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The War on Caen

Caen––Day 1

After arriving via our own invasion across the English Channel in the cover of night, few explored the Caen Memorial Museum. The museum was sectioned into the pre-war era in France and, at a larger scale, Europe. Attached to the museum, at the bottom of a cliff, was the former Nazi bunker that served as the headquarters of General Wilhelm Richter. In the surrounding area at the bottom of the cliff were the American, Canadian, and British Gardens, as well as several monuments dedicated to other nationalities, such as the Polish armed forces involved in the war. The American Garden, designed with ideals of pastoralism, exuded serenity and served as an environment for reflection. Under the man-made waterfall in the garden were plaques from each of the 50 states, and 4 territories, dedicated to their residents that were involved in the Battle for Normandy.

Normandy––Day 2

Omaha Beach’s eastern edge––somber, vast. We walked along the tide’s edge, a cycle charged with the painful memories of the events that occurred nearly 75 years to the day. I’ve had quite a difficult time imagining the scale of Operation Neptune just on Omaha’s beach alone. We made our way up the bluff to the concrete structures of German strongholds and shared the view of the playing field for ammunition and hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers laid to rest in the frenzy of bullets, sinking ships, exploding shells, and soft mist drenching the dreary scene. Even in the slow ascent to the monument of Colleville-Sur Mer strained my breathing; how could any soldier make it to this point carrying the 80 pounds of equipment as well as the loss of friends, communication, and innocence of life?

When we reached the top of the bluff, we met the final resting place of approximately 40 percent of those lost soldiers in the region of Normandy at the American WWII Cemetery at Normandy. The language of valor was omnipresent: the symbolism of white, the arrays of imposing crosses (and some scattered Stars of David), the ordered layout representative of the strict hierarchy of military organization, and a message that read “On the embattled shore. Portal of Freedom. Is forever hallowed by the deals, the valor, and the sacrifices of our fellow country men.” This language was highly contrasted by the German WWII Cemetery at Normandy: colors of basalt, a field of nearly invisible grave markers (often shared between multiple soldiers), scattered and yet ordered groupings of 5 basalt crosses, a central focal point recalling traditions of death, and an overall feeling of regret as is portrayed by the message “Dark is the hill above the tomb of the soldiers. Dark is God’s commandment over the dead of war. Brightly, the sky shines above the protruding crosses. Brighter still shines her consolation. God has the last word.” The design of both cemeteries reveals the complexity of feelings, actions, and memory that were conceived by both opposing powers, and how these separate nationalities should feel about this war that ruptured international, societal relations.