D-Day: A time to remember and learn from the past

Our country’s finest hour was its fight against Nazism. When we landed at Normandy with our allies and pushed forward against the enemy fire, it was a heroic gamble for victory. The price was 4,413 Allied soldiers killed – around a quarter of them British. But the prize was a beachhead in a war that would end with the liberation of Europe and the opportunity to build a better world.
The task of honouring such sacrifice is an immense one, but yesterday’s commemoration rose to the challenge. Barack Obama’s speech at Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial was interrupted by a standing ovation as he acknowledged the veterans around him. In his words, D-Day was a triumph of America’s democratic ideals. As his predecessor Franklin D Roosevelt put it, the US came “not for the lust of conquest. They [fought] to end conquest.”

Meanwhile, at the British military ceremony in Bayeux, wreaths were laid and the Queen paid tribute to the “immense and heroic endeavour” of the men at Normandy. The band played The Lord is My Shepherd; the Prince of Wales read the lesson from the book of Romans. The Duke of Edinburgh asked one soldier what it was like to land on the beach and he replied, with classic British understatement: “Well, apart from someone trying to blow my head off, it wasn’t too bad.” The veterans were greeted by the cheers of the young as they walked through Bayeux. For many this might be their last chance to revisit.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge attended moving events in Arromanches, near Gold Beach, where thousands of British troops began their assault. And at Ouistreham, François Hollande played host to an extraordinary array of global statesmen all united by their country’s involvement in the conflict. Beforehand, according to French officials, Vladimir Putin and the president-elect of Ukraine discussed a possible ceasefire in a brief but significant meeting – a sign of hope in an age that all too often seems to have forgotten the lessons of the Thirties and Forties.

Why is commemoration so important to us? Because it is tradition that shapes a nation’s understanding of itself in the present day, defining us by the memories of our forefathers articulated through ancient prayers. And it is through better understanding where we have come from that we can see the future more clearly, too. As Tennyson wrote in the voice of Ulysses, another soldier, “I am a part of all that I have met / Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ / Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades / For ever and forever when I move.” As we build our future as a country and a continent, we must never forget those who died for us 70 years ago.


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