Mort Pour la France – how cycling will remember its dead in 2014

On July 9th 2014, the Tour de France will leave Ypres and wend its way over 9 sections of cobbles shadowing the route of the ‘Hell of the North’, Paris-Roubaix, before threading its way east and into the once disputed territories of Alsace and Lorraine. Passing Arras, the Chemin des Dames, Verdun, and Douaumont, the 2014 Tour will pay its respects to the fallen of World War I – and in doing so it will remember the riders who died in the ‘War to end all Wars’.

The 1914 Tour should be remembered for Thys’s second victory (he would win a third in 1920) but Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on the 28th June as Thys was stamping his authority on the race by winning stage 1 from Paris – Le Havre and the events that unleashed the hell of World War I escalated rapidly throughout the month of July. 6 days after the end of the Tour, France ordered military mobilisation and by 3rd August France and Germany were at war. Despite Desgrange’s desire to run the race in 1915, the Tour would be suspended until 1919 when it would return to the battle scarred roads of France with stages to Strasbourg ‘le jour de gloire‘ and Metz ‘the day of memory. And there would be a new symbol of renewal and rebirth – le Millot Jaune.  Imagine how the Yellow Jersey must have blazed and glowed as the Tour entered those devastated territories of the east.

The Belgians would go on to dominate the post war years but the reason for their domination may have more to do with the way the guerre mondiale played out than any supposed physical superiority on behalf of the Belgians. Whilst the French lost 1,397,800 young men in combat, the Belgians lost just 58,637. Belgium was neutral in 1914 and, though her tiny army chose to fight, and created a breathing space for the UK & French forces to organise in doing so, the country was quickly occupied. Whilst the French lost a generation of champions on the battlefield, the Belgians endured the German occupation – the ‘Rape of Belgium’. It hardened attitudes and crystallised a resistance round the idea of a Flemish nationalism. And so began the rise of the Flahutes, the hard men – older, tougher and wiser. The average age of a Tour de France winner rose sharply from 1919 and din’t begin to fall until 1930 when a 26 year old Andre Leducq triumphed for France.

There was one other huge impact on the race – it was impossible for trade teams to individually organise the necessary material for their teams to mount an assault on the Tour – so much had been sequestered for the war effort and the market for new bicycles was slim. Instead they cooperated and the groupes all rode for the conglomerate La Sportive team in uniform grey jerseys, their team allegiances denoted by different coloured epaulettes – purple for Peugeot, dark green for Automoto, blue for Alcyon and so on.

Back in 1914, it’s almost impossible now to imagine the Tour continuing against the backdrop of the escalating political crisis. During his 200km solo breakaway on stage 13, Francois Faber was followed for part of the way by an armed soldier from one of the French bicyclist battalions but in the images of the time he rides on oblivious. Desgrange, editorialising in l’Auto on 3rd August 1914, was typically bullish:

It’s a big match that you have to fight: make good use of all your repertoire. Tactics should hold no worries for you. Use your guile and you’ll return…you know all that, my lads, better than me who you’ve been teaching for nearly 15 years. But be careful! When your rifle is pointed at their chest, they’ll ask your forgiveness. Don’t give it to them. Crush them without pity.”

Desgrange stood behind his words and volunteered for the French army as a poilou though he was by then in his 50s. He would win the Croix de Guerre for his efforts. He wrote for l’Auto throughout the war and was already turning his thoughts towards the next Tour de France.

But many of the riders who had competed in the first 11 years of the race would not live to see the 1919 Tour, including three of the great pre-war Tour champions who never returned from the battlefield:

Francois Faber (winner 1909, first foreign winner): killed Mont-Saint-Eloi, 9th May 1915 mort pour la France. He was fighting in the 1st Regiment of the Foreign Legion. His body was never found. A monument to him exists in Ablain-Saint-Nazaire (62).

Octave Lapize (winner 1910): shot down on Bastille Day, 1917.

