By Lizzie Rosewell
In atmospheric foggy conditions I threaded my way through the area north of Beaumont Hamel, via Redan Ridge, Serre Road and the Pals Memorials at Sheffield Memorial Park. The landscape was dotted with a network of small cemeteries, memorial stones and plaques commemorating individual actions, which I found more moving than the larger and better known memorials, despite their overwhelming scale. I was particularly touched by a plaque on the corner of a farmer’s barn, remembering some of the northern Pals units and as I ran on down the track tears streamed down my face.
The following day the misty, murky conditions had vanished as I set off towards Vimy Ridge. The craters, dips and ridges left by old trench networks and shell craters looked beautiful in the morning sunshine and it was hard to imagine that this had been a scene of such carnage. Reminders were all around though in the large fenced areas, closed off due to unexploded shells and mines. I was privileged to have the Vimy Memorial to myself in the early morning, the views from the ridge providing an understanding of what an important vantage point this was during the war.
It was the previous autumn when I had the idea to commemorate this year’s centenary of the First World War by running from Paris to London via the Western Front. As a former Army officer the welfare of our soldiers and veterans is a subject very close to my heart and so I decided to use this challenge to raise money for ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, the British Army’s national charity, who provide lifelong support to soldiers, veterans and their families. The First World War was billed as the “War to end all Wars” and yet 100 years on our Army continues to be active all over the world.
I started with the Paris Marathon, before running north from Paris to Amiens, location of the start of the Hundred Days Offensive. From here I followed the line of the Western Front, visiting many of the main battlefields and memorials, as far as Ypres. I then headed to Dunkirk to catch the ferry back to the UK, before running from Dover to London, where I finished my journey by running the London Marathon. The full route involved running 390 miles, or the equivalent of 15 marathons in 15 days. I was on my own, carrying all my own kit, camping and buying food along the way.
As a keen runner I wanted to set myself a big challenge and it certainly was the toughest thing that I have ever done. I struggled with awful blisters and at times worried whether I would actually be able to complete the run, but I discovered new reserves of both physical and mental strength that allowed me to keep pushing on despite the pain.
It was an incredibly emotional experience to follow the Western Front on foot, probably made more so by tiredness! It really felt that I was following in the footsteps of those who fought in the Great War and when my journey got tough I reminded myself of what those soldiers had gone through. Some particularly special moments included the statue of the Golden Virgin glinting in the sun on top of the Basilica at Albert as I followed the Upper Road above Dernancourt; exploring the Somme battlefields on an atmospheric misty morning; visiting the incredible souterrain at Maison Blanche; and having the honour of reading the Exhortation at the nightly service at the Menin Gate.
I would like to thank the Suffolk branch of the Western Front Association, and especially Dave Hedges, for all their help and support. If you would like to make a donation towards my fundraising for ABF The Soldiers’ Charity then please visit: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/lizzierunning
IMAGES: (C) 2018 Lizzie Rosewell