D Day: “Don’t Call Me a Hero”
Watching the commemorations of D-Day, 75 years ago, I am struck by the numbers of veterans who say “Don’t Call Me A Hero”; those that died are the real heros.” With the deepest respect, I beg to differ.
I differ on two grounds and I base my assertion on a reaction to historical coverage of both the World Wars and more recent conflicts. I have not served in the forces.
The first ground should be an acceptance that dying is not and should not be a pre-requisite to being a “hero”.
In the Great War my Grandfather, an undecorated officer was killed. Letters to his widow inevitably referred to him as dying “an heroic death” – which may have been of comfort to my Grandmother, who always remembered him as her hero. But I had great uncles who also served, but who survived; one was later awarded the DSO and another was an early parachute tester.
I would not wish to say that they were less heroic than my grandfather, but through being killed, it is my grandfather who is the family hero. Was he any more heroic than those involved in the same action, who through good luck or possibly greater military skill, survived?
In some traditions it is also the practice to also honour those who served.
The Memorial to Gen Sir Sam Steele Legion Branch 117, Royal Canadian Legion — Winnipeg MB is inscribed:
In grateful tributeCanadian Legion Memorials Cairns and Cenotaphs my italics
to the men of the
Gen Sir Sam Steele Legion
Royal Canadian Legion
Who laid down their lives
in two World Wars
and in everlasting gratitude
to those who,
daring to die,
The second ground relates to how we should view “Heroism”. It should not be solely about taking a life-threatening risk. It is surely also an attitude, a willingness to recognise that there is a cause potentially greater than your own life.
It is shown by those who go to war, particularly those who knowing the conditions, return to war from periods of leave or to undertake a further tour of duty.
I am struck by how few soldiers of the First World War who getting a rare period of leave, failed to return on time. In the case of those serving on the Western Front, they would possibly leave a comfortable cafe close to Charing Cross Station, say good bye to their relatives and board the train for Folkstone; within hours they could be back in a damp, sometimes flooded trench where rats might be the only non human life they would see and where if they stood up straight in the wrong place, their life could be taken by a sniper’s bullet. To return to that takes a form of bravery, of courage, that surely must count as “heroic”.
For modern day service personnel saying farewells to their families and boarding a Tristar or Voyager to be taken to be put in harm’s way in our service, to me seems heroic.
Outside the armed services we see a similar attitude for instance in lifeboat crew who have previously experienced a shout that has taken them to an extreme storm none-the-less when paged, leave their “familiar tables of home” and answer the call. The danger need not be war to demand and reveal heroism.
Many of our D-Day veterans, had some idea of what they would face; few had not already been under fire. To board landing craft and voyage to the D-Day beaches (or to fly to inshore targets and parachute or land by glider) required fortitude and a stoic acceptance of their possible fate. Unless we are to reserve the word “hero” for the singular exceptions (who might be awarded VCs, GCs, or CGCs), whether you died on the Normandy beaches or not is irrelevant to determination of your status as “a hero”.
Modesty in our veterans is to be admired and respected by not prying into memories that may be too painful. They also need to particularly honour their fallen comrades.
We should honour those who died, but that should not disqualify us from honouring those who survived. Heros all.