Hearts and heads full of Dunkirk
The mournful sound of bagpipes drifted across the sandy beach, emanating from the other side of a tiny canal that separates the mainland from the shores of Dunkirk.
On a sultry Sunday afternoon in August, a lone bagpiper had ridden his motorcycle to a tiny lookout perched along the canal, parked against an outcrop of bushes planted along the embankment, and shouldered his pipes. For the next hour or so, he sent the haunting sounds wafting over the beach and across the famous waters where nearly 24,000 allied soldiers and civilians died in the Battle of Dunkirk.
We’d come to Dunkirk to visit the museum.
But the beach was enough.
We walked across a modern footbridge, then along the shore, glancing out at the new breakwaters and out to sea toward England, imagining what it must have felt like for the soldiers who awaited rescue. In all, more than 338,000 were plucked from the sand and sailed across the English Channel, 2,000 an hour of them spirited off the shore by a flotilla of mostly small-boat captains who’d responded to the British Admiralty’s call and risked all to save lives in Operation Dynamo.
We stood on the sandy shores and turned our backs to the restaurants, cafes and enormous Radisson Hotel overlooking the expansive curved beach that’s carved into the memory of anyone with a sense of world history.
We read about the ‘miracle’ of Dynamo, and how it saved most of Britain’s trained troops from annihilation, permitting them to escape certain death, and allowing them to fight on as World War II expanded.
We read about the on-site filming of Kenneth Branagh’s epic 2017 side movie, and the pains the movie crew took to recreate what happened in May 26 through June 4, 1940.
We read about the shallow waters that mostly prohibited large ships from participating in the rescue, and of the 800 fishing vessels who navigated the 70 nautical miles from Hastings to Dunkirk.
The bagpiper began to play Amazing Grace.
And the tears began to fall.
They fell for the 24,000 who died, and for the tens of thousands who were left behind the evacuation and became German prisoners of war.
They fell for the horror of war, and for humanity’s failure to eradicate the specter from our lives.
And we stood in peaceful solitude, facing the bagpiper from across the water, drinking in the sound that somehow put the experience into context.
He stopped playing. I waved to him. He waved back, two safe souls in a world that seems to forget what sacrifice, duty and honor mean, on opposite banks of a canal, separated by water, sand and wind, but connected nonetheless.
We never made it into the museum, our hearts and heads full of Dunkirk.