At 3pm on 6th June 2014, the temperature in Caen hit the low 30s in Centigrade. I’d made it into the historic centre from Ouistreham through heavy security barriers. A short walking tour took up the morning and with the heat rising, I’d retired to Le Vélocipedé for a beer and to watch the D-Day commemorations.
The bar stands on Caen’s Place Saint-Sauveur, overlooking a statue of Louis XIV. Along the bar, large screen TVs beam out the footage from Sword Beach at Ouistreham. It’s a quiet and poignant moment in the early afternoon heat. These screens may be more accustomed to showing live sporting events. But today France remembers.
D-Day Commemorations on Sword Beach
Around 6,000 veterans of the Normandy campaign have returned to the beaches to pay homage to fallen comrades. More than half come from the UK. They’re joined by many Americans and others from Canada and Australia. The flags of the nineteen nations in attendance were paraded before the ceremony began.
The veterans have joined currently serving members of the armed forces. World leaders and dignitaries taking centre stage include French President Francois Hollande, US President Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II. Joining them were Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko of the Ukraine.
President Hollande would lead the ceremony, due to begin at 3pm.
The 6th June is not a day like others: it is not just the longest day or a day to remember the dead, but a day for the living to keep the promise written with the blood of the fighters, to be loyal to their sacrifice by building a world that is fairer and more human.
President Francois Hollande
Last parade for the Normandy Veterans
The ceremony was for the veterans, though. Each one of them a hero, a survivor, and a person who had seen the horrors of the beaches. Resplendent in uniforms, caps, medals and ribbons they stand side by side as they did 70 years ago.
Many mentions throughout the day spoke of the Normandy Veterans Association. With numbers dwindling to just over 600, this would be their final D-Day parade at Arromanches. The group is set to disband later in the year.
More lighthearted news came from plucky pensioner Bernard Jordan. The 89-year-old veteran of D-Day went missing from his nursing home in Sussex. With police and authorities on the lookout, Jordan turned up safe and sound in Ouistreham.
A ceremony to remember
There were many touching moments throughout the day. None more so than towards the end of the international ceremony at Sword Beach, Ouistreham. French commando veteran Leon Gautier and German paratrooper Johannes Borner embraced in a show of reconciliation.
Music formed a large part of the commemorations. At Arromanches, a choir sang We’ll Meet Again. Pipers lead veterans and the assembled singers in Auld Lang Syne while over at Ouistreham, a brass band played A Long Way To Tipperary.
With emotional moments from beginning to end, it was a fitting commemoration of the events of seventy years ago. Many of the veterans may no longer be with us when the 75th or 80th anniversaries come around. But future generations can never forget.