The healing of commemoration
Seventy years on, it was their day. Although politicians were crowding them out of the limelight, what gave the day its power and resonance were the old soldiers, many very frail, standing stiff to attention, returned for what is probably their last visit to the beaches of Normandy to remember and honour their dead. Old wounds and memories still raw, but there is an important healing power in commemoration.
D-Day was not the end of the war, but a vital tipping point moment psychologically and strategically. A tide had been turned and notions of invincibility broken that would lead inexorably a full 11 months later to the German surrender on May 2nd, and to Japan’s fall on August 15th, 1945. Many, many more, however, would yet have to die – over 425,000 Allied and German troops were killed, wounded or went missing during the Battle of Normandy alone.
Apart from the cracking of the German defensive line on France’s west coast, and coming just days after the fall of Rome to Allied forces in their successful push north through Italy, crucially, the opening of a second front also brought, long sought, desperately needed relief to hard-pressed Russia – as news broke in Moscow cheeering crowds poured on to the streets.
It was an extraordinary operation – the largest seaborne landing in military history, involving some 7,000 vessels from eight navies, putting 150,000 troops on to five beaches on a heavily guarded 50-mile stretch of coast. On that “longest” day an estimated 4,500 Allied troops died, but by its end over 75,000 British and Canadian troops and more than 57,000 Americans held the beaches. Within a month, those numbers swelled to over a million. Today, 27 local war cemeteries hold the remains of over 110,000 dead from both sides, dead who will fittingly also be remembered in an ecumenical service in Dublin today.
That the commemorations yesterday should prove an occasion not only for remembering but also for peacebuilding is a welcome and appropriate tribute to those who died. Like our own looming 1916 commemoration will do, the occasion brought together representatives of old enemies – Angela Merkel as well as Queen Elizabeth – bound now together in a common political project, the EU, that very much emerged out of the war’s ashes. Merkel, like the royal family in the Irish context, finds herself on the wrong side of history, but her attendance is testimony understood by all that history’s lessons have been learned – the future is another place.
And the commemoration also brought together representatives of former allies, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s newly elected leader Petro Poroshenko who met for brief but, it is reported, fruitful discussions on the situation in eastern Ukraine.