Former Buckingham vice-chancellor sets off to walk 1,000km Western Front Way

Sir Anthony Seldon has been instrumental in setting up the memorial route, in memory of a young officer killed in the First World War

Tuesday, 10th August 2021, 12:20 pm

The University of Buckingham' s former vice-chancellor has embarked on a 1,000km walk along the Western Front in honour of a First World War officer.

On Monday, August 9, Sir Anthony Seldon set off on the pilgrimage in memory of Alexander Douglas Gillespie, a young 2nd lieutenant in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

Shortly before Gillespie died in battle, he wrote a letter saying there should be a route marking a permanent memorial to those who fell.

Sir Anthony Seldon on the walk

Gillespie outlined his vision for a lasting memorial route in a letter to his old headmaster, which Sir Anthony came across six years ago while researching a book on the history of public schools.

Gillespie wrote: “I wish that when peace comes, our government might combine with the French government to make one long avenue between the lines, from the Vosges to the sea….I would make a fine broad road in the ‘No-Mans Land’ between the lines, with paths for pilgrims on foot and plant trees for shade and fruit trees, so that the soil should not altogether be waste. Then I would like to send every man, woman and child in Western Europe on a pilgrimage along that Via Sacra so that they might think and learn what war means from the silent witnesses on either side.””

Moved by his words, Sir Anthony galvanised a team and began work on a long-distance walking and cycling route.

Sir Anthony has spoken to relatives of Gillespie, including Tom Heap, the Countryfile presenter and great-nephew of the young officer. Tom will be the first person to cycle the route early next year.

A team and charity was formed, and efforts are being made to adorn the route with markers, plaques and information boards.

The charity is led by Rory Forsyth, who contacted Sir Anthony six years ago after reading an article about the letter, saying he would love to get involved.

It was Rory's father who got him interested in military history.

“He died about three years ago so I put some of his ashes next to the pathway as if to say, ‘One day I will walk this’,” Rory said.

The 1,000km Western Front Way is the biggest single commemorative project under way in the world, representing a forward-looking approach to co-operation, collaboration and education to safeguard peace for the future.

The Belgian section is now complete, with over 450 plaques in place on 100km of the walking route, and 35 larger plaques on local points of interest. Another 60km is being added this year as an eastern branch off the main route taking in the Commonwealth War Graves Tyne Cot Cemetery and The Langermark German War Cemetery.

Three thousand markers are being sent to France this summer, to be erected along the route in sections including Vimy, Auchy-Les-Mines, Loos, Pfetterhouse, Pinon, all of the Pays Du Coquelicot and Badonviller with 45 other communes south of Verdun.

Starting at Pfetterhouse, near the French-Swiss border, Sir Anthony will follow the route, making his way to Nieuwpoort, Belgium.

Sir Anthony said: “I’ve always wanted to walk it - and the feeling is that, by walking it, then I’m recreating that sense of walking for peace.

"I see it becoming a very well-known pathway across northern Europe.

"I hope many will honour that initial dream of Gillespie.”