How Charles De Gaulle Alone Won Back France

Throughout the past semester and in my high school history classes, I have always been taught that after the French surrendered in World War Two, the secret “Free French” did not do much of anything to help the Allies win the war. Visiting France, I saw a completely different narrative. Each museum we visited in Normandy discussed in detail the contributions of Free France, led by Charles De Gaulle. France spared no time or detail in discussing the contribution of the Free French, especially in the Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy. A big focus was on De Gaulle’s BBC radio speech in 1940 while he was in hiding in England, where he called for the rallying of Free France after the country fell to Germany. In class, we discussed that while this was an important speech for morale, the number of people in the French resistance was small and unimpactful. A whole panel on French liberation and D-Day gave most credit to the persistence of Charles De Gaulle and his leadership of the Free French.

I also found it interesting to note the differences between the British and French museums. A big focus of the British perspective of World War Two was a focus on the “People’s War.” Credit was given to “The People.” In France, credit was given to De Gaulle. These museum sites really helped me understand that each country of the war had some freedom to write their own narrative after the war ended. The French chose to focus first on their leader, as seen through the museums I visited in France, and second on the country’s people. Frances near obsession with crediting De Gaulle for their taking back of their country seems like a compensatory coping mechanism to lessen the embarrassment of needing so much help winning back the country.

One of the many posters praising Charles De Gaulle and his war efforts during WWII.

A bust of Charles De Gaulle.

Time and Distance

Battlefields and cemeteries marked our time in Bayeux. In just a few days in Bayeux I must have seen over 10,000 gravestones. The British, German, and American cemeteries are located on the coast, or quite close to it.

British Cemetery, Bayeux.


German Cemetery, Normandy.


American Cemetery, Normandy.


Visiting Pointe du Hoc and then a few moments later walking through the American Cemetery at Normandy built this new understanding for me. In a book, movie or class moving from the battle to the cost simply would have been a turn of the page or the flick of a switch. Diagrams, text or actors represent these people in ways that are important, yet lack depth of feeling. Experiencing these places brings something that cannot be taught but must be seen. Planting a flag at my fellow Buckeye’s final resting place brought it home for me, as this man was not much different than myself.

Roger Dyar was born and raised in the Conshocton area. Dyar went to The Ohio State University for two years and then he enlisted as an aviation cadet. Dyar broke the air speed record in a P-47 Thunderbolt by going 725 miles per hour. One man whom I could relate to suddenly became the thousands of other men who rest at the American Cemetery at Normandy.


The battlefield is France, fighting occurred all over the area in which we stayed and toured. Pieces of artificial harbors, gun emplacements, bunkers and craters litter these areas.

The artificial harbor at Gold beach stretches for miles.

German artillery emplacement, Pointe du Hoc.

Ruins of a German bunker and craters, Pointe du Hoc.

Civilians in France were killed by both Allied bombers and the Nazi occupiers. Over 20,000 civilians were killed during the invasion of Normandy. For these people, this was their home. America had not suffered invasion and occupation like the French had. We are distant from this reality; we are separated almost completely from it. Tales from our grandpas and stories about the “good war” are engrained in the American identity. Besides Arlington, America doesn’t have much physical connection to World War Two. In a way that is a blessing, in other ways this distance harms our perspective. In America as the decades have passed, events that occurred thousands of miles away have begun to fade away. In France it just takes a half hour of driving before you arrive at a battlefield. The war was in your village, backyard or even in your own home.

Free to Fightback in France

After a long day of travel, our first full day in Bayeux, France, was filled with museums and site visits. I must confess I was sleep deprived. The previous night had been filled with excited chatter of being in France. Why be a responsible adult and go to bed early when I can stay up and have fun with friends in France?

Walking into Caen Memorial Museum took away any lingering desires for sleep. This museum, both inside and out, was beautiful. There were high ceilings, glossy polished stairs, and seemingly endless well-organized displays to visit. This museum focused on the French perspective on World War II and Normandy invasions, through French pictures and occupation memorabilia. But, the museum’s exhibits still highlighted other countries’ World War II experiences, placing France in the larger context of the war. When saying French perspective, I mean the exhibit mainly showcased how World War II impacted the culture and lives of French citizens. I distinctly remember a picture of French citizens dejectedly sitting down outside of their home that was destroyed in the Nazi invasion. It was a reminder of the terrible human toll of French civilians caught in the midst of the fighting.

