A few hours after the 145 riders who started the 1914 Tour de France had left Paris, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were shot dead in Sarajevo by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. In a bitter twist of fate Le Tour was riding in the vicinity of Abbeville near the Somme as the shots rang out. Four weeks later the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia marked the start of five years of war that destroyed millions of lives and irrevocably changed the political landscape of Europe. By 1918 France and her Entente Allies could declare themselves victorious, but at great cost.
From a population of 39 million France had suffered 1.4 million military deaths, 4.3 million wounded, and 340,000 civilian deaths. Of the wounded, 3 million men were disabled or crippled, a third permanent invalids. An estimated 240,000 more French men, women, and children died during the Spanish Flu pandemic of the winter of 1918-19. Tragically the majority of those who died came from the 15-35 age group, the men of which had suffered so many losses during the war.
Among the war dead were 14 of the riders who had finished Le Tour in 1914. An exact figure for the number of Tour cyclists who lost their lives between 1914 and 1918 is hard to establish as important records were lost, destroyed, or perhaps in the chaos never written down. At least 65 former Tour riders were killed. Most of them were French, but there were also Belgians, Luxemburgers, and Germans.
Among them were three past winners: Octave Lapize, the first man to cross the Tourmalet on a bicycle where he famously hissed “Assassins” at the organizers gathered at the top of the pass to ensure there was no cheating; François Faber, Le Tour’s first foreign champion in 1909 and the holder of an unbeaten record of 5 consecutive stage wins; and Lucien Petit-Breton, winner in 1907 and 1908 and Le Tour’s first real superstar. Lapize died in hospital at Toul after his plane was shot down near Flirey on 14 July 1917. Petit-Breton also died in 1917 in a head-on collision with another car near Troyes. Faber joined the Légion étrangère at the outbreak of hostilities and was killed on 9 May 1915 during the Battle of Artois as he carried a wounded comrade back to the French trenches.
Philippe Cordier who had ridden, but not finished, the 1909 Tour was one of the early casualties, dying at Luneville during the Battle of the Frontiers on 22 August 1914. Marcel Kerff, sixth in 1903, was arrested and executed by the German Army on 7 August 1914, accused of spying. Camille Fily, the youngest rider to ever complete Le Tour aged just 17 was killed on the Kemmelberg, the iconic cobbled climb of Gent-Wevelgem, in May 1918. Georges Tribouillard tragically died of his wounds on 16 March 1919.
France herself was crippled by years of war, the franc devalued, the country riven by social and industrial unrest, the east and north of the country in ruins. In 1919 organizers and journalists set out to see how much of the route of the Paris-Roubaix race survived. Victor Breyer from L’Auto described the scene they encountered:
“We enter into the centre of the battlefield. There’s not a tree, everything is flattened! Not a square metre that has not been hurled upside down. There’s one shell hole after another. The only things that stand out in this churned earth are the crosses with their ribbons in blue, white and red. It is hell!”
Ypres, Arras, Bapaume, Verdun and other towns lay in ruins. Today six French villages remain uninhabited after they were completely destroyed in the fighting, Cumières-le-Mort-HommeBezonvaux, Beaumont-en-Verdunois, Haumont-près-Samogneux, Louvemont-Côte-du-Poivre, and Fleury-devant-Douaumont. Woods, farms, roads, and houses had been obliterated by the estimated 500 million shells that fell on the Western Front.
It was against this backdrop of unimaginable death and destruction that Desgrange began to plan for the 13th Tour de France. The obstacles were considerable. Not only were the roads of north-east France ruined, the landscape a desolate wilderness of mud and craters, those of the rest of the country were also in a parlous state after 5 years of neglect. Rationing was still in place making it difficult for riders to obtain food and in response the organizers provided official feed stations for the first time in the race’s history. At the feed stops, 2 per day, each rider found a bag marked with their race number and a fresh bidon. Riders who bought food in between the feed stops had to keep receipts and would be fined if they failed to produce them when claiming expenses.
69 riders started Le Tour in 1919 leaving Paris on 29 June to ride 388 kilometres to Le Havre. Few, if any, had any racing form, not having properly trained or raced for years. By the end of the day only 41 riders had completed the stage. Jean Alavoine, third in 1914, suffered multiple punctures, on one occasion ending up in a ditch where he stayed for half-an-hour before dragging himself up, out, and onwards. By the start of stage 3 Henri Péllisier, second in 1914 in his first Tour, was in the race lead, his brother Francis in second. The weather was atrocious, rain turning the unpaved roads into quagmires. Péllisier, a talented but temperamental rider, threatened to quit while leading the race. Desgrange urged him on but by the time Péllisier decided that he would continue he was already 45 minutes behind.
Meanwhile Léon Scieur, later winner of the 1921 Tour, suffered his own personal torment. Repeatedly puncturing he took shelter in a doorway, huddled away from the driving rain as he repaired his tyres. Unlike the clincher tyre that is prevalent today, tubular tyres have to be removed, the outer casing unstitched so the inner tube can be patched, and the whole sewn back up again. As he fumbled with the needle and thread Scieur was overlooked by two people, the woman who lived in the house, and Lucien Cazalai, the chief race commissar watching with an eagle eye to make sure that Scieur received no outside help in contravention of the rules. “It’s forbidden to receive help; you’ll be penalised if madame threads the needle for you,” Cazalis informed Scieur who finally managed to sew up his tyre and get back on the road. He had taken no assistance and rode on to finish Le Tour in fourth place. The time he lost fixing punctures during stage 3 was about the same as his losing margin to the overall winner, Firmin Lambot.
The Péllisier brothers spent three hours chasing the leaders until they finally caught and outsprinted the bunch, Francis winning, Henri in second, 405 kilometres in 16 hours, 30 minutes, 5 seconds. That evening Henri, forthright, acerbic, opinionated as he was declared that he was a thoroughbred to the other riders carthorses; “The race will go to the strongest.” The next day the carthorses threw off the shafts. As Péllisier stopped to tighten his loose head-set the rest of the riders took off riding hell for leather. Péllisier took chase but punctures and the haranguing of Desgrange when he caught Henri relaying with the stragglers Goethals and Barthélemy saw him trail the peloton by 35 minutes when he finally reached Les Sables d’Olonne. The Péllisier brothers retired in high dudgeon, catching the train back to Paris the next morning.
Henri Péllisier went on to win Le Tour in 1923, and to row openly and vociferously with Desgrange on many occasions. He was shot dead on 1 May 1935 during a violent altercation with his lover, Camille Tharault, when he slashed her face with a knife. In a twist of fate the gun with which Camille shot him was the one that Henri’s wife, Léonie had used to commit suicide two years earlier. Camille was sentenced to a year’s suspended jail sentence, the minimum that could be handed down when an acquittal was not an option.
When Le Tour reached Paris there were only 10 classified finishers from the 69 who had begun the race. They had covered 5,560 kilometres at an average speed of 24.056 kph, the slowest Tour on record. The time was a legacy of the war, reflecting the terrible state of the roads and the condition of the men who rode after years of hardship and suffering. Today it is impossible to realise the enormity of the devastation that the French experienced from 1914 to 1918. Of her 38,000 communes only one did not lose someone to the war. 8.2 million men were mobilised. 5.7 million of these were killed or wounded. It is a truly horrendous number, a tragic and senseless waste of life. On 6 July 1915, the French recaptured positions on the heights above the Meuse, just one incident in the ebb and flow of the Western Front. One hundred years later we should remember the sacrifice of the French people, and of those cyclists who lost their lives fighting for their country.
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