The Beaches: Part Two

I felt pleasantly detached from reality, as though I were walking a foot or so off the ground.”

Diana Gabaldon, Drums of Autumn

And here we are again, a month or so after the last post returning to the beaches of Normandy. Now that I am re-reading my travel diary from this trip, I think this might be a four-part as opposed to three-part post. I want to devote all of Part Three to Juno beach, being Canadian.

But, for now, Part Two!

Our first stop on on tour of the beaches proper was Sword. Before heading down to the beach, we stopped in the adjacent small town’s church.

As I wandered through its cool interior, I couldn’t help but wonder how many men may have stopped in here on D-Day for refuge from all the fighting and death outside. Catholic or not (and more than likely not), it may have offered them some small comfort and peace after the horrors only just witnessed.

The cool dark of the church (Photo: Erin of the Hills)

The list of French fallen during World War One (I refuse to refer to it as “The Great War”) was inside the church on the wall – as it often is. Outside was the commemoration of all those lost during World War Two. What was most striking was not only the long list of civilian casualties from both wars but also the names of a few who had been killed in 1919 – after the war was over.

I didn’t even have to guess at how they had died – it said so in stone: Killed by Mines. And so war continues to destroy lives even after the guns have been silenced and the treaties have all be signed. When will we learn?

We continued on until we found the water – being the English Channel of course. Funny enough, there wasn’t much to see at first, especially in comparison to all the rather obvious commemorations we had seen so far. Just an expansive beach complete with boardwalks and strolling couples, lined with shacks selling seafood and ice cream as well as coastal bars and casinos.

A real holiday feel.

What the now-pleasant beaches would have looked like to the incoming British Troops (Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-493-3363-13 / Siedel / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

It was hard to imagine the landing of thousands of men who would have had to fight their way street-by-street through the tiny town now so peaceful and calm.

It wasn’t until we had driven for a bit along the narrow coastal road that we found the commemoration for the Brits who landed there in June of 1944.

We stopped to read the messaged of thanks and hope and to take it all in. It was truly a peaceful place, bathed in the salty breeze of the sea. It was also here where we learned that one of the casinos I had scoffed at was in fact one of the first buildings retaken by the Brits after they had landed – definitely gave me a different perspective on the place.

I was particularly moved by the lifelike statue they had of Highland Piper Bill Millin who, as tradition dictated, piped the boys into battle on June 6th, 1944 as they came ashore. I looked him up afterwards, curious if he had managed to survive the carnage of that day and the rest of the war.

Statue of Piper Bill Millin (Photo: Erin of the Hills)

Sword beach being one of the British targets, I was surprised to learn that Millin was not in fact British! Well, Commonwealth sure, but not British. He was actually from Regina, Saskatchewan and was only 21-years-old when he was ordered to play his fellow soldiers ashore on D-Day.

random historical fact #20

Pipers had actually been banned from the frontlines by the time the Second World War rolled around due to the amount of pipers killed during the First World War. And no wonder, they were essentially unarmed and carrying heavy bagpipes; talk about easy targets. Not to mention the enemy knew they provided moral to their troops – one more reason to take them down quickly. Private Bill Millin, however, was ordered to pipe ashore by his superior, Brigadier Simon Fraser (15th Lord Lovat). Though Millin was Lord Lovat’s personal piper, he initially declined the order to pipe ashore on D-Day, reminding his superior officer that the practice was no longer allowed. Lovat’s response? “Ah, but that’s the English War Office. You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.” This insubordination of the part of Lord Lovat would likely save Millin’s life.

He was armed with only a traditional Scottish dirk and his pipes, and was the only soldier in full Scottish regalia, including the kilt with nothing underneath. He must have been frozen.

Against all odds, he waded through the waves and marched onto the beach – his comrades falling all around him, including one shot dead right beside him. He would later learn from former German snipers that the only reason he wasn’t shot was because they though he had gone completely mad – they took pity on him and spared his life.

He would survive World War Two, even the assault on Pegasus Bridge, and didn’t actually pass away until 2010. Lord Lovat also survived the way, dying in 1965. This statue was erected in 2013 with the help of his son, John.

Another memorial to the allied soldiers (Photo: Erin of the Hills)

Just thinking of what he must have gone through psychologically and physically – it gives me shivers. And this is only one of the thousands of extraordinary stories from that dark day. A light that pierces the shadow death.

This is the story that led to the Gabaldon quote which started this post resonating with me. I can only imagine that Millin must have felt completely detached, if not pleasantly so, from reality. How else could he have continued to put one foot in front of the other in the face of almost certain death?

Fair warning, the next post will be extra emotional, Juno hit me hard.

Until then, even with the dark subject matter of these posts, remember.

Life is Beautiful

xo Erin

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