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The Shattered Peloton, by Graham Healy

The story of the Tour at war.

Henri Pélissier, 1919
Henri Pélissier, 1919
Bibliothèque Nationale de France

The Shattered Peloton, by Graham HealyTitle: The Shattered Peloton - The Devastating Impact of World War I on the Tour de France
Author: Graham Healy
Publisher: Breakaway Books
Year: 2014
Pages: 221
Order: Breakaway
What it is: The story of the Tour at war
Strengths: Chock full of anecdotes that go well beyond the war
Weaknesses: The big picture of the Tour at war is lost amid all the colour

Here's an interesting question for you: who is the youngest rider ever to start the Tour de France? It might sound like an obscure factoid, but given the prominence given to Danny van Poppel in the 2013 Tour - the youngest rider to start a Tour since the Second World War - you probably know that it was Camille Fily, who was 17 years and a couple of months old when he started the 1904 grande boucle.

Now here's the sting, the tricky follow up question: George Hincapie - whose military moniker of the Loyal Lieutenant makes him an apt inclusion here - participated in how many Tours de France? A couple of years ago - in that pre-USADA era of question marks - the correct answer was 17. In the post-USADA strikethrough era it isn't.

Or is it? Let's go back to Fily again. There is near universal agreement that Fily is the youngest Tour rider ever. It's an accepted fact. But there's a problem here, and it's a real problem for those who don't believe Hincapie can claim 17 Tour starts. The problem is this: after the French federation did their own USADA report on the 1904 Tour, Fily - who had originally finished ninth overall - was disqualified, struck from the record  books. So if you believe Fily was - and still is - the youngest rider ever to start a Tour, it surely follows that you also believe Hincapie started 17 Tours? If you don't believe Hincapie has any right to claim to have started 17 Tours, well who do you think really was the youngest Tour starter?

That I should open a review of book about the Tour de France and the First World War with an apparently unrelated digression is actually quite appropriate, for Graham Healy's The Shattered Peloton - like his previous The Curse of the Rainbow Jersey - is in the mould of Les Woodland's cycling books: a compendium of facts and anecdotes built around a central theme - here, the Great War - that allows the author much scope to follow all sorts of digressions to all sorts of places, some of which may seem like they have little to do with the central subject but are nonetheless interesting in their own right.

If we follow my Hincapie digression back to its root in Fily and the story told about him in The Shattered Peloton we get to the death of the youngest Tour starter, in 1918, near the Kemmelberg (which, as you can imagine, offers entry to a Ghent-Wevelgem digression), during the final, fluid phase of the First World War. In order to get to the death of Fily we must - after a brief biographical sketch - pass through a long digression about the 1904 Tour before getting to the Battle of the Kemmel. So while The Shattered Peloton might seem at first like it must offer a rather narrow canvas - 1914-1918 - the story told is actually quite sprawling.

The Tour and the Great War is - to my mind - a fascinating subject. First of all you have the odd coincidence of dates. On the day the 1914 Tour opened, the first real shot of the war was fired, with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Within weeks of the ending of that Tour, the war commenced and the géants de la route began to fall. For the next four years the Tour was on hiatus. Then, in 1919, it returned. And on the day before it returned - barely twelve hours before the riders set out from Paris at three in the morning - France and Germany formally ended the war with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. The 1914 and 1919 Tours, then, are inextricably linked to the war, bookending it as they do.

In addition to that odd bit of temporal serendipity, the story of the Tour at war offers the opportunity to consider a history of the Great War that doesn't just limit itself the standard battles so often reported in the vast majority of English-language World War One books. The story of the Tour at war offers the opportunity to see beyond Ypres, the Somme and Passchendaele and realise that - hard as those battles were for English-speaking soldiers - battles like the Marne and Verdun were even more damaging for the French, as were all the battles of Isonzo, especially Caporetto, for the Italians. So if, like me, you are bored to the back teeth by histories of the Great War that limit themselves to the that little corner of a foreign field that will forever England be, then the story of the Tour at war affords you the opportunity to at least consider the broader scope of the conflict.

That said, there is already a certain amount of over familiarity with some aspects of the story of the Tour at war. Who - having read even just one of the dozen or so English-language year-by-year histories of the Tour - doesn't know about the deaths of Tour winners François Faber, Lucien Petit-Breton and Octave Lapize? No history of the Tour is complete without telling you those three stories. But beyond those three, how many other Tour veterans can you name who fell, or even who fought and survived? Most Tour histories don't name many of them. The only other war stories most Tour histories tell are those of the Taxis of the Marne and of Ottavio Bottecchia discovering he could ride a bike after signing up for an Italian Bersaglieri regiment (fast-infantry troops sometimes equipped with folding Bianchi bicycles).

This is, though, changing. Serge Laget's Tour de France: Official 100th Anniversary Edition goes beyond the usual usual, as does Suze Clemitson's One Hundred Tours, One Hundred Tales. (And, of course, I tried to go beyond the usual usual myself in The Complete Book of the Tour de France.) But even in those books there is only so far you can go, you can only really afford to offer up a single chapter, so you're painting on quite a small canvas. Heretofore, if you wanted greater detail, you had to be up to reading Jean-Paul Bourgier's Le Tour de France 1914: De la Fleur au Guidon à la Baïonnette au Canon and 1919, le Tour Renaît de l’Enfer: de Paris-Roubaix au Premier Maillot Jaune (which is a tough ask if you don't do French). The Shattered Peloton, then, is the first English-language book to really attempt to tackle the story of the Tour at war.

