12th November 2010
Day 31 - Den Bosch to Tilburg 42km

Today the rain had stopped and the wind was down to an acceptable level, and I cycled just south of Den Bosch to the little town of Vught. Vught held the distinction of having the only full SS Concentration Camp in North-West Europe - the Nazi's called it Konzentrationslager Herzogenbusch (Den Bosch is the slang version of the original name for the larger town next to Vught, s' Herzogenbusch.

Vught was built in 1942, and in total 31,000 prisoners were held there between January 1943 and September 1944. It was used (like Amersfoort) as a transit camp for Jews and Gypsies being sent to their deaths elsewhere in Europe. One of the worst Vught camp commanders Karl Chmielewski ended up in Dachau as a prisoner after being caught stealing diamonds from Jewish inmates (so it was ok to gas them to death, but just not steal their stuff...) but he was replaced by the complete arsehole Adam Grünewald. Under the direct orders of Grünewald and in response from a complaint from a female prisoner 74 female prisoners were forced into cell number 115 (which was 9 square metres) and left for the night. 10 were already dead when the guards opened the door the next morning. A lack of oxygen and extreme heat took its toll, and many of the women screamed all night.

There was an execution area next to the camp (where there is now a memorial) but it was the site of an attack in both 1995 and 1997 when unknown persons covered the stone tablets containing the many names of the victims of Vught with black tar. The original stone tablets are now kept in the Museum. However, soon after another unknown person left this piece of writing attached to the gate to the memorial...

This note is now inscribed in bronze and remains permanently on the gate it was once pinned to.

It is a little piece of writing that is helping me to try and see some amount of humanity amongst human beings, in the midst of the disgusting mess human kind has made, is making, and will unfortunately continue to make long after I am gone.

"Could you paint tar
across stone, names, the past?
Pitiable fool, such names,
can never be erased.
They are ingrained in countless
human souls, untouchable
by your foul hatred.
They are written in fire
in the skies, and their light
is unsupportable to you.

You have accomplished nothing
Above all you have only smudged
your own name.
Not theirs.
They are smiling at your anger
bathing in light,
gently rocking on God's breath.
And singing very softly and still
for those who want to hear:

13th November 2010
Day 32 - Tilburg to Antwerp 72km

I left when it was still dark as I had no real idea how long it would take. Yesterday I got a little wet when it started raining about 5km from my destination (always does that!) so to give me maximum time I cycled south west out of Tilburg pretty early. I ignored my GPS and followed some cycle paths which have got to have been made by the Romans! These were dead straight lines for 5km at at time, never changing, never bending.

The rain came and went all day, but as there wasn't so much wind it was a fairly enjoyable day. I rolled into Antwerp at about 2pm and found my couch surfing host Astrid! As soon as I had arrived (wet and muddy) I was running around carrying sandbags. The rain was causing quite a problem and flooding the basement and all the stuff in it. So sandbagging was what we had to do!

In the evening we started drinking (!) and hurried off in the rain to see a gig. The band was called The Internationals, and they kind of of mix Ska and Soul together in a truly funky way. With all live musicians, great singers and a funky horn section they made a seriously good sound. After that we ran off to another club for more alcohol and dancing, and finally finished off in a strange little bar for one last beer. I staggered into bed at around 6am... Tomorrow might be hard work...

14th November 2010
Day 33 - Antwerp

Today was hard work... I felt terrible from last nights epic party... I got up late and trudged around the city centre for a little bit. The only highlight was buying a really cute (and super cheap) HD video camera. It is super small and only €66 and I think I will try and attach it to the bike to fashion some sort of "bike cam".It really doesn't work at all inside, but outdoors it has a very lo-fi, lo-budget and shaky picture quality (perfect for a bike cam!)

The evening was spent chilling out and planning the next few days adventures.

15th November 2010
Day 34 - Antwerp to Gent 77km

I set off fairly early, heading directly south out of Antwerp. First stop today was the Breendonk Fort.

Although the Fort itself was built in 1906, its true infamy occurs during the Nazi occupation of Belgium during the 2nd World War. It was used to persecute resistance fighters and spread terror amongst the local populous. Walking around inside was a surreal experience. It felt like I was walking around the dungeons of a castle from the middle ages.

