From the moment a lone piper played a haunting lament at 6.25am, the precise moment that the first British soldiers stepped onto Gold Beach on June 6, 1944, to the final moving tributes at sunset, this poignant day was about the veterans – and the comrades who did not return home.
The greatest generation, as Theresa May hailed them at the inauguration ceremony for a new D-Day memorial in Normandy, their incomparable spirit shaped our post-war world. As the Prime Minister said: “They didn’t boast. They didn’t fuss. They served.”
D-Day veterans – and the relatives of all those who played a part in the West’s collective fight for freedom – can draw immense comfort from the public’s growing appreciation for the selfless sacrifices that were made in two world wars. Just as this awareness grew as the final survivors of the Great War passed away, the same phenomenon has happened again as D-Day veterans – the very youngest aged in their 90s – made what, for some, was a last, and very personal, journey to France to salute old comrades.
As two very simple words – ‘thank you’ – were repeatedly used by everyone from the Queen, the Prime Minister and the people of Normandy to honour D-Day’s heroes, it would be remiss of us not to praise the work of the Royal British Legion and all those who ensured that this great tribute did full justice to the historical significance of this solemn occasion.
And this week’s welcome show of unity by world leaders, and, significantly, the heartfelt words of conciliation from veterans, also gives cause to highlight the importance of Britain’s future relations with both Europe and America when political divisions do resurface, as they will, over Brexit and other issues.
For, while Britain should look back at historic battles with respect and reverence, it is also paramount – on the very day that the Tory party begins the process to choose a new Prime Minister to succeed the outgoing Mrs May – that the country looks forward to a future underpinned by the priceless liberties that so many courageous young men fought and died for.
And all those tasked with the defence of the country should note the important contribution made by Lord Houghton of Richmond in the House of Lords. Born in Otley, he went on to lead the Green Howards – now part of the Yorkshire Regiment – before going on, as General Nick Houghton, to become Chief of the Defence Staff. As he spoke about the role played by the Green Howards on D-Day, including Sergeant Major Stanley Hollis earning the only Victoria Cross awarded on the day for repeated acts of bravery, it was hard to fault his analysis. “Most importantly, as many have said, the more like-minded friends you have, the safer you are far more likely to be,” he said. “Security challenges, I fear, are the natural symptoms of a restless and dynamic planet. Strong and collective defence is what keeps them in that perspective. D-Day should remind us of that.”
It has done so – the question now is how Britain plays its part in maintaining global peace and stability to ensure that the many sacrifices made in two world wars, and subsequent conflicts, were not in vain.