Vice-chancellor leads Western Front walk

Sir Anthony Seldon on the Via Sacra
Sir Anthony Seldon on the Via Sacra

The University of Buckingham’s vice-chancellor is being joined by celebrities in an epic walk that spans the entire length of the Western Front, to commemorate the centenary of the First World War.

The walk, from June 22 to July 12, launches a campaign to make the 450-mile route a permanent memorial to all those who lost their lives in the Great War.

Sir Anthony Seldon’s venture was inspired by First World War soldier Second Lieutenant Alexander ‘Douglas’ Gillespie who, before being killed in action, wrote a letter describing an imaginary tree-lined walk running the length of the Western Front.

He wrote: “I would like to send every man, woman and child in Western Europe on pilgrimage along the Via Sacra, [sacred road] so that they might think and learn about what war means from the silent witnesses on either side.”

Gillespie’s great nephew, Tom Heap, is joining the walk.

He said: “My great uncle wanted a joyous memorial.

“People can walk or even run along this beautiful route which we’d like to be a 21st century memorial to all those who died in World War One.”

The 400-mile walk started at Pfetterhouse on the Swiss border and will finish at Nieuport in Northern Belgium, encompassing all of the main battles of the war, passing Verdun and the Somme on the day of the 100-year anniversary.

The campaign has had a huge response from members of the public, with more than 100 people joining the walk.

Actors Cherie Lunghi and Dominic West and BBC Countryfile’s Tom Heap have lent their support.

Political historian Sir Anthony, who has written more than 40 books including one on Churchill, said: “This route back was a sprawling mass of trenches, mud, bullets and wire. But in this crucible of human conflict, Gillespie suggested a place to reflect, a simple way to try to understand what had happened and to remember all of those who had given the ultimate sacrifice.

“We want the route to live on forever, so that anyone can pass down the Via Sacra and reflect on the fact that it was the slaughter line where so many from so many nations gave all to protect our future.”