PARIS – There will never be another day like it. Poignantly, what they said about D-Day at the time also applies to next month's 70th anniversary of the pivotal 24 hours of World War II.
When the dwindling band of veterans of the Longest Day gather in Normandy, they will do so in the knowledge that, for all but a tiny handful of them, it will be for the last time.
With the youngest survivors, crop-haired teenagers when they took part in the biggest amphibious assault in human history, now approaching their 90th birthdays, age and frailty are making it increasingly difficult for them to continue the annual pilgrimage to the beaches that bore witness to so many individual acts of extraordinary heroism that, collectively, changed the course of history.
One prominent group, the Normandy Veterans Association, has already announced that it will disband after this year's ceremonies.
From now on, the world will have to find new ways to sustain the memory of the young men who put their lives on the line to ensure the success of the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe and, ultimately, the defeat of Hitlerism.
Against that backdrop, no effort has been spared to ensure that this year's ceremonies amount to a fitting tribute to the 156,000-plus troops who waded or parachuted onto French soil on June 6, 1944, nearly 4,500 of whom would be dead by the end of the day.
A flotilla of ships will set off from Britain's main naval port of Portsmouth on June 5 in commemoration of the nearly 7,000 vessels that took part in the invasion.
A mass parachute drop is scheduled to take place at Ranville, the first village to be liberated, and there will be a series of fly-pasts by historic and contemporary fighter planes along with many other re-enactments, memorial ceremonies and military processions in a part of France that cherishes the memory of the sacrifices made by the Allied forces in the name of its liberation.
The ceremonies are to be attended by an A-list of international leaders, headed by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, US President Barack Obama and, despite current tensions over Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russia's annexation of Crimea in March has sparked the worst crisis in the West's relations with Moscow since the end of the Cold War – but the diplomatic "nuclear option" of excluding Putin from commemorations to which German Chancellor Angela Merkel is invited was never seriously considered.
D-Day happened partly as a result of pressure from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin for the Allies to open up a new front that would relieve the pressure on the Red Army in the east.
Although the liberation of Normandy and France as a whole was to take many more months, sufficient progress was made on D-Day itself for Stalin to believe that the tide of the war had turned decisively against the Nazis.
"History will record this deed as an achievement of the highest order," Stalin wrote in a telegramme to British leader Winston Churchill.
Given that history, Putin's presence in Normandy should have been an opportunity to renew and enhance bonds between Moscow and the West. — AFP