A Mark In The Sand - Our Values After D-Day
As an architect, I believe that buildings capture the values and character of their owners and society at large, at the time of their design and construction - but this is just a moment in time. There were a number of influential architectural movements in the Twentieth Century, the courses of which were cut short, extinguished or shaped by war.
Wars have been fought for many reasons, but common catalysts for conflict are often territory, resources or ideology, even though these reasons may be veiled by protagonist or antagonist, with cries of a broken morality on the part of the other. As a reservist with 4th Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment, it was my great privilege to visit Normandy and its beaches. I did this on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, as part of Ex. Conceptual Warrior 6, a battlefield study led by Capt. Shaun Mallinson QVRM VR, on behalf of The Yorkshire Regiment.
It is no small thing, to enter the land of another nation to engage in armed conflict. Integrity demands that any political or military leader asks themselves whether they can justify the actions that they ordain, on behalf of their country. The battles that were fought are now in our past, consigned as it were to history; but D-Day and World War II in general, left more than just a physical mark in the sands of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches - there is a legacy that is ongoing.
La Città Nuova - the New City
Thirty years before D-Day, the progression of architecture was being indelibly impacted by war; the exciting images of the Futurism movement had been snuffed-out before plans could be developed to realise their maximum impact. Antonio Sant’Elia, an Italian architect who was influential in my diploma studies, had been killed in battle in 1915, a year after development of his visionary works on La Città Nuova.
The First World War ended with The Armistice of 11th November 1918, followed by the Treaty of Versailles, in which the terms of peace were laid out, with strict sanctions placed on Germany and its people. This led to literal new schools of thought in terms of architecture in Germany.
In the inter-war period of 1918 to 1939, German architecture had developed in to a progressive and world changing movement. The roots of modernist architecture throughout the West, can be attributed to the work of the Bauhaus in Germany. This work was brought to a premature close in 1933, under pressure from Nazi claims of communist influence.
Other notable works developed in parallel in neighbouring nations, such as the De Stijl movement and their more abstract approach, in the Netherlands. Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was a principal at the Bauhaus, believing in the value of the explorations of the De Stijl movement. Mies van der Rohe’s influence on modern architecture is indisputable; his buildings (including the Barcelona Pavilion) embodying a deceptively simple elegance, attributable to his ‘less is more’ methodology.
The precision and clarity which has become synonymous with Germany, would pave the way to a landing of a different kind; Wernher von Braun’s rocket technology allowing the United States of America to put two astronauts on the Moon in 1969, thirty years after global war had broken out in Europe for a second time.
Although technology advanced for all belligerents throughout the Second World War, an until recently progressive Germany became consumed by a vision of a different kind - for a glorious new German Reich (realm / empire), promoted by a leader with designs on world subjugation. There can be little argument that the sanctions placed on Germany via the Treaty of Versailles and the resultant hardship suffered by the German people, paved the way for the rise of Adolf Hitler.
Of the conflicts that have scarred the Earth in modern history, surely no-one that lived through it would question the necessity of entering in to war with Germany for a second time, in 1939. Within years and in hidden places, genocide was underway on an industrial scale, with the full extent of the horror only unveiled after Central Europe had been liberated.
I’ve reflected on the time I spent at Gold Beach, and how it would have felt to be in those first waves of British soldiers to land on the coast, along with other allied comrades. The extent of rehearsals and of the landings themselves can have left no uncertainty as to the imperative driving Operation Overlord. There would be no such second chance to make another landing attempt in mainland Europe, on the scale of D-Day.
If any further conviction was required, it must have come from knowing that not only life, but a way of life was at stake.
I’ve read of many factors that will motivate soldiers to fight once they’re in combat, but once the battle is over, in the quiet moments, the question that must hang in the air, is whether it was worth it. A significant portion of the response to that question, must hinge on whether it was morally justifiable to be in that position, fighting that enemy, in the first place. I don’t think there can be any reasonable reservations as to the strong moral justification that the Allied forces held, for combating Nazi forces in Europe.
Hitler’s entire masterplan was underpinned by an ideology that sought to wipe out the recent humiliation of the First World War, and implement an alternate history; a noble opera of medieval mythology, a master race of Aryans and Prussian aristocracy.
The Führer seemed to respect the nations that demonstrated history and lineage, especially those that conducted themselves with honour and a code of chivalry on the battlefield.
The German people had been persuaded that they should fight for something glorious - an Empire that would last a thousand years. Britain and its allies had fought to the brink of defeat, but could not capitulate because of a belief that what lay in the heart of Europe was an abomination; if the Allied forces had not won, the World would have changed forever.
King George VI called for prayer throughout Britain, as its sons poured in to the northern coast of France. What is perhaps most remarkable about the Battle of Normandy, is that having driven Allied forces out of Europe at Dunkirk, the intense push back that was Operation Overlord, in concert with pressure on other fronts, led to the collapse of German forces and its allies by August of the same year. Shortly afterwards, Victory in Europe would be declared by Britain and Allied forces.
With cities across Europe in partial and complete ruin, the process of reconstruction began. The men and women that had stepped in to fulfil roles to assist in the war effort, were now tasked with re-building cities, homes and their lives.
The Legacy of War
On the ferry journey back from Normandy, I spoke to Ray Lord, now in his nineties and a veteran of the first wave of soldiers to land on Sword Beach on D-Day. I don’t have Ray’s permission to write about what we discussed in private, but I think it’s fair to pass on the essence of what Ray told me. He simply said that all of the heroes are still in Normandy. All I could think in response, was that anyone that got in to a boat and headed to the beach that day, was a hero - it took unusual courage.
Ray’s words reminded me of a comment made by Stan Hollis, the only recipient of the Victoria Cross on D-Day. When asked about his actions in Normandy, he responded that “…it needed to be done”. Stan returned home after the War, to run a pub in Middlesbrough. Ray returned to Humberside, working to retirement as a newsagent.
On reflection, everyone that serves in combat sacrifices at least some aspect of themselves. For some, with the resignation that they may lose their life, there is a mental consequence - a sense of borrowed time thereafter. For others, they physically make the ultimate sacrifice. Liberty, ransomed in blood.
I’d never truly felt the impact of the human element of war, until I visited Normandy and specifically, when it was set in context by someone that had lived through it. Those first-hand experiences will soon be lost to time, once the last of the Greatest Generation is forever at rest.
It’s the responsibility of the generations that come afterwards, to decide what we’ll do with our freedom.
For me, my response as a reservist, should be to do all that I can to protect the weak and vulnerable. As an architect, to design buildings and spaces that reflect the human scale and the best values of society. As a human being, to recognise the inherent value in all people, and to be thankful for friendship, for every day and every challenge that comes with it.