Tour de France during WWI

Tour de France Remembers: World War One

On June 28th 1914, just before dawn broke over the Parisian suburb of Saint-Cloud, 145 cyclists assembled at the start line for the opening stage of the Tour de France.  It was 3am in the morning, yet the cyclists were cheered on their way by hundreds of spectators as they set off in darkness. As they weaved their way northwards towards the finish in Le Havre, an unconnected event in the Balkans, 900 miles away, would take place that would impact on the lives and futures of many in the peloton. 

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by the Bosnian Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, would trigger a chain of events that would lead Europe and the World into conflict. Just a week after the Belgian rider, Philippe Thys, had successfully defended his Tour de France crown in Paris, Germany and France declared war on one another. Several of the riders who set out from Saint-Cloud would never race again.

The start of the 1914 Tour de France in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Cloud.

The inaugural Tour de France was held in 1903, yet by 1914 it was already a cycling challenge of global renown. The 1914 participants consisted of professionals and independent cyclists (or isolés) from all over Europe, including three former winners, Octave Lapize and Lucien Petit-Breton, both of France, and François Faber of Luxembourg.  And such was the allure of La Grande Boucle that two leading Australian cyclists, Duncan ‘Don’ Kirkham and Iddo ‘Snowy’ Munro competed in the race – the first Australians to ever do so.

The race was suspended for the duration of the war and when the Armistice was finally declared in November 1918, after four years of catastrophic warfare,  the world could finally reflect on the terrible sacrifice and those who had been lost.  The world of cycling mourned many of its most famous sons: the three great champions of the pre-war years, Lapize, Petit-Breton and Faber, were all dead. They were not alone.

The French historian, Jean-Paul Bourgier, believes that a total of 14 riders from the 1914 Tour were killed. Parisian born Emile Engel, who won Stage 3, but failed to finish the race, was an early casualty of the hostilities, killed during the Battle of the Marne in September 1914, a ferocious encounter that halted the German advance and with it their hope of an early victory in the war.  The French rider Maurice Dejoie, who rode for the Clement-Dunlop team, but retired during stage 3, died of his wounds in a military hospital having been injured during the invasion of Gallipoli in November 1915.

Emile Engel, left (1889-1914) pictured with François Faber (1887-1915) 

The gifted French rider, Jean Alavoine, who finished third in 1914, supported by his loyal brother Henri, would survive the war and  go on to win 11 stages of the Tour de France in the post-war era, adding to his tally of six accumulated prior to the outbreak of war. Henri was not so fortunate. In July 1916 he crashed his plane whilst training near the Pyrenees and died in the military hospital in Pau – a town with such a strong affiliation with cycling and the Tour de France.  Henri was 26 years old.

The loss of three great champions from the period heralded as the Heroic Age of Cycling is well documented.  Faber was killed on the Western Front on 9 May 1915, while serving as a corporal in the French Foreign Legion, possibly during an attempt to rescue a fallen colleague, though there is a tale he was taken by a sniper’s bullet as he stood up in celebration having learnt that he had just become a father.  He was 28 years old.

François Faber pictured on the Western Front.

 Octave Lapize, who famously spat out the words “Vous etes des assassins! Oui, des assassins!” (‘You are murderers! Yes, murderers!”) at the Tour organisers as he crested the brutal Tourmalet pass in the Pyrenees during the 1910 Tour de France, became a fighter pilot in the French Air Force. He was shot down on 14 July 1917, just south of Verdun in north-eastern France and died of his injuries in hospital. Lapize, who competed in six Tours and won Paris-Roubaix on three occasions, was 29 years old when he died.

Octave Lapize (1887-1917) gets a celebratory hug from his mother in the Parc des Princes in Paris, having won the 1910 edition of the Tour de France.

Lucien Petit-Breton , the eldest of the three Tour champions to die in the war, was killed in a road accident near Troyes in December 1917. His younger brother, Anselme Mazan, also a professional cyclist who competed in the 1907 Tour de France, was killed in action in 1915.

Lucien Petit Breton (1882-1917) with his brother Anselme, right, who was killed in 1915.  

