can’t get rid of? We soon need a spiritual time-out, so we can synchronise with one another, so mankind can focus on the global environmental problems, that will one day force us to our knees, if we don’t learn to work together...soon.

The foundation stone of the First World War, comprised of the Emperors, Kings, Nationalists and old friendships among nations. Europe came to a stalemate and then the film broke altogether. On August 4th, 1914, the Germans began to bombard the defences around Liege, in Belgium. After 12 days of incessant German artillery, the thick walls, as well as the town in general, lay in ruins. The Germans then rushed to the coast to stop the British, who supported the neutral Belgium. But they didn’t get there quick enough, the British were already ashore.

IEPER / YPRES

Today, when you ride along the road from Ieper / Ypres, you can well understand why the Germans used this road to hasten their advance. The landscape is flat and easy to pass, and the only obstacle the Germans had at that time, was the fort, and the canal at Ieper / Ypres. I stopped the motorbike and stepped away from it, and stood looking out over the fields of Flanders in southern Belgium. A beautiful day with bright sunshine, on these beautiful roads. It felt good to get a break from the radiant heat of the engine, as I found myself looking over fields of white crosses, nearly as far as the eye can see.

I'm on tour along the Western Front to find out why something so ridiculous could take place. And can it happen again? Could WAR raise its ugly head in Europe again? Will ignorance and lack of human understanding, light the fuse?

THE ROAD TO VERDUN

After Belgium was occupied in August 1914, the Germans got busy. Already in September they could see the Eiffel Tower in the distance. They stood only 50km outside of Paris. The Germans invaders however, were repelled after several major battles of the Somme and Marne rivers. The Germans were massively and suddenly brought to a halt at Ieper / Ypers, and the war evolved into a trench war. Poison gas was used in copious amounts on these frontlines, causing brutal physical damage to the troops on both sides, but it helped little. The front refused to move.

The Great War, as it was called, or WWI was the nastiest war ever. Soldiers on both sides, with empty eyes, killing each other without really knowing why. They would have much preferred to be at home with their wives and children, but warmongering leaders and braindead Generals kept them in a cold iron grip, repeatedly gaining and losing a few square meters of mud, in the middle of nowhere. Between 1914 and 1918, the Western Front stretched broadly from West Flanders in southern Belgium, to Verdun in France, and from there down towards the Swiss Alps. 350 km of barbed wire, mutilated bodies, mud, blood and trenches.

NO MAN'S LAND

Through southern Belgium, we rode along small country roads, through forests and fields. Towns with strange names hovered constantly over the retina. Everyone had a memorial of The Great War in their gardens. It is as though the entire area is just one big No-Man's Land. I really tried to structure what I saw and experienced, but I found only wild confusion. The whole area is characterized by the fact that the trenches were constantly moving backwards and forwards. Which town should I ride towards? I drifted in 4th gear along the small roads, and followed the front as best I could.

THE SOMME AND THE MARNE

Outside the town of Beaumont Hamel, I found a memorial for a division from Newfoundland, who perished here. I walked around in the trenches and looked out over the battered landscape, which was perforated with craters from grenades and constant shelling. I drove along the incredibly beautiful roads flanking the Somme and the Marne Rivers, and ended up in the city of Saint Quentin, after a long day in the saddle. An evening ride through northern France is an absolute pleasure.

From Saint-Quentin, I took the road to Sedan, and followed the River Meuse to Verdun. I had now left The Great War behind, replaced by the stunning scenery and good roads in the area. I was now in the champagne region, and that's not so bad at all. I took a detour down to Epernay to try to find something else to think about, and right enough; the Champagne Route IS truly life-affirming. But, like Obelix, when you fall into the cauldron, you need to know more......

THE SACRED PATH

1,300 special trains with 1,220 guns and 2,500,000 shells were brought to Verdun. The Generals threw steel and people into a huge battle that would last ten months. Each day, 2000 tons of munitions were sent off to the front from Paris, along the road known as The Sacred Path. Pilots flying at night, could see a snaking line of shining trucks, winding all the way from Paris, out to a huge burning wound in the landscape. When the fighting calmed down, the front had barely moved forward six miles.

The Battle of Verdun was one of the most extensive battles of the Great War. It began as began as a German offensive, and lasted from the 21st of February, to the 19th of December, 1916. The Germans tried to wear down the French soldiers that found themselves posted in the heavily fortified Verdun area. The French defended themselves obstinately under General Philippe Petain, who gained notoriety for the successful defence of the city.

EXCESSIVE FUTILITY

The Germans had to stop the offensive in July, and a French offensive in October forced them to abandon the conquered terrain, including Forts Vaux and Douaumont. During the battle, a total of around half a million were injured, and more than a quarter million people were killed.

It was the longest battle in First World War, and the bloodiest after the Battle of the Somme (1916). The battle has since become the symbol of the meaningless, outrageous and appalling way, The Great War was waged.

I parked the motorbike to get lunch in Verdun Town. Verdun is a really nice town to visit, as there are many small restaurants along to Meuse river. These days, you can then sit and watch life pass by, while waiting to be served mussels and cold white wine.

When you drive along the front, you sometimes have to take a breather, because it's a hard diet, trying to digest so much negative input. Before I left the Western Front, I wanted a tour of Argonne Forest, to investigate one last thing, the story of the American lawyer Charles Whittlesey, and how he lost his battalion there.

THE LOST BATTALION

As Charles Whittlesey advanced his battalion through woods, on the assumption that he was backed by his superiors, things went horribly wrong. The Generals left him and his battalion to their own devices for four weeks. Whittlesey went into the forest with 600 men, and came out again with 150. He and his battalion fought the Germans in the area surrounding an old water mill, where neither party would surrender. The war ended soon after, when the British rolled up in tanks, which the Germans couldn’t match, so they lost their will to fight on. Charles and his Sergeant Alvin York, were some of the legends of that war.

The road from Verdun out to the Argonne forest is so beautiful, it gives a sharp contrast to the grim facts eminating from the area. I was enjoying the afternoon sun, gliding through forests and fields, when I suddenly arrived at a clearing where it was particularly scenic, so I parked the motorcycle and headed into the woods. A few minutes later, I found myself on a hilltop overlooking the entire Verdun area and the entire length of the front.

I contemplated the huge craters that lay scattered around the landscape, while the birds were singing in the background, and the sun was beating down. I was standing in a place where German troops had buried six tons of explosives into the ground, underneath a small town that was lying on the hilltop. The Germans blasted entire the town into the air.

A trip along the Western Front, is an experience in the time machine of unfairness. You become both full and tired from the grim history, and at the same time, glad that there is peace in Europe today. The Western Front is an ugly scar in the history of Europe, although it has healed beautifully.


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