Walking around the museum helped me recall the discussions about French wartime collaboration and resistance that we’d had in class this past spring. What made someone identifiably a collaborator rather than a resistance fighter? During the war and after, it is hard to generalize the French population into either of these distinct categories.

Depending on the day, we might interpret a person’s actions in a variety of ways. For example, working for the German occupiers, like helping build machinery for the Nazi war effort or providing food, and using that money to support their families could be considered collaboration. Yet, using that money to help out those who are impoverished or need help, like the Jewish population in France, could be considered resistance. It is money that is coming from unfortunate means but could still be used for good. Is the answer to refuse to work for the Germans and suffer without helping others? Is that what qualifies as resistance? These are questions that French civilians in occupied France were forced to confront daily.
Identifying who belonged to the resistance is also complicated. It is easier to view the men who actively fought against the Nazis as resistors. Rather than women doing small things like disobeying curfew or reading banned books. What level of resistance qualifies someone as a “resistor?” In the museum when discussing the resistance, I personally saw photo representation of both men and women. However, I recall readings and class discussions about the minimization of the women’s role in how we remember French resistance.

Towards the middle of the museum I found only one plaque that described collaborators in Vichy France. This plaque stated that people in France who collaborated did so for political power and economic opportunity because they believed the Nazi rule was permanent. They were relatively average people that saw an opportunity to increase their station in life. Essentially, some French citizens collaborated in hopes of securing a lavish future in the new world order. It was a simple description that acknowledged the selfishness of many French collaborators.

I believe this plaque focused on Vichy France, rather than collaboration in other occupied areas, because Vichy France stands out in our historical recollection. Vichy France was technically unoccupied by the Germans, but the newly set-up government collaborated with the Germans immensely. The Caen Memorial Museum may also have wanted to point the direction of collaboration away from areas that have positive significance to World War II, like Normandy being the area of liberation. Putting blame on more obvious culpable parties is easier than discussing a past you may feel guilty about and diminishing an overall positive historical reputation.

My interpretation for why the museum more extensively exhibited resistance in France is that it helps alleviate feelings of national guilt. If the museum designers focused more heavily on World War II collaboration in the museum France would appear in a negative light. Omitting or denying a country’s role may lead to the same mistakes and actions to be repeated. It is impossible to learn if no record exists from which to learn.

At the same time as someone who is not French I find it hard to fully judge the French’s decisions. These are all just my personal speculations that came to me while walking around the Caen Memorial museum. Overall, I greatly appreciated seeing the war from a different national perspective.

A Different Trip Abroad

Seventy-five years ago, American men took a different trip abroad than I. We both experienced the towering cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, the immense stretches of Omaha Beach, and the thick vegetation of Normandy’s terrain, but we did so from vastly different viewpoints and circumstances.

I approached Pointe du Hoc from the rear, navigating the German bunkers and Allied bomb craters, the wind being the only resistance in sight. I quickly realized that the cliffs were taller than I ever imagined, extending one hundred feet up from the water’s edge. The 2nd and 5th Army Rangers were tasked with scaling these cliffs and taking German artillery positions at the top so that they could not be used against Operation Overlord landings.

The cliffs of Pointe du Hoc

The expansiveness of Omaha Beach

The incomprehensible destruction that lined Omaha Beach became painfully easier to picture. A seemingly unending beach extended for miles and stretched a few hundred yards from surf to land. Omaha, minus the German obstacles, looked as flat as it probably did back in 1944; the Allied preparatory bombing missed its mark entirely leaving no craters for American troops to take cover in. Thousands of American soldiers lost their lives storming the beach, their bodies and equipment stretching the coastline.

The thick Normandy bocage envelops roads like this one

Encountering the bocage for myself – thick, overgrown shrubs with tangled root systems – confirmed how the Germans were able to provide such formidable resistance to the American advance. These networks of dense plants lined the side of roads, confused GIs with their maze-like configuration, and supplied the Germans with perfect places for hidden defensive positions.

