History of the Vierdaagse

Origins 

An army football competition, established in Breda in 1904, soon developed into a wider army sports event held in Breda in 1906 and 1907.

Lieutenant C.D. Viehoff served with the 8th Infantry Regiment based in Arnhem.  When he was assigned to a detachment to attend the Breda games in July 1907, he proposed they march there over four days following a planned route and carrying full backpacks.  The idea was approved by his superiors, although lack of time to prepare meant that this march did not take place.

A prize medal from the 1907 Breda military sports event that Lieutenant Viehoff proposed to march to from Arnhem.

In April 1908 a new sports body, the NBVLO (Nederlandsche Bond Voor Lichamelijke Opvoeding) was set up.  Their role was to encourage participation in sport and other physical activities, including organising events across the Netherlands.  They supported Lieutenant Viehoff’s idea, resulting in the first Vierdaagse in September 1909.  Other marches followed annually.  These early marches were mainly military affairs, with just a few civilians.  The army encouraged these events since, as well as promoting fitness, they improved soldier’s marching skills, reducing the injuries that often occurred during route marches.

Walkers of the First Vierdaagse

A total of 306 walkers (296 soldiers and 10 civilians) set off on 1 September 1909 on the first day of the first Vierdaagse.  There were 13 different four-day routes in different parts of the country, all from garrison to garrison.  Each totalled 140-150km over the four days.  Four routes were cancelled at short notice, three due to an outbreak of cholera in Rotterdam and one due to poor road conditions. One route included Nijmegen, this being chosen by a total of 28 walkers - the first Nijmegen marchers!

The detachment of the 5th Infantry Regiment after successfully completing the first Vierdaagse in 1909.    [De Wereld Wandelt]

Korporaal Middendorp put his success in the Vierdaagsen of 1909 & 1910 down to bathing his feet in cognac & drinking lots of milk! 

[Op Gouden Voet]

The Vierdaagse from 1910

After 1909 the Vierdaagse became an annual event, although mobilisation meant that no marches took place in 1914 or 1915.  Initially, the march was based in a different town every year until, in 1925, Nijmegen was nominated as the permanent Vierdaagse city.

Numbers increase

In 1928 the March became International, with foreign participants invited.  Walkers from France, Germany, Great Britain and Norway took part, with further nations from the 1930s.

The numbers of walkers increased significantly after 1928.  In 1920 just over 500 had taken part, compared with 1,155 in 1928.  In 1931 numbers exceeded 2,000 for the first time, with over 3,000 in 1935 and over 4,000 in 1937.  The increase was mainly due to greater civilian participation, civilians outnumbering servicemen in all marches from 1932.  In 1940 the Vierdaagse was cancelled due to the German invasion.  A smaller scale emergency (nood) march was organised and took place in August 1940.

Despite Nijmegen suffering considerable war damage, the Vierdaagse recommenced in 1946 with over 4,000 participants taking part.  Post war difficulties included trying to obtain ribbon for the Vierdaagse Cross.  After medal manufacturers Koninklijke Begeer failed to find a Dutch supplier, one of Begeer’s directors travelled to Paris and managed to obtain some ribbon just in time.

The popularity of the Four Days Marches has continued to increase, breaking the barriers of 10,000 in 1954, 20,000 in 1982 and 30,000 in 1988.  The number of walkers now regularly exceeds 40,000, with over 47,000 taking part in the 100th March in 2016.  Due to this growth, since 2004 there has been an upper limit on the number taking part.

Medals on the March

The Vierdaagse authorities have never liked the wearing of several medals during the marches and periodically issue reminders to walkers.  As early as 1933 the March Leader Captain Breunese commented that “some participants … decorate their chest with a large number of medals, which they have received for completing all sorts of more or less important marches. To wear the Vierdaagsekruis … is fine, but …it is truly ridiculous when someone wears 10 or 15 different medals, spread across their entire chest in a whimsical fashion during the Vierdaagse …it is positively hideous."  

Not a race

The Marches are not, of course, a race.  In 1928, the first year foreign military detachments took part, the Norwegian army team did treat the event as a race and were first to finish each day.  They were disqualified and denied both the Vierdaagse Cross and the Group Medal.

British participation

The first British walkers arrived in 1928 when the marches first became an international event.  Forty members of the Road Walking Association took part that year, divided into four registered groups.

Robert Martin from North London, who captained one of the 1928 British teams, became the first non-Dutch walker to receive the silver cross (in 1932) and the gold cross (in 1938).

The first British military participation was in 1950 when a Germany-based RAF team took part, followed in 1951 with two Army teams.  The first Canadian Forces took part in 1952.  British participation continued to grow during the 1950’s, exceeding one thousand in 1957 and averaging around this level since then.

More detail on British Participation in the Vierdaagse can be found here:

Royal participation

The late Prince Claus, husband of Queen Beatrix, completed the Marches in 1967.  Afterwards he said, “It was a unique experience for me and I hold the Vierdaagse Cross in high esteem.  One my sons said with brutal humour: ‘Papa, of all your medals, it is the only one you really earned!’”

Queen Beatrix with her husband Prince Claus after he earned the Vierdaagse Cross in 1967.

Further information on the History of the Vierdaagse

The above history has been kept brief as there is an excellent history (in English and Dutch) on the Noviomagus.nl website at: 

The official 4daagse website also has a useful summary at: 

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