You can read about history in all the books, attend lectures as offered, visit the museums and watch the movies. You can learn and it is good to learn, but walking the shores where men landed in the thousands to face off against the enemy – nothing else compares to the immersion of that moment. Standing on the beaches of Normandy, feet crunching pebbles underfoot: Suddenly, as you are fully present with your knowledge, your body and your spirit, there is a connection to something that much larger – an amazing stillness that exists in a place that once raged with so much pain.
Dieppe is without doubt a sanctuary of courage.
Here’s the fascinating thing about courage: is that in the moment of choice where action is taken, nothing about the situation feels or looks courageous. Instead there is panic, fear, regret . . . a cloud over the values you decided to pursue, and suddenly purpose falls wayside to darkness and chaos.
Think about stepping out of those boats and running onto the beach. Imagine as people are dying all around you. Of the 6086 men known to have landed on the beaches, 3,623 were either killed, wounded or captured.
I stood on the beach in Dieppe and listened to the silence. I looked at the tall white cliffs. I kicked my feet through the pebbled beach that was so challenging to walk upon. Seventy years after the disaster that was Dieppe, there was remarkable peace upon that beach. The war was over, the conflict resolved . . .
Sometimes when you need to fight for survival it can feel like the world isn’t bringing you any support, that the plan is flawed, and that retreat is essential. Retreat became the only option for the Allied forced landing against the German occupiers in 1942, but to have even showed up was a massive act of courage. (And retreat in itself is courageous as well – to accept the futility of a plan and move back . . . this is what happened after the devastation of Dieppe, and two years later with a much improved plan D-Day was launched.)
It’s been said that one of the main missions of Dieppe was a ‘pinch’ job – to steal coding devices and information so British Allies could crack through German coding which, had it been successful, could have shortened the war considerably. But the men who stormed the beaches had no way of knowing that, all they knew was they needed to hold the area for two tides . . .
I am in awe of their courage.
There is simply no way they could have seen the ‘bigger picture’ as they sacrificed their lives. (Particularly since everything was so secret, they were never told the bigger picture. Instead they were commanded to act, and they did so to fight the enemy.)
How do you sustain yourself in those moments, when you must act despite sickening fear? What do you do if you cannot see the bigger picture?
Trust your instinct, stay true to your values, battle the fear, and when necessary, retreat and regroup.
This year for the 70th anniversary of Dieppe, I want to note those men who stormed the beaches. Not for a mission that failed, but for the courage of those soldiers. Standing there this past October on the beach, I gave my thanks to them for having fought for our way of life, our values, and for the peace that now settles across the coastline of Dieppe.
For images of my experience in Normandy, please follow this link to our Sister Leadership Facebook page and the Memorial Gallery.