It is time again for that annual ritual known as “Shrink the Nigel”. It is a kind of cultural fusion, merging two French traditions – the making of Pate de Foie Gras and the Tour de France – with a variant on the traditional British stiff upper lip which in this case involves stiff lower limbs. Standing in for the goose used for foie gras, you take Nigel Murray, MD of Trilantic (now part of Huron Consulting) and fill him with fine food and drink from mid-June to mid-February – I myself have been privileged to observe this part of the tradition in restaurants around the world, from London to Hong Kong to several US cities. Phase 2, the stiff lower limb stage, takes place away from the public eye, when Nigel, by now suitably rotund, takes to his bicycle and starts burning off the weight with a punishing regime of exercise, building up the miles and the muscles as he prepares for Phase 3. This, the Tour de France stage, involves cycling for 350 miles – up to 80 miles a day – from the battlefields of Northern France en route for Paris along with 299 others.
The cause is a good one. Help for Heroes exists to provide support and rehabilitation for military personnel injured in war. There is information here about this year’s Big Battlefield Bike Ride, which begins on the Normandy beaches, and Nigel has his own web page here from which you can make a donation. Last year, he raised over £3,500 cycling from the Somme battlefields. His target this year is £6,000 of which, as I write, he has already achieved nearly £1700 including Gift Aid.
Great Britain has always expected a lot from its soldiers, sailors and airmen, has never found them wanting, and has reciprocated by treating them extremely badly, both in their provisioning and in how they are looked after when they return from war. The soldiers of the Thin Red Line and the Charge of the Light Brigade (two of the three battles on a single day, 25 October 1854, at Balaclava in the Crimea), were badly provisioned and, Florence Nightingale notwithstanding, neglected when wounded; many of them were reduced to begging when the war was over. Rudyard Kipling’s poem Tommy eloquently contrasted the public’s contempt for soldiers in peace time with their welcome when war came:
Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul?”
But it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll,
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll.
Lloyd George’s promise of “Homes for Heroes” as the Great War ended (the source, no doubt, of the Help for Heroes name) was not matched by the treatment of those who returned from the trenches. Tony Blair dishonestly fabricated his “dodgy dossier” to send our troops to war in Iraq and then stood idly by whilst a mixture of Treasury indifference and logistical incompetence left them without the equipment needed to protect themselves. There is little or no public help for the wounded after discharge and, to its eternal disgrace, the first step of the incoming coalition government was to cut the pensions of disabled soldiers and the widows of those who died. The primary purpose of Help for Heroes is to look after damaged and disabled veterans thus abandoned by the state, though they are too tactful to put it quite like that.
This year takes the cycling fund-raisers back to the beaches of Normandy, where they land on 5 June. The Big Battlefield Bike Ride page on the Help for Heroes site gives you their itinerary. The anniversary day is of course 6 June. I use the photographs shown here to illustrate my talks on US data collections in Europe – the first shows the attackers’ view as a landing craft reached the beach, and the second shows what it looked like from a European point of view. Some of you, no doubt, will recognise the data-collection parallel.
Quite apart from the courage and the fighting skill, D-Day was a logistical and technological triumph. There were Mulberries – prefabricated concrete harbours floated across the Channel and assembled to support the invasion; Pluto – Pipe Line Under the Ocean – which brought fuel from England; gliders landing in tiny fields next to Pegasus Bridge so that the crossing could be secured before the Germans destroyed it. This intense logistical exercise was planned and executed in conditions of the deepest secrecy, whilst almost as much effort went into persuading the Germans that the main attack would actually come in the Pas de Calais, something they continued to expect (and reserved troops for) for weeks after the Normandy landings, so successful was the deception.
The fact that it was successful, in Allied terms, perhaps obscures the fact that thousands of British, Canadian and American soldiers died achieving it, to say nothing of the defenders. They are commemorated not only in the cemeteries and the surviving relics of war, but in street names – Port-en-Bessin, which lay between the US and British sectors and was the end-point for one of the PLUTO fuel-lines, has an Avenue de 47eme Commando, named for the Royal Marines who fought and died there. A few miles to the west is the 172 acre Normandy American Cemetery above Omaha Beach (put Colleville-Sur-Mer into Google Earth and just gaze in wonder at what you see to the north-west of the town), in addition to the 23 British and two Canadian cemeteries which dot the area.
I say each year that I will go across and wave at Nigel as he pedals past. Perhaps this year I will make it. He and Help for Heroes deserve all the support we can give and, whether or not we can turn out to support him in person, we can help him reach his target by contributing to the cause on his donations page.