Chasing the broken threads of history

IN a rural French lane under a British flag, the General looked over the assembled war veterans.

He saluted the small band of men, speaking in the most polished of gentlemanly officer's accents.

"You are so welcome," he declared in commanding tones. "Erin go bréa."

Accents can be deceiving. General Corran Purdon was born in Rushbrooke, Co Cork, but, like so many young men from the Republic, he joined the Royal Ulster Rifles regiment after leaving school. He rose to the rank of commanding officer and led daring missions that eventually landed him in the Colditz prisoner of war camp.

As honoured guest at the naming of the leafy Chemin des Royal Ulster Rifles in Cambes en Plaine, Gen Purdon could not forget his fellow southerners who fought to liberate the village 60 years ago.

The motto of the Royal Ulster Rifles was Quis Separabit who shall divide us and though the regiment ceased to exist when it was merged with others after World War II, the principle that guided its members lives on.

They refuse to be divided by distance, time or even death. Veteran Billy McConnell from Belfast makes sure of that. Ever since the 50th anniversary of D-Day, the retired Sergeant Major has been rounding up his former comrades and marching them off to Normandy, fundraising and arm-twisting to lessen the cost of the trips.

"I go down south for the Guinness and members come up to me for the Bushmills," he said. "We keep in touch and keep the memories of our fallen comrades alive. It doesn't matter where you're from North or South we're all Irishmen and we were all soldiers together."

The commemorations for the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings saw many people reinforcing contacts, reconnecting or trying for the first time to bridge the lost years that divided them from part of their past.

Ginger Harris, an Englishwoman now living in Canada, was visiting the graves of unknown soldiers in the hope that she would feel a particular draw to one and make a long wished-for connection with her lost brother.

Reginald Henry James Prosser was with the London Irish Rifles and signed up for 25 years' service at the age of 17. He served only four of them.

"He was sincere, he loved to sing, he was generous and loving. He died three days after D-Day and I'm still searching for him," his sister remembered.

At ceremonies involving American troops, Marie Claire Agnes, a 55-year-old mother from Paris, distributed flyers asking for information about the father she never met.

All she knew about the young soldier who briefly stole her mother's heart and then left without trace was that his name was Robert Robinson. He was an African-American and at one stage, her mother had sufficient contact with him to give him a photography of the baby he left behind.

Marie Claire wore the same photograph printed on a T-shirt in the faint hope that he might have come back for the commemorations and would recognise the pretty baby girl with the dark curly hair whom he never held.

Betty Memery from Sandymount, Dublin came to honour the memory of her father, naval officer William Memery. He died back in Ireland without ever revealing much about his wartime experiences.

Betty's mother had wanted William's medals buried with him. Betty later found the leaflet the Department of Aviation and Transport had sent to him after the war, explaining what each medal and ribbon represented, so she got replicas made and wore them at the commemorations.

"I feel sorry now that I didn't talk to him more. What he did in the war is part of my history too and I'll never know all the details now," she said.

The 60th anniversary of D-Day has fuelled a desire to make up for lost time and missing family histories. It has provided a market for a business new to Ireland, although British companies have been operating in the area for a number of years.

Military Heritage Tours is a specialist travel company set up two years ago by Tony Martin, a former FCA captain from Drogheda, and Corkman Donal Buckley, a retired captain in the Irish Army. The company arranges trips to places in Ireland and abroad that are associated with Irish military history.

So far it has concentrated mainly on school groups and fellow ex-army members, but the current tour includes veterans, their families, amateur military historians and military memorabilia enthusiasts.

Mr Martin accepted that creating a varied and enjoyable tour while maintaining the appropriate tone of respect for the places they visited was a challenge for tour companies.

"The people we've had are genuinely interested and that's the way we want to keep it," he said, firmly ruling out promoting the trips as alternative stag weekends solely based on toys for boys and visits to tank museums and spitfire shows.

"You'll always get people who want to dress up and joke around, but they can make their own way here," he added.

The war cemeteries the current tour group visited would quieten the most boisterous tourist. Set between pasture land, lined by tall trees and serenaded by birdsong, they reduced visitors to whispers and tip-toes.

Lieutenant Colonel John Douglas, Chief of Staff of the Royal Irish Regiment, was delivering gentle greetings to friends, acquaintances and admirers of his much-medalled uniform.

He lectured in the Curragh before the first Irish peacekeeping troops went to Liberia last year. He gave the troops the benefit of his experiences in the Congo, where he was almost killed by a lynch mob, and Sierra Leone, where he was lucky to avoid capture when rebel forces took 11 of his colleagues hostage.

"The Royal Ulster Rifles were the genesis of the Royal Irish Regiment," he explained, brushing off the idea that his own ordeals had given him an insight into the horrors his forerunners faced.

"It's not quite the same thing," he said. "I'm just here really to represent the link between then and now, because history is a continuous thing and you can't divide it up. We come from two different eras but we're all soldiers."

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