Tuesday, 9 July 2013

A race run: French cyclists in the Great War

Many of you reading this will also be watching the television coverage of the 100th Tour de France, which has just left the Pyrenees, and is heading for Brittany. This year's route doesn't go anywhere near the north of France, but next year's will certainly pass across the battlefields of the Great War. The actual route has not yet been announced (apart from the Grand Depart and three stages dans le Yorkshire profond), but already there is talk of a stage in Belgium with a finish in Ypres, a stage passing along the roads near Albert and Péronne, and of course something in Verdun. The Tour also intends to commemorate the battle of Bouvines, whose 800th anniversary is on 27 July next year.

Three Tour winners were killed during the Great War.

Lucien Petit-Breton (whose real name was Lucien Mazan) was born in Plessé (Loire-Atlantique) in 1882, but his family moved to Argentina, and he became an Argentinian citizen. Nevertheless, he was called up into the French Army in 1902, and moved back to France after his discharge. He had started cycling in Argentina, but really blossomed in Europe, where, riding for a team sponsored by Peugeot, he won the inaugural Milan-San Remo in 1907, followed by that year's Tour (It has to be said that victory at that time was achieved via a points system rather than on time, and he was helped by penalties awarded against another rider.). The following year, he won the Paris-Brussels race, and then became the first man to win two Tours de France in a much easier victory than the previous year's. Although he won a stage of the Giro d'Italia in 1911, he never managed to finish another Tour. He was recalled to the colours at the outbreak of the Great War, and served with a transport unit, the 20e Escadron du Train. He was badly injured in a vehicle accident, when the vehicle he was driving hit a horse and cart; he died in Troyes on 20 December 1917. He is buried in the Communal cemetery at Pénestin (Morbihan). Lucien's brother Anselme was also killed during the war, at the Bois de la Gruerie in the Argonne, in June 1915.

Octave Lapize was born in Paris in 1887. His first major win was in the men's 100km race in the 1908 Olympics, but as a professional cyclist, he won three successive Paris-Roubaix races 1909-1910-1911, as well as the 1911 Paris-Tours and Paris-Brussels races. He entered the Tour de France six times from 1909 to 1914, and only managed to finish once, in 1910 - when he was the winner! That year's Tour was a particularly hard one, and Lapize is famous in Tour history for shouting at some officials, as he toiled up the Col du Tourmalet, 'You are murderers! Yes murderers!' He was recalled in 1914, and posted initially as a driver with 19e Escadron du Train, attached to 13e Artillery. He transferred to the Aviation Service as a pilot in September 1915. He trained at Avord, Cazaux and Pau before being posted to N54 in February 1917. Later that year, serving with N90, his Nieuport 23 was shot down near Toul on 14 July 1917. He is buried in the Communal cemetery of Villiers-sur-Marne (val-de-Marne)

The third Tour winner to be killed during the war was the Luxembourger François Faber (he was born in Beggen in 1893). He first entered the Tour in 1908. Altogether, he won nineteen stages between 1908 and 1914, winning in 1909 and achieving second place in 1908 and 1910. He also won Paris-Tours in 1909 and 1910, Paris-Brussels 1910, Bordeaux-Paris 1911 and Paris-Roubaix 1913. On the outbreak of war, Faber joined the Foreign Legion, and served with the Legion's 2e Régiment de Marche. He was killed on 9 May 1915 in the fighting at Berthonval Farm, near Neuville-Saint-Vaast, on the shoulder of Vimy Ridge. Accounts of his actual death differ: one source says that after receving the news that his wife had given birth to a daughter, he jumped out of the trench cheering, and was killed on the spot. Another source states he was killed whilst rescuing a wounded comrade in No Man's Land. Whatever the truth, his body was never found. He awarded the Croix de Guerre and Médaille Militaire posthumously. He is commemorated on a plaque at the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette cemetery, and in a list within the monument to the dead in Colombes (Hauts-de-Seine).

Apart from the three winners, more than fifty other racing cyclists were killed during the War. It is perhaps invidious to select some rather than others, but the dead would include Georges Bronchard, the 'lanterne rouge' (the 14th and last man to finish) of the 1906 Tour, Camille Fily, only eighteen when he took part (and finished) in 1905.

The excellent Mémoire du Cyclisme site lists the following cyclists as having been killed (further info from Le Site du Cyclisme):

1914: Emile Engel (72e Infantry), Marceau Narcy (82e Infantry), Jean Perreard (140e Infantry), Charles Privas, (159e Infantry), Paul Rugère

1915: Léon Comès (19e Escadron du Train / Aviation), René Etien (56e Colonial Infantry), Léon Hourlier (Aviation), Georges Lutz (106e Infantry), Pierre-Gonzague Privat (274e Infantry), Frédéric Rigaux (313e Infantry), Marius Thé (13e Artillery), Antony Wattelier (41e Colonial Infantry)

1916: Henri Alavoine (23e Dragoons / Aviation), René Cottrel (298e Infantry), Albert Delrieu (Aviation), Emile Friol (20e Escadron du Train), Paul Gombault (352e Infantry), Emile Maitrot (208e Infantry), Marius Villette (31e Infantry)

1917: Léon Flameng Olympic Champion in 1896 (39th Artillery / Aviation), François Lafourcade (22e Artillery / Aviation), Emile Quaissard (23e Infantry / Aviation)

1918: Albert Niepceron (206e Infantry), Georges Parent, Albert Tournié, Pierre Vugé, (65e Chasseurs),

Amazingly (or not, depending on your view of the Army), none were posted to cyclist units. Of those serving in Aviation, Comès and Hourlier were killed in the same accident near Châlons-sur-Marne, after flying to visit the boxer Georges Carpentier; Alavoine crashed at the training school at Pau; Léon Flameng was an observer with BL18 and a pilot with F25, but was accidentally killed while serving in Paris; Lafourcade was a bomber pilot, latterly with V485, and killed in an accident; Quaissard was a fighter pilot with N102 and did not return from a patrol on the eve of the Chemin des Dames offensive. It was a sad fact that crashes did indeed kill more men than the Germans ever did.

Pictures: a poster from Lapize's cycle concern; Petit-Breton, Lapize staggering up the Cormalet and Faber (from Wikipedia); Georges Lutz in his French champion's jersey and Paul Rugère and his trainer (from Le Site du Cyclisme)

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