Fathoming the Unfathomable

View atop a bunker

In traveling to Europe, I had thought that I would be better able to understand the extraordinary experiences that our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines went through to liberate Europe.  Seeing the battlefields, for example, would better allow me to see how people my age displayed unthinkable acts of heroism seventy-five years ago.  On the day that we traveled to Pointe du Hoc, the American Cemetery, and Omaha Beach, I learned that this would not be the case.  Although these sites showed me how large the scale of the battle was, this very same large scale consequently made it even more impossible to imagine the experiences of those in the war.  In short, the unfathomable became even more unfathomable.

Looking East on Omaha

Arriving at Pointe du Hoc, I was immediately awestruck by the torn landscape.  At this landing zone, which was situated between Omaha and Utah Beach, American Rangers scaled 200-foot cliffs with grappling hooks and ladders in order to capture gun emplacements that threatened the rest of the invasion forces.  The effects of a powerful Allied naval bombardment and air attack – the only beach to receive such accurate and devastating bombing in advance of the invasions – were still visible.  Dotting the bluffs above the steep cliffs were several shattered bunkers—“monuments” to the events that occurred there. They told the story, in part, without saying any words.  Standing on top of one of these bunkers, I could simply not imagine the American Rangers attacking the cliffs under fire and fighting within this hellish landscape.

The American Cemetery

Omaha Beach was just as awe-inspiring.  After we arrived at Dog Green Sector, the deadliest portion of the beach, I was shocked at how quickly the tide went out over the span of an hour due to how flat it was.  There were over 200 yards of beach from the water’s edge to a concrete wall, and with the tide being as quick as it was, it became clear to me how crucial timing was to the entire operation.  Along the wall and the hills were menacing bunkers angled just right to produce the maximum sector of fire across the beach.  Bearing in mind Ernie Pyle’s description of the colossal amounts of military equipment strewn across the beach a week after the invasion the entire time I walked along the beach, the same thought kept running through my mind:  How did they survive this?

The most memorable portion of the day was the American Cemetery where nearly 10,000 servicemen are interred.  In such a somber place, I was awestruck at how “alive” it was.  These men were laid to rest in a way that reminded me of a unit ready for an open-ranks inspection.  Walking along the graves and watching the rows pass between each other also produced an optical illusion reminiscent of the feet of a large formation of soldiers marching in step past an onlooker.  In seeing workers cleaning the marble tombstones, mowing the lawn, and sweeping the pathways, I was left with an indescribable gratitude at how these young men are taken care of, but this more than ever emphasized to me Ernie Pyle’s idea of the human cost of war.  In his articles about the invasion, he described seeing personal mementos strewn across the beach even weeks after the invasion.  These personal items, like family photos and letters, or even a tennis racket, belonged to men whose lives could have been extinguished forever.  These sons, brothers, and fathers will never slip into historical ambiguity; their efforts, no matter how unfathomable, will never be forgotten.

On that small plot of American soil overlooking the beaches of Normandy, they will forever stand in their final formation.


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.

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.

How Firm Thy Friendship

Driving through the countryside in Normandy, France, I was struck by the American flag’s omnipresence. Whether it be a corner creperie or a rustic homestead, the flag was invariably hung alongside a French flag for passersby to see. I was not sure whether this phenomenon represented an undying appreciation for the Allied liberation of Normandy nearly 75 years ago, or a pandering to the masses of American tourists who visit the city annually. However, an encounter with the mayor of St. Mere Eglise made me confident that gratitude for the Allied sacrifice in Normandy persists deeply among locals to this day.


Winding down the gravel roads, the WWII program bus eventually stopped in front of a tall, aging church. As we exited the bus we were met kindly by the mayor, who through translation welcomed us to the landmark. Inside the church Robert Wright, a 1934 Buckeye graduate had  set up an aid station during the war to save both Allied and German troops injured amid the battle of Normandy. As we walked between the pews, blood stains from the conflict 75 years ago remained unfaded. Pictures and excerpts dedicated to Wright’s service scattered the church walls, and a large gravestone dedicated in his name laid in the center of the cemetery outside. We planted a Buckeye flag next to the stone and stood in silence alongside the mayor to pay our respects. Afterward the mayor thanked us for visiting the site, stressing the importance of such visits to ensure contributions like Wright’s stay in memory. We soon left and waved adieu to our new friend and his family. Thanks to locals grateful for the sacrifices made in Normandy, stories like Wright’s live on, and the tragedies of the war, although devastating, feel less in vain.

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.


