Just out back from our gîte there was a British cemetery and memorial with graves from both World Wars and several continents. We saw signs for British cemeteries all throughout the region.
We devoted the next day to the D-Day landing beaches in Normandy, and the museum in Bayeux. It was a long drive, and it took us through a very smelly section of Le Havre. The trade off was a trip up and down their nifty bridge.
From there we drove on to the battery of big German guns aimed out toward the sea at Longues-sur-Mer between Omaha and Gold beaches. Thinking about being a German guy in either the command/observation bunker or the manning a gun itself was terrifying. You knew sooner or later you’d wake up to a big problem approaching from the North. June 6th must have been no picnic for them, either.
We were running out of time to visit the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, but we got there with enough time to take in the size of the grounds. It reminded me very much of the military cemetery where my grandfather was buried last year, and it felt strange to be in such an obviously American place so far away from the United States. We noticed that visiting crowds of Europeans seemed relaxed among the thousands of graves neatly laid out in rows. We also noticed that as groups of Americans young and old approached the graves, they grew quite solemn. Anywhere else in Europe, you can hear them approaching at a hundred yards. We laughed, in spite of ourselves, when we heard a somewhat older gentlemen sneeze with gusto, and our reflexive response was “Gesundheit!” Not sure anyone else would have found that amusing.
Another part of that confusing mix of emotion might be the preparation for the 70th anniversary ceremonies this week. In fact, the whole region seemed to be getting ready. While we were stocking up our cooler with Camembert, Comté, and Poiré, we couldn’t help but notice the American-themed 70th anniversary of D-Day napkins, beer mugs, coasters, and similar prominently displayed. I guess we were pretty glad to be in the area a week before the festivities got under way.
Later on in our week, following up on a tip from Pam, who answered our plea for ideas, we sought out the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial, operated by the Canadian government. It was about an hour away, using mostly little bitty cute, tree-lined roads — the best kind for driving around in France.
We found the rotating staff of Canadians just as perky and welcoming as the stereotypes would have you believe. We just missed a free guided tour but decided to arm ourselves with the map and accompanying text and walk the route around the site of a disastrous battle for the Allies ourselves.
It was a sombre visit all around; the weather threatened to cave in on us constantly and it was not hard at all to imagine the dread the soldiers in trenches must have felt. The indoor exhibits about the Newfoundland troops made our walk around the battlefield very personal.