Lucien Petit-Breton (winner 1907-8): killed in a car crash on 20th December 1917. Petit-Breton had been involved in the ‘taxis of the Marne’ operation in 1904, when French troop reinforcements were sent to the frontline in a fleet of Paris taxi cabs. He was part of a bicycle battalion before driving vans for la Poste.

Marcel Kerff (Belgian, 6th in the 1903 race) was either hanged or shot as a spy by the Germans in August 1914.

Emile Engel the winner of stage 3, on 2nd July 1914 will die in the Battle of the Marne later that year.

Francois Lafourcade who lit up the first Pyreneean stages and was accused of poisoning Paul Duboc will die in 1917.

Henri Alavoine the brother of ‘Gars Jean’ who will win 17 stages in the Tour, dies of injuries sustained in aerial combat in 1916.

Anselme Mazin Lucien Petit-Breton’s brother will fall victim to the recklessness of General Nivelle in 1915. It was in protest against Nivelle’s tactics that the poilous advanced into No Man’s Land bleating like lambs to the slaughter. Was Mazin among them?

Anthony Wattelier ‘the Tortoise’ died on the Somme.

René Cottrel, Jean Perreard, Marius Villette, François Cordier, Frédéric Rigaux, René Etien all died in the Battle of Gallipoli.

Charles Privas who had shone in the 1913 Tour died in the first few weeks of the conflict.

Pierre Marie Privat a talented caricaturist died 2 days after Leon Hourlier and Leon Comes who fell from the skies in an aerial accident in 1915. German cyclists Willy Honeman and Willy Schmitter are killed the same day as Hourlier and Comes.

Georges Bronchard the 1906 Lanterne Rouge died in 1918

Pierre Vuge the most gifted of a family of cycling brothers died 1918

Albert Niepceron died in the final days of the war

Camille Fily the youngest ever rider in the Tour died on Mont Kemmel in Belgium, May 1918

Emile Guyon, Swiss by birth but French by adoption, died in the skies in October 1918.

Franck Henry the young hope of French cycling, Philippe Alary, Andre Batilly, Emile Benier, Vincent Buisson, Albert Cartigny, Marcel Chanut, Alexandre Chauviere, Louis Constans, Maurice Dejoie, Albert Delrieu, Raymond Didier, Leon Dupoux, Emmanuelle Fillon, Auguste Garnier, Roland Garros, Paul Gombault, , Ernest Haillotte, Edmond Heliot, Adrien Heloin, Herve, Francois Julien, Emile Lachaise, Eugene Lacot, Francis Lebars, Louis Lecuona, Eugene Leonard, Emile Maitrot, Francois Marcastel, Gabriel Mathonat, Auguste Meziere, Rene Michel, Marceau Narcy, , Armand Perin, Maurice Petit, Aguste Pierron, Charles Ponson, Felix Pregnac,   Marcel Robert, Pierre Stabat and Georges Tribouillard all rode the Tour de France and all have their names inscribed on war memorials around the French countryside: Mort Pour la France. They swapped the Hell of the North and the mud of the unmade roads of the Tour for the hell and the mud of No Man’s Land.

They are les disparus: the ‘disappeared’ – how curiously beautiful and moving, as if they simply rode into the dust clouds of the paves or the lost and secret corners of the mountains and never came back.

This piece is extracted from ‘100 Tours 100 Tales’ available here 

My thanks also to Feargal McKay for his help in researching this piece

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2 thoughts on “Mort Pour la France – how cycling will remember its dead in 2014

  1. Really interesting, thank you for this detailed account. It is the best article I have seen so far on the Tour de France and WWI. Just a quick note, Thys won its second Tour de France in 1914. The third one happened post-war in 1920.

    • Thanks – have edited accordingly – should have been his ‘double’ victory not his third. Good job I got it right in the book 😉 Thanks also for the compliment – I think it’s only fitting that the 2014 Tour marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WWI and hope that it also takes time to commemorate its own dead.

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