Few events have made such an impression on me as my first visit to Arnhem 3 years ago for the annual commemorations marking the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944, when British and Polish paratroopers held out for 4 days against overwhelming odds. The battle was lost – this was “The Bridge Too Far”. But the arrival from the skies of thousands of Allied troops gave hope to the Dutch citizens suffering under the German occupation.
Every year, a number of British and Polish veterans return to Arnhem to remember their lost comrades, and to renew friendships forged over many years with Dutch families who host their visits. Talking to these veterans is a humbling experience. They went through one of the bloodiest battles of World War 2, saw many comrades killed, and ultimately failed in their mission – through no fault of their own. Many were captured and suffered further hardships in German POW camps. The bond they have forged with their Dutch hosts is quite extraordinary – it goes beyond friendship, and is a powerful symbol of the strength of the relationship between the UK and the Netherlands.
My visit to this year’s commemorations was particularly poignant for me as it will be my last (at least in my current capacity). Listening again to the stories of heroism, told with touching modesty, reminded me of how grateful we should all be to these men who fought and died to ensure we can live in freedom in Europe.
There were many events during the weekend which stirred my emotions. But two stand out – the moment during the ceremony when hundreds of Dutch and international school children lay flowers on the graves at the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Oosterbeek, whispering the name of the soldier carved on the headstone in front of them; and the meeting in the middle of the cemetery between two of those children, and 2 veterans of the battle – Johnnie Peters and David Russell. The symbolism was clear – the passing of the message of peace from one generation to the next. It was a beautiful moment of pure humanity, and moved many of those present to tears, me included.