Western Front shows we cannot take peace for granted
My wife Fiona and I have long nursed a dream of an epic hike along the length of the old Western Front and this year, a century on from the end of the First World War, we went for it. Both 64 and retired and living in Dordogne and Yorkshire, we had no idea if it was possible when we set off from Nieuwpoort-Bad on the Belgian coast to walk to the Swiss border.
There is no waymarked Western Front walking path, or guidebook, we carried everything on our backs... and Fiona is waiting for a hip replacement.
Her orthopaedic surgeon had advised her to keep walking, for the exercise, but she had not dared say just how far she was intending to walk. Partly because we did not know how far she would be able to go.
Now, we know exactly how far. Six weeks to the hour after we set off, we passed the 1,000km mark and arrived at Kilometre Zero: the Swiss frontier.
We had walked the entire way – refusing a tempting offer of a lift in a Vosges mountains thunderstorm – and had slept in 43 beds in 44 nights.
So what made us – I am a cognitive hypnotherapist and retired journalist and Fiona a retired librarian and music teacher – think of doing it?
For me, it was visits to battlefields such as the Somme and Ypres when our daughters were small. We thought then of trying to walk the whole line of the trenches. People thought we were mad but we were determined to prove them wrong.
All four of our grandfathers were in uniform during the First World War, and one of Fiona’s grandmothers was a nurse in the Edinburgh War Hospital.
Fiona said: “My grandmother’s experiences turned her into a lifelong pacifist – probably one reason why her husband worked in civil defence during the Second World War, rather than something military.
“So our walk was definitely not a ‘celebration’ of war. It was about remembrance and commemorating those who died. If we were celebrating anything, it was the coming of peace 100 years ago, ending the appalling slaughter.”
Near Ieper, in Belgium - or Ypres as it was then known - we found the grave of Fiona’s aunt’s grandfather, a Durham miner, artilleryman and father of three, who was killed at 42.
We left a bouquet and among the hundreds of thousands of graves, this was a moment to focus on the individual loss that would have been felt by families all over the world.
As we walked, we kept a blog and encouraged followers to donate to the War Child charity, as children were and are the innocent victims of war.
Most of the physical signs of war are gone but we were surprised at how much can still be seen: concrete bunkers, shell craters and trenches in the darkness of a pine wood... even unexploded shells that are still being turned up by farmers and placed at the roadside for collection.
Fiona said: “In Britain we tend to think of the First World War as our war, but one thing became very clear: this was really France and Belgium’s war. It was on their land, and they were fighting for their way of life.
“This was brought home to us especially in Verdun. British tourists tend to go to the Somme and Ypres as that’s where many British soldiers fought, but the scale of French loss at Verdun was enormous.
“The ossuary at Douaumont holds the bones of 130,000 unidentified soldiers, the cemetery in front contains the graves of more than 16,000 men, and the pinewoods all around hide the remains of 80,000 who have never been found. It is impossible to take all that in.
“We learned we could never take peace for granted. This was supposed to be the war that ended all wars. We mustn’t let it happen again.”
Walking The Line – Two Oldies (And One Dodgy Hip) Tackle The Entire Western Front, by Nick and Fiona Jenkins (Wetsocks Books), tells the full story of the walk and is available from Amazon.