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22 May 2024

The silent stones of Europe’s wars

Eighty years after D-Day, how should Britain remember those who died?

By David Reynolds

This year is a year for remembering and remembrancing on both sides of the Channel. On 6 June the British Normandy Memorial will complete a project that has taken nearly decade to realise, with the inauguration by the King of its Winston Churchill Centre for Education and Learning. On 26 July the Olympic Games will open in Paris, a century since the 1924 Olympics. For many in Britain those Games have been immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire but, in France at the time, they were intended to showcase the country’s resurrection after four years of murderous war against the German invaders.

What ties together the British Normandy Memorial, the 2024 Paris Olympics and the reopening this December of the Notre-Dame cathedral after the inferno of 2019 is the immense challenge of commemorating the lives, deaths and achievements of men and women of the past. What does it really mean to “remember them”?

In the speech that Shakespeare puts into the mouth of Henry V before the battle of Agincourt, the king rouses his bedraggled and outnumbered followers – “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” – by predicting:

He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day…

“Remember with advantages.” The Bard’s wry allusion to our human tendency to gild the lily, embroider the narrative, improve the story with each retelling. But let’s reflect on the word “remember”. At the heart of every Remembrance Sunday is the pledge of poet Laurence Binyon:

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At the going down of the sun and in the
We will remember them.

Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen” was published in the Times on 21 September 1914 – as people in Britain struggled to take in the news from France and Flanders that hundreds of the British Expeditionary Force were being slaughtered in what was the country’s first war on the continent since the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815. For friends and family in 1914 or when the war ended in 1918, it was indeed possible to “remember” the young men who had died. But what does it mean 110 years on from Mons and the Marne, or 80 years on from Operation Overlord, to “remember” the dead whom we never met? That’s where “advantages” come in.

Thursday 6 June 2024 will be the 80th anniversary of D-Day. On the 75th anniversary in 2019 Britain was the only major Allied power that did not have a memorial on the Normandy beaches. This omission – pointed out with feeling in 2015 by George Batts, who had been a young Royal Engineer in 1944 – caught the attention of the BBC broadcaster Nicholas Witchell, who then worked to set up the British Normandy Trust under the presidency of Lord Peter Ricketts, formerly British ambassador in Paris. On purchased farmland at Ver-sur-Mer, overlooking Gold Beach where the 50th Northumbrian Division fought its way ashore in 1944, the trust, working with the local French authorities, constructed a rectangular open colonnade in neoclassical style, which was opened in June 2021. On the stone pillars were etched the surnames and initials of 22,442 British personnel and those of other nationalities who died while serving in British units during the Normandy campaigns of June-August 1944 – echoing in elegant simplicity the grandiose walls of names on the First World War memorials at Ypres and Thiepval.

The Normandy Memorial’s Roll of Honour was meticulously sourced by researchers Andrew Whitmarsh and Jane Furlong. For many of the veterans it was the moment of seeing (and fingering) the beautifully engraved names of fallen comrades that reduced them to tears. But names by themselves are anonymous to those who do not remember D-Day. Hence the second stage of the Normandy project: a centre for education and learning, principally funded by BAE Systems, Britain’s major defence contractor, which will be opened on 6 June. The centre bears the name of Winston Churchill, Britain’s war leader – born 150 years ago on 30 November, 1874. The centre will house two exhibition galleries telling stories of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, curated by the Royal British Legion, together with a classroom for use by schoolchildren from Britain, France and beyond. 

The centre’s purpose, states General Lord Richard Dannatt, chairman of the Normandy Memorial Trust, is “to ensure that new generations never forget what Britain did for Europe in 1944 and to remember the sacrifice of so many”. That task is now urgent, adds Cressida Hogg, chair of BAE Systems, because “sadly, with a dwindling number of surviving veterans, D-Day will soon pass from living memory. So it’s more important than ever that we find ways to permanently mark their place in history, enabling young people to understand our past and learn the lessons from it to shape our future.” On 30 May Richard Dannatt and Allen Packwood publish Churchill’s D-Day – a revealing collection of letters and documents from the Churchill archives in Cambridge, where Packwood is director.

The Normandy Trust has also built a memorial to honour the thousands of unnamed French civilians killed in the clash of great armies as the Normandy campaign unfolded. They, too, deserve to be remembered. It’s particularly sobering to recall that the number of French people killed by Allied bombing to liberate their country is about the same as the death toll in Britain from the Blitz of 1940-41 and the Nazis’ V-bombs in 1944-45.

