It was the 70th anniversary of D-Day on June 6 and veterans of the Normandy landings, now very old indeed, were out in force in France. Some may return for further anniversaries to the Normandy beaches and cemeteries to remember their part in history and the friends or relations they lost but all those who yet survive are now in their eighties and nineties and they will not again gather en masse to commemorate the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany and the nightmare of their particular war from 1939 to 1945. So much had gone wrong before D-Day, so many defeats for the allies and for Britain since the optimistic winning days of the Battle of Britain in 1940-42 and so much suffering. Everyone was exhausted and few of the war leaders, military or civilian, including Winston Churchill, dared to hope for great success.
That there was success was down to men like Stan Hollis, portrayed by the historian, Max Hastings, as one of his personal heroes for the fantastic courage he displayed during D-Day and the war as a whole and, what’s more, survived to tell the tale if not quite until the 70th anniversary. His commanding officer said, “I think Hollis was the only man I met in the whole war who felt that winning it was his personal responsibility.” On D-Day, he landed at Gold Beach to rush a German machine gun emplacement single-handed, firing his sten gun. He tossed a grenade through the gun slit of the pillbox and then burst inside after it had exploded to take the immediate surrender of the German survivors. He followed up by taking all 20 occupants of the next pillbox prisoner, also single-handed, and did the same again some hours later in a German fortified Norman farmyard. He received the Victoria Cross for his morning’s work. Nowadays we might think that sort of courage simply lunacy but it must have been men like him who acted like that who snatched triumph from the far greater chance of disaster.
The Normandy landing was one of the rare seminal events of World War II that did not involve Indian troops. I am sure someone will put me right about this and tell me that there were soldiers from South Asia on the beaches but so far as I am aware they were rather, in their tens of thousands, fighting and dying, for us Europeans more than themselves, in further flung theatres of war. Meanwhile, their relatives were suffering and dying at home, also because of us, in the horrific Bengal famine. There is so much we cannot afford to forget but we appear to learn sadly little from the memories.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries bear witness to the great range of nationalities and creeds which fought together during World War II. There are few anywhere without a memorial to Hindu dead; graves of Muslims facing towards Mecca; Jewish graves marked by Stars of David, and the Christians. Wherever the cemeteries are, from Kohima to Normandy to the least visited areas of East Africa, they remain beautifully looked after places of deep sorrow and great peace, and are always worth visiting for that reason — and also just to remind oneself of how vast and catholic was the international sacrifice they represent. I find them incredibly moving and, like many of those present in Normandy from several generations, found myself brushing away tears when faced with the solid and numberless rows of stones that are reminders of so much loss. In Europe and no doubt elsewhere, the German cemeteries have their own particular poignancy that is unleavened by any of the glory we continue to commemorate even as we mourn.
There have been splendid sights and stories around these D-Day commemorative events; the best, of old men undoubtedly from a similar mould to Stan Hollis. First, the mere slip of an 89-year-old, young by veteran standards, whose care home, where he lives with his wife, had somehow failed to help him secure a place on the veterans’ coaches to Normandy in time, so he went anyway. Being an independent sort of a person who was previously mayor of the town where he lived, Bernard Jordan put on a suit and his medals, put a mackintosh over the whole lot and told the care home staff he was going for a walk. Police were alerted to his disappearance when he failed to turn up for dinner that evening, by which time he was in France having the time of his life with his old comrades. He arrived back home to a tumult of press attention saying he’d “loved every minute” of his great escape and with photographs of his adventure to prove it. Another 89-year-old, Fred Glover, who parachuted into Normandy in 1944, did it again. He jumped in tandem this time but probably just to be sure that he sees the 80th commemoration too. You have a feeling that he and Bernard Jordan still think they have got plenty of living to do and probably a centenary each of their own to reach in due course. Watching the queen, only a year younger than Fred and Bernard, it seems she will probably make both those dates, public and personal, as well.
Now we have moved swiftly on to battles on the football field, off it too in Brazil, if the news coverage of riots and unbelievably violent police counter-measures are anything to go by. I hope Brazil wins, there seems to be so much ongoing strife around the setting of the scene for this World Cup that it is likely to be the only way to avoid major bloodshed in the country and there is still the Olympics in Rio to come in two years. In Europe, we have spent the last several years waiting for Brazil to hatch from its chrysalis of promise and potential into the great South American power, but it seems it isn’t ready yet and perhaps the world spotlight and scrutiny is too much upon it and too early. Let’s hope the football ends up smoothing rather than adding new obstacles to the country’s still rocky path into the future.
At home, William Hague, the first secretary of state, and Angelina Jolie, megastar, are jointly hosting a conference on sexual violence in war zones, correctly described as one of “the greatest mass crimes of the 20th and 21st centuries”. None of us imagines that such violence is new, but, wide contemporary press coverage notwithstanding, the incidence of rape in conflict zones now and in the most recent past is unparalleled and terrifying. War is horrific and we never learn but this violence perpetrated against non-combatants, this hatred of the non-fighting enemy, is inhuman. We remember one war, many wars, a century or centuries of wars and, instead of peace, we have an increased mania for violence, we hate more people, have more enemies, are angrier against others with or without reason. That spills over from arenas of war into our cities and towns and villages and makes every street corner and dark place if not a potential war zone, a potential theatre of extreme brutality and violence.This is not civilization, it is not even nature, however red in tooth and claw.