Tomorrow, September 17, brings the anniversary of the opening of the battle in 1944 for the road crossing across the Rhine at Arnhem, celebrated – if that is the right word – in book and film as A Bridge Too Far.
This time last year, and the year before, I was there, as the guest of a friend, a senior officer in the Parachute Regiment, for the annual commemoration. This involves a series of wreath-laying ceremonies, receptions and other events, culminating in a service at the Airborne cemetery in the nearby village of Oosterbeek, during which hundreds of local children place flowers on every grave.
The service these days is attended by a dwindling number of veteran British and Polish paratroopers and their families. They call it a pilgrimage. The honoured are their fallen comrades. Before too long, the living will have joined the dead. Some will be buried alongside them.
The Dutch still turn out in force for the occasion. And an occasion it is, marked by a singular devotion of the locals. On a quiet Sunday afternoon in 1944 they, or now in most cases their forbears, believed that the day of liberation had come after four years of Nazi occupation. As we now know, it was not to be, and there would have been ample scope for resentment. But nearly seventy years on, the citizens of Arnhem remain unswervingly grateful to those who brought them nothing but death, destruction and lasting pain. For two days, the maroon Pegasus flag of the Parachute Regiment flies from more houses than can be counted.
Surviving residents of that time renew friendships with the veterans with whom they came into intimate and often bloody contact during the fighting. Many locals sheltered Allied soldiers from the Germans, both during and after the battle, and some suffered grievously for it. In many cases, if both veterans and hosts are deceased, their children and grandchildren carry on the tradition.
Even I, with no familial connection to the battle, have been embraced in friendship – by Sophie Lambrechtsen, whose mother Kate ter Horst, famously opened her Oosterbeek home to British medics as a dressing station. It became a charnel house and, for a time, the garden a cemetery. Sophie was five at the time.
This year, for reasons too complex to bother you with, I am not going. For that I am sorry, because, although the whole affair sounds profoundly solemn, it is far from that. The atmosphere is more that of a college reunion than a remembrance service, with much jollity and humorous banter, none in the slightest bit forced or superficial. There is underlying sadness, of course, and there must be regrets, but these are resolutely suppressed. The fallen, if they had a voice, would wish for a party, not a funeral.
Of all the ‘pilgrimages’ to battlefields of the Second World War, the one to Arnhem stands out as unique. Villages in Normandy host similar events, and I have attended those too, but they seem to lack the affinity that soldiers and civilians forged by shared suffering. That is what gives Arnhem its particular poignancy.
I am not usually sentimental about such matters, but Arnhem remains achingly special.
A defeat it may have been, but definitely not a bridge too far.