“Not a day passes on over this earth but men and women of no great note do great deeds, speak great words, and suffer noble sorrows.” – Charles Reade, The Cloister and the Hearth
Last week I took a very necessary break from blogging for the sake of my mental health. Though my husband, daughter and I, along with our entire family, are thankfully healthy, this COVID-19 business has been more than a little trying on my emotions. I think it would be a different story if I wasn’t a new mom (although I know it is difficult for nearly everyone for wildly different reasons) but being separated from our extended family while still adjusting to parenthood, well, let me tell you it has not been easy. They are our support system, our replacement rockers, our “take a breather and some time for just the two of you” superheroes. We are making sure to take turns soothing our little daughter but sometimes having a third party come in and take a shift can be the most rejuvenating gift. Our strategy while self-isolation is the name of the game is just to take it one day at a time and to allow ourselves to choose how we spend each day based on what we need most each moment – no to-do lists or goals set in stone. Last week, I needed to just relax and read as much as possible, so that is what I did. I hope, dear reader, that you’ll forgive me.
So. Back to France.
After having traipsed around Brittany a fair bit, Dad and I bid adieu to our lovely B&B and drove on over the Breton/Norman border into Normandy-proper.
The war memorials were almost immediately more prevalent as this was where so much of the fighting in the summer of ’44 happened – the landscape itself still bears many of the scars.
What we also started to see a lot more of were memorials with Canadian or British flags, still on display as a thank you to their long-gone-but-not-forgotten liberators. It seemed like no town or village had lapsed in their gratitude for the soldiers who freed them from Nazi domination. It was both beautiful and heartbreaking to see this remembrance so prominent everywhere. It exemplified perfectly one of the overarching themes of this trip: immense beauty in heartbreak.
We had a few places on our “to see” list on the way to Bayeux, notably the Suisse Normande, but one of my favourite sites of the morning was yet another one discovered completely by accident.
While driving in search of some random little village I had input into the GPS in order to fins the Rock of Oëtre (the most famous lookout in the Suisse Normande), Dad noticed a tiny little sign on the side of the road pointing the way to an old abbey. By this point, we’d grown rather adept in noticing the brown signs of all shapes and sizes that denote a place of historical importance. Being in no hurry, we decided to follow this particular sign and see if we could find the Abbey in question.
It actually didn’t end up being too hard to do so and, before long, we were stepping out of the car again to walk around these enormous crumbling ruins of what must have once been a spectacular abbey.
I think the most interesting part of the abbey’s story is that it didn’t fall into disrepair due to age but rather was destroyed by revolutionaries during and after the French Revolution. Republicans from the surrounding countryside then set about pillaging the site for rocks and stone – leading to quite the booming business in stolen building materials. Part of the revolutionary Black Market, if you will.
Due to this, not much remains of the original abbey now, damn revolutionaries and their destructive natures, but it was beautiful nonetheless…if in an incomplete way. I found it a fascinating exercise to try and imagine what the abbey might have looked like in its heyday – something I’ve long been in the habit of doing whenever I find myself somewhere where the history is unclear or obscure (which is most places, if you really think about it).
On one of the ruins, there was a curious little shrine to Mary set up, thanking her for keeping watch over the region, even during WWII (apparently they were left relatively unscathed). It seems that, paradoxically, in the ruins of a thousand-year-old church untouched by the long arm of the second world war, we found more memories of that conflict than of the one which actually saw the destruction of the place.
Speaking of memories of the war…again…on the way back to our route to the Suisse Normande, we found a plaque by a church in a small village nearby which paid tribute to the local villagers who had protected 30 Jewish children between 1942 and 1945 – definitely at great risk to their own lives. How incredible is that. In the midst of so much widespread carnage, you call still find humanity.
After this sobering moment (there were to be many of those this day), and following a few missed turns, we finally found our way to the sought-after lookout point in the Suisse Normande. The drive there alone was well worth it. Long, winding roads open to cavernous valleys on one side and covered with a canopy of gold, red and orange decked-trees which marched ever upwards on the other, Dad and I just looked at everything with our mouths hanging open. I didn’t even have the presence of mind to take photos (surprise, surprise).
