Saturday, May 15, 2010

Dates in History

Certain dates in history, just by their very mention, conjure up unforgettable images and dramatic stories. Two of these happen to collide in the town of Bayeux in Normandy, just a couple of hours by train from Paris. We spent last weekend there, immersing ourselves in the following dates, which are separated by almost a thousand years: 1066 and 1944.

Bayeux itself is a charming medieval town with excellent restaurants and hotels, and a stunning Norman-Gothic cathedral that rises, almost protectively, above the town. Dating back to 1077, its flying buttresses, bell turrets, naves, arches and stained glass windows all speak of an era when it seems such churches and cathedrals were springing up all over Europe.

Along with all this Christian grandeur, there are also delightful winding streets, several water wheels, still in operation...

...and small ateliers where this young man has come to learn how to make the beautiful lace, for which Bayeux is also well known.

The biggest attraction, though, is that jewel of Romanesque art, the Bayeux Tapestry, housed today in an 18th century building in the center of town. As every English schoolchild knows from the earliest of ages, this tapestry and its date, 1066, depicts the rise of Duke William of Normandy, and the fall of the Saxon, Harold, at the Battle of Hastings.

As you slowly move past the 58 detailed scenes, embroidered in colored wool on a piece of linen, and displayed in one long horizontal line almost like a cartoon strip, the story unfolds with such amazing clarity and detail that you find yourself gripped by the dramatic course of events:

Of how the King of England, Edward the Confessor, having no children, designated his cousin, William of Normandy, to succeed him to the throne. Of how he sent Harold, much beloved by the Saxon nobles, and with his own aspirations to the throne, to Normandy to deliver the news. Of how Harold took an oath on holy relics and a bible, and swore to William that he would not stand in his way. And then, of course, of how, when Edward died, Harold betrayed his oath and had himself crowned King of England.

William promptly assembled a huge fleet, set sail for England, defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings, and earned for himself the name, William the Conqueror. It was the last conquest suffered by England, and as if to send a message that the Normans were there for good, William ordered all his boats to be destroyed once they landed in Sussex. There would be no going back!

Along with all the gory details of the battle -- ending when Harold took an arrow in the eye, dying on the battlefield -- the tapestry also provides a vivid picture of 11th century life: the foods people ate, the clothes they wore, their domestic animals, how they built their houses, their boats, fashioned their weapons, rode their horses. All of this can be read and experienced as you make your way past the 203 foot long, 19 inches high linen document.

Flashing forward almost a thousand years, and you find yourself face to face with the other date that resonates in Bayeux: June 6, 1944, D-Day, the beginning of the end of WWII with the landing of American, British and Commonwealth troops on the beaches of Normandy. We signed up for an all-day tour of the American beaches -- Omaha and Utah -- and towns and cemeteries associated with the American effort. This particular Operation Overlord tour began and ended in Bayeux, which, by some miracle, escaped bombardment, and was the first town to be liberated by the Allies.

No more bows and arrows or chain mail. Instead, the Allied soldiers found themselves facing Hitler's famous Atlantic Wall -- a series of concrete bunkers that stretched all the way from northern Norway to the Spanish border. Inside the bunkers, huge "long tom" guns capable of reaching targets up to 15 miles away, pointed out to sea. This surviving one stands above Omaha Beach. Despite its crumbling rusty condition, it still managed to be a chilling reminder.

Part of a small band of 8 participants, all American and every one of us shivering, we braved the unseasonably freezing temperatures to hang on to every word our guide, Stéphane, uttered. (I was very glad I had brought along my 30 year-old Grannie Slater woolly hat!)

A passionate student of military history, Stéphane knew every last detail of the planning and execution of the landings, and every anecdote about all the major and some of the minor characters, on both sides of the conflict. Over the years, he has made an effort to meet many surviving veterans, American, English, Canadian, German, etc. in order to collect their personal stories. His bulky folder held maps, charts, photos, diagrams, letters, newspaper articles. The narrative he wove kept us all spellbound the entire day.

Invasion planning had begun over a year earlier, the Allies learning much from the North African and Italian campaigns. Aerial photography, pinpointed the landing sites in Normandy, although decoy plans were leaked to the enemy, suggesting an invasion in Norway or the Pas de Calais. Military intelligence revealed that although Hitler suspected Normandy would be the site, he was persuaded by his generals that the landings would be at Calais -- a much shorter crossing from England.

Standing on these beaches today -- empty, windswept, tranquil -- it was hard to imagine the chaos and scope of an invasion of this magnitude, even having seen both The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan. The timing had to be precise -- a full moon, and between low and high tides were vital in order to be able to pinpoint and avoid the barricades the Germans had laid along the beaches. At high tide, they would have been invisible, splintering the landing craft and spilling the troops into the English Channel.

