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Vimy Ridge Memorial World War One Western Front

An interview with our ex-military Trek for Troops leader

June 2020 will see us trekking along the World War One Western Front for military charities. One of the many awesome things about Trek for Troops is that we’re led by an awesome Challenge Leader, Damon Blackband. With experience in the military and having worked with loads of our treks and cycles, we couldn’t have dreamed of a better guide for our Great War challenge.

In this interview, Damon lets us in on what to expect from our trek from London to Belgium, relays some fab stories from his military past and gives his top tips for the trek ahead.

First off, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi everyone, Damon here, your guide for Trek for Troops. In a nut-shell, I’m a 51-years young Ex-Army Professional Events Manager, Mountaineering and Cycling Guide, Supply Teacher and Cycle Mechanic. I’m currently living in Lincolnshire with my equally adventurous partner, Liz, and our adorable Springer Spaniel, ‘Molly’.

What was your role in the military and how was your time with them?
I joined the Army Air Corps in 1985 and enjoyed 23 fantastic years travelling all over the world learning new skills, meeting incredible people and sharing life changing moments. I retired in 2007 as the Sergeant Major of Flying Wing at the school of Army Aviation in Hampshire where I was a Helicopter Gunnery Instructor.

Any favourite anecdotes?
Lots of memorable moments, both comical and heart breaking. One potentially very serious, but later funny incident stands out.

Whilst serving in Bosnia during the Balkans War, I was approaching an abandoned trench system with a few colleagues, when we noticed a local priest waving and shouting at us from a nearby road, which we foolishly ignored. It was only when we arrived at the trenches that we noticed a blank sign in front of the trenches, which on the reverse, had the words ‘MINES’ painted on in red, ha ha! How we laughed!

What would you say are your top 5 landmarks that we pass on Trek for Troops?
Very hard question to nominate just 5 top locations with so many heart-wrenching tributes and memorials all along the vast front lines and battlefields!

• No 1 would have to be the ‘Last Post’ ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres.
The other most memorable sites amongst numerous incredible sights would probably be:
• The Red Dragon Memorial to the 38th Welsh Division near Mametz Wood,
• The chilling Lochnagar Crater
• The French memorials at St Nazaire and
• The total devastation along Vimy Ridge.

You know a great deal about the history behind these landmarks – and of the Battles of the Somme – could you summarise for us what exactly went on and the significance of these battles?
WW1 was truly a Global War with millions left dead on both sides. It featured new technologies in warfare, which created more destruction than had ever been seen before. (Planes, Tanks, Gas, Bombs etc.)

The Somme was the largest battle on the Western Front and was intended to hasten the end of the War. Instead, it reached a stalemate, with over a million dead and wounded, making it one of the bloodies battles in human history. The British Army suffered 57,470 dead and wounded on the first day of the offensive alone!

What are the highlights of the challenge for you?
The highlights for me are the incredible, individual stories of gallantry recollected in the graveyard books at each cemetery. I always read through these, before paying my respects at their numerous gravestones: I try to imagine their incredible heroics and brave actions, amongst a sea of devastation.

What would you say is the most beautiful spot on the route?
The whole WW1 front line is incredibly well-maintained and presented and a fitting tribute to the thousands who will never grow old. If I were to recall just one incredible view, it would probably be the views from the twin limestone towers. Perched high upon Vimy Ridge, to the Canadian Corps who fought and died in this spot.

Do you have any tips on training?
My best advice would be to ensure that you have well-broken-in, comfortable, lightweight, fabric boots that you are happy walking 100km in! As for the fitness aspects, I am sure that so long as you are a relatively active person, with a few consecutive double-digit walks under your belt, you will be just fine.

What kind of food will we be tucking into on the trek?
As usual with Dream Challenges treks, we will no doubt be enjoying large breakfasts to see us through the day’s challenges. En route, we’ll have a mixture of picnic and café lunches in scenic spots. In the evening, we’ll tuck into a meal of top local cuisine and socialise over a few glasses of the local beers and wines, which the French and Belgiques are famous for!

What’s the accommodation like?
We’ll stay in comfortable, mid-range hotels that offer clean and friendly accommodation. No unnecessary frills on this sort of challenge.

What do you prioritise when finalising an itinerary?

My favourite subject and my favourite part of the challenge – Understanding the objectives and the participants’ expectations, thorough research, planning and reconnaissance, realistic achievable itineraries with outstanding and memorable objectives, coupled with excellent logistics, in a safe and enjoyable environment.

Having worked with us on several challenges now, what would you say is your favourite thing about them?

Helmuth Van Moltke famously wrote ‘No plan of operations reaches with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main force’.

Whilst Dream Challenges aren’t in the business of fighting battles, I am always confident that all possible preparation and planning has been covered to ensure that their challenges run as seamlessly and enjoyably as possible, and that as a leader, I am always supported and prepared for any eventuality!

This ensures that everyone ultimately enjoys their challenge and that I get to enjoy a beer each evening with the participants in a warm and friendly atmosphere.

Find out more about Trek for Troops

It’s needless to say, Damon knows what he’s doing. Nothing short of Challenge Master, we are delighted to have him leading another Trek for Troops. If you’d like to find out more about the Trek for Troops Great War Challenge 2020, please visit the event page here - and join our squad trekking the Western Front in 2020.

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