WALKING BACK THROUGH TIME – The War to end all Wars
By Robin Moore
Illustrated by poems and pictures taken along the way, this dual purpose expedition reflects largely on the Great War and this story forms part of a Trilogy, ‘A Pilgrimage of War and Words’, commemorating the centenary of the events in Belgium and France. The walk starts at the Menin Gate, continues through Northern France to Amiens and later Nantes, where I complete the latest leg of my charity walks around the Continent.
FOREWORD – The Odyssey of War
PREFACE – The Great War – Ypres to Amiens
CHAPTER 1 – Traversing the Battlefields of Flanders and Northern France
CHAPTER 2 – Soldiering On
CHAPTER 3 – The Journey Home
POSTSCRIPT – Time to Reflect
APPENDIX – Great War Pilgrimages and Robin Moore’s Charity Walks
A Pilgrimage Borne From War – A Sense of Duty
‘The Tommie’ – Life on the Frontline
‘No Man’s Land’ – The Theatre of War (the poem gives emphasis to 1917 and Passchendaele).
No Winners in War – An Overview of The Great War.
The Fallen – Remembering the War Dead.
All Poems Written by Robin Moore
THE ODYSSEY OF WAR
POEM – ‘A Pilgrimage Borne from War’
‘Summoned by the call to arms we proudly enlist,
We are the young liberators they’ll send to resist.
Compelled by a sense of duty to do what is right,
The War is our calling – God’s cause is our fight.’
‘We fear not the harshness of a war unknown,
But then, it won’t last long and we can all go home;
It’ll be a chance to travel, adventure at its best,
We’ll be back by Christmas, victorious in our quest.’
‘Buoyant with optimism our soldiers sail South,
To a tumultuous welcome in wait at ‘Hell’s Mouth’,
Where the closeness of conflict amid mud and barbed wire,
Sees ‘tommies’ dodging shrapnel from deafening shell fire.’
‘The guns boom louder here, evoking fear across the land,
Reducing historic towns to mounds of brick and sand.
So onward to the field they go, into its world of eerie gloom,
This is no place for a young man who knew a better life at home.’
‘Memories of fun are a far cry from here,
Where rats run rampant in trenches near.
Stark as it is, we stand stoic and true,
To our cause to free Europe which we aim to see through.’
‘Above the parapet, the jaws of hell open wider still,
In an oncoming storm that threatens life at will;
A fierce barrage rages throughout the night,
As we steel ourselves nervously for the imminent fight.’
‘The dawn whistle blows and we go over the top,
Into smoke, fire and bullets until we finally drop.
Amid the darkness of ‘no mans land’, gallantry and gore,
Our destiny is sealed by a pilgrimage borne from war.’
By Robin Moore
REMEMBER THE FALLEN
‘It’s difficult to understand the altruistic deeds and sacrifice made by these young men; nor can we underestimate or replicate their bravery and commitment to the cause of freedom’.
THE GREAT WAR – Ypres to Amiens
Day 1 – 5km Tour of Ypres
Arriving at the Menin Gate is a memorable occasion in itself and having set up camp nearby, I am able to attend the last post ceremony which is conducted each night before dusk. It is a poignant affair commemorating so many lives lost in a battle for freedom, and the names inscribed inside this huge monument represent the 90,000 men of Britain and the Commonwealth with no known grave having died in the Ypres Salient during 4 years of war. The Menin Gate Memorial, unveiled in 1927 was built to ensure the human sacrifice of history’s most horrific war should never be forgotten; it was to those who survived Flanders Fields, the most sacred place on Earth.
By the end of the first year of conflict an elaborate network of trenches stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss border near Basel. These primitive dug outs had no infrastructures and gave little protection for the allied soldiers in winter inflicting bouts of trench foot sometimes leading to amputation. Food was barely nourishing and the men relied heavily on packages delivered from home so as to make life in the front more bearable.
Life on the Frontline
POEM – ‘The Tommie’
A “Tommie’s” life is but a candle in a storm,
It flickers like a moth at night and may only live till dawn.
Fate lies fifty yards away in the path of coiled wire,
He may be lucky this time and dodge the rapid fire.
But the cycle of warfare brings little respite,
As a counter-offensive prolongs his fight.
Now with broken spirit, tiredness and despair,
Comes the inevitable stalemate of trench warfare.
There are sleepless nights beneath mud and rain,
Artillery bombardments that drive one insane.
The shells feared most are those armed with gas,
A deadly mist that brings slow death in a blast.
