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Interview: Tom Isitt

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After the fighting was over it was time to rebuild. But first someone thought it would be a good idea to run a bike race through this war-ravaged landscape

Tom Isitt pops into the Café to talk about riding in the zone rouge and the Tour of the Battlefields.

The route of the Circuit des Champs de Bataille took the riders along what had only six months before been the Western Front
The route of the Circuit des Champs de Bataille took the riders along what had only six months before been the Western Front
Le Petit Journal / Gallica

Podium Café: You tell the story of the 1919 Tour of the Battlefields using a mixture of research, imagination and re-creation. Let’s take the last first: do you feel that visiting places the race visited brought you closer to the story?

Tom Isitt: Yes, definitely. For me, history is all about “place”. I’m less interested in a dry procession of chronological facts than by what happened here, in this place, to whom, and why. So riding the same roads as the racers, visiting the places they visited, and seeing the old roadside buildings they saw, gives me a distant connection to them. It’s the same with battlefields – walking in the footsteps of my great uncle at Passchendaele, or standing in an old front-line trench on the Somme, allows me to connect (however distantly) with the people who fought here.

I can never properly understand their experiences because I have no means of comparing my life to theirs. But as I rode over the pavé near Lille, with three broken ribs causing significant discomfort, I edged just a little bit closer to Jean Alavoine and Henri Van Lerberghe than I would have done if I’d stayed at home. And I like to try and imagine myself in their shoes, to see their world as they saw it, to imagine something of their experiences.

Le Main des Massiges
Le Main des Massiges
Tom Isitt

There was a moment on the Voie Sacrée (the only road able to carry supplies to Verdun during the war) when I came upon a convoy of World War One trucks, staff cars and ambulances, driven by people in period uniforms. It was a genuinely astonishing and emotional moment, one I wouldn’t have experienced if I’d written a less personal account from the comfort of my office.

PdC: The area around the Western Front that the Tour of the Battlefields raced through, after the war it became the zone rouge, land too poisoned to be reclaimed. There’s still a lot of it that exists today, yes?

TI: There are still around 170 square kilometres of zone rouge in France today, although that’s considerably less than the 1,160 sq km originally designated as zone rouge in 1919.

It’s hard to imagine today what the post-war battlefields were like – the trees were gone, there were shell holes and trenches everywhere, millions of tons of unexploded ordnance and barbed wire were scattered all over the place, burned out wagons lined what was left of the roads, and several hundred thousand corpses had yet to be properly buried.

Barren roads went through the zone rouge
Barren roads went through the zone rouge

Over the years the zone rouge has shrunk as returning farmers campaigned to have their land reclassified. If they knew then what we know now about the ecological damage, it would never have been allowed. But slowly the land was returned to habitation and cultivation, except in certain places. On the Champagne Front east of Reims several areas of zone rouge are fenced off and used by the military, and at Verdun and St Mihiel the authorities planted trees over the battlefields and left them to nature. In several places between Reims and Verdun you come across signs by the side of the road warning of “Vestiges de Guerre” or “Terrain Militaire”.

The zone rouge as it exists today, near Moronvilliers
The zone rouge as it exists today, near Moronvilliers
Tom Isitt

PdC: The ongoing ecological impact of the war is not something I’ve heard much about before. You write about lakes that are poisoned with dumped munitions, even today.

TI: Dealing with unused or unexploded ordnance was a huge problem after the war. The Belgian authorities loaded millions of tonnes of shells onto ships and dumped them in the sea off Zebrugge, but the French tended to detonate munitions in situ (they exploded 14 million tonnes of munitions in 1919 alone), or throw them into lakes. One lake on the race route, at Gerardmer in the Vosges, was used to dump hundreds of tonnes of ordnance after the war. These days you can’t swim or fish in it, it’s too polluted by toxins from the shells. There are many similar lakes all over France.

A hundred years ago no one really understood the long-term ecological damage that hundreds of millions of artillery shells could cause. By-products of artillery include perchlorates, heavy metals, poison gas and enormous quantities of lead, all of which end up in the soil and ground water. In some parts of northern France in recent years farmers have been ordered to destroy crops and pour away milk that is dangerously contaminated by events a century earlier. And a couple of years ago pregnant or nursing mothers, and children, in over 500 communes in the Pas de Calais were advised not to drink the tap water.

When you start looking into the environmental effects of World War One, even today, it’s pretty scary stuff.

Vast quantities of used shell casings and unused shells had to be disposed off after the war ended
Vast quantities of used shell casings and unused shells had to be disposed off after the war ended

PdC: Looking at the race, it’s easy to speak of it somewhat dismissively as a folly, the very idea of riding bikes along what had only six months before been the Western Front clearly a silly idea. But people were already moving back into that land, poisoned as it was, farmers displaced by the war returning to what was left of their homes, some of them living in cellars, some in makeshift huts. Life got back to normal – a new normal – very quickly, would that be fair to say?

For some, even if all that was left of their dwellings after the war was a cellar, that was enough to try and start over with
For some, even if all that was left of their dwellings after the war was a cellar, that was enough to try and start over with

TI: I suppose “new normal” is one way to describe it. More than two million civilians were displaced by the Western Front, and in 1919 most were desperate to get home and get on with their lives. But it was far from easy and it would be years before their farms were properly rebuilt, their land fit for cultivation, and life returned to pre-war “normal”. In the meantime they lived in terrible squalor, surrounded by danger and corpses, and eking out an existence however they could. Some filled in the shell holes and planted whatever they could, some collected material from the battlefields to sell as souvenirs to the tourists, some risked their lives collecting the copper driving bands from unexploded shells, some turned to prostitution to feed their families. It was unimaginably hard for the returning population, but they had no choice.

