We talk often of sacrifice in our modern world. Codependents “sacrifice” themselves in order to survive. We “sacrifice” for our kids to have a better life and we “sacrifice” when we have to save money or do something that we don’t want to do. We have to “sacrifice” when our favourite social media platform crashes (which makes headline news) and God forbid, we have to go without our smartphones for more than a few hours. The modern world has defined the word “sacrifice” for its own purposes. We can see where the confusion lies when we look at the true definition:
Sacrifice of oneself or one’s own interests for the benefit, or the supposed benefit, of others. Dictonary.com
This does not appear to adequately address what we regard as sacrifice in contemporary terms.
What is the point of writing this? My recent visit to the Normandy Beaches, the site of the D-Day landings, served as an inspiration for this piece. On a previous trip, I had seen Omaha Beach and the American Military Cemetery, which is perhaps the most well-known and well-visited of all the landing locations. When I travelled to Gold Beach, I was able to see where the British forces landed and attempted to establish a beachhead in 1944.
Unlike other beaches in the area, Gold Beach consists of a long stretch of shoreline, a distance of eight miles, that begins in Ver-sur-Mer and finishes in Arromanches, where the famed Mulberry floating port was built to bring supplies ashore from ships at sea. Some of this is still standing, and it was a complicated civil engineering project that considerably benefited the war effort in many ways. While Omaha beach was a shorter and deeper stretch of beach, Gold beach was a thinner stretch bordered by cliffs, and landing there must have been exceedingly difficult.
It is not my purpose to write about history on this blog. Many others have done so about this particular subject, albeit with a far greater understanding of the facts. However, I would want to recount a specific point in time that occurred while I was visiting the freshly constructed British War Memorial in Ver-sur-Mer, which overlooks the first stretch of Gold Beach in the area. The memorial is situated on a hilltop in an isolated location, but it is easily accessible from the village below. It is a majestic structure that honours and remembers the names of the servicemen and women who served in the British armed services with great reverence and respect. The names, ranks, and ages of the fallen are inscribed on each pillar. Whether they died on Gold Beach during the landing, out at sea on ships, in the air while attempting to support the ground troops, or in the subsequent battles in the area in the following days, all of the people mentioned died within a few days of each other. There are even the names of young nurses who worked in the field hospitals included in the collection.
I sat alone in the midst of the monument on a bench. The sun shone brightly, and it was a lovely day, albeit quite cold as the wind blew in from the sea. The Union Jack and the French flag floated above me, honouring French civilians who perished at the hands of the Nazis. I imagined what it must have been like to sprint into incoming enemy fire on that beach nearly eighty years ago, watching your friends fall like flies.
On a clear day, you can see across the English Channel and envision the scene as the landing craft approached, full of terrified young men who didn’t know if they’d make it to the end of the day. Over 1200 of them didn’t and were lost during the first landings. The American allies lost 2500 troops attempting to land on Omaha Beach, which was located further east.
The devastating realisation for anyone visiting the memorial, however, is when they see the hundreds of names carved on the concrete pillars that comprise the monument. On one side, the name, rank, and branch of service (Army, Navy, or RAF) are listed; on the reverse, the age is revealed. Many of the regular troops were only sixteen or seventeen years old at the time of their deaths. Officers and pilots are similarly young, in their late twenties or early thirties. It was a conflict fought by young men. It certainly puts the sacrifice they made for freedom from oppression and tyranny into perspective. They fought and died for the freedom we all now take for granted. Had they not prevailed, evil would have controlled the world. We should never let these young men slip from our memory.
“God almighty, in a few short hours we will be in battle with the enemy. We do not join battle afraid. We do not ask favours or indulgence but ask that, if you will, use us as your instrument for the right and an aid in returning peace to the world” – Lt Col Robert L Wolverton, commanding officer of 3rd battalion, 506th PIR.
“They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest” – Winston Churchill.