Lest we forget: A nod to the Belgian riders who fought during World War One

The 1914 edition of the Tour de France was the 12th staging of the event and started at 3am, in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Cloud.

The popularity of the race was clear for all to see as there were huge crowds gathered to wave their heroes off into the darkness at his early hour. What lay ahead for the 145 starters on this first stage was 388 kilometres of racing to the days finish line at Le Havre. 

The date was June 28th, 1914 and it was a day that would go down in history.

The stage was won by defending Tour champion Philippe Thys. Sadly his stage victory would be overshadowed by events some 900 miles away in Sarajevo. It was here at approximately 10:45am that Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

His actions would set into the motion the beginnings of one of the bloodiest chapters in modern day history – The Great War.  

When the Tour de France riders signed on at the Café des Arcades in Dunkirk for the final stage on July 26th, 1914 none of them could foresee that they would be doing so for the last time for 5 years. Even more heartbreakingly was that for some of these riders they would lose their lives in the upcoming war.

It has been estimated that approximately 50 participants of the first eleven editions of the Tour de France alone were killed during the war. It is impossible to say for sure how many cyclists lost their lives as many rode as individuals at this time.

There are, however, many stories we do know. These are just some of those stories in relation to Belgian cyclist of the time.

Marcel Kerff was an early pioneer for Belgium in the Tour de France. He rode the first edition in 1903 and finished in 6th place overall thanks to his adventurous style of racing.

His sense of adventure also extended to his racing attire as it was reported that he was known for racing wearing a white safari suit. 

He lived close to the Dutch border at Moelingen in an area where the German army had invaded Belgium.

Marcel Kerff, pictured here at the first Tour de France in 1903, was killed after German soldiers arrested them as spies just three days into the invasion of Belgium.

Early on the morning of 7th August 1914 Kerff and a group of townsmen made their way out of town to an area where the invading German army had set up camp.

Their curiosity got the better of them as the German soldiers arrested them as spies and executed them at the roadside. This was just three days into the German invasion of Belgium.

Today a memorial marks the spot where Kerff and his companions lost their lives. The memorial is simple but effective.

Set aside a tree on the N627 is a black metal crucifix with a white figure of Christ. A plaque beside the memorial gives details of the events that happened in this spot.

Victor Fastré was just 18 when he won Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

Barely six weeks into the war and another Belgian cyclist lost his life. It was in 1909 that Victor Fastré, aged just 18 years old, won Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

Some five years later and Fastré was a Corporal in the 25ste Linieregiment (battalion 2/1). His regiment were in Rotselaar in Flemish Brabant with orders to do all they could to disrupt the advance of the German army through Belgium. 

On 12th September 1914 Fastré lost his life as his unit advanced across the Molen Bridge. 

Another Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner, Dieudonné Gauthy, was posted to the fort at Fléron. He volunteered to go behind enemy lines and carry out reconnaissance on his bicycle of enemy movements.

Dieudonné Gauthy was another Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner. He spent time as a prisoner of war but went on continue his cycling career after the conflict.

It was on one such excursion that he was captured and taken prisoner by the Germans. He remained a prisoner of war until 1919 when he returned to cycling and won two stages of that years Tour of Belgium.

Despite the horrors of the Great War some races continued away from the front lines. The Tour of Lombardy was one such race.

The 1917 edition saw Philippe Thys win whilst on leave form the Belgian air force where he served as a Sergeant. He also won the 1917 and 1918 editions of Paris-Tours.

Whilst these established races continued there were other events created away from the fighting to entertain the troops.

Prior to the war Jules Van Hevel was an independent rider taking part in now defunct races such as Oostende- Evergem and GP Karel Verbist.Inthe war he served Belgium as a cyclist in the 1st artillery regiment before moving on to serve with the Trench Mortars Van Duren of the 1st army division. It was during this time that he was injured and transported to England for recuperation.

Jules Van Hevel spent time racing in England while recuperating.

During his time in England he competed in cycling events atStamford Bridge track and won the Molinari Cup in 1917 and 1918. He would go onto race professionally after the war and win the 1920 edition of the Tour ofFlanders.

England was also the base for another Belgian cyclist duringthe war. With the German army advancing across Belgium many families soughtrefuge in England.

This was the case for Emile Brichard and his parents who escaped to Wolverhampton. Whilst here he worked in a factory which made soldiers boots. 

In July 1915 he joined the British Army and was posted to the 44th Battalion of the Royal Army Medical Corps. He returned to Belgium and served at the military hospital L’Ocean in De Panne. He would do so for the remainder of the war finally leaving military service in 1919.

Possibly the most well-known story concerning a Belgian cyclist in the Great War is that of Paul Deman.

Paul Deman was sentenced to death but the Great War ended before the execution could be carried out.

The man from Rekkem in West Flanders won the first edition of the Tour of Flanders in 1913. During the Great War he joined the Belgian espionage service and smuggled documents across the border to the Netherlands by bike.

He did so successfully on many occasions. However, his luck ran out and he was caught in the act by the Germans and arrested as a spy. 

In a military courtroom in the shattered Leuven he was sentenced to death.

However, before the execution could be carried out the war ended. 

Deman would continue his cycling career after the war andwon, among other races, Paris-Roubaix in 1920 and Paris-Tour in 1923.

Darrell Heale is the founder of the excellent Flahute CC website which provides comprehensive previews of all the Belgian races. He can be followed on Twitter by clicking here.

Main image courtesy of the Great War Remembrance Race.

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