Why everyone should see war graves once - says twinning chairman

PUBLISHED: 13:05 15 June 2009 | UPDATED: 23:41 15 June 2010

Axminster's twin town Douvres la Delivrande extended an invitation to its counterpart to take part in the Normandy Landings' commemorations 65 years after D-Day.

Axminster's twin town Douvres la Delivrande extended an invitation to its counterpart to take part in the Normandy Landings' commemorations - 65 years after D-Day. Brian Watson, representing Axminster Town Council, and Caroline Hillyard, chairman of Axminster Twinning Association, together with Miriam Hillyard and Iain Fifer, travelled across the Channel.This is Caroline's account of the moving visit... We arrived in Ouistreham in bright afternoon sunshine and fell fairly quickly into conversation with a young man in Army uniform, recently returned from Afghanistan. "We're just waiting for one of our veterans - he's 96" he said, and added with the utmost sincerity "It's an important part of our history..."Thence to Douvres for the commemoration service in the English cemetery. This is English territory behind Sword Beach. The average age of the soldiers named on the tombs must be 19. Unusually, German soldiers are buried here too, and some Canadians, who landed on Juno Beach. The veterans, about ten in number, stood in a line facing a cenotaph, three standard bearers stood on each side. An English and a French priest officiated and, importantly, the mayor and several citizens of Douvres' twin town in Germany, Oerlenbach, were present. There were prayers, and wreaths were laid; there were speeches and presentations of civic medals by the mayor; there was music, and young children gave readings on the futility of war. The veterans saluted, their aged hands trembling somewhat. One found standing difficult and sat eventually on the low wall of the cenotaph. Afterwards we drank kir and cider and met with the veterans and their families. An old soldier explained all his medals to me. "Did you know fear?" I asked. "We just got on with it," he said, "but what was hard was leaving our friends behind". This was not so much a general reference to his comrades now lying in this land, it was more immediate and specific than that: they had been instructed that they were to leave the wounded and dead behind - that's what had been the hardest thing - and his eyes filled with tears. In the evening we attended in the Salle de Baladins, An Evening of Recollection. This was introduced by Douvres' mayor, Thierry Lefort, who gave his second speech of the day, followed by short speeches from Oerlenbach's mayor and by Brian Watson on the themes of reconciliation and the new Europe. In the middle of the evening there was a "surprise guest", a veteran who had been in Douvres for several weeks in 1944 with his tank regiment. As he was ushered onto the stage everyone in the room spontaneously rose to their feet and clapped. He was reluctant to talk about his experiences, a privilege of his age I felt, but he still had a sparkle in his eye and could still remember, and indeed sang in terrible French, a saucy song about getting French girls "in the family way"! The evening was brought to a close by the advent of the town's choir, singing a song, again in the spirit of reconciliation, about how things might have looked from a German perspective. We left the hall and drove to Tailleville, a small hamlet and administrative outpost of Douvres. Saturday dawned fine and the somewhat-punishing timetable of the mayor (whose family I was staying with) called him to the inauguration of an exhibition in the centre of town. At the time of the D-Day landings there had been a printing works in Douvres, and here had been published the first newspaper, just a few days after the arrival of the troops, which kept everybody informed of what was going on. Two British soldiers would listen to the BBC news, take notes in shorthand, write them up, pass them over to be typeset and printed at night, and the paper would be distributed next day. Later that morning Thierry Lefort unveiled a plaque on this shop front acknowledging the history. Not long before there had been a grand procession through the streets of old military vehicles, driven and loaded with people in khaki. Jeeps and huge lorries of every description filed past and eventually came to a halt for people to inspect. The afternoon saw us at another ceremony - the naming of a new block of flats after Douvres' twin German town. It was to be called Residence Oerlenbach. A very stylish signpost was erected - "Oerlenbach 975kms" it read! Oerlenbach's mayor gave a heartfelt speech. Next year, when Axminster Twinning Association visits Douvres, there will be a similar ceremony and a small square, just beside this new block of flats, will carry the name of our town.At 3pm we filed into the Basilique church for an ecumenical service delivered in German, French and English, with peace as its theme. All these events were taking place whilst the spotlight was falling on Colleville further up the coast, and on the heads of state and the huge security operation. Those who were not on the Beaches or out on the streets of their own towns watched Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy and Prince Charles and all their various entourages on their televisions. Everyone should come here once and walk in these cemeteries - they cannot be described, only experienced. Everyone should come here once to remind themselves of the futility of war and to honour the reason we live in freedom.

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