It has been estimated that around 50 participants of the first 11 editions of the Tour de France were killed during World War One – the facts surrounding the lives and careers of the many isolés are hard to determine – but the organisers of the Tour de France have ensured that the memory of those men, and indeed all the men and women who endured this most terrible conflict, are honoured during the 2014 edition of the race.

‘We of course cannot forget them. The Tour is also a moment of collective remembrance,’ commented Tour director, Christian Prudhomme, when announcing the 2014 parcours.

And Prudhomme has been true to his word. Once the early skirmishes in Yorkshire and London have been decided, the Tour de France circus will cross to mainland Europe. After a single stage in France, the peloton will move to Ypres, in the Flanders region of western Belgium, for the start of Stage 5. Ypres is a town synonymous with some of the most sustained and brutal fighting between German and Allied forces. To this day, a simple, moving tribute to the fallen takes place at the Menin Gate at 8pm every evening, with military buglers sounding out The Last Post.

Stage 6, from Arras to Reims, will also follow much of the First World War Western Front, including the Somme and the Chemin des Dames, the latter witness to some of the most intensive fighting between the French and German armies right up until the end of the war. The battlefields of Verdun and Douaumont are included in Stage 7 from Épernay to Nancy, the final salute before the peloton heads further south towards the Vosges mountains, near the border of France and southern Germany. 

A German cycle unit on the Western Front, dismount and head straight into battle.

The majority of the casualties from the sport of cycling were French – perhaps due to the ferocity and length of the hostilities endured by the French army, combined with the vibrancy of the pre-war cycling culture in the country. War, however, put an immediate halt to the racing. Henri Desgrange, the founder and ‘Father’ of the Tour de France wrote an editorial in his newspaper, L’Auto, on the eve of war – a passionate and somewhat merciless call to arms:

‘Les Prussiens sont des salauds. C’est un gros match que vous avez à disputer : faites usage de tout votre répertoire français. Mais méfiez-vous ! Quand votre crosse sera sur leur poitrine, ils vous demanderont pardon. Ne vous laissez pas faire. Enfoncez sans pitié ! Il faut en finir avec ces imbéciles malfaisants’

‘Prussians are bastards. It is a big match you have to fight: use all your French repertoire. But beware! When your rifle butt is on their chest, they will ask for mercy. Do not be fooled. Drive it in deep without mercy! We have to be done with these wicked imbeciles.’

(Desgrange himself, would lead by example and despite being in his late 40’s at the outset of war, would enrol as a foot soldier and win the Croix de Guerre, awarded only to those who performed selfless acts of heroism in combat).

Many cyclists, like Lapize and Alavoine above, would join the French Air Force – though one can only surmise if this was coincidence or perhaps they were funnelled towards the flying corps due to their reaction speeds and stamina, combined with a smattering of mechanical knowledge.

Emile Quaissard was one of them. Born in 1886 in Bourg-en-Bresse, the town on the western edge of the Jura mountains that will host the start of this year’s Stage 12 on 17 July, Quaissard was an isolé or independent rider. He was killed in a dogfight on April 15, 1917, whilst on patrol on the eve of a Chemin des Dames offensive by the French.

Emile Quaissard (1886-1917) 

Paul Gombault, born in Reims in 1886, and Charles Privas, who competed in the 1913 Tour de France also died in aerial combat.  Léon Flameng, who won a gold medal in the 100km race at the 1986 Athens Olympics was shot down in January 1917 and then there was Albert Tournié, a promising young track cyclist, killed on September 6 1918 in a dogfight.

François Lafourcade, who had led Lapize over that infamous Tourmalet climb during the 1910 Tour, was another casualty of the aerial war. Lafourcade achieved a certain notoriety when he was implicated in the poisoning of a rival, Paul Duboc, during the Tour de France of 1911. Lafourcade was killed in a dogfight in 1915. Duboc, however, was more fortunate – he survived both the attempted poisoning and the war, but died during World War Two at the age of 57.

François Lafourcade (1881-1917) with his family at the finish of Bordeaux-Paris in 1913

A particularly poignant story concerns the brothers-in-law, Léon Comès and Léon Hourlier, (the latter had penned one of the earliest cycle training manuals for aspiring young cyclists). Both became pilots, but died together when their plane crashed near Cuperly, just south of Reims, en route to visit the famous French boxer, Georges Carpentier, also a pilot. The cause of the crash was  never clearly established, though catastrophic engine failure remains the most likely hypothesis.   

