Nijmegen Marches 2012

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During the week of the 13th-21st July, C.I. Buxton and myself, made up part of a team of 16 cadets and staff members from Norfolk & Suffolk Wing who took part in the International Road Marching event in the City of Nijmegen, Holland known as the “Vierdaagse.” Known in English as the Nijmegen Marches. This annual event attracts thousands of entrants, both Civilian and Military from across the world and this year was no exception with in the region of 40,000 marchers participating. The military 160km route requires those entered to march along a 40km route (around 25 miles) every day for four consecutive days.

The team assembled on the evening of Friday 13th July at Bury St. Edmunds to begin the epic journey which took nearly 18 hours by minibus, coach and a ferry crossing at Dover before we arrived, somewhat drained, at lunchtime the following day at our destination: the Military accommodation at Camp Huemensoord. Thankfully for us however, the Marches did not actually commence until Tuesday 17th so we had two and a half days to recover from our journey and take in some of the local culture and Nijmegen party atmosphere as tourists.

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The remainder of Saturday was spent very much recovering from our journey and adjusting to the 1 hour time difference that had already thrown our brains out of sync with our bodies. We settled into our accommodation which was surprisingly comfortable despite its rather makeshift appearance. The various cadet forces of the British Military Contingent shared three vast Marquees with wooden floors, plastic walls and high canvas roofs, internally divided into rooms for each team, which thankfully contained a series of bunk beds with actual mattresses! A welcome change from the roll mats and folding camp beds of our training sessions and the WARMA Marches at Cosford earlier in the year! The Open-plan nature of the marquees allowed for a great atmosphere from all the teams within them, with many different songs and moments of friendly banter being passed up and down the Marquee between the teams all week long. Particularly however on this first day when everyone had arrived with high spirits and far more energy to spare than we would have later in the week after a day’s marching! Nothing embodied this spirit and atmosphere better than on that first day of arrival when a member of one of the Scottish Cadet detachments decided to begin playing a set of Bagpipes with great gusto from further down our marquee, attracting a cheering crowd of virtually everyone in the marquee and even a pair of Dutch Military Police who happened to pass by on a patrol. From that point on everyone in the Marquee knew-we were in for a great week!

On the Morning of Sunday 15th July there was a small “Welcoming Ceremony” held in the camp’s parade square at which the national flags of all the countries that would be present on Camp Huemensoord over the coming week were to be raised (apart from the Dutch flag which was already flying). However because marching did not commence until Tuesday, many countries did not have any representatives that had arrived on camp by Sunday morning. Therefore the task of raising the flags of those who were absent had been given to the cadet forces of the British Military contingent who wished to volunteer themselves, which of course, Norfolk & Suffolk Wing did! SGT. Johnston of Fakenham Sqn and myself, were given the honour of raising the Polish flag at this ceremony.

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After the Welcoming ceremony we returned to our Marquees to change into civilian clothes before heading into the City to be Tourists. After catching the shuttle bus from Camp Huemensoord into the City centre we headed by train for the nearby town of Arhnem where we visited the Airborne Museum, dedicated to the Battle of Arhnem in WW2 between Nazi and Allied forces. The museum itself was very interesting to visit, although I must confess to knowing nothing of the Battle of Arhnem before my visit. There were a number of interesting exhibits, including a full scale replica in the basement level of what part of one of the streets of Arhnem may have looked like during the battle. Also within the grounds of the exhibit were other points of interest including a tank and an Obelisk dedicated to those who fell during the Battle.

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After touring the Museum we moved on to visit the Arhnem Oosterbeek War Cemetery – something I am glad I can say I have done but hope never to do again. Walking through row upon row of gravestones, I’m not ashamed to admit I was did cry as I read each headstone. As I took the time to read each headstone I only saw a fraction of the gravestones that were there, but there was such a terrible sadness to what I was seeing. In the small section of the cemetery I saw, there were sometimes half a dozen stones in a row as I walked along marking unknown graves which simply read “A Soldier of the 1939-45 War, known unto God.” The other thing that affected me more than the younger cadets in the team was the number of these fallen heroes that were my age, 18 years old and dying for their countries. Part of me wishes I’d had the time to read every word of every gravestone in the cemetery out of respect; these men deserved at least that. But by the time we left the Cemetery part of me had seen and felt enough in that to last a lifetime and were glad to be going.

We then returned to Nijmegen by train and spent the remainder of the afternoon soaking up the carnival like atmosphere that had already engulfed the city as side streets and open squares had been transformed into dance floors, bars and even live music stages. we were given a couple of hours to engage in this spirit with the locals and our fellow Military walkers from various nations (although it has to be said finding a bar in Nijmegen that didn’t contain at least one German or Swedish Soldier in uniform seemed an impossibility as we walked along the crowded streets. We then reconvened to go for an evening meal in a restaurant as a team before the marching began.

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The following day, Monday the 15th, was another quiet day making sure our admin was taken care of, which meant a kit inspection from Pilot Officer Keerie of our kit for the marches, ensuring the remainder of our kit was squared away and that our feet were taped to prevent (or at least delay) the onset of blisters during the march. A good square meal and plenty of sleep were the order of the evening that day-preservation of energy was going to be crucial for the task ahead.

