“They laid him where he fell, far from me, where I cannot plant flowers of memory.”
— Epitaph in British Cemetery, Normandy, France
While in Bayeaux and Normandy, I have seen thousands of grave markers. Many are inscribed with names, but many can only acknowledge that there is an unknown soldier lying beneath it. Boys as young as fourteen and men as old as forty-six are buried side-by-side. Some markers signify that the bodies could not be disentangled or identified other than by dental records. Thousands of markers are missing, along with the bodies that still haven’t been found. An additional and often overlooked loss is the near-20,000 French citizens who perished during their “liberation.” Allied and Axis soldiers and civilians alike suffered the same consequence of war: the finality of death.
While military cemeteries aren’t unusual in the United States, battlefields post-dating the Civil War are. To visit English, German, and American cemeteries and then also visit the beaches where many of them died heightened my sense of the sorrow and shock their comrades and families must have felt. The Utah and Omaha beaches would have been one of the first experiences abroad for many American soldiers, and for many of them the last. Their family members would never know the sight of the bluffs, the texture of the sand, or the clearness of the water.
Perhaps the lack of WWII-era battlegrounds in the United States allowed Americans to over-inflate the political victory of the Allied effort and discount the true extent of loss felt by Europe (and in the Pacific, for that matter). It was the European civilians that endured strategic bombing campaigns in England, France, and Germany; that rebuilt their towns after arbitrary military forces destroyed them; that lived under occupation and oppression; that experienced food and clothing shortages; that witnessed the brutality of war. To this day, craters and scorch marks can still be seen in French villages. The skeletons of artificial harbors remain along the beaches. German bunkers are still embedded in cliffs that overlook beachfront cottages.
At best, Americans have the oral history of their grandfathers or great-grandfathers. WWII is remembered as the good, patriotic war where the Nazis were defeated and all of Europe was saved by the American GI hero. French memory is far more sobering. The physical sites from WWII lend themselves to a different kind of memory, one that had no choice but to endure the war. The sense of loss is not contained just to cemeteries but is found also in cliffs and churches and beaches and villages. Americans will be unable to comprehend the scale and sacrifice of the D-Day invasion, and the total cost of the war, without visiting the place where it happened.