Nick Jenkins tells the story of how he and wife Fiona came to understand the scale of the Western Front – by walking it from Belgium to Switzerland.
Some people fantasise about Caribbean cruises or road trips across the States… for years, our dream had been to walk a ridiculously long way with rucksacks on our backs.
We wanted to walk the entire length of the Western Front. And in this year of the First World War armistice centenary, the time had come to make that dream a reality.
The trenches were filled in after the guns fell silent in 1918 and the last witnesses of those killing fields are long since dead, but we’d always wondered what stories those once-blasted landscapes could still tell us.
To find out, we were going to walk in the footsteps of our grandfathers – as well as those countless others who never lived long enough even to become fathers.
One Sunday this April, we closed our Hebden Bridge front door behind us, walked to the station, and took the train to Hull for the Zeebrugge ferry.
Next morning, there was time for a selfie by the deserted beach in Nieuwpoort Bad, the point where the Western Front once met the English Channel, and we were off.
Our aim was to follow the old No Man’s Land as closely as possible and eventually find the point where the Front came to an end at the border with neutral Switzerland. Was it possible to walk all that way? We had no idea.
We’re 64 and retired, so time wasn’t an issue. But there is no waymarked path or guidebook, we were unsupported and had to carry everything on our backs, and it’s a blooming long way.
On top of that, Fiona is waiting for a hip replacement. Her orthopaedic surgeon at the Calderdale Royal in Halifax advised her to keep walking, for the exercise, but she hadn’t dared tell him just how far she was intending to walk. Her anti-inflammatories and painkillers seemed to fill half the available space in our rucksacks.
Our plan was just to keep walking and see how far we could get. We had booked a couple of nights’ accommodation to get us started, but we had only a rough idea of our route.
That first day, walking to Diksmuide along the old railway embankment that once formed the Allies’ front line, felt liberating. At last we were on our way.
Soon we started to see relics of the war, some carefully maintained – the first military cemetery we came across was German – but others simply left to rot.
That’s how it was all along: just when we felt that time had wiped away all traces of that horrendous war, we would come across a shell placed at the edge of a field, an old gun emplacement, the upheaval of shell craters and trenches in the gloom of a pine forest.
Using a GPS tablet, we were making our own route, sometimes on roads, at other times finding old tracks. And it was on those ancient green lanes that we felt closest to our grandfathers. We could imagine them there, singing their way towards the front, not knowing if they would ever march back.
They all returned, but in Ieper in Belgium – formerly Ypres, or Wipers to the Tommies – we paid our tributes to those who didn’t. Under the monumental Menin Gate, engraved with the names of the 54,000 who passed that way and whose bodies were never found, we listened with tears in our eyes as the Last Post was played by local buglers, as it is every night.
There was a time when the buglers outnumbered the spectators, but interest in the First World War is now so revived that you need to get there early if you want a decent view.
Just before we left Yorkshire, we had discovered that Fiona’s aunt’s grandfather, a miner who signed up as an artilleryman, was buried near Ieper, so the next day we bought flowers and searched for his grave. The aim of our walk was not in any way to ‘celebrate’ war but to mark its end and to commemorate those whose lives were cut short. Laying a bouquet on the gravestone of just one of those millions of victims helped to focus our minds on individual loss.
From the Ypres Salient, we crossed the French border and walked on to the Somme. This was all familiar territory, as these were the battlefields on which so many British soldiers died.
But as we kept going, to the Chemin des Dames, Champagne, the Marne, the Argonne – still taking each day as it came – it began to dawn on us: we had always thought of the First World War as a British war. But of course it wasn’t.
Most British families were affected in some way, but the Great War was fought on Belgian and French territory, and they were the people who were fighting for their homes, their way of life, their countries.
And thus we came to Verdun, which is to the French what the Somme is to the British.
An ossuary on a hill above the town holds the bones of 130,000 unidentified soldiers. The cemetery in front contains the graves of 16,142 men whose names are known. And the pine trees all around – planted as it was believed that battlefield could never again support human life – hide the remains of another 80,000 who have never been found.
It is impossible to comprehend that scale of loss.
As we walked, we wrote down our thoughts each evening in an attempt to make sense of them. By this stage we were often walking around 20 miles a day, but we never missed an entry for our Walking The Line blog.
We quickly discovered that however exhausted we felt when we arrived at our destination, a shower, a cold beer and a decent meal would set us up again for the next day’s adventure.
We were staying in a mixture of accommodation that we booked as we went along: hotels, apartments and, our best discovery, chambres d’hôtes (B&Bs), where we ate with the owners and other guests. One night we stayed in a chateau, where the other guests, impressed by our story, insisted we sit in thrones for our aperitifs.
Our bodies held up pretty well – Fiona’s hip behaved, though you probably don’t want to hear about her toenails – so we decided only once to stop anywhere for two nights and give ourselves a break, and that was in Reims.
Before we left that city, we visited the room where the Germans signed their surrender in 1945. It was only one of numerous reminders that these lands have been fought over many times.
In the first week of our walk we had been asked what we planned to do when we reached Switzerland. We laughed… we couldn’t possibly think that far ahead. But there came a time when we realised the end was possibly, just possibly, in sight.
But first we had to cross the Vosges mountains. We had never been there, so didn’t know if they are “proper” mountains. They are – and crossing them was not made any easier by the weather. Earlier in the walk we had enjoyed unseasonable heat, but in the Vosges we encountered terrifying storms. We got very wet – and cold.
At one point, “sheltering” under a tree that provided no shelter at all from a hailstorm that had cut her hand, Fiona decided it was the worst day of her life. But storms do eventually move on, and so did we. Exactly six weeks after we set off from the Belgian coast, we walked up a track through a wood to Kilometre Zero, the point where the Western Front began. We reached a bridge across a stream. It was the Swiss border… we had walked the whole way. Time for another selfie (no one else was around to record this moment).
We had just topped 1,000 kilometres (630 miles) of walking, we hadn’t been in a car since before we set off, we had slept in 43 beds in 44 nights… and we were in the middle of a wood. We did the only thing we could: we retreated.
Walking The Line – Two Oldies (And One Dodgy Hip) Tackle The Entire Western Front, by Nick and Fiona Jenkins, tells the full story of the walk and is available from Amazon.