I quickly became overwhelmed with admiration and sadness when visiting the Normandy American Cemetery. Nearly 10,000 crosses dotted the stretch of land in perfect formation, each cross representing an American serviceman who made the ultimate sacrifice. I realized that many of the men in this cemetery were my age or younger and died fighting in a struggle that many felt they did not belong in. However, these men went on and climbed one hundred feet in the air, ran straight into German machine gun fire, and navigated unfamiliar land with a concealed enemy. The cliffs, beaches, and terrain provided me with a sobering understanding of the grim reality that American servicemen faced in Normandy and more appreciation for the surely impossible tasks they accomplished.

Only a small section of the Normandy American Cemetery

The Bayeux Countryside

Walking through the fields and paths in the countryside of Bayeux was nothing short of a dream come true. The small town was unlike anything I had ever seen, with archaic buildings and unique restaurants. I decided to take a walk out of the town, however, and discovered a path leading to several fields and a church in the distance. The fields stretched out along hills as far as the eye could see. Trees and hedgerows lined the roads and the edges of fields all around me. There was a creek illuminated by the sun as it crept beneath the hills. Cows grazed in the pastures I passed by and inhabitants waved at me from their windows as I strolled through. I walked along a stone wall until I reached the old church, which appeared to be upwards of five hundred years old. The cool air and the sound of birds offered several key moments for reflection.

Recalling the readings from this semester and the depictions of it I had seen in the past, I imagined the countryside coming alive with the hum of artillery, tanks, and guns in the distance. I imagined myself traversing a path once trekked by the British army as they advanced towards the town. I imagined Charles De Gaulle driving down the main road through the city to greet the people of Bayeux after its liberation. Based on what I had learned previously, I imagined even further in the past the Normans using the area to prepare for their invasion of England. Getting the chance to walk on the same road as key historical figures offers an immersive experience with history that can’t be captured in a classroom. My walk in Bayeux has been one of the best moments on my trip so far. Though to some it may appear no different than any other countryside in Europe, the area of Bayeux boasts a rich amount of historical significance that goes back a thousand years.

<< Dans la Rue >>

Paris is an incredibly unique city. From the absurdly built roads to the smells of the subway, everything about it is just uniquely Paris. On the first day while navigating the city, I was struck by Paris’ immense population of homeless people. They seemed to occupy every corner and every nook in the metro. There were people in sleeping bags and on staircases, with dogs and friends or alone. They were young and old, black and white, and all had the same sad look in their eyes. People were rushing right past them without even seeing them, so they sat quietly or slept and went largely unnoticed. And that is the worst part; people don’t want to see them because they make them uncomfortable or they are an obstacle or inconvenience. I know that Paris is a large metropolitan area and that homelessness is to be expected to a certain extent, but the number of homeless people was somewhat alarming to me. Homelessness is an issue that I find especially troubling and have always had a big heart for. So, I did a little digging to see if I could find out why.

According to France’s National Institute of Statistic and Economic Studies (INSEE), there are roughly 463,000 people who live below the poverty line in Paris alone. The INSEE also found that more than 12,000 people are currently homeless in France, and a homelessness census conducted in February 2019 found that more than 3,641 people are currently sleeping on the streets of Paris. The percentage of homeless people has increased by 21% in the last year. Many of the people who make up the homeless population are refugees and migrants coming from Africa and the Middle East. Rising unemployment also forced many other on to the streets. Compared to the entire population of Paris the homeless population only makes up a very small percentage, but 3,641 is no small number, and each of these people deserves a warm, dry and safe place to live. It baffles me here just as much as in the U.S. that a country with so much wealth seemingly does so little to help its homeless population.

A view of the Champs Élysees from the Arc de Triumph.