Cemeteries in Normandy

After our time in London, the trip took a more relaxed turn as we took the ferry across the channel to Normandy, France. Leaving the hustle and bustle of an international city for farmlands and quiet villages, we saw a slow down in tempo. This was apparent in our base city of Bayeux. A sleepy town, it could be easily fully explored in a day. Our six days in Normandy were comprised of day trips to different World War II sites. From Omaha Beach to Pegasus Bridge and Pont du Hoc, these sites brought to life both the importance and struggle of D-Day and Operation Overlord.


German cemetery, note the dark crosses

In terms of personal experience, none of the actual battle sites compared to the three cemeteries we saw. The American, British and German cemeteries all presented a harrowing look at both the human cost of the battle for Normandy as well as national remembrance of those lost. The German cemetery was by far the most interesting (to me at least) out of the three. Rows and rows of dark gray stones shaped like rudimentary Iron Crosses were the common features.They all surrounded a large monolithic dark grey cross on top of a small hill, flanked by similar colored statues of a bishop and a woman, heads bowed. The neoclassical Christian imagery was blatantly obvious.


American cemetery at Colleville su Mer. Easily the most famous out of the three cemeteries.

An aspect that was completely different than the British and American cemeteries was the information on the headstones. They only contained the soldier’s name, rank and date of birth. It seemed like this represented the collective shame of Germany following the war. These soldiers, many only 18/19 or 35-40, were demonstrative of an aggressive war caused by a genocidal regime. Obviously I’m not by any means AT ALL defending the actions of German soldiers, but many of those stationed in Normandy could simply be fighting for their country and not Nazi ideology. It might’ve been the weather (50 and rainy – Columbus weather in the spring) that amplified my experience, but the cemetery’s sense of muted shame that hit me the hardest.


British cemetery just outside of Bayeux.


The British and American cemeteries were obviously quite different, somewhat due to the idea that (sorry I’m not sorry for the cliché) history is written by the victors. Staggering in numbers, they were solemn and justified in appearance. Tall white crosses with name, age, and regiment for the Americans. Similarly for the British, the cemetery was comprised of white headstones with that information plus a small eulogy. The white crosses contrast heavily with those in the German cemetery, pure, clean and clear of mosses. It was clear these soldiers needed to be remembered and rightfully so for what they sacrificed against tyranny. As Eisenhower stated, they had embarked on “the Great Crusade,” and paid the ultimate price.

Up next, Paris, the City of Lights, which will be incredibly interesting. We’ve gotten a taste of what the French countryside holds, now we will see what the biggest city has in store.

Strolling through Bayeux

Coming to Bayeux has been one of the most intriguing, thought provoking, and worthwhile trips I have taken. This sleepy, French town is packed with citizens and tourist alike during the day and by 9 pm there is barely a soul in sight. I’ve dined on more baguettes and pastries than I ever have before (especially since I haven’t eaten anything with gluten in it in almost 2 years). I’ve eaten and enjoyed escargot, duck, chicken liver in an apple/calvados based sauce, real strips of bacon on a salad (attention America: let’s get behind this idea, no more bacon bits!), and SO MANY CREPES. Aside from the tourists who are obviously visiting to see the nearby WWII sights and souvenir shops, there’s no major evidence that the town had once been occupied by German soldiers and was liberated soon after D-Day. A few short bus rides from the town told a different story, though. At Pointe du Hoc, bomb craters and the remains of bunkers were strewn throughout the cliff. Evidence of one of the toughest objectives of D-Day was all around us. Of about 250 Rangers who took Pointe du Hoc, only 90 were able to fight again in the war.

A German bunker that survived D-Day at Pointe du Hoc

A German bunker that survived D-Day at Pointe du Hoc

Taylor and I standing in a bomb crater at Pointe Du Hoc

Taylor and I standing in a bomb crater at Pointe Du Hoc

The bombings didn’t stop after D-Day. One common theme that came up throughout the museums and films we saw was the French civilian suffering of allied bombing during the liberation of France. I unintentionally sparked a debate on the portrayal of French suffering after watching the short film “100 Days of Normandy” that was shown in Arromanches. While I did disagree with some of the others on a few small points, I felt that the majority of our disagreement was actually a misunderstanding of my criticism – especially since I was still chewing over all of the information I had taken in over the last few days. Wandering the streets of Bayeux on my last night here gave me the opportunity to really think on all of the information I’ve learned here in Normandy.

The French experience during WWII was unique. In 1940, France fell to Germany and the German occupation of France began, not ending until the liberation by Allied forces beginning on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The first indication I saw of a difference in the WWII narrative was in the Caen Memorial Museum. There was an entire section of the museum dedicated to French life during occupation and liberation. In this section, one panel addressed the question of Allied bombing of the French countryside. Strategic bombing of the French towns and railways were crucial to securing the defeat of Germany and had been approved by the French Resistance leader, Charles de Gaulle. The panel, part of which I’ve shown here in this blog, really took me by surprise when I first read it. It is extremely critical of the Allies and their methods of securing freedom for France. The text following the question “Why bomb Normandy’s towns?” did not explain the reasons behind the bombings; rather it seemed to be a question posed to the U.S. itself.

