Thursday, July 21, 2011

Echoes of conflict

Looking out of our living-room window at the peaceful pastoral scene beyond the garden, it's almost impossible to imagine how very different things were in this corner of Normandy nearly 70 years ago. One of the enduring fascinations of spending part of every year here is discovering the history of the place and, in particular, learning how these peaceful fields and hills and villages were so viciously fought-over in the struggle for the freedom of Europe.

It’s ironic in some ways that I, who so love ancient buildings with their profound atmosphere of history, should end up buying a cottage in an area where many (if not most) of the buildings in the little towns and villages post-date World War 2, being built to replace those which were bombed and shelled into rubble during the fighting. Even our own little house had to be partially rebuilt, after being hit by a shell in a tank battle during the German counter-attack in August 1944.

I can tell you that it is deeply sobering to pick up and browse an academic study of the campaign and see how many references there are to the battle that raged for days through our small village, as the American forces struggled to contain the German Panzer offensive. It is even more sobering to visit the war memorial in the graveyard which surrounds the rebuilt church and see how many civilians from the village’s tiny population are listed alongside those who fell in battle.

The old church in the early 20th century

Drawing of the rebuilt church

On Wednesdays we often go to the big weekly market at the nearby town of Saint-Hilaire-du-Harcouët. With a population of about 5000 it’s one of the largest of the market towns in this sparsely-populated area, though by English standards it's little more than a large village. Yet because of its strategic position on a crossroads between important north-south and east-west roads, the centre of this small town was virtually destroyed in a single night, when on June 14th 1944 the Americans bombed it as part of the Allied effort to disrupt road and rail links and prevent the enemy bringing more supplies and troops to the front. The same story can be told of other neighbouring small towns like Mortain and Sourdeval, both of which suffered immense damage in a very short space of time.

Aerial view of Saint-Hilaire after the bombing

Saint-Hilaire church today

Our shelves are gradually accumulating a collection of books and pamphlets portraying both the violence and complexity of the conflict and the huge damage it inflicted on people and buildings. To browse the old photos of places we know well and see how much has been lost, and how much painstakingly reconstructed, deepens our affection for an area which seems more like home all the time.

To talk to our French neighbours who experienced the war, or who heard their parents describe their experiences, brings home to us that history in our part of southern Normandy isn’t to be found so much in ancient buildings (though some do survive) as in the memories of those who lived through it all and in what they so laboriously rebuilt from the ruins of their homes and their past history. 

The war may have ended before I was born, but in Normandy there is still a deep awareness and respect for what was endured, both by those who lived here and those who fought, and often died, to liberate them. The echoes of conflict are still very audible to those who listen for them.


  1. Thanks for the reminder that we must remember the true cost of conflict. For those of us who came after, it is sometimes hard to imagine how such a pastoral place could know such violence and heart-breaking loss and how complex wars can be, with so much suffering on all sides and among civilians who were just trying to live their lives. Bob and I are hoping to take a tour of World War II landmarks just to honor and remember all of those who paid such a price for the freedom we enjoy today.

  2. And it is important to record those memories.

  3. Hello Perpetua:
    Many years ago now we spent a summer holiday in Arromanches and learnt much of what you write here through the museum there and exploring the many war cemeteries in the area. It is, as you say, a most sobering experience to see the scale of loss of life incurred by so many nations in the two world wars. And, in a small village such as yours, it is so sad to see that whole families were wiped out as well as properties and livelihoods destroyed on an unimaginable scale.

  4. Kathy, I'm always aware of it as we're here during the period when all the commemorations of the liberation take place. Every year there's a report or two in the local paper each week of a ceremony in this village or that town. People certainly don't forget easily here.

  5. You never said a truer word, Fly. DH is doing quite a lot of research each year and a lot of personal reminiscence has been collected and published locally. Luckily our French is up to both reading and listening to such memories, without having to rely on translations.

  6. Hello Jane and Lance. Our first visit to Normandy was to a gite a few miles away from Arromanches and we did a lot of exploring and learning then (40 years after D-Day)

    The nearest war cemetery to us is at Saint-James, down on the border with Brittany, but there are memorials to the fallen and commemorative plaques or descriptive boards in most of the towns and villages around us, so the war and its aftermath are never very far away.

  7. What a very interesting post, you make the recent past emerge quite vividly.
    I don't know many of the French War Cemetaries but have seen one or two of them. Am much more familiar with the Dutch ones, but the echoes of the war are still very evident throughout much of Europe, sometimes by the very newness of villages and towns built to replace those shattered by conflict.

    A lesson we all need to learn I think.

  8. Another little masterpiece - you manage to say so much in so little space. I know the area quite well and understand that sense of connection to the past, particularly WW2, that really comes through so strongly.
    Powerful stuff.
    Thank you

  9. Thanks, Ray, I'm glad I managed to get across the profound effects of the war in this fought-over area. I don't know the Netherlands but am very interested to learn that you gained very much the same impressions there.

  10. Thank you very much, Annie. This is another one which came straight from the heart. If you know the area, you obviously understand exactly what I feel about it. The past is still very much with us in southern Manche.

  11. Hello again Perpetua,
    Thank you for this thoughtful piece about the impact of WW2 on your part of Normandy. We are just back from 2 weeks holiday (hence my lack of visits & comments here :-) )& spent the first week in the Krkonoše Mountains or Riesengebirge in the far north of the Czech Republic. This was part of the Sudetenland from which the German-speaking population were expelled in 1945. Whilst there, we began to reflect a little on the impact of this massive movement of population has had on the area, particularly comparing how it is now with some late 19th/early 20th century photos on the wall of the Penzion where we stayed. Future blog post on the subject coming up!

  12. Hello and thanks, Ricky. I remember reading about the Sudetenland expulsion and will be very interested to read your blog posts on the subject. The memory of the war is very much alive here every summer, so one would have to be very self-absorbed and indifferent to local events not to be aware of it.

  13. This is really very moving. We so often forget all the lives that were lived in the places we now live and inhabit.

  14. Thank you, Sue. I'm always moved by an awareness of the history here whenever we come and also by the little reports in the local paper of the summer commemoration ceremonies, which show that the memories are being handed on to the next generation.

  15. You write so well about this emotional subject. On my very first visit to France, when I was ten years old, I remember we stopped in Pont l'Eveque in Normandy. My dad showed us the bullet holes sprayed shockingly across the walls of the town's small medieval church, and told us about D-Day and what it was all about. A few years ago, I took my own children to Pont l'Eveque and did the same with them. If there is any hope at all of learning from the past, it is surely by forgiving, but not forgetting.

  16. Thank you, DB. My first visit to Normandy was as an adult when we rented a gite just south of Bayeux and explored it with our two young teenagers. There the memory and evidence of the D-Day landings were everywhere and we were all moved as much by the tiny museums and out-of-the-way war cemeteries, as by the landing beaches and the still-scarred landscape.

  17. Reading this in the wake of my own visit to the Normandy beaches, I am struck once again by the horror of the destruction created by liberators and oppressors alike. War is vile. I wonder how I would feel now in similar circumstances. Would I cheer my liberators nonetheless?

    1. I ask myself the same question, Christine, but know from contemporary photographs that in this area at least, the liberators were indeed cheered and warmly welcomed by the local people, even if they had lost much or everything in the battle for that liberation.


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