Ernie Mellegers
"Don't start me talking, I'll tell you everything I know" (S.B. Williamson)


In 1915, in the soggy trenches, surrounded by the desolate moon landscape of the North-French front-line, subaltern A.Gillespie reflects on a monument by which this strange new First World War can be commemorated.  He envisions a monumental, tarmac road, a ‘sacred’ commemorative route, covering the no-mans-land along the hundreds of miles of front-line. From the Belgian coast tot the Swiss border this highway/interstate/freeway will be flanked by ruins of strongholds, trenches, ghost cities with cypress trees and picnic spots in between - this for the comfort of pilgrims following the route. Eight days after noting his idea in a letter, Gillespie is killed.

During The Great War the First Machine Age gains momentum. Suddenly the whole of society is confronted with (a massive amount of) technical innovations, partly the cause of the war. The First World War is a mechanical one. It's no coincidence that the long ignored machine-gun is used to it's full potential. The car, as an invention of the same age as many of the dead, becomes one of the most important symbols of L'Epoche Machiniste.

In the years before La Grande Guerre the French army-staff does not yet believe in an active role of mechanical traction in warfare. Already in September 1914, just after the beginning of the war, the contrary is proven. By use of a fleet of almost a thousand requisitioned, Parisian Renault-cabs and other cars French troops are transported with unprecedented speed to the river Marne where the German march on the French capital is brought to a halt.

Later during the war, on the legendary Voie Sacrée to Verdun, the car proves to be indispensable yet again. With a continuous stream of 3500 cars and lorries the French army supplies the besieged city, which because of that endures the ordeal. After the war the German commander General Erich von Ludendorf declares that the French victory is one of the French car over the German railroads. The young 20th century has defeated the old 19th.

The First World War even starts with an incident in which a car played a major role. On June 28th 1914 the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie are shot during a tour around the Bosnian capital Sarajevo in a Gräf & Stift typ 28/32 Cv Poppel Phaeton (model 1910). The attack starts a chain of political events that will eventually lead to the First World War.

The war actually starts six days after the attack in Sarajevo at the French Grand Prix – an important car race. I spite of other entrants the race basically becomes 

a straight battle between Mercedes and Peugeot, a direct confrontation between Germany and France. This is definitely how the spectators conceive the race.

The Germans handle the Grand Prix scientifically and have a team-tactic. Of the five Mercedes, one always drives flat out to force the Peugeots to do the same. The Germans expect many cars to have mechanical problems because of the pace. They know also their own cars will have trouble, but since they have the majority of cars in the race, they expect that one will remain to win. Their tactic is successful and Mercedes finishes first, second and third.

The German team-tactic is remarkably similar to the one used by several army commanders during the Battle of Verdun. The victor of the battle is unofficially named by calculating the number of casualties on both sides. The army with least killed was considered to be the winner. Because of the static nature of trench-warfare winning cannot be decided by territorial gain.

All things considered, it is the car that confronts society for the first time with violence caused by machines and predicts the destructive events of the First World War and its century. In 1903, the Paris-Madrid car race even offers an apocalyptic preview. 

The fourday race starts on may 24th 1903 in the palace garden of Versailles. At the start 200 participants, divided in four categories including motorbikes, appeared for the first stage to Bordeaux. The night before the start is chaotic. About 200.000 spectators are en route to see the start of the race. A traffic jam is formed for the first time on the roads linking Paris with Versailles, filling the night-air with light, stench and sound. One by one the participants leave in the early morning. At 3.h45 the Englishman Charles Farrot in a Lorraine De Dietrich is the first. With speeds up to 120 - 140 km/h, in cars with embryonic braking systems, the drivers’ race towards Bordeaux on rough roads flanked by an unexpected big crowd unused to the phenomenon of speed.

Nobody knows the exact score but in approximately sixteen bigger accidents during the first stage to Bordeaux at least several participants and spectators are killed. Amongst the victims is Marcel Renault, brother of car-manufacturer Louis Renault, also taking part in the race. The race is cancelled the same day by the Ministre de l'interieur. Fernand Gabriel, in a 70 HP Mors, is pronounced the victor.  With an average of 105.7 km/h, not counting stops, he is the fastest. To prevent illegal continuation of the race the cars are dragged by horses to the railroad station and put aboard the train on the eve of this first modern disaster.

Automobilism and the Car make the horrors of this century tangible. Memories of the Second World War, in many ways a continuation of the first, illustrate this phenomenon. The destroyed French town of Ouradour-sur-Glane, consolidated as monument, is a chilling example. It is especially the car wrecks of the murdered inhabitants that, walking trough the ruins of the on June 10th 1944 by SS-troops annihilated town, make the dimension of the disaster palpable. Modern man has more affinity with the tortured steel, the rust and the smell of escaping oil and rot that surrounds abandoned cars than with rows of neatly kept crosses in huge stretches of well-mowed lawn of a war cemetery only impressive by numbers. Gillespie’s idea to commemorate the massive destruction/devastation of the Great War by using the car as symbol touches the right 'esprit'.

Ernie Mellegers (Les Editions Finistères ©2000)