We still live in awe of the magnitude of the D Day undertaking; the logistics and organisation; the secrecy of the preparation; the firepower released and the courage and sacrifice of so many lives. A Frenchman observing the bombing of his home town of Caen, remarked that freedom was being bought at a terrible price. Strategists and historians can explain the methods and means by which war is waged. Ingenious inventors can provide more and more instruments to bring about the dismemberment and destruction of human beings. They will sell these instruments, if they are permitted, to the highest bidder. Terrible things happen in wars, people say in justification. The whole enterprise is usually swathed in patriotic rhetoric or the quest for “Glory”. Yet the images that persist from World War II are short on glory and long on horror and unimaginable cruelty. Remember though, that Hitler was elected. Is that you, 457th from the right in the 23rd row? I hope not.
The glory lies in the courage and determination of those who went to war against a vile regime, conceived by a mind distorted by bitterness and hatred; a mind filled with lunatic notions of greatness, conquest and racial purity. The tragedy is that he could sway so many to his way of thinking. They call it ‘charisma’ when people surrender their freedom of thought and action to one all-knowing and all powerful leader. D Day dealt a body blow to the regime yet Hitler did not stop until he had brought his country and its people to devastation and misery. There are still some who revere his memory. On this day we revere the people who carried out the D Day invasion at a terrible cost to themselves.
In two weeks’ time we mark the 200th anniversary of The Battle of Waterloo, a battle that saw the end of Bonaparte’s career as emperor of France. In that most republican of countries he is still admired and revered for his many achievements. Foremost among these was his ability to organise and use force to get his own way. His use of grapeshot against a Royalist mob attacking the government in October (Vendemiaire) 1795 marked him as the coming man in French political life. Approximately 300 citizens died in the street. On that day too died the French Revolution, with its ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Grapeshot is efficient against a mob in narrow city streets. This is not to suggest that the Royalists would have been preferable. They were not organised. Bonaparte’s particular genius lay in his decisiveness. Grape shot brings a quick and tidy solution to thorny political disputes. As a reward he was appointed commander of the Army of Italy, not an Italian army but a French army sent to invade and conquer Italy. Shortly afterwards he received a positive reply to his application for a job as gunnery officer on a British East-Indiaman. He turned it down for better pickings. Behold a pale horse……
The man could do no wrong. General Vendemiaire, as he was nicknamed after the grapeshot episode, “my first title of Glory,” looked to greater things. He declared himself Emperor. Look at the costume…Drag artists everywhere take note. The mentally unhinged frequently turn to Emperor Napoleon for inspiration.
Like any good, ward-heeling politician, he began to get jobs for his family. He set the brother up as King of Spain. That didn’t work out too well. He decided to invade Russia, as you do, when you become all-powerful. It will cost the lifeblood of your country but sure, why not? Onward to Glory! On the days before Waterloo he was conspicuous on his pale horse, often silhouetted against thunder clouds and lightning, as he marshalled his army. Dramatic stuff. His Guards fought to their deaths for him. He was captured and conveyed to England as a celebrity, on HMS Bellerophon. The crowds came out in their boats on Plymouth Sound, to see him. He doffed his hat to the ladies and to his new fans. Charlie Chaplain complained that only a quarter of a million people turned out to greet him when he arrived back in England. Disgraceful. Fair play to Charlie though, he did a great job in satirising The Great Dictator.
Strategists and historians explain the ‘How?’ of empires, dictators and war. Psychologists struggle with the ‘Why?’ There may be days when you would like to have some grapeshot to hand, to deal with people who irritate you but you keep the idea in check…because you are sane. Hang on to that and be grateful to the soldiers of D Day.
By the way, Churchill was voted out of office in the first general election after the war. Democracy, he remarked, is a terrible system but it’s the best we have.