From heroic effort to the pathos
of the broken dead, a child’s toy
abandoned in the road, is only
a single step into randomness.
Why this one, who leapt so fearless
in the surf, why was he
destroyed and swallowed in the
red tide, he and not the next
who followed and prevailed?
These men at once machine and
vulnerable flesh cut off
from life and love and being young
now lie in rows too numberless for thought -
no randomness allowed in this, the
garden of the lost. No laughter now,
no language to describe
the lives that made them friend or foe,
but the differentiated dead
are still beneath the plaque or cross
of those who held and those who came
and we now walk these quiet parks
and think upon the unlived years.
I am the child you never had,
my son, and weep a mother’s tears.
I wrote this in the garden of the Chatêau de Molay after our visit to Omaha Beach. The hideous futility of training, travelling halfway across the world from some deep Western state of America to die the moment the landing craft dropped its ramp - all that made a deep impression, as did the serried ranks of graves on the cliffs above the shore.
We spent our third day in France reliving the American experience on Omaha Beach. I felt I knew most of what happened there from endless re-runs of The Longest Day (shot on location: we saw photos of local involvement in the filming) and the more recent Saving Private Ryan, but nothing had prepared me for the sheer size of the cemetery that takes up the whole area on the cliffs where the German defences were sited above the main beach. There is something about the starkness of the white crosses rising straight out of the cropped grass, crosses that had name, rank and company as well as home state and date of death, that depersonalised the loss for me - no emblems, no age given for the dead, no flowerbeds around the graves. Instead, I was forcibly aware of the anonymity of these ranks - look at the lines, which flow straight in every direction - and the dedication that ensures that every single grave has this cropped grass round the foot of the cross (or Star of David: you can see one to the right of centre in the photo). There were clumps of heather round the pine trees grouped occasionally around the site, a multi-faith chapel that was too over-run by visitors to give me any sense of anything, and a Garden of the Missing where a 22-foot statue ‘The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves’ looks west over the headstones - over 9,000 graves, among which are the stones of 45 sets of brothers, and 1,557 missing in action.
But even more than among the graves, it was down on the beach that I felt the hopelessness of the task faced by these young men from halfway across the world as the ramps of their landing craft fell forward and they saw what they had to climb, under withering fire, if the invasion was to succeed.
good 15 minutes to climb back up. The area in between is now covered in shrubs that I imagine have been planted to deter wandering in this site, which is entirely given over as a memorial.
After a break for lunch had turned into a truly French affair (because some of us went looking for a crêperie and ordered galettes complètes and while this is fast food for one it isn't for 14), we visited another sobering site above the Pointe du Hoc, where the American Rangers had to climb the cliffs to reach the huge guns which actually for the most part faced inland because the Germans didn't think anyone would make that climb. The whole area was pitted with the holes from the shellfire from the Allied ships, and we were able to go inside the concrete gun emplacements and see the view made famous by a scene in The Longest Day when a German officer first saw the invasion on the horizon. We went from there to another iconic site, where an American paratrooper famously caught on the roof of the church in Ste Mere Eglise and hung there for hours pretending to be dead to avoid being shot. A museum stands on the site where on the fateful night a house was on fire, and - somewhat bizarrely - we could see from the town square the torn parachute and (model) paratrooper still hanging from the church roof.
That evening, like the previous one, was spent in raucous entertainment. The young staff of the Chateau flocked, like little moths, to the door of the room where this mob of ancients acted Allo Allo in execrable French accents and sang wartime favourites and French songs at the top of their still-unbelievably-loud voices to the accompaniment of a small keyboard pounded to great effect by Mr B.
As I've said on previous occasions, you really had to be there ...
Our first full day begins early. (We soon discover that this will be the norm throughout - brisk breakfasts and trotting toilettes). It is more or less dark when we get up, with that chilly, mist-laden dawn that characterises the early morning in France where mornings are earlier than they are in Scotland because they're not really far enough east to justify being an hour ahead. But I digress. We drive through misty fields with picturesque rolls of whatever crop it is they grow in these parts and find ourselves on the headland above the small town of Arromanches. This is where most of the British troops came ashore on D-Day, and where the Mulberry Harbour was built to allow equipment and supplies to be brought ashore. Several bits of the harbour remain visible in the sea as well as abandoned on the beach (above).
The visit takes on what will become a familiar pattern: an overview, a museum visit, extended free time to explore and ponder. I add to this the pressing need for coffee and insist that a small cafe across the road from the museum should be our first stop. There is something wonderfully sinful about lunching on an espresso, a bottle of water and a crêpe au caramel salé ...
Four of us, feeling relatively lithe and fit, set off through the town towards the headland. We pass several of our fellow-Fahrters eating substantially in various hostelries, but do not yield. We clamber on a concrete gun emplacement, we walk along a cliff path that is forbidden because of erosion. No-one falls off, and we return to the town for a small pichet of rosé before the coach drive to our next visit, noting as we go that several objects along the shop fronts are cosily wrapped in squares of ... knitting. I know. I don't get it either.
The remainder of the afternoon is spent visiting the German war graveyard at La Cambe. This site was developed between 1958 and 1961, with a great deal of work being done by an international youth camp in 1959. Now more than 21,000 German soldiers are buried here. I found it a sombre place; the graves are marked by flat dark basalt lava plaques about the size of an open book, and watched over by groups of low crosses in dark stone. We are so accustomed to seeing movies like The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan, where the German soldiers are anonymous figures to be killed or captured by the invading Allies; it is all too easy to forget the humanity of individual boys and men who fought in their thousands and died far from home. Albert Schweitzer said "the soldiers' graves are the greatest preachers of peace", and on the plinth below the heavy cross at the centre of the cemetery there is an inscription which ends with the words: Gott hat das letzte wort. This was one of the places where I felt an overwhelming need to be on my own, and I wandered far, looking at the stones where two or even three names were recorded together. Several were dedicated simply to Ein Deutscher Soldat.
The day ended not in pious reflection but in raucous singing of songs associated with the period of WW2. Several years ago, when we paid a similar visit to the battlefields of the Somme, I thought I would find this jarring, but realised that we were no different from the soldiers who would celebrate the fact that they were still alive by being ... themselves. The Château rang with the noise until well on in the evening and I was glad we were sleeping on the top floor. As I went to bed I could hear an owl among the trees outside and then it was silent. Another early start awaited us ...