I was fortunate enough last week to visit the D-Day landing sites of Utah and Omaha beaches. Growing up reading about, hearing about, and seeing movies which portray the landings which occurred did not prepare me for the vast weight of history you can feel on a metaphorical pilgrimage to these places. Looking out across the immense, flat beach (far longer from low-tide to the seawall than I ever imagined) it is hard to imagine the courage and tenacity of the brave men who fought and died there that day and throughout the rest of Normandy during the campaign.
Walking up the bluffs and through the ruins of the German positions, seeing their vantage and the scars left from the shelling by naval forces, it is hard to picture how any soldier left the beach alive on either side. In one case I saw a piece of reinforced concrete roughly the size of an SUV which had been launched several hundred feet out onto the beach from where it had begun. Likewise, the 12 foot deep craters which still, almost 75 years later, pock the ground of Pointe du Hoc give silent testament to the unbelievable destructive forces which played across the Normandy region.
However, the most important sites visited, to my mind, were the cemeteries created for the servicemen who died on D-Day and through the remainder of the Normandy campaign. Most of these young men would never leave Normandy, even after death, though a small few were sent home for funeral rites. Most striking though, even over the weight of the tens of thousands of dead, was the stark difference between that cemetery dedicated and filled with young American soldiers and that occupied by the German soldiers.
The American cemetery is done in white marble, with a sweeping vista and beautiful statuary which calls to the heroism of those interred there. Broad arches and manicured greens pay honor to the soldiers there and enhance their sacrifices through memorials and services meant to bring remembrance and awe to visitors. It truly is one of the most beautiful and touching sites in Normandy.
What surprised me, however, is the solemnity and quiet despair which lies over the graveyard for the young German soldiers who gave their lives during the campaign. In this cemetery over 20,000 German soldiers are interred, most two to a grave, and with a mass grave situated in a mound at the center. Where the American cemetery is done in shining white marble and set on the bluffs overlooking Normandy in witness to their deeds, the German cemetery is done in rough granite and sits next to a highway. Where the American cemetery is full of visitors, veterans, and school trips, the German cemetery was empty but for my family. And, where the white marble statues and arches call to the nobility in the American cemetery, the rough stone statues which occupy the center of the German graveyard call simply to the sorrow of mothers and fathers whose sons would never return home.
Both cemeteries are full of young men who, with varying levels of willingness, were doing their duty as best they could. Looking at the differences it is easy to say the truth in history being written by the victors, but also it is easy to note in the ages and stories of those who are buried the thought shared by many soldiers that under different circumstances these men could have been friends rather than mortal foes. I feel it is important to remember all who fought and died, whose sacrifices are memorialized in Normandy, as regardless of their nationality they did their duty and made the ultimate sacrifice for it.
Thank you for reading and remembering with me.