Nijmegen Four Day Marches
Stichling De 4 DAAGSE - The Walk of the World - the Nijmegen Four Days Marches; whatever you choose to call the event it is simply massive.
Of the 306 solely male participants in the first Nijmegen Marches in 1909, ten were civilians. In those pre-WW1 days entrants could start from 15 different places and had to walk 140km in four days. The marches were organised by the Dutch League for Physical Education (Nederlandse Bond Voor Lichamelijke Opvoeding or NBVLO), founded in 1908, now the Royal Dutch League for Physical Education (Koninklijke Nederlandsche Bond Voor Lichamelijke Opvoeding or KNBLO). Over the intervening 120 years the event has grown in status, becoming the biggest, longest and hardest event of its kind in the world.
Today, more than 42,000 participants walk for four days, covering a total of 120, 160 or 200 km depending on their age and sex, towards the Via Gladiola and the royally approved medal in Nijmegen; the Cross for the Four Days Marches (Vierdaagsekruis).
Last year, out of approximately 46,000 initial registrations there were 42,493 starters, with 39,396 of those actually finishing the punishing event, run in spectacularly hot conditions. The distances covered by the military teams, including Somerset Cadet Bn (The Rifles) ACF, were; Day One 44.0km, Day Two 35.4km, Day Three 39.8km and Day Four 44.0km, making a total of 163.2km. Those male marchers, aged between 18 and 55, on the armed forces route must carry 10kg ballast weight in addition to their water and food.
Currently, competitors have a different route each day; through the provinces of Gelderland (mostly), North Brabant and Limburg, through the city of Nijmegen and its suburbs. Each day revolves around a different town in the vicinity. The first is the Day of Elst, the second the Day of Wijchen, the third the Day of Groesbeek and finally the fourth day, the Day of Cuijk.
Training & Qualification
Somerset Army Cadets’ personnel graduate through a long and rigorous training programme that starts on Salisbury Plain in January, via completing the RAF WARMA 2 Day Marches at Cosford in Shropshire which is the approved mandatory pre-Nijmegen qualifier.
Historically, Somerset's Army Cadets have always trained hard for the marches and as a result have generally done exceptionally well. Train Hard, Fight Easy is our motto. Typically only 40,500 or so of the pre-registered 45,000 entrants actually start the 4 Day Nijmegen Marches and only about 38,000 make it to the finish, so it speaks volumes for the high standard of Somerset Army Cadets’ training that enables our teams to regularly finish in the top echelons. This means that our cadets regularly perform better than many teams drawn from the British, Dutch, German, American, Russian and Canadian regular and special forces. For a cadet to wear a Nijmegen finisher’s medal is a true mark of determination and accomplishment. The event is not a competition (although many would beg to differ), more a physical and mental challenge, and the rewards are there to reflect the cadet’s achievements rather than beating another team. Great emphasis is placed on teamwork and through this the cadets gaining the rewards for their efforts; whether a team award, trophy, Battalion Colours or individual medals.
Military & Historic Tour
Teams and the support staff arrive in Nijmegen on the preceding Saturday in order to settle in, be briefed, have the event wrist bands and boot tags fitted, acclimatise and see a few of the important sites in the area, including the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery at Kleve in Germany, the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery in the country with 7594 Commonwealth servicemen buried or commemorated there. Some of those members of the land forces buried there died in the advance through Reichswald Forest in February 1945. Others died crossing the Rhine, among them members of the airborne forces whose bodies were brought from Hamminkeln, where landings were made by the 6th Airborne Division from bases in England.
Some of the airmen buried in the cemetery lost their lives in supporting the advance into Germany, but most died earlier in the war in the intensive air attacks over Germany.
Starting early on Tuesday from Heumensoord Camp in Nijmegen, teams compete in full uniform, carrying day sacks with plenty of water and snacks. At the close of each day the marchers return to camp for showers, meals, medical treatment and much needed sleep, ready for an early start the next day. Each day sees a Somerset support team distributing water, food and moral support at designated rest halts around the course.
