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 ...