Many ROSL members have served or have family who have served in the armed forces. As part of our centenary commemorations for WWI in 2018 and 70th anniversary of WWII in 2019, ROSL is creating a memory board showcasing people’s stories. Read the account of ROSL member Barry Whittaker, who returned to his father’s grave in Normandy, many years after he died, along with thousands of others, as part of the push inland following the D-Day landings.
It was a sniper that did it, they said – a German sniper who got lucky just as my father among his comrades, all on foot, crossed an open field in Normandy on the 11th morning after D-Day.
Should the Tommies have been there, out in the open, so soon after the beach landings? Allied soldiers had barely begun to push inland; enemy machine gunners and riflemen were still thick on the ground.
And, what ground! The Bocage – open fields bordered by woodland, dense hedges and steep-sided lanes. It might have been created for the sniper’s deadly trade.
No doubt his mates grumbled afterwards about the wisdom of entering that field when they did… but I have always believed that much of their anguish welled up simply from their fondness for my father, for a quiet, shy, rather good-looking young Lancashire coal miner, brown-eyed, open-faced.
I like to recall that, when he fell, he already knew he was going to be a father. Boy or girl? In those days there was no way of telling. He could not know that he would have a son.
He died at the age of 24, on 17 June 1944. I was born to this grieving widow five months later, almost to the day. Always I promised that one day, some time, I would for France, cross that Channel, find his grave.
To one untraveled it seemed so far away, this little village of Hermanville, a few miles north of Caen. It might as well have been on the other side of the world.
In later years, however, an executive job with the chemical industry made European travel essential. I became a seasoned flyer. My father’s distant resting place lost its remoteness… and, one day, I went. An assignment at the United Nations in Geneva included an empty weekend. I filled it by flying to Paris and, on Sunday morning, taking the train to Caen.
It was August 1985. I was 40 years old and, for the first time, I reached his graveside. I stood, physically, before this man who had given me life in a two-up, two-down in Bolton all those years ago, this man who have never known me.
It was a powerful experience and I was glad to have been on my own that day. I could not have helped companions with their feelings. My own were hard enough to contain.
Reaching his graveside had been a gradual process that weekend, and increasingly tense.
I had started at Sword Beach, where the British Eighth Army had landed. The very shore blasted by noise, conflict and death – but, on that humid day in August 1985, just a broad, deserted strand under grey, drizzly skies that merged with a grey sea at a grey, almost indistinguishable, horizon.
Giant British and Canadian flags flapped from the tallest flagpoles I had ever seen. Californians redwoods painted white, they seemed.
A steady walk inland of about a mile, neat bungalows to the right, meadows to the left. Senses quickening.
A fenced green marked by a commemorative plaque – the local mayor’s proud boast of so many soldiers drinking that day from this one water standpipe.
A little beyond, a stony lane. Turn left. Another lane, stonier, narrower. On the right, a high, flint wall. You do not know it yet, but this wall encloses the military cemetery.
The wall then broken by a low, double fate of black iron railings, anonymous until you peer closer: engraved on the left footstone, ‘1939’, on the right, ‘1945’. You need no more for a signpost.
Willows overhanging a winding footpath defeat prying eyes. To see this place, you must enter.
The trees part to reveal white headstones – just over a thousand, but they seem fewer, ranked in their little walled garden. Before them, their guardian, a towering, white marble cross inset with a great, downward-pointing bronze sword. The Army’s monument.
In a side cloister, a visitors’ book, a loose-leaf ring binder. It is fat. How many years must this go back? To my shock, four months. So many have come here. Most have French names. Many have written, simply, ‘Merci’.
What should I write? I hadn’t thought of this. They say it’s always best to put the first thing that comes into your head: it will be true. I write, ‘Rest, Father. Your work is done’.
I find his grave: the same pure white stone as all the others, so freshfaced that it could have been laid down that morning. His name, rank, date of death, age, and a verse beneath that I know my mother chose from among official alternatives. ‘My darling, in your grave…’ There is more, but with wet eyes you cannot read it.
I sink to knee, emotions roiling. I press a bent finger to my lips, then draw it along his graven name and silently thank him not only for the life he gave me but for sacrificing his to safeguard mine.
As a boy, none of this had made much impact, even when Remembrance Day came round. God’s way, perhaps, of sparing a child pointless grieving? But, as a man, with each passing year I feel, ever more keenly, what it is that I lost, what riches. My father.
Above, what it is that he lost. All the years I have lived, in steadily increasing number, are years that he never had and can never have.
I love Shakespeare, but nowadays forgo Hamlet. It is too hard to look on as young Ophelia, heartbroken, names each different flower of her withered posy, quoting its significance. I know my breaking-point. It comes, inevitable as nightfall, when she reaches the line,
“There’s Rosemary. That’s for remembrance”