Today we visited a more recent period of European history, leaving the Middle Ages for a change we spent the day in World War II, especially D-Day. Graye-sur-Mer, where we are staying, is very close to Juno Beach, and the whole north coast of Normandy is a monument to the D-Day landings. We started at the Circular Theatre in Arromanches, a clever 360° cinema featuring archival footage taken by war correspondents interspersed with peaceful scenes of the Normandy countryside today. With no dialogue, but plenty of sounds its quite an emotional experience – the effect of real gunfire in surround sound is quite a shock. Outside the cinema there’s a lookout, and we had our first sight of what’s left of Mulberry harbour, the huge artificial harbour that was built on floating cement pontoons. It’s hard to comprehend the scale of that operation! We had a little stroll along the beach, looking at the rusted bits of war machines in the water, grateful that the only sounds we could hear were the waves and the seagulls.
We visited the American Cemetery, where just under 10,000 soldiers are buried in immaculate rows of neat white marble crosses and Stars of David. The area is immaculately maintained by the French, I have never seen such well-tended lawns. We saw several lawn-mowers in action – it looked like a never-ending job. It’s hard to remain unmoved by the sight of so many lost lives. Apparently each family was given the option of bringing the body home for burial, and so there is a disproportionately high number of officers buried there, because their families knew they would want to be buried with their men.
Next stop was the Caen Memorial, officially called “History to Understand the World”. It is an amazing museum, with a huge amount of information on WWII and conflicts since then, with a strong message of hope and peace for the future. We watched some impressive footage about the D-day landings, with before and after images of many towns in the area (including Caen itself, which was 80% destroyed). The architecture of the building itself is very impressive, it’s a huge museum and you would need several visits to do it justice. It’s such an emotional subject, there really is only so much you can take, and take in. There was a display of letters home, written by French, English American and German soldiers which was extremely moving, as you’d expect. One letter was written by an American to his parents, dated 5th June 1944, saying if they were reading the letter then it means he had not returned, and saying his goodbyes. It didn’t say exactly what happened to him, but the latter had been posted. We were planning on staying until it closed, but we just could not absorb anything more.