Léon Hourlier (1885-1915) and Léon Comès, right (1889-1915) pictured together wearing the uniforms of the French Air Force. The brothers-in-law would die together.

 Professional and top amateur cyclists from many countries were casualties of the Great War – we will never know all their names or the true number of those who fell – not all would have competed in the Tour de France, of course, but this was a blossoming and highly competitive era for the sport. Many would have raced at the highest level, both on the road and track.  

The Belgian cyclist Marcel Kerff, who competed in the 1903 Tour and finished in sixth position, was arrested by Germans soldiers in August 1914 for allegedly spying. He was tortured and mutilated, before being summarily executed.  His compatriot, Victor Fastre, who won the 1909 edition of the Classic, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, was another early casualty of the war, killed as the German army advanced through Belgium.

The Belgian cyclist, Marcel Kerff (1886-1914), photographed during the 1903 Tour de France.

In World War One the bicycle was used by both the Allies and the Germans as a mode of transport for ground forces. Cycle battalions and regiments were used for a variety of purposes: messengers, reconnaissance and transporting small arms.  Large numbers could be moved quickly on bicycles, so whole cycle units were formed, ready to be despatched on bikes to thwart a sudden enemy advance. 

Members of a cycling corps transporting small arms to the front.

Somewhat surprisingly, few professional cyclists were assigned to such units. One notable exception was the Italian, Carlo Oriani. Born in the cycling heartland of Lombardy, in the town of Balsamo just north of Milan, Oriani came fourth in the inaugural Giro d’Italia in 1909 and went on to win the race in 1913, having triumphed in the 1912 edition of the autumn Classic, the Giro di Lombadia – La Classica delle Foglie Morte.

Renowned for his phenomenal work ethic, Oriani joined a unit of the Italian cycling corps, the Bersagliere, when war broke out During the chaotic retreat following their rout by Austro-Hungarian forces at the Battle of Caporetto in the winter of 1917, the Italian army, fearful of being taken prisoner, were forced to cross the freezing Tagliamento river. Although the facts relating to his death are not clear, Oriani is alleged to have swam to the aid of a fellow soldier. The story may be apocryphal, but one thing we can be certain of is that Oriani contracted pneumonia and despite being hospitalised in southern Italy, never recovered. He died, at the age of 29, in December 1917.

Carlo Oriani (1888-1917) who joined the Bersagliere, the Italian cycling corps

Amedeo Polledri was another gifted Italian cyclist. Born in Paris in 1890, his parents hailed from Piacenza in northern Italy.  A talented track cyclist, he turned professional having been spotted by talent scouts of the powerful Peugeot team. He would go on to win the Italian sprint championship in 1912 and 1914 and when war broke out his family returned to their native Italy in the hope of escaping the slaughter that was happening in northern France. Polledri, however, was  drafted into the Italian Air Force, spending much of the war as a test pilot and instructor. He died, on October 6 1918, when his plane crashed at Milan airport.

Tom Gascoyne was the most notable British born cyclist to lose his life in World War One. Born near Chesterfield in Derbyshire in 1876, he broke the world 25 mile record in 1896, clocking a time of 57 minutes and 18.4 seconds – an impressive average speed of 26.17 miles per hour (42kmph).  Gascoyne had a reputation as a cyclist of immense power and stamina who would lead, and win, from the front. He held a number of records during his career and competed internationally in several disciplines, including track and pursuit. Alongside Sidney Jenkins, he carved out an international reputation as a tandem specialist and such was their notoriety that even the New York Times recorded their arrival when they travelled to the USA to challenge the leading America cyclists of the era.

In the early 1900’s Gascoyne emigrated to Australia where he worked as a labourer, gradually re-establishing himself on the cycling circuit, initially under a pseudonym to conceal his enviable reputation, yet eventually becoming one of the star turns at many cycling races across the country.  The Sydney Morning Herald praised Gascoyne for his ‘grit and perseverance’ and acknowledged that the British born rider was a difficult man to beat.

