There are always soft strings on these occasions, soaring planes and stirring songs. There is always a politician with a studied look and a solemn word. But the old men never say much. Traditionally, a television camera bends to meet them in a wheelchair, and a news reporter stands by with a furry microphone and an anxious smile, hoping for a few short words that might be rendered intelligible in an editing suite.
It’s not their fault they can’t get their words out, after all. They’re in their nineties, most of them. Except that, give them a chance, and it just might be they take a slightly different view on events than the occasion demands of them.
They spent the morning on Southsea Common in Portsmouth, listening to Theresa May mournfully reading, in her very best John 1:1 voice, a letter from a soldier who never came home. They’d dutifully stared up at Prince Charles, wearing more military medals on his suit lapel than most of them combined.
They’d listened to Sheridan Smith breezily singing Dame Vera Lynn songs, watched the fly-past, taken in the high production values of the occasion, remembered their friends who died; but there is a resistance to be rendered heroes, and to be rendered heroic accessories to the politicians who gladly flew from all over the world to shake their hands.
Eric Chardin is 94 years old, 19 when he came off the landing crafts at Gold Beach on D-Day. Hours after President Trump and the rest had got back in their helicopters, he spent 15 minutes talking to the BBC’s Simon McCoy, blissfully unaware that he was on live television. He had decided, he said, not to take up his spot on the ferries taking the veterans to the Normandy beaches for tomorrow’s commemorations. He was asked if he would find it too difficult.
“Not too difficult, no,” he said. “But what would it achieve?” He would go on say, entirely matter of factly, that when he and the rest of the veterans were no longer alive, D-Day would become “just another part of recent history, like the First World War, the Boer War. It won’t be looked upon in a different light, and I’d rather it didn’t.”
It was the clearest articulation you are likely to hear of the same sentiment that is offered by almost every person who ever troubled the front line of the Second World War, and found themselves in front of a TV camera decades later. The sentiment utterly to resist attempts to beatify them, to render them heroes, for doing a job they didn’t want to be doing but had no choice.
Now that their deeds have been rendered almost into legend, there is an understandable clamour to know their emotions. How did they feel? Did they feel brave? Did they feel like heroes?
Were they brave?
“No,” he said. “We weren’t brave, we were kids.
“There was a bit of latent anger about that it had ever happened at all. My earlier family, my father and his brothers were First World War veterans. My father was badly wounded and died when he was young, and one of his brothers, my uncle, was killed.
“There was latent anger, I think, that war could happen again like that.
“I am left with a sense of the waste of it all. It was a terrible waste really. I can’t feel gung-ho about it.”
And yet, there is so much gung-ho going about in his honour. Mark Francois can go on the television, tearing up a letter from a German businessman and talk of his “teutonic arrogance”.
Boris Johnson, likely to be the next prime minister, will gladly make glib references to the Nazis and the European Union for the sake of some very low-level political point scoring. As the last of the veterans of those awful times diminish, they leave a world in which these execrable people are carried on the prevailing winds.
A measure of how far Europe has come in its long peace since then was the presence in Portsmouth, and again tomorrow in Normandy, of the German chancellor Angela Merkel. Mr Chardin hadn’t spotted her personally, but he knew what her presence represented. “Brexit worries me, in that respect,” he said, unprompted. “I can’t help feeling it would be an awful shame if what we’ve gone to so much trouble to do, to collect the big European nations together; to break it all up now would be a crying shame.”
And with that, he was done. Fifteen extraordinary minutes with an extraordinary man, who refuses to be a hero, and refuses to be part of any story that isn’t the simple, inglorious truth.
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