Thursday, 2 July 2015

Remembering the War Dead in Normandy

Imagine the US Rangers who scaled the cliffs as the Germans shot at them
This morning we were the first tour group to arrive at the museum to see the famous Bayeux tapestry.

A lively recounting of history in the Bayeux tapestry
When I was in high school I learned about it, but didn't quite understand the significance of it until I finally saw it up close. The museum has a fantastic audio guide that gave a lively narration about what was happening in each scene.

The tapestry is 68.3 metres long, 50cm high with 58 scenes in it embroidered on linen using wool thread that was dyed using natural ingredients -- woad, madder and weld.

The scenes basically recount the story of William the Conqueror's rise to power. In 1064, King Edward the Confessor had no heirs and ordered Harold Godwinson, earl of Essex and the most powerful noble in England and William's brother-in-law, to tell William (then the duke of Normandy) that he would be the next king.

Edward made Harold pledge that he would be William's subject when the latter became king. However, when Edward died, Harold went back on his word and challenged William for the throne.

Delicious-looking produce at the farmers' market
The tapestry shows the preparation for battle very interesting, with master craftsman chopping trees down, and they are made into planks to build ships. They give an insight into ship archeology at the time.

Then the battle scenes are shown and there are lots soldiers in chain mail armour riding on horses, charging towards Harold's army that don't seem as prepared. There's lots of bloodshed -- though there isn't actual blood depicted, there are lots of corpses on the ground, some beheaded, and broken weapons.

Halley's comet is also embroidered into the tapestry, like a giant star with a large tail trailing behind it, and is seen as an ominous sign that Harold will fall in defeat.

Some of the over 9,000 grave stones in the cemetery
Some believe the tapestry is pro-Norman, presenting William as a good king compared to Harold. William also had a tough time getting control of his subjects, particularly in England, though he did implement some good initiatives like the use of currency, French instead of Latin, and built the Tower of London.

However, he also compiled the Doomsday Book, where he had an inventory of all the lands the crown owned in England as a means for taxation. A copy of the book was presented to Bayeux when Prince Charles and Princess Diana visited in 1987.

A reflective memorial for the dead
The tapestry had had its own colourful history. In the Middle Ages it was stored in Bayeux cathedral, which was burned down twice. Then in 1792 the tapestry was used as a tarpaulin to cover a load of weapons leaving Bayeux for Paris. Luckily a captain saved it and put it in his office for safe keeping.

But then in 1794 the tapestry was almost cut into pieces and was instead protected. In the 19th century, several pieces and threads disappeared; one fragment was returned from England and no one knows how it ended up there.

At lunchtime we visited Sainte Mere Eglise, where there is a church where an American paratrooper parachuted and landed on the church steeple, but was caught by the Germans.

In front of the church is a small square and we were lucky to be there when a farmers' market was set up. Stands sold cooked food, or fresh vegetables and fruits, cheese, calvados and cider, and even seafood.

The graceful statue at the US memorial
After lunch it was all about D-Day, June 6, 1944.

At Pointe du Hoc, we saw the cliffs where American soldiers had the task of scaling the cliffs in the hopes of confiscating artillery the Germans had there. We saw footage of them climbing up mobile ladders, and once one soldier was shot by the Germans, another US soldier climbed up.

There were 225 of them, only 90 made it up to the top. And when they did, they found out the Germans had already moved everything out of the area -- that their mission was for nothing.

We saw the bunkers the Germans had, and some of the ones dug out of the ground have grass grown over and now they are managed by a herd of lambs who live out there as natural grass cutters.

Then we went to Omaha, where over 9,000 American soldiers are buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

A statue of the Canadian soldiers at Juno Beach
It is managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission and the property is beautiful, sad, serene and patriotic. Seeing the thousands of white marble crosses is overwhelming, and they are complemented with a thoughtful memorial, complete with a a 22-foot high statue, "The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves".

Most poignant was the film tracing the lives of five soldiers who died from the invasion, how they were brimming with enthusiasm, and some felt it was their duty to serve their country. Others didn't seem to give the impression they knew they would be close to death -- or they at least didn't want their family to know that.

Looking out at Juno Beach where the soldiers landed
Our tour didn't go to Juno, where 359 Canadian soldiers died landing on the beach on D-Day as part of the Allied forces, but a few of us arranged a taxi to get there. At first we visited Gold, where British soldiers landed on the beach there, and then we went to Juno.

There is a small museum called Juno Beach Centre, and we arrived just as the place closed for the day. It obviously paled in comparison to the American memorial; at the Canadian one there were several strange-looking kiosks where blue plaques had the names and positions of people who died. Some of the others were sponsored by Canadian cities and provinces, as many were given by donation.

Nevertheless, the memorial was low-key -- isn't that Canadian? And we went down to the beach for a few pictures and I picked up a few shells as souvenirs.

A quiet memorial in front of the beach
Although we came a day after Canada Day, it was a poignant way to remember those who sacrificed their lives (45,000 during World War II) for us to live in peace today.

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