Thomas Jepson Gascoyne (1876-1917)

Based in Melbourne at the outbreak of war, Gascoyne enlisted to fight in Europe and served with the 21st Australian Battalion, one of the first Australian units to see action on the Western front, following the end of the Gallipoli campaign.  He was killed in combat during the Battle of Passchendaele on the 4th October 1917. He was  41 when he died and his name is one of the many thousands inscribed on the Menin Gate in Ypres, from where the Tour de France will pay silent tribute on 9th July.

And what of the German casualties? Nearly two million German military were killed in the Great War and, unsurprisingly, several notable cyclists were in that number. Prior to the outbreak of war, Fritz Schallwig was emerging as one of the best young German cyclists of his era, but his flourishing career was cut short in 1916.

Bruno Demke, a hugely popular track cyclist from Berlin, had won the Grand Prix of Europe in 1910, but he was killed when his plane crashed during take- off on August 24 1916 in Döberitz.

German track cyclist Bruno Demke (1880-1916)

Franz Gregl, and Austrian by birth, was considered one of the best road cyclists of his generation. He was posthumously awarded the Iron Cross having lost his life in a dogfight in 1915. Josef Rieder, who had represented Germany in both the individual and team road race at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, was killed during the Battle of Verdun on the Western front in July 1916. He was only 22 years of age. 

Ludwig Opel was the youngest of five brothers who formed the Opel car manufacturing business. Their father, Adam Opel, had started the company in the 1860’s, producing sewing machines before moving into bike manufacture in the late 1880’s. His sons actively promoted the bikes by racing them both in Germany and abroad – Ludwig finished second to his compatriot, Paul Albert, in the sprint at the 1898 World Track Championships. Ludwig became an officer in the German army and was killed on the Eastern front in 1916.

Ludwig Opel (1880-1916) pictured with his four brothers who together founded the famous German car manufacturing business bearing the family name. Ludwig, the youngest, is pictured far right. 

The world of cycling was decimated by the Great War – Lapize, Petit-Breton and Faber might be the more memorable names who were lost, but there were far too many more and we will never know all their names or the true number. 

It was always expected that ASO, the organisers of the Tour de France, would commemorate the centenary of the start of World War One, but the fact they have allocated three stages of the 2014 race to remember the fallen is admirable.

As you watch the Tour pass through northern France, take stock of the landscape, the war cemeteries and the landmarks that the TV cameras will search out as the peloton heads south and spare a moment to remember the faces that stare out from the photographs above and the many thousands who died beside them.


Researching this article was both moving and humbling, but the one positive I must point out was the large number of cyclists who did survive the war, many of whom experienced combat.  Checking against names of pre-war cyclists, it was always a happy moment when their palmarès included dates from 1919 and beyond. Many, thankfully, continued to race and several lived well into their seventies and eighties. Below is a brief biography of a few of the cyclists, mentioned in this article, who were fortunate to race again in the post-war era.

Philippe Thys, the winner of the 1914 Tour de France, would go on to win the race again in 1920, taking 4 stage wins in the process. He won seven further stages before his retirement, but the war had robbed the Belgian of what could have been his strongest years – Desgrange believed he might have won two or three editions of the race. Thys died in Brussels in 1971 at the age of 81.

Jean Alavoine competed in the 1919 Tour de France, finishing in third place, but securing five stage wins. He retired in 1925 having never won the Tour de France, despite regularly finishing in the top five. He died in July 1943 whilst competing in a veterans race in Argenteuil. He was 55.

Iddo ‘Snowy’ Munro finished 20th in the 1914 Tour de France. On returning to Australia he tired to enlist in the Australian Flying Corps but his application was rejected – twice – on the grounds that he had flat feet. He would not fight during WW1. On retiring from the sport he started his own taxi firm in Melbourne, where he died in 1980 at the ripe old age of 92.

Duncan ‘Don’ Kirkham just pipped his compatriot to finish in 17th position in the 1914 Tour. Whether he enlisted to fight in Europe is unknown, but he survived the war and continued to race until 1925, when he was forced to retire through injury. He died in St Arnaud, Victoria, in 1930 at the age of 44.

Photographs: Agence Meurisse, Agence Rol, Collection Jules Beau, Bibliothèque Nationale de France

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