Good photos – and those with the ABF bootprint logo – are by the incredible Ed Smith. All the others – the rubbish ones! – are mine.
Turning up at Wellington Barracks early in the morning on 10th October was very different to when I first did so in 2016. I was less apprehensive, and more excited. So much so that within minutes of arriving I had to duck behind an official-looking building to throw up my breakfast; apologies to the horse and carriage trotting genteelly past!
Meeting up with friends I hadn’t seen in 2 years was a joy. My ‘real life’ friend Will was with me, and it was a strange experience being an old hand as opposed to a newbie. I was empathising with what Will was feeling while experiencing all without the “I know nobody” nerves. There was however something fresh for me to contend with: the fact that I was secretly concerned I might not be able to complete this time. A few months after 2016’s walk I had both my kneecaps replaced. This meant that I no longer made the sound of a bag of Quavers with every step, but it resulted in a long period of rehabilitation and pain of a very different nature. In addition to this, my new knees had a significant impact on my gait resulting in my feet experiencing agony similar to that of the Little Mermaid when she gains legs (Disney edited this element of the story from their version of it!). I had found myself, since June, privately worrying how I was going to go about completing 100km.
But here I was, and we were on the coach to the Channel Tunnel. When we emerged into France, our first stop was, as in 2016, Arras Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery. The sun lay peacefully across the pure white stones. This was my second visit and again I was struck by its incongruous beauty.
I took only one photograph here. I wanted to experience the place and prepare myself for the days ahead by holding at the forefront of my mind the real reason we were doing this. I watched bees busily buzzing between two graves, blissfully unaware of those either side of them. In the midst of death, we were in life.
That evening, Steve Roberts explained our route to us, and Bob Semple talked about being kidnapped by Al Qaeda while working in Yemen. Bob was formerly in the Royal Engineers and was held for 18 months in a windowless cell before he was released. He was entitled to no help from the military as he was no longer in active service, but this was where the ABF stepped in: once they were made aware of what had happened to Bob they helped Bob’s family pay everyday bills, as they became impossible for his wife to afford on a single salary. Thankfully, Bob was released and returned to the UK to discover he still had a home, but the scars which cannot be seen are still healing. The ABF continues to support the Semples as they attempt to get their lives back to some semblance of normal.
Bob spoke softly, with little emotion, but the room was spellbound by his words. When he told us how after 18 months of captivity he had been bundled into a car and had felt a hand on his arm before someone told him “You’re safe” every inch of skin on my body prickled and tears stung my eyes. When Bob began mentioning the effect on his loved ones he too welled up. As he thanked the charity he was greeted with a standing ovation. It was a timely reminder that injuries are not always physical and help is not all about bodily rehabilitation. I felt overwhelming pride for the charity I was raising money for, and determined to do them proud.
We were up before the sun on the first day, gathered at Cambrai Memorial to the Missing. This was built in tribute to the 7,048 UK and South African soldiers who died at the Battle of Cambrai and remained without a known grave. It was cold, and a muted hush fell over the group as we heard Steve Roberts talk about our forthcoming walk.
I was trying to use my head torch for the very first time, but couldn’t figure out how to tighten it, so it perched high on my temple blinding those around me before it fell unelegantly to sit on my neck.
The day began with a prayer from Andy Herrick, a vicar who had come on 2016’s walk and was a real champion of the events. He was unable to make it this year but Steve had promised to put a cross on the grave of Reverend Shovel who came from Andy’s parish. I took a photo of the tombstone so Andy knew he, and Reverend Shovel, had been in our thoughts.
Then we were off, and as the early morning mist cleared our chins lifted. Our spirits were high, our legs fresh, our feet rested. The terrain soon proved to be hard on our soles and knees though, and we could understand why 100 years ago soldiers had complained about the pave. Plenty of it was still clearly visible under the (comparatively) modern road surface.
I enjoyed catching up with Brigadier Robin Bacon, CEO of the charity, during much of this walk. We crossed a canal and came to the memorial of the West Riding Division complete with pelican mascot.
Perhaps an incongruous emblem, but I could only think this was due to the fact the pelican will give its own blood to its chicks if they are running low on food.
Along the walk Steve Roberts, Vern Littley and Terry Wenham had put out details of particular lives for us to read about. The path was long, and much less broken than 2016’s walk as we were following the advance of the troops rather than the Frontline. Reading about these individuals gave colour to the journey. We really were walking in their footsteps.
