Remembering

Dawn Bagnall, exhausted, emotional and pensive after the Big Battlefield Bike Ride 2014Having returned from the Big Battlefield Bike Ride, Dawn was as equally exhausted and exhilarated as she was pensive and emotional.

Monday 2 June – Brussels to Mons

6.00am and we’re up for breakfast. With all cyclists clad in Lycra (are there laws against some people wearing Lycra?) we were bussed to the start point in the centre of Brussels to be re-united with our bikes.

After speeches, we were off heading for Mons, a 55 mile ride ‘to find our riding legs’, which, I was told, are somewhere above my feet!

The outbreak of World War 1 (WW1)

This ride concentrated on the outbreak of WWI from the prospective of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Excitement and banter were good and the weather was on our side.

At the water stops, members of the International Guild of Battlefield Guides (IGBG) passionately recounted stories bringing history alive so much so that our imaginations were there, living the reality as it happened.

We visited the precise spot in Casteau where the first shot by a British serviceman was fired by Corporal Edward Thomas. The first shot in almost a century.

Police escort

From Mons, the Belgium police insisted on giving us an escort. ‘It would be an honour,’ they said. So special.

At the joint British and German St. Symphorien Cemetery, a short ceremony was held. This cemetery contains the first (21 August 1914) and the last (11 November 1918) BEF casualties and the first VC winner of WWI.

Arriving in Mons, the Mayor held a reception for us in the town hall with free beer. Just what we needed after a day in the saddle.

More speeches were made and a special guest speaker, SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander Europe) had taken the time to come and thank us and wish us all good luck. A busy man. Nice touch. Good day had by all.

Tuesday 3 June – Mons to Arras

Fed and watered, we made our way to Arras. The route was full of historical stops led by the IGBG recounting stories of Cavalry charges and desperate infantry actions of rescuing artillery pieces whilst under close range fire at Elouges.

Another 2 VCs were won here. Real ‘boys own’ stuff.

We visited the Orange Trench Cemetery and the Arras Memorial to the Missing of 1917. Our wounded riders laid wreaths as the peddling Padré gave a poignant sermon that reached deep into the heart.

Having cycled 70 miles to Arras I found my riding legs! They even gave me messages like stop! What are you doing to us? A beer or two was required; purely medicinal.

We have laughed and cried. It’s only day 2 on the bike, but I knew I was going to be a physical and emotional wreck by the end of the week.

Wednesday 4 June – Arras to Amiens

It started with light rain and by the time breakfast was over it was pouring. Not what we needed, but the task had to be completed. So off we went heading to Amiens.

I cycled alongside pedalling General. We chatted and I even gave him a 20 min lesson in De-fibrillation. Work’s never too far away! He seemed to enjoy it but he hasn’t received the invoice yet…

We stopped at Hawthorn Ridge where a massive mine had exploded on 1 July 1916 when the ill-fated Lancashire Fusiliers attacked. This was famously filmed by Geoffrey Malins.

Emotional Killer

Replenished and feeling a little better after another water stop we made our way to Thiepval Memorial. This was an emotional killer for me. 72,000 names of missing in the Battle of the Somme. Men who have no graves. Nowhere for their families to visit or have closure.

The Padré asked us to find our surname and think of that person so he had someone to remember him. I looked hard, and found BAGNALL T. The name and initial of my late father, the only Bagnall amongst the 72,000 others. I prayed and wondered for the rest of the day what that man was like and how he may have met his fate. A tragedy of epic proportions.

Distance covered today was 44 miles. Parts of me are starting to go numb. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Thursday 5 June – Amiens to Compiegne

An 8am start today and it’s only a 60 mile peddle to Compiegne! Today is dedicated to Dominion and Allied Nations.

Having our Australian Allies cycling along side us it was only right to pay tribute to their fallen. These brave men were the ones who stopped the German spring offensive on the 24-27 April 1918. They were also instrumental in the start of the final Allied Offensive attack on 8 August 1918, known as ‘Black Day of the German Army’.

The families of these soldiers live mostly on the other side of the world. I wondered how many would ever have the opportunity to come and pay their respects. I doubt many. It is said that the wives of these brave men would sit at the train stations at home, day in day out for many years in the hope of their return. It is not just the soldier that suffers.

Despite the tears and sadness whilst peddling, morale remained high and banter was good. Thank God for Ibuprofen as I was suffering pain in places that I didn’t know existed! And I’m a clinician.

Compiegne is a beautiful old town and the reception was amazing. A piper and bugler greeted together with a large cold beer.

Friday 6 June – Compeigne to Paris

Our last day pedalling in France. The sun shone upon us. A mere 52 miles today. Huh, piece of cake.

Today is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Landings.

As this is a short day on the bike, we have to be in central Paris by 3pm. We hear first about Nery where the British Cavalry managed to turn the tables on the Germans and defeat them after a surprise attack.

Thick fog

Then it was the battle of the Marne and the advance to and over the Ainse, the beginning of trench warfare. Here, there’s an amazing story of a British patrol which came across a German Battalion in thick fog. The Officer in charge of the patrol had fallen down a ravine leaving the Corporal in charge.

On his return to his unit the Corporal told the Officer Commanding (OC) the Germans were advancing. The OC dismissed this intelligence until the young soldier produced a German Army cape and sword as evidence. Result? Countless British lives were saved. Amazing. I stood on the very spot where this took place. Surreal. I was encapsulated.

Paris is in sight

The pedal into Paris was a little stressful with traffic being the biggest problem. But we stuck together as a team and picked our way to the meeting point in a park. From here, all 250 of us cycled up the Champs Elysé, around the Arc de Triomphe and into Les Invalides. A magnificent building where we were met by a French General and friends and family. A wonderful and emotional site.

It’s over

It’s over. The ride was complete.

Whilst remembering, I have to congratulate all those who took part in the BBBR and shared their stories and journey with me. Next year…

Please help by donating

I’d be so grateful if you’d help by donating whatever you can afford. Just click on the link– it’s so easy.

Thank you.

Dawn Bagnall
 

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