Why bomb Normandy's towns?

This panel, located in the Caen Memorial Museum, criticized the use of and effectiveness of Allied strategic bombings on the French countryside.

This sort of language appeared repeatedly throughout the various museums, but in my opinion, it appeared most strongly in “100 Days of Normandy.” There were many sequences of shots depicting allied bombing, then showing French women and children. Towns were destroyed. The French people were suffering. The destruction depicted in the film inflicted by the Allies, not the Germans. The Germans were shown surrendering, but all shots of bombardment were from the Allies. In my interpretation of this film (because there can be more than one), I believe the director was once again asking the question: “Why bomb Normandy’s towns?” When I was asked my opinion of the film, I responded that it left a bad taste in my mouth, which received some backlash from nearly everyone else. I tried to explain (unfortunately with a poor choice of words) that I believed the film presented a skewed view of WWII. The best way to explain this belief, I think, is to look at the U.S. narrative of WWII.

In the U.S., we aren’t taught about the suffering and bombing of the French people. Before spring semester, I had been completely unaware of the magnitude of French civilian casualties of the war. I knew that there had been some strategic bombing, but I was never fully aware of the implications it had on civilian life and death. Even then, it is difficult to imagine through reading the damage that can be inflicted by bombings. It wasn’t until I was standing in a 71-year-old bomb crater that I even began to fathom the destruction that was inflicted on the French countryside. The American narrative in the European Theater only has one theme: liberation. We were always taught that the U.S. was essentially savior of the French and all other countries under German occupation. This narrative focuses on national pride and gives the American people cause to believe in our country’s leadership and aims. There’s so much more to WWII, though! By promoting national pride, we’ve completely ignored the suffering we caused.

Now, let’s look again at the French narrative. How can a country bounce back from falling to Germany in less than two weeks? From collaboration with the Nazi regime? From needing to be liberated? The focus on elements that will bring them together – national pride. All of the museums highlighted the role the French Resistance played in the success of D-Day operations and the liberation of France (to an extent that almost seemed to exaggerate its role). They memorialized the citizens they lost. The entire country came together to remember these people and to rebuild instead of focusing on the German occupation. By ignoring and trying to forget the occupation, the necessity of Allied bombing comes into question. Thousands of French civilians were killed by Allied bombing – not German bombs. There is no doubt in the American narrative that the bombing was necessary to end the war, but in France, the bombings are called in to question and the Allies are criticized.

With all of this said, I will still say that the film left a bad taste in my mouth. It’s the same taste that is left when I (now) read American history books that exclude the French perspective. My time in Normandy has allowed me to really contemplate the true issue: the fine line between promoting national pride and distorting complete historical picture. To me, both the U.S. and France have crossed that line and contributed to misconceptions about the war. I believe 100% that it is important to remember the French civilian casualties caused by the American bombings, but I also believe it is important to remember why the bombings were necessary and the contributions they made to the war effort in shortening the war and reducing overall casualties.  The experiences I’ve had here in Normandy have truly opened my eyes to a new facet of the war – one that I could never have even comprehended before coming here.

Sleepy Villages Hold Dark Memories

Today Normandy is a beautiful quiet and quant countryside with sleepy little villages. It is quite the contrast from the bustling streets of London. It is hard to imagine the destruction that was levied here nearly 70 years ago. Pictures and movies like Saving Private Ryan seem not only from another time, but also a completely different world.  Omaha beach, in particular, was an area of intense fighting for the Americans unlike the relative ease of Utah beach to the west. However, my experience between them was vastly different. The emotion that ran through me as I looked out at Utah Beach into the English Channel was intense. I did not realize that the 4th Infantry Division, a division that has a long history and whom I served with during the Iraq War had been the first to fight to secure the Utah beachhead.  With all of the monuments and the museum it felt like a solemn place. I thought about the young men who gave their lives on June 6, 1944, and I couldn’t help but think of my own friends who gave the ultimate sacrifice in the Iraq War. Even though it was solemn for me, it felt appropriately beautiful and peaceful.

In contrast, Omaha beach, the bloodiest conflict for the Allies on D-Day felt very different. Today there stands a monument and sculpture to the Americans who gave their lives on the beach, but it is far from what Ernie Pyle describe as a “shoreline museum of carnage.” Perhaps, I was expecting more, but besides the monuments and a few bunkers there are hardly any remnants of the intense battle fought there. Instead, it has become a resort town, where many people come to vacation and play on the beach. I still can’t decide whether it’s appropriate or disrespectful to the thousands who gave their lives on those beaches. After all, they fought for each other, not necessarily to liberate France or end Fascism.

