Helen McMahon on Wheels on the Western Front

With Wheels on the Western Front, the 352 mile cycling challenge, now in full swing, ABF The Soldiers’ Charity’s Deputy Director of Welfare (Operational Support), Helen McMahon updates us with the latest from this unique event.

Day One

The day has arrived – two years ago I undertook ABF The Soldiers’ Charity Wheels on The Western Front cycle ride to WW1 sites in France and Belgium covering over 350 miles. Now I am undertaking this physical, mental and emotional challenge again remembering our soldiers that fought at various WW1 battlefields of the Western Front.

Starting today in Folkestone the ride will take an anticlockwise route through Northern France visiting the important sites of the Somme battlefields to commemorate those events 100 years ago.  I have now arrived at Calais.

Onto Etaples today following the route of Kitchener’s Army.  45 miles to cycle across the French countryside – very different terrain from what our soldiers experienced.

All the best,


Day Two

Today I cycled 45 miles from Calais to Etaples – a most enjoyable ride through rural villages. There were some hills en route and a couple I had to walk towards the top of the hill!  I am a tortoise compared to some of the cycling hares in the group. However, sometimes the tortoise gets to the next stop quicker than the hare – how?  Using an old fashioned map rather than a Garmin that has a habit of taking cyclists off the route. There is a moral in this story – more haste less speed.

Etaples Military Cemetery
Etaples Military Cemetery

Later today the group visited the Etaples Military Cemetery. During the First World War, the area around the small fishing port of Etaples became the largest military base in the world. Commonwealth army training and reinforcement camps and an extensive complex of hospitals occupied the sandy plains, dunes and fields. In May 1915 this site was consecrated as a Cemetery for men and women who died in hospital or while serving at the Etaples base. More than 10,700 WW1 personnel from Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and the UK are buried here, representing all branches of service.

Lest we Forget.  Gone from us but not forgotten.  Rest in Peace.


Day Three

I woke at about 5 am and listened to a howling gale and rain against the window!!  Today I cycled nearly 70 miles from Etaples to Amiens in torrential rain. The group of cyclists come from different backgrounds – serving soldiers, veterans and those not associated with the Services. Two families as well. Great team spirit but also apprehensiveness as we started the day.

I always say to myself our soldiers fought for us so that we could live a good life today. Our first stop was at Montreuil, site of General Haig’s Headquarters. Very interesting to hear from our military historian about the difficulties of commanding the British Expeditionary Force which became the GHQ. The number of soldiers he commanded swelled to over 1.5 million.

Much of the day involved cycling in rural areas. I climbed to a plateau of open farmland which I followed for many miles to reach Crecy, where the English defeated the French in 1346 during the Hundred Year’s War. Dropping down into the valley, the cycle route followed the river Somme into Amiens for the night.  Seeing the poppies by the side of the road as I entered the Somme area reminded me why I wanted to undertake this cycle.

For Soldiers For Life.

Please give to ABF The Soldiers’ Charity via my Justgiving page. Thank you.


Day Four

Today I cycled from Amiens to Albert, a distance of about 45 miles. We left in torrential rain and had poor weather for most of the day – very fitting given that the group were heading into the Somme battlefields. Whilst we could get our kit dry in the evening, those that fought at the Somme did not have this luxury.

Leaving Amiens, we follow the supply lines, passing where artillery and field hospitals were established before reaching the Front Line at Serre.  We visited the Ulster Tower and Thiepval where a wreath was laid.  We then rode along the front line to Albert where we spent the night.

The Wheels on the Western Front team at the Thiepval Memorial
The Wheels on the Western Front team at the Thiepval Memorial

A poignant day – those that fought for us – their name liveth for evermore.

For Soldiers, For Families, For Life.   The Charity was founded on 15 August 1944 as the Army Benevolent Fund recognising the need to support our soldiers and their families from the Second World War onwards. ABF The Soldiers’ Charity (the Charity changed names in 2010) provides a lifetime of support to soldiers, former soldiers and their families who are in need of financial support.

Please give to my Just Giving page to support the work of ABF The Soldiers’ Charity.

Warmest wishes. Helen

Day Five

A most interesting and informative day. Yesterday our military historian, Andy Robertshaw explained about the first day of the Somme culminating in our visit to Thiepval memorial which has 72, 203 names inscribed upon it.  This morning we saw the massive mine crater, Lochnager Crater at La Boiselle that exploded at 7.20 on the 1 July. We continued through the country gained on 1 July and fought over bitterly in the weeks that followed including the famous woods of High Wood, Mametz and Delville.  We then cycled through Flers where tanks were used for the first time in battle, to the Butte de Wariancourt, point of the furthest advance when the Battle of the Somme was halted on 18 November 2016. At all times we could see for miles where our soldiers fought for us and our future.

The Wheels on the Western Front team at the Lochnagar Mine crater
The Wheels on the Western Front team at the Lochnagar Mine crater

What struck me today was visiting the memorials of some of the countries that fought for us – the Welsh, Australians, South Africans…  A fascinating 52 mile cycle in ideal conditions through the battlefields.  I was able to travel with little kit unlike our soldiers who carried many pounds of weight in exceptionally muddy conditions. Did you know – helmets were not worn until September 1916? Prior to that they wore flat caps.

A memorable day – For Soldiers For Families For Life

All the best. Helen

Day 6

The cycle today was 62 miles in pleasant conditions.  This morning our first stop was Vimy Ridge where Canadians fought in WW1. We had the opportunity to visit the tunnels and trenches. Of note, Welsh miners assisted in the building of the tunnels. The Observation posts of the Canadian and German forces in places were less than 100m apart.  The main fighting took place away from these trenches where the distances between the forces was up to and over 1km.


We then rode into Belgium and the Ypres Salient via Messiness Ridge to Hill 60 where mine warfare was practised on a large scale.  My arrival in Ypres was via the Menin Gate was also a very poignant moment as was the moment when Richard Hackett, ABF The Soldiers’ Charity’s regional director for the West Midlands lay a wreath on behalf of Wheels on the Western Front Cycle at the Menin Gate during the Last Post Ceremony.

Day 7

The last day was warm and sunny as we made our way from Ypres to Folkestone via Calais – only 75 miles which turned out to be around 80 miles after a couple of costly wrong turns! I had the opportunity to cycle through Flanders Fields and some picturesque Flemish towns and villages and although navigating through Calais was a challenge we found the port entrance eventually.

Back in the UK, it was Dover to Folkestone – a mostly uphill 13 miles!  Wrong turning towards the end – I obviously wanting to keep cycling, we arrived at St Martins Plain camp to a massive cheer. After over 350 miles since we started on Sunday 31 July, my cycle to the Somme was complete.

My thanks to Richard Hackett and his hardworking support team, Colin, Jimmy and Stanford and to Green Jersey French Cycling Tours – Charlie, Arianne, Dr Jon, our mechanic Al and Angus.

Warmest wishes Helen

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