Otto English compares the reality of war and brotherhood through the trauma of World War Two veterans with the Victor comic book versions of history.
All the striking moments in this week’s D-Day celebrations have come courtesy of those who were there 75 years ago.
Now into their 90s and beyond, these old soldiers know this will be the last chance to put on public record what they experienced. Those who spoke did not waste the opportunity.
Don’t thank me and don’t say I’m a hero, I’m no hero – I was lucky. All of the heroes are dead.Harry Billinge
Speaking to the BBC’s Naga Munchetty, Harry Billinge, 93, seemed determined to cut through the clichés and bombast surrounding commemorations.
He didn’t talk of Spitfires and derring-do but instead, movingly, of losing a friend who died in his arms in a field outside Caen.
Admitting he was ‘choked’, Harry brushed off all attempts to comfort and thank him saying: “Don’t thank me and don’t say I’m a hero, I’m no hero – I was lucky. All of the heroes are dead.”
‘I Cannot Forget’
Another veteran, 95-year-old Frank Baugh, told the service of commemoration in Bayeux of the horror of seeing young men cut to shreds as they left his landing craft.
“My abiding memory of D-Day is of thunderous noise and the sight of young men rolling in the surf, lads we’d been speaking with minutes before,” he said.
“I cannot forget.”
And then there was Harry Read, aged 95, who – having jumped from a plane 50 years after he first parachuted into Normandy – went to meet German veteran Paul Golz.
In a moving conversation, captured for posterity by Channel 4, the two men displayed no animosity towards each other, but sat and talked quietly, hand in hand.
“Now we are friends!” Mr Golz concluded, but Harry was having none of it.
“We are more than that – we are brothers.”
So much of our collective, and often false memory of war, is informed by documentary or blockbusters like ‘Saving Private Ryan’ that it’s easy to forget that real people went through it.
I don’t know what the BBC was hoping to get from Harry Billinge but, watching him, I was reminded of my own grandfather who would well up as he recalled the horror of the Somme and the pals he lost in the First World War. As an Action Man- collecting, war film-obsessed child of the late 1970s, I couldn’t understand it then.
Surely being in a battle was a great adventure – and, anyway, hadn’t we won? What was it that made him so upset? Couldn’t he tell me about shooting people rather than crying all the time? What was wrong with Grandad?
What I didn’t realise – and it’s obvious now of course – was that he hadn’t wanted to be there.
War is traumatic, dirty, terrifying and, for the survivors of it, an individual experience that leaves many carrying brutal emotional scars. For veterans who live on into great age there always seems to be an urgency to set the record straight – and we witnessed much the same with the last veterans of the Great War as we are seeing now.
A day before the Normandy commemoration another old soldier, Eric Chardin, was asked by the BBC’s Simon McCoy what he thought about the progress that had been made since the war to bring about lasting peace.
Mr Chardin’s response was unequivocal. “I hope it continues but… Brexit worries me” he said, adding that it would be a “crying shame” if all the efforts to bring the big European nations together were now to be ripped apart.
It is of course possible that there were passionate Brexiters among the ranks of the old soldiers, but it seems that – for the most part – those who lived through the war see their legacy as the peace that followed.
The Victor Comic View of History
A few months ago, it was revealed that Nigel Farage once told a group of friends after a late night dinner that his greatest life regret was not having been present at D-Day.
Farage was born in 1964 and thus missed that boat by at least 40 years.
But, what a bizarre thing to say. Why did he want to be there? Why would anyone have wanted to be there?
Perhaps Farage believes that patriotism can only be predicated on the basis of men running at machine guns through the blood swept shores of France.
It is as infantile an anecdote as any I think I have ever heard.
One of the many tragedies of our current political quagmire and the EU Referendum in general is that the Far Right, the Tory ERG and vocal Brexiteers have managed to hijack the legacy of World War Two and the gift of peace it bestowed on them and us and all that followed.
Perhaps instead of taking a Victor comic view of history, Farage and his ilk could press pause on the ‘Band of Brothers’ DVDs for a moment – and listen to these remarkable old soldiers instead.