The D-Day commemorations: The living and dead, comrades again

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Amid the rows over the Normandy anniversary, one fact united those present: that these events must not be forgotten

For some people, the longest day has never ended. "These are all my mates. These and these and these," said Dick Bowen yesterday. He pointed to a block of neat, white gravestones carved with the names of soldiers of the East Yorkshire Regiment and the Green Howards. All the stones were dated 6 June 1944; all of the soldiers buried beneath them died on, or near, Gold Beach on D-Day.

Dick Bowen, then an 18-year-old private from Bradford, now a sprightly 83-year-old from York, also stepped ashore on Gold Beach that day. He has been returning to Normandy once a year ever since, sometimes more than once, to visit his "mates". "Some people say that Gold Beach was a picnic compared to Omaha and other places," he said. "To them I say: 'You weren't there'."

The political and media row over the 65th anniversary of D-Day has obliged us to ask, and answer, a difficult question. Why do we carry on commemorating events such as the Battle of Normandy? How should we do it? What will we do when we no longer have the old British men, and women – more than 600 of them – who marched in comradeship (and sometimes in tears) in Bayeux and Arromanches yesterday? Or, for that matter, the hundreds of American and Canadian veterans who paraded at Omaha and Juno?

Just after Dick Bowen showed us "his" gravestones, in the British war cemetery at Bayeux, a few miles inland from Gold Beach, he took part in a moving ceremony amid the graves and lawns and horse chestnut trees. There were marching bands and there were flags and there were smartly uniformed serving British soldiers. There were scores of teenage, British army, air force and navy cadets, including many young women. There were also hundreds of British and family members and well-wishers and large numbers of local, French people. (Don't believe the lie that the French don't care; they do.)

Prince Charles chatted lengthily afterwards to the British veterans. So did the French Prime Minister, François Fillon. Gordon Brown did not attend but he was at an earlier British Legion service in Bayeux cathedral, looking fidgety and preoccupied. He then hosted a private reception in Bayeux for a handful of British veterans before going on to the afternoon ceremony at Omaha Beach that has caused all the fuss in the British media.

Was the event at Omaha Beach a "main" D-Day commemoration, from which the Queen was scandalously excluded? Or was it just a Franco-American event at an American cemetery in France? That argument will never be settled. For Dick Bowen, and many other veterans, it missed the point. "I'm not really that fussed who comes or doesn't come," he said. "Of course we would have liked to have the Queen. But this should always be about the people who were here in 1944, not the people who want reflected glory 65 years later." Among the guests at the "invitation only" crowd at the cemetery above Omaha Beach was the actor Tom Hanks. He may not have been a D-Day veteran but at least he played one in the movies.

In his speech to the American, and a few British and Canadian, veterans and the other guests, President Obama said the allied invasion of Normandy in 1944 had saved the world from "evil and tyranny". "We live in a world of competing beliefs and claims about what is true," Mr Obama said. "In such a world, it is rare for a struggle to emerge that speaks to something universal about humanity. The Second World War did that.

"Friends and veterans, what we cannot forget – what we must not forget – is that D-Day was a time and a place where the bravery and selflessness of a few was able to change the course of an entire century. No man who shed blood or lost a brother would say that war is good. But all know that this war was essential. It was unknowable then, but so much of the progress that would define the 20th century, on both sides of the Atlantic, came down to the battle for a slice of beach only six miles long and two miles wide."

He omitted the two British beaches, Sword and Gold, the mostly Canadian beach Juno and the second American beach Utah, not to speak of the heroic efforts of the non-democratic Red Army, but he was presumably talking metaphorically. It was otherwise a good speech, and vintage Obama, but it failed to make one shrewd, and haunting, point that was made earlier by a somewhat lesser-known figure, the Rev Kenneth Ward.

Mr Ward, a British D-Day veteran in his late 80s, is the national chaplain of the Normandy Veterans Association. He has officiated at the ceremony in the British war cemetery in Bayeux every 6 June for the past 25 years. This time, for the first time, he permitted himself a chair.