Near Omaha Beach is the American Military Cemetery. It is a display of youthful vibrancy and perhaps arrogance.  It really is a beautiful cemetery, at least the part that we were allowed to walk on by the powers that be. It was strange that in a place so grand, the graves were so simple. A Christian Cross or Jewish Star of David stood to denote the religion of the fallen. Inscribed on each was the rank and name of the individual, the unit in which they served, their date of death, and the state from which they entered service. In contrast the British cemetery felt so much less grand, but so much more personal. In addition to the information the Americans had, the British put the age of the fallen and the option of a quote from the family. One of the most touching to me was of a 27-year-old British soldier that read: “He gave the greatest gift of all, his own unfinished life.” The scale of World War II forces us to talk in terms of abstract numbers, and as result it dehumanizes the conflict. But here in Bayeux lies Private E.W. Burlington, age 27, and his fellow soldiers and sailors whose stories we know nothing about. May they rest in peace and may we never forget their memory as people in a terrible conflict.

The Gray Area

We went to Utah Beach yesterday. I’d really been looking forward it, mostly because it was to be my first actual contact with the invasion beaches that I’ve spent my whole life hearing about. Just after we arrived, though, something stole my attention away from the beach. Near the little path that leads to the beach, there was a monument to the US 90th Infantry Division, which came in through Utah on the night of June 6th to reinforce the first waves of the invasion.

My great uncle, Abe Greenberg, fought with the 90th in Normandy. He was a replacement, so he didn’t join the division until a week or so after the initial landings. But he, like the other members of the 90th, came through Utah Beach. And he, like many other members of the 90th, was killed in action. He died during intense shelling on July 26th, 1944, his 19th birthday.

Abe is my namesake (my middle name is Abraham). A little before I was due to be born, my grandmother, Abe’s older sister, came across a few of the letters he’d sent home while he was with the army. Even from the tiny amount of material they had, my parents could tell just how bright, funny, and caring he was. So they named me after him, as a tribute to how wonderful a man he seemed to be.

Abe is my link to WWII. I’ve always loved to explore history, but ever since I was old enough to understand Abe’s story, I’ve felt a kind of special connection to the history of the War. I never knew Abe, but I love him. Every time I read his letters, I’m in awe of how he was constantly out to soothe the minds of his family, even if he was going through the kind of hell that no 18-year-old should ever have to. No anything-year-old should have to, for that matter.

In any case, Abe is why I’m on this trip. I want to learn more about where he was and what he did, sure, but I want to honor him. I want to do him proud in the only way I really know how, which is to jump headfirst into every learning opportunity I get (especially ones that involve a little time abroad).

All of these thoughts flooded my brain when I bumped into the monument yesterday morning. Somehow, through all my research on Abe and his unit, I’d never come across this monument. It completely took me by surprise, and I was so excited/proud/sad/sentimental when I saw it that I had to take a few minutes to sit there and let my emotions go a bit berserk.

A little later on, we went to the German war cemetery at La Cambe. I really enjoyed the way the cemetery was laid out. Nothing was showy or ornate. The graves were simple, dark, and somber. There didn’t seem to be any political or ideological agenda. It was just a simple memorial to the fact that these people, regardless of their background or ideas, fought and died for something.

But I couldn’t help but remember that these were the guys who killed my uncle Abe. I didn’t feel angry exactly, but I didn’t feel at peace either. I was trying to feel for Abe and for the German soldiers all at the same time, and I couldn’t come to any sort of neat conclusion about what to think.

To me, things like this capture how much of a gray area war is. Even in conflicts as seemingly “good vs. bad” as WWII, it seems to me that no one side is entirely good or entirely bad. I love my uncle Abe, and I know his death caused my grandma and her family indescribable pain. But it’d be ignorant of me to say that Germans didn’t sacrifice as well.

I didn’t come out of Utah and La Cambe with some idealistic notion that we’re all fundamentally good and that we should all just forgive and forget. The opposite, really. I think the ideas behind Nazi Germany were fundamentally evil. And, at the end of the day, it was German soldiers who took my uncle Abe away from his family. Regardless, I think today solidified my understanding of how confusing and ambiguous war is.

It seems that the more I learn about the War, the less I know what to think about the people involved in it. It’d be easy to say that we were the good guys and they were the bad guys, but I think masking the War’s complexities prevents us from understanding it. What I do know is that Abe has an amazing story, and that today helped me feel closer to him. I’m looking forward to soaking up the rest of Normandy (probably in a whirlwind of emotions), and, if all goes well, to making Abe proud.


