Honouring the dead of Normandy
07.04.2013 - 07.04.2013 10 °C
Today was Sunday. Although not religious individuals, we honoured the day as one of quiet contemplation and allowed our bodies and our minds to rest a little - this holidaying is a hell of a strain you know! That does not mean that we did nothing - it just means that we did it more quietly and at a slower pace.
This morning was definitely at slow motion. I didn't sleep as well as I have been and was awake on and off from 0430. Hugh thinks it was pre-game nerves. What game? Well Collingwood were playing Carlton today and for the first time in 20 something years I wasn't there in person to see it. For those of you who wonder what I'm talking about, this is Australian Rules football. Collingwood are my team and the team that others love to hate and Carlton are the team that we hate the most. It's a rivalry akin to Liverpool and Everton or Manchester United and the other team. 83,000 were at the Melbourne Cricket Ground this afternoon to see it - I wasn't. I was, however, listening via web radio to the match coverage and cheering into my coffee and singing the song over my croissant as my team came from behind to win. And then on with the day. Hugh kindly went to the boulangerie and brought home croissants for a lazy breakfast and under a thin sunny sky we went out to explore some more of this remarkable coast.
First of all today we went to the German cemetery which is just up the road. It's a very human and personal affair and the names and ages on the markers leave a lump in your throat. To see that many of the boys there were barely 20 and some had not yet turned 18 was heartbreaking. Along with them lay men in their 40s and 50s - too old to be dying in a young man's game. There is a sense of isolation about the place and you feel for these men lying in unfriendly soil. So many graves were marked simply as "Ein Deutsche Soldier" - so sad, so lost. There is no sense of the welcome inclusiveness of Attaturk's speech to the Australian, New Zealand and British dead at Gallipoli:
“Heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives! You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”
No sense that these were young men doing their job because they had no choice. It was a priveledge to honour them albeit briefly and clumsily and to shed tears at their loss and at the reminder that the only inevitability of war is that young (and old) men will die.
From the German cemetery it was a short trip but a lifetime away in experience to Omaha Beach. It was slightly bizarre walking on the beach itself and trying to imagine what it was like to enter it at dawn on a June morning with people shooting at you. It was even more daunting when we looked beyond the beach and saw the size of the dunes that had to breached that day - nothing really prepares you for it.
After following the beach, we visited the American cemetery. You've all seen it in Saving Private Ryan and it's an incredibly moving and powerful place. It is however slightly jarring. Everywhere else along the coast - every memorial and museum - has been welcoming, peaceful and respectful. At the entrance to the cemetery however we struck a security check that was worse than the airport and it jarred. What has gone wrong when the victors of 1945 feel so threatened that everyone is treated as a potential threat? It was a wonderful display and beautifully done. Inside is a reminder of the human cost of war. There is one particularly stunning display which is tucked away before you go out to the cemetery. There are three walls of rusted steel with a sky light above. In the display case is a bed of large grey pebbles and in the middle is an upturned rifle with fixed bayonet stuck into the ground, with a soldier's helmet on the sitting on the rifle butt. This bit is chilling. Then you through a short tunnel and a female voice is reading out the names off each dead soldier. You hear names as your get close and then about four or five as you walk through. You get the feeling that the voice is going to go on for ever and never repeat a name.
We should try to be kinder to and more understanding of each other.
We finished the day wandering through Grandcamp Maisy and remembering that this was a town that was largely blown away on D-Day. There is a small American Rangers museum which was, again, exceptionally personal and evocative.
Tonight we had dinner in a restaurant on the rebuilt wharf and watched fishing boats go in and out as they have been for centuries. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
I love Normande and will leave here with the greatest of reluctance. We should all come here to remember what we owe so many and to glory in what we saved.