At the dead of night a sniper digs in,
As “Tommies” share cigarettes from a ration tin,
First light is good as he needs to take aim,
But don’t take the third for it will be the end game.
The cold winter days bring frostbite and flu,
Sometimes trench foot, and skin that turns blue,
The dugouts are waterlogged, muddy and dire,
Like “no mans land” above – a bloody quagmire.
The stench of death is always near,
It stings our nostrils with numbing fear.
There are bloated rats and lice here too,
We all think of home and a decent brew.
This may seem an unusual choice of job,
And yet people sign up to join this mob;
There is little comfort amid a muddy frontline,
It’s where the “Tommie” lives and serves his time.
The Great War was one that massively changed the world bringing about new innovations and technology required to affect victory – albeit a good while later than first predicted.
For the greater part it was little short of catastrophe – a modern war of artillery and attrition led by generals on horse back still basking in the glory of the Victorian Age.
The Great War thus became known as an industrial conflict which pushed each country to its absolute limits. It saw unnatural deforestation, the dreadful use of poison gas as a weapon and underground warfare tactics using explosives to blow up enemy positions on a colossal scale. Then, ultimately the tank arrived and ended the deadlock of trench warfare which in turn witnessed the final days of the war horse.
I have penned 3 books about my walks around Europe’s WW1 battlefields: this one is a war pilgrimage with the added endurance of marching between Flanders and Normandy Region near to embarkation points first used by allied forces and later to transport artillery by rail which helped end the war. The walk is simply a reminder to the world of the great sacrifice made by soldiers of the British Empire who at the time were deemed as protectors of the weak. It inevitably takes in some of the battlefields from Ypres to Amiens, historic routes through Normandy and eventually finishes at Nantes. The section from Amiens to Nantes, completed at speed, forms an important leg of my travels around the Continent, linking with Northern France, Spain, Portugal and the Mediterranean.
TRAVERSING THE BATTLE FIELDS OF FLANDERS AND NORTHERN FRANCE
Day 2 Ypres to Lille – 35km
Beginning my pilgrimage from the Menin Gate, thoughts quickly drift to those less fortunate to have frequented this region a century ago. My aim on this trek is to photograph and document my experiences on the road noting in particular the battlefields which were significant during that tumultuous period.
5km beyond the town I reach my first landmark at Bedford House Cemetery where the strongest words of war are found on the epitaphs of the dead buried in a formation of white tombstones that spread for acres each side of a nearby stream. A touring party gather close by as I peruse a few rows looking for long lost relatives; it is a hopeless task as one could easily spend a week out here in search of a relative – many of the sections are simply listed as ‘Unknown Soldier’ and the regiments that served here were innumerable. I met a guy in Ypres subsequently who had travelled from Australia in search of his long lost granddad. By chance he met a guide who had insight into all the local terrain and battlefields. Being interested in the lad’s quest he offered to take him to a secluded combat zone where many Commonwealth soldiers had fought. This place is now a private farm dwelling not on the tourist itinerary and so they had to seek permission to visit. The liaison proved invaluable as the owner realised that the guy’s grandfather had fought to defend the farm alongside his own, both of whom died in action though their trench has been preserved as their epitaph. It was an emotional time for both of them but thanks to the intuition of the guide this young chap travelled back home with closure and comforting news of his brave relative.
Today’s journey between here and Lille is inevitably dominated by the presence of military cemeteries built literally where men from Britain and the Commonwealth had fallen in battle. Once the scene of brutality these military graveyards are now peaceful gardens that harbour only the dead. These ones like all the war cemeteries in Flanders Fields are immaculately kept and often tended on a daily basis. In particular I note the many Canadian cemeteries in the region where regiments had fought throughout the entire War. The Canadians were among the first drafted in from the Empire during the autumn of 1914. They had arrived in time for the first Battle of Ypres and held ground east of the town at Hill 62 for 2 years. The region was named Sanctuary Wood as it became a place of refuge for wounded soldiers throughout the war. There is also a museum built next to the Canadian frontline where some of the trench network still exists, and back along the country lane to Ypres is Sanctuary Wood Cemetery where many of the combatants are buried.
They also fought bravely at Passchendaele in the 1917 stalemate of mud and a year later expelled the Kaiser’s men from Mons to end the war. There is a plaque at the foot of the city which commemorates their effort at the end of the war alongside the British who died there at the start of it. The whole experience is humbling as I walk among the fallen whose sacrifice is largely unimaginable in today’s world. Sadly many young people have little knowledge about this war and are in any case more concerned about the present day battles of making ends meet in an economically demanding world. Even with the gift of education implemented to help heal the pain of two world wars, it is still difficult to comprehend the enormity of this conflict. Only when exposed to the vast fields of white tablets and the epitaphs of brave men immortalised through the tragedy of war, can we confront our past – if only to ask the question “Why?”