The rooms were damp, dark and imposing, and now hold museum exhibits.
There were recreations of the barracks (which were hidden below ground deep inside the fort, the original bunker cells, dark cells (very strange actually standing inside one for the first time) and even the original torture chamber. Prisoners were tortured with the "Baum" - in the same way as Dachau, where their hands would be tied behind their backs, with the body then being hoisted high into the air. The whole weight of the body would hang on the back of the shoulders... The guards would also use all manner of objects as torture, from red hot pokers to devices designed to crush the fingers or head.

Walking outside the walls afterwards felt very strange. The sun was now shining, and the air felt a little warm, and with no wind it felt like a calm and peaceful place. The moat that runs around the walls is now home to ducks and swans. As I stood next to the gallows and the firing squad range I wondered how so much death and misery could be caused in somewhere so beautiful.

I cycled on to Gent to stay the night with a really cool couch surfing host. Didier is completely blind, has a wicked sense of humour and a great taste in music. As the weather had been good for the whole day - and the forecast for the next days was sunshine - I had a good feeling for the next few kilometres of my adventure.

16th November 2010
Day 35 - Gent to Ypres/Ieper 78km

What a surprise. The weather forecast was wrong again... The whole journey was spent cycling slowly up hills in what can only be described as virtually zero visibility. The fog was horrific, and made it quite dangerous cycling along Flander's little country roads. The temperature was a steady 3 degrees and humidity at infinity... I ended up wet from the freezing fog as I pedalled on towards the village of Passchendaele. This was the start of my education on the Battle of Ypres.

The battle itself (well, all four of the Battles of Ypres) claimed the lives of around half a million soldiers, fighting and dying in deep muddy fields of Flanders during World War One. Despite its name, there was nothing great about the Great War. Hundreds of Thousands of under-trained under-equipped young men were slaughtered fighting for such a small piece of land. The men were simply buried where they fell, which is the reason why this part of Belgium is literally full of cemeteries. I visited just one today but passed dozens along the road into Ypres.

The Tyne Cot Cemetery is now the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world in terms of burials. With 12,000 graves, and a commemorative wall for the 35,000 Commonwealth dead soldiers who fought in the Ypres region whose remains have simply never been found its scale is quite astounding. The fog made it hard to figure out its true size, as I could only see about 50 metre in front of me, but I walked around most of the site and read a few of the names inscribed in stone. Soldiers were from all over the world; Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, India and so much more...  However, Tyne Cot is one of a thousand such burial sites dedicated to the victims of the 1st World War.

The sheer scale of the death involved in the war itself - where idiotic generals slaughtered millions of their own men by ordering them (in some cases) to simply walk towards the enemy, hoping that might scare them into retreat, and the mind numbing knowledge that no real lessons were ever learnt from the First World War - hence afterwards WW2, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq 1&2, Afghanistan, numerous wars in Africa, Bosnia etc - the disgusting inhumanity of it all didn't hit me until the Menin Gate in Ieper that night.

At 8pm, since the year of 1928, the police close the Menin Gate for the Last Post. The enormous gate itself, a memorial to 54,000 men from Canada, Australia, undivided India, South Africa, and those from the UK who died before 16th of August 1917 (the Tyne Cot memorial is for the 35,000 Commonwealth soldiers - and 4 German graves - who died after that date, mostly in the Passchendaele Offensive.

At 7.50pm the gate was full of tourists and mostly Dutch, French and Belgian school children on historical visits, and all of them were making an enormous amount of noise. After suffering through the Dutch school kids screaming and running around Tyne Cot that afternoon (I seriously felt like punching a few of them for their unbelievable disrespect, and the teachers seems like they had no control whatsoever...) I decided to listen around the corner and sat quietly on a step. The last post, with its 3 or 4 Bugles - and even when they were ever so slightly out of tune -  was probably the most beautiful piece of music I have ever heard. I guess it was the sum of the last month exploring man's inhumanity to man, and the extreme physical effort of cycling about 1600km so far, but it hit me really hard... It was an incredibly emotional moment and a feeling I cannot really describe afterwards, but it was an experience I will remember for the rest of my life.