The lookout itself was also spectacular – a huge drop with no guardrails whatsoever. Being me, I made a point (a la Pointe…ha!) to crawl up to the knife edge of the cliff on my belly and took a look over into the valley below. My journal entry notes that I was shaking violently, unsurprisingly, but I remember it being well worth it to see the bubbling river snaking through the forest below. It was stunning.
After a quick lunch of fresh omelettes and cider for dad, coffee (what else?) for me, we headed out again towards Caen – our big stop for the day.
Before we could get there, though, another two wonderful (if heartbreaking) serendipitous moments were to come followed by one of the hardest experiences of the entire trip.
The first was in a small village, the name of which I don’t even recall. Here there was a memorial to a Regina regiment thanking them for liberating the village in question. With the Canadian and French flags above caught high in the afternoon breeze…it was a sight that brought many a tear to my eyes.
The next, though not Canadian, was a memorial to “the victims of Nazi brutality”, though there were only 6 names on the plaque. Some were French, others were British, and one was identified as an American paratrooper. There wasn’t much of an explanation but I wondered if the non-French might be allied paratroopers or reconnaissance troops who, arriving before D-Day, were hidden by the French and later discovered by the Nazis leading to their own execution as well as those of their local saviours. The dates of death were, if I recall, 1941 so way before D-Day itself. I wouldn’t even know where to start in terms of finding the story behind it. It really was in the middle of nowhere.
Once we got on the highway between Falaise and Caen, it didn’t take us long to find the first of two large Canadian cemeteries. This one was Bretteville-sur-Laize and held almost 3000 Canadian graves – most of whom fell in the weeks of fighting to secure Caen and then to obtain the Falaise gap.
Though we had seen so many small memorials and countless “morts pour la France” plaques by this point, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the sight of so many crosses row-on-row. So many. It’s almost indescribably, but I will try.
Even as we were just taking the road of remembrance from the nearby village to the cemetery, I felt my heart sink. It was so far out into the fields. I knew how many graves there were, having read the pamphlet, but realizing just how big it had to be to accommodate so many remains was something entirely different.
As the Canadian flag waved proudly in the wind, we stopped outside the entrance to the cemetery at the grave of Gérard Doré, officially the youngest soldier lost during the Battle of Normandy. He was 16 when he was killed at Vernières ridge during operation Spring. I have no idea how this young boy from Val-Jalbert Québec even managed to find his way into the army, but I wish he hadn’t. So young to be so cruelly blown from this earth.
If that wasn’t enough to set me off, I properly lost it once we entered the cemetery itself…so many lives lost, so many so young. And for what? Why did any of this happen? Because some asshole and his like-minded cronies decided they knew which lives were worth something and which weren’t? It makes my blood boil.
Dad and I didn’t talk. We just walked around alone and in silence. I cried the entire time. So many names, so many men whose families would never see them again in this life. How many were killed instantly, how many suffered? Were they afraid? Did they regret joining the fight? What were they thinking right before they died? I tried to think each and every one but there were just too many of them. Some as young as 18 or 19. I’m sure I found one 15-year-old.
It rained almost the entire time we were there but this didn’t faze us in the least. We stayed until we couldn’t take it anymore, and then we left in silence. What was there to say?
We only really started talking again once we had basically reached Caen and talk was necessary for navigational purposes. At least it got us talking though. Eased a bit of the sorrow.
I think I’ll leave this one here, I’m sorry for leaving you all on such a dour note. It’s only that writing about these experiences…the waves of emotions come crashing back into my mind and I need to pace the recollections out, especially considering the current situation. I’ll be back again next week to continue the story.
But I hope that one positive thing you might take out of this post, and the inspiration for the quote I chose to begin it, is that even now millions of people of apparently no great note are doing great deeds even in a time filled with sorrow. There is so much good in humanity, there always has been, and it is the good we should continue to focus on. It will get us through.
Until then, remember, even in self-isolation…life, is beautiful.