The tools of modern warfare mean that nowadays engagement with the enemy at close hand is rare.
Of the many themes which have emerged during these D-Day commemorations, one has stood out to me more than most: it is the frequency with which veterans have referred to the main feature contributing to the terror in front of them as they scrambled to the beach.
Noise. A deafening volume in a cauldron of death. A sound, I suspect, which is not heard as often by today’s military, because the location of the enemy is mostly completely out of sight.
And that got me thinking more of what a horrendous experience these young men encountered. Wading through water, in some cases so deep that many drowned under the weight of their equipment, heading straight into a din so awful, a cacophony of sound with only one intent.
Fifteen years ago, on the 60th Anniversary, my son went on a school trip to visit the key areas. On one blissful afternoon, I was sitting on the wall, high up, overlooking Arromanches beach. Below me, the tide was out, a considerable distance away, exposing a vast expanse of smooth sand and a surprisingly sparsely populated beach.
In the midst of it, I could see my 12-year-old son playing cricket with half a dozen mates. I sat there gazing out to sea, when it struck me that I was watching a scene of purist innocence being played out on the very stage which had hosted a portable harbour to enable equipment and men to land for about five months after D-Day. And, consequently, to enable my son and friends to enjoy their freedom in front of my eyes. It was an intensely moving experience.
I’m going to get to the music soon, but there is one more diversion you must allow me. My late father was president of the Political Society at his school. In that capacity, the choice of whom to invite to address the society was his. In the spring of 1944, he decided, somewhat precociously, to write to General Eisenhower asking him if he would do the society the honour of addressing them on Monday, June 5. They always met on Mondays and my father was particularly specific about the date.
Below is a copy of the letter dad got in reply: wonderfully unspecific, not only about the date of my father’s letter, but also, perhaps deliberately, about the date of his invitation. Just 17 days later, the landings had begun. This letter is quite a treasure.
And now, finally, to the music I have selected for today’s commemorations. A strange choice, you might think at first, but there is some sense to it. Schubert’s quintet in C was composed in the last months of his life in 1828 and not performed for the first time until over 20 years after he had died; but it is now widely acknowledged to be one of the most popular pieces in all chamber music. It is highly likely that you will recognise this second movement, for it has been used in films and television programmes.
Don’t even think of putting this on unless you are going to completely relax and allow yourself to be absorbed by the music. It is not to be played while you are rushing around, or even between chores. It is the ultimate music for quiet contemplation, imbued with melancholy and turmoil.
And, as such, a fitting and beautiful passage with which to reflect the sacrifices made by so many young men.