As I stood in glorious weather on the clifftops of Ver-sur-Mer beach in France this week, I struggled to comprehend the carnage our soldiers endured in the same spot 75 years earlier during the D-Day landings.
They were just boys really – some as young as 15.
Waiting to go into battle, watching the sun rise on a day they knew they might never live to see the end of. I have spoken to so many veterans this week and have been moved by every story.
There is no doubt they are all heroes, but none thinks of themselves as one.
We talked together in Normandy, where they had returned, not to celebrate their own endeavours but to pay tribute to others, to the comrades whose lives were lost – and to see their sacrifice at last rightfully recognised.
There hasn’t been a permanent memorial there for the British killed in these battles – until now.
So as I watched the veterans salute the official inauguration of one to be built on the very spot where so many of their friends lost their lives, I’m not ashamed to say I shed a tear.
And I wasn’t alone.
Young serving officers, the same age as the veterans were on D-Day, struggled to properly express to me how much admiration they clearly had for them, but it showed in the tender way they offered their arms to the veterans, now frail with age.
These young men and women told me how the veterans had reminded them of why they had joined the army in the first place – to fight for what’s right and to put others before themselves.
Wars today are more complicated.
Back then, the enemy was clearly evil, “our side” was clearly good.
In recent years, we have entered wars we have regretted, with aims that are unclear, but it reminded me that what we ask of our servicemen and women today is no less great, their sacrifice no less valuable.
The dignitaries present were clearly moved too. I noticed as I stood a few feet from Theresa May how she looked deep into each veteran’s eyes, simply and genuinely saying: “Thank you.”
She looked relaxed in their company, happy even, on her last public day as leader of the Conservative Party.
Maybe it was the veterans’ sense of duty that appealed to her – after all she has buckets of that herself.
Or maybe it was that if ever an event put the Westminster bickerings and backstabbings over Brexit into perspective, it was this, a time when a sense of common good over personal ambition took over.
The course of my own family’s history was changed by war.
My great-grandfather was shot dead in the trenches during the First World War.
They say you can’t die of a broken heart but I believe my great-grandmother did just that.
She passed away less than a year later.
My grandfather and his siblings suddenly became orphans and were split up into different foster homes.
But each carried a segment from a photograph that was found on the body of William when he died.
It was of his beloved family, burnt around the edges, no doubt from gunfire. It was all that was left.
I found it so touching that my grand-father cherished that little part of a photo so much and took such comfort from it.
We have heard a lot of stories of courage this week, and read about the bravery and sacrifice of the D-Day generation.
You may be feeling all “gratituded” out, but if you ever get the chance to stand on those beaches and think, really think, about what so many went through, I know you will be reminded that we can never say thank you enough.
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