For the last 12 years, H.O.G.® chapters across the UK have been coming together annually to honour Britain’s fallen servicemen and women
Picture this: a sea of leather jackets and shining machines – thousands in total – standing in silence to pay respect to fallen servicemen and women at the National Memorial Arboretum (NMA), in the heart of England.
This striking scene was originally the brainchild of Nene Valley Chapter Director Martin Dickinson. Back in 2008, he made a rallying call at a H.O.G. Chapter directors’ meeting for members to participate in what is now known as Ride to the Wall – a yearly event aimed at acknowledging those who have died during military service since 1945.
“My plan was to hold a service of remembrance at the NMA following the memorial’s opening in 2007 by the Queen. So I asked 20 chapters if they could [each] commit to sending along 10 people,” says Martin.
Fast forward to Tamworth service station at 5am on a Sunday morning in October, in 2008. “I was expecting 200 bikes based on the initial response, but 1800 turned up – all Harley® riders – just from word of mouth. Amazing!” says Martin.
The second year saw 3500 riders in attendance and, as momentum built, other biking fraternities wanted to join the ride. The event has continued to grow more and more, to such an extent that this year saw 6,000 bikes and 15,000 people in total. All set off from various starting points (marshalled by H.O.G. members), with arrival times carefully coordinated to ensure a smooth execution.
“This year’s event was very special,” says Martin. “A one-star general who’s a patron of the event described it as ‘another level’. When you hear feedback like that, it makes it all worthwhile.”
Martin’s motivation to create this now permanent fixture in the H.O.G. calendar and recognise those who’d lost their lives was attributable in part to him having served in the army himself, during the Falklands and Northern Ireland conflicts. “We live in a throwaway society nowadays, and people perhaps tend to forget historical conflicts and the losses they brought. The Afghanistan conflict was in the news every day, but once the troops were withdrawn the coverage stopped; yet there are people who have had to live on with the effects of the war.”
One such person is Martin’s own family liaison officer, John Foster, who lost his son Robbie in the Afghanistan conflict in 2007. As Martin describes, John struggled to go to the NMA to see his son’s name etched on the wall, but felt it was incredibly important to do so. “He used to tell me, ‘To lose a family member is terrible, but for their name to be forgotten is even worse.’ Being part of Ride to the Wall has helped John feel part of a wider effort, and for the last three years he has taken families to the wall before the actual service,” says Martin.
In recognition of the huge impact that Ride to the Wall has had (to date it has raised £941,000 for the NMA, and that figure is set to pass £1m by June), the event was given the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in 2013 after only five years as a charity, which meant an invite to a garden party at Buckingham Palace. The event has also inspired different motorcycle groups to take part, further affirming that sense of community throughout the biker world. “We always get enquiries from various clubs looking to get involved, no matter what motorcycle they ride. There’s the Armed Services Scooter Club riding alongside a one-star general on his Suzuki, while a three-star general is on his BMW. It’s a great mix.”
Such is the impact of Ride to the Wall that it has even inspired non-bikers to take up riding. “I get letters from people who’ve driven to the memorial with their families and come away so impressed with the spectacle, they’ve signed up for lessons and are now riding,” says Martin. It just goes to shows how inspirational the H.O.G. community can be when it comes together.
Martin sums up what it’s all about. “We’re a charity in the true sense: we don’t take a penny. Everybody involved is a volunteer. I’ve got a committee of seven, and I always say to them, you work for one year for one minute’s silence.”