Our recent trip to D-Day cemeteries in Normandy was a moving reminder that remembering the fallen honors sacrifice on both sides.
You can’t help but be moved, even in victory, by the futility and insanity of war. As our day in Normandy with tour guide Colin McGarry concluded in fading afternoon light, we visited the German and American D-Day cemeteries.
We hadn’t requested a stop at La Cambe, the German cemetery, but true to form as he had been throughout the day, Colin knew to include it. With over 21,000 buried here, most of whom fell in Normandy between June 6 and August 20, 1944, La Cambe’s atmosphere is equal parts dark and light. The cemetery’s entrance includes an inscription that reads, in part: “With its melancholy rigour, it is a graveyard for soldiers not all of whom had chosen either the cause or the fight. They too have found rest in our soil of France.”
With orderly, military precision, flat markers fan out from a central burial mound that contains the remains of more than 200 unknown and 89 known German troops, buried together. A large Teutonic cross tops the center mound, whose design is repeated in groups of smaller markers interspersed throughout the fields of graves.
Beginning in 1954, the remains of more than 12,000 soldiers were moved from more than 1000 locations to this site. Reinterments are ongoing; the remains of more than 700 German casualties in Normandy have been discovered since 1961, when the cemetery was officially inaugurated. Today it is maintained by the German War Graves Commission, a private volunteer entity.
Of the two D-Day cemeteries we visited during our brief day’s visit, in some ways I found La Cambe the most poignant. The exhibits in the adjoining museum speak to peace and reconciliation.
Colleville sur Mer
Our mood was quietly somber, even melancholy, after La Cambe. I was relieved to arrive at The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial and see beckoning, even hopeful design elements. Granite walkways lead the visitor among classical elements such as a semi-circular colonnade, reflecting pools and loggias. All are solemn and graceful.
This site has held American fallen longer than any of the D-Day cemeteries. Established on June 8, 1944 by the U.S. Army, today it holds the remains of more than 9,000 of our military dead. Most of these Americans lost their lives in the D-Day landings and subsequent operations in France. The atmosphere is reverential: here lie two sons of President Theodore Roosevelt and three Medal of Honor recipients among their brothers and sisters in arms. Two of the Niland brothers, whose story inspired Saving Private Ryan, lie buried here as well. Colleville sur Mer’s bluff-side location frames sweeping sea vistas with graceful, natural landscaping.
We were very moved by the respectful and somber end of day flag ritual.
As dusk drew on, we made our way back to Bayeux, where Colin dropped us at the train station. I don’t remember very much about the train back to Paris that evening, so immersed had we been in the past. Ending our visit to Normandy with the D-Day cemeteries was one of its most powerful aspects.
If you plan to visit, we highly recommend the services of Normandy tour guide, Colin McGarry, who brought history alive for us. Colin will meet you in his car at the station in Carentan. The early train from Paris Gare Lazare arrives in Carentan at about 8:30 am, after about a 2-1/2 hour trip. We’d previously purchased a Global Eurail Pass, which covered the train fare. If you’re fortunate to have more than one day to spend in Normandy, you will be able to add Cherbourg, Mont St Michel and other WWII sites to your visit. D-Day 70th Anniversary events extend well into August and September of this year.