On Friday and Saturday, after a very valuable but exhausting experience at Versailles, we travelled to Normandy and Mont-Saint-Michel.
I myself am a world war two history enthusiast. On a free weekend earlier in our stay in Brussels, I went to Bastogne on my own to see sites of the Battle of the Bulge. My grandfather took part in it, so it was incredible to stand on the very ground where he walked some 75 years ago. I not only visited the war museum, but also was able to walk in the Ardennes forest overlooking the town of Foy, passing by preserved fox holes that the men of the 101stairborne, the subjects of the book and miniseries Band of Brothers, would have shared in in -30-degree Celsius temperature. It was a very moving experience, and since our program did not have such a trip planned, I was incredibly grateful I could go on my own. Therefore, I was very excited to see Normandy on our weekend itinerary.
Although I was frustrated that we could only spend about an hour in Normandy, it was still incredible. We visited the American cemetery and museum at Omaha Beach. Of all the five beaches stormed on D-Day, soldiers on Omaha by far faced the fiercest resistance. Because bombing runs the previous night had largely missed their inland targets, German artillery overlooking Omaha was still relatively intact. That, combined with the fact that Americans would have to run across upwards of 300 yards of open beach, was a major factor contributing to the 3,000 casualties on Omaha alone.
I think Americans today generally see D-Day as a strictly American operation, with films like Saving Private Ryan, while an incredible depiction of the battle, overlook the contributions and suffering of others. The museum really highlighted how the invasion was truly an allied effort.
The British, dropping paratroopers the night before and landing at Sword and Gold Beaches, had over 62,000 troops participate in the invasion, suffering over 1,600 casualties. The Canadians suffered approximately 1,000 casualties from the 21,000 who landed at and captured Juno Beach. Even outside of the military operations, the civilian sacrifices were massive. In one Allied aerial bombardment of Caen, a city crucial to the Allied advance, almost 3,000 French civilians lost their lives. As the Allies moved further inland, the French resistance was also important, providing information on German movements and encampments
The museum as a whole was fantastic. It laid out in great detail the specific operations of the invasion, had timelines to show how the day unfolded, and told personal stories of individual sacrifice. It displayed many artifacts, including uniforms and an old transport jeep, but perhaps what was most powerful was the last item before exiting into the cemetery. In a glass case by itself, light shining from above, was a rifle dug into sand, a helmet rested on top. When bodies were buried on the battle fields during the war, these were used to mark their graves. From there, we could walk through the cemetery where over 9,000 Americans are buried. On a hill overlooking Omaha beach, it was an incredibly moving sight. The national anthem was played and there was a ceremony that appeared to be honoring several veterans who were visiting. It was hard to imagine that many of those men buried were just a few years older, if not the same age, as I am now.
After about fifteen minutes walking in the scorching heat, it was time to hop back on the bus for about two more hours, finally reaching Mont-Saint-Michel around 6:00 pm. We arrived at a perfect time: all the tourists were starting to leave. After getting off our coach bus and taking the shuttle to the gates of the island, we were led to our rooms, which were spread between four different hotels. My room was a bit more of a hike, but that meant it had an excellent view! After a delicious three course dinner, many of us took a walk on the muddy beach at dusk, enjoying some Frank Sinatra as the light at the top of the abbey shone through the growing darkness.
The next morning before we departed, many of us also led ourselves through a tour of the Abbey, able to see where the monks would have eaten, studied, and prayed, in addition to having even more breathtaking views of the surroundings. Back in Brussels, before we left for the weekend, my host family was incredibly jealous when I said we were spending the night on the island. I understand that reaction now, it truly was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Our nine-hour bus ride back to Brussels allowed for some reflection on the weekend as the whole. Normandy and Mont-Saint-Michel painted very different pictures of humanity, yet both brought me back to this same idea of peace
Looking over the seemingly endless rows of white crosses at Normandy is really intense. Of course, everyone in the United States knows about D-Day, but I don’t think anyone can really come to terms with a sacrifice and suffering on such a tremendous scale without visiting for themselves. At least I hadn’t experienced it the same way before. And this was just onebattle in a six-year war.
When visiting Verdun several weeks ago, overlooking an even larger cemetery, I asked myself, what was all this for?Learning more about the futile nature of the first world war and the failure of Versailles this summer invoked many similar questions. The tremendous effort that went into rebuilding a collective Europe after the second world war, however, meant that, when looking at thousands of American tombstones in Normandy and thousands of German ones in Bastogne, the answer to that question is clearer. Although it was a war to that needed to be fought, it is still hard to fathom that we are capable of such devastation. It is a sight that will make you much more appreciative of the relatively peaceful world we live in today.
Spending time at Mont-Saint-Michel right after Normandy was really interesting. The first sanctuary on the island was built in 708, it resisted siege during the Hundred Years War, and during the French Revolution was used as a prison until 1863. Its history, obviously, is very diverse. To the people of the Middle Ages, however, it was paradise. Although now parts of it are quite touristy, I shared that feeling of paradise. I can only dream of what life as a 10thcentury monk here would have been like, yet I imagine it as incredibly peaceful and fulfilling.
I was reminded of this in particular in a small garden on the top of the abbey. The destruction of the second World War, the pain and suffering of Normandy and Bastogne, was a fight to preserve a life of and world of peace. The inhabitants of the abbey and many soldiers during the war, at their cores I believe, had similar hopes for the world: one of harmony.
When aweing at the tranquil and bare French coast from this garden, I thought of the final line of Dwight Eisenhower’s letter to soldiers right before they left for the invasion of the very land I was standing on.
“Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.” A noble undertaking indeed.