A Field In France

6 Jan

I’ve started and abandoned, then re-written this post three times so far. When we began planning our trip I asked my wife where she most wanted to go. Harrods in London was near the top of the list. Canterbury Cathedral. The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. The Louvre. To someone who didn’t know her the number one destination might seem an odd choice. I wanted Julia to see Paris and Julia wanted to see Omaha Beach.

On Day 10 of our trip we took a train from Paris to Bayeax. We took a taxi from the line in front of the station and as it happened the driver spoke some English. The drive from the station to our hotel was about 20 minutes and took us through several small villages where the French Tricolor flies next to the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes in nearly every window. Knowing that we would need to leave very very early the next morning we arranged for our cab driver to come back for us. I highly recommend this for short stays. One less thing to worry about.

We arrived at around lunch time at the Hotel Hostreiere on the Route du Cimetière Américain. As the name implies, the hotel sits on a road that leads directly to the American Cemetery above Omaha Beach. We managed check in despite not speaking French and the girl at the desk and the hotel’s owner not speaking English (I had been corresponding with the owner’s wife, who was not in at the time). Our room was absolutely palatial when compared to the places we’d stayed thus far. It was on the second floor and had its own small deck outside the door. There was a large shower in a room separate from the toilet. We dropped our cases and went back down for lunch in the hotel restaurant. Our options were fairly limited since were were in a rural area with no transportation. Lunch was very good, and pretty expensive. It featured a very nice cider, Val de Rance, produced using traditional methods and made in Brittany from cider apples grown in the region. After lunch we had an iffy conversation with the owner about what time dinner was served, owing again to the fact that there wasn’t anywhere nearby that we could reasonably be expected to reach on foot, and then left for the cemetery.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more idyllic setting than the countryside of Normandy. It was a sunny afternoon and we strolled along a lovely sunken lane to the cemetery. Looking around now it’s hard to imagine this place as it would have appeared in June of 1944. 

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial sits on a concession granted to the United States by the French after World War II, making it sovereign American territory. As we approached the entrance I noticed a John Deere lawn tractor sitting near a hedge. Grounds workers had erected a track and a low scaffold along the hedge. It appeared that the track was for a rig that rolled along and cut the hedge perfectly level. After cutting about 30 yards of hedge the entire run of track would have to be dismantled and moved. That level of precision is evident all through the cemetery.

Owing to the fact that this is an American facility, we had to pass through heightened security to enter the visitor’s center and museum. Metal detectors. Jackets off. Empty your pockets into the little bowl. You know the drill. Once inside we made our way to the lower level and the museum. We skipped the film and moved on to the time line and artifacts of the invasion.

Personal talismans

Personal talismans

We all think we know the story of D-Day pretty well. What usually doesn’t make it into our one-paragraph abstract is the fact that this was the Allied Invasion, not just the American Invasion. The museum works to correct this a little with displays outlining the contributions of other countries while still acknowledging that this place is sacred to Americans in particular. We learned for the first time about “Ruperts,” dummy paratroopers rigged with explosives created by Captain Michael Foot of the British Special Air Service for his brainchild “Operation Titanic.” The Ruperts were dropped behind the lines with 4 two-man teams on D-Day to help create a diversion. The men were armed with flare guns and record players. They pulled troops away from the actual landing sites and probably saved a life or ten.

There are facts and figures and artifacts that make the fast receding history of the fight a tangible thing. At the end of the center closest to the sea there is an infinity pool, over which you can see the Channel. Then you step outside…

We entered the cemetery from the east, passing through a garden. A semi-circular wall bears the names of over 1,500 Americans who lost their lives in the Normandy campaign but were never found. At the west end of the garden is a colonnade with a sculpture of a figure seemingly floating into the air. I have since learned this is The Spirit Of American Youth Rising From The Waves. Enclosures on either side of the sculpture house murals depicting maps of the campaign. I found an urn with a particularly poignant relief; A woman with a child in her lap holds her hand out to a grave in the shape of a cross crowned with laurel. The woman is looking down and the child mimics her posture. On the opposite side a warrior is pulled from his horse into the air by an angel as he reaches back toward the earth.

Looking west across the reflecting pool.

Looking west across the reflecting pool.

The weather was off-again/on-again rain. We made our way around the reflecting pool and out into the cemetery. I thought I was prepared, but it really is overwhelming. There are people who say that the crosses seem to go on forever but that isn’t really true. The cemetery is big, but you can see the other end. The Normandy cemetery is dwarfed by Arlington, but you can’t see all of Arlington at once. The uniformity of the Normandy cemetery, the military precision of the rows of markers make the scale staggering.