Crossing the border into France about 2pm, the passage gradually becomes more urbanised though it takes in a riverside stretch on the approach to Lille. After a walk through the bustling centre I stop to enquire about accommodation at the Hotel De la Treille (normally 185eu per night). Amazingly the manager finds me a room for 41euros. Wow! Enthralled by this elegant place I gratefully accept the offer and change for the evening. Owing to a long first day on the road, it is only a brief encounter – 2 beers and modest supper of bread and cheese before I retire from the lively hub of socialites to the peaceful confines of my room.
Day 3 Lille to Vimy Ridge – 40km
The din of merry-making tourists faded quickly the following eve as I drifted into slumber and today I feel fit and ready for action along some of The Great War’s major battle fronts.
Bidding goodbye to my hosts after a wonderful stay, I take a cultural route to the edge of the city where I commence today’s journey along the D925. The vibrant city of Lille remained in German occupation in the Great War until 17th October 1918; today it is cosmopolitan hub with university status benefiting from its rich location close to the Belgium border. Eminent architecture and village war memorials remain the dominant features of today’s journey as I pass through Wattignies, Seclin, Carvin; not far from here are the sites of WW1 battlefields of Neuve Chapelle and Loos. Both these proved costly to the allies – the former offensive incurred 12,000 casualties for a gain of less than half a mile. Loos was taken by Sir Douglas Haig’s First Army but insufficiently backed up by Sir John French’s British Reserves which limited the allies success and also cost French his job as Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force. The brutal offensives of 1915 saw the barbaric use of poison gas by both sides; my great Uncle Ben survived the war but was left breathless from a gas attack on his gun crew. Despite all this people still enlisted! My grandfather signed up whilst only 14 and was still under age at the time of armistice! In those days the great wave of patriotism and overwhelming sense of duty gripped the nation who believed they should fight for the freedom of Belgium after Germany’s violation of its peace treaty. Also the true casualty statistics and defeats were never properly reported leaving many to believe the war would be over by Christmas. Perhaps if the BEF had failed to hold their positions at Ypres it would have been!
Arriving at Lens I sample ‘café au lait’ in the sun outside a local restaurant. Feeling indecisive about which direction to take from here, an old gentleman crosses the road to offer advice. Following his instructions I am able to progress along an old road to Eleu and eventually Vimy where I stop at a shop to obtain groceries for the next two days. The main road continues through the famous battlefront of Vimy Ridge which is surrounded by timber fencing. It was near here that the Canadians fought and won a decisive battle during 1917 after several years of German occupation.
Locating an entrance to the forest marked by a Maple leaf, I enter and camp nearby. Enjoying the peace and solitude of the location I find it difficult to imagine the collective horrors of war that consumed humanity here a century ago.
Day 4 Vimy Ridge to Warlincourt-Les-Pas – 45km
Rising at 7am allows me ample time to decamp and explore the area which has been designated a national park in honour of the Canadians who fought here in 1917. The offensive formed part of the Second Battle of Arras and taking the important stronghold of Vimy Ridge was a defining moment for the Canadians who had entered the war largely under the shadow of the BEF. Walking in the ambience of deep set woodlands suggests the ridge has simply been left to nature after the war and beyond the area is a cemetery and museum. The French had failed to oust the Germans throughout the former years of conflict and later it took the courage and stealth of the battle-hardened Canadians to finally overwhelm this massively fortified position on the high ground.
Beyond here, cemeteries and war monuments continue to intersperse the road and forest as my journey continues to the lively town of Arras.
Arras is steeped in ancient architecture with an eminent plaza reminiscent of Santiago de Compostella in Spain. But in 1914 it was reduced to rubble and soldiers of the British Empire dug in here for the rest of the war spending a lot of time living underground waiting to be ushered to the frontline. During this period many would soon realise that the old ways of war had reached their end, superseded by science and industry which brought greater suffering in a new version of hell!