Addressing the many teenage cadets in the crowd, Mr Ward said: "I am sure many of you have realised that we are now getting very old." Who, he asked, would remember D-Day when all the veterans were dead? "You cadets have to carry on the tradition for us. Will you promise to do this? I want to hear you shout 'yes'". At the second attempt, Mr Ward got a resounding 'yes', and not just from the cadets.

What is it that brings the veterans back year after year? Why was the 65th anniversary so important to them? When you ask that question, you don't get the answer that you might expect. There is little talk of glory or pride, or a job well done, or having booted the Nazis out of France, or having saved the free world from tyranny. The veterans are proud of those things but their answer to the question "why do you come?" is almost always: "to be with our friends, both the dead and the still living". Soldiers fight for causes and they fight for countries, but most of all, you realise when talking to the D-Day veterans, soldiers fight for their friends and comrades.

There is another powerful force that draws the veterans – average age 84 years and nine months – back to Normandy: a kind of survivor's guilt. For Donald Walker, the "longest day" which never ends did not begin on 6 June 1944 but on 17 July 1944. Mr Walker, 85, a retired accountant from Sheffield, was a 20-year-old tank radio operator with the 147th "Hampshire" battalion of the Royal Armoured Corps. In mid-July 1944, he took part in one of the largest tank battles ever fought, a battle between the British and Germans on the plains south-east of Caen codenamed "Goodwood". The battle was an almost complete calamity for the British, which may partly explain why few Britons have ever heard of it.

"We were supposed to straighten out the German line but the Germans straightened us out," Mr Walker said yesterday. He was standing in front of a Churchill tank, mounted outside the Bayeux Battle of Normandy museum. Mr Walker was in an almost identical tank on 17 July 1944 when it was struck by an 88mm shell from a German Tiger tank. The Churchill exploded into flames; Mr Walker's four crew mates were vaporised. Nothing of them was ever found. By a miracle, or quirk of fate, Mr Walker was thrown unscathed, into a cornfield and captured by the Germans.

"For many years, I couldn't talk about it," he said. "It was like my whole family had been killed, except me. A tank crew is very close. You eat together. You sleep together. You wash together. And then suddenly there is nothing left of Jock and Geordie and Matt."

Why had he come to Normandy for the first time in 10 years? "To be close to them. To try to find their names on the memorial to the missing. And because this may be the last time I am well enough to be able to come back."

The rest of us will have to make our own judgement on why the Battle of Normandy was important and worth remembering. Many of us will agree with President Obama that it was a terrible battle in a wonderful cause. For the D-Day veterans themselves, so long as they are alive, that is important, but secondary to friendship.

Dick Bowen had brought what looked like an elaborate coffee tin to Normandy with him. It contained the ashes of small wooden crosses and poppies that had once been placed inside York Minster. He opened the tin just before yesterday's ceremony at the British war cemetery in Bayeux. He wanted, he said, to give a "little bit of Yorkshire" to his mates.

The first grave that he chose to sprinkle was among the East Yorks and Green Howards but contained a soldier only "known unto God". "You may be unknown," Dick said, his eyes filling with tears, "but you are one of my mates too. You're coming with me, mate, all the way. "

A BRIEF HISTORY

The D-Day landings on 6 June 1944 saw more than 6,800 ships, carrying 150,000 men, cross the Channel to land on the French coastline.

RAF and American bombers opened the operation, with 11,500 planes dropping thousands of bombs, followed by paratroop drops to seize bridges and other targets.

At around 6.30am the invasion force stormed a 50-mile stretch of coastline, which was divided into five zones. The British attacked beaches codenamed Sword and Gold; Canadian forces descended on Juno Beach; and the Americans landed at Utah Beach and Omaha Beach.

The Germans, who were expecting the invasion at Calais, were caught by surprise but offered fierce resistance in bloody battles. More than 10,000 Allied troops were either killed or wounded, while the German army suffered between 4,000 and 8,000 casualties.

But the beach-head was secure, and by August nearly three million Allied troops had landed. The advance across France and into Germany would take until May 1945.

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