Gone but Never Forgotten


I was most excited to see Normandy when I found out I would be going on this trip. In respect to the military history of WWII, Normandy is extremely important especially to us Americans. I was looking forward to seeing the remnants of the Atlantic wall and I was just generally ecstatic about seeing and experiencing all that we had learned about.
Our accommodations in Bayeux were here and there. I quite liked the hotel we stayed in even though they kept moving us around. The town itself was very nice and full of history. We even visited the Bayeux Tapestry which was a very detailed account of William the Conqueror’s rise to the throne of England.
I think what I was most excited to see in Normandy were the beaches at Utah and Omaha. However I have to admit I was a little underwhelmed by what I saw at te beaches. Firstly it was high tide at both places and so we didn’t get the full effect of seeing just how far the soldiers had to go to get off the beaches. Also I was expecting there to still be some remnants of the war there. I was looking forward to seeing large bluffs and huge bunkers overlooking the waters. Instead there were no bunkers and only smaller hills by the beaches. I don’t mean to say that I don’t think the beaches were formidable but I wish there was still enough there to give visitors a feel for what it would have been like.
What I was most surprised by was Point Du Hoc. I was expecting a small outcropping to be what we would find. However when we got there the area was much larger than I imagined and it was pot marked by enormous craters from bombs and naval artillery shells. The landscape was also dotted with German bunkers and gun emplacements left exactly has they had been at the end of the war. It was an amazing site and I enjoyed climbing around the ruins and finding more and more of the German complex that was there. Also this helped me to get a better feel for the nightmare of a battlefield Point Du Hoc would have been during the war.
The museum that we visited in Caen was a great WWII museum. Something different about French museums is that they are very heavy on the reading. There is much to be read at each exhibit and I have to say I didn’t mind. Each part of the museum told stories from WWII that I hadn’t even known. Another cool thing that they had was actual weapons from the war. I have seen a good many of the weapons used in the war before but this museum had some I had never seen. These included weapons such as the mp-40 and the German mini tank that acted as a remote controlled bomb car.
When I think WWII I tend to think of everything being very condensed such as it is in the movies and games. What was a constant theme for my visits to the sites of the war was the sheer size of the battlefield. What people don’t realize is that the countryside, beaches, and towns that played host to the war are much larger than one can imagine. The beaches for example are extremely wide and the town of Saint Mere Eglise is a lot bigger than I thought. The square for example is open and devoid of cover and paratroopers landed right in the middle of it. When I saw that I wasn’t surprised that many of them didn’t make it.

The eyes of the world are upon you

It is almost the end of our stay in Bayeux, France and soon we will be heading east to Paris. We have seen an incredible number of museums and monuments in the last few days, and the experience has been truly amazing. I was struck most by the differences in the remembrance of the dead by the Germans, Americans, and British. We toured cemeteries for each country and discovered that they were not what we had expected at all.

Our first visit was to the German cemetery in La Cambe. The place was incredibly solemn and somber with black crosses and a large hill topped by huge statues of the Virgin Mary and Joseph. The headstones were a reminder that the group of individuals called upon to defend the Norman coast consisted of teenage Hitler Youth and men over the age of thirty. I was fascinated to walk through the grounds and read the names of the fallen enemy. I also appreciated the air of reconciliation and the plea for peace that seemed to surround the place.

The second cemetery we visited was the American Cemetery at Coleville. This was probably the most disappointing part of Normandy for me, personally. We had to go through security to enter the grounds, which included emptying our pockets and going through a metal detector. We finally got to the cemetery and wanted to start the rose laying ceremony for the 13 Buckeyes buried on the grounds, but ran into some trouble. The section A was roped off and we were unable to lay the roses on the actual grave site. I was very disappointed by the policies of the superintendent and the inflexibility that was shown to us. The entire cemetery had an air of arrogance that I did not think did justice to those buried there.

The British cemetery was the biggest surprise of the trip thus far. The entire grounds were so serene and so moving that I felt as though I could walk through for hours, reading the various headstones. The messages from loved ones were so sincere and so sweet and a few almost moved me to tears. I felt especially touched at one headstone of a soldier whose wife wrote him a brief, but sweet message about how she had lost the love of her life and father of their daughter. The whole atmosphere was conducive to reflection and remembrance. The British cemetery was absolutely beautiful and my favorite of the three we visited.

