Bittersweet memories, sunshine and tension at D-Day ceremonies
Barack Obama is cheered, Vladimir Putin booed at the international ceremony in Ouistreham
French World War two veteran Leon Gautier of the Kiieffer commando (left) and German veteran paratrooper Johannes Borner embrace as a sign of reconciliation during an international ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Allied landings on D-Day on Sword Beach in Ouistreham, in Normandy, France, yesterday. Photograph: EPA/Ian Langsdon
French president François Hollande awaits the arrival of foreign dignitaries as WWII veterans sit in the background during an international ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Allied landings on D-Day on Sword Beach in Ouistreham, in Normandy, France, yesterday. Photograph: EPA/Ian Langsdon
Ukraine’s president-elect Petro Poroshenko walks past Russian president Vladimir Putin during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day in Ouistreham, France, yesterday. Photograph: EPA/Christophe Ena
Ukraine president-elect Petro Poroshenko (second from left), German chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk after a group photo during the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Benouville yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
US president Barack Obama greets World War two veterans as he arrives for the international D-Day commemoration ceremony in Ouistreham, France, yesterday. Photograph: EPA/Alain Jocard
French president François Hollande and Queen Elizabeth at the international ceremony at Sword Beach to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, in Ouistreham, France, yesterday. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
It was a day of conflicting emotions, when world leaders celebrated immutable bonds while struggling to overcome the tensions of the moment.
In day-long commemorations of the June 6,th 1944, landings in Normandy, solemn tributes to the victims of the second World War contrasted with the sunshine and birdsong, smiling children and ladies’ bright-coloured dresses. At the main international at ceremony at Ouistreham, Barack Obama received a tumultuous welcome, and Vladimir Putin was booed.
The Normandy landings were the largest joint sea and air assault in history. The battle would last nearly three months, claiming more than 110,000 lives and changing the course of the war.
The presence of 1,800 veterans at the 70th anniversary added special poignancy, because few, if any, are likely to attend the next 10-year commemoration. They sat behind french president Francois Hollande and Obama on the stage at the US cemetery in Colville, above “bloody Omaha” beach, many using wheelchairs or canes.
Queen Elizabeth II attended the ceremonies as part of her fifth, and doubtless last, state visit to France. The 88-year-old was seated to the right of the French president at a lunch for 20 heads of state and government at Bénouville château. She and Prince Philip were the guests of honour at a state dinner at Élysée Palace last night .
Obama seemed almost tender towards the queen at Bénouville, when he lingered to talk to her, avoiding an on-camera encounter with Putin. Hollande will accompany the queen to the bird and flower market in Paris before her departure this morning.
The day started with the bittersweet remembrance of 20,000 civilians who were inadvertently killed by their liberators in bombing raids over Normandy – 3,000 on June 6th alone. Their deaths had never been commemorated, out of fear of offending the Americans and British.
Sacrifice of civilians
“The homage of the nation on this 70th anniversary is addressed to civilians and military without distinction,” Hollande said at a ceremony in Caen. “The second World War claimed more civilians’ lives than soldiers. Yet the sacrifice of civilians was long effaced by the soldiers’ heroism.”
Despite having endured Allied bombardment, the inhabitants of Normandy “opened their doors to their liberators, fed them, protected them, though it was mixed with bitter mourning,” Hollande said.
Germany began attending D-Day commemorations 10 years ago. “I want to salute the courage of the Germans, who were also victims of Nazism,” Hollande said. “They were dragged into a war that should not have been theirs.”
Yesterday marked the first time that Russia was invited to the ceremonies, as the successor state to the Soviet Union. Only a few minutes after Putin was booed, the audience at Ouistreham applauded when Hollande praised “the courage of the Red Army, who far from here defeated 150 German divisions.”
These were “the people we called the Soviet Union,” he said. “We must recognise what they did for our freedom, for victory over Nazism.”
Of the 140,000 men who landed in Normandy on June 6th, 1944, only 177 were French, the “commando Kieffer”, a unit in a British brigade. “Their number was small, but their valour was great,” Hollande said. President Franklin D Roosevelt had vetoed the participation of a French division, the historian Jean-Pierre Azema explained. “He didn’t want to give publicity to Gen Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle had quarrelled with Eisenhower, and Churchill said that if possible de Gaulle should be locked up and flown to Algiers.”
Other disputes, regarding the sale of French warships to Russia, or the violation of US-imposed sanctions by French banks, have now replaced those wartime differences. Yesterday, all was temporarily forgotten, when Hollande promised Obama, “We shall never forget the sacrifice of American soldiers.”
At Colleville, 9,387 of the 20,828 Americans who perished in the Battle of Normandy are buried. When Obama turned to the veterans seated behind him and said, “Gentlemen, we are truly humbled by your presence here today,” the entire audience of 14,500 stood to applaud them.
The old men’s faces were set as if fighting back emotion, perhaps thinking of the comrades who fell on the beaches beside them.
“By the end of that longest day, this beach had been fought, lost, refought, and won,” Obama said. “A piece of Europe once again liberated and free . . . This was democracy’s beachhead.”
America “claimed no spoils of victory”, Obama reminded the crowd. “We claimed no land other than the earth where we buried those who gave their lives under our flag.”
When US troops departed at the war’s end, tens of thousands of Europeans saw them off. They promised to take care of the fallen “as if their tombs were our children’s”, he said. “And the people of France, you have kept your word, like the true friends you are.”