The city of Bayeux is an anomaly in France. It was one of the first places to be liberated during the battle of Normandy, so it still has the majority of its older buildings intact, unlike nearby Caen and Saint Lo, which were leveled during the months after D-Day in 1944, and because it is used as a jumping off point to visit Omaha, Utah, Juno, Sword, and Gold beaches, it attracts many British, American, and Canadian tourists so almost everybody speaks English to some degree.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, and the town is very busy with visitors and in anticipation of the flood of dignitaries that are due to arrive on June 6th to mark the occasion. There were many American, Canadian, and British flags flying alongside of the French ones in every corner of the city, and signs saying “Welcome to our liberators” and “70 years of peace” and “Official D-Day store”.
I had hired a car to take me to some of the memorial sites and cemeteries to pay my respects.
It’s hard to stand among the graves in Bény Sur Mer and not be affected by them.
The perfectly straight grave markers on the meticulously kept grounds stare back at you announcing the names, ages, ranks, and units of the fallen. So many young men from the Winnipeg Rifles fell on D-Day and during the months following at the battle of Caen. So many were in their early twenties with some as young as nineteen. I found the marker for Gunner Charles Patrick O’Connor, 23 years old, from my mother’s side, and plant a small Canadian flag, and then do the same for Private John Patrick O’Connor, also 23. I’m old enough to be their fathers.
Then it was on to the Juno Beach Centre,
a non-profit museum run by the Canadian government. A very tasteful facility that recounts Canada’s part in World War Two, with interactive exhibits including one that I thought was showing how small France was…
… but then I thought about it, and it was showing how big Canada is.
The museum has kept some of the German pillboxes intact,
and when you stand at the water on Juno Beach, and look up at the concrete bunkers, it’s rather intimidating. I can’t imagine the terror that must have gone through those young men as they crossed the 50 yards of sand.
I went on to Omaha beach, and finished at the Battle of Normandy museum in Bayeux.
I think about the coming 70th anniversary of the landings, and how few people are left that lived through it, that remember the war. The generation of children being born today will probably never meet or know anyone who lived during the 40s, so these monuments have to stand as reminders of what the world went through and to never let it happen again…
Parts of the Bayeux Tapestry was surely meant for that purpose at one time too. An account of the horror of war during the Norman invasion of England, with severed bodies littering the margins depicting the Battle of Hastings at the end of the tapestry. But today, it is more of a curiosity than anything. I hope that the Battle of Normandy doesn’t turn into one too.