The willingness of the British to allow German and Italian soldiers to be buried alongside their own, as well as the willingness of the French to give the Germans a burial site for their dead speaks volumes of the importance of reconciliation. Every exhibit we saw in France stressed the importance of peace for the future and disgust for war. The simplicity and beauty of the British cemetery was deeply moving and allowed me to look into the lives of the men who made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom. Touring these sites has been very eye opening in my understanding of how the European continent has dealt with their losses during and after the Great War.


Memorializing at Normandy

Honoring the fallen and memorializing events is a crucial way to educate people about the past, remember what has happened, and provide closure to those in need. When I walked through the arch that led to the German cemetery, La Cambe, I was overwhelmed by the flatness, uniformity and lack of love in this place. I don’t know what I expected, but this plot of land did not live up to my expectations in the slightest. The land was covered in small headstones laid flat on the ground, scattered with groupings of five, rough stone crosses and had a large hill with three of the same stone crosses at the top. The cemetery is where those who fought for their country lay to rest, yet there were no signs of gratitude, appreciation or honor for these soldiers. The Germans were the enemy at Normandy, and it is clear that they were buried as such. I understand and am acknowledging that the German troops as a whole were responsible for the loss of so many Allied lives, yet these soldiers were people, too. I had a hard time walking around that cemetery; the whole time I was in distress. While WWII was a battle between the Allies and the Axis powers, it is unfair to say that every German soldier was evil and driven by a Nazi ideology that does not deserve a memorial.

kayblog german

The American cemetery at Coleville sur Mer, on the other hand, is grandiose and showy. There is a museum to explore prior to entry that outlined the events leading up to and during D-Day. As I walked into the cemetery, with the Star Spangled Banner playing from speakers planted in the beautiful flower beds around me, I saw a beautiful memorial to the soldiers. There was a stunning display of names of Americans who lost their lives on D-Day on a wall that framed a showy statue. On either side, there were large maps on marble detailing the events of the day and of the invasion. Finally, well-groomed trees framed a large reflecting pool leading guests to the burial grounds.  There were six plots of land with rows of headstones arranged neatly; everything was well-labeled and the place was easy to navigate. We arrived at the cemetery with a bouquet of thirteen roses, the number of Buckeyes who gave their life during WWII and were buried at the American cemetery. Each student was given information about one of the Buckeye 13 that we then individually shared with the group as we laid our rose at the soldier’s grave, commemorating their service. Their tombstones displayed their name, rank, involvement in the military and dates of life and death. Uniformity is a theme throughout the American cemetery, from the perfectly straight rows to the similar headstones, it is clear that while the cemetery pays homage to the fallen, equal respect is given to all. And yet, this place felt impersonal, stark and cold, as if the American military was a machine of some sort.

kayblog american

The British Cemetery was absolutely touching. When I walked in, I was initially underwhelmed, seeing rows of headstones just like the previous cemeteries I had seen. It appeared to be just another burial ground, until I began wandering around. There were beautiful flower beds at the foot of each headstone and scattered around the grounds. This place was truly a memorial to those whose lives were lost during the Second World War. Within its groomed-hedge walls, there were people from all over the world buried there. This ground was a memorial to British, American, Canadian, German, Italian, Czech, Soviet, Australian and Polish people.  The cemetery was the most beautiful place I’ve visited on the trip so far. Far more moving than the beaches of Normandy, it was so clearly filled with love, appreciation, sorrow, mourning, and gratitude. Many of the tombstones carried personal messages from family and loved ones to their lost soldiers; one read “will some kindly hand in that far land place a flower of love for me – Connie.” Many were signed “Mam and Pap” and included phrases about how they were appreciative and regret not being there to say goodbye to their brave child. Hearing statistics in class about death rates during the war meant nothing to me, I could not grasp how much devastation came as a result of total war. Walking around the British cemetery, I was reminded that the fallen were not only soldiers but neighbors, friends, children.

kayblog british

The Meaning of War

I’ve never really liked military history. This is sort of strange for me to admit since I am a history major and I’m currently studying World War II. Yet, it is how I’ve always felt. Guns, military tactics, logistics, they’re all just concepts that I can’t really grasp because I like to focus more on people when I think about history. Therefore, I was a little bit skeptical that Bayeux would be a memorable place for me. It’s a charming little town in Northern France, and a lot of history took place in the surrounding areas.  But would it be all that interesting since the Normandy campaign is mostly just military history?

Staying in Bayeux, however, and visiting the beaches where the Americans landed and successfully carried out Operation Overlord was an incredible experience. I never realized the impact it would have on me until I actually saw the places where so many young men fought and lost their lives. In addition, visiting the German, American, and British cemeteries proved enlightening, showing me that social and cultural historians are needed to interpret the wars that young men, and in some cases women, die for.