Battlefield tourism is no modern concept and through guides issued by Michelin and others in the immediate aftermath of World War One we have some idea of the conditions endured by the riders in the Tour of the Battlefields, and by the people who returned
Battlefield tourism is no modern concept and through guides issued by Michelin and others in the immediate aftermath of World War One we have some idea of the conditions endured by the riders in the Tour of the Battlefields, and by the people who returned to the land that had become the Western Front
Tom Isitt

For me, these sinistrés (the returning civilians) are the forgotten victims of the war. We remember the soldiers, but not the civilians. The sinistrés endured a life of relentless toil for years afterwards and received very little help – 440,000 buildings needed reconstruction, 330 million cubic metres of shell holes and trenches needed filling, three million farm animals needed replacing. Thousands of these civilians were killed or injured as they cleared their land, the polluted water killed hundreds more, and health-care in this damp and poisoned land was almost non-existent. Like the soldiers before them, they just did what they could to get by.

Life after war time...the new normal
Life after war time...the new normal

PdC: One of the oddest aspects of the Circuit des Champs de Bataille is how it got knocked off the front page even of the sponsoring newspaper, Le Petit Journal, by a major breakthrough in the Peace Talks, some agreement having been reached on the issue of reparations, money to be paid by Germany as compensation for the damage done. People like John Maynard Keynes have led us to believe too much was demanded of Germany here. When you look at the zone rouge though, you wouldn’t agree?

TI: Absolutely not. The Treaty of Versailles was undoubtedly hard on the Germans, but no worse than what the Germans had meted out to the French in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian war, and the Russians when they sued for peace in 1917. Germany had stripped Belgium and north-eastern France of all their industry and all their livestock in World War One (as well as murdering 23,000 Belgian civilians and deporting 120,000 more as forced-labour). The damage caused by the war was immense (33,000 square kilometres were affected and 15,000 sq km needed considerable work to bring back to normal), so clearly someone had to pay.

All along the length of the Western front villages and towns needed to be rebuilt after the fighting ended
All along the length of the Western front villages and towns needed to be rebuilt after the fighting ended

Ultimately Germany paid less than two percent of what was due because Germany had almost no ability to pay, at least in the years immediately post-war. The seeming inevitability of World War Two stems more from the rise of nationalism all across Europe in the 1920s and ’30s, and the failure of the Allies to administer a knock-out blow to the German army before the Armistice. After World War One the German army considered itself unbeaten and blamed Germany’s capitulation on politicians, intellectuals, and the Jews. Considering Germany breached the terms of the Treaty of Versailles within months of signing it, it would appear they had no intention of sticking to it, or paying what they owed.

PdC: We know very little about what many who participated in the Tour of the Battlefields did during the war, the war time stories of bike riders don’t tend to get told, unless you did like Lapize, or Faber, or Petit-Breton (or are turned into a modern myth like the blessèd Gino). You discovered that Charles Deruyter, who won the race, had been a mechanic in the Belgian air force. Does it surprise you that even today, so little is known about the wartime experiences of many of these men?

TI: Initially, yes I was very surprised. Those that were killed were fairly well documented, but those that survived are less well remembered. My attempts to research individual war records for riders in the race hit a brick wall almost straight away – the service records of each man are kept at the town hall where he was born. And they’re not digitised or on line, so you have to find out his birthplace, go to that town, and manually search the records (if, indeed, they still exist…many were lost during World War two). That’s not a practical proposition, so I had to search other on-line sources to find out what details I could. There is some information out there, but you have to look long and hard to find it.

The idea of racing along the length of the Western Front in France leaves landscapes feeling more like something out of Beckett than the usually invoked Dante and his Hell of the North.
The idea of racing along the length of the Western Front in France leaves landscapes feeling more like something out of Beckett than the usually invoked Dante and his Hell of the North.

PdC: The race itself produced some of the worst days of racing I’ve read about, easily up there with – or even ahead of – legends of massively long and harsh days from the Tour or the Giro. The third stage was particularly epic, taking the race onto the cobbled roads of the Nord and the shell-holed roads along the Western Front. Was this where you really realised the story of the race had to be told?

TI: Certainly when I initially read about the race in Le Petit Journal I realised that this was the defining stage of a truly appalling race. Knowing a bit about the early days of bike racing, and about Word War One, I was aware that racing for more than 320km across Flanders, Cambrai and the Somme immediately post-war would have been an horrendous ordeal.

I’ve been collecting old Michelin battlefield guidebooks for a few years, and they contain incredible photos of the battlefields immediately post-war. The thought of racing through these areas was, frankly, insane. Throw in cataclysmic weather as well and you have an impossibly hard stage, even by the brutal standards of the time.

The reports of the sixth stage, during which the riders had to carry their bikes for several kilometres through waist-deep snow on the Ballon d’Alsace in the Vosges mountains, merely confirmed to me that this race, and those racers, deserved to have their stories told. That no one had written anything about it since 1919 seemed extraordinary; it really was that holy grail of cycling writers — a fascinating and emotional story that had not yet been told.


Tom Isitt is the author of Riding in the Zone Rouge – The Tour of the Battlefields 1919 – Cycling’s Toughest-Ever Stage Race, published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson. You can read a review of it on the Café Bookshelf.

You can find Tom Isitt online at isitt.org.uk or follow him on Twitter @masaccio60.

Our thanks to Tom Isitt for taking the time to participate in this interview.

Riding in the Zone Rouge – The Tour of the Battlefields 1919 – Cycling’s Toughest-Ever Stage Race, by Tom Isitt, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson