In Ranville cemetery, a lone piper playing Amazing Grace walked solemnly between the graves as the early morning sun reflected off the rows of white headstones.
Every 6 June for the last 75 years, the soldiers who made it off the Normandy beaches in 1944 have returned to remember comrades who did not. Every year, the pilgrimage became a different kind of battle but still they came, in fewer numbers but just as determined to overcome the odds as they were when they landed to liberate France.
This year, however, the veterans are absent, defeated not by age or infirmity, nor walking sticks or wheelchairs, but by the coronavirus.
France ended its strict two-month Covid-19 lockdown almost a month ago, but ongoing health regulations ban gatherings of more than 10 people, meaning the usual D-day commemorations were cancelled.
“It’s so quiet without the veterans. Normally the cemetery is packed with visitors,” the piper, Frenchman Jérôme Levannier, said. “It’s terrible they cannot be here.”
For locals along the 50-mile stretch of northern French coastline, where 150,000 troops swarmed ashore as part of Operation Overlord leaving 10,000 casualties including 2,500 dead, the 76th D-day anniversary was a glimpse of a future bereft of living heroes.
“It’s very strange to come here and find no veterans,” said Oly, 50, a former soldier who served in Iraq. Now a gendarme in Lille, he comes to mark D-day every year. “It’s like they have all disappeared, as have the soldiers from the 1914-18 war.”
He added: “It’s not idolatry or nostalgia but our duty not to forget.”
Normally, the Normandy D-day villages would be a riot of French and Allied national flags and the roads jammed with re-enactors in jeeps, motorcycles with sidecars and vintage military vehicles. This year, the bunting, like the veterans, is absent and the roads almost deserted.
Under a full moon on Friday evening, a handful of people gathered at Pegasus Bridge where, at exactly 00.16 on 6 June 1944, three gliders carrying members of D Company, 2nd (Airborne) Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, led by Major John Howard, landed in a small field. (Their arrival was so bumpy, Howard hit his head and thought he had gone blind until one of his men pointed out his tin helmet was wedged over his eyes.)
Clémentine Le Marrec, 30, recently elected mayor of Bénouville, headed a small group that paid tribute to Howard and his men. “It’s 10 people maximum. That’s the rule,” one official informed a few onlookers.
“It’s sad for us this year. Normally there are lots of our British friends here. It’s hard for us that they cannot be with us,” Le Marrec said afterwards.
“But it has made us realise we will have to find another way to remember them when they have all gone.”
At a moving ceremony at the Arromanches site of Gold Beach, on Saturday afternoon, officials paid tribute to the British and Dutch troops who landed there.
Frédéric Sommier, director of the town’s D-day museum, told the crowd who gathered: “It is the first time since 1945 that we have gathered to commemorate without the principal actors… the men and women who lost their lives so that we could have back our freedom.”
British-born Adrian Cox, a local councillor in Arromanches where he runs a bed and breakfast, says the disappearance of the veterans – now in their 90s – is something the Normandy coastline will have to accept.
“In a few years there will be no veterans returning and so it will be about remembering them… If we want to keep the story of D-Day alive and people interested, we have to find a way to do it without the veterans,” Cox said.
In the absence of the old soldiers and their families, Steven Oldrid, a British expat who has lived in Normandy for more than 20 years, was a man on a mission to honour the dead, laying wreaths and crosses around Sword Beach, one of five Allied landing sites.
At Ranville cemetery, Oldrid placed a cross at the headstone of Jack Barringer, 29, who drowned when his landing craft sank. At Bénouville cemetery he read out the names of 23 men who died on behalf of their comrades and families during D-day.
“I’m more than happy to do this. The veterans have suffered a lot during this two-month lockdown and we have lost a couple of them recently. We are losing more and more so every year really does count,” Oldrid said, turning away as his eyes filled with tears.
“We have to keep remembering these men. They were true heroes”.
With the planned international ceremony cancelled, it was left to representatives from nine countries – including the British and American ambassadors to France – to lay wreaths at Vierville-sur-Mer near the American landing sector at Omaha Beach.
There was the traditional commemorative service for British fallen at Bayeaux cathedral but, as with all this year’s events, the order was to keep it swift, short and at a “social distance” of 1 metre.
At midday, in the British cemetery at Bayeaux, the UK’s ambassador to France Ed Llewellyn led a simple wreath-laying commemoration.
“It’s a very simple ceremony but we hope the veterans who were not able to be here today will see that we were here to commemorate their comrades who were left behind. It’s a great honour to be here to pay tribute on behalf of our country and the veterans,” Llewellyn said afterwards.
There was just one Allied soldier on the D-day beaches this year: Charles Norman Shay, a native American, 95, who was drafted into the US military aged 19. Shay, who now lives in Normandy, was a combat medic on Omaha Beach on D-day treating – and saving – many of the wounded.
“This year, I feel very fortunate that I am still alive,” Shay said, admitting he would miss the presence of veteran comrades. “It’s a sad thing that something like this has happened [the virus] but there’s not much we can do about it.”
“It’s 76 years from what happened here… so many young men were lost. We all hoped it would never happen again, but we can never be sure. It’s important to send, to reinforce and renew this message of peace.”