While visiting Utah, the sea was calm, the sky blue and sunny. It’s hard to imagine that just almost 70 years ago this beach was covered with bloody men and filled with the sounds of gunfire, screams, and shouts from commanding officers. There was a museum located at Utah beach that carried many artifacts belonging to soldiers from World War II, including letters from soldiers to wives and girlfriends to boyfriends stationed overseas. Most of the men who died during the Normandy campaign were just boys, and reading these letters puts their sacrifice into perspective and allows me to understand how much they were giving up and what their loved ones were losing as well. Omaha, similarly, was the same calm seas and blue skies. There wasn’t as much to see since the town seemingly moved up to the shore, and it’s as if life had never been interrupted. It’s almost hard to believe that a major military invasion took place there, and that Omaha proved to be one of the bloodiest and most difficult beaches for the Americans to take.

The French had the unique ability to remember the war in an authentic way, because the majority of the fighting took place here. They don’t need alluring museums with fancy movies (although we’ve seen a lot of those) to make an impression on the public. The history is in the earth. It’s in the giant craters and bunkers we found when we visited Pointe du Hoc. It’s in the oceans and the beaches that seem so serene now, but eerily give us glimpses of the past through remaining bits and pieces of barbed wire and the occasional bunker found during low tide. It’s in the cemeteries, where so many bodies of young men are buried leaving behind the sinking feeling that all war is a little bit absurd, no matter how good or just the cause for fighting once was.

Ultimately my point here is this: Cultural and social history has a place in this war story, because war isn’t just about the military tactics, panzer divisions, and mulberry ports.  It’s also about the people, the soldiers who made these events happen and lost their lives as a result of ideological claims, whether or not individual soldiers sympathized with them. It’s about the mothers and fathers who buried their children, and the family members that to this day visit the graves of loved ones lost. And lastly it’s about the impact of war on society as a whole and the small ways in which we can remember and hold on to a past that should never and can never be forgotten.

Me, standing in a crater left over from the bombing during WWII at Pointe du Hoc

Me, standing in a crater left over from the bombing during WWII at Pointe du Hoc



Bayeux:William the Conqueror and D-Day

​One amazing sight in the French city of Bayeux, in Normandy, is the Bayeux Tapestry. Hundreds of knights on horseback, animals both real and mythical, sailing ships and woody forests, along with Latin inscriptions, march along this remarkably detailed embroidery of colored wool to depict scenes from the Norman Invasion of 1066. It shows William the Conqueror’s reasons for going to war, the preparations made for the crossing, and the Battle of Hastings in 1066 from a Norman perspective. The inspiration for the tapestry was likely Bishop Odo of Bayeux, William’s half-brother, who ordered the tapestry to celebrate both the Norman invasion of England and the completion of Odo’s cathedral. In addition to the historical details of war, the tapestry includes borders lined with scenes from Aesop’s Fables such as the fox and the crow. Scholars have debated the meaning of these scenes, and some suggest that the British embroiderers expressed their protest of Norman rule by including these stories of deceit and theft on the tapestry.
During the Middle Ages, the Normans ruled Bayeux because of the raids of their Viking ancestors. According to the Tapestry, Duke William was the official successor to Edward the Confessor, since Edward had no heirs and had spent 30 years in exile in Normandy. Harold Godwinson, Edward’s brother-in-law, broke his oath to Duke William, motivated by a lust for power and a desire to protect his kingdom from Norman domination. Regardless, Duke William invaded England and defeated Harold at Hastings after he was shot in the eye by an arrow. French became the language of the court, and Norman nobility became the new land- owning aristocracy of England. This important event changed the relationship between France and England forever.
Harold Godwinson shot in the eye-Battle of Hastingsimageimage
Normandy’s coast has been the site of many battles. Almost 900 years after 1066, on June 6,1944, the D-Day invasion brought Allied troops to these shores. Though the coastal towns endured heavy bombardment, Bayeux was amazingly spared from extensive damage. British troops and their American allies had come to liberate France. Just as the Bayeux Tapestry is a reminder of the wars of the Medieval era, Arromanches, part of the temporary ports that the English set up at Gold Beach after gaining a beachhead, is a reminder of the terrible sacrifice of the Allies who died in regaining French territory. Part of this mulberry harbor can still be seen in the ocean. Apparently, this logistical operation, like much of D-Day, was incredibly chaotic. Critical supplies were left aboard ships for many hours because of misplaced manifests, and supplies were brought on shore randomly.
Remains of Mulberry Harbor at ArromanchesArromanches HarborOriginal Mulberry Harbor
Caen, a major city and center of regional railroad networks, suffered the worst bombing. The Caen Memorial Museum documents the history of WWII through the end of the Cold War. Here there is further visual evidence of the suffering of the French people through four years of German occupation. While the French did not experience the bombing or mass casualties of the Russians on the Eastern Front, the country was still a broken nation. German authorities forced the French to work in their factories and ordered rationing on mass scale. Although Charles de Gaulle put forth the “myth of the resistance,” the claim that all French people, actively or passively, were involved in resistance against the Germans, the museum shows both collaborationists’ and resistance members’ arguments concerning German occupation.
Petain shaking hands with Adolf HtlerCharles De Gaulle on BBC Radio address to the French People
As an American, I am both humbled and proud to visit the American Cemetery that honors the sacrifice of American soldiers who were killed on D-Day and subsequently in the invasion of the continent. Almost 10,000 servicemen of the Army, Army-Air Corps, and Navy died. I walked solemnly through this cemetery, where our study group placed 13 flowers on Buckeye (Ohio State) graves. These members of our OSU family served their nation and the world at a moment when terror reigned. I found out that President Theodore Roosevelt’s son is buried there as well. He was the only general to lead the invasion of Utah Beach on the beach itself during the invasion.
imageimageAmerican Cemetery
Today, we can watch grainy newsreels of the Allies as they approached the beaches of Normandy under heavy fire from the German artillery that was dug in along the Norman shore and share the fear of those who leap from the boats onto the sand. Perhaps we have similar emotions as those who passed along the Bayeux Tapestry, watching the Battle of Hastings unfold in colored thread. Battles across the centuries keep our attention. Bayeux and the beaches of France hold the reminders of so many lives cut short as nations struggle for power.