Despite the extraordinarily detailed planning and the accompanying, continual aerial bombardments, so much went wrong that it all came close to being a disaster. At Omaha Beach, for example, the strong ocean currents caused the landing craft to veer way off their target landing spots. Troops struggled to get to their right coordinates and it was only with extra reinforcements and efforts of incredible bravery, that a foothold on the beach was established, at an appalling cost of life.

The Utah Beach landings went more smoothly, if one can use such a word for a deadly military operation. And at Pointe du Hoc, with the German defences poised to strike out on both sides of the point, I was struck by two things in particular. First, this bullet-ridden bunker, incongruously still standing in the parking lot...

...and then a quotation from Franklin Roosevelt, carved along the side of this lookout spot above the beach. It ends with "I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees."

It was below the Pointe du Hoc that Stéphane told, perhaps, his most vivid story, that of the assault of the cliffs by the Rangers. The plan was to shoot up ropes to the top of these cliffs to gain access to the top and destroy the German guns that aerial intelligence had shown to be there. However, during the landing, heavy waves spilled over the landing craft, soaking the ropes and making them too heavy to shoot up. Instead, the Rangers scrambled and clawed their way through a gap, and hand over hand, made it to the top, only to discover that the "guns" were actually telephone poles shrouded with camouflage. The real guns, set up further inland, let loose their cannons.

Meanwhile, behind enemy lines, another major part of the invasion was in full deployment -- thousands of paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions parachuted through the night skies onto French soil.

One poor fellow got his parachute caught up on the side of the church in the town of Sainte-Mère-Église. He hung there, feigning death, as the battle raged beneath him in the streets of this small town, which today hosts an amazing museum dedicated to the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. Veterans from this elite American group still maintain contact with families here. Today, a mannequin records the drama of that church ordeal!

Again, it is hard to imagine today how this seemingly unimportant, peaceful, pastoral landscape was once the center of some of the fiercest fighting for control of the narrow bridge you see here. Many of the paratroopers missed their mark, due to fog and winds, landing in the dark in the marshes near this bridge, some of them perilously trapped in their chutes, and in danger of drowning. A local farmer and his young daughter bravely went out in the dark and rescued many, allowing the troops to prevail.

A lovely stained glass window in a local church is dedicated to the members of the 82nd & 101st Airborne Divisions.

As fascinated and moved as we were by everything Stéphane told us, nothing prepared us for the impact of walking through the American Cemetery at Colville-St.-Laurent. Here, above the Omaha Beaches, lie 9386 American soldiers, four of them women, a fraction of the total number of lives lost, because American families were given the choice of repatriating their loved ones back to America for burial in military cemeteries throughout the States.

But, nevertheless, here at Colville-St.-Laurent you will find the melting pot that is America.

Row after row of white crosses, interspersed with Stars of David, stretch to the horizon. Alongside familiar American names are Italian names, Jewish names, Polish, Hispanic, Scandinavian, German names...

...and some whose name, as the tomb says, are known only to God.

Each tomb represents its own story, mostly unknown to others. A few narratives have survived: The two brothers, whose death formed the basis of Saving Private Ryan and whose real name is Niland, are buried here. Two other brothers from the 29th Infantry Division, the Hoback brothers, fell on the same day. One of the earliest groups to land on the beaches, the entire division was almost lost in the first ten minutes. Bradford Hoback died outright, his brother Raymond was severely wounded, dying within minutes of Bradford. With the chaos of the landings, and the strong currents, Raymond's body was washed away at sea. His name is recorded here on the wall of the "missing."

As we looked out over the English Channel, we couldn't help thinking that in spite of the span of the 1000 years between the Battle of Hastings and the Normandy Landings, the human tendency to wage war has not diminished one bit; rather, alas, it continues unabated.

And this was just the American Cemetery. There are Canadian and at least 16 British cemeteries in Normandy. It has always been a tradition, and considered an honor, for a British soldier to lie where he fell, giving context to Rupert Brooke's WWI poem The Soldier, written as he was deployed to the front:

If I should die

Think only this of me
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.

À bientôt!


  1. What a historical journey that must have been. I can remember the picture of the tapestry of the Battle of Hastings in the class room at St. Nicolas.
    Such a grey day for remembering wars.
    Glad Granny Slater was with you.

  2. That was a wonderfull blog Aunti Janet - so moving and touching xx

  3. What a riveting and thought-provoking trip! J, you are such a wonderful storyteller! I'm so grateful for these blogs and as I muse on these stories I can almost pretend I'm sitting with you at #334 in the window seat having a cup of tea! xoox