Express & Star comment; Fight for the peace they won
As they headed towards the Normandy beaches 75 years ago today, they didn’t know, and they couldn’t know.
They didn’t know what awaited them, although they had a good idea.
They didn’t know whether the landings would be a success or bloody failure.
They didn’t know if they would survive to see another sunrise. Many did not.
And they didn’t know their courage that day, D-Day, June 6, 1944, would mean the war in Europe would be over in less than a year, occupied countries would be liberated from the Nazi jackboot, Germany would be defeated and Hitler dead.
One of the privileges of history is being able to assess the past knowing how things turned out.
So we might think now that the issue was never in doubt, and victory was inevitable, when in reality for weeks after the landings the allies were bogged down.
For the ordinary soldiers sheltering and praying in foxholes and trenches as mortar bombs rained down on their beachhead it was as if they were in another Great War conflict of attrition and minimal gains, and with no eventual victory in sight.
Some were unafraid. They were young, excited by the adventure, and keen to see action. Others were ordinary men from various walks of peacetime life who, taking up arms in the just cause of fighting fascism, were pitched into appalling horror and desperate danger in which they saw their mates killed before their eyes.
They wanted to get the job done, come through the maelstrom, and return home to their loved ones. The cemeteries of France are full of those for whom this simple aspiration was to be disappointed. Each gravestone signifies a sea of grief for a family.
The psychological stress at the front was enormous. Len Murray was a young officer in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry who landed on D-Day. The name will be familiar with older readers as years later he was to become the general secretary of the TUC in the days when unions could make or break governments.
After days of being under fire, Len reached crisis point. His son David has told how he had a physical and mental breakdown and woke up in a hospital in England. This is one aspect of the effect of war on those fighting it which, happily, we are more ready to talk about now, and see mental injury on a par with physical injury.
Len recovered, but his haunting experiences and knowledge that he had been spared made him a driven man. For the rest of his life he valued the time he had been given – time his comrades who fell were denied – and was determined to make the most of it.
Twilight is falling on the D-Day generation. In the 20th century Britons had the shared experience of going through two world wars and the tragedy and privations they brought. It was a sort of mass understanding. In the 21st century a dwindling few among the population share that understanding.
Their legacy to modern Britons is that they have spared us from what they themselves went through.
We have not seen the end to nasty little wars. But in general terms Europe is a peaceful, just, and tolerant continent of friendly partners in which citizens can live without fear.
Yet there are challenges and dangers, one of which is that we take for granted the peace of which the modern generation are custodians.
Today’s peace is the fulfilment of the veterans’ gift to us.
We will remember them.
And it is our responsibility to honour their memory by cherishing and upholding the peace they dreamt of, fought for, and died for.