“Peace Lad, You Played the Game”

Many of the men who were buried in the cemeteries we visited were killed here at Omaha Beach.

Many of the men who were buried in the cemeteries we visited were killed here at Omaha Beach.  

During our time in Normandy, we had the opportunity to visit the German, American, and British Cemeteries, which became the final resting place of the thousands of soldiers who lost their lives in the fierce fighting for the region in 1944. Our first stop after Utah Beach was the German Cemetery. In the center, a single, solemn hill with a large stone cross overlooks the gravestones. The gravestones are small, flat, and dark. Each offers the names of multiple soldiers interned at the site. The small cemetery offers little information of the soldiers besides their name and date of death. Its simplicity offers somberness. Men old enough to be my father and boys years younger than myself rest under my feet. I am moved by this thought. They were our enemies. But they too were human.

            The next day, we walked the grounds of the American Cemetery overlooking the English Channel and Omaha Beach. As we laid roses at each of the thirteen Buckeyes who lost their lives in the Normandy campaign and were laid to rest in the cemetery here, I pause to stop at several graves. Reading a name, rank, and date of death does not give much information on the individual soldier, yet each time I look up from the headstone, I look beyond the Cross or Star of David and see row after row of graves. The numbers are overwhelming.  Here I get my first understanding of how many U.S. servicemen gave their lives. The numbers we studied in class become more than numbers—they become individuals. Despite this feeling, I found it difficult to understand the story of each individual grave. Thousands of white Crosses blended together. Eventually, they all seemed the same.

It wasn’t until I visited the British Cemetery the next day that I felt a personal connection and understanding of the thousands of men buried at these military sites. Walking along the rows of headstones, I read the names engraved on each marble stone. The face of the marker bore the insignia of the soldier’s unit, his rank, the date of death, an optional religious sign, and a short quote chosen by a loved one from home. Through these quotes, I really felt that a personal touch was added to the remembrance of those who sacrificed.

While psalms, poems, and one-line obituaries adorned the majority of headstones, one quote stood out to me. It read: “Peace Lad, You Played the Game.” I stopped walking and thought about what this game could be. It occurred to me that nations had gone to war, but men had lost their lives. Individuals had paid the greatest price in this supposed game of nations. The British Cemetery, to me, honored and respected the individuals who perished in special ways. The German and U.S. cemeteries had seemed uniform and impersonal in contrast.

Furthermore, many German and some Polish, African, Soviet, Czech, and Arabic soldiers were buried at the British Cemetery. This served to remind me of the widespread impact World War Two had, and how much death it brought. Seeing such foreign, especially German, headstones intermixed with British, Canadian, and Irish gravestones was surprising. My mind wandered once again to the “You Played the Game” epitaph. Each of these young men was forced to play a deadly game. Perhaps they were similar to each other. Perhaps they might have been friends. Perhaps they had a family. Many were fathers. All were sons.

Visiting the cemeteries demonstrated that all these men were individuals to me. In class, we read books and remember numbers of casualties in specific battles; however, until we walk the rows of the dead, we cannot fathom the true cost of the war.

I gave my site report on the sands at Utah Beach.

I gave my site report on the sands at Utah Beach.