The Kemmelberg stats may look tame, but this Belgian climb has a brutal heart and a heartbreaking story
Words Joe Robinson Photography Alex Dufill
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 climb a hill, give their all for the good of their teammates, and fight for victory and eternal glory.
Cycling is a sport like no other in the way it rewards personal sacrifice and glorifies suffering for a common cause.
However, on occasions when we are reminded of the true terror of war, these comparisons can seem crude, and so it is with this ascension.
The Kemmelberg is the jewel of the Belgian Classic Gent-Wevelgem, which in 2022 takes place this Saturday March 27, and every year riders tackle its steep cobbles not once but three times, and in doing so commentators invariably note the sacrifice and suffering etched on the faces of the runners.
But it is here that the metaphor of war runs out, because on the slopes of the Kemmelberg during the First World War, sacrifice, suffering and horror were 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 important part of Heuvelland, a set of hills known locally as the The Little Swiss Flandersthe Flemish Alps.
French-speaking enclave of Dutch-speaking Flanders, the village of Kemmel was at the end of the 19th century a holiday resort appreciated by the middle classes of the neighboring towns, who came to enjoy the fresh air and the view from their balcony over the Flemish plains that the Kemmelberg has proposed.
But in 1914 and the outbreak of war, such panoramic views gave the Kemmelberg an entirely new meaning, as Mark Connelly, professor of modern history at the University of Kent and member of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, explains: ” In a sense, the Kemmelberg was not a major battlefield until 1918, when the German Spring Offensive took place.
“The real importance of Kemmelberg was that it served as a safe tribune behind the British front lines from which much of the battlefield of Ypres could be observed. It had this crucial military role as a place observation deck where VIP visitors could be taken to see the front line.
“Furthermore, through the shadow it casts, it provided cover to bring men and materiel to the front, functioning almost like a fence panel blocking German observation.
“It was not until the Germans rolled their last dice roll on the Western Front in the spring of 1918 that Kemmel saw action. They had just won in the east, so these men were transferred to the west and launched a major offensive before the Americans arrived.
“They don’t quite take the city of Ypres, but they take the Kemmelberg in 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 Kemmelberg. The western ascent, which is tackled last during Gent-Wevelgem, is known as the Ossuary, the French word for a box of human skeletal remains, in reference to the mass grave of 5,000 bodies at the foot of the climb. The German advances in the spring of 1918, however, proved to be something of a Pyrrhic victory.
“This loss is initially considered a disaster by Allied forces. It’s only when they realize the Germans have collapsed and can’t go on that there’s that sense of relief,” Connelly explains.
“The French and English then start bombing the hill knowing exactly where the opposition will be based, having themselves been on the hill for four years.
“The Germans ended up losing Kemmelberg a few months later in the liberation offensive of September and October 1918.
“In short, Kemmel has this enormous importance in terms of observation throughout the war, but only a short period of combat in 1918, which is a lesson for most of military history: 95% boredom and 5% terror.”
War then peace
With the armistice of November 1918, the once heavily forested Kemmelberg, now bare due to the incessant artillery bombardment it had endured, became an important place of remembrance for families mourning their losses across the arid fields of Flanders.
the Monument To The Soldiers Français for fallen French soldiers was erected atop the rise in the interwar period, its vast Art Deco structure still dominating the background during television coverage of Gent-Wevelgem.
Soon after, the village of Kemmel reverted to being the holiday destination it once was, becoming popular with French pensioners visiting by coach from Lille and Valenciennes.
Then, in 1962, after 28 years of course tinkering by the organizers of Ghent-Wevelgem, anxious to give their race an identity far from the Tour of Flanders and the Het Volk, the Kemmelberg found its place in cycling.
Introduced as the final climb of a circuit in the hills of Heuvelland, the Kemmelberg was placed 30km from the race’s finish line in Wevelgem, and some 60 years later this course remains largely unchanged.
More recently, and brutally, the peloton had to run up the climb three times, twice from Belvedère – the shorter and slightly shallower climb to the east – before a final ascent from Ossuaire, the gnarliest side to the west.
Both sides are less than a kilometer long, 550m and 730m respectively, but in this short distance they reach gradients of 20%, and do so on the crushing cobblestones found throughout the Flanders landscape. .
Yet placed so far from the finish of the race, the Kemmelberg offers different effects on the outcome of the race each year.
The eternal question being: can the Classics riders ride hard enough to drop the sprinters, or will the sprinters manage to hang on to the finish?
For enthusiasts, the Kemmelberg represents the focal point of the annual sports Ghent-Wevelgem which takes place a day before the professional race, and is one of the main scalps for the thousands of cycling fanatics who flock to Flanders each year.
However, as fierce as these two-wheeled battles are, it is the Kemmelberg past that we must continue to remember.