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From City to Coast 2

June 29, 2017

This is the second of three letters from France, based on a short stay in June 2017

The stretch of seaside promenade from Lion sur Mer to the port of Ouistreham on the Normandy coast is around six kilometres long. It is well maintained and provides good space for pedestrian and cyclist alike, running alongside a beach of gently sloping sand, fringed by peaceful rolling waves. The locals call it “La Digue” or sea wall.

Overlooking the promenade is a mixture of old Norman houses with that familiar half  timbered appearance, no doubt holiday retreats built by prosperous Paris merchants in the later 19th century, and more modern seaside homes with architected smoked glass, balconies, and modern versions of Calvados design. The older houses predominate, and create a unique atmosphere, close as they are to the beach.

 

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Every few hundred yards, an alleyway leads between the seafront houses back to the small villes behind –  Lion itself, Hermanville, Colleville – villages in every sense, narrow streets, hotel de ville, boulangerie, town square and tall thin buildings. The alleyways provide access to and from the beach, but also allow the promenaders a snapshot of everyday life behind the glorious escape of sea and sand, and the workers in the villages the promise of that blue and gold relaxation.

I am brought here because my niece and her family live in Lion, but others have been here before me for reasons not of their choosing.

As it happens, this  stretch of coastline between Lion sur Mer and Ouistreham, coincides almost exactly with the area designated “Sword” on June 6th 1944 – D-Day, as it is known. At this spot,  British troops, along with French commandos, stormed the beaches, as part of the attempt to secure Caen.

The official histories will tell you that around 29,000 men landed in this area and there were between 600 and 1000 casualties. The landings started around 7.25am and the beaches had largely been secured by 9.30am. German defences were lighter here than in other areas, though Lion was the scene of one of the German counter attacks with Panzer tanks. The main problems were caused by the narrowness of the beach and the speed of the rising tide, which increasingly minimised the space for the assault troops, given  the detritus of machinery, bodies, and beach defences.

Official histories are fine catalogues of warfare – with their sweeping arrows, their unit titles, their order of battle, their timelines, and their glossaries – but they seldom capture the humanity – or the inhumanity –  of the fighting. The reports from Sword Beach rightly point out that, comparatively, losses were light in this section of the coastline, but, of course, to the people who were here on Sword, British, German or French, that statistic is rather meaningless.

Walking that stretch of seaside today can prove a conflicting experience. How should one react to what have become known as “The D Day beaches”?

It is a quiet June weekday, and there  is a sense that those young men who fought and died and fell and survived here in  1944 were doing so for peace: so that the old man walking his dog, the speedy cyclist, the teenagers in the sea pretending to revise for their exams, the women snatching a moment to chat in an unseasonably hot sun, could use this place for relaxation and re-creation. This achingly blue sky and spotless bright sand should be accepted for what they are today – a tiny piece of paradise, rather than what they were then, a huge part of Hell.

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Well, yes – I can understand that argument, but it’s easier as an aspiration than the reality which is declared by bullet scarred stonework, houses refurbished or rebuilt because of shellfire, those alleyways –  which 70 years ago offered actual escape rather than relief from work or routine.

This is not seaside in the sense of Brighton or Blackpool – or even Deauville up the coast. It is quiet, and even at the busy height of summer is rarely raucous or overcrowded. Certainly away from Riva Bella – the beaches around Oiustreham – this a  seafront for relaxation and reflection. The occasional cafe or food outlet is understated and to scale. It feels, perhaps, as if the people here have taken the decision to welcome the tourist and the holidaymaker, but also to remain aware of their history, and the events which took place during the Liberation. It’s an approach which feels right.

Every three or four hundred yards there are interpretative noticeboards, showing the houses in front of you  as they appeared from the beach on that June morning – they are not intrusive or over elaborate and there are not too many of them, but they quietly make the point, and place you in the position – geographically if not emotionally – of those young men all those years ago.