The Battle of Arras (also known as the Second Battle of Arras) was a British offensive on the Western Front during World War I. From 9 April to 16 May 1917, British troops attacked German strongholds near the French city of Arras on the Western Front. The British achieved the longest advance since the onset of trench warfare surpassing the efforts of the French Sixth Army on 1 July 1916. The British advance faltered in the coming days and the Germans consolidated their positions. The battle, like others before, became a costly stalemate for all and by its end, the British Third and First Armies had suffered about 160,000 and the German 6th Army roughly 125,000 casualties only to further highlight another pointlessness campaign in life-consuming ‘No Mans Land’
The Theatre of War
POEM – ‘No Man’s Land’
‘Beyond the parapet lies shell holes and mud,
Once trees grew tall here above Spring fields in bud.
‘Tis now a theatre of war that evokes fear on command,
It’s where soldiers meet their maker in ‘No Man’s Land’.
Only vermin prosper in this insidious quagmire,
Bloated rats invading dugouts, impervious to gunfire.
It’s where Assassins are born and death is the law,
It is a version of hell that both sides abhor.
When the big guns stand down the real fight begins,
As combatants from both sides are cleansed of their sins;
Sucked into purgatory by their acts of brutality,
With their souls eroded through war’s pointless profanity.
Soon only shell holes remain along a battered frontline,
Where soldiers stand neck high in water awaiting their time.
They crouch nervously to do battle under torrential rain,
In this grim place called ‘No Man’s Land’ – The Reaper’s Domain.’
This poem highlights the misery of 1917 and in particular Passchendaele when trench warfare reached the depths of despair.
THE JOURNEY CONTINUES
On completion of my tour of this now affluent city I experience the usual confusion of finding an exit and I do not join my planned route, though a cycle route proves invaluable allowing me safe passage away from heavy traffic. After leaving the trail I endure a short blast along the main carriageway before turning off to follow another country route to Pas-en-Artois where I am fortunate enough to find a campsite at Warlincourt-Les-Pas. It is the end of the summer season though I am allowed to stay and later obtain a meal with a beer at the on-site restaurant.
Day 5 Warlincourt-Les-Pas to Amiens – 40km
The weather remains pleasantly warm for camping and in the day reaching a top temp of about 17c. I had washed some gear at the campsite the previous evening and the items are drying out nicely on the back of my rucksack as I near Pas-en-Artois. After a coffee at the town, I begin my trek through the Somme Region which was another pivotal battlefront during the Great War; those that fought here as with Ypres and Verdun knew suffering beyond belief. During the initial offensive in 1916, 20,000 men fell in the first hour of battle which by the end of the campaign had accounted for more than 600,000 casualties.
Amiens is my proposed destination for today and significant because throughout the war it remained the Military H.Q. for the British Army who had travelled there from Le Havre between 12th-17th August 1914. Under the command of General John French the BEF began to plan a battle Strategy for Flanders initially; then later the Somme under Generals Haig and Rawlinson.
The plaques and signposts immortalise this region which has become a centre of War Tourism. Along the way are broken areas which resemble partial trenches now flanked by evergreens interspersed across miles of arable land. During the time of the war the landscape along the Somme River would have been unrecognisable as men sheltered in dugouts from the barrage of shrapnel that left behind churned up mud, barbed wire and broken spirit. Today the forest is green enjoying a fertile renaissance and I am amazed to find crops standing tall at the start of October!
Passing a farm I see a litter of cats learning their apprenticeship in the waste ground close by. Nearing Amiens the traffic intensifies as I focus to ensure I join the correct route into the town. Along this route I see no sign of the British military HQ though much of what existed then suffered destruction in the early battles of 1918 when the war was reaching its climax and the allies faced defeat. Only a hospice building resembles anything that may have survived that era. Inevitably there are no statues of Great War prophets either as most had predicted its end by Christmas. I guess part of that forecast was right – after all it didn’t say which Christmas and it was in fact November when the guns fell silent, albeit another 4 years after the war began! It was at the Battle of Amiens though, that the war swung dramatically in favour of the allies. Ironically the change of momentum was attributed to the success of the German camp whose March offensive saw spectacular gains of ground which in turn had separated them from their supply line. Exhausted from battle and unable to replenish their supplies the German resolve began to weaken; it was then that the tide finally began to turn. Brave speeches from Allied leaders pledging battle to the end helped inspire a great last stand; then came the ingenious counter-offensive orchestrated by Marshal Foch, the Allied Commander in Chief. It was the end of the road for Germany and consequently The Great War, as the allies further mechanised with tanks routed the enemy with stunning consequences. Eventually the Hindenburg Line was breached, when during the final assault, British howitzers transported along narrow gauge rail, fired close to a million shells in 24 hours. Battles were won quickly on the open ground and the Armistice soon followed as the Great War drew to a close on the 11th hour November 1914, over 4 years after it was waged.
