“Without individuals we see only numbers: a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, ‘casualties may rise to a million.’ With individual stories, the statistics become people – but even that is a lie, for the people continue to suffer in numbers that themselves are numbing and meaningless.”
– Neil Gaiman, American Gods
Fair warning – this post is long, gets a little dark at times and there are no visuals – besides the unrelated cover photo – but, if you’ll see it to the end, I hope you’ll enjoy it nonetheless.
After the shock of our first Canadian WWII cemetery, Dad and I were headed to Caen for what we hoped would be a welcome respite from all the doom and gloom of the innumerable graves, memorials, and listed dead. Unfortunately, even a visit to one of France’s large cities was not to be without its sorrowful moments.
Upon arriving in Caen we realized that it was, well, enormous compared to the places we had visited thus far. With a population over 117,000, it was almost overwhelming in its size after all the quaint villages and towns we had frequented during the trip thus far. Rather than enticing us, however, the clamouring and never-ceasing din of the city made it unlikely that our stay would be a very long one, especially after the emotional toil of the morning.
We parked as close to the center as we could get without getting lost, in the Place de la Resistance (or was it Republique? Or both? Are these interchangeable? Same thing, different Era?) by the enormous golden statue of Joan of Arc.
A few wrong turns on foot later (story of our largely mapless trip…) we stumbled unexpectedly upon the Abbaye aux Dames which happened to be, luckily, one of the two places I really wanted to see in this city.
I know, I know, another old church. But this one was commissioned by Queen Matilda herself! William the Conqueror’s wife, and a formidable woman in her own right of course. Not only that but she was also buried in this fortress of a holy place making it hallowed ground on which I very much wished to walk.
I can see the grounds and the magnificent building in my minds eye even if I cannot find my photos of the place. The spires reached towards the sky climbing to dizzying heights while the high ceilings and cool stone walls inside made for a calming, if a bit ostentatious, atmosphere. There is something about walking through an old stone church and running your hands along the always slightly damp-feeling walls which makes one contemplate who else might have once walked a similar path, or rested a feverish forehead against these same stones in prayer. I know I for one feel my breath begin to slow the moment I step under the archway into these places – the air hangs heavy with both time and incense, inviting me to quiet reflexion. It really is a most beautiful experience.
Tearing ourselves away from this place of rest, we made our way over to a building that would prove to be, quite literally, the complete opposite: the castle. Walking across the bridge towards the towering walls of stone, we could only imagine how intimidating this would have looked close to 1000 years ago when barely any of the city as we saw it existed. Majestic and awe- or dread-inspiring, I would bet, depending on the reason for your visit.
As we got closer to the impressively tall walls, I couldn’t help but notice the damage they had sustained at some point in time. Now, some of it may have been age…granted. Much of the castle was afterall over a thousand years old. But it didn’t look like that to me. It looked somehow more sinister…deliberate. I tried to shake these thoughts and focus instead on the visit ahead but they remained foremost in my mind throughout our exploration – and with good reason, I would soon learn.
Once we had entered through the strategically claustrophobic front gate, the inner courtyard of the castle was actually quite expansive. We looked around a little and realised there were two exhibitions on that required payment in two of the castle’s interior buildings (including the keep) but that, other than these, it was completely free to walk around. Since one of the exhibitions was on art and the other, rather randomly, on Neanderthals, we chose instead to just look around. We were also running out of time if we wanted to avoid looking for our next B&B in the dark…
One of the most incredible discoveries made, as per our M.O., entirely by accident was that of a plaque commemorating the Canadians who fought to liberate the city of Caen during the incredibly bloody Battle of Normandy. It was both unexpected and moving to find such a heartfelt thank you to our countrymen in the heart of this historical city. I’m always surprised to find any mention of our relatively young county in the midst of such ancient settlements.
After spending a moment or two (not longer since we were largely emotionally spent by this point) thinking of all the men who had to die in order for this memory to be made in the first place, we moved on to the oldest part of the castle at the back.
We were rather disappointed that the one building we wanted to explore was completely locked. It was the oldest building on the grounds and the only complete example of a medieval reception hall in France. I’m not even sure of what we would have found inside but, damnit, we wanted to explore it so badly. The exterior of this historic building, however, would have to do.
Moving past this there was a walled-in area which had been excavated by some university archaeologists in the past 5 years or so. We could see the crumbling knee-high remains of the castle’s ancient fortifications (dungeon, castle, keep, etc…) pushing through the dirt. It was fascinating to see such obviously levelled ruins inside another structure that was so much more intact.
It was only upon reading the panel accompanying the ruins that I realized not all of them were as old as they looked. Though all of the fortifications uncovered were built by William the Conqueror’s nephew (side-note: my goodness that man and his family really left their mark on this city), they were not all destroyed at the same time. Many of them had been destroyed periodically starting hundreds of years ago but the last, the chapel, had only been raised during the bombardments of WWII.
This discovery also explained the more recent scars I had also noticed in the outer walls – no wonder they had caught my eye. And yet, they had resulted from even more sinister a purpose than I could have guessed.
