D-Day: The last march

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The Independent Online

The most poignant moment in yesterday's 60th anniversary commemorations was the sight of British veterans walking away from an open-air service in Bayeux with all the weariness of their 80 years and more

The longest day has ended at last. Of all the heart-rending moments in yesterday's 60th anniversary commemorations of the Normandy landings, the most poignant was the sight of British veterans walking away from an open-air service in Bayeux carrying their flags slung casually over their shoulders with all the weariness of their 80 years and more.

Their last parade? This will not, of course, be the final time that D-Day is remembered, but it will be the final time so many of the veterans of 6 June 1944 - British, American, Canadian, Polish and French, and, yes, German - gather in such impressive numbers on the Normandy coast.

Harry Brooke, 81, from Sheffield, who landed and fought with the 3rd Paratroop Brigade on D-Day, said: "We are the survivors of the survivors. You won't see so many of us next time around and, in many cases, we won't ever see our old comrades again. That's what makes this so special."

When 1,000 members of the British Normandy Veterans' Association (NVA) marched past the Queen last night at Arromanches, it was officially the "last" march of the NVA: the last patrol of a band of brothers who started their journey on ships and landing craft and aircraft on the south coast of England six decades ago.

Hundreds of their American compatriots, veterans of Omaha and Utah beaches gathered at the American military cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer to hear President George Bush deliver a moving tribute to the young men from the prairie towns and city streets of America who crossed an ocean to throw back the marching, mechanised evils of fascism. "Those young men did it," he told the American veterans and their families assembled amid the sweeping lines of 9,387 white tombstones at the cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. "You did it."

Mr Bush paused to pay tribute to the "courage" and "leadership" of President Ronald Reagan, the man he so much resembles in style, who died on Saturday.

Events also intruded - jarringly - in other ways. President Jacques Chirac gave a touching speech, just before President Bush, in which he expressed "in the name of every French man and woman ... my nation's eternal gratitude and the unparalleled debt our democracies owe. I salute their courage, that flight of the human soul which, by their refusal to acknowledge the inevitability of enslavement, altered the course of history and so conferred a new stature on mankind, nations and people. They are now our sons also," M. Chirac said.

However, he could not resist taking a diplomatic dig at President Bush by adding that the Second World War Allies had fought "in defence of a certain conception of mankind, a certain vision of the world: the vision that lies at the heart of the United Nations charter". In other words, the US and Britain had blurred that "vision" by fighting a non-UN approved war in Iraq last year. President Bush, in turn, took an oblique dig at the French by ending his speech with the words: "America would do it again - for our friends."

The two presidents had, in theory, narrowed their differences over the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty in talks in Paris on Saturday, but not obliterated them, it seems. Both might usefully have listened to the English woman who chided two press photographers when they shoved and swore at each other as they jostled for position at an event commemorating the British airborne landings on Saturday. "Shush, hush, for shame," she said. "How can you? At an event like this?"

More than a million people are believed to have flocked to Normandy at the weekend to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the largest - and most momentous - amphibian invasion in history. Although precise numbers are difficult to establish, there were thought to be 10,000 British veterans alone.

The presence of 17 heads of state and government, including the Queen, Tony Blair and - for the first time at a D-Day celebration - the German leader, Gerhard Schröder, made yesterday a frustrating day for many visitors. A blanket of suffocating and officious security had been imposed on the entire 60 miles of the D-Day coast and up to 20 miles inland. The main "international" celebration of the invasion on the cliffs above Arromanches became a pompous and stilted affair, scripted by the demands of television and the threat of terrorism. President Chirac awarded the Légion d'Honneur to selected veterans of all Allied nations. President Bush looked bored.

Overall, there was, for some people, too much marching by serving soldiers; too many military bands and fly-pasts; too much gold-braid; too many flags. But how do you find the right language, or theatre, to celebrate something as terrible, but as necessary, as D-Day?

Many of the smaller events caught the spirit of comradeship and sacrifice better, suchas the extraordinarily moving ceremony on the ridge marking the north edge of the D-Day battlefield on Saturday when 400 veterans of the British 3rd Parachute Brigade (out of the original 2,200) marched past the commander, Brigadier James Hill, 93, the most senior surviving Allied commander of the war. The main British commemoration yesterday, at the British military cemetery in Bayeux, with 4,165 graves from the Normandy campaign, was also a powerfully moving. The Queen and President Chirac presented an enormous wreath of poppies, wrapped in the colours of the British monarchy and the French Republic.

Something like 1,000 British veterans marched past the graves of their comrades and a Latin inscription that translates: "We, once conquered by William, have liberated William's native land." English hymns drifted in the bright sunshine; a bugler played "Reveille" and the "Last Post". (The sun was too warm for some: three veterans had to be treated in hospital after the ceremony.) Later, at the international ceremony at Arromanches, M. Chirac paid individual tributes to all the Allied nations, including "the United Kingdom, a heroic nation that long held out alone ... a nation that, as the last archipelago of liberty, took in those who refused defeat and humiliation".

Perhaps the most moving of all the speeches of the day was given by Gerhard Schröder, at a Franco-German commemoration in Caen last night. Mr Schröder, born in 1944, recalled that his father had been killed fighting in Romania and his family had only discovered the grave four years ago.

"We Germans know we unleashed this heinous war," he said. "We recognise the responsibility our history has laid upon us and we take it seriously ... It is not the Germany of those dark years I represent here today. My country has returned to the fold of civilised nations ... Thousands of Allied soldiers ... paid the ultimate price for freedom. German soldiers died because they had been sent on a murderous campaign to crush Europe. But in death soldiers were united, regardless of the uniform they wore."