As Charlie Martin slowly walks the windswept beach at Bernières-surmer, his cane leaving a faint impression on the hard wet sand, he tries to conjure up that day, 50 years ago, when
he went to war for the first time—and saw his friends die around him. The grey-green waves still look forbidding and cold as he surveys the scene. And by cutting between the veteran’s quiet reflections and grainy black-and-white war footage, Battle Diary: A Day in the Life of Charlie Martin manages to bridge that enormous gap between the distant memory and the horrifying immediacy of combat. With this onehour documentary, producer Richard Nielsen and director Martyn Burke have created a moving tribute to the Canadians who died on the beaches at Normandy—and those who were lucky enough to survive.
The title is a bit of a misnomer. While Martin’s experience frames the show and sets its elegiac tone, the most revealing interviews are
with others who participated in the operation. Col. Charles Dalton recalls that, aside from the fear of death, for an officer leading men into battle the biggest fear “is that you’re not going to be able to perform.” He remembers that when he was about two-thirds of the way across the beach on D-Day, he “sneaked a look back” to check on his men. Seeing “a whole line of people lying on the beach,” he recalls, “my first thought was, ‘They’ve gone to ground, they didn’t follow me.’ And then I realized they were casualties. The machine guns were still firing at the ones that were wounded.”
The documentary record of the Second World War is already considerable. The National Film Board’s 61/2-hour Canada at War series—now released as a boxed set of four
video cassettes to commemorate the D-Day anniversary—offers a classic overview of Canada’s march through the war. But the focused, infantry-eye view of Battle
Diary presents a more contemplative look at the horrible confusion of battle—and the nature of memory. As military historian Terence Copp points out in the program: “If you look at the battlefield from the bottom up rather than the top down, you see that as soon as the battle begins, the plan falls apart. The friction of war takes over and the fog of war takes over.”
By using a stark, melancholy sound track of choral music and slowing the combat footage with a stop-action technique, the film-makers have created a haunting memorial. The simple contrast between the faces of the veterans and the photographs of the boys they once were is not easily forgotten.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.