The Beaches: Finale

We do not always remember the things that do no credit to us. We justify them, cover them in bright lies or with the thick dust of forgetfulness.

Neil Gaiman, American Gods

And now we have come, at last, to my final post about our tour of the Normandy Beaches. The fifth in the series. It has been a long road! Not only was this trip all the way back in 2015 (6 years?!) but I wrote my first post about the DDay beaches back in March of this year.

After spending so much time combing through these memories, and getting lost in the subsequent waves of heavy emotions, it’s kind of strange to be leaving this place yet again.

However, there is more death and destruction to come since my Dad and I ended our trip with a stay in The Somme…thanks for sticking around, dear reader, as I attempt to make sense of these experiences. As they happened so long ago, I figured I was far enough removed to write about them without emotional consequence. Boy was I wrong.

I do hope these posts on the Dday landings and their aftermath have not been as hard to read as they were to write. And if they were, while I apologize, I hope they helped reinforce how pointless war is. The cause may be just (depending on who you ask), but is the method ever so? I’m not so sure.

So, without further ado, let’s see this series to the end. Shall we?

You’ll remember, perhaps, that the fourth installment ended with Dad and I spending 3 hours in the Juno Beach museum and leaving it pensively distraught.

On the way to the next beach therefore (Gold – British), we talked a little about what we had seen but honestly neither of us was really in the mood to talk. We were just trying to process everything – which was quite a lot. As a result, we were both perfectly comfortable with driving the short distance in companionable silence, even if the peace of this was tainted a little by our overwhelming sadness and disbelief.

At Gold Beach, we basically drove until we found the memorial and then walked along the beach itself for a bit. Again, not in the mood to talk we didn’t stay long. The sadness of that place becomes suffocating when it is not held at least a little at bay by interesting conversation. The fact that this was yet another place where men were slaughtered was all to palpable. And we still had two more to go.

This beach, however, did lead us to visit something other than the 5 landing points themselves. In our typical fashion, we followed our curiosity to a site close by which, while no less sad, at least offered something interesting enough to explore that we could distance ourselves from the more difficult facts of the area’s World War Two history for a few minutes.

Above the beach on a high ridge stood the German batteries at Longues-sur-Mer. Or, I should clarify, what remained of them. It was from Gold beach that the allied soldiers stormed this line of German stationary artillery, defensive machinery which the Germans thought to be invincible. Thankfully, at least from the allied point of view, they were proven wrong.

I gotta say…this does look largely impenetrable when well defended. (Photo: Erin of the Hills)

The batteries themselves, the first of which had been blown largely to bits by allied navy, were haunting to say the least. But it was the ones which had remained mostly intact that fascinated me the most. I couldn’t help but wonder how the German soldiers felt when they saw the allies advancing in overwhelming numbers, knowing their own guns were almost if not completely out-of-commission. Did they realize immediately that there was nothing do? Did they give up easily and surrender? Or did they desperately fight to the death, hoping against hope for reinforcements?

They may have been seen as the enemy, and be portrayed as such almost exclusively in subsequent history books and popular culture (at least in my part of the world) but they were just regular men, after all. Much like ours. Regardless of their side in the war, it still breaks my heart to imagine them so alone and afraid, facing almost certain death.

Some of them were just kids…

Random Historical Fact #23

It was in one of the German batteries facing Omaha Beach that the so-called Beast of Omaha inflicted untold casualties on the advancing American soldiers. Heinrich Severloh was only 20-years-old at the time, and an unwilling soldier at best, but when the D-Day landings commenced his mind turned to survival. At any cost. On the morning of the American landing at Omaha, Severloh was ordered by his commander to fire continuously until he ran out of ammo. He was also advised to aim for the soldiers when they were still waist-deep in water and therefore could not move as quickly – the better to inflict as many casualties as possible. Seeing the wave upon wave of American servicemen leaping from their landing craft and wading towards the beach, Severloh would numbly follow these orders, shooting for 9 hours straight before eventually being captured alive after a combined 14000 rounds (or more) had been fired from his machine gun and rifle combined. He would later speak of this, his longest day, with immense remorse remembering the possibly thousands of soldiers he mowed down without so much of a second thought. If this isn’t proof of the insanity of war, I don’t know what is.

We walked around up there for a while, looking at each hun close-up, trying to figure out how they would have worked. Here, Dad was much more intuitive than me. I know next to nothing about weaponry and this doesn’t bother me at all.

Such ruin and destruction. For what? (Photo: Erin of the Hills)

Next, we stopped very briefly at Omaha beach, enough for me to take a picture and set foot on it. The interpretation centre was closed and, again, both my emotions and nerves were rather shot at this point.

This did, however, lead us on another off course adventure to a place related to the beaches without actually being one of them.

This was Pointe-du-Hoc where a crack team of about 225 US Rangers scaled the 100 foot cliff on DDay to capture the German battery at the top which could have inflicted horrific casualties on the men landing at Omaha and Utah on either side of the cliff that day. Out of the 225 men who took part in the mission, only 90 were alive the next day to be relieved by the other rangers who had arrived from Omaha beach.