The Battle After D-Day

By Matthew Bonner

We arrived in Bayeux, France on May 14th after sailing across the English Channel from Portsmouth, England. When visiting numerous museums along the beaches and other sites, I focused on both the commonalities and differences in the information compared to the discussions in our Spring semester class that revealed more about the French collective memory of the Second World War. In our class we analyzed the complex D-Day planning required between FDR and Churchill, firsthand accounts of the Operation Overlord, and the struggle for the French’s view of collaboration vs. resistance. The Caen Memorial Museum provided a good walk-through of the events leading up to the war, describing how World War I – “the war to end all wars” – set the stage for an even greater war, and provided details about the Fall of France and the Vichy regime from a unique French perspective. However, in the museum there was a difference in the total number of casualties per country depicted between other museums and in class, often with the Soviet Union casualties having most of the discrepancy. The difference reveals the challenge in quantifying the war and its impact on the countries, and how recent scholarship is revealing more accurate figures for the total losses.


Armbands featuring the Cross of Lorraine, a symbol of the Free French Forces led by Charles de Gaulle.

Another difference was a majority of the French museums, such as the Memorial Museum to the Battle of Normandy, overly highlighted the French Resistance efforts during the war. During our class we had discussed how the French resistance was present in small numbers, but not an extensive movement that dramatically altered the course of the war. The resistance can be small and still very important to French life, but the museum exaggerated the movement to be more widespread and systematic. The emphasis on Charles de Gaulle and the Free French Forces reveal how the French are still grappling with the war’s effects and their country’s occupation. France is still coming to terms with how the country was quickly occupied by Nazis and how to remember French Nazi collaborators and resistors. The French resistance is a captivating patriotic story, but when analyzing the war it is important to realize how the country has used it as a way to rationalize and make sense of a collaborative Vichy regime, occupation, and numerous deportations. By choosing to highlight positive resistance efforts and not fully address French Nazi collaborators, the full French war story is ignored.

Through the comprehensive museums in Normandy, one of the biggest takeaways and differences from class was the emphasis on the Battle of Normandy after D-Day. From the way I have always learned about the war and through the United States perspective, D-Day was the main emphasis of the invasion, and then in a few short weeks Paris was liberated. However those few short weeks meant everything to the people in northern France, especially in small French towns such as Bayeux. It is often forgotten that in preparation for the D-Day invasions Allied strategic bombings, designed to cut off transportation lines to the coast, killed over 20,000 French civilians. Additionally, many civilians suffered as the war raged through their small towns and villages as the Allies began to liberate France.

Grave of Robert E. Wright, Ohio State alumni, who set up a hospital in Angoville au Plain’s church for wounded soldiers.

For example, we visited Angoville au Plain, a village with a small church turned into a hospital during the war by a Ohio State alumnus, Robert E. Wright. Wright and other medics treated anyone in need at the small church – regardless of side in the war – as long as weapons were left outside. The small village where the church is located today had a population of around 64 people, and one can imagine how the war had a dramatic impact on the town as Allied troops during the liberation could have possibly doubled or tripled the total population! Additionally, the town of Bayeux had to add an outer belt circling around the city center to make way for the Allied equipment, as troops and tanks could not navigate through the small winding roads. Thus each French town and village on the road to Paris experienced the war, and their sacrifices and stories are a focus for the Normandy region. These sacrifices were not highlighted when learning about the war from the American perspective. On a larger scale the discrepancies between the museums and class highlight how each country remembers and grapples with the war’s legacy in different ways. Ultimately, it is important to compare the similarities and differences between the collective memories of the various countries to fully understand how the differences affect how each country thinks about themselves, others, and post-war events.

Patriotism: An Important but Incomplete Motive on Omaha Beach

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always known and learned about World War Two. From grade school all the way through my current college courses, we’ve always been taught about how America and the Allied forces fought against the atrocities committed by Japan, Italy, and Nazi Germany. I learned about the surrender and German occupation of France as well as the Normandy landings plenty of times and thought that I possessed a clear understanding of these situations. These crucially important moments in history became a simple fact in my brain that occurred in a matter of fact fashion. However, as we traveled throughout France visiting many of these famous historical sites, my perception of these events changed drastically.