The Ver-sur-Mer project is impressive and moving, though on a different scale to the visitors’ centre adjacent to the American Battle Monuments cemetery 30km to the west, near the site of Omaha Beach, the bloodiest of the five Allied landing areas. Opened in 2007 at a cost of $30m from Federal funds, the centre’s 30,000ft of exhibition space uses stories of participants and a mix of narrative text, photos, artefacts, films and interactive displays to convey the Normandy story from an American perspective. 

Yet no museum, beautifully sculptured and set in tranquil countryside, can match the impact of the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. This was Steven Spielberg’s explosive 1998 evocation of what landing on “Bloody Omaha” might have been like for soldiers, featuring the stunned, deafened visage of Tom Hanks – stained with blood – watching a GI picking up the stump of his lower arm in churning water under relentless German fire from the bluffs above. Peppered by machine guns, concussed by the earth-shaking impact of the 88mm guns, unable to hear, even to think, desperately trying to collect his wits, Hanks finally manages to tell his men to crawl to the seawall, below the elevation of the guns. Here we catch a gruesome glimpse of what the historian John Keegan called “the face of battle”.

Little of that could be clearly remembered by men wracked by post-traumatic stress – as I realised in the 1990s when researching the experience of wartime GIs for Rich Relations: The American Occupation of Britain, 1942-1945. One veteran of Omaha Beach said that every day he saw images of the morning of D-Day, but he had no recollections of the afternoon. Another, who fought all the way from France to the heart of Germany and then returned home to the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, was asked repeatedly, “Hey, Bob, what was the war like?” Unable to tell those he loved about the horrors he had seen, on most evenings after work he sought out fellow veterans in the local bars. The effects were predictable. Eventually his wife told him, “Bob, you have to choose between your war and your family.” He did, going “dormant” on the war for a quarter of a century. Only after his kids were grown up and he’d retired, did he join the divisional association, attend its reunions, and eventually retrace his steps from the beaches of Normandy to the River Elbe.

Jim, an airman from Chattanooga, Tennessee, who served as a bombardier in a B17 from Lavenham airfield in Suffolk, never forgot seeing the D-Day armada from above. That was one of the highlights of a wartime career that spanned an improbable 45 missions. In 2001, Jim finally returned to Lavenham with his wife, daughter and grandson and I helped them find the remains of the airfield. Only a few chunks of the 2,000ft runway and its hardstandings remained amid what was now a decrepit farmyard. He stood there for several minutes in silence, shoulders slumped. We did not – could not – intrude, but watching that silently eloquent back, I wondered what ghosts were flitting through his mind. Eventually we drove the couple of miles into Lavenham for lunch at The Swan, a favourite GI haunt. “Well,” he said as we sat down, “that was a lot quicker than I did it in the blackout by bike.”

Researching Rich Relations I grasped with new intensity the limits and frailties of memory. Veterans of conflict glimpsed only fragments of the face of battle, seeing them darkly through the fog of war. They certainly had no idea of the big picture. What stuck in their archival memory was usually something banal or horrific. So, perhaps silence was best. That’s why it can be misleading to elevate the “living memory” of veterans to a pedestal.

It’s also why the opening of Saving Private Ryan was so important. Spielberg went on to do something similar for the Pacific war and again, recently, for the aerial war in the TV mini-series The Mighty Eighth, featuring stories from the 100th Bomb Group based at Thorpe Abbotts in Norfolk. Is this the way to remember “with advantages” – bringing the past alive through modern technology?

These cinematic extravaganzas do bring us closer to what war might have been like. But they can also strengthen the impression that the Yanks won the Second World War almost single-handedly. Without a British national memorial on the Normandy beaches, there would be no marker for what future generations of Brits should “remember”. And without an education centre, there would be little understanding of what those men had lived and died for.

For the French, June 1944 is more painful to commemorate, having been sidelined in the mounting of D-Day. To rely on others to liberate La patrie after its abject surrender in June 1940 seemed a monstrous humiliation to General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French forces. Hence his determination to ensure that a French division take the lead in entering Paris in August 1944, after the Germans had evacuated the city. In France the Second World War was, and remains, Les Années Sombres, the dark years – a far cry from our Churchillian finest hour narrative in Britain.