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Tuesday 17th; for many of us this proved to be the toughest day of marching, physically, as we made our way along the route at a painstakingly slow pace. It became apparent fairly early on in the day that our team leader, Adult Flight Sergeant Gale was in trouble, as an old spinal injury was proving to be a serious problem for her and causing severe pain. At this point the resultant constant speeding up and slowing down at irregular intervals throughout the day was causing problems for the rest of the team physically. The realisation set in that we were in real danger of not making it back into Camp Huemensoord before the 5pm cut-off. But we were a team and that meant no-one was to be left behind, and a staggering 12 hours after marching out of camp in the pitch blackness at 4:30am in the first detachment, we made it back into camp, within the cut-off time, weary, drained and in certain cases in great pain, but after the usual admin and a much needed hot meal we would survive to march another day.

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The morning of Wednesday 18th did not bode well for the day to come, as we marched out of Camp Huemensoord once again, slightly later, with the second detachment but still in darkness and with an accompanying mist of rainfall to dampen our mood. We began once again at the same pace we had kept the previous day which did cause concern from the upset although we didn’t show it for the sake of morale we could all tell that we were thinking along the same lines. Then the dynamics of the team changed completely as we entered the first rest stop of the day. At this point our team leader Flt Sgt Gale was forced to pull out of the marches. As we waited anxiously in the rest area for news from the medics tent the heavens opened on the rest area sending a thousand military personnel from across the world scrambling for their waterproofs from their rucksacks.

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Once we received the news about Flt Sgt Gale we continued on our way again, now under the leadership of Pilot Officer Keerie. At this point our Morale did briefly dip, despite our anxiety Flt Sgt Gale was part of the team and none of us wanted to see her pull out but it had been the only reasonable outcome, both for her health and for the success of the team. After a brief period of quiet contemplation as we walked, the relief was visible as the pace picked up and we began to relax and enjoy our situation a little more we sang a few marching songs to entertain ourselves as we marched through a quiet stretch of countryside on the outskirts of the city and into our second rest stop where we enjoyed bowls of hot pasta provided by the support staff which gave us a further boost before we moved on. It was the next leg of the journey where I experienced my own personal low point of the week. For the entire morning so far I had been struggling to keep my eyes open as I marched and was feeling even more fatigued than I felt was normal looking around at the rest of the team. Pilot Officer Keerie and C.I. Buxton agreed that I was suffering from dehydration and as soon as we marched into rest area three I found myself quickly pumped full of an energy drink the support staff were giving out, a rehydration salt solution provided by C.I. Buxton and a caffeine pill from Pilot Officer Keerie. Needless to say as we came back into the city and were once again surrounded by music and thousands upon thousands of cheering locals, I was well and truly bouncing of the walls with a new found life and it seemed that the atmosphere had had the same effect on the rest of the team. We spent the remainder of the day singing and dancing our way through the city at one point we were even joined by a slightly bemused Warrant Officer Disney from the British Military Contingent who regrettably didn’t join in with the dancing despite our best efforts. The highlight of the day and arguably the highlight of the week came as we were in the midst of the city; we came past a Scottish Piper entertaining the crowd (in full dress-Kilt and everything!) and when he saw us and recognised us as a British team he abandoned his position in the crowd and marched with us through the crowded streets of cheering locals for about 0.5Km but the energy and pride it gave us was almost without equal we were seamlessly in step with shoulders back, heads held high and arms swinging as one. At that point the fatigue vanished and we all felt ten feet tall!

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The third day was a bit of a blur for me personally, I remember little other than that we walked outside of the City itself and enjoyed the country air but still we were overwhelmed by the number of people that turned out to see all of us that marched even though we were miles out of the city in the greenest countryside. We had a brief stop at a Canadian War cemetery that was on route. We stopped to pay our respects. The one event of that day of marching that stands out in the memory was a point where we passed a Dutch civilian walker with a flute who upon realising we were British commenced with a rendition of the British National Anthem followed by Rule Britannia, both of which we felt duly obliged to sing along to!

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The fourth and final day, Friday the 20th, what can I say…? The emotions were flowing from the off! We took full advantage of the sunshine and the atmosphere of the locals to sing and dance our way along the streets wherever possible we focussed on soaking up every last ounce of the atmosphere that we could to keep the fatigue at bay. Finally we reach Charlemagne field to receive our medals; that’s when the whole week caught up with us! Relief set in and all of the pain and anxiety of the week took over, very few of us held back the tears and I wasn’t one of them! We had 5 minutes to give out medals with a brief word about each member of the team before sprinting across the field to join onto the back of the entire British Military Contingent as we marched as one almighty squad for the final 5Km through the city to the official finish line where we fell out. WE HAD DONE IT!!

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C.I. George Buxton deep in thought – and – Cpl Luke Hammond receiving his well deserved medal !!

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The Team – Corporal Luke Hammond (Middle Row, Second from the Left).

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The Nijmegen Marches was without a doubt the hardest thing I’ve ever done… but it was worth every second and I would do it again in a heartbeat. If any of you cadets are still reading by this point and haven’t been bored by my ramblings I would recommend it to any of you there is TRULY nothing like it! (Oh and if it helps you get a medal too!)

Cpl Luke Hammond

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To read more about the Nijmegen Marches please start here for - Wikipedia quote:

“The International Four Day Marches Nijmegen (or Vierdaagse) is the largest marching event in the world. It is organized every year in Nijmegen mid-July as a means of promoting sport and exercise. Participants walk 30, 40 or 50 kilometers daily, and, on completion, receive a royally approved medal (Vierdaagsekruis). The participants are mostly civilians, but there are also a few thousand military participants”.

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