The University’s disappointing D-Day

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was rightly criticised for leaving the D-Day commemorations in Normandy last week. But the spotlight on his catastrophic blunder has obscured another glaring absence, this one much closer to home. The University, and nearly all of the colleges, did practically nothing to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of D-Day on 6 June 1944. Not even a statement was issued to acknowledge the numerous students, faculty and staff who fought or otherwise contributed to the war effort. Today, as the values of D-Day—democracy, peace, and anti-fascism—are threatened all over the world, this omission is particularly glaring.  

The closest the University itself came was a one-day Continuing Education conference that cost 99 pounds to attend, and a mention on X of the launch of Their Finest Hour, an online World War II artefacts archive.  

Nearly all the colleges appeared to keep mum, making no public statements or social media posts, with scarce exceptions. Harris Manchester put together an immersive website about their role in D-Day. Brasenose flew the Union flag.   

Two colleges deserve partial credit. Worcester College tweeted that the Provost signed a letter in the Times calling for “recognition of the service of forces from across the British Empire in WW2.” St Anne’s retweeted its college Library, which wrote that it was a “fitting day” to commemorate Christine Ogle, a student who served in the war. Why was it a fitting day? Who knows.  

The University, and nearly all of the colleges, did practically nothing to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of D-Day

The apparent amnesia came through in what was tweeted on June 6. Trinity College bragged about the nice weather. Oxford University Alumni posted two ‘Volunteer Highlights’, neither of which concerned the students who served in World War 2. St Peter’s, calling June 6 ‘Throwback Thursday’, wrote about a converted chapel known as ‘Staircase V’ that was demolished years ago.   

This sorry state of affairs is particularly glaring and a clear break from the past. Indeed, many of Oxford’s colleges have commemorative memorials marking the lives of students and faculty lost in pride of place. We might not even know how many were lost. The History of the University of Oxford cites 1,719 from an Oxford Magazine estimate: “But the latter figure was clearly an underestimate: one college alone had more than a hundred names which had yet to be added to the list.” 

What is more, many colleges—such as Brasenose and Mansfield—housed vital military operations in their buildings. Crucial elements of the D-Day planning took place in Oxford:  Manchester (now Harris Manchester) College and the Ashmolean Museum were home to the Inter-Services Topographic Department, whose intelligence on geology and beach features was instrumental in identifying suitable landing spots.  

Contrast Oxford’s response with those of our rival universities. Oxonians will be keenly interested to note that a certain other institution has fared better. Both St Catharine’s and St John’s Colleges at Cambridge as well as the wider university have published specific D-Day statements, marking the contributions of alumni and reflecting on its relevance today. 

Of course, 2024 is not just any year. The passage of time means that the impressive and incredibly touching reunion of D-Day veterans may very well be the last, certainly in such numbers. We face a tremendous challenge in keeping the flame of remembrance alive.  

To say that the University owes more to those who fought and died for peace and democracy on 6 June 1944 is an understatement.

As His Majesty The King said in Portsmouth: “It is our duty to ensure that we, and future generations, do not forget their service and their sacrifice in replacing tyranny with freedom. Our rights and the liberty won at such terrible cost, bring with them responsibilities to others in the exercise of that liberty. The Allied actions of that day ensured the forces of freedom secured, first, a toehold in Normandy, then liberated France, and ultimately, the whole of Europe from the stranglehold of a brutal totalitarianism.” 

Now more than ever, and all around the world, democracy and liberty are under threat. Defending freedom against tyranny is a key test. Oxford would have done well to accede to its part in what President Biden rightly identified as our shared “special obligation”. 

This world-leading university should have taken a lead in that obligation. To say that the University owes more to those who fought and died for peace and democracy on 6 June 1944 is an understatement. Everything a university does—from scholarship, teaching, and learning to athletics, extracurriculars, and so much more—depends on the basic values of free speech, tolerance, and government accountability that only democracy can protect. A statement and a portal recognising its own contributions to the Second World War (in the model of Harris Manchester’s) are the least the University can do. Not to mention that while there is a Roll of Service for those who fought in the First World War, we have not found one for the second.  

In any age, students, staff, and faculty should expect universities to foster and embody society’s highest principles—and hold them to account when they do not. In an age of rising tyranny, and wars in Gaza, Ukraine, and beyond, none of the University’s tasks is more important. And that starts but does not end, with D-Day.  

Image Description: Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

Image Credit: Peter K Burian via World History Encyclopedia