Posts Tagged ‘1944’

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Last Saturday we went to the Tower of London to view the much heralded installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, commemorating one hundred years since the start of the First World War.

This extraordinary art work by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, in collaboration with stage designer Tom Piper, has captured our nation’s imagination and as we emerged from the underground station at Tower Hill it was apparent that we would not be alone. The place was heaving but well organised, good natured and almost quiet. As we stood on the steps gazing at the spectacle I was able to take a few snaps which I later edited to remove the tops of people’s heads in front of me.  During the summer and until today, 888,246 ceramic poppies have been planted in the moat – each one commemorating a British life lost in the conflict. Now complete, hardly a blade of grass can be seen between this ceramic sea of red: it’s a wonderful yet sobering sight.

The poppies were sold, raising millions of pounds for British service charities, and will later be distributed to their owners once the installation is removed. Originally it was due to be dismantled the day after Armistice Day on 11th November but it’s now rumoured that because of unprecedented public interest part of the display will remain until the end of the month.

Later on the same day, once home and in front of the television, we watched the annual Remembrance Service from the Royal Albert Hall in London. Included this year was a folk song, written and sung by Jim Radford, a veteran of the D-Day landings. Jim was a fifteen year old galley boy on 6th June 1944.  His song is a poignant reminder of the terrible events of that day seventy years ago which helped to turn the tide of war.  It sums up the whole theme of remembrance and is well worth a listen, if you can spare seven minutes.

 

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Motoring through the sleepy ruralness of France’s Limousin region with its gently rolling hills, mile upon mile of wheat fields, crops of sunflowers interspersed with oak and beech woodland you’d be forgiven for thinking that life here has been much the same for hundreds of years.

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And to a certain extent it probably has but an occasion in its recent history has left a scar so deep that is unlikely to ever recover. For a small town just north-west of Limoges memories from seventy years ago are still raw; events shouldered alone while the attention of the allied world was focussed on the major battle raging in the north of the country meant that no-one shared the agony of this small, tight-knit community.

On the 10th June 1944, just four days after the Normandy landings Oradour-sur-Glane, a prosperous little market town, was razed to the ground by the German S.S, its inhabitants brutally massacred.

Women and children were rounded up and locked into the church which was then set alight; men were rounded up into smaller groups, machine-gunned down, covered with hay and fuel and their bodies burned. Some were burned alive.

 There were very few survivors. On that fateful day, 642 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane lost their lives.

After the war, a new Oradour-sur-Glane was built nearby but, on the orders of General de Gaulle, the original town was to remain exactly as it had been left after the atrocity as a memorial to its fallen.

Today there is a sombre visitor’s centre which leads you through a tunnel under the road to the original town where you are free to roam along the streets and view the devastation. There is no charge.

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Rusted cars remain exactly where they were torched seventy years ago; tram lines are still visible, running the length of the main street; an old sewing machine, battered yet still recognisable, has been left in the charred ruins of the tailor’s shop. Patterned ceramic tiles, fallen from the wall of the butcher’s store lay heaped on the floor while where the old garage was, an enamel placard advertising Renault Cars is still just visible.

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The butcher’s shop

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The Girl’s School

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The Church

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The Post Office with tram lines in front

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The main street leading up to the cemetery

At the top of the town, you cross a grassy flower meadow to the old cemetery. Only here is there evidence of human intervention – the place is kept respectfully neat and tidy while the ornate headstones provide testament to the truly shocking reality that so many families perished on the same day. There is a newly built underground memorial hall to the inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane. Every name of those who died is engraved on its walls while encased in modern, light-filled  vitrines are some of the artefacts taken from the victims or discovered amongst the wreckage. Spectacles, pocket watches (with the hands stopped between the hours of five and six in the evening – the time of the massacre), pots, ceramics and the metal handles of handbags – all serve as reminders that this atrocity happened to ordinary people just like us.

As you pick your way carefully back towards the visitor’s tunnel along the cobbles separated by mosses and self-seeded wild flowers the atmosphere in the ruined town is one of reverence – people walk quietly around the shattered buildings each with their own thoughts, taking a few poignant photographs.

The preserved wreckage of Oradour-sur-Glane is a very powerful memorial.

For further reading, click here.

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Today is 6th June, the 70th anniversary of D-Day – one of the most significant dates which would change the course of World War Two. On this day the Battle for Normandy began. The American Airborne Division parachuted in ahead of  thousands of British, Canadian and American troops who arrived on the five landing beaches, many of whom made it no further. Thousands died on that first day alone, in a bloody battle which was to rage all summer.

