NAPLES, Italy -- Four Canadian Armed Forces personnel from Allied Joint Force Command Naples returned recently from the Netherlands after participating in the 100th edition of the Nijmegen Four Days Marches.
The Nijmegen Marches, held this year July 19-22, were initiated in 1909 as a prime means for the Dutch infantry to increase physical fitness. It has since grown and evolved each year to the point where it is now recognized as the largest international walking event in the world, annually attracting approximately 5,000 military marchers and 45,000 civilians wanting to test their strength and endurance. Ultimately though, it is neither a competition nor a speed test, the goal of each group is simply to finish the route through teamwork and camaraderie. The military contingents at this event all march 40 kilometers per day for four days wearing packs weighing a minimum of 10 kilograms before any provisions are added.
"You’re definitely going to test yourself physically, but you’re also going to test yourself on the military ethos,” said Navy Lieutenant Commander Shawn Perry, who was participating in his third march at Nijmegen. "It reinforces a lot of the military characteristics that we all buy into but don’t get to test in a headquarters environment.”
Also representing JFC Naples at the event were Army Warrant Officer Pierre-Marc Girard, Air Force Sergeant John Harder and Navy Master Seaman Noy Phonpaseuth.
The foursome were successful in securing a spot on this year’s team after nearly 900 kilometers of training together, and were proud to represent both JFC Naples and Canada at the celebrated event.
In total, Canada sent 15 teams of 11 marchers each from across Canada, as it has done since 1952. To mark this special year, Canadians stationed within Europe were invited to form one of the squads, known broadly as ‘Formation Europe’. This resulted in a slightly different training regime than the other Canadian teams, as prospective members were identified from across Germany, Belgium and, of course Naples.
In total, there were 27 different nationalities represented among military participants and 67 nationalities on the civilian side. In addition to Canada, 11 other NATO countries and three Partners for Peace countries were equally well represented at Camp Heumensoord, the temporary military camp built each year on the outskirts of the city. Although rare, a few teams even featured a mix of nations, choosing to represent a unit instead of marching under one nation’s flag. In an act of solidarity, some soldiers from Germany and the Netherlands currently on mission in Mali combined in walking together a ‘mini-Nijmegen’ within their theatre of operations.
Particularly poignant for the Canadians involved, but observed by many of the nations, is the pause on the third day to visit the Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery and commemorate the fallen soldiers from the Second World War who died and were buried on this spot during the liberation of the Netherlands.
According to Perry, the highlight of the week was the final 5 kilometer victory parade down the main streets of Nijmegen and, this year, in front of King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands. The King took the time to shake the hands of many marchers as he passed out the traditional flower, the gladiola, a symbol of force and victory since Roman times.
Finishing the four days of marching is no small feat. According to statistics provided by event organizers, 4,609 participants dropped out over the course of the event.
Perry said the festival atmosphere of the villages they march through makes the event truly unique.
"At no point in the day do you not have this massive cheering section,” said Perry.
For three of the Canadian marchers from JFC Naples, there isn’t much time to rest their feet as they’ll depart this week to participate in the Belgium "Death March” held in Bornem. There the crew will aim to complete a 100 kilometer hike that participants have 24 hours to complete.
Story by the JFC Naples Nijmegen Marches crew