POEM – ‘No Winners in War’
Each ruling party believed their cause to be right,
Prompting seven countries of Europe to rise up in a fight.
Enthusiasm and excitement for this war of insanity,
Made the Continent a dark place of great calamity.
First came the upsurge of patriotic elation,
Men cheering from trains on their way to damnation.
But when our ‘Champions of Liberty’ waged war on the ‘Hun’,
The lights went out in Europe for a long time to come.
Soon big guns rain down fire from east to west,
Decimating the land with uncompromising zest.
Pointless battles see millions suffer death,
And Shell shocked survivors gasping for breath.
Who would rise victorious from this cauldron of madness,
Halt tolling bells from their mournful sadness.
Both sides face defeat with a generation lost,
Because No one envisaged this great war at such cost.
Ultimately, death to old Europe is the final result,
Who will modernise, rebuild it, and who is at fault.
Emotions were mixed over who was to blame,
As war to the elite seemed little more than a game.
A moment of madness lit the touch fuse to war,
Belgium first subjugated breaking peace treaty law;
Then France sacked and ruined in a 4 year assault,
Until finally a railway carriage brought war to a halt.
Now Autumn guns fall silent across the land,
Their deadly action powerless without command.
Soon, trees will grow tall again in wooded glades,
And poppies bright red to mark fallen comrades.
So the war was really over, like a new gift of life,
No more waterlogged trenches amid winter strife.
Thank God for an end to those dreadful 4 years,
No one else will die now, no more burials and tears.
But that’s little comfort to the young men who fell,
Sent from many nations to this place deemed hell.
They’ll never know this euphoria, for they are all gone,
Rotting in foreign battlefields a long way from home.
Amiens is the last outpost of my Great War journey, and as Great Britain’s HQ, would have seen many troops arrive here from the Channel ports of Normandy. As I leave the battle zones behind on my quest to reach Nantes, I know there will be many reminders ahead of a world at war a century ago.
My journey drifts on by the river and after collecting a few groceries I continue along a minor road, and later pitch camp at the next small community I come to. Settling for the night beside a small stream I manage a few hours of quality sleep despite the furore of squabbling ducks.
My Penance For the Great War
– Amiens to Le Mans
Day 6 Amiens to Marseille-en-Beauvaisis – 50km
Waking in a downpour I hastily pack my kit and head off in the direction of Conty – roughly 14km.
Having passed many villages it isn’t until I reach Conty that I realise I have been walking the wrong road!! It hardly matters and easily remedied with a 3km excursion west to pick up my planned route to Crevecoeur-le-Grand. It proves a quieter journey as I head away from the Somme Valley with most of the relics of the Great War behind me. At the time of the Great War troops would have disembarked at the ports of Normandy and made their way to Amiens adrenalin pumped for the battles ahead. The region had also seen its share of conflict in the Second World War, the most memorable of which was the Normandy Beach Landings. Today it is a picture of tranquillity celebrated by beautiful countryside that helps capture the semblance of a land at peace. The villages stand serene and unaltered by the passage of time as I traverse the terrain unable to find a shop or contemporary facility. Despite a few teething problems with amenities I feel honoured to follow the path of past warriors and that the remainder of my journey will be endured as a penance to commemorate the war.
Eventually I arrive at Crevecoeur-le-Grand and am able to obtain water and food. It is after 5pm and yet I still manage to cover a further 10km to Marseille-en-Beauvaisis where I camp at dusk in a coppice by a ploughed field above the town. Contemplating tomorrow’s journey, I sit for a while watching the day draw to a close – the world seems at peace here and so am I.
Day 7 Marseille-en-Beauvaisis to Les Andelys – 60km
Light rain fell during the night though it felt a few degrees warmer so I slept unperturbed. Leaving at dawn in windy wet conditions, along an eternally rural landscape I see little of consequence as the road for once is totally mine.
After completing 10km I go off course to visit a tourist office and later a craft shop. Here I enthuse about my experience of walking Europe and that my present expedition has been interesting to date.
The rain pours on and I stop again for provisions at Gournay-en-Bray, an historical place which lies on the confluence of the Epte and Morette. Eating a cheese cob, I relax for a while amid an array of heritage buildings that characterise this region. The majority of places have cenotaphs commemorating the fallen from both conflicts and I pause occasionally to note the war dead and take photographs of the sites.
