“They’re Strathcona’s”: The Regiment at the Four Days Marches Nijmegen
By: Lt C.J. MacLean, HQ Sqn
For the first time in recent memory, the Regiment trained and deployed a team to take part in the fabled Vierdaagse, or International Four Days Marches Nijmegen. The Marches, which began in 1909 as a military and civilian physical education demonstration, have grown into the largest walking event in the world. Held annually, participants routinely number over 40 000, including about 6000 military members, predominantly from northwest Europe and North America. The Canadian Armed Forces sends a contingent of roughly 170 marchers and 40 support staff, including fifteen marching teams (each numbering approximately a dozen marchers) representing the Navy, the Air Force, and each of the Army Divisions, as well as other organizations, such as branch teams or Canadian Rangers.
As part of our commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Moreuil Wood, Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) was selected to participate in the 102nd Marches representing 3rd Canadian Division. The team was stood up in December 2017, with the selection of its leadership, WO Steve “3 VP Tarps Off” Eddy and Lt Carsten “Hold the Line” MacLean. Nominations from the various Squadrons were made and vetted, and by early February a preliminary roster was approved, with approximately 20 team members identified. Later that month, the team began collective training, with marches beginning at 15 kms and, despite the best efforts of Op LENTUS 18-03 to derail the training, working their way up to an operational readiness validation of back-to-back 40 km marches in mid-June. By the time the team had been validated operationally ready, the numbers had been whittled down to fourteen personnel, including crewmen and supporters such as medics, maintainers, and signallers.
Although the Regimental team was only comprised of eleven marchers, the Regiment was lucky to be given the opportunity to provide medics who would march as part of 33 Service Battalion and JTF-Nijmegen HQ. The deployment of these additional marchers, along with the Regimental team, brought the total number of Strathcona’s deploying to thirteen.
On 12 July the team made the long flight to Europe, eventually landing in Lille, France, after making stops in Greenwood “Donair Pizza”, NS, Bagotville “On Time”, QC, Trenton “Need a Keycard” ON, and Cold Lake “No Buses Available”, AB. Immediately following their arrival, the team began the commemoration portion of the Four Days Marches. This included a parade and visit to the city of Mons, Belgium, which soldiers of the 3rd Canadian Division liberated in the final days of the First World War, culminating in the final shots of the War being fired during a Canadian attack on a German position. As part of the commemoration, the team visited the grave of Private George Price, a Canadian taking part in the attack, who became the last combat casualty of the War, dying at 10:58 on 11 November, 1918. The parade by the Canadian Nijmegen contingent marked the city of Mons’ beginning of their commemoration of the centennial of the end of the Great War.
The next day saw the team make their way to the impressive Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France. In addition to team photographs and a commemoration parade, the team participated in both guided and self-guided tours of the grounds, visiting the tunnels that Canadian and British soldiers dug in the lead up to the famous attack, as well as the respective trench lines of both Canadian and German soldiers, in some places not more than a stone’s throw apart. This experience proved to be a highlight for all involved. Later, the team traveled to Camp Heumensoord, located just outside the city of Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Over the next few days, the team settled in, conducted inclearance and march preparation, and tried (mostly successfully) to avoid any last-minute injuries. As soon as the team arrived in Heumensoord, our returning marcher, Sgt Mike “Chuck Norris” Brushett began pointing out features and locations of note; in particular, the Canadian and Swiss mess tents.
The final part of the commemoration portion included a parade and visit to the Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery. Groesbeek is the final resting place of over 2300 Canadian war dead (in addition to another 300 Allied dead), and is maintained and honoured by the local civilians. The parade included contingents from half a dozen military allies, as well as presentations of wreaths by a score of military and civilian delegations. Following the official parade, members of the team were free to honour their fallen comrades as they saw fit. For many this meant conducting private ceremonies at the graves of members of their unit or branch, including small ceremonies conducted by members of the Regiment at many of the graves of the thirteen Strathcona’s buried at Groesbeek. For WO Steve Eddy, this meant visiting the grave of his great-uncle, Private James Eddy, of the South Saskatchewan Regiment. In addition, the contingent visited the final piece of Dutch soil to be liberated during the Second World War, which was then used as an Observation Post by Canadian soldiers to survey and report on enemy movements in Germany itself. Our tour guide, himself a boy who grew up during the Nazi occupation, pointed out locations of German troops that were monitored by the Canadians stationed at the post.
With the commemoration portion over, the team focused on the upcoming Marches, which would take place over four days, total approximately 168 kms, and be completed in temperatures of about 30 degrees, with high humidity. While some members, such as MCpl Terry “Old” MacDonald, taped their feet and rested, others, like Cpls Quinton “Salty” Stender and Chris “Weebs” Webster enjoyed the atmosphere and a few pre-march libations. Regardless of their personal preparation tactics, all members of the team were eager to begin early on the morning of the 17th, awakened by what could be generously described as a bugle call.
