A former soldier from Chilwell will this summer educate on battlefields instead of fighting on them, as he fulfils the role of lead guide on Help for Heroes’ annual Big Battlefield Bike Ride (BBBR) – the Charity’s largest fundraiser.
John Cotterill, 64, served as an infantry officer for 37 years, and has turned his hobby of military history into a profession, guiding around 30 battlefield tours a year.
He explained: “Before I left the Army, I took part as a guide on the first BBBR. Initially, I was one of a team of four guides but now I’m the lead, so I make the plans and decide where the rolling guide stops – the places we tell the stories – will be.
“This year will be my 11th BBBR, only having to miss them when I’ve been away serving in Afghanistan or elsewhere. I lead a team of four guides, operating in two pairs, and we leapfrog ahead of the cyclists so there’s always a team of two of us at the next rolling guide stop to flag down the cyclists and tell them a story about what happened in that place.”
Cotterill has always had a keen interest in military history and, after leaving service in 2014, became a self-employed tour guide. He and his BBBR colleagues are members of the International Guild of Battlefield Guides, which has around 350 members worldwide.
He added: “Guiding is all about putting people in the boots of those who were there, then they tend to engage with it and be more gripped with the whole thing. We’re quite clear the BBBR is not a battlefield tour: this is a bike ride to raise funds for Help for Heroes, which happens to have a battlefield theme.
“It’s been noticeable as time has gone on that participants are becoming more interested in the battlefield history; in 2022, almost 100 per cent of the riders pulled in and listened to what we had to say and we’re keen to maintain that level.”
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.
While other charities also offer battlefield fundraising challenges, Help for Heroes is the only one that does it on the scale of the BBBR, with multiple stops each day to delve into the military history. Additionally, Cotterill and his team offer to help riders with family history and ancestry interests.
Cotterill added: “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.”
The trip also includes transport and transfers throughout the challenge; ferry from Portsmouth to Caen, coach transfers and ferry home;
six nights’ accommodation; meals and refreshments; mechanical support; and an exclusive BBBR cycling jersey and medal.
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