Our next stop was The Monument to the Nations which honoured all who fought at Cambrai. It’s built on the site of a windmill which was demolished by the Germans when they were building trenches. The foundations of the windmill were uncovered and preserved. the monument is laid out in the shape of the Union Jack, with each ‘arm’ pointing to a significant area of the battle. It also contains the flags of all nations who fought. The grouping of nations, regardless of who fought against who, was a recurring motif of this walk and something I found particularly moving.
From the monument you can look out to the peaceful, furrowed farmland which was once a battlefield. It was somehow not difficult to picture the clamour, the bloodshed, the explosions of earth and the roar of war, on this tranquil setting.
Thanks to Steve’s efforts, we were thrilled to be able to view Deborah, a WW1 tank which had been rescued and put in a museum at Flesquieres. Beauty is a strange word to use about a tank, but that’s what I thought when I looked at her. She was also a box full of memories; if she could speak, what stories would she tell?
I was not able to spend as much time with her as I would have liked, as my role of French translator was required! A journalist had heard about our expedition and came to interview us. As a result we were a week later in a French newspaper, but Robin had been promoted to ‘president’ and ‘ancien generale’ of the charity – I’m afraid this is down to my schoolgirl French being severely tested rather than shoddy journalism!
Lunch was gratefully received by all. I was inducted into the Society for Changing Socks Mid-Day which was to my sore sweaty pieds the equivalent of slipping into cool, freshly laundered sheets.
The next phase of the walk was a strange journey into the future as well as the past. We walked past a wood where several Resistance fighters had been betrayed and executed by Germans in WW2. Three appeared to be from the same family.
Crest Cemetery for some reason hit me very hard. Men were buried where they’d died, in a massive shellhole. The incongruity of a massive pile of turnips next to the graves did not escape me, but it also felt apt. Life goes on, but the memory of the dead was not dimmed. I liked the fact these men had been buried here; what balm the peace of the land must be to their tortured ears after the scream of shells and cries of their comrades.
Along our route we saw astonishingly beautiful horses, albeit some of them a bit skinny. 2016’s walk was serene, with muted blues and grays. 2018’s was startling in its palette: golds, greens and rich browns. Life was vibrant even in this season of hibernation.
The end of the walk was close to a canal. We were tired and warm. The waters of the canal, lazily slipping past us, were tempting. Not for the first time, I wished I were a dog and could jump in. A young and very toned French gentleman obviously felt similarly as he was standing topless on the other bank! I was very sore by now and the end seemed a long way away. More French translation was required by the time we got to the coach, as a photographer had come to take photographs of our “ancient general”.
I was pleased by the state of my feet and my joints thusfar, but I knew from experience the first day was simply a warm up.
Day two was one of huge emotion. We started at Cambrai East Military Cemetery and this affected me more than anywhere I’ve ever been. Partly because it is an all-nation cemetery, where soldiers who had fought in life lay peacefully together in death. Partly because several who lay buried there had died 100 years ago on the day we were visiting. Partly because of the stones with heartfelt, plaintive words from families. The grief in the air, even 100 years on, was palpable. The graveyard was shrouded in sorrow.
Below are the tributes on the gravestones which particularly affected me. I have put each one up individually to allow them to be more easily read. Embarrassingly, I had a big snotty sobbing fit in the cemetery as I read them, overcome by sadness for those families whose boys had never come home.
Vern read out this poem which I should perhaps I should keep in mind…
VOICE FROM A WAR GRAVE
Please, don’t lower your voices
As if you’re in some kind of pain.
I can’t tell you how pleased we all are
To see you come back here again.
There’s no need to stop yourself laughing –
We all of us like a good joke.
We used to laugh quite a lot in those days,
Despite all the noise and the smoke.
We’re glad that you come here to see us.
We like to see friends old and new.
So laugh and talk as much as you like,
We wish we could come to see you.
So please don’t lower your voices,
We’re aware of the pain that you feel.
It’s no worse than ours, I can tell you,
And yours is the one that can heal.
I was pleased that all the gravestones were white, regardless of which side the soldier had fought on. It made a pleasant change from the dark, dingy markers of the German military cemeteries we had visited in 2016. One of these three men had been sought out, and a descendant had laid a photo on his grave to remind us the enemy too had faces, and were loved.
This was a very, very long day. As I started walking along the field track a tiny, insignificant speck of gravel started niggling at my sole.
