June 16th, 2024

Veterans mark sombre 80th D-Day anniversary in France, leaders warn democracy at risk

By Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press on June 6, 2024.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walks with Canadian Ambassador to France and Special Envoy to the European Union Stephane Dion as he arrives in Deauville, France, Wednesday, June 5, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

COURSEULLES-SUR-MER, France – Thirteen Canadian veterans of the Second World War returned to Normandy this week, where the sacrifice of Allied soldiers who liberated the region 80 years ago is deeply remembered, as leaders warned democracy is still in peril.

“Our way of life didn’t happen by accident, and it won’t continue without effort,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday, as thousands gathered along the sunny beaches of Normandy to commemorate the anniversary of D-Day.

Trudeau, his French counterpart Gabriel Attal and Prince William were among dignitaries visiting Juno Beach, where flags bearing the Maple Leaf fluttered in a gentle breeze on Thursday morning.

In the front row of a crowd of thousands were 13 Canadian veterans in military uniform, the oldest of them 104 years old, who survived the war effort on the same beach so many decades ago.

“There are no words to describe the immensity of the debt we owe you,” Trudeau told them as he delivered an address noting the significant role Canada played in eventually liberating France from Nazi rule.

Behind him in Courseulles-sur-Mer, France, the waters of the English Channel were calm, and a navy ship could be seen offshore. A sand dune was covered in wild roses and other flowers and grasses.

Against that tranquil backdrop, Trudeau delivered a stark warning.

“Democracy is still under threat today. It is threatened by aggressors who want to redraw borders. It is threatened by demagoguery, misinformation, disinformation, foreign interference,” he said.

Trudeau said the world owes it to the veterans who sacrificed so much for our collective freedom to continue standing up for democracy every day.

In his own address, the French prime minister warned that the world must not fall into submission.

“Behind each of our rights, each of our freedoms, lies the mark of the landing soldiers’ sacrifice,” he said in French, noting that Ukrainians are currently dying “for having committed the affront of wanting to be free.”

On June 6, 1944, around 160,000 Allied troops landed on the beaches to begin an effort now remembered as the beginning of the end of the Second World War.

In all, 4,414 Allied troops were killed on the first day of the invasion, including 381 Canadians.

It was just the beginning of the bloody 77-day Battle of Normandy and the start of the Allied liberation of France – the most ambitious campaign in military history, as Prince William put it during a speech, which “came at a heavy cost.”

In the end, the toll was enormous: 73,000 Allied forces were killed and 153,000 wounded. Around 20,000 French civilians were also killed, many as a result of Allied bombings of French villages and cities.

Historians estimate about 22,000 German soldiers are among those buried around Normandy, and between 4,000 and 9,000 of them were killed, wounded or went missing during the D-Day invasion alone.

The region’s cemeteries are also the final resting place for more than 5,000 Canadians, including 359 who were killed on D-Day.

After observing a moment of silence for the fallen, Trudeau, Attal and Prince William walked to the sand dune and laid down commemorative wreaths.

The event, which featured performances by a variety of Canadian artists, wrapped up with a performance by The Trews. As they sang “Highway of Heroes,” spectators tapped their feet and one of the Canadian veterans wiped away tears.

The two leaders and the prince took a few moments to chat with each of the Canadian veterans following the ceremony, crouching or bending over to get closer and clasping their hands.

Charles Davis, a veteran who lives in Windsor, Ont., asked to talk to Prince William, who asked what his role was on D-Day.

“What did I do when I got on the beach? I got the hell off there,” said Davis. William and everyone around them laughed in a moment of levity on a solemn day, and Davis gave the prince a City of Windsor pin.

Veterans made their way toward the beach with their family members and companions, leaving the crowd to take a quiet moment near the shore.

Many eventually made their way to Omaha Beach, along a road lined with British, American and Canadian flags alongside the French Tricolour.

People across Normandy stopped on the streets, looked out their windows and waved as dignitaries passed by. Some saluted the Canadian delegation, as a gesture of thanks.

Valentin Plancke, a 25-year-old Frenchman, said he came to pay tribute to Canadians who helped liberate his country.

“They gave a lot for us, and that’s the main thing we can do for them,” he said.

“I’m feeling a bit sad for all of the veterans who sadly passed away and all the soldiers who fell on this day, who must be remembered.”

On Thursday afternoon, French President Emmanuel Macron greeted dignitaries including Trudeau for a more elaborate ceremony, as planes flew overhead.

A crowd of thousands repeatedly rose to applaud veterans as large screens displayed live footage of them taking their seats.

Spectators also gave a loud ovation to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy upon his arrival.

In his speech, Macron recounted the sacrifice of the Allied nations on D-Day, and he took the time to describe what the scene would’ve been like for the Canadians.

“About to launch the attack on Juno Beach, minute by minute, they see this blade of sand growing on the horizon which, for some, is the land of their ancestors who left France centuries ago for Quebec or Acadia,” he said in French.

Macron spoke about the role of individual soldiers that day, too.

“It’s Léo Major, the Canadian sniper who became legendary for blowing up a bunker, seizing a German tank and later taking 93 prisoners single-handedly,” he said in French.

Trudeau departed France to head back to Ottawa on Thursday evening.

Back in Canada, military members and veterans marked the anniversary with a more modest but no less solemn ceremony.

An event planned at the National War Memorial in Ottawa was moved indoors as rain pelted the capital city.

More than 100 people, including Defence Minister Bill Blair, crowded into the Cartier Drill Hall, a large brick military training centre just blocks from the memorial site, to reflect on the anniversary.

“Moving forward in the face of insurmountable odds, their hearts were braced by the gravity of their mission,” Armed Forces chaplain Katherine Walker said of the Allied soldiers.

“As we remember D-Day, we are called to embody the values for which those military members fought and died.”

Similar ceremonies were held across Canada, including an event attended by Gov.-Gen. Mary Simon and other dignitaries in Moncton, N.B.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 6, 2024.

– With files from Michel Saba and Dylan Robertson.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misidentified French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal as the president and erroneously referred to the body of water as the Mediterranean Sea.

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