“A battle is best told from stands – like tesserae they make up a mosiac. People can simply go on a coach and vist the Thiepval Centre or they can go with a guide who will take them off the beaten track and offer them stories and insights which make for a battlefield tour of experience, not facts”.

Professor Richard Holmes, (1946-2011)

Professor Richard Holmes was one of the key influences on my life; first as an Army officer and, most latterly, in my second career as a battlefield guide. Richard set the benchmark to which all battlefield guides should aspire. He knew his subject inside out and was a respected scholar; but his real strength was as a person and as ‘a historian who liked telling stories’.

Richard would have been amused to discover that he was partly responsible for the concept of Battlefields by Bike. A keen horseman, Richard would often say that the best way to see and experience a battlefield – particularly any battlefield which pre-dated the Second World War – was from the saddle of a horse. The horseman, he used to tell me, gets a unique perspective; he is literally seeing the battlefield as if through the eyes of the military commanders of yore. (For remember, it was not until the 1930s that commanders finally gave up the horse in favour of the internal combustion engine.) Time and again Richard would say “you cannot really understand a battle without viewing the ground on which it was fought”. And on horseback, he would say, you immediately become a part of the landscape; “a landscape which was once peopled by soldiers, embedded deep in the seams of the soil”.

I don’t ride. (And even Richard recognised that, in the 21st century, horse-riding has become a deeply impractical method of getting around a Western European battlefield.) But I am a cyclist. And I quickly discovered that far from being a second rate alternative, cycling around a battlefield has many distinct advantages over both the horse and car. As a cyclist you clearly have to take care on the roads, and you are still constrained somewhat by geography and topography (and you don’t have the height advantage which a fifteen-hand horse can bestow); but you are infinitely more mobile than the battlefield tourist who is tied to a car or coach, and you can roam further in a day than either a walker or a horse-rider. Furthermore, you are immersed in the landscape. A cyclist immediately appreciates how folds in the ground constrain fields of fire, woods offer cover, and the weather influences your mood. A cyclist’s legs will soon allow him or her to empathise with a soldier moving forward and understand intimately how terrain can sometimes sap the energy from an attack. As Toad of Toad Hall might have said (before he was seduced by the internal combustion engine); ‘there is simply nothing quite like it’.

I still guide from a coach, minibus or a car and I’m quite happy to tramp across muddy fields but, to me, these have become inferior methods of plying my trade. Even when its raining, I’d much rather be out on my bike.

Dudley Giles