Andrew Vine: As veterans’ voices fade, we must keep their stories alive

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THE old man stood at the water’s edge and looked out to sea, so lost in his thoughts that the waves began to lap at his shoes that had been polished to a mirror gloss.

He wasn’t seeing the few yachts and freighters sailing by on this quiet day, nor hearing the seabirds wheeling above, but an ocean full of ships and the sound of naval shells roaring overhead like the thunder of a thousand express trains.

Everything he saw and heard came from within, from his past, from the moment when, barely 21, he discovered what it meant to be at war. He’d returned to this spot again and again over the years, where he had set foot in a foreign land for the first time, but the passage of time had done nothing to lessen the potency of the memories.

It was a day or two before the 60th anniversary of D-Day, when the beach would be full amid the whirl of commemorations. But this veteran needed some time alone with his thoughts before then.

Afterwards, when he was ready and had reassured his family who waited for him further up the beach that he was quite all right, I listened as he talked quietly of how it had been, his tone matter-of-fact. Interruptions or questions would have been superfluous. This was a story that needed to unfold at its own pace.

He spoke of how he and his mates had been violently sick as the landing craft approached the shore as the fear of what lay ahead gripped them, of the jolt of the vessel beaching, and the headlong charge through the surf, of feeling as much as hearing something zip by his ear and realising that somebody was trying to kill him, of making it off the beach unscathed.

He is no longer here to tell his story. The 60th anniversary was the last time he gazed over the sea from the beaches of Normandy. I think he knew there would be no returning, and that made it all the more important to be alone with his memories.

The decade that has passed since that day has claimed many like him, stilling ever more of the tens of thousands of individual voices whose testimony make up the human story of D-Day.

On Friday, when the dwindling band of veterans of that fraught, nerve-shredding, heroic day gathers to mark its 70th anniversary, there will be other old men who look out over the sea and remember, knowing that it is for the last time.

This must be the final milestone anniversary of D-Day that will have any substantial numbers of veterans in attendance, and that only adds to its poignancy. Even the youngest are approaching 90 and the day is looming when it will no longer be possible to sit with a man who was there and listen to his story.

That makes it all the more important to mark the anniversary, to pause for a moment and think about what those men did, and their legacy to all of us in Europe who live in freedom with the right to speak and think as we please.

None of that would be possible were it not for the young men who stormed those invasion beaches that morning of June 6, 1944, not only overcoming an implacably cruel enemy, but conquering their own fear.

Too little attention is paid to the relevance of D-Day to our modern lives, and ignorance of its significance is on the march. Last month, a survey carried out in co-operation with the Royal British Legion found that only half of 2,000 18 to 35-year-olds questioned knew what D-Day was. A fifth of them thought that it marked the end of the Great War.

It is surely time to intervene to ensure that D-Day is not forgotten while there is still the chance to hear personal testimony, and we have a shining example of how to do it.

In recent years, the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust in organising school visits to Auschwitz has been instrumental in ensuring that knowledge about that most horrific of crimes has been spread.

That sterling work could and should 
be replicated by taking the young to 
the beaches of Normandy and the battlefields to which they became the gateway.

A few months ago, I walked the quiet wooded lanes and fields that were the last battlefield of Normandy, where, even 70 years on, no great leap of imagination is needed to hear the echoes of the fighting.

Nor is it hard to feel its human cost. To stand before any of the 17,769 British war graves in Normandy, or the thousands more of Americans, Canadians, Poles and Frenchmen brings it very near.

Too soon, such visits will be all we have to remind us. For now, though, we can still hear the voices of veterans who look out over the sea from those beaches and remember,.

This Friday, we should all resolve to listen while there is still time, and do everything we can to honour that testimony by never allowing it to be forgotten.