17th November 2010
Day 36 - Ypres/Ieper

Ypres is a strange little town. By 1918  nothing remained, as it was bombed so much that not one building was left standing. Just a town-sized pile of rubble that would be painstakingly rebuilt with enormous amounts of German money from the reparation payments after the Treaty of Versailles. This morning I went to visit the "In Flanders Fields" Museum in the old Cloth House in the centre of Ieper with my couch surfing host Geert. As the museum states itself, it is a museum of war but with a message of peace. It was very detailed with information in Flemish, Dutch, English and French, and focussed on many different aspects of the Battle of Ypres and the conflict in the Westhoek. Also in the museum was an English school group, quietly investigating the past, making notes and discussing amongst themselves the true nature of warfare - I was deeply impressed. By their accents I guessed they were from the north, but I didn't ask.

A real multimedia experience, mixing photos, period film footage, re-enactments, original artefacts from the soldiers, uniforms, the various weapons, and some beautiful examples of WW1 poetry. The museum is of course named after the famous John McCrae poem. If you don't know it, you will now.

"In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
 Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields."

In the afternoon Geert kindly drove me out to the Langemarck Cemetery north of Ypres. This is a German military burial ground, and it couldn't have been more different from Tyne Cot. There was none of the imposing white stone monuments, no thousands of white head stones, no glorification of an Empire fading slowly away... just a mass grave and a few individual headstones - but all flat on the ground. It reminded me of a South of England rural village graveyard, hidden by trees from the side of a busy road. It was quiet, calm, peaceful and respectful. There were also quite a few wreaths laid out from Armistice day. Some from Germany but most from the UK. One caught my eye, from a school in England, stating something along the lines of "We remember all the German soldiers who were killed, just as we remember our own soldiers who died".

As we drove back into Ieper we passed many cemeteries, their bright white headstones standing out firmly against the dull grey day, and also stopped at the Canadian memorial, the site of the first ever Gas attack, where 2000 soldiers were killed by gas in just 2 days. The gas however spread over an enormous part of the front lines, and would kill many thousands more.

18th November 2010
Day 37 - Ypres/Ieper to Lille 34km

After posting back a few things to Munich (the bastards charged me €26 to send two kilos!) I cycled on towards France. I had downloaded a learn to speak French tutorial and had great fun shouting things like "Je regrette, mais c'est n'est pas acceptable pour moi comme ça" as I trundled through southern Flanders and into France. I am now sitting in a little café in the centre of Lille trying to catch up with my diary and photograph editing... I am also drinking vin rouge for only €2,50, but wondering whether there is someone to practice another newly learnt phrase "voulez-vous venir manger avec moi ce soir?" I guess I need to learn a few more phrases first :-) Time to find something to eat and plan tomorrow's monster ride to the Vimy Ridge and Arras. I'm heading towards the Battle of the Somme territory.

19th November 2010
Day 38 - Lille to Arras 64km

Another cold and gloomy day, only brightened slightly by the wonderful world of the Pain au Chocolat. Oh my god! Although French beer is total crap and they totally under cook their meat, the French certainly know what they are doing when it comes to bread. Headed southwest out of Lille and cycled through the depressing weather to the Vimy Ridge. It was here that the Canadian Corps (4 regiments fighting together for the first time, but fighting of course under the British flag) dug in deep and held off the Germans during the First World War.

The memorial that lies on top of the ridge is stunning, even through the clouds. The white stone was shipped in from Croatia and the monument, unveiled in 1936, holds the names of the thousands of Canadian Soldiers killed in France and whose remains were never found. Most of the ridge is sealed off from the public due to so much unexploded munitions, the only safe way of cutting the grass is letting sheep graze there. Peering through the trees in the woods all around me reveal the scars left on the landscape by the conflict.

Trenches and bomb craters cover the forest floor, and hide the elaborate tunnel system developed underneath.

The Vimy Ridge also has a small museum, a small segment of the tunnel system opened up to the public, and reconstructed trenches. I wandered around the trench system, only being told later that what I thought was just the Canadian trenches, were actually trenches from  both sides - they were literally separated by 10-15 metres. In between were deep craters, mostly from exploded mines beneath the surface.

