It is already D-Day in France. The sun will be rising in an hour or so.
An ageing band of brothers will gather in the largest British war cemetery in Normandy on Thursday. There will be only 80 veterans at the commemoration in Bayeux this year – the smallest annual pilgrimage since 156,000 Allied troops, including 61,000 British soldiers, stormed the D-Day beaches 69 years ago.
The youngest of the remaining Normandy veterans is now 87 years old. Many are over 90. The pivotal western European battle of the Second World War is about to pass, like the First World War, over the horizon of living memory.
The Normandy Veterans’ Association (NVA), the organisation for British survivors of D-Day and the 10 weeks of vicious fighting which followed, once had 14,000 members. At the 65th anniversary four years ago, there were 3,000 members still alive. There are now fewer than 600.
The Independent today announces an appeal by the NVA, to ensure that the voices of the remaining veterans – the survivors of the survivors – are not lost to future generations. Over the next 12 months, if enough money can be raised, all British Normandy veterans will be asked to give filmed interviews of their memories.
We owe so much to those who landed on those beaches that day. It makes me sad that we are throwing their sacrifice away, bit by bit, day by day. After my visit to Normandy last October, I wrote:
The emotional impact is both a humbling and embarrassing experience – humbling because of what those men gave of themselves and embarrassing that we are working to give away what they paid such a terrible price to secure for us…I simply cannot imagine the sense of duty and courage it took for those waves of 73,000 American men to storm onto those beaches, then to run headlong across the sand and up those dunes and cliffs toward what surely had to be a maelstrom of lead, steel and exploding ordnance, all hoping for God’s protection but many knowing that they would never leave those beaches alive.
And still they ran toward the enemy.
Many of those crosses were inscribed with a date of June 6, 1944. These were for the young men who never made it off those beaches, men (boys actually) like Private First Class Richard Frank Geigner from Cook County, Illinois. Pfc. Geigner was a member of the 298th Engineer Combat Battalion that was part of the first wave on the beaches with the responsibility of destroying obstacles so that the men and materiel behind him could move faster.
And yet PFC Geigner ran toward the enemy.
For the past week now, I haven’t been able to write more than half a page without stopping due to experiencing equal measures of pride, guilt, anger and determination and not knowing what to do with those feelings.
We owe these men and the families that they left behind. We owe them a debt that cannot be repaid in money or treasure.
We owe it to them to run toward the enemy.
Are we going to run toward the enemy?