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TV review: D-Day 80: The Allies Prepare; Tribute to the Fallen; We Will Remember Them

14 June 2024

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Headstones in the Bayeux War Cemetry were illuminated during D-Day 80: Tribute to the Fallen (BBC1, Wednesday of last week)

Headstones in the Bayeux War Cemetry were illuminated during D-Day 80: Tribute to the Fallen (BBC1, Wednesday of last week)

“SURROUNDED by so great a cloud of witnesses”: in D-Day 80 (Wednesday and Thursday of last week), BBC1 presented us with three blockbusting programmes — one compelling factor being, of course, that there are ever fewer participants still with us. Each presentation made those veterans the centre of attention, either by their actual presence, or, employing that art that we hardly notice nowadays, by recorded interview and reminiscence.

The biggest live audience was gathered in Portsmouth for Wednesday’s The Allies Prepare; the smaller gathering was the invited guests at We Will Remember Them on Thursday; and the smallest was at Tribute to the Fallen, on Wednesday evening. This last event took place in the Bayeux War Cemetery, and, as it progressed, we realised that its real focus, those present, were the more than 4000 British and Commonwealth personnel who lie there, killed either on D-Day or in the ensuing Battle of Normandy.

In a remarkable coup de télévision, at its climax, all other lights were extinguished, and only each headstone was individually illuminated. The image as the camera rose up and up, revealing the huge number of gravestones, their lights burning steadily in the darkness, was intensely moving. The living gave way to the dead. The crucial liturgical action was — following Princess Anne’s example — the laying of posies of flowers on some of the graves.

The D-Day morning commemoration took place at the new British Normandy Memorial, another immaculate architectural tribute, which, like the war graves scattered not just throughout France, but in all theatres of war, presents so powerful a contrast between their order, beauty, and serenity and the hells of agonising death that they entomb. “War”, one veteran proclaimed, “is a fight for peace.” That many more French civilians than Allied servicemen were killed was explicitly honoured. As official, royal, and national events, all three took on a character different from our familiar tradition.

Although these events were military — led by Forces personnel and a splendid military band — in place of the usual glorious pageantries of pomp and circumstance, of scarlet and bearskin, they were softer, gentler, and more personal. Pride was softened by emotion, indeed, by overwhelming loss — another powerful contrast with the appalling killing machine of an ultimately successful war, in which discipline must overcome personal feeling.

At Portsmouth, the King painted by far the widest canvas, far more explicit about how this commemoration must determine us to confront today’s tyrannies. He paid tribute not just to the Commonwealth and American sacrifices in Normandy, but those of the other 1944 theatres of war: Italy and Burma. Truly ecumenical, he pointed out that, in that year of global conflict, three VCs were awarded: to a Sikh, a Hindu, and a Muslim.

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