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Last Updated: Monday, 7 June, 2004, 02:31 GMT 03:31 UK
Veterans get celebrity treatment
Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Online, Normandy

One of the D-Day veterans remarked he felt like a film star - if he wasn't being asked to sign something, he was being thanked by strangers or pushed to the front of the shop queue.

His story was echoed by dozens of returning Allied soldiers who agreed the French welcome could not have been any warmer.

There were concerns the vets would be sidelined for the politicians, and sometimes the sealed roads and checkpoints did cause problems.

Poppy cross in Normandy graveyard
Reflection and remembrance were never far away
But one memory that banishes this gripe is hundreds of British veterans proudly marching through the streets of Colleville-Montgomery to thunderous applause.

And each one who made the trip to Normandy returns home with another medal on his chest, courtesy of the French government.

Canadian Eileen Harris, 78, was ecstatic to collect one on behalf of her husband James, who died in 1999.

Blinking back the tears, she said: "I cannot express how I feel."

A special welcome was made to Germany at the highest diplomatic level but more significantly, there were plenty of German flags on display in the streets.

The French also scored well on presentation. If they take the Paris Olympic bid as seriously as they did the D-Day anniversary, then London has no chance.

The Normandy hedgerows were pruned, bridges repainted and pavements scrubbed, leaving the region looking gleaming.

Fireworks over Normandy
Thousands watched the day begin in style
But it was the passion that really mattered and there seemed to be two predominant moods in the streets and at the commemorative events.

The celebratory atmosphere was underlined by the spectacular fireworks from each of the five landing beaches just before midnight on Saturday.

That evening, Ouistreham felt like New Year's Eve - pensioners belted out Swing Low, Sweet Chariot in the street.

The national flag-waving greeting every parade celebrated victory in a war with little grey area about who was right and wrong. And it applauded the military feat and courage which made it possible.

But victory came at such a great cost that reflection and remembrance were never far away.

Walk into any of the military cemeteries and the scale of that loss hits you hard.

Exhausted child at D-Day commemoration
Is the party over forever?
For veterans who witnessed the horrors, it must be even more traumatic. Frank Clark, from Leicester, marked the graves of two friends who died in his arms.

This downbeat mood became more prevalent on Sunday night, after a day full of pomp and ceremony.

Restaurants were half-full and there were fewer veterans out and about.

Thoughts inevitably turned to the future of the anniversary - who would continue telling the story after the veterans had passed away?

Former commando Gillie Potter, 81, said: "I don't think it will be remembered in five or 10 years' time. It's part of our life and it's very hard for other people to understand that."

But Normandy inhabitants are more positive.

Azelie Surguy, 28, said: "The next generation will continue the traditions, I'm certain of that."


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