Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of D-Day, and the BBC had a fair bit of coverage of the ceremonies in Normandy, documentaries and so on. I'm no fan of war of any kind (past, present or future), but I have a great deal of respect for the people involved in the Second World War. The veterans are — as a general rule — extremely modest and self-effacing people, and yet they did an unbelievably difficult job, for which we owe a debt of gratitude. Watching them marching past the Queen in the final parade was incredibly moving. Even though most are in their 80s at least, and many walk with the aid of a stick, all straightened their backs as soon as they heard the band strike up, held their heads high and marched in step. One veteran who caught my eye (mainly because he waved cheerily at the Queen as he passed by) was dressed in a monastic habit1, festooned with medals. I'm sure that after everything the soldiers witnessed, life in a monastery would seem like a very attractive option. I really hope he found some peace for himself after winning peace for everyone else. I'm also no monarchist, but I thought the Queen treated them in a very respectful and sensitive way, and also gave what was — for her — and extremely personal speech of thanks.
After the ceremony, there was a harrowing documentary about the timeline of events leading up to D-Day itself, with the story told through a mixture of dramatic reconstruction, spoken testimony from veterans, and archive photographic and video footage. As I watched with a lump increasing in size in my throat, several things struck me forcibly. First, many of the veterans still have a very wry sense of humour about desperate events. One of the members of the 9th Parachute Batallion detailed with destroying the main gun battery which covered the beaches was asked by his commanding officer to join 'C' company, as they had lost so many men in the drop. He said,
C company was about three men, which struck me as being a rather limited force.
Second, so many of the men were little more than children. The King's Shropshire Light Infantry — who held out against a German panzer division for several days — were mostly in their late teens and barely out of school. What a thing to have to experience. Of course, no-one should have to see their mates blown apart in front of their eyes, but for these lads — from a quiet, rural area, full of farms and orchards — it must have seemed like Hell. Robert Capa's shocking photographs give a glimpse of what it must have been like, with the deafening noise and confusion, bodies tangled everywhere in the shallows, and nowhere to hide.
Finally, you got some impression of how people suffered — and continue to suffer — from the psychological effects of their time in action. I was stunned by a comment of one of the surviving King's Shropshire Light Infantrymen:
Those of us who survived are pretty selfish.
Just think about that for a moment. If they think themselves selfish, what must they think of us? We seem to have managed to squander the peace they bought us with their lives and their peace of mind.
On this day, 60 years later — as I watched old men close their eyes in pain at the recollection of that day; watched men ripped apart by shells and machine gun fire; watched a French man use the blood-soaked sheets from the slaughterhouse of Caen hospital to lay out a red cross, preventing Allied planes from bombing the building; saw the curled and faded photographs of young men who never got older — a warm sunny day was ending and cool breeze was blowing through the window. Outside, a blackbird was singing.
To all of you — Thank you.
1 I'm reliably informed by Mr. Bsag — who is something of an authority on which habit belongs to which order — that the man was a Franciscan monk.