Seventy years ago today, my father jumped over the side of his High Speed Launch at Arromanches, or Gold as it had become, and waded up onto the shore. The Beachmaster barked an order at him to get up to the top of the beach with all possible speed. As they were coming under fire, my father felt extremely willing to fall in with this plan. At some point that day – whether still on the beach or further inland, I do not know – he was shot. Luckily for him, he was scooped up by the collectors of casualties, shoved onto a ship and taken back to England. It was the second time he had been wounded: six months earlier, nosing around the potential landing places on the French coast, his boat had been torpedoed. He spent a long, long time in the January waters of the English Channel (and had pieces of shrapnel in his head for the rest of his life). But he made it: in fact, it was during his post-Arromanches convalescence that he met my mother. My father landed on 7th June, 1944: D-Day plus one. It was his nineteenth birthday.
Where did they come from, these teenage boys who metamorphosed seamlessly from schoolboy to hero? Like so many of that generation, he almost never said anything about his experiences in the war. Only once, at lunch in a restaurant in Venice, did he suddenly, completely out of the blue, tell my husband how beautiful the tracer bullets had been arcing across the night sky, and how peaceful the bodies looked as they bobbed in the water at dawn as his boat neared the French coast that he knew so well. Other than that, not a word. I am left to try to get a sense of what it was like from books.
Antony Beevor’s D Day: The Battle for Normandy is a meticulous account, as is Max Hastings’ Overlord: D Day and Battle for Normandy 1944. The Michelin Historical Map No. 102: Bataille de Normande is an indispensable guide for when you visit, which you will, won’t you? Two things struck us particularly when last we were in Normandy: the first was the location of the Polish military cemeteries, far, far further inland than the rest – a silent tribute to an indomitable people; the second was picnicking on the beach at Arromanches and hoping that there were some tiny moments in 1944 when those incredible men were blessed with a vision of their descendants peacefully playing on the sands they were fighting for.
We have spoken before (Week 7) of Alexander Baron’s From the City, From the Plough. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Baron (the pen-name of Joseph Alexander Bernstein) was in the Pioneer Corps and was among the first to land in Normandy, and his searing short novel feels like a first-hand account from its opening pages. Its only competition for giving us, fortunate to be born later, a visceral sense of what it was like is the American drama, Band of Brothers. For once, its inevitable message that America won the war is earned – who could begrudge the immortalising of Easy Company of the 101st Airborne Division, who saw action from D-Day to Berlin. Spielberg found his perfect title in the speech before the Battle of Agincourt in Henry V. How strange it is, and perhaps how bitter a story it tells us of ourselves, that that chronicle play, old-fashioned even when it was written, keeps coming back to us as the Shakespeare play, the one that catches the public mood. Olivier in 1944 – it was his war work, funded by Churchill’s government (and there was a man who knew his Henry and the rhythms and cadences of the St Crispin’s Day speech) – Branagh, Belfast-born, on stage with the RSC in 1984 in the aftermath of the Falklands War – or Geoffrey Streatfeild, at least as good as either, at Stratford in 2007, needing no props to make the link with Iraq and Afghanistan: we are, it seems, always the audience for the tale of the good king who leads us to peace against overwhelming odds (and look at the breath-taking ending Shakespeare gives us, scything through the sense of victory and happy-ever-after just as we’re gathering our coats and programmes and making for the exit).
William Golding and JD Salinger both landed, Salinger with the manuscript of his unfinished novel, The Catcher in the Rye, in his kitbag. But few novelists have taken to the beaches for their setting. They’re right, I think: the story of D-Day is so towering, so epic, that it leaves no room for fiction. And poetry? Well, famously, the BBC signalled the timetable for the landings (Operation Overlord) to the French Resistance by broadcasting Paul Verlaine’s poem ‘Chanson d’automne’. It had been agreed that the first three lines would indicate that the invasion would take place within the next two weeks: they went out on June 1st. The next three lines signalled that the landings would take place within the next two days and that the Resistance should swing into full sabotage action. On Monday June 5th, the freedom fighters of Normandy tuned in (risking their lives to do so) to hear ‘Blessent mon coeur/ d’une langueur/ monotone’. That night, telephone lines were cut, railway lines were blown up and the roads were salted with anti-tank mines.
What poetry can we find for them now, the veterans who are gathering today and their colleagues who have fallen by the wayside, then or over the long years since then? It was written with the ‘tennis court’ battle at Kohima in India in mind, but when I remember playing on the beach at Arromanches with my father’s grand-children, and perhaps especially now that (since he died – but I hope he knows, somehow) he has great-granddaughters who are half-German, the words of John Maxwell Edmonds seem appropriate:
When you go home, tell them of us and say,