The place we visited that had the greatest impact on my perceptions of history was our visit to Omaha Beach. I’ve read plenty of articles regarding the Normandy landings and the many Americans who were slaughtered on Omaha Beach. However, it never really felt real until I was standing on the actual beach. The tide was completely out, and I was able to see how far the soldiers had to run to reach the bluffs. I could see the old hideouts up on the hills where the Germans would have had their weapons ready to defend the high ground. I was able to see how easy it would have been for the Germans to target and kill the American soldiers storming the beach. Seeing this in person was truly surreal and put the Normandy landings into a new perspective to me. I was able to picture the brutality of the battle scene and now understood why so many Americans were killed that day.

Omaha Beach, where we were able to see how treacherous the conditions would have been.

However, my new perspective also included a challenge to what I was conventionally taught in school about the Normandy landings. We learned that the men fought and gave their lives on the beaches out of sheer patriotism. However, after seeing the conditions on the beach itself I doubt that this was completely the case. Contrary to what I’ve been taught, I believe that what really drove the men to storm and secure the beaches was the simple need to survive. The conditions during the landings were dangerous and gave the Germans an advantage, and the soldiers knew quite frankly that they would be killed if they did not fight with all of the vigor that they had and as quickly as possible to secure the area. Visiting these areas in Normandy   challenged what I’ve been previously taught and to come to a more realistic interpretation of what happened on these beaches during the Normandy invasions.

I was in disbelief as I stood in the same exact place where so many American soldiers fought and lost their lives.

How Bombs Brought Forth Art

View from the cliff face

Though we can read books about warfare, we will never know what it was like to be showered with bombs. Growing up in the early 21st century, I have lead a privileged life that has been safe in my own country. In history classes, a picture was painted of families fleeing to the London Tube tunnels during bombing and fearing to return to a pile of rubble that used to be their home. I could not begin to comprehend the sheer power that these bombs harnessed until I walked the grounds of Pointe du Hoc.


Example of a bomb crater at Pointe du Hoc

This site is the most striking thing we’ve visited on our journey thus far. Pointe du Hoc was the highest point between the American landings on Utah and Omaha beaches. Though the area had been fortified by the Germans, the United States Army Ranger Assault Group attacked and captured Pointe du Hoc by scaling the cliffs from the beach. The Rangers accomplished this by using borrowed ladders from the London Fire Brigade and grappling hooks while under fire. I finally saw the damage that was caused by bombs dropped by the allied forces during the pre invasion strikes. All around me were gouges in the ground, some 20-30 feet deep. To fully understand the impact, I walked into a crater and I almost felt like I was in another world.


The bottom of the crater was a new ecosystem, one that was magical and seemed almost safe. Among the yellow flowering bushes, vibrant green lichen, and chirping birds, I found a surprise. As the bombs ripped through this land, they created art and new life. The impact had ripped away the substantial concrete blocks, leaving the metal support spikes, or rebars, exposed. This created an organic, found art experience. These clumps of metal spikes reached up towards the opening of the crater in an almost snake-like manner and they seemed a logical part of the earth they were protruding from.

Metal spikes exposed after bombing

These spikes didn’t seem to be a result of a bomb impact, they seemed to be slithering out of the ground to rejoin and intertwine with the new plants growing. Seeing something that is usually man made become something that could interpreted as many organic forms was an inspiring moment.


Trying to comprehend the power of bombs is impossible until you’ve seen the damage and walked the path of destruction.

More rebar detail

Regardless of the sources that I’ve read for our spring class or for other history classes, I didn’t understand the reality. Beyond understanding the power of bombing, I never expected to find something so beautiful as a bi-product. The juxtaposition of the craters to the flower accented spike art was a true sight to behold. Art is always something that is unexpected and finding beauty in the midst of destruction was the most unexpected of all.  As an arts major, I find myself inspired by the organic art that I discovered at Pointe du Hoc and I plan to explore the idea of recreating this experience in an arts series.


I Cannot Plant Flowers of Memory


Headstone in British Cemetery, Normandy, France.

“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.

Headstone for two German soldiers in La Cambe German Cemetery, Normandy, France.

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.

Bomb craters at La Pointe du Hoc, a landing point for the Allies on D-Day.

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.

Remains of an artificial harbor used during the invasion at Gold Beach, Normandy, France.

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.