This article first appeared in the Western Mail on Saturday 8 June 2019
Rt Hon Mark Drakeford AM: First Minister of Wales
This week – on Wednesday and Thursday – I had the privilege of representing Wales at events in Portsmouth and France to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Among the many themes across the two days was the repeated message, from almost all the many veterans with whom I spoke, that this was the last time that so many would gather together to mark the anniversary.
The involvement of Wales in D-Day began well before the events of June 1944. In August 1943, more than 100,000 men and landing craft were involved in a full scale invasion rehearsal at Wiseman’s Bridge and Saundersfoot, in Pembrokeshire. That part of the Pembrokeshire coast was thought most closely to resemble the conditions at Normandy beaches. The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower both attended. This was a link between Normandy and Wales, which began with Exercise Jantzen and endures to this day.
When the invasion itself began, Welsh soldiers were involved from the outset. The landings, which followed the first phase, comprised 20,000 men, including support and back room staff. 16,000 men were killed in the operation to liberate mainland Europe.
The significance of D-Day to France was vividly and shockingly illustrated by the French President during the Portsmouth event on Wednesday. He read the last letter of a 16-year-old to his parents as he waited for execution because of his part in the French resistance.
It was his last act on earth, because the letter ends as his captors came to take him to the firing squad. It is letter steeped in love for his family and his country; in passion for freedom and liberation and, most movingly of all, in hope – hope for a future he would not share but had played a part in securing for others. It was a deeply moving moment, in a deeply moving day.
In France, in the magnificent cathedral at Bayeux, there were old friends from Cardiff already in the congregation. I sat alongside the First Minister of Scotland and representatives of the Normandy and Bayeux administrations. In the midst of all the work that was going on to organise that huge event, their main concern was to find a place of honour in the cathedral for a group of visitors from Germany, from Bayeux’s twin city.
Germany – a country with which France had been at war 3 times in a single lifetime, in 1870, in 1914 and in 1940 – in an honoured place, secured by French citizens dedicated to the celebration and preservation of peace.
It was the final commemoration event at the cemetery at Bayeux, which was the most moving of all. On the short walk from the cathedral to the cemetery, I had the always-cheering experience of hearing Welsh spoken by people in the large crowd who had come to be part of what was taking place – in their case in memory of family members who had been involved on invasion day.
There, among the carefully tended but utterly sobering ranks of headstones, the words used were ones which we struggle to use today – duty, sacrifice and service; of never forgetting friends but always remembering that theirs’ were actions, which were part of a collective purpose.
“Don’t forget,” one very frail and elderly veteran said to me, “That we were the Attlee generation. It was our votes, in 1945, which created the National Health Service and a Britain, which would not slip back to the 1930s.”
How easily we forget just how lucky most of us in this have been to have lived our lives in the light of their legacy.
How easily we fail to place the problems we face in the context of the actions, which, within the lifetimes of those still with us, others were obliged to take to deal with the challenges, which confronted them.
Of course, into every human life sorrow and suffering come – sometimes suddenly, taking you unawares; sometimes slowly but overwhelming our defences. And of course, we face the challenges of our own time – of losing jobs, as we have seen only this week with the news about Ford Bridgend; of behaving differently to save our fragile planet and much else besides.
But these events remind us that all this is only possible because of the sorrow, and the suffering and the challenges which others faced on our behalf and who have some right to expect that we place our lives and times in the perspective of theirs.
I know that some people are uneasy about drawing conclusions from the history of the past. But I wouldn’t be true to my experience of the D-Day commemorative events without returning to a theme, which also ran from start of finish – the fragile nature of peace, and the need to work, every day, to preserve it here in Europe and beyond.
Here, where invasion has played no part in our own history for so many centuries, participation in the invasion of other countries to secure peace has always been paradoxical. But on the continent of Europe, where war has been fought so often on the soil on which people stand, peace has never acquired that taken-for-granted quality.
So many of us have had the great good fortune to have lived our lives without the direct experience of war. We live, every day, with the miraculous fruits of the peace which followed since 1945 – the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a politics free of fanaticism and a state in which we pool our resources and attend to each other’s needs in a spirits of tolerance and civility.
The moving ceremonies I attended in Portsmouth and Bayeux reminded me how easily we come to take it all for granted, and how, unless we are prepared to work at it every day, how vulnerable it remains to being dismantled and destroyed.