Birthdays and remembrances, D-Day and other long gone times

Birthdays and remembrances, D-Day and other long gone times

First of all may I say many thank yous to all those nice people who have wished me a happy birthday.  Even to my dear wife Fatima who deliberately, and with aforethought, added three years to the tally! (I will get you back – just you wait and see!)

Rather a grey day here today, and quiet, as it is one of Fatima`s days at school. I dare say we`ll go out for a nice meal this evening – but it will be a low key birthday until we get to the next decade marker! The number (which I will not write down in case it makes it seem real) is one which I have always associated with the word “elderly”, getting on for the next decade (again which I will not write down..etc..) But I feel very far from elderly (thank goodness!) – perhaps in part because I am writing a film script based on my recently published novel*, and that is not associated with the word “elderly” in my mind!

But all the nice wishes for a good birthday gave me pause to think what birthdays and remembrances are about.  Niece Debbie and Andrew had a christening for Ellie on Sunday, so I was thinking about them over the weekend, the christening being on Tricia`s birthdate, 8th June (for my new contacts on LinkedIn and other newer friends, Tricia was my first wife, who died in 2008 and Debbie is Tricia`s brother`s daughter) My thoughts are therefore poignant/ sweet especially as I am here in Brazil and the event was in England. So I hope the day went well for them.

Annual celebrations for various things, such as birthdays, of course, and other events that are so marked, provide an opportunity for memories to surface and we are, to some considerable extent at least, the sum of all of our memories, for worse or for better. Hopefully for better! That`s not to say we should reserve memories only for an annual “outing” but sometimes it is good to let them out and air them for a while.

Talking of memories, I spent more than two hours on Friday morning watching the D-Day celebrations in France. The main pictures were coming from Ouistreham which is very familiar to me from many visits to France, with and without a caravan in tow. Tricia and I would often take the ferry from Portsmouth to Caen (which actually berthed in Ouistreham) – so we got to know the area very well.

For many years with the caravan we would spend two or three days and nights camping near Caen on our way home, so we visited many places along that coast including several of the war cemeteries and memorials.

Tricia`s father, Jack, and his best friend Cecil, arrived on the Normandy beaches just a few days after D-day (perhaps even today, June 10th) and, to be honest, Jack was always reluctant to speak about his experiences during the war. It seems this was the case for a lot of veterans of the invasion, that they were reluctant to relive many of the awful things they saw during those few months after landing.

Just occasionally something might spark a short tale but we never pressed him to elaborate too much, otherwise he would go quiet and introspective. It seems many, many men came back with sights etched into their memories that no-one should ever have to see. Jack and Cecil`s troop suffered very many casualties in their first few days in France. So much so that they were regrouped with some Canadian troops who had also lost a lot of soldiers to create a new unit, and I believe they were with the Canadians for quite some time afterwards, gradually working their way towards Germany.

As I recall Jack`s stories, he and Cecil drove a Bren gun carrier and he spoke once of being amongst the first British troops to enter Le Havre, driving his Bren gun carrier at great speed down a pavement because the roads were blocked with debris. Le Havre was heavily bombed by the British and many French civilians lost their lives as the British bombed German port facilities and ships. This loss of civilian life appears to have been the result of failed negotiations about the possible evacuation of civilians being determined by centuries old war “rules”  – the following paragraph was copied from a Wiki page about William Douglas-Home who was imprisoned for refusing to participate in the taking of Le Havre after negotiations failed…

“The rules enabled a besieging force (the British) to refuse the request of a besieged force (the Germans) to evacuate civilians from a besieged town, on the basis that if the civilian population was kept locked up this would lead to starvation and the weakening, and eventual capitulation of the besieged force. But those rules had been formulated before aerially launched bombardment had been conceived, and were hopelessly out-dated by the Second World War. The allied refusal was not illegal, nor did it amount to a war crime by the then rules of warfare on land.”

The truth is, however, that many French families blamed the British for their losses.  On the ground, however, the Canadians were involved in the taking of Le Havre and Jack & Cecil were, I believe, with 1st Canadian Carrier Regiment at that point.

They then moved on, with the Canadians still, towards Holland and he spoke of spending several nights sleeping inside the towers of Nijmegen bridge. Once we visited Nijmegen with Jack and Tricia`s mother Lily, and it was the first time he had been back to France and Holland since the war – it was sometime in the 1980s but I forget which year. It was the first time, too, that Lily had ever been abroad.

The reason for the visit was also poignant. Jack and Cecil managed to get all the way through a lot of heavy fighting as the best of mates in their 20s and then the war was won. The Germans surrendered and the two friends celebrated along with the rest. But, just a few days later they were driving their vehicle through a field which turned out to have been a minefield. Cecil was killed after the war was won and was buried on German soil just over the border from Holland.

Jack had to come home and tell Lily that his best friend and her husband, Cecil, father of Robert and, therefore great grandfather of little Ellie, who was christened on Sunday, had died. Jack and Lily ended up marrying – and the eldest of their daughters, Tricia, eventually became my wife. Thus, my life, has been influenced and affected by events that had run their course before I was born.

On one of our European holidays Tricia and I rediscovered Cecil`s grave, from information Lily had provided and this joint trip was something of a pilgrimage for Lily and Jack too. One thing stands out in my memory of visiting that war cemetery. At 28 years of age Cecil was one of the oldest “residents”… most of the graves were for boys from about 18 to 21. What a waste!

On a lighter note on the same trip we visited the Dutch town of Maastricht where Jack had been for a while and all he would do was laugh when he asked what Tricia and I were doing – “We are scanning faces of all the blond-haired women we see who are a little older than Tricia – to see if she has a sister here in Maastricht!” Needless to say we never did get a definitive answer to the implied question.

 

*Novel – Captain Cobbler  – http://www.captaincobbler.com

About Keith Melton - Green Lib Dem

Retired English liberal environmentalist living in Nottinghamshire; spent six years in Brazil. Author of Historical Novel - Captain Cobbler: the Lincolnshire Uprising 1536. Active member of the Green Liberal Democrats - (pressure group in Liberal Democrats) - was Founding Chair of GLD in 1988
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