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The Longest Weekend

photo: anti war demo, drop bush

Anti–war demonstration in Paris on Saturday.

Marriage in Bègles

Paris:– Monday, 7 June 2004:– The 60th anniversary of the allied invasion of Normandy was carried off successfully yesterday by a cast of tens of thousands, lead by Président Jacques Chirac. As big shows go, this was probably one of the biggest to be seen for a long time. So far as known, there were no hitches and a good time was had by all, perhaps even by George Bush.

Sixty years after Tuesday, 6. June 1944 is a fair time, but exactly right for a last hurrah. Many of the original participants are in their 80s and will not be around for another decade. Politics are also fickle, so it may have been an only chance for many of the heads of state who took part.

But put these sobering thoughts aside. The weather contributed an immense service to the enterprize by being unseasonably fair. It allowed many who are frail to take part in the numerous outside ceremonies, or to simply be again where they were 60 years ago – in weather as perfect for it as the original weather was almost not good enough.

For many of the veterans who returned to Normandy for the first time for this weekend, they had difficulty believing the Norman beaches were the same place that they saw in a blur as they frantically dodgedphoto: cuban flags hellish machinegun fire, mortars, mines and cannons. The sea was as cold as a leaking coffin as they dived off the loading ramps of landing craft into the dirty chop, facing a hail of bullets and a maze of obstacles.

More marchers in Saturday's demonstration.

On the first day, the infamous longest one, thousands of allied troops died in the fierce fight to get ashore. Once ashore they died on the beaches. Beyond the beaches, dropped by parachute, they died in flooded fields, crashed in gliders, and were mowed down by the defenders.

Meanwhile Allied bombers flew unrelenting missions over Normandy, dropping bombs on everything strategic – rails, bridges and roads. Bombs missed and civilians ran for cover.

The defending German armies made Allied forces pay dearly for any advance. With more men, more guns, more tanks, more bullets, and total air cover, the Allies had terrible difficulty overcoming the defenders and their earned reputation for prevailing against all odds. Almost everywhere the Wehrmacht prevented the Allied forces from achieving D–Day objectives.

But the entire bulk of the Allied armies and their overwhelming arsenal of firepower were concentrated on Normandy. When the Germans were totally smashed and wrecked there, they slowly gave way before the avalanche of men and fire and steel.

No other battle in the west came as close to matching the ferocity of WWI. Many units of both sides suffered over 100 percent casualties in the course of the ten weeks following the invasion. For the Allies this rate of loss was only redeemed by final victory.

60 Years Later

Less than a year after the invasion the war was over in Europe. Enemies of then have been in the former category for three generations now, but memories have a way of lingering beyond theirphoto: herald tribune, 7 june 1944 original carriers. Enough time has passed for former Allies to become enemies and come out the other side, if not as 'Allies,' at least as respected co–members of the world's community.

The Herald Tribune from Wednesday, 7. June 1944.

Next week, in what was the European war theatre of WWII, there will be elections for the European parliament – recently expanded to include 25 countries. It makes WWII seem like a long time ago and Europe seems too intertwined to return to anything similar.

On each of the decades marking the anniversary there have been memorial ceremonies in Normandy. This year's event may be the last because the tide of time is erasing the survivors. Somehow, for this year there has been a collective awareness that there won't be another occasion, for celebration or for bitterness. The war is over.

Therefore, it was fitting that Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was invited to this year's ceremonies. Also fitting was it to invite Russia's President Vladimir Putin – for Russia bled while the Allies prepared for the 'second front.' It was the first time in Normandy for both leaders.

Without the presence of the veterans and their families and without all the others who turned up to share the occasion with the residents of Normandy, Président Jacques Chirac's overall managing of the memorial event would have been like one –handed applause, but everybody came together.

Many heads of state were on hand along with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles, to see Jacques Chirac pin Legion of Honor medals on 14 veterans representing each of the 14 nationalities involved in the invasion. He kissed them on each cheek. At Arromanches, when 142 veterans paraded in front of the official stands, the applause went on so much longer than planned, on and on.

President George Bush paid homage to the 9300 American soldiers buried in the cemetery overlooking the most difficult landing beach, called Omaha. "America honors all the liberators who fought here in the noblest of causes," Mr. Bush said. "America would do it again for our friends."

The surprisingly good weather aided in keeping the mood focused on reconciliation and remembrance. Perhaps even some of it was gay, judging from TV views of Saint–Marie–Eglise where Frace–2 put on its 'Longest Night' show from midnight to dawn on Sunday. On Saturday evening smoke from sausages grilling drifted in the clear and still air over the town.


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