Healy opens with a version of the backstory of the Tour, telling that the race was created as a result of the Dreyfus affaire and in order to save the faltering L'Auto, whose circulation was sliding in consequence of having to change its name from L'Auto-Vélo. We then get the 1914 Tour, which is opened up to include the trial of Henriette Caillaux and how her murdering Le Figaro's editor Gaston Calmette meant that the career of her husband, the politician Joseph Caillaux, was effectively derailed and how "it was widely believed that he could have averted war with Germany." We also get the assassination of Jean Jauré, a politician who, "if he had lived, he alone could have stopped the misery." Lost opportunities. In a sense, that's the theme of The Shattered Peloton, especially so for the riders whose careers were curtailed by the war.

Having dealt with the drift to war, Healy then opts for a non-linear, episodic telling of the story of the Tour at war, and all the digressions those episodes afford him the opportunity to follow. We get the story of Henri Desgrange's war (including the full text of his August 3 editorial in L'Auto, a barbarous call to arms). We get the stories of men like Marcel Kerff (the first Tour rider to die) and Émile Engel (the first real star of the race to die, he a stage winner in 1914 and a man who had won two stages in the Peugeot-organised rival to the grande boucle, the Tour de France des Indépendants, in 1910 and 1911). There are the stories of François Faber and Octave Lapize. The story of François Lafourcade (more remembered for allegedly having poisoned Paul Duboc in 1911 than for having beaten Lapize to the summit of the Col d'Aubisque in 1910, he having stayed silent as he summited the mountain while Lapize served up his "Assassins!" soundbite). There's Lucien-Petit Breton (who was in the midst of the Taxis of the Marne incident). There's the story of Camille Fily. Of George Bronchard (one of the two lanternes rouge to die in the war). Healy also goes beyond the Tour to bring in the story of Carlo Oriani (the fourth Grand Tour winner to die in the war, he the Giro d'Italia champion who died after the Italians were routed during the battle of Caporetto, in the Dolomites).

In between all the death, we also get some survivors' stories. There's Émile Brichard, who served in the war and went on to start the 1926 Tour but didn't even make it to the end of the first stage. There are the Australians Donald Kirkham and Iddo Munro, who rode the 1914 Tour and spent the war back home in Australia. There are Henri and Francis Pélissier, who both served in the war (the latter suffering two bullet wounds) and between them added considerable colour to pre- and post-war Tours. There's Paul Deman (who survived a death sentence).

(There's also, I should mention, a host of other names, mentioned along the way, of both men who lived and men who died, not all of whom rode the Tour: The Shattered Peloton is as much an attempt to tell the story of cyclists at war as Tour cyclists at war. Oh, and there is one woman, Marie Marvingt, who tried but failed to gain admission to the 1908 Tour and then did a Tim Moore and shadow rode the course, though when she did that is not known, nor is it known if she abided by any of the Tour's draconian regulations, particularly those of using the same bike throughout, not accepting assistance from anyone either in making repairs or being passed up food, and completing each stage within a set time, which rules partly accounted for only 36 of 114 starters in the 1908 Tour reaching Paris.)

Even amidst all the death The Shattered Peloton is not really about death, it's about all the digressions the stories of those who died (or survived) allow Healy to follow. As he did in The Curse of the Rainbow Jersey Healy takes each of the major characters and serves up a brief biographical sketch, primarily of their riding career, which sketch affords the opportunity to digress even further from the war (so, for instance, Fily's tale is really the 1904 Tour, or Bronchard's story is also about the history of the lanterne rouge). What this means is that, despite the somewhat sombre subject, the book is actually quite colourful, these biographical sketches and their associated digressions allowing many different anecdotes to be told.

One criticism I would offer of this, though, is that all the colour tends to push out the central story: while the stories of plenty of riders are told Healy doesn't really draw the big picture of the Tour at war and the real devastating impact of the war on the race. There's no real attempt to show how the war impacted the race after it resumed, other than a brief look at the 1919 race. Nor is there any real indication of how many cyclists in general - or even Tour veterans in particular - either fought or perished in the war. I know from my own research into this subject that the exact numbers aren't known: because of the need to pad the Tour field with cannon fodder, many of whom didn't even complete a single stage, there's a lot of Tour 'veterans' about whom next to nothing is known (see, for instance, Max Leonard's recent Lanterne Rouge and how difficult he found it to pin down the story of Arsène Millochau, the first man to finish last). We can say that something in the region of 700 riders started at least one Tour - barely a third of whom finished even one Tour - and we can say that upwards of 50 of those 700 perished in the war, but we don't know how far north of 50 the number really is. Perhaps Healy can rectify some of this in future editions of the The Shattered Peloton by the simple expedient of including an appendix which lists those Tour veterans who are known to have died and where in the war's timeline they fell.

That criticism aside The Shattered Peloton is a feast of anecdotes that also serves to shine a brighter light on the story of the Tour at war than has heretofore been possible in English-language Tour books. If you enjoy Les Woodland's books and enjoyed Healy's The Curse of the Rainbow Jersey this is more of the same to feed your appetite.