Both sides would try and dig tunnels right under the others defences, set enormous mines, and detonate them, killing all those above. There is still even a 9000kg bomb still left at the end of a tunnel, some 20 metres below the surface. As the only way to get into the tunnel system was with a guide, I took a short guided tour.

The tunnels were incredible. I had no idea they were so well developed, on so many levels, and so long! The soldiers would have to remain virtually silent and live in near darkness. Any noise would be heard by German listening posts deep in their own tunnels, and would allow them to target the Canadian trenches with explosives.

Eventually the Canadians scored a great victory over the Germans when they took the ridge. The troops underwent a rigorous 6 months of specific training before the actual assault (something no one had yet tried), and with precision timing they were able to advance rapidly, under covering artillery fire from guns positioned about 8-9km away. That is precision firing! They used a creeping barrage, where the guns would fire just slightly ahead of the advancing troops to clear the way for them. Any mistake with the timing would cause the soldiers to be hit by their own guns, hence the enormous time spent rehearsing.

Of the 30,000 Canadian soldiers that fought in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, 3600 were killed in the 4 days it took to take the ridge and the surrounding area, between the 9th and 12th of April 1917.

That night I stayed in Assen, about 15km south of the Vimy Ridge.



20th November 2010
Day 39 - Arras to Péronne 46km

To my total surprise it was a lovely day. The weather was great! The sun finally came out and revealed the French countryside I had missed so far due to the previous days of thick fog. France really is quite beautiful. All rolling fields - most dark brown from the ploughed up mud, but some green from freshly planted winter crops - stretch for as far as I can see.

The only problem about France... It is all hills. Very steep hills... They rise up about 20-30 metres, and then fall again, and do this for the entire journey. Although my legs do feel so much stronger now it is still pretty hard going.

As I had started pretty early this morning I arrived at Péronne at around 2pm. I found a cheapish hotel, dumped my stuff and went to check out the Historial de la Grande Guerre - a museum dedicated to the First World War.

To my disappointment the museum was pretty bad. Unlike the In Flanders Fields museum - which was superb, and truly engaging - this museum was what I can only describe as dull! The exhibits were mostly objects relating to the general history of the time period, not just the war itself. There were newspaper front pages, a few interesting wartime paintings and a few other bits. It did try and tell a little of the history between 1914 and 1918, but did it in a really bad way, jumping backwards and forwards in time. The only mention at all of the Battle of the Somme (which happened all over this area, and was one of the most destructive events of the war itself, with nearly 1.5 million soldiers killed in just 4-5 months) was a 30 minute badly edited documentary.

They did however have some original soldiers uniforms. There were displays showing what each soldier would wear and carry onto the battlefield, but no mention of how bad it actually was for them. The French, for example, marched into their first battles still wearing uniforms dating from the Franco-Prussian war some 43 years earlier. Their ultra bright uniforms made the soldiers easy targets for the Germans (blue caps and red trousers).


21st November 2010
Day 30 - Péronne to Compiégne 71km

A long and hard days cycle. Just outside of Péronne I passed another British cemetery. This one was mostly filled with the many Indians that fought for the Empire during WWI.

Around 1 and a half million Indians served in the war, not just as soldiers but also as auxiliary workers, and around 43,000 were known to have been killed.

On a side note, my great uncle Trevor, or Major General Trevor Morlin as he was known, was a Major General of the Indian army during the 1960's, commanding the Sikh Regiments.

Although it was pretty cold things were going fairly well until the road was closed off at one point. I should have just tried it out, but I let my GPS find an alternative route. It took me down a few tracks that crossed open fields, and within 10 minutes I was absolutely covered in mud. Literally 5cm of mud covered me and the bike, which meant then my gears, chain, brakes and the like basically stopped working properly... From then on it was hard going...

Compiégne itself is quite a small city, north-east of Paris. It was significant however in history for 2 important twentieth century events. On the morning of the 11th of November 1918 at 11am the Armistice came into effect (although it was actually signed 6 hours earlier at just after 5am) in a forest just outside the city. This officially signalled the end of the war. On the 22nd of June 1940 - in exactly the same spot - Hitler, Göring and von Ribbentrop amongst others forced the French to surrender. Hitler deliberately chose this place due to its significance from the First World War, as pure revenge and humiliation towards the French.