June 04, 2014

D–Day remembered

This Friday, 6th June 2014, marks seventy years since thousands of Allied servicemen landed on the shores of Normandy in the biggest amphibious assault ever conducted. D-Day marked the beginning of the Liberation of occupied Europe, as well as the start of a major period of upheaval in French history. Following the two-month Battle for Normandy, vast swathes of France were liberated in the build-up to the surrender of the German occupiers in Paris in August 1944. De Gaulle's triumphal entry into Paris on the 25th August, in which he claimed that the Republic had never ceased to exist, and effectively labelled the Vichy regime an illegal and illegitimate state, signalled an end to the Occupation years and the foundation of the 'Gaullist myth' of resistance. In his speech from the Hôtel de Ville, de Gaulle claimed that France had liberated 'herself.' He made no mention of the Allied soldiers who had fought for France's liberation.

De Gaulle's claim in August 1944, and the myth he inspired, has been widely discredited. Yet it appears that the selective French memory has returned to plague the commemorations of D-Day in June 2014. Where the landings on the morning of the 6th June 1944 were a joint venture between the British, Canadian and American forces, with some involvement from the Free French and soldiers and sailors from the Netherlands, Poland and the current Czech Republic, of all the major events this year, it is only the service of remembrance at Coleville-sur-Mer, the site of the Omaha Beach cemetery, which will be attended by President Hollande. The British service, at the peaceful Commonwealth War Graves site in Bayeux, and the Canadian service, at the beautfiul coastal village of Courseulles-sur-Mer, will be attended instead by prime minister Manuel Valls. Hollande will, though, attend the joint ceremony at Ouistreham. Hollande's attendance seems to be politically loaded: if he apparently has sufficient time to attend the later Polish event at Urville-Langannerie, then surely he also has the time to attend the British and Canadian events, if only briefly. While his absence from these two significant commemorations might also be explained by the complex timings of the day, it is not particularly clear why the events could not have been coordinated to ensure Hollande was present at all of the major commemorations. Given Hollande's recent rapprochement with the President Obama, especially over the Syrian crisis, it is perhaps a shrewd political move to give priority to the American event. The scale of the Nazi resistance at Colleville, Omaha Beach, can be witnessed by the sheer number of pristinely-kept graves in the American cemetery, and the bravery of the American troops should not be ignored. Nevertheless, the Canadians also faced significant resistance at Courseulles (Juno Beach), as did the British at Arromanches (Gold Beach). For Hollande to attend the American event above either the British or Canadian services does appear to be ranking the efforts of the American military on the 6th June above those of either the British or Canadians; an offence which could easily have been avoided.

Coleville cemetery 

The American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, site of the Omaha Beach landings, and the only individual Allied ceremony at which President Hollande will be present in June 2014 (Photo David Lees)

 Bayeux cemetery 

The tranquil Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Bayeux, where prime minister Manuel Valls will preside over the commemorative service (Photo: David Lees)

 Courseulles

The village of Courseulles-sur-Mer, site of Juno Beach, and the Canadian ceremony in June 2014, at which Manuel Valls will also preside (Photo: David Lees)

Beyond Hollande's potential political manoeuvering, though, it is of course important to remember the events of the 6th June 1944 for the sheer scale of the planning and bravery of the Allied forces. Over several visits to the Normandy landing beaches, I have been consistently struck by the peacefulness of the small towns and villages that bore the brunt of the fighting that day. At Courseulles, for example, what was Juno beach in the summer months plays host to families playing volleyball and swimming in the sea. Arromanches is a bustling seaside resort packed with shops catering to every possible D-Day souvenir. Colleville is a quiet village, whose cliffs are dominated by the sweeping American cemetery. The vast number of graves at each main location, from Colleville to the commune of Graye-sur-Mer, the site of a British-Canadian cemetery, testifies to the violence that took once took place at these now peaceful locations, and to the sacrifice of the men, and some women, who paid the ultimate price in liberating France

My paternal grandfather, Dr HW Lees, spent the day of 6th June on the bridge of a warship in the Channel, observing proceedings, before eventually landing on Norman soil on D-Day plus ten. Despite taking part in every subsequent battle until the surrender of Nazi Germany on the 8th May 1945, and having operated on hundreds of men, taken the surrender of a German U-Boat and escaped from no fewer than two burning armoured personnel vehicles, he must nevertheless have considered himself to be lucky not to have taken part in the initial assault, which claimed the lives of so many. Later obliged to sit in judgement on panels which considered alleged cases of collaboration during the 'épuration' following the Liberation, he also witnessed firsthand the violent end to the Vichy regime and the bloody transition to democratic rule. Having been stationed in France before the Defeat, the attitudes of the French people were notably different. Where in June 1940 he noted that they had offered no help to the retreating British forces, in June and July 1940 they welcomed the liberators with open arms; unwittingly Captain Lees was documenting what Pierre Laborie has termed 'l'attentisme,' in which the majority of the French effectively spent the Occupation and Vichy rule waiting for the end to come. Many people across Britain, Canada and the USA have similar stories to tell: to rank the efforts of any one nation or army above another in the commemorations of D-Day is, then, to ultimately ignore, as de Gaulle, the efforts of the collective Allied forces in liberating France, and indeed the rest of occupied Europe.


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