At Tuesday’s assembly, I addressed the Lower School on the importance and significance of today, the 6th of June. Today, the world will mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day - the largest seaborne invasion in history; an invasion that changed the world. One of the wonders of history is to stand on a spot of grass and to try to imagine the things that have happened there, to conjure up the memories that have become part of the soil. Watching the D-Day ceremonies taking place in Normandy and in Portsmouth, I am struck by how serene and clean the beaches look. Seventy years ago, they were the site of chaos and bloodshed - of fathers and sons dying, of men pushing on against the guns with smoke and sand in their eyes. It might have seemed like the end of the world then. A final confrontation between good and evil where as many as 4,413 Allied troops died on ‘The Longest Day’.
As I watch the grand commemorations taking place attended by the Queen, Barack Obama, David Cameron, François Hollande - and even Vladimir Putin - it is all too easy to be distracted by the scale of the events and the pageantry on display. But although the fly-pasts, wreath-laying, solemn services and banquets are sincere and appropriate, there are more intimate and perhaps more meaningful ways in which we as individuals can mark the event. We can learn so much by talking to elderly people about the past, especially those who took part in such conflicts but it is not something that either we or our children do much of. It also occurs to me that our children will be the last generation who will be able to meet those who had participated in an event that really did change the course of history. With today’s commemorations, it will be too easy to think of the invasion in purely historical terms.
However, the events of June 1944 are still within living memory – but only just. When one thinks of the horror, scale and consequences of D-Day, it is humbling to consider that some of the men who were there are still with us. Just as with me, you may not notice them at first. After all, they do not wear berets and medals every day. A D-Day veteran could be the old boy at the bus stop, or the chap you see through his front window doing a jigsaw puzzle. These men will tell you that they are ordinary, and in a way, they will be right. However, what they achieved on the 6th June 1944 was extraordinary, and it certainly needs commemorating. But a greater way to commemorate is to listen while we still can, to hear the words, and to reflect on how lucky we are to be able to shake the hands of the men who gave us our freedom.