On the busier roads I encounter farm machinery and speeding lorries which seem to gather momentum in inclement weather. The conditions do not ameliorate as I continue my journey towards Les Andelys which is a further 18km. By dusk I am still at the mercy of speeding traffic until finally at 9pm I find a lodge at the town of Les Andelys. The hotel room is 60 euros and soon after I walk a mile back up the hill to buy a meal at the town’s Chinese Restaurant. The town which is dominated by the eminent Chateau-Gaillard Castle, is very substantially formed from two communities, Petit-Andely and Grand-Andely. It is large by my standards and I have done well to get a room here, as camping is simply not an option. After a buffet supper I wash some clothes and drift off into a deep sleep incurred through sheer exhaustion from the day’s effort.
Day 8 Les Andelys to Saint Sebastien – 40km
The novelty of a hotel stay meant I was able to enjoy both an evening meal and now breakfast too! Setting off in clean dry kit also puts a spring in my step as I build good pace throughout the first 10km to Gaillon. After a glimpse of its 16th century Renaissance Castle I manage another 15km to Evreux. The town is made up of imposing architecture and prominent landmarks including a lofty clock tower and 12th century cathedral.
The larger places allow an opportunity to recharge my batteries at a cafe and chance to replenish supplies for the day. Drifting back into the countryside I enjoy the sight of red squirrels dancing between autumnal leaves as they gather fallen nuts from the road. The day passes quickly owing to a later than usual start and it is dark by the time I reach Saint Sebastien, so pitch a tent just a few km beyond the town at a small park.
Day 9 Saint Sebastien to L’Aigle – 56km
Rising at 6am I decamp quickly and set off in wet, windy conditions which prevail initially, though by the time I reach the lovely town of Conches-en-Ouche (16km) the sun shines brightly as if a Summer’s day. I spend my meal break beneath the castle ruin which is a peaceful location and pleasant contrast to the bustle of larger towns. The journey is a constant cycle of grandeur and rusticity; often capturing views of Norman churches and their elegant bell towers that satisfy a traveller’s sublime curiosity and thirst for adventure. Each village is merely a sub-challenge within the daily itinerary and I am usually rewarded with much-needed coffee breaks to rejuvenate and absorb the journey’s momentum.
Throughout the afternoon the countryside continues to evoke a great sense of rural isolation celebrated by forest and native fauna. Approaching La Neuve-Lyre I find a dead adder lying in the roadside, and later I see some huge toads which had also been crushed by the speeding traffic. Stopping a further 12km at L’Aigle I buy goods with a view setting up camp for the night. On locating my next route at the end of town I pitch my tent on the rough ground above the carriageway.
Day 10 L’Aigle to Belleme – 50km
Decamping at 7am, in saturated in dew, I make my way along the quieter D930 as far as the next town (10km) Les Apres. A coffee brings me to life as today’s adventure becomes a slow hack beside large expanses of forest broken by sparse communities culminating at Mortagne-au-Perche at 3pm – 30km completed.
The rain becomes heavy – not boding well for camping tonight and a further 10km to Belleme proves enduring as I search out a grocers shop to buy some supper. The proprietor is very kind and helpful explaining she can find me shelter. She warms me up with a drink and contacts the local priest to obtain a place to stay at the church lodge. He turns up about 9pm and guides me to the church which is only a few meters from the shop. The shelter inside the church is designed for homeless travellers who need a temporary stay and is the perfect refuge for a man of the road! I feel lucky to have the use of a shower and a bed for the night thanks to the kindness of these lovely people whom I’d only just met!
Day 11 Belleme to Le Mans – 54km
Rising early I set off from the shelter around 8am, taking a few photos before leaving town. At least I am dry though my knee hurts due to a heavy load of wet gear in my rucksack– weighing about 70lbs in all.
My first village of the day is a place called Ige and from here I press on to a supermarket where I buy my lunch. Large stores in France close at noon on Sunday, yet there is no panic and folk are friendly as I chat with the young maid on the checkout who is also fluent in English. Whilst eating my food the shop closes and the maid comes over to wish me well as I go on to explain that I intend to walk the rest of Northern France. A further 11km sees me to Bonne Table – now only 30km from Le Mans! The afternoon passes quickly amid warm weather though traffic hinders my progress 10km from Le Mans. Unable to find any facilities I press on into town eventually stopping at the only bar that is open on a Sunday night. Here the locals welcome me and praise my efforts. The landlady serves cheese with bread and the girls I meet buy me drinks. Later one lady called Laelilia shows me a safe place to camp and writes down her address so that I can visit for a shower and breakfast in the morning – all in all it is a good end to the day.
THE JOURNEY HOME
The Final Outposts of This European Challenge
– Le Mans to Nantes (Northern France Border).