With Son away this week in Normandy taking part in the commemorations and celebrations which occur every year to mark this event, I grabbed my chance and re-introduced a duster to his room. As he is generally responsible for the state of his chamber I very rarely venture in. It’s amazing how dense dust can get within a year. Was it Quentin Crisp who said: “There is no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.”  I can see what he meant.

Anyway, as I was polishing along a bookshelf I came across a tiny sticker with the words:

“Enjoying your freedom? Thank a veteran.”

I was reminded of our extraordinary encounter last year with Jim “Pee Wee” Martin, a contact and friend of our son – an American Airborne veteran who stayed overnight with us while retracing his wartime steps through Europe. Son had taken him back to the English village where he had been billeted in 1943, to Stonehenge and to Bourne Woods in Surrey where “Band of Brothers” had been filmed before escorting him across the Channel to Normandy. Jim, age 92, astounded everyone by running some distance up hill, re-creating his tough training program in America before being shipped to England in 1943.

Some of you will remember that I posted a short film of his run last year. Here it is again, slightly longer to incorporate a second run he did when he got back to the States later that year: he ran up the original Currahee mountain in Toccoa, Georgia. It’s worth a second look. Make sure you have your sound turned up.

Son will meet up with Jim again in Normandy, over in Europe again to pick up an award. Thank a Veteran? Most definitely. Thanks to Jim and all those other young men who fought to give us all our freedom. May we never forget.

If you’d like to read more about Jim’s war, you can do so here, on my original post.

 

 

 

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Don’t get me wrong – the tapestry is fabulous – all 230 feet of it and well worth a visit. (Especially if it’s raining, which, believe me, it will. Normandy wouldn’t be Normandy without the rain – it’s what makes it so beautiful and green). Displayed under glass in the Grand old Seminary in the heart of Bayeux, the tapestry depicts, in scenes woven on linen, the Norman invasion of Britain and has survived almost intact for nine centuries. The French do museums and exhibitions with typical style: there is a good audio guide to accompany the tour which explains events scene by scene.

Bayeux Cathedral from the British cemetery

Bayeux Cathedral from the British cemetery

However, if you cross over the river Aure, towards the cathedral (also worth a look), and head south you will come to the British Military cemetery: a complete juxtaposition of historical events within a ten minute walk.

Bayeux was the first town liberated by the allies on June 7, 1944. Over 4 500 commonwealth soldiers are buried in the cemetery; a further 1800 are commemorated on a memorial opposite the regimented rows of white gravestones. Along the frieze of this memorial is an inscription in Latin which translates as

“We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land.”

The grounds are kept in immaculate order by the war graves commission; all the white crosses have floral tributes. It is a sobering experience to walk along the rows, read the ages of the dead and contrast that with our own offspring, who at around the same age, are enjoying their gap years.

Opposite the cemetery is the Musée Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie. This is probably one of the best places for a comprehensive overview of the Normandy invasion. Easy to understand, with an archive film in both French and English, there are displays of military vehicles, maps and strategies, uniforms, and lastly, a room dedicated to the work of the photo-journalist.

Outside, next to the museum, is a small, peaceful garden, dedicated to foreign correspondents all over the world, killed in the course of duty since 1944. Called the Reporter’s Memorial, it contains over 2000 names, chiselled by decade onto large white remembrance slabs. New names are added every year and, since 1994, the town has hosted the Bayeux-Calvados prize for war-correspondents.

The Reporter's Memorial Garden, Bayeux

The Reporter’s Memorial Garden, Bayeux

Wander along the winding path between the upright steles and some names may be familiar: Robert Capa, famous for bringing images of the allies arriving on Omaha beach and who died, aged 40, in Vietnam; Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident who worked for the BBC and who was mysteriously and fatally stabbed in the thigh near Waterloo Bridge in 1978; the Irish cameraman, Simon  Cumbers, shot in Riyadh in 2004 – the same attack that left the BBC reporter, Frank Gardner, in a wheelchair.  Journalists are often regarded with the same disdain afforded to estate agents or tax collectors: those that go out to report global combat should be set apart; they are not given military training, they put themselves in mortal danger to send the rest of us news and pictures that we are at liberty to switch off in the comfort of our living rooms. The Reporter’s Memorial in Bayeux is a fitting tribute.

Robert Capa's image, capturing the allied advance on Omaha Beach

Robert Capa’s image, capturing the allied advance on Omaha Beach

As Robert Capa said, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

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