When I first read that the majestic beech trees of Saint Pierre de Varengeville-Duclair forest which have stood in poignant testimony to the D-Day landings for more than six decades, had been felled, chopped up and turned into so much paper, my mind immediately flew to Dame Vera Lynn.
Thousands of American soldiers stationed there after the liberation of Normandy spent their spare hours thinking of their wives and sweethearts back home. They did what young men everywhere did down through the centuries, they carved the initials of their loved ones into the bark of a tree.
How many of them had Vera Lynn’s haunting song, We’ll Meet Again in mind as they carved out initials with a knife or bayonet?
“Claude Quetel, a French historian and Second World War specialist, was horrified when he discovered what he called a catastrophe and a shameless act.” (Times Online, June 13, 2008). “It is a typically French failing to wipe out the traces of the past,” he told The Times. “I am indignant.”
Having learned of the felled trees, local people are calling for the few “name trees” that still stand to be classified as historic monuments and saved from the same sorry fate. “It should have been done a long time ago,” said Nicolas Navarro, the curator of a second World War Museum in the grounds of his family’s 13th- century Chateau du Tallis nearby. “It’s sad and pathetic that it wasn’t.”
Because their names are written in the human heart, Dame Vera Lynn and the trees at Saint Pierre de Varengeville-Duclaire are forever.
Born on March 20, March 1917 in East Ham London, Lynn was born Vera Margaret Welch. She later adopted her grandmother’s maiden name Lynn as a stage name never knowing that it was destined to become a household word during World War 11.
With her exquisitely beautiful voice and perfect diction, Vera Lynn was nicknamed “The Forces’ Sweetheart”.
When you come across her on YouTube, singing her signature song We’ll Meet Again, followed by a standing ovation by the RAF, be prepared to find Goosebumps.
The “Voice of Hope” for soldiers in the trenches and to those at home longing for loved ones made her first radio broadcast, with the Joe Loss Orchestra in 1935.
In 1939, the year World War 11 broke out, she married clarinetist and saxophonist Harry Lewis. In 1940, she began her own radio series, “Sincerely Yours”, sending messages to British troops stationed abroad. A special feature of the show was Lynn and a quartet performing the songs most requested of her by soldiers abroad. Vera Lynn also went into hospitals to interview new mothers and sent messages to their husbands overseas. She toured Egypt, India Burma, giving outdoor concerts for her favourite audience, the soldiers.
“In 1942, she recorded the Ross Parker/Hughie Charles song We’ll Meet Again while making the film of the same name. The nostalgic lyrics (“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day”) had a great appeal to the many people separated from loved ones during the war and it became one of the emblematic songs of the wartime period.” (Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia).
Lynn was appointed an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in 1969 and a DBE (Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1975.
In 1976, a charity dedicated to funding breast cancer research was founded, Lynn being its chair and later its president.
Tears ran down many of the faces in the milling crowds when Vera Lynn sang outside Buckingham Palace in 1995 in a ceremony marking the golden jubilee of VE Day. Although she was seventy-eight years of age at the time, it was like the decades had never passed.
Imagine the energy of a woman who in 2002, at the age of 85, became president of the cerebral palsy charity named SOS and hosting a celebrity concert on its behalf at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London to boot!
Imagine the unbridled delight when Vera Lynn made a surprise appearance at a Trafalgar Square concert celebrating the United Kingdom’s VE Day Diamond Jubilee ceremonies!
There were few dry eyes in the crowd when she made a speech praising the veterans and called upon the younger generation always to remember their sacrifice.
“These boys gave their lives and some came home badly injured and for some families, life would never be the same,” she said in the unforgettable voice that rang out across radio waves in World War II. “We should always remember, we should never forget and we should teach the children to remember.”
Yes, it’s true that many trees surrounding a forest near Rouen in Normandy have been heartlessly felled at the Camp Twenty Grand. It was one of nine cigarette camps used by troops needing treatment or waiting to be sent elsewhere. The camps were places of calm between the D-Day landings and the Ardennes, the Siegfried Line or the Pacific.
“Camp Twenty Grand, set up in September 1944 and closed in February 1946, had tents for 20,000 US soldiers as well as a few hundred German prisoners. Some of the Americans stayed weeks, others months, bringing chocolate, fruit and parties to a French population emerging from occupation. The soldiers left broken hearts, peach stones—which were planted to give the region its first peach trees—and their graffiti.”
But like old soldiers who never die but only fade away, some things are written on the human heart forever.
The initials remain on the trees in the human heart and the music of Dame Vera Lynn, The Angel of the Trenches, is forever.
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