You see, this 1000-year-old chapel that had survived years and years of warfare, rebellions and goodness knows what else, did indeed succumb to the heavy bombardment of the 20th century’s industrial warfare. However, despite what you might be thinking, it wasn’t the Nazis who committed this crime against history and humanity (though I’m sure they committed plenty such crimes over the course of the occupation). No, this historic landmark was not felled by ‘enemy fire’, but instead by the heavy-handed shelling perpetrated by the allies in preparation for their storming of Caen during the Battle of Normandy.
For me, this ruined chapel starkly represented what must have been at least hundreds if not thousands of civilian casualties in the ‘martyred city’ before its…liberation? I think it is an amazing indication of the resilience of the French people that they welcomed the allies in at all after the chaos and trauma that rained down on them courtesy of their ostensible liberators.
All these years later, I have done a bit more digging into the civilian experience of the Battle for Caen that led to the destruction of much of the city – not to mention wreaked havoc on the lives of so many innocents, if it didn’t end them outright. Finally, after several weeks where I barely had the energy to recall my emotions from this trip let alone come up with even a remotely fascinating obscure historical fact, I have somewhat of a gem for you.
In the days leading up to the allied bombardment of Caen, leaflets were dropped on the city to warn the residents of the carnage that was to come. Apparently these leaflets read something along the lines of, “The vital objective near which you find yourself will be continuously attacked. . . . Leave now! You don’t have a minute to lose.” How terrified must these people have been waking up to such a dire warning? Can you imagine walking out your front door and having a paper drop into your hand telling you to leave as soon as possible so as to escape your otherwise inevitable demise? Even if you were able to leave quickly and safely, you would have most assuredly been leaving behind the majority of your belongings, among them far more sentimental items then you could possibly carry with you. And yet, this is what so many of Caen’s citizens were expected to do days before their city would be almost blown from existence.
And leave many of them did. Leading me to my long-awaited (you await these, right?)…
Random Historical Fact #19
While I am sure there is so much more I could learn about this exodus, I found this Los Angeles Time article from 2008 which detailed at least one part of this harrowing experience. Apparently, since they had so little time to get to safety (not to mention – where was safe from fighting in Normandy after D-Day?), many people fled to the limestone quarries just outside the city to hunker down and, hopefully, survive this stage of the war. After witnessing the horrific occupation of their country by the Nazis, I can only imagine what they must have been thinking when their saviors made their grand entrance by laying their homes to waste. Some liberation – which is better? I assume most would answer freedom…but at what cost? I won’t recount the whole article here but it does tell the story of one young boy, only 7 at the time, who hid in a deep hole with his family for weeks while his home was subjected to an unknown fate. The boy, Gerard Mangnan, survived but his 18-year-old brother died. Having ventured out to steal some German ammunition, he had missed the entry rope and fallen to his death in his haste to escape the wrath of German bullets. Most of the boy’s memories, however, seem to center not on suffering (the blessing of childhood innocence?) but on the odd organized society that emerged as thousands of families waited out the war in their sunless shetler. Mangnan particularly recalls the Canadian troops that once visited bringing peace offerings of gum and biscuits. On a slightly darker note, however, he also recalled that the only way some of them knew that another day had passed was when the small patch of blue sky at the entrance to their refuge turned dark. Yet another young life turned upside-down (though, thankfully, at least not snuffed out) by that awful conflict.
The amount of people who took shelter in these caves is astounding – roughly one third of Caen’s pre-war population of 60,000. The only image I can conjure to try and comprehend the sheer number of refugees crammed into the quarry’s network of tunnels is the scene in The Two Towers when the people of Rohan huddle in the caves behind Helms Deep while their men defend them from an army of ruthless Uruk-hai – completely unaware if the next beings to walk through the doors to the caves would be friend (and therefore safety) or foe (and therefore certain death). I imagine that Caen’s citizens huddled similarly in their family units, shuddering as bomb after bomb fell outside, wondering if the cave ceilings would hold…and, if they did, what kind of world might greet them once they finally emerged from what was both a sanctuary and a prison.
Knowing that, despite the successful evacuation of one third of the population, the allied bombardment of Caen was to nonetheless exact a heavy human toll on the people of that once beautiful city, I feel it is important to learn as much as we can about the individuals who were there – both the victims and the survivors. This is the only way to turn the dry and ultimately incomprehensible statistics of military history into something human beings can understand and therefore empathize with. If we do not make an effort to do so, as Mr. Gaiman said (I’m paraphrasing a little), these individual stories will be washed away by the tsunami of suffering still experienced by so many souls…becoming numbing and meaningless statistics once more.
I have more to say about Caen and then Bayeux-by-night but I think I should really leave this post there. I know that without photos this was a long one to read and, if you have made it this far, I thank you sincerely for trusting that this was worth your while.
I’ll be back next week for Travel Tuesdays, I promise.
Until then, despite how hard these days are, remember…Life is Beautiful