Day 12 Le Mans to Malicorne – k35km
After a night of rain I pack my gear and tent quickly and then find my friend’s flat where I enjoy a shower and breakfast whilst she dries some of my clothes. Bading farewell about 10am I encounter road repairs; most people I speak to here live in fear of the Taliban and yet this place is at present under siege from the councils JCBs which have decimated the entire thoroughfare. A century ago Le Mans played a significant role housing American forces during and after the Great War. Many stayed here for several weeks after it ended awaiting embarkation at Brest to make their journey back to their Homeland; there is also a cemetery containing many graves of commonwealth soldiers who did not make it home.
On leaving Le Mans I face heavy rain throughout the day which is the forecast for the week. I find it a struggle to keep going and make more than the usual stops to reach La Suze-s-Sarthe and Malicorne. Finding a reasonable hotel I decide to stay the night and enjoy the comfort of a room and a chance to dry out my gear. Moments after I had called it a day a huge storm opened up the skies which justified my decision to stop at the inn.
Day 13 Malicorne to Angers – 60km
A good night’s rest usually helps to renew strength and with a dry start I make light work of the D23 to Durtal covering 25km by 1.30pm. After contemplating my route, I set off towards Nantes which is about another 150km.
Traffic dies down in the afternoon thanks to a section of road works blocking part of the thoroughfare and the access to shops/restaurants nearby. Passing over the River Loire for the first time I admire views of mill and waterfalls on the left. It’s a huge boost to see the Loire which is a natural border of Northern France; it is also a reminder that my journey is now drawing to a close. From Seiches -s-le-Loir I hope to power my way through the final outposts of the walk heading first for Angers; then a 100km stretch along the main carriageway nearby the river to Nantes.
Maintaining momentum I reach Angers by nightfall – the last great city and outpost before Nantes which I hope to reach sometime on Thursday.
Nearing the top of town I find a Pension and decided to stay there at the cost of 40euros for B&B – a better option than camping with the final big push coming tomorrow.
Day 14/15 Angers to Nantes – 100km
A good nights sleep and breakfast is the perfect tonic for a tough day as I leave the pension around 7am – still dark. The early steps provide little advantage as I am soon perplexed by the city’s intricate motorway system which prevents me from reaching a pedestrian route.
Stopping at a hotel I obtain instructions on how to overcome this predicament. Soon I am following a country lane which takes me to Saint-Jean-de-Linieres. It’s still a bit tricky getting there, as the penultimate junction isn’t sign posted! Thankfully I gamble on a right turn which leads to the correct destination.
After a blast of caffeine and a chocolate bar I join the D723 to St Georges s-Loire (11km) with Nantes registering a further 79km.
After some drizzle it brightens up and I make the most of the little towns along the way stopping at St-Georges-s-Loire and then Champtoce-sur-Loire by its castle ruin. Entering a café I am confronted by a mad woman who pesters me for money and drinks. Other customers leave quickly – some barely make it through the door to purchase a drink; no one at present wants to stay long! Worse still for me is that she speaks fluent English and starts ranting and mocking my expedition – saying it is all meaningless. Even after leaving the premises she pursues me in a car despite having downed a good volume of wine whilst at the café! Not great!
The whole affair is quite unsettling as she is clearly disturbed and known in the area as a nuisance. I try to concentrate along the busy road which is now my nemesis on this long hard day. Also I am hampered by blisters from training shoes worn down to flat, thin rubber. I eventually resort to wearing size 9 walking shoes – ouch!! Because my feet swell on long-distance walks, size 10 is my usual expedition shoe size and these were pinching my heels a bit.
By 6pm I had completed 50km taking in Ingrandes and Varades with Nantes another 40 plus left to walk. After further refreshment I soldier on to the last main town en route called Ancenis which is slightly west of the D723 on the River Loire. As dusk draws near I struggle to find a route out of town and after consulting a maid at an inn, I continue along a subsidiary road which eventually re-joins the D723. The walk intensifies in the pitch black with pouring rain and at the next town junction, 29km from Nantes, I feel too sore to continue efficiently. In desperation I try to put up a tent in the dark. The ground is too hard to drive the pegs in sufficiently and so I just make a temporary shelter where I rest from a storm for a couple of hours. Unable to sleep I dismantle the shelter as soon as the rain stops and continue walking in the dark. The respite is short-lived as the storm returns along with the build up of traffic. It’s like walking up a stream at times and the speeding trucks make the journey a hazardous one. As traffic hurtles toward me, lightning dances across the sky to the tune of roaring thunder.
