It probably hasn’t escaped your attention – I hope it hasn’t – that today is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the start of the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied western Europe, and a turning point in the Second World War. This year also marks 100 years since the start of the First World War, the war that was supposed to end all wars.
Maybe you’ve watched, damp-eyed, as I have today, the aging veterans, resplendent in their smart jackets and military berets decorated with regimental pins. Naturally, their numbers are fewer now, many are in wheelchairs accompanied by carers, proud grandchildren and great-grandchildren, medals pinned to their chests.
On such sombre occasions, I ask myself: can’t the cynical turn a blind eye to the obvious political capital that is to be gained from this ceremony, pretend not to notice the patronising tone of vainglorious commentators, and temper the disgust at commemorations such as these providing yet another chance for royalty to put on their pretend medals and strut about?
Yes, I find praying for peace whilst preparing for war hypocritical. I know that world leaders in years gone by offered the same veterans little escape from the poverty and hardship of their youth. And, if Russia, not Hollywood, produced the war films we all ravenously feast upon, perhaps we’d care more about the estimated 27 million Russians killed during World War Two, some 8.7 million of them soldiers who helped bring about an Allied victory we, some more noisily than others it has to be said, cheer still.
But the one thing that annoys me more than seeing royalty and politicians whose decisions sent and indeed still send boys and now girls to early graves in foreign lands (I acknowledge that many of the leaders in attendance today have personal connections to the Second World War) is the accusation from sanctimonious apologists and do-gooders that to remember war is to somehow glorify it.
What an insult.
I don’t see celebration in war; I see regret and sadness. I see reconciliation and forgiveness, not allies and enemies. There is life and there is death, rather than victors and vanquished. I don’t accept that many other people, especially seventy years on, see anything other than these things, peppered with pride and polite curiosity. Not unlike the great war poets of 1914-1918 whose jingoism as battle progressed came to be replaced by bitterness – and for good reason.
Living, as we do, in a world of celebrity worship (the saddest thing is that it’s not even exclusively of the finest in their field but for negligible glory, often by association, the reward being time spent eating bugs in a jungle or pretending to forget that cameras watch their every move in a Big Brother house), the word ‘hero’ is so often used when it really should not have been. Those modest men who liberated Europe were and forever shall remain ‘heroes’ as I recognise the meaning of the word, and hearing again today of their fear, breakdowns and lifetimes of recurring nightmares does nothing to diminish that. I think that’s just deep respect for ordinary humans placed in unimaginable situations, managing – surviving – something they did not imagine possible when so many were less fortunate. Alas, respect is something too many lack nowadays.
Yet I saw it in those old men, even as I squirmed as they rose almost as one to their feet for President Obama, their hands, some crippled with arthritis, offering applause. They do ‘respect’ so well.
I know that President Obama’s remark – ‘we cannot live in freedom unless free people are willing to die for it,’ – will annoy some people, but he’s right. And they died in their millions for it.
Maybe we should remember that – how comparatively few of us have really had little choice but to kill or be killed since 1945 – the next time the opportunity to vote arises (bearing in mind that not everybody who fought in the two World Wars had the vote, and how across Europe recently, in elections for the European Parliament, the turnout was as low as thirteen per cent), particularly in any referendum concerning staying in or leaving the European Union, itself created in the aftermath of the Second World War and credited with delivering stability and prosperity and, above all, peace in Europe for half a century.
I certainly accept that for many in Great Britain, former Commonwealth countries and the USA in particular, all protected by sea, war is viewed differently to European nations with bitter experience of the consequences of defeat in battle and of wartime occupation.
But does it really matter today? Last year, Google was attacked for not incorporating a larger poppy in its daily Google Doodle for Armistice Day, which was “demeaning” to the war dead. Does the size of a poppy matter so much?
Some maintain that the red remembrance poppy, pinned to lapels all around the world since 1918 (the British paper ones are actually manufactured by disabled military personnel), the sales of which go to support veterans, have been hijacked by war-hungry politicians, so wearing it is to show support for their interventionist actions. Others maintain that to wear it is to mock the dead, who would be so distraught to discover how their sacrifice has been ‘turned into a fashion appendage’.
Against those who choose not to wear the red poppy in November, and condemn those who do, stand others who insist that it be worn out of political correctness. There is a white one instead, favoured by the peace movement. Funds raised from its sale originally went to help conscientious objectors in times of conflict. Of course, some people condemn those who choose this poppy.
