Axminster twinners' visit to the D-Day beaches
PUBLISHED: 08:18 19 June 2019 | UPDATED: 09:15 28 June 2019
Caroline Hillyard's moving account of the 75th anniversary commemorations of the Normandy landings
Caroline Hillyard, chairman of Axminster Twinning Association, led a small group to attend the 75th anniversary D-Day commemorations on Juno Beach, in Normandy, on June 6, and has been reflecting on her visit.
She writes: "At the invitation of the mayor of Axminster's twin town, Douvres la Délivrande, a small group went to Normandy for the D-Day commemorations. We were joined by twinners from Douvres' twin town in Germany, Oerlenbach, which of course gave an added poignancy to the visit.
"In the morning of Wednesday, June 5, a service was held in the main church of Douvres and later in the afternoon everyone gathered in the British cemetery for an Act of Remembrance. Young children from the town's primary and secondary schools gave readings, most notably Paul Eluard's poem 'Liberty' written during the German Occupation:
…On the fields, on the horizon
On the wings of birds
And on the mill of shadows
I write your name
On each rush of daybreak
On the sea, on the boats
On the fabulous mountaintop
I write your name…'
"There were speeches, there was music, ceremony and reflection, the children laid paper doves on the graves. The soldiers lying here are mainly British, but there are Germans and other nationalities, and the average age of the dead is about 19.
"On June 6 itself we were guests of the Canadian government on Juno Beach. To assist in their security France had drawn a cordon around most of Normandy and in this area traffic was not allowed to circulate unless it was traffic concerned with the commemorations. It is hard to imagine how many police were deployed and it was strange to see mile upon mile of empty roads. The bus that took us to the beach was escorted by three police motorbikes, blue lights flashing. Under a scorching sun and the brightest of blue skies, studded with beautiful heavy clouds, we sat for three hours and watched the spectacle, and paid homage.
"Rather than recount every detail, these are the memories I will retain. As we sat waiting for the ceremony to begin one could hear almost incessant clapping in the not-so-far distance. After a while we worked out that the crowds who couldn't access the beach were applauding the veterans as they gathered. They paused behind us and then one by one took their seats in the front row, most of them were in wheelchairs, one or two walked. Bent and aged, frail and dignified, not one of them was asking to be seen or acknowledged. "But again we all clapped, in thanks, in admiration, in this time when you can't use words any more. I saw as he was wheeled forward, one veteran whose lips trembled, and a tear fell onto his cheek.
"Music came in all forms supplied by a multitude of military bands, some players sporting Scots' pipers bonnets, topped with black ostrich feather which I happened to know had been made in Axminster.
"Some 359 Canadian soldiers died on Juno Beach on the first day of the Landings and 359 young people walked onto the sand and laid pairs of boots, or helmets on the stage, or stuck red and white paper flowers into the wooden fence.
"The main area of activity was surrounded by two large screens on which were projected footage of the D-Day landings, witness statements, and all the images of the events taking place.
"A Cree Chief gave a blessing in his native language dressed in a red robe and the biggest feather head-dress one has ever seen. There were three actors who performed, punctuating the day with reminiscences, some in French and some English, and most tender of all a trio of women (The Ennis Sisters) who sang the most haunting of songs "I Will Sing You Home'.
"We would stand spontaneously, even unbidden. The visiting dignitaries were President Trudeau of Canada and the Prime Minister of France who passed a few feet beside us and who both gave moving speeches and later laid wreaths. From time to time wartime aeroplanes flew over, whilst out on the calm grey sea a warship patrolled, turning direction several times during the morning. Pipers and soldiers stood on the sand dunes keeping guard and four service personnel stood on duty at the statue outside the Juno Museum behind us. Towards the end of the ceremony the air resounded with the playing of bagpipes.
"The orchestrated and organised ceremony drew to a close and everyone dispersed, either back to their buses or onto the beach. I took a photograph of the empty white plastic chairs - every one had a name on it. What we could not see then, but can see clearly now on You Tube, is how President Trudeau knelt down to speak to each of the veterans so as not to tower over them.
"I do not wish to pass comment but hope that these images will speak for themselves. Two days later we returned to Juno Beach to the museum and at the end of the visit watched a film called 'Dans Leurs Pas' which means 'in their footsteps' but was translated as 'They Walk With You'. The closing scene shows a contemporary Canadian family walking along the empty beach.
"One by one hazy images of the fallen hove into view walking (as spirits) behind them. These spirits, who were young men with families and lives, feelings and friends, who liberated France, who brought about the end of the war, and who remain as guardian angels of our Peace - 'they walk with you…"