The team began with gusto, cutting through the peaceful morning silence with renditions of “I Wanna Be in the Cavalry” and “The Hockey Song” that would certainly make the original artists cringe. The first morning saw the team adjusting to the temperatures and marching through crowds, but by the afternoon they had found a groove and were able to take a few stops to enjoy refreshments and chat with locals. Morale was high by the time the team passed the boots that mark the end of the 44 km first day, and everyone was looking forward to what promised to be a shorter second day.
On the second day, the team witnessed what was one of the most powerful experiences of the Marches, when an elderly Dutch gentleman observing the parade turned to the boy beside him, pointed at us, and said “They’re Strathcona’s.” The fact our Regiment is not only recognized, but continues to have such an effect on foreign citizens was incredibly moving, and not something those of us who witnessed the incident will soon forget.
Having completed back-to-back 40 km days as part of their validation training, the second day proved relatively painless for the team, although as MCpl Lawrence “My Son” Emery pointed out, the team would have to pump up their swag-distribution numbers in the coming days in order to avoid bringing back any of the seemingly infinite notebooks they had brought for distribution, courtesy of WO Steve Eddy’s definitely above-board family connections.
Lt Carsten MacLean took this challenge to heart on the third day, distributing notebooks and other swag to children at every opportunity, until, around the 35th kilometre, Cpl Andrew “The Book of Aliens” Lonegren pointed out the child he was attempting to hand a notebook to was, in fact, an infant only a few months old, and likely wouldn’t have the fine motor skills to take it from him any time soon. Lt MacLean, unwilling to give up a potential recruit, left a Regimental info card in the child’s stroller “for when they’re older.” Meanwhile, WO Steve Eddy wasn’t having much better luck on his end, as children consistently mistook the pencils he was handing out for candy. Notebook-distribution missteps aside, day three was another good day for the Regimental team, as they completed a smaller, team-level ceremony at the Groesbeek Cemetery approximately 25 kms in, before singing their way through crowds and hardly cutting their pace when faced with the toughest part of the Four Days Marches, the Seven Sisters hills. Unfortunately, day three saw several members of other teams forced to retire, and as such, Cpl Ben “Poutine” Grossmith, a medic who had trained as part of the Regimental team and was deployed as the JTF-Nijmegen HQ medic but had been marching with the LdSH(RC) team up to that point, was reassigned to another, lesser team.
With day three behind them, the team focused on the crucible: day four, and the acclaimed “Via Gladiola” victory parade that would cover the last six kilometres of the march. Including the victory parade, day four promised to be the longest day, spanning nearly 47 kms in total, and this year, it came with the hottest temperatures. Nevertheless, the team looked forward to the challenge, and drew motivation from the fact that, should anyone fall out, it would throw off the symmetry of Sgt Alan “Instagram Famous” Rodgers’ many, many mandatory team photoshoots. By this point in the Marches, the team had developed a reputation amongst the other countries’ military contingents as a salty, but extremely (almost worryingly) enthusiastic and friendly group. On day four, we sang many a song, including Sgt Mike Brushett’s specialty, “Canadians,” as well as a (failed) attempt at a song to greet our Norwegian compatriots, and finally an American marching song led by two adopted “Southern Canadians” we picked up early in our journey and harboured in our ranks for much of the 168 kms. A few hundred metres from the finish, several members of the team recorded videos for friends’ weddings they were missing, including that of Lt Josh “Stroopwafel” Horlings. At the finish point, and reunited with Cpl Dar “My Feet Are Fine, Trust Me, I’m a Medic” Breckenridge, team members were allowed to drop their small packs and dump the sand they had been carrying, before they were presented their Cross for the Four Days Marches medal, including a Crown for a second successful completion to Sgt Mike Brushett.
After the short medal ceremony, the team quickly departed as part of a formed military body, parading the last 6 kms down the Via Gladiola. Here, the Canadian contingent received loud cheers, and most members received gladiolas from adoring locals, including several bundles for Sgt Alan Rodgers. Near the end of the victory parade, OCdt (then Cpl) Tom “This is the Last Real Work I’ll Do in My Career” Lauterbacher found his European relatives along the parade route, and was able to connect with them before completing the victory parade with the rest of the team.
With the Four Days Marches over, attention quickly turned to medical recovery and beginning preparations for our return to Canada. After spending one more night in Huemensoord, the contingent departed the next day for Camp Harskamp, a Dutch training base that seems to be the exact opposite of Wainwright. There, some members of the contingent recovered under the watchful eye of Canadian medical staff, while most spent three days in nearby Amsterdam, immersing themselves in the sights and culture. Cpls Quinton Stender, Tom Lauterbacher, and Jake “The Trough” Thompson were able to spend time in the Lauterbacher’s family village in rural Germany. Following this well-deserved recovery, the team redeployed to Canada, proud of their accomplishments and confident they had represented the Division, Brigade, and Regiment well. Though the Four Days Marches are not competitive for time, teams did take pride in finishing together, as a team, and the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) team was one of very few Canadian teams that finished with all eleven marchers. These soldiers demonstrated the highest levels of professionalism, dedication, and above all, Perseverance.