Sixty years ago today, my friend Archie set foot on a beach in northern France. He was 21 years old at the time. He was from Newtownards in Co Down and had volunteered to join the Royal Air Force three years previously. Archie trained as a radio operator, imagining that this would lead him to becoming the member of a bomber crew. However, the Canadian army were short of radio operators and Archie was transferred to serve with the First Canadian Army. Thus it was on 6th June 1944 that he found himself leaping into the water from an allied landing craft with a radio pack on his back and running onto the beach at Saint Aubin sur Mer. The beach had the code name ‘Juno’.
Archie died four years ago. Had he been alive, I do not think he would have been in Normandy today. Archie avoided such occasions, he took the view that they didn’t capture the horror of the events. Reading a review of the books published to mark the 60th anniversary of D-Day, there seem to be many veterans who would share Archie’s opinion. Martin Bowman has collected a series of reminiscences in his book ‘Remembering D-Day: Personal Histories of Everyday Heroes’. Bowman quotes from Donald Burgett, a member of the 101st Airborne Division who was nineteen years old when he landed in Normandy. Burgett says, ‘It was dirty and dehumanising and disgusting . . . I just hope that when they make their fine speeches on the beachheads they remember what happened. I do. Every night of the year. The images of the dead always wake me up’.
We went to Saint Aubin sur Mer in 1997, it’s close to the ferry port of Caen. It was a wet afternoon in late August, the seafront was deserted. At one end of the promenade there was a plain stone on which were inscribed the names of those who did not make it off the beach on that June day.
Leaning on the railings and looking out at a grey sea, it was hard to imagine this anonymous French town had once been at the centre of a major event in world history. But we need to imagine, we need to conjure up those pictures of horror and pain and violence and suffering and death. We need those pictures in our minds because when we don’t have those pictures, then we start to forget. When we forget, we allow things to happen again and again and again.
Imagination helps us to understand events. Imagination, hopefully, enables us to avoid those events being repeated.
Imagination is not something that comes easily to us. Since the 18th century we have become less and less used to using our imaginations. We regard imagining as something for our childhood years, something that went with the stories we were told when we were young. The age in which we grew up was an age when we were told that what mattered was what we could see, what we could touch. Reality, we were told, is the here and now, unless something can be measured, unless something can be analysed, then we were told that it was not real.
Losing the capacity for imagination meant that wars became about sets of statistics. D-Day in history became not the experiences of those involved, but lists of casualties, descriptions of the forces and the weapons involved, timetables of events. Without a capacity for imagination, we have no understanding of D-Day as it really was for those who were there. Without imagination we cannot encounter reality.