Instead, it’s the war of 1914-18 that retains a sacred place in the French national memory. During La Grande Guerre 1.3 million French citizens were killed, many of them blown to pieces – an average of six shells, for example, fell to every square metre during the 300-day battle of Verdun in 1916. A quarter of 20- to 27-year olds were killed and over a million disabled. (I can still remember the shock on my first visit to Paris in 1972 of seeing the seats on the Metro reserved Pour les mutilés.) Eight départements in the north-east endured brutal German occupation: penal requisitions of food and goods, forced labour, sexual abuse and mass deportations. To underline the amputation of these areas from La République Française, they were placed on “German time”. But throughout four-and-a-quarter years of carnage the French army anchored the Western Front, and the eventual cleansing of the homeland was achieved by an Allied army under the supreme command of Ferdinand Foch, Marshal of France.

It was therefore with understandable pride that Paris played host to the postwar Olympic Games in the summer of 1924, secured through the influence and determination of Pierre de Coubertin (who had re-founded the Olympics back in 1896). One of Coubertin’s mentors was Charles Walston, a classical archaeologist and keen equestrian, who was director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. It is therefore appropriate that the museum is opening an exhibition, “Paris 1924: Sport, Art and the Body”, a week before the 2024 Olympics start across the Channel. Curated by two Cambridge professors – the classicist and art historian Caroline Vout and Germanist and sports historian Christopher Young – the show brings together sport and culture in vivid ways. Despite the focus in Chariots of Fire on two British athletes, the games as a whole dramatised the emerging dominance of the New World over the Old, seen especially in the success of American athletes (99 medals, 45 of them gold) but also of the Uruguayan football team, which systematically trounced the giants of Europe (France was overwhelmed 5-1 in the quarter-finals).

Overall though, the Games proved a disappointment for the hosts. On the medal table France was pushed into third place by Finland – five of whose 14 golds were won by their distance-running prodigy, Paavo Nurmi, “the Flying Finn”. Attendance figures were poor and the games failed to break even financially. But at a time when the French war graves agency was literally picking up the pieces from the battlefields (to be glimpsed today through the windows of Verdun’s grisly ossuary), Paris in 1924 was truly something to celebrate. The human body, not only intact but active, engaged in peaceful competition rather than war to the death. Here was France resurgent, with no Germans in sight. 

In 2024, France will enjoy another moment of resurgence, with the renovation of Notre-Dame de Paris, badly damaged by fire on 15 April 2019. That very evening President Emmanuel Macron pledged its rebuilding, intending that the work should be completed in time for the July 2024 Olympics. To oversee the operation he appointed Jean-Louis Georgelin, a retired general and devout Catholic, who bent all his energies to winning what he called “the battle of Notre-Dame”. Georgelin died in a freak hiking accident in the summer of 2023; but by then it was clear that victory could not be proclaimed before the end of 2024.

The rebuilding of Notre-Dame has provoked intense debate in and beyond France. Should it be redesigned to reflect some 21st-century architectural conceptions? Or faithfully restored in the style and with the materials of the past? If the latter, which past? How about omitting the spire (flèche) that had been revived in the 1850s after a gap of 70 years? Or commissioning modern designs for the stained-glass windows in some of the chapels?

In all these debates, restoration won out. The French needed Notre-Dame as it had been cherished throughout two world wars – an immovable symbol of their country in its times of trial and triumph – even though the glory days of France, like those of Britain, are now history. Stone, at Ver-sur-Mer or Notre-Dame, is still the ultimate expression of immutability. And what the French call lieux de mémoire (sites of memory) can serve as triggers for imaginative remembrance. The place has been marked, but nobody alive can “remember” what feats were done that day or what horrors had to be endured. Yet those silent stones can be invested with meaning for generations to come through education and imagination, through chants and homilies, through computer simulations or forms of AI yet to be invented.

In May 1920, Winston Churchill, secretary of state for war, informed the House of Commons of the vast project now unfolding to honour the British dead who had given their all for king and country:

there is no reason at all why, in periods as remote from our own as we ourselves are from the Tudors, the graveyards in France of this Great War shall not remain an abiding and supreme memorial… We know the mutability of human arrangements, but even if our language, our institutions, and our empire all have faded from the memory of man, these great stones will still preserve the memory of a common purpose pursued by a great nation in the remote past, and will undoubtedly excite the wonder and the reverence of a future age.

Stone matters. But so does remembering with advantages.

David Reynolds’ most recent book is “Mirrors of Greatness: Churchill and the Leaders Who Shaped Him” (HarperCollins).

[See also: Roy Jenkins’ unfinished revolution]

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024