PORTSMOUTH, United Kingdom—The terrible and tragic story of the Second World War played out in an elaborate ceremony in this city in southern England on Wednesday, mere metres from where thousands of Canadian, American, and British soldiers boarded a flotilla of ships exactly 75 years earlier, on the eve of D-Day.
The ceremony, in which Canada and its role in helping free Europe from Nazi Germany figured prominently, was attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, U.S. President Donald Trump, Queen Elizabeth, and other world leaders as well as a handful of the veterans, most now in their 90s, who fought in that conflict to free the world of tyranny.
Trudeau and the other leaders not only paid homage to those who fought and died defeating Nazi Germany, but also promised to work together to ensure the horrors of that global conflict are never again repeated—an especially relevant message at a time of growing global instability.
“Over the last 75 years, our nations have stood up for peace in Europe, democracy, tolerance, and the rule of law,” leaders from 16 countries pledged in a joint declaration after the ceremony.
“We re-commit today to those shared values because they support the stability and prosperity of our nations and our people. We will work together as allies and friends to defend these freedoms whenever they are threatened.”
Among the countries represented were belligerents on both sides of the Second World War, including France, Germany, the United States, and U.K. One country missing was Russia.
Under a hazy sky and with a brisk breeze blowing in from the harbour, the ceremony charted the course of the war in Europe: from Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, which pulled in France, Britain, and Canada, among others, to the fateful decision to launch the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
Along the way, actors and dignitaries recited sombre diary entries and letters written by those who had fought—and in some cases died—in the war, while dancers and musicians recalled some of the music of the day before turning to martial tunes.
At one point, Trudeau took the stage to recount the story of Lt.-Col. Cecil Merritt, who was awarded a Victoria Cross, the military’s highest decoration, for his role in saving countless fellow Canadian soldiers during the disastrous raid on the French port of Dieppe in August 1942.
“Although twice wounded, Lt.-Col. Merritt continued to direct the unit’s operations with great vigour and determination,” Trudeau said, reading from a citation in the London Gazette from October 1942.
“He then coolly gave orders for the departure and announced his intention to hold off and ‘get even with’ the enemy. When last seen he was collecting Bren and Tommy guns and preparing a defensive position which successfully covered the withdrawal from the beach.”
More than 900 Canadians died at Dieppe and nearly 2,000 more were captured, including Merritt. But as Wednesday’s ceremony noted, the lessons learned from that attack helped carry the Allies to victory in Normandy before the liberation of Paris and, eventually, the fall of Berlin.
The Allied invasion of Normandy involved nearly 150,000 troops—including 14,000 Canadian soldiers—who stormed ashore into German machine gun fire. Before the day ended, 359 Canadians had been killed and another 715 wounded or captured. The battle for Normandy would continue for another two months and cost more than 5,000 Canadian lives.
Wednesday’s ceremony also featured accounts from U.S. and British soldiers as well as addresses by Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, and the Queen.
“Seventy-five years ago, hundreds of thousands of young soldiers, sailors, and airmen left these shores in the cause of freedom,” the Queen said. “The fate of the world depended on their success. Many of them would never return, and the heroism, courage, and sacrifice of those who lost their lives will never be forgotten.”
Trump, whose appearance at Wednesday’s event capped an official state visit to the United Kingdom, read a quote from one of his predecessors, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was president of the United States for most of the Second World War.
Retired major-general Richard Rohmer, who flew two surveillance missions over the D-Day beaches as a young pilot on June 6, 1944, said it was important that Canada be represented during the ceremony and for young Canadians to understand the importance of what happened 75 years ago.
“From time to time they will run across issues that are worth fighting for in Canada, which I believe is the finest country in the world,” Rohmer said of future generations.
“I hope you will recognize the old people like myself made some contribution to what Canada is today … We’re quite a different country, but it’s a good one and well worth fighting for if we have to.”
That message was clearly top of mind for some leaders such as outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May, who, in a meeting with Trudeau following the ceremony, thanked Canada as an ally and friend during the Second World War and now.
“It has been hugely important showing the strength of the alliance, looking back to the past but also, as we’ve been discussing, looking to the future,” May said, citing climate change and the Salisbury poison attack as examples.
Canada, Britain, the U.S., and others have blamed Russia for perpetrating the March 2018 attack, in which former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by a nerve agent. Russia has denied any involvement.
Trudeau thanked May for organizing Wednesday’s ceremony and said he looked forward to working with the British prime minister and her eventual successor, who is expected to be chosen by her Conservative party in the coming weeks.
World leaders will continue the commemorations in Normandy on Thursday, including at Juno Beach, the eight-kilometre stretch of coastline where the Canadians came ashore.
Governor General Julie Payette is already in France. In Beny-sur-Mere, just inland from the beach where the Canadians who left Portsmouth would land, Payette joined a parliamentary delegation at the Canadian War Cemetery to pay tribute to the fallen.
“Conflict is the result of our collective failure,” Payette told the gathering at the cemetery, where more than 2,000 Canadian soldiers who died in the Battle of Normandy are buried. “It is when we fail to get along; it is when somewhere, somehow, we didn’t find a place where we can agree.”
Such conflicts often lead to “deadly stupidity,” said Payette, a former astronaut, who cited the example of the International Space Station as a model for how countries and peoples that don’t always see eye-to-eye can work together to advance humanity’s interests.
“If we can do it there,” she said, “we can do it anywhere.”