The group leader is responsible for ensuring that the correct barcode carrier is attached to each group member at the start on Tuesday. Checks are made by officials to see whether the group is complete both at the start and at various intervals on the route. Group members must be present in the checking area to have their bar code carriers scanned. Group participants must also be able to prove their identity and any weight being carried when asked to do so.
All group participants are given a wristband and a chip fitting on the lace of their boots and these are linked to each other and personalised. The en-route check is done using electronic mats placed over the entire width of the road and the whole group must walk over the mat to complete the check.
Teams pass through controls a couple of times a day where Four Days Marches officials will 'cut off' the control cards of the participants. At every post, there is an indication of the distance left to walk.
Start and finish by means of scanning the wristband
Participants of the Four Days Marches receive a wristband with a barcode on the day of registration, which is used for the start and finish registration each day.
At the start and finish the barcode on competitor’s wristbands is scanned. The officials receive a visual and an audio signal after scanning the entrant’s bar code, as a sign that the scan has been performed correctly. When reporting to Heumensoord at the end of each day's march, the bar code is scanned for the last time that day at the registration desk. The scanner gives either a green or a red light. Green means that competitors have finished in accordance with the rules; red means that there is an (administrative) problem and that a competitor needs to report to the Central Administration. There, officials investigate the problem.
In order to finish in accordance with the rules competitors need to have the barcode scanned in the morning and must have received a notch in the control card. Provided they have done so, the finishing scan is performed at the end of the marching day. If competitors do not have this finishing scan performed, they are considered to have withdrawn and are not able to start the next day as the system no longer recognises their bar codes.
On the fourth and last day of the event the military marchers divert briefly to a holding area at Charlemagne Field at Nijksweg on the edge of Nijmegen where their electronic tags are registered, their medals are presented before they are grouped together in larger contingents behind a band for the last leg; marching into the centre of Nijmegen down the renamed St. Annastraat, for one day re-titled the Via Gladiola, in front of huge crowds and TV crews.
Despite Nijmegen being double the length of Cosford, and generally marched in much hotter conditions, most marchers see Cosford as the more challenging of the two events. As one competitor put it, “Well, at Cosford you are pretty much on your own between controls, but at Nijmegen the whole route is lined with crowds urging you on - it’s brilliant!”
It’s this spirit of support from as many as 1.5 million spectators that eases the undoubted pain of marching 160km over paved roads in hot weather - that and the sheer team spirit fostered by the cadets within the team, something that Army Cadets is particularly good at.
This one of the very few events where cadets are able to participate on an equal footing with regular and reserve service personnel from across the world. Approximately 5,000 armed forces personnel take part each year, both in teams and as individuals. As a result the cadets may find themselves marching alongside Dutch marines, French alpine troops, Russian paratroopers and many others including British airborne troops and guardsmen.
The Four Days Medal
The Cross for the Four Days Marches (Vierdaagsekruis) is a coveted and cherished possession. The medal is the ‘cross for proven marching ability’, as promulgated in the Order-in-Council of October 1909.
After the event, the Four Days Marches’ competitors generally accept their medals without realising that their efforts have earned them a royally approved, official decoration which Dutch servicemen may wear on their uniform. A number of other countries now permit the Vierdaagsekruis to be worn in military uniform, including Denmark, Germany, Norway, Sweden and the USA. Canada, Israel and the United Kingdom are amongst those who do not recognise this award.
Why the gladioli on Friday?
Nijmegen, the oldest city in the Netherlands and formerly an important Roman city, renames the St. Annastraat to Via Gladiola once a year and on that day welcomes the walkers on the last day of the Four Days Marches. Traditionally, the spectators hand out gladioli to the walkers.
The Dutch have a saying, ‘Death or the gladioli', meaning all or nothing. It is thought that this phrase originated in the arena in Roman times when spectators watched gladiators fight each other to the death. After an heroic fight the victor was inundated in gladioli thrown by the crowds. Why the gladiolus? The name is derived from the Latin word ‘gladius’, meaning sword, after the sword-like shape of the flower. The gladiolus has become a sign of strength and victory; a flower earned after a great achievement.
Several millennia later the expression has been borrowed by the Four Days Marches. And when the marchers are walking down the Via Gladiola, being cheered on by the spectators, they are seen as heroic as the gladiators once were.
Further information may be found on the official web site.