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The Kemmelberg: the jewel of Gent-Wevelgem

24 Mar 2022

The Kemmelberg’s stats may look tame, but this Belgian climb has a brutal heart and a heartbreaking history

Words Joe Robinson Photography Alex Duffill

War is often used as a metaphor for cycling. If the cycling season is a war, the individual days and races are its battles. Journalists will describe these battles in graphic detail – how individual riders suffer to crest a climb, give everything for the good of their teammates, and fight for victory and eternal glory.

Cycling is a sport like no other in how it rewards personal sacrifice and glorifies suffering for a common cause.

However, on occasions when we are reminded of the real terror of war, these comparisons can seem crude, and so it is with this climb.

The Kemmelberg is the jewel of Belgian Classic Gent-Wevelgem, which in 2022 takes place this Saturday, 27th March, and each year riders tackle its steep cobbles not once but three times, and as they do so commentators invariably note the sacrifice and suffering etched on the riders’ faces.

But here is where the metaphor of war runs thin, for on the slopes of the Kemmelberg during the First World War, sacrifice, suffering and horror was a terrible reality.

The balcony of West Flanders

At 156m above sea level, the Kemmelberg is the highest point in West Flanders and the most significant part of the Heuvelland, a collection of hills known locally as Le Petit Suisse Flandre, the Flemish Alps.

A French-speaking enclave in Dutch-speaking Flanders, in the late 19th century the village of Kemmel was a popular holiday destination for the middle classes of nearby cities, who came to enjoy fresh air and the balcony views over the plains of Flanders that the Kemmelberg offered.

But by 1914 and the outbreak of war, such panoramic views gave the Kemmelberg an entirely new significance, as Professor of Modern History at the University of Kent and member of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Mark Connelly, explains: ‘In one sense the Kemmelberg was not an important battleground until 1918, when the German spring offensive took place.

‘The real importance of Kemmelberg was that it served as a grandstand safely behind the British front lines from which much of the Ypres battlefield could be observed. It had this crucial military role as an observation spot where you could take VIP visitors to see the front line.

‘Also, thanks to the shadow it casts, it provided cover to bring up men and equipment to the front, operating almost like a fence panel blocking German observation.

‘It’s not until the Germans make their final throw of the dice on the Western Front in the spring of 1918 that Kemmel sees any action. They’ve just won in the east so those men transfer to the west and launch a big offensive before the Americans arrive.

‘They don’t quite take the city of Ypres but they do take the Kemmelberg in some furious fighting involving South African and French troops.’

During the Fourth Battle of Ypres, 120,000 lives were lost, and reminders of this exist today at the Kemmelberg. The western ascent, which is tackled last during Gent-Wevelgem, is known as Ossuaire, the French word for a box for human skeletal remains, in reference to the mass grave of 5,000 bodies at the base of the climb. The German advances in the spring of 1918 turned out to be something of a pyrrhic victory, however.

‘This loss is seen as a disaster initially by the Allied Forces. It’s only when they realise the Germans have knackered themselves and cannot press on that there is this sense of relief,’ says Connelly.

‘The French and English then begin to shell the hell out of the hill knowing exactly where the opposition will be based, having been on the hill themselves for four years.

‘The Germans eventually end up losing Kemmelberg just months later as part of the liberation offensive of September and October 1918.

‘In short, Kemmel has this huge significance in terms of observation throughout the war, but only a short period of fighting in 1918, which is a lesson for most military history: 95% boredom and 5% terror.’

War then peace

With the Armistice in November 1918, the once heavily forested Kemmelberg, now bare due to the incessant artillery bombardment it had suffered, became an important place of remembrance for families grieving their losses across the barren fields of Flanders.

The Monument Aux Soldats Français for fallen French soldiers was erected at the climb’s peak in the interwar period, its vast Art Deco structure always dominating the background during televised coverage of Gent-Wevelgem.

Not long after, the village of Kemmel returned to being the holiday destination it once was, becoming popular with visiting French pensioners on coach trips from nearby Lille and Valenciennes.

Then, in 1962, after 28 years of route tinkering from the organisers of Gent-Wevelgem, who were keen to give their race an identity away from the Tour of Flanders and Het Volk, the Kemmelberg found its place in cycling.

Introduced as the final climb in a circuit of the Heuvelland hills, the Kemmelberg was placed 30km from the race’s finish line in Wevelgem, and some 60 years later this route remains largely unchanged.

Most recently, and brutally, the peloton has been made to race over the climb three times, twice from Belvedère – the shorter and marginally shallower ascent to the east – before a final ascent from Ossuaire, the gnarlier side to the west.

Both sides are less than a kilometre long, 550m and 730m respectively, but in that short distance they hit gradients of 20%, and do so over the knee-grinding cobbles found dotted all over the Flandrien landscape.

Yet placed so far from the race finish, the Kemmelberg offers differing effects on the race’s outcome each year.

The eternal question being: can the Classics racers ride it hard enough to drop the sprinters, or will the sprinters manage to hang on until the finish?

For amateurs, the Kemmelberg represents the centre point of the annual Gent-Wevelgem sportive that takes place a day before the pro race, and is one of the primary scalps for the thousands of cycling fanatics who flock to Flanders each year.

However, no matter how fierce these two-wheeled battles may be, it is the Kemmelberg’s past that we should continue to remember.

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