Monday, November 11, 2013

European adventures: Lest we forget Normandy

As we were leaving France in August 2012, we passed through the city of Caen and were introduced to the beaches of Normandy. We decided then that we'd stop to visit the area if we returned to France this year.

Upon arriving in Caen, we checked into our delightful B&B housed in one of the few 16th century buildings that wasn't destroyed during the Battle of Normandy in 1944.

Our delightful B&B - built in the 16th century

Our first stop the next day was the Memorial (a large museum), where we planned to spend a couple of hours boning up on WWII history in preparation for a 5 hour guided tour the following day. 

The Memorial, Caen, France

The Memorial, Caen, France

As it turned out, we only managed to drag ourselves away 6 hours later when we were too exhausted and emotionally drained to absorb more. We learned a lot we didn't know about WWII and the events leading up to it - not to mention the horrific price paid by all involved. 

Details that have stayed with me include:
  • a photograph of the smiling staff of a German "hospital" where 10,000 people with disabilities were "euthanized";
  • photographs of Caen which was largely destroyed by allied bombardments before the city was "liberated"; 
  • a photograph of a 16 year old girl, a member of the French Resistance, hung by occupying forces; and
  • chilling video testimony from the Trials of Nuremberg.
When we left the museum, we wandered outside for an hour or more exploring the Canadian Memorial Gardens, a tribute to the 5,000 Canadians who died during the campaign to liberate France. 

Canadian Memorial Garden, Caen, France

A monument in the Canadian Memorial Gardens

I had been worried the Memorial would glorify the war - or at least Allied involvement in it - but I really don't think that it did. To the contrary, its exhibits were careful designed to emphasize how brutally the war was waged by all sides. 

That said, I came away from our visit truly believing for the first time that the war was a "just" one - or, at least, that it was as just as war can ever be. Hitler and company came frighteningly close to achieving their objectives and, had they done so, our lives would be very different today. 

The next morning, Husband and I both felt in need of something to soothe our souls before we embarked on a tour of D-Day sites, so we opted to spend the morning at the Musee de Beaux-Arts, where we took in an exhibition of Impressionist paintings inspired by the Norman seaside, and the Musee de Normandie, where we admired photographs created around the same time period. I was especially intrigued by the photographs. Even with what we would now consider rudimentary tools, the featured photographers captured gorgeous images of life in Normandy.

A photo by amateur photographer, Gustave Gain

Our visit to the Musee also provided an opportunity to wander round the ramparts of William the Conqueror's ancient castle and take in views of the city below. 

A view from the Chateau Ducal, Caen

After lunch, we took a bus back to the Memorial and joined our guide, Jean-Francois, for called "Follow the Steps of the Canadians". Our first stop was Bernieres, the site of a large monument to Allied forces and the centre of great deal of Canadian activity following the D-Day landings. This house is purported to be the first liberated by Canadian forces.

The first house liberated by Canadians on D-Day, Bernieres, France

We also visited several other key sites along the beaches...

This monument sits next to the beach at Bernieres

Another smaller monument to D-Day

...and spent about an hour and a half exploring the Juno Beach Centre

Juno Beach Centre

The Centre contains a variety of exhibits that describe the many roles Canadians played in the war effort - from supplying troops to manufacturing weapons to transporting supplies across the dangerous waters of the North Atlantic - so we'd have been glad to spend more time there. There really aren't words to describe how deeply moving it was for everyone on the tour. 

Members of our tour contemplating the tragedy

Our next to last stop was the Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery where more than 2,000 Canadians who died during the Battle of Normandy are buried. 

Beny-sur-mer Canadian War Cemetery

Beny-sur-mer Canadian War Cemetery

The cemetery is still meticulously cared for by local people - which seems extraordinary after so many years - particularly given the price the locals paid for their liberation. In the city of Caen alone, more than 1500 residents died as a result of Allied bombing! Nonetheless, monuments like this one are scattered throughout the city.

One of the many monuments in Caen celebrating the city's liberation by the Canadians

Our final stop was the Abbaye d'Ardenne, where 20 Canadian prisoners of war were killed by German Panzer forces, and the Garden of the Canadians, a monument commemorating the massacre. I was surprised to see the Nova Scotia flags adorning the site until I learned that five of the murdered men were North Nova Scotia Highlanders. 

The Garden of the Canadians

On this Remembrance Day, I'll be thinking of all those young men who died or were injured in Normandy in 1944 and whispering prayers of thanks for their bravery and sacrifice. Over one million Canadians served in WWII - roughly 45% of Canadian men aged 18-45. One million. And, of that number, nearly 47,000 died and many tens of thousands were injured - all in the name of protecting the freedoms we too often take for granted. 

Lest we forget. 

For more photos from our visit to Normandy, you can follow this link to my Flickr set. 


  1. Already the war has an almost mythical quality. War on such a scale, sacrifices on such a scale, seem incomprehensible - more so when it was fought only two generations ago. The Holocaust feels like something from the time of Genghis Khan, not my grandparents' time. Which makes it all the more important to keep the memories alive, as your blog post does very eloquently.

    1. Thank you, Charles. I know what you mean about it seeming mythical. Last night I was talking with my dad who reminded me that his father joined up in December 1939 - just two months after Dad was born - and didn't come home until nearly 6 years later. When he finally returned - limping from injuries that had hospitalized him for nearly a year - my Dad had no idea who his father was. It's hard to appreciate how devastatingly difficult it must have been for everyone. And, in the case of your family members, they lived through all those months of incessant bombing! I can't imagine how they retained their sanity.

      Thanks for taking time to read the post and share your thoughts. Hugs to you and the family.