Considered by many as one of the highlights of a Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) member’s career, the 100th edition of the International Four Day Marches Nijmegen will begin on July 19. A contingent of 181 CAF members is geared up and ready to take part in the largest walking event in the world.
The Nijmegen Marches were established by the Dutch military in an effort to increase the fitness level of infantry soldiers in the early 20th century. However, the military noticed that alongside the soldiers, civilians from around the countryside joined in the march. One hundred years later, the Marches have turned into an event attended more by civilians than military members. It is expected that this year over 5,000 military members will participate while the total expected number of marchers is close to 50,000 participants.
These civilians and military members will march 40 km a day together, 160 km in total, in the countryside and small towns around Nijmegen, Netherlands.
Though this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Marches, the CAF has only been participating since 1952.
This year’s CAF contingent is comprised of fifteen eleven member teams. The teams are consist of regular and reserve members.
In addition, there are eight individual marchers from the extended military family including representatives from Veterans Affairs Canada, the Royal Canadian Legion, and the Dutch Embassy.
Canada’s fifteenth team is comprised of Canadian Forces Support Unit (CFSU) Europe, who has assisted CAF members attending the Marches in past years.
To mark this year’s centennial anniversary, the Marches will feature a Lap of Honour event in which 100 international participants will march 100 km in a day. Two members of the CAF contingent were specially nominated to take part in this event.
CAF members selected to take part in the March, must march a minimum of 500 km as a team and conclude two consecutive days of 40 km marches. In general, teams will have trained an average of 700 to 1000 km before making the trip to Europe.
“That’s a significant commitment by both the members, the members change of command and, I would say, their family as well.
“It really is a total family affair from our military families and all families as well to enable a member to come here and march, and we are carrying all their well wishes and pride in what we do and their pride in the CAF and Canada, as well, with us. So, its a big deal for everybody to be here,” said Col. Kristiana Stevens, Contingent Commander.
Despite their training, Stevens says the task at hand is still daunting, four days of marching with gear, boots and all.
“It is a significant feat to march as a group over the 160 km. It’s a great pride and challenge for all of us,” commented Stevens.
The troops are currently en route aboard a military air bus that started picking up teams from Comox on Wednesday night. The aircraft will pick up teams from across the country and is expected to arrive in France in the afternoon of Friday, July 15. That night troops will visit the Beaumont-Hamel Memorial for a commemoration. On Saturday, the contingent plans to visit Vimy Ridge for another commemorative event and arrive at the base camp Heumensoord Saturday night.
Historically, the Dutch and Canadians have a significant relationship. More than 7,600 Canadians died in the nine-month campaign to liberate the Netherlands in the Second World War.
The CAF will be walking the same terrain where many died during the war and will pay their respects at the Grosbeak Canadian War Cemetery during the Nijmegen Marches.
According to Stevens, the Dutch people have not forgotten the Canadian sacrifice.
“When we march through the little towns in and around Nijmegen in our four days of marching, we could be surround by thousands of other people and as soon as our Dutch hosts, the families that live around the route, see the Canadian flag it’s quite amazing, it actually gives me chills, because it’s just like there’s nobody else around but Canada and they all start chanting ‘Canada, Canada, thank you Canada.’ The children run up and want to hold our hands, they want to give us popsicles. We are so loved by the people of the Netherlands,” recalled Stevens.
The Marches also solidify the relationship between the two countries.
“It’s really important for us, from Canadian Forces perspective, to participate because it continues to honour and extend our relationship with the Netherlands,” said Stevens.
This will be Stevens fifth year to take part in the Nijmegen Marches and second year as Contingent Commander. Stevens first had the opportunity to take part in 2009 and recalls that preparations for the 100th edition had begun then.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be fortunate enough to be selected to be contingent commander in this special year. So, I feel very proud and honoured to be in this position and the fact that I am going to lead with the rest of my team 200 Canadian soldiers through the streets of Nijmegen and we wearing our uniforms with our Canadian flag flying, it’s really a proud moment,” said Stevens.
This year’s teams for the International Four Day Marches Nijmegen are:
Royal Canadian Navy:
Team MARLANT (Halifax)
TEAM MARPAC (Victoria)
Royal Canadian Air Force:
Team 19 Wing (Comox)
Team 8 Wing (Trenton)
Team 17 Wing (Winnipeg)
Team 1RNFLD/1st / 1st Bn Royal Newfoundland Regiment (St. John’s)
Équipe Canadian Grenadier Guards (Montreal)
Team Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa
Team Lorne Scots (Brampton)
Team 3 Div (Edmonton)
Team Royal Canadian Dragoons (Petawawa)
Équipe Fusiliers de Sherbrooke (Montreal)