It is an amazing experience to be staying within one of the few French towns that was spared from destruction during the Battle of Normandy. It is a real blessing to be able to walk down the original narrow cobblestone sidewalks of Bayeux and to be able to sit outside, on the lawn, shadowed by Notre Dame du Bayeux – the cathedral constructed in 1077. The majority of the other French towns that lay within the path of the Normandy Invasion were destroyed by either street fighting or strategic bombing. This area of France paid an enormous price for liberation. The men fighting for the liberation also paid an enormous toll. These last few days, I was able to tour the German, American, and British cemeteries, which house the many casualties resulting from the invasion. I compared each cemetery and each of the sites appeared, through their architecture, to highlight what the country saw as important in the after war period.
Americans have always succeeded in making bold statements. As I walked through the huge marbled cemetery looking upon the 9,387 clean white stones, I kept looking out at the ocean, which the cemetery overlooks. The cemetery is clearly memorializing the “Spirit of Youth” – as the statue in its center is rightfully named. This is depicted throughout the memorial, from the sacrifice stories in the well-organized museum to the continuous list of names read over the loud speakers. Each story in the museum highlighted the everyday individual who achieved a collective courage. Having visitors walk through the museum first, then step out into the gigantic cemetery, really paints in bold relief sacrifices that occurred near these very beaches. I was reminded of Arlington National Cemetery – how each stone is symmetrical and identical for row upon row, which depicts the sheer amount of sacrifices that young American men endured. One thing that really struck me was, as I walked, I noticed that every stone, rather then facing the entrance, faced out toward America.
We visited many sites that hammered in the idea of American unity and collective sacrifice, such as Pointe du Hoc, Omaha Beach, Utah Beach and Pegasus Bridge. Omaha and Utah Beach were not what I imagined before my trip. After reading many first-person sources regarding the planning and execution of the Normandy landings, I expected a large memorial to honor the 425,000 Allied and German troops who were killed. While a memorial was present on the beach, massive beach houses and fancy seafood restaurants that advertised names like “Overlord” surrounded it. Seeing the beaches really helped me understand the full invasion plan and appreciate the sacrifices of A Company at Dog Green on Omaha Beach. While the beach was much less somber than I imagined – the research I did prior to the trip really helped me to understand the strategic importance behind each landing.
Postwar Germany faced a difficult task between honoring their dead and not memorializing their deeds. The German cemetery was bleak with simple architecture. Many, if not all, of the headstones were shared between two men. Rather than facing out towards their country, these stones were flat and only faced the heavens. No silver hearts or iron crosses were written under the names of officers, only their rank, birth, and death. There were very few flowers or tokens of grief at each headstone, unlike the American and British cemeteries. The cemetery was simple and uniform, but lacked the dramatic impact that the American and British cemeteries carried. These were still young men and, while they fought for the wrong side, they were also fathers, sons, and husbands. Each man buried there left behind a future. I think the architectural message, especially based on the museum, is the promotion of peace. The Germans do not deny their wrongs and certainly do not memorialize them. The Germans strive to promote peace and show that the loss of life, no matter the side, is wasteful and should be avoided at all cost.
The cemetery that left the biggest impression on me was the British cemetery. Unlike the state commissioned stones at the American and German cemeteries, the British cemetery let the family of each of the dead customize their stones. This personalization really brought forth the British idea of the “People’s War.” The British believe that all fallen soldiers should be memorialized. Within this national cemetery lie, not only British citizens, but Polish, Czechs, Muslims, Jamaicans, and many more young soldiers who lost their lives during the invasion. Each inscription on the graves serves as a way of making the man who lies there not just another number in the high amount of casualties, but an individual. There were inscriptions from parents, children, and wives who memorialized the dead buried below. Each grave also was decorated with a wide range of flowers so that not one grave lay barren. This cemetery highlighted the sacrifice of the person rather than the group – turning numbers back into people.
As I was walking through the Caen Memorial Museum I noted a ratted and torn Nazi flag. I was reminded, from this, of an old poem titled, “Ozymandias” by Percy Shelley. In this poem a traveller comes upon a ruin in the middle of a barren land. Upon this crumbled statue is the inscription, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look at my works, ye mighty, and despair!” Nothing remains, during the time of the traveller, but a lone decayed embodiment of what was. I have begun to compare Hitler’s Regime to that of Ozymandias. As Hitler built his empire, his followers and soldiers must have really believed they were building a great power that would attest the wrath of time. All of these flags, bronze eagles, and insignias that I pass in these various museums were made with an aspiration of grand legacy. How amazing it is to now to see the remains of this empire that completely crumbled away in only twelve years – ye is no longer mighty.
During my time in Bayeux, I also saw the Bayeux Tapestry and Mont St. Michele. I have studied the Bayeux Tapestry since my freshmen year – when I was also studying anthropology. The Tapestry, often referred to as the first comic strip, is one of the best-preserved pieces of art from the 11th century. Commissioned in 1066 to celebrate the coronation of William the Conquer, this visit really melded well with my other visits to both Notre Dame de Bayeux and Westminster Abbey. The survival of the ornate detail, that remains intact after nine centuries, is truly miraculous. I really wish I could revisit the tapestry and spend hours studying all the pictures and hidden gems – it seems like one of those works where you notice something new each time you view it. Mont St. Michele was stunning with its gravity-defying medieval architecture. It was rainy, foggy and dreary during our visit, which is my absolute favorite weather. I felt like I was crossing the misty and haunting moors of Bronte’s, “Withering Heights.” From a distance, the abbey really does appear to be something out of Dracula. Its spires and dramatic location upon an island, surrounded by farmlands, really makes it look foreboding. The inside of the abbey was stunning and I really felt transported back to the medieval period.
Off to Paris tomorrow. Still humble.