I remembered the doctor’s advice about ‘dealing with things before they happen’ so I dutifully undid my boots and removed it. I put them back on and after a few hundred yards my other foot started hurting. So then I undid this boot. Thus began an endless round of being plastered/checking plasters. Craig, the paramedic at the back of the trek, strapped my feet up as best he could. I put on more plasters and they rubbed between my toes. It is hard to describe the pain without sounding utterly pathetic but every step soon became torturous. I stopped noticing where we were walking, finding it difficult to join in conversation, focusing on nothing more than the next step. At lunchtime, the paramedics tended to my feet, which were rubbed raw and bleeding. I wasn’t able to look around Ligny-en-Cambresis Communal cemetery where we stopped; all I wanted to do was sit.
This was the walk which didn’t seem to end. I stopped looking around me. All I could focus on was my feet – oh, and the need to use my SheWee, which was getting stronger every minute. Being at the back of the walk, I ducked behind a haystack and used this piece of modern technology. I’d used it once before and had been impressed by myself and how ‘going behind a bush’ has been made so much easier for the modern woman. This time SheWent, and stumbled. You can imagine the results. I’m afraid I cried (again). I could not face all the other walkers in such a state. It was still fiercely sunny, but I wrapped my fleece around myself and hoped I’d dry off in time. I was mortified.
Around the corner were the friendly faces of Steve and Vern, eagerly waving me forward. Usually I was pleased to see them, but I would have given anything not to have seen anyone for several hours. Vern, kindly, tried to take my bag off me and I wheeled away in panic. Steve was not put off by my howls of, “Don’t come near me! I’m disgusting!” and put his arms around me. Vern supplied Haribo. Thanks to them I recovered my dignity and some of my Stiff Upper Lip, and thanks to the weather my shorts dried off pretty quickly. The late afternoon sun softened but the ground underneath our feet was relentlessly hard and uneven. Both my knees ached, my feet were agony, and I’d pulled a muscle somewhere in my thigh. Even my earlobes were hurting. I developed an odd kind of walk which Rick, who kindly took my bag and was trying to cheer me up, said looked like Big Bird’s gait. I was trying desperately to flex my feet and release my ankle bones while at the same time easing the pressure on my knees and that’s without even starting on those throbbing blisters.
Beth, the doctor, very carefully asked how I thought I’d feel after the next tea break. I knew I couldn’t physically go any further but this was still a tough decision to make. People had sponsored me money in good faith. Everyone else seemed to be doing OK, many with feet in a worse state than mine. Andy Reid had done the Walk in 2016 with only one arm, for heaven’s sake, and here was I whinging about a couple of blisters and aching joints which weren’t even real ones. I loathed myself for it, and cried some more, but I knew I had to give in. I climbed onto the coach and curled up in a seat, not wanting to talk to anyone. I was not alone on it, but I felt like a fraud.
Several hours later the rest of the walkers joined us. All agreed it had been a very, very hard slog. Like the cool kids at school, those at the back of the bus handed out silver flasks of rum, brandy and Schnapps. There was singing on the way home, and general camaraderie, but I felt muted and like I hadn’t earned the right to join in.
I woke up several times during the night, worrying secretly about my feet. As I hobbled across the bedroom on the third morning I wondered how on earth I was going to complete this final day. Breakfast was for me a subdued affair. There was no doubt in my mind that I had to complete this – too many people had sponsored me for me to let them down. (Plus I am very stubborn.) But I wasn’t quite sure how. I figured if I could just keep putting one foot in front of the other, eventually I would get to the end.
The walk began calmly enough, at Bavay which was Field Marshall French’s HQ during the Battle of Mons. We were following the path of the last few days of WW1, through which the I and III Canadian Corps had swept 100 years previously. As the war moved so fast at this point, the soldiers had little opportunity to bury their dead and the majority were left where they fell. Some were buried in communal cemeteries such as Quevy-le-Petit (see below) but many others lay beneath our feet. This made walking particularly thought-provoking.
After a couple of hours it was pointed out to us that we really should pick up our pace as timing was crucial. 2 years ago Andy Reid had said “What the mind believes, the body achieves” and I found that walking at a smarter pace didn’t make the pain any less, but it didn’t make it any worse, either. With cheering words from other walkers, and the reassurance we were all in this together, suddenly I felt lighter, brighter. I was going to complete this. I felt like Pilgrim when he reaches the top of the Hill of Difficulty and his Burden falls off – although I had a kind soul carrying mine for some of the journey! An ebullient mother and son were walking alongside me.
