This summer, more than 200 charity fundraisers will go back in time on a cycle ride trip with historical pit stops along the way.
They will cycle around 310 miles of Northern France, from Étretat to Dunkirk, following in the footsteps of the British Expeditionary Force and Operation Dynamo, which saw more than 338,000 troops evacuated from Dunkirk, in May and June 1940.
They will be taking part in Armed Forces charity Help for Heroes’ largest annual fundraiser, the Big Battlefield Bike Ride (BBBR). But, while many charities organise fundraising rides, Help for Heroes is the only one that operates on the scale of the BBBR, with multiple stops each day to delve into the military history. And tour guides even offer to help riders with family history and ancestry interests.
John Cotterill, 64, from Nottingham, served as an infantry officer for 37 years, but is now a member of the International Guild of Battlefield Guides and leads a team of four tour guides on the BBBR.
People come to us and say I have an ancestor we’d like you to research and, if we can, if he died anywhere near where we’ll be going, we do the research and we build the story of that ancestor into one of the rolling guide stops.
At the nearest stop we’ll say where he lived and where he died and, if they’re a bit off the route during a lunch or overnight stop, we’ll take the individual by car to the relevant battlefield or cemetery so we can tell them the individual story. They often lay a wreath then we get them back on the route to continue cycling.
John Cotterill, member of the International Guild of Battlefield Guides
In 2022, Philip Masters, 74, from Farnham, in Surrey, who enjoyed a successful international career as a motorsport photographer, joined the BBBR for the first time, riding the Somme battlefields, and John was able to supplement the knowledge the Masters family already had of their ancestors.
I was glad I did this ride as my family were very much involved on the Western Front. Three members of my family fought in WWI, and I discovered a lot about my uncle Alexander (b1885), my grandfather’s brother. He was killed in November 1914, and I hadn’t really known about him.
But he was very interesting. He was a captain in the 34th Sikh Pioneers and John’s research described how he died, in a very brave way. He led a company over 600 yards of open ground in an attack into the enemy trenches. He was last seen shooting four Germans with his revolver, with two Sikh soldiers fighting by his side and was subsequently listed as missing after the attack.
Philip Masters, participator
This year’s BBBR follows in the footsteps of the British Expeditionary Force and tells the story of Operation Dynamo, when more than 338,000 troops were evacuated from Dunkirk, in May and June 1940. Participants will cycle around 310 miles of Northern France, from Étretat to Dunkirk, between Sunday 11 June and Friday 16 June.
Places are still available on the ride and the closing date for applications is 10 March. For more information or to sign up for the BBBR 2023, visit helpforheroes.org.uk/fundraising/big-battlefield-bike-ride-2023
- Photo by frame harirak: instant images