Here, as outside the gate, the grounds are immaculate. We made our way to the chapel at the center of the grounds and as we approached it began to rain again. Two French groundskeepers with buckets sheltered momentarily against the wall. This answered a question I’d meant to ask at the visitor’s center. The staff is apparently a mix of Americans and French. I was also surprised by the number of French visitors. I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but the majority of the people we encountered were French, not American. I suppose I envisioned the cemetery as solely a place of American pilgrimage.

Inside the chapel there is a beautiful mosaic on the ceiling. It depicts America in the form of a woman in white wearing the crown of Liberty. She is directing a young man with a rifle to cross the sea. We see merchant ships, destroyers, bombers and an angel bearing a torch. On the opposite side French Liberte crowns a fallen soldier with laurel. The inscription on the chapel wall reads;

Think Not Only Upon Their Passing

Remember The Glory Of Their Spirit

I didn’t feel comfortable taking a picture inside. We moved back out into the rain.

At the far end of the cemetery there are two more stylized sculptures of France and America in human form. The rain gives the impression that they are weeping. We turned back and made our way along the side of the cemetery facing the Channel. As we walked a pair of fighter jets screamed along the coast, the closest dipping its wings as it passed the cemetery. We wandered through the rows of spotless white markers. They are nearly uniformly crosses with the occasional Star of David. They are glowing white marble, some occasionally shot through with faint veins of gray and all without a spot of moss. We again encountered the two French groundskeepers with their buckets. Turns out the buckets come with a brush. The two men walked across the rows of markers scrubbing the marble stones. Every inch of every marker. Up one row, then down the next. On… and on… and on.

We found a gate and a path down to the beach. The walkway winds through scrub and some low dunes before depositing you on the beach. As I thought about the men struggling to come ashore through withering fire the wind went out of me, like I’d been hit in the stomach. It’s a long, long way across the beach to the water. I have no real frame of reference for what they went through. I can count on one hand the times I have had the presence of mind to genuinely fear for my life but I had no place to put something like that. I just stood and stared. Such a long way.

We walked along the beach and then climbed back up into the dunes where a few bunkers have been left intact. Judging by the curved grooves on the floor the guns inside must have been massive. The emplacement was set up to allow raking fire across the beach from an angle while protecting the guns from offshore fire. It again astonished me that anyone could have crossed the beach alive.German gun emplacement

We climbed the dunes to a point just east of the cemetery. Mere moments after commenting “You know, one of us is eventually gong to take a header in this mud…” I slipped and fell. I managed to keep the camera out of the mud, but my clothes were soaked. We stayed a few minutes longer looking at the monuments above the beach and along the vast sweep of coast we could see from our position.

The skies above us cleared while a storm remained over Pointe du Hoc to the west where United States Army Rangers fought a desperate battle for two days. Today it is still cratered like the surface of the Moon. A rainbow seemed to end directly in front of us at the memorial to the Big Red One.

We turned around and walked back along the lane toward the hotel. We talked about Julia’s father, who had come ashore two weeks after D-Day. He’d gone on to fight at St. Lo, the “Capital of the Ruins,” where he was badly wounded. He went back to combat, and on to the Rhine, and Berlin, and eventually home to Ohio, where he went on… raising a family and quietly living his life. He said very little about his part in the war, occasionally telling stories to his sons and now and again relating a story to me. After his death Julia’s mother was contacted by a man whose life Bill had saved during the war. He’d never mentioned it to her at all. When I was planning the trip I’d considered surprising Julia with a trip to St. Lo, but the city was destroyed so completely in the fighting that almost nothing of the prewar era remains (Except the occasional unexploded shell. In early 2012 I was looking at the tourism site when a pop-up redirected me to a notice to area businesses that a two-block area in the city center was being evacuated that afternoon. A live shell had been discovered at a construction site).

As we walked along I tried to imagine what the farmland and pastures must have looked like, what it would have sounded like when Bill’s artillery unit rolled through in 1944. Somewhere there had to be an echo of the thousands of men marching up from their ships, of the trucks and planes and tanks. It’s just there, under the wind and the birdsong, but it seems to me that it is growing faint.

We made it back to discover that we’d misunderstood the owner and completely missed dinner. The dining room and bar were both closed, and it was quite a way to the nearest restaurant. The owner’s wife looked at us and gathered up pre-made sandwiches, fruit, cookies and soda from behind the bar and sold them to us for about half what they should have cost. We ate them in our room and watched Monk in french (The only time we turned on a television during our entire trip) while I tried to rinse out my clothes. We went to sleep surrounded by the utter silence of a battlefield growing ancient all around us.

© 2015 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

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