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November 11th will soon be upon us and across the world different nations will, in their own special ways, be remembering the losses and sacrifices of two world wars. In Normandy, my home for the past five years, reminders of World War II are ever present. The hedgerows of the Bocage landscape remain largely the same and the battlegrounds around the beachheads have never been commercialised but I think it is the carefully maintained plaques and strategically placed monuments to fallen allied liberators in so many towns and villages that most effectively remind us that we are treading on sacred ground.
This Gallic generosity is even more remarkable when we examine how the liberation was actually carried out. One estimate of the casualties caused by allied bombing to remove the German invaders puts the civilian cost at nearly 70,000 dead, 100,000 injured and heaven knows how many livelihoods and childhoods permanently maimed. Vire, my nearest town, has very few buildings old enough to suggest they survived the purge and St. Lo, our administrative capital, was so badly damaged that the French, who renamed it “The City of Ruins,” originally considered rebuilding it elsewhere. Visitors are now reminded everywhere of the struggle to free the town through a Heritage Trail that follows the renamed streets and leads you to the magnificent shell-riddled cathedral.
As I drive into my local village, Landelles-et-Coupigny, with its five shops and two vets, I see three further reminders. I look up and see that the main street has been renamed after the US 29th Division who moved into the occupied village on August 3rd 1944 en route from their baptism at Omaha Beach on June 6. Within 24 hours they were being cheered out of Landelles, minus six of their comrades, and heading for Vire in pursuit of the Germans where destiny would take a further toll. The names of the men they left behind are inscribed in gold on a piece of granite beside the central memorial.
When I pull up and park outside the Mairie, the first thing I see is a plaque announcing the date in the summer of 1940 that the village was occupied and the date it was liberated by the Americans four years later.
In other parts of Normandy the scene is repeated.
The routes off Utah Beach have been dedicated to fallen soldiers and the one concession to commercialism in the dunes, The Café Roosevelt, takes its inspiration from the 56-year-old Brigadier General who led his troops ashore, dodged the bullets and won a Congressional Medal of Honor in the process but fell prey to a coronary a month later. “Teddy Junior” is one of the 9,000-plus soldiers interred in the magnificent American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, a piece of France that was donated in perpetuity to the United States to provide a final resting place.
These and many other smaller cemeteries across Normandy are cared for by teams of French staff and regularly feature in ceremonies of remembrance on key dates during the year.
The sites of significant events also merit attention. The tiny hamlet of Le Carrefour is located deep in the Bocage due south of Omaha Beach and never troubled historians until the night of June 9th, three days after the landings, when a battalion of the US 115th infantry regiment collapsed exhausted in two fields after a 14 hour march. They were attacked as they slept and suffered over 150 casualties. When a search party found them in the morning, the local French families were placing flowers over the bodies. Today the site of this massacre is commemorated by a pair of French and American flags and a large memorial stone.
The populations’ areas liberated by the British and Canadian troops who landed on D-Day also show their appreciation in similar ways. Over the past year I have been corresponding with people from the Normandy village of Cheux where a friend’s great uncle lost his life in a British tank in the early stages of the battle for Caen. The family has been trying, since the end of the war, to locate the spot where his crew members buried him at the roadside to the south of the town in order to give him a proper burial, but their inquiries have yielded no results. Once we contacted the mayor of Cheux, we were introduced to the town’s local historian and both of them have gone out of their way to narrow down the search and try to identify the likely location where the incident took place. Although we have yet to discover his final resting place, we now have some people on site who will respond if farming or roadwork turn up any remains.
Other nations, whose role in the Normandy campaign was fairly minor largely due to the fact that they were also under occupation at the time, such as Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands, are also remembered within the region. There is a Danish naval memorial on the road to Utah Beach and the flags of other European combatants are seen flying at Omaha. I recently came across Madame Chartier again, this time directing a group of students on the beach in a flag-raising ceremony. The national anthem of each country was played and the students took it in turn to haul the respective flag to the top of the mast. They paid their respects to the memorial and each was given a small glass container in which to collect a sample of Omaha Beach sand to bring home.
Further inland, in eastern Normandy, where the allies ended the campaign by squeezing the retreating German army though the Falaise Gap, there is a beautiful monument to the Poles who played a prominent part in the action that is carefully presented and preserved by a team of French guides and gardeners. Mémorial Musée de Coudehard – Montormel.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that since the war, France has also collaborated with the German War Graves Commission to establish cemeteries like the one at La Cambe, which helps to balance the equation. There are many families in Germany whose connection with Normandy is the same as ourselves, i.e. that we have someone who fought or died in the conflict as is evident from the number of German car license plates that can be observed in the car parks along the beaches. I have just been asked to organize a tour with American schoolchildren next summer and the remit was to include the German Cemetery in addition to the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach.
By their even-handed approach the French have made it very easy to appreciate the events of the summer of 1944 from all perspectives, allowing visitors to Normandy the chance to reflect on how young Germans two generations ago suffered exactly the same as the allies and hopefully leave with the realisation that ultimately wars have no winners, only losers.
Recommended Books: WWII
Omaha Beach: D-Day, June 6, 1944, by Joseph Balkoski
Utah Beach: The Amphibious Landing and Airborne Operations on D-Day, June 6, 1944, by Joseph Balkoski
Beyond The Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy, by Joseph Balkoski
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, by Anthony Beevor
Band of Brothers (DVD boxed set)
Alan Davidge, D-Day tours historian in Normandy, was born in London two years after the war ended. Now, after 40 years of working in education, Alan is living in Normandy and leading visitors in the footsteps of the soldiers, concentrating on the Americans, who liberated the area in the summer of 1944. Alan is preparing D-Day tours for 2013. Contact Alan at: firstname.lastname@example.org
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, Normandy never forgest: WWII, a homecoming (part two) by Alan Davidge D-Day tours historian, Normandy. Alan shares his remembrance of a tour he created for an American WWII veteran who was returning with his daughter to visit places in France where he had served.
D-Day Travel Guide: For American visitors to Normandy, France, by Alan Davidge, D-Day tours historian, Normandy. Alan has managed to seek out a number of places of significance that do not usually feature in guidebooks. Guides included.
French Impressions: Alan Davidge leading visitors in the footsteps of the soldiers who liberated Normandy the summer of 1944. D-Day historian from Normanday, Alan Davidge, writing on personalized tours that have been particularly successful for young people for whom the concept of war is often difficult to grasp. His success is due to his treatement of the subject as social rather than military history, looking at how the war affected ordinary men, women and families.
The Stones of Carnac, by award-winning travel writer and photographer, Catherine Watson, who writes about the giant stones that linger at this prehistoric site in northwestern France. Giant stones that march in rows across the French landscape, shouldering their way over rises, past houses, through farm fields – a granite army, 3,000 strong.
French Impressions: Catherine Watson on literary travel writing and memoir. Award-winning author, travel writer and photographer, Catherine Watson, whose career has taken her around the world three times, to all seven continents and into 115 countries shares her life, on and off assignment, as a solo traveler.
Text copyright ©2012 Alan Davidge. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2012 Michelle Schwartzbauer. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2012 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.