Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The American Cemetery at Colville and D-Day Landing beaches, Normandy, France

We started at Sword Beach, near Ouistreham, by way of Pegasus Bridge on our way from Caen, on a whistle-stop tour of the D-Day Landing sites. But of course, you can't really do that. That is, you can drive by and see a gun emplacement here (Juno Beach), a bunker there (Sword), tanks just about everywhere along the route, which is clearly signposted from Ouistreham, but it doesn't leave enough time to visit the museums, which is a shame, as athe films in particular, that attempt to recreate the drama of Operation Overlord, look worth a watch.

What you can get, though, is a bucket full of moving moments. Perhaps the most touching of all was on a wreath fashioned out of plastic red poppies, left on a tank by a memorial inland, with a handwritten note in English that read:

You gave up all your tomorrows and for that we are forever grateful

Making it more touching still, the woman who signed it shared the last name of the man it was left for. Wife? Mother? Sister? Granddaughter?

There were also those along the way clearly making hay, as it were (#giftshops).

And there were some extraordinary sights, like the remaining floating pieces of the 'temporary' harbour made for the Allied Forces at Arromanches. So French that they are there still, where anyone might swim out to them. I said this to a French man I know, this way that in France you can take a walk in woods and discover rusting train carriages left over from WWI even and signs warning you not to step off the path in case of unexploded mines.

"Well, the war took place there," was his explanation, missing the point that, in the USA or the UK, chances are good all traces and relics would have been swept away and put in nice, safe buildings for the public to pay to see – not left scattered about where anyone might – heaven forfend – hurt themselves on them.

I hope I'm making it clear that I prefer the French attitude: we are our own guardians and don't need officials to clean up the world in this way for us.

As we traveled along the coast, there was an unspoken knowing: that the American Cemetery at Colville-sur-Mer, above Omaha Beach, would be the culmination of our day.

Of course, it's quite a sight and you would have to be made of stone not to experience the eyes filling, chest tightening, lump-in-throat sensations. In fact, testament to the fact that most people simple can't trust themselves to speak is how absolutely pin quiet it is around the first memorial you come to, even though there are hordes of people of many nationalities looking, reading, digesting. Though a sign at the entrance asks for respect, nowhere does it request silence, yet that is what there is.

Two American flags were flying high in the pure blue sky. Over and down the bluff was an extraordinarily pleasing contrast of dark blue sea, white sand, green grass and trees, and clear blue sky with a few light clouds. The air was a comfortable warm that didn't require a sweater but wasn't strong enough to raise a sweat. In short, it was beautiful. How was it possible that such a peaceful, pretty spot could have seen so many lives literally ripped apart?

We may have all seen the lines of simple, plain crosses stretching away, but when you stop to read the names, place of birth and date of death on them, it is easy to see the individuals from so little information. So many seemed to come from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, at least in the section we explored, though Ohio, New York, Rhode Island were also represented, as were a pair of brothers.

It is also important, I think, to note that not all the markers are crosses. There are Stars of David and, I found myself wondering, what about those who might not have classified themselves as Christians or Jews? But then, a cross has, I think, possibly jumped the gap and can represent simply that the body of a soul lies beneath.

In fact, it was those with the least information that were the most moving of all, reading only: A comrade in arms, known but to God

Ultimately, though, this was not a depressing visit. It's thanks to these men – and thousands of others like them – that we in the West enjoy the lives we do. I don't condone war, but like the woman who left the wreath, I will be forever grateful these men gave up all their tomorrows.

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