Because of the comments of some of the people who went on this study tour last year, my expectations for Bayeux were relatively low. They made it seem like the town was a boring place with nothing much to do aside from drinking at the hotel. I guess their advice was not necessarily untrue—I spent quite a few fun nights at the hotel pool getting to know everyone a lot better—but last year’s group definitely undersold Bayeux’s charm. Walking through the cobblestone streets, I immediately felt an urge to start singing Beauty and the Beast lyrics. Bayeux honestly looks like something out of a fairytale. It also has plenty of cute shops and delicious restaurants. The meal from my first night there may have been the best one I ate in France altogether. It was four courses, including a perfectly cooked steak and chocolate mousse for dessert. Overall, Bayeux offered a welcome small town contrast to the fast pace of London.
Most our time in Normandy was spent at sites that related to D-day, and the first place we visited was the Caen Memorial Museum. It presented a uniquely French perspective on WWII, and I found myself thinking about When Paris Went Dark, the book that I read for my site report, more than a few times as I wandered through the exhibits. I could not help comparing the way the museum presented France’s role in the Holocaust as opposed to how it was portrayed in my book. Although the Caen Memorial did feature an extensive section devoted to conveying the horrors of the Holocaust, it gave very little space to the Vichy regime. It also made very little mention of how the French police would choose to persecute Jews independently of the Nazis. Further, I noticed that the museum presented the Marshall Plan a bit more critically than the way it is often portrayed in the US. They seemed to imply that America’s aid wasn’t entirely crucial in Europe’s recovery. Conversely, something that stood out to me at all the museums, but particularly during the 360-degree movie at Arromanches was how detrimental the Allied bombing was to Normandy. From an American perspective, the pre-invasion bombing is often glossed over and presented as a necessary measure. We don’t seem to fully acknowledge that it killed thousands of French people. The French, and particularly the Norman perspective on the Allies seems to be incredibly complicated. They were grateful to be free from Nazi occupation, but they had to endure unimaginable losses to achieve that freedom.
Being able to stand on the beaches and cliffs where the battles of D-day took place made World War II, which always felt very distant from my reality when learning about it in class, seem tangible. Particularly Pointe du Hoc because there were still German bunkers set up and craters pitted in the ground. It was far easier to imagine the 2nd Ranger Battalion climbing those cliffs than it was to associate the Omaha Beach that we saw with its “Bloody Omaha” moniker. The area has been developed and is surrounded by beach houses. My initial reaction to this was a bit negative. I had thought that Omaha would have looked more like Utah Beach, which is isolated and features a museum. I also understand, however, that France has mostly moved on from the war and it would be impossible for all of Normandy to stay permanently frozen on D-day.
Touring the British, American, and German cemeteries was another experience that helped me to visualize the mass devastation of the war. I was struck by the fact that every one of those tombstones represented an individual life, many of whom were men my age or younger. This was especially true in the British cemetery, where each of the graves was personized with messages from the families. It was difficult, but moving to see how so many people had lost their only sons and the fathers of their children. The American cemetery, while breathtakingly gorgeous, was also more uniform and lacked that sense of intimacy. Because of this, it was extremely special that we could learn about an Ohio State student who was buried there and place a flag at his grave. Robert Forrest was a year younger than me when his bomber plane was shot down over France, but at only nineteen he had managed to become a pilot. It was a privilege to be able to learn about his and so many other personal stories throughout the week in Normandy.