I haven't cried yet, but I cried today. We traveled to St. Lo, nicknamed "rubble" by the American soldiers that arrived after the bombardment on June 6th. Most of the town was destroyed, and the village was the front of a major battle by the 29th Regiment. It was overwhelming walking through the town graveyard, not only the headquarters for the regiment during the battle, but the burial grounds for the hundreds of civilians who died on June 6th alone. The headquarters was in the crypt of a family mausoleum because it was one of the few remaining structures, defended from behind by artillery on a hill, and relatively secure given the underground cavern. On the outside you can see where the left arm of the cross was blown off.
Wandering through the cemetery, any grave dated pre-WWII was covered with a barrage of dents from bullet and mortar shells.
That was merely the overture to processing the impact of this one bombardment. We wound toward the back of the cemetery, and stood in front of the stones commemorating the graves of the civilians who died during the first day of Operation Overlord. Obviously many more died in subsequent days, but those graves were disguised by being marked like normal graves, only notable by the date, 1944. These graves in St. Lo were a small part of the 20,000 Norman civilians who died-- collateral damage in the war. Many graves were labeled unknown, and upon close examination, it was clear that often entire families would be buried together.
Our guide, local historian and Frenchman, Antonin Dehays, has interviewed many Normans who survived the invasion. He said that nearly everyone in Normandy knew at least one person who died. When asked how they felt about the Allied bombardment, most expressed that they understood that it was just a sacrifice that had to be made for their freedom. Dehays great uncle died working in a field during the bombardment on D-Day. He was 21. His brother, Dehays grandfather, was right next to him. He told us that one man in Normandy was killed in the rubble of the building he was hiding in. We suffocated to death. Before he died he was able to carve into the debris, "Long live the Allies!" En francaise, "Vive les Allies!"
German graves were "maintained" by French civilians during the years after the war... In other words, they were overgrown, and barely marked. It wasn't until 1951 that Germans were allowed into France to care for the dead.
When the Germans came, they developed the Marigny and La Combre cemeteries. Graves had limited markings, and typically two soldiers were buried together-- a stark contrast to American, British, and Canadian graves. Dehays explained that this treatment of German graves represented a post war German perspective on the war. Graves are laid flat and anniversary speeches do not honor these men as soldiers, but as civilians caught up in propaganda. Erect graves are intended mirror a standing soldier. The German missing and unknown are not commemorated.
Walking through the German cemetery, I was overwhelmed by the multitudinous graves from one of the endless conflicts in this war. The landscape of this whole region is littered with cemeteries. When will humanity learn from history?
We drove a distance from Marginy to a church near where 506 parachute infantry regiment of the 101st Airborne division landed. Germans had set their guns in the direction of the landing, so it was catastrophic. Two medics, Robert Wright and Kenneth Moore survived and set up a Red Cross camp inside the church, saving German and Allied soldiers alike. Despite their Red Cross signs on the door, the Germans sent mortars into the church scaring the floor and blowing out the medieval stain class windows. That glass is now replaced, and in parts replaced to honor the legacy of the medics and the American and French alliance. Robert Wrights ashes are buried at the church. He died in 2013.
We made a pit stop in St. Marie du Mont. The church there was incredible. Built in the 16th century, the building honors years of local history. On D-Day, two Germans were firing artillery and were eventually surrounded. They hid in the confessionals. Upon entering the church, the Americans heard a sneeze and turned their machine guns on the box. The holes are still there.