Their enthusiasm and upbeat humour was infectious. She told me to give my bag to her son for a while and he carried it as if it were featherweight. We watched in awe as she jogged ahead of us to walk with someone else who was alone. The world needs more people like the Callcutt family.
Several of us chose to detour to Quevy-le-Petit Communal Cemetery where we visited the graves of those who are often neglected as they are not in the military cemeteries. This really bothered me, and I left a poppy for these men.
We walked through a town, past a school. Children were playing and their laughter came through the air, crisp and golden. This contrasting so strongly with the sombre cemeteries was poignant in its beauty: a metaphor of yesterday’s sacrifice made for today’s children. A woman applauded us, waving a flag out of her window. People often said hello to us, greeting us in curious French. Some asked us for an explanation of what we were doing. Two men who were making cider in their back yard gave out free bottles, and squeezed me a fresh glass of apple juice which tasted ambrosian.
We passed the house of a Belgian paratrooper who had set out cold Coke and biscuits for us. He explained his grandfather had been in WW1 and his family had a military background. This gentleman joined us at the cemetery for the remembrance ceremony at the end of our walk.
Lunch. Spirits were high for most, but some could not do the penultimate stage. There were tears. I will never forget the image of one walker lying flat on her front as the paramedic bound up her broken, battered feet. The determination of everyone to do their very best was extraordinary. I was able to encourage others, to empathise with their disappointment at not being able to do the whole thing, to reassure them we would all be doing the last stretch together.
More wee stops, behind greenhouses and rusting tractors. For once, I was not at the back of the trek and was able to hold out an arm for those in tears who’d reached the very edges of endurance. My feet were throbbing but it was manageable. Everything was doable – just!
We paused briefly at a pub, where the barman told us to return the following day for free drinks. Robin and I led a chorus of Tipperary and then we set off for the home stretch. Those who had been at the back of the walk were told to lead the way to the end, and to the Saint Symphorien Military Cemetery.
This was a subdued ending. There were not crowds like at the Menin Gate; there were no cars hooting or strangers applauding us. ABF staff handed out medals and we all clapped each other as we came to the end.
Somehow, this was better. I felt this was more fitting. We were greeted silently by those in whose footsteps we had walked, and were able to pay our final tribute to them as a bugler played the The Last Post. Tesbo and Bob led us in our own service of remembrance.
The cemetery contains both the first and last soldiers who died in WW1.
I chose to leave a poppy in memoriam of my Great-Great Uncle Bertie on the grave of an unknown soldier. Both were remembered. All were remembered.
Thank you to everyone whose generosity and donations, no matter how small, enabled me to undertake this challenge, and complete it. The messages of support encouraged me on the dark night of Day 2 when I felt so ashamed of myself. Thank you.
Not for the glory of first place
For everyone finishes the same.
Not for the plaudits of strangers
And the highlighting of ones name
In posts to be ‘liked’ and forgotten;
But for those who lay under the mud.
Who heeded the call of their country
And paid for their brav’ry with blood.
For those who were slaughtered in battle,
For those whose fear could not be borne,
For those who lived on but were shattered
With bodies or minds scarred and torn.
A century’s passed, yet the anguish
Of war continues to resound.
Soldiers still fight their own private battles –
It’s for them that our feet hit the ground.
To those who didn’t stride past a stranger,
But held out a hand to assist,
Who carried a bag, offered comfort,
Who urged one, through pain, to persist;
To those who left crosses by headstones,
To those who stopped, quiet, by a grave;
To those who read somebody’s story;
To those who elected to save
A minute for silent remembrance:
We honoured those fallen men well.
We helped those who walk in their footprints.
We sounded out their passing-bell.
With huge thanks to Emma Price, podiatrist supremo of Supafeet Cheltenham, who helped me walk again and my wonderful knee surgeon Mr Harminder Gosal at the Nuffield in Cheltenham. I am not sure if any of his other patients have gone on to complete a challenge like this after he has operated on their knees! This photo is for them:
You can still donate to the Army Benevolent Fund on my page until 31st December 2018: http://fundraising.soldierscharity.org/ellymoo
To learn more about the Army Benevolent Fund and its work please visit https://soldierscharity.org
The walk was run impeccably by the wonderful staff at Classic Challenge.
To date the Frontline Walk, 2014-2018, has raised over £1m to help servicepeople and their families. Which is pretty ace!