And there are the memorials. Towards Ouistreham, they become larger and more imposing, matching the scale of the engagements: grass covered bunkers, carefully sculpted statues, and representations of courage and sacrifice, tributes to whole divisions or units of troops.

But it’s the smaller things which resonate.

There are sets of flags – British, American, Canadian and French – in so many windows – not just along the beaches, but in houses in the towns, a moving signal of gratitude by a generation mostly unborn in 1944. It’s a symbolism which casts a bitter shadow over the mean spirited, isolationist, Brexit voters, so desperate to be “non-Europeans” and to cast themselves adrift from a centuries old relationship – and with it to take Scots, whose Auld Alliance with France stretches back even further. There are many arguments to be had over the reason why the allies fought, but the simple gesture of these flags in so many windows makes the point about  mutual support with great, if silent, eloquence.

And then there are the names and individuals.

About half way along the beach is a small, almost private, memorial, no more than waist high. It faces inland, so, reading its inscription you are facing the beach on which these three young French commandos landed on D-Day morning. The “Kiefer Commandos” were given the honour of being first ashore here, these three never made it off the beach, their pictures on the stone reveal their youth – 32, 24 and 26. They came ashore like so many thousands that early morning, with heads filled with plans and hearts filled with dreams. How happy they must have been to step once more on a French  beach, and how sad it is  that they would not survive to see children flourish or grandchildren grow.

It’s hard not to think about what spaces may have been filled by those children – in schools, on beaches, in sports teams, if these three – and thousands of others – had survived the maelstrom on these beaches. I’ll be haunted by these three soldiers  for days, and by the simple record of their bravery which encourages the young of today to remember the young of yesterday.

Most folk have never heard of Sgt Jim Mapham, yet, along with a half dozen colleagues of the Army Film and Photography Unit, he was responsible for the most outstanding picture taken of the landings on Sword Beach. The faces of the troops, pictured just yards from where I stand are vivid reminders of the reality of war – and the bravery of the photographer.

A more familiar name is that of Bill Millin – the piper to Lord Lovat – famous for walking Sword Beach playing the pipes as an encouragement to the troops as they landed. Some were encouraged, some thought him mad. The Germans certainly did, and ceased fire in amazement for a minute or so when they saw him, and the pipes rang out in the silence before death and destruction resumed. Lovat’s command to ignore War Office instructions and play during the landing was made on the basis that “That’s the English War Office, and we are Scottish!”

There is now a life sized statue of Bill opposite the point where his unit landed. He would have appreciated the fact that it is a solid sculpture, because looking  at it from ground level you would otherwise be able to see up his kilt! It is, I suppose, somehow, a sign of hope to remember that – even if only for seconds – the Piobaireachd was more  powerful than the might of the German defences. And, though the Germans said they withheld from targeting him because they thought he was mad, it would be nice to think that music reached deeper than military training.

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A quote from Bill lies on  the base of the statue:

If they remember the bagpiper then they won’t forget those who served and fell on the beaches.”

and, in a sense, that describes the feelings evoked by this stretch of beach. Too often these days, military commemorations are used for political purposes, by those too young to have experienced the realities of conflict, and come perilously close to glorifying war. That is no way to remember those who fall in battle or who are scarred for life by their experiences. We honour them best by remembering them as individuals – who lost their chance to live the lives that we have lived.

The piquancy of these beaches is that they cast the brutality of battle against the beauty of nature and the commonplace of everyday life. Troops talk of crouching for cover behind walls alongside hens pecking for food, or seeing children’s toys, of noticing hairbrushes and washstands through windows shattered by bullets – death in the midst of life.

War – all war – is a full stop for many. At least the memories on these beaches, carefully and quietly preserved, afford some lingering recognition of the men who came here, what they did and what they suffered – and a message which is as certain as the ebb and flow of the restless tides: that they will not be forgotten.

For them, and those who loved them, these sands of time will not run out.

 

 

 

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