This may sound incredible just in the description itself but when you actually see the cliffs, stand on them and look down to understand how dizzyingly high they are…it seems damn near impossible that anyone survived at all. Not only was the climb insane with all their equipment and weapons strapped on, but they were climbing while being shot at by the Germans from above. When one man was shot in the line, another replaced him and they kept moving. It defies logic.

The pockmarked former battleground (Photo: Erin of the Hills)

The site itself was also incredible. It had been heavily bombed and shelled leading up to D-Day and the effects of all this bombardment are still visible today – the land is completely pockmarked with shell craters, overgrown with grass but still visible in their strange curvature.

It was the first time Dad and I had seen a landscape so clearly damaged by shellfire, though we had guessed at some less obvious ones elsewhere throughout Normandy. It was both fascinating and horrifying. You could just picture the rangers diving into these holes for cover as they attacked and possibly never emerging again. Another sign of the madness of warfare.

I have to say, though, after the evocative nature of the land around the batteries, the memorial itself left something to be desired. Honestly, and it’s a little strange writing this publicly instead of just in my travel journal, but it actually looked like a huge…member. And not the kind of service member you can give a Victoria Cross to, I don’t think, if you catch my drift…

Previously to this trip, an entire lecture in one of my history classes in University had been devoted to the evidence of a, um, phallic obsession throughout human history. This particular example of this tendency was rather hard to ignore.

The effect this memorial had on me was quite the opposite of the somber reflection it should have been seeking to inspire. Rather, it took everything in me not to burst out laughing. I mean…just look at this thing and you be the judge:

I mean… (Photo: Navin75 on flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

But, I digress.

On the way out of the combat zone with its absurd centerpiece, the organizers had chosen to feature the stories of a few of the men who died there. I read each and every one (about half a dozen), perhaps partially in penance for my snickers at the memorial devoted to them, even though all I wanted to do was stop thinking about the mind-numbing loss on D-Day.

The last beach on our list took a little longer to find, as Utah ended up being further north than originally planned due to the terrible weather leading up to and on D-Day. But find it we did, fittingly at dark to mark the closing of our day on the beaches.

I’m glad we made it to all 5 beaches but, truthfully, the immense scale of commemorations on this one just seemed so…American.

That’s awful, I know, but let me be clear in saying that I’m not talking about the men who fought and died that day. They had a mission just like all the other units from other nations who landed on the various beaches and they gave their lives trying to accomplish it.

Nor am I talking about the vast majority of Americans, many of whom I count as friends, who are more than happy to both speak to the merits of a country they may or may not be proud to call home while also admitting to its mistakes and issues of inequality.

No, I’m talking about the American pundits who glorify war to the point where it seems like it’s the only contribution they have ever, or will ever, make to the world. Which is patently untrue.

One of the many MANY commemorations on this beach (Photo: Erin of the Hills)

There were statues and artistic renditions everywhere. ONE would have been moving but a dozen? It made it look more like a theme park than a solemn place of reflection and remembrance. The effect it had was of bringing as much attention as possible to this great feat of military might to distract from some subsequent less-heroic uses of the American war machine (Vietnam…Iraq…Afghanistan…need I go on…).

We did walk around for a bit in the growing darkness but soon decided it was time to leave, claiming hunger so as to avoid the all-too-common session of American Patriotism Bashing. It seemed a disrespectful thing to do in such a place.

Dinner was found at a little pizza place near our B&B which was completely empty when we got there. The owner was actually sitting at a table reading when we arrived and she had to ask her cook to turn the music on once we sat down. I’m not sure she had had a customer all night.

This is a reoccurring theme in these France posts, you might have noticed, begging the question: When in the hell do the French eat?!

How can the French NOT eat when food like this is available?! (Photo: Erin of the Hills)

But there you have it, some levity to end a rather hard series of posts about our trip to the D-Day beaches, all five in one day. Would I visit them again? Absolutely. In a heartbeat. I would love to share the experience with my husband and kids someday.

Would I do them all in one day again? Nope. Not a chance. I’m still reeling emotionally, six years later.

So, what did I learn through all of this, both the initial visit and the reminiscing so many years later? Well, I definitely gained an appreciation for why we must never forget horrific historical events like the Second World War. So much death and destruction must never be allowed to fade from memory. We need to be fully cognizant of the darker side of humanity’s capabilities, including our penchant for inflicting pain and suffering when we think the person on the receiving end deserves it.

But more than this, because of my curious nature I have discovered that Neil Gaiman was indeed right. We remember selectively, always highlighting our best and covering up our worst. And this? This helps no one. Yes, Hitler needed to be stopped, and this goal was achieved by awe-inspiring bravery and sacrifice. But in the course of steamrolling through the war to its bitter end, so many unnecessary sacrifices were made, often dictated by those whose lives were not and would not be in danger (i.e. the top brass back in England).

This war was gritty, destructive and wasteful. And that, the darker, crueler side of war where men are blindly sent to the slaughter to test out the enemy’s defensive line must not be allowed to be covered in the thick dust of historical forgetfulness. Otherwise we risk making the same mistakes over and over again. And that is something we must cease to do, if there is any hope for humanity’s survival.

Thank you, dear reader, for seeing this series through to the end. As I said at the beginning, it’s been a long road. I hope it’s been an interesting one.

See you in the next post!

And, remember, even with all of the darkness in humanity, there is also light. And, life is beautiful.

xo Erin

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