I spent this past weekend in Normandy with all of the Boston College students studying abroad in Paris this semester. It came at a perfect time because it was the weekend between the end of my intensive French class and the start of my classes at La Sorbonne.
We left very early on Saturday and arrived in Normandy by 10:30 am- just in time for our guided visit to the Caen War Memorial where we learned more about what was happening during World War II prior to the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
After eating lunch at the museum, we headed to the beautiful beaches of Asnelles. We were supposed to go sand yachting, but there was not enough wind, so instead some of us went on mini speedboats while others went on kayaks. On one of the beaches nearby, we noticed crowds of people with rakes in their hands. We docked our boat near the beach and approached what turned out to be a memorial in honor of the International Day of Peace. 9,000 people died on D-Day, so to represent this loss, the people on the beach were raking out the outlines of 9,000 bodies into the sand during low tide. The woman we spoke to said that once the tide changes, the outlines of the 9,000 bodies will wash away just as fast as the men died on D-Day. She let us take a stencil and rake out the outline of one of the bodies in the sand to contribute to the effort.
We tried to prolong our day at the beach for as long as possible and savor the last precious moments of summer.
On Sunday, we spent the entire day with a guide touring the D-Day Beaches, including Arromanche, Port Winston, Batterie de Longues sur Mer, Omaha Beach, and Point du Hac.
We were also able to visit both the German and the American cemetery. What struck me most about the German cemetery was that there were two names for each tombstone- a total of 21,000 graves. As we were walking throughout the cemetery, I glanced at the birth dates of the soldiers. Some were just barely 18 or 19. At the center of the memorial is a large hill flanked by two statues and topped by a large dark cross to mark the resting place of 207 unknown and 89 unidentified German soldiers in a mass grave. The sign in the front of the cemetery reads: “it is a graveyard for soldiers not all of whom had chosen either the cause or the fight. They too have found rest in our soil of France.”
The American cemetery looks completely different from the German one. Interestingly enough, the American cemetery is United States territory (so in the same day, we technically traveled from France to the United States and back to France!). This is the first American cemetery on European soil in World War II and contains 9,387 graves. There are also 1,557 names inscribed on a circular colonnade of those who died on D-Day but could not be found and are “known only to God.”
There is a semicircular colonnade with a large bronze statue in the middle entitled, “The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.” The large reflecting pool extends all the way out to two granite statues representing both the United States and France. Together, the architecture and the layout of the memorial along with the spectacular views of the English Channel produced a calming and sobering effect as we walked around the memorial.
When I returned home from Normandy on Sunday night, I did a bit of reading about D-Day online because I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had just seen. I came across a speech that Ronald Reagan gave at Point du Hac- the very point where I had just been standing a mere hours earlier- on the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasions. It is a captivating speech, considered by many historians as one of the greatest speeches in modern history. I have included an excerpt here, which I felt was particularly touching:
“You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet, you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief; it was loyalty and love.
The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all of humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge- and pray God we have not lost it- that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.
You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.”