Riding in the Zone Rouge
by Tom Isitt
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 302pp, £20/$24.50
Within six months of the end of the First World War, a French newspaper organised a bicycle race through the battlefields of the Western Front, traversing such sites as Ypres, the Somme and Verdun.
The 87 riders who started the Circuit des Champs de Bataille (Tour of the Battlefields) in the spring of 1919 were to cross the Zone Rouge, an area in which human habitation or activity was proscribed because of war damage. The conditions were so severe that just 21 of the riders completed the race. Struggling to the end of one of the 18-hour stages, one of them summed it up with the words “C’est stupide” before almost collapsing.
The tour is considered today the toughest stage race in the history of cycling, and was given up as a bad idea. But, nearly 100 years on, Tom Isitt, a British sports journalist, made the same journey, largely alone, and this inspiring and insightful book is the result.
His 2,000 km (1,240 mile) trip started and ended in Strasbourg and, following the original route as closely as possible, took in all of the major battlefields of the war, as well as Luxembourg, Brussels, Bruges, Amiens, Paris and Rheims.
The Zone Rouge is today much smaller than it was a century ago, yet it still covers 100 square miles, much of it land poisoned by heavy metals, arsenic, gas residues and unexploded ordnance, and strewn with unrecovered human remains. It is in places too dangerous for people to enter.
The Zone Rouge a century ago was eight times larger; a lunar landscape littered with burned out and abandoned military vehicles, discarded weapons, shell craters, dug-outs, barbed wire, and the rotting corpses of soldiers and horses.
Isitt wrote his book from dual perspectives: how the zone looked through the eyes of “tough, dedicated and indomitable” riders who, fresh from the trenches, had “put down their rifles, picked up their bikes again and raced”; and secondly how the battlefields look today as he makes his way through them on his bike.
Isitt visits vast war cemeteries, forts, ruins, trenches and forests and fields still scarred by the conflict. It is extremely sad stuff, and in the moments he describes how he wept, it is difficult not to share some of his grief. But he is conscious that for the original 87 it was worse, physically and emotionally, as over two weeks they navigated what was left of the roads that took them through scenes of unspeakable carnage and devastation.
It is a relief that the sombre subject matter is made palatable and even enjoyable by Isitt’s style of writing, which is always lively, sometimes deliberately blokish and often witty, not least when imparting anecdotes about his own cycling misfortunes or describing the cheating that used to occur in the early days of professional racing.
Cyclists often rode armed with pistols to see off menacing tramps, for example, and would race fuelled by a mixture of booze and drugs, including cocaine and amphetamines, meaning they seldom had much sleep during rest times.
They would cadge lifts from passing trucks, jump trains and sprinkle carpet tacks behind them to puncture the tyres of their rivals, while facing ambushes from the latter’s supporters, who would attack them with bricks and clubs. At times, it must have been like Wacky Races.
There is no doubt that Isitt has done his homework, with an extensive bibliography demonstrating the depth of his reading on the war and his research into cycle races and riders of the times. His journey added to his learning and brought him to some surprising conclusions about Blackadder or Oh! What a Lovely War comic narratives around the conflict, which have been fashionable in more recent times. The folly of top brass strategists notwithstanding, senior officers were not asinine cowards blindly ordering noble leonine conscripts into slaughter – a sort of popular class war version of the conflict – but fought and fell alongside them, victims of the same tragedy, says Isitt.
While demonstrating sympathy for all ordinary men sent to their deaths, Isitt was nonetheless appalled to discover ruins of towns laid waste by retreating Germans, who would even blow up cathedrals, such as that of Rheims, where French kings had been crowned for centuries.
“The systematic destruction of French and Belgian culture, industry and agriculture” was not wanton, Isitt writes, but “designed to ensure that Germany remained a powerful economic force in Europe, whatever the outcome of the war, while her neighbours were obliged to rebuild completely”.
Nor, in his opinion, was the Treaty of Versailles harsh compared to what Germany had inflicted on France and Russia in pre-First World War conflicts, and lamentations against it by such English liberal intellectuals as John Maynard Keynes, he adds, were gifts to the Nazis.
In August, the Circuit des Champs de Bataille was raced again for the first time in a century. It would be a fitting memorial to the victims of such a terrible conflict if it were to become a regular event.