Does the colour of a poppy matter?
I’m not even going to mention President Obama chewing gum at Ouistreham earlier today, or ask what Prince Charles did to earn a breast-full of honours (I checked, they’re not medals as such).
Again, does it really matter, today of all days? I think not.
Perhaps you’ve already seen, but for last year’s International Peace Day in September, on the D-Day landing beach of Arromanches in northern France, 9,000 silhouettes were drawn in the sand to produce a most striking visual representation of the enormous loss of life. No distinction was made between nationalities, they were known only as ‘The Fallen’. Although an extremely conservative figure, rounded down to the nearest thousand, 9,000 was based on the loss of 3,000 French civilians, 2,000 German and 4,000 Allied forces. The Arromanches Office of Tourism believes that throughout the battle of Normandy, closer to 45,000 civilians were killed and the total German casualties on D-Day are estimated as being nearer 10,000.
(I think the numbers matter.)
I also think we have a duty to ensure that each new generation understands the enormity of what today’s events are about. In our ever-changing society, with our addiction to technology, it is fact that some British schoolchildren don’t know who Winston Churchill is, nor understand the difference between France and Paris; think cheese comes from plants and tomatoes grow underground; are unable to identify even the most common species of animals and plants. The consequences of this appalling ignorance about nature, geography and history should concern us all.
I often wonder what teachers teach in schools these days (and woe betide any lesser mortal for suggesting that they make improvements), and keep hearing again and again and again, as though eventually I might believe it, that parents are too overworked and stressed and simply do not have the time to teach their children these fundamental things. Sadly, I don’t expect many will successfully impress upon their offspring the tremendous scale of loss and debt to which we owe the very eldest in our communities who we have long since so shamefully dismissed as being irrelevant and worthless.
Schools absolutely should visit Europe’s war cemeteries, certainly make better use of technology to fully convey the incredible numbers of young lives snuffed out and now marked by those immaculately tended graves and memorials. They should read the poems, attend plays, analyse and scrutinise Hollywood’s depiction of ‘war’, visit museums, sit in the old tanks, try on the gas masks and above all be glad that they will probably never be called upon to defend their homes and families as those we have commemorated today.
Of course you can be a pacifist and still wear a blood-red poppy with pride. You can be a staunch nationalist and still mourn the tremendous, often needless, loss of life. You can despise the military pomp at the ceremony I watched this afternoon, in Ouistreham, yet believe absolutely in David Lloyd George’s simple choice of words now inscribed on monuments to the unknown soldier – ‘The Glorious Dead’.
Just please don’t ever forget that in the two global conflicts memorialised this year more than most, people gave their lives not only in defence of their countries but of other’s, and this they did in the main because, for all the discussion and evangelism, they believed it right to do so for they had confidence in their cause and felt that God was on their side. If hindsight has proved them to be wrong in their calculations, it does not matter any more. We all misjudge and must never be so arrogant to believe that we cannot collectively be taken in by the promises of clever demagogues in desperate times and later come to regret it. The vast majority of us tend to follow our leaders dutifully and diligently whether we wear a uniform or not. The impressionable and fearless youth on both sides were fighting for exactly the same reasons: for their families, for their homeland, for a better future. So many lied about their age to enlist in order to be able to do so. This is the great tragedy of war.
Remember them all today, the living and the dead, and thank your lucky stars or holy deity of choice that you are unlikely to ever truly know the agony they endured, the butchery in which they partook, the guilt and shame they have lived with over the past seventy years.
Few men spoke of their experiences, and who could blame them? The sights, sounds and smells must have haunted them evermore.
This is why I feel the guns should salute them and planes should swoop low over their heads in recognition of what they did, gave and lost. The people of Normandy should turn out to embrace them and applaud them, to be humbled by them. The sad truth is that there won’t be many more opportunities to so grandly demonstrate to the last of this magnificent generation that we’re so very proud of them and to express our gratitude on a scale befitting their actions of 1944.
I doubt that any of the elderly gentlemen seen sitting with blankets across their laps on French beaches today, remembering fallen comrades with a tear in their eye, would wish war on anyone.
To honour them is not to glorify war but to thank them for having the courage to face it so that we might never again need to.