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
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 Normandy 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
. 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. Saint-Hilaire-du-Harcouët
|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
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. Normandy