Eventually daylight emerges from the murky clouds and I find a café on the outskirts of town. I stop for a drink and chat to the owners who tell me the train station which will end my journey, is a further 10km. It is an awkward passage in the side of the road and I stop once more for a breakfast at Macdonalds. From here I gradually make my way to the train station to conclude my walk and after the monumental effort from the previous day I am glad to obtain a bit of food and a comfort as I begin the journey home. From Nantes Gare I am able to get a train to Rennes and a second one to Morlaix where a bus then takes me to the port of Roscoff. I have missed today’s voyage to Plymouth and so book into a hotel for the night. Roscoff seems a lovely place and I have arrived here at the end of season when it is pleasantly quiet. The young maid at the hotel makes me welcome and helps with important information about the port and its ferry times.
THE NEXT DAY
After enjoying a sound sleep and sunny morning by the harbour I make my way to the terminal where I board the ferry to Plymouth around 1600 hours.
The whole effort was something of an epic, starting at the Menin Gate in the shadow of World War 1 and finishing along the Loire in Northern France. The poignant beginning takes one back a century ago to an honourable age of gallantry and duty to King and Country. At the time nobody could envisage the catastrophe that lay in wait nor at the end of the conflict could any one comprehend the huge loss of life inflicted by four years of pointless battles. The endless miles of cemeteries staggered across Belgium and France are a constant reminder of the futility of war and the reason why we must never forget those who died here. It is incomprehensible that these brave people had left the comfort of their homes to forfeit their lives on the battlefield in the name of peace. Right to the very end of my walk along the Loire I found cenotaphs and memorials to those who fought in this bloody conflict – I hope one day some good may come of this and those young men did not die in vain!
TIME TO REFLECT
Having grown up in the sixties I was privileged enough to know many of the town folk who fought in the Great War, though being so young would not have understood the horror of their experience.
Then as an adult it is difficult to imagine such a conflict or even that any one managed to survive it!
I remember that some of the old soldiers weren’t treated very well – living in huts late on in life or being disabled with barely any financial support. Then came the realisation that many, like my grandfather, weren’t even old enough to go to war in the first place!
Patriotic as they were at that time, many were sacrificed in a war that showed little respect for the human rights of these ordinary people. For those who think war is a good thing I suggest they spend a few days perusing the battlefields I have traversed on my 3 walks in Belgium and France.
We all know the result of the Great War but we comprehend nothing of its horror.
Wear your poppy with pride and remember the sacrifice these young men made to secure freedom and a peaceful future for their families.
REMEMBERING THE FALLEN
POEM – The Fallen
‘For each fallen man a poppy will rise,
It pays tribute to his bravery and sad demise.
A life cut short by the folly of war,
In a battle for freedom that many died for.
They fought against oppression in a brutal conflict,
Suffering 4 years of hostility that is hard to depict.
Each offensive cost tens of thousands of lives,
Causing great loss to families, parents and wives.
It’s hard to imagine such slaughter of men,
And how keen they were to fight way back then;
For King and Country they pledged their all,
Not caring or knowing how many would fall.
Now the time has come to remember their plight,
Knowing each soldier believed his cause to be right.
When they entered the battle field for the final time,
It was for freedom they fought for and peace to mankind.’
To honour commemorate WW1 and honour its fallen soldiers please continue to wear a poppy each year and understand that it represents peace. You can also make a donation at any of the charity pages listed on the website above.
WAR SERVICE AT 14
A dedication to Robin Moore’s Grandfather, Charles Maurice Thurlby. Possibly at one time during the war he was the youngest serving soldier. Joining at 14 he served with the Northamptonshire Territorials and South Wales Borderers and on Armistice Day was still 18 days off his 28th birthday.
He also served in Ireland and again in WW2.
The Great War Pilgrimages and Robin Moore’s Charity Walks
The other two books include:
A Pilgrimage of War and Words – A walk from Geneva to Ypres with poetry.
A Pilgrimage to the Somme – A walk from Luxembourg City to Albert.
Also compiled is a small book containing poems written to commemorate The Great War.
POEMS AND PHOTOGRAPHS
All poems have been written by Robin Moore; photographs were taken en route and additional ones supplied by fellow War Historian Gary Hill.
PREVIOUS ADVENTURES AND TIMELINE
To find out more about Robin Moore’s past expeditions, (over 30,000 miles of walks), recent literature, how to support a charity and all fundraising events please visit:
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Robin Moore Walking On YouTube