The D-Day Commemoration – Pomp and Unimaginable Circumstance
I spent a couple of hours this afternoon watching TV coverage of the D-Day 70th anniversary ceremony in Ouistreham. It was attended by various heads of state including the Presidents of the US and Russia, and my own dear Queen. The arrival of the big-wigs was an interminable process as one after the other, the suited, booted and uniformed presidents and monarchs proceeded down the red carpet towards the welcoming embrace of the host, French President François Hollande.
The last to arrive were Obama and the Queen. There was a gap of several minutes between the two, and as I watched Hollande standing there waiting for Her Majesty, an evil thought crossed my mind that for some reason she might have been struck by some unexpected health problem. I wondered how that would be communicated to Hollande, and how he would have reacted to the news. I shouldn’t have worried. At 88, the Queen is allowed to take her time, and finally she trundled down the aisle with the Duke of Edinburgh to greet the assembled veterans and take her place in the front row of the stalls.
All the while, the cameras kept focusing on Obama and Putin, who apparently loathe each other. At one stage, the pair appeared side by side on a split screen which was clearly visible to each of them. Obama chewed gum, and Putin let out as much of a smirk as the Botox allowed.
When I was at school, if I had stood through assembly chewing on a wad of gum I would have been spotted by some eagle-eyed teacher and given a seriously hard time. For Barack Obama, school rules obviously don’t apply, because on his arrival in the presidential tank masquerading as a limousine, he chomped away in full knowledge that the world was witnessing his mastications. I guess gum is the American way. For sure, a good proportion of the brave souls who landed on Omaha Beach 70 years ago would have been sharing Obama’s habit. I very much doubt that Her Majesty would have allowed herself to indulge in the Spearmint on any public an occasion, let alone one of such solemnity.
I’m afraid I disengaged half-way through Hollande’s speech, which he gave after a lengthy military ceremonial in which various French units did what they do on such occasions – saluting, raising flags, marching past and so forth. An awful chauvinism came over me, as I reflected that we British don’t excel in many things these days, but we still do ceremonial better than any nation.
But I was also struck with a feeling of regret that I was not there. Not anywhere near the ridiculous collection of the great and the good, but down on the beach with the veterans, among the boats and the jeeps, and wandering through the cemeteries. Arromanches is on my bucket list. It’s so ludicrously easy to get to from Southern England, where I live, that I’m ashamed never to have been there. After all, my mother, who was attached to Eisenhower’s staff, made it to those beaches some weeks after D-Day, arriving by submarine See the picture). And a good friend of ours who was a navigator for one of the planes that took the gliders to Normandy early on the morning of the invasion was there among the veterans.
D-Day means a lot to us Brits. In a way, despite the fact that only a minority of the troops who landed that day were natives of our shores, it was a kind of redemption, after four years of mishaps in which the British army suffered more defeats than victories. No matter that Montgomery’s tactics after the landing, especially his failure to take Caen within the timeframe allowed in the battle plan, attracted much criticism from his American colleagues. Our troops faced the music side by side with the other allied forces, and suffered as they suffered even if they got off relatively lightly compared to the Americans on Omaha Beach. Our engineering know-how contributed massively to the success of the operation, as did our navy and air force.
Watching the veterans walking or being wheeled around the beaches and villages – each with their own memories of that dramatic day – caused me to reflect on the nature of heroism and courage, particularly in the context of what happened on the beaches and fields of Normandy.
One of the veterans commented thus on being referred to as a hero: “we are not the heroes. Those we left behind are the real heroes”. Modest words typical of what you would hear from any war veteran.
Now I have immersed myself as much as any ordinary person in the history of the Normandy campaign. I’ve read books, watched movies and TV documentaries and even heard the first-hand account of my friend who towed one of the gliders. But because I was not there, and have never experienced combat of any kind, I have no concept of the internal struggle these guys went through.
I see no problem with describing all of them as heroes, because they were involved in a heroic enterprise. But have we devalued the meaning of the word by such an all-embracing usage? Are there degrees of heroism?
Most of the people who landed on the beaches or parachuted out of aircraft to secure a path for the landing forces were not volunteers. They were conscripts. They had no choice but to be there. But once on the beaches or in the marshy fields beyond them they had decisions to make. To hide in the shell craters and hedgerows, albeit still in harm’s way but at least with the perception of relative safety? Or to expose themselves directly to machine-gun and shell fire by moving forward and confronting the enemy? Many of those who did stand up were cut down in short order. Is that what the veteran meant?
What I do know is that if I had been on one of those beaches, with bullets and shrapnel fizzing around me, my first instinct would have been to head for the nearest hole and bury myself. Would I have followed my instinct and sprawled cowering in that hole? Perhaps not. What people discover in those situations is communal courage, in which the bonds formed with others through friendship, training and a communal sense of purpose – overcome the individual drive for self-preservation. But those bonds can be fragile and easily dissolve in adversity. And that’s where leadership comes in. Not necessarily through the chain of command – often different leaders seem emerge to inspire others in combat by personal example. The sergeant who leads the assault on a gun emplacement, or the private who rallies those around him when the command structure is wiped out.
Aside from the grand sweep of events, the politics and the impact on societies and individual lives, the enduring fascination of war is to project oneself into it and try and imagine how one would feel, react and behave. And I’m happy to regard anyone who has survived through the terror of combat and managed to live a useful and productive life thereafter as a hero – not just the fallen. Heroism is not just the actions of the moment, but coming to terms with the consequences.
Just as I have visited the graves of relatives in the cemeteries of Flanders, I will go to Arromanches – and hopefully Pearl Harbour and other battle sites on my bucket list – not just to imagine, but to reflect on how lucky I am not to have had to go through what those dignified and modest old veterans experienced.