The 75th Anniversary of D-Day: Why Do You Come Back to Normandy?
Editor’s Note: This article was written by an American monk, son of a veteran, after having discovered this piece of history from the first chaplain parachutist fallen on D-Day, also a monk, the Rev. Fr. Ignace Maternowski. His body was found near the Pont La Fiere, scene of the celebrated battle, the bloodiest of the liberation of Normandy. Faced with the fear of the increasing number of wounded, the monk-chaplain crossed the front lines to ask the commander of the German forces the authorization to assemble the wounded from both sides in one station of first aid. The authorization obtained, the priest returned toward the line of the American parachutists, but a German sniper, who ignored the agreement, shot him in the back. Later, the German authorities asked for pardon.
Why Do You Come Back to Normandy?
For the reason of the horrors of every war, what veteran would not wish to just put everything behind him? To this question, I propose the following several responses.
Firstly, from a superficial perspective, one could say that the old combat soldier was returning to Normandy in order to relive the glory of the victory, the fight, or to participate (with great honor) in the military and civilian celebrations such as the ceremonies and parades that commemorate the original date of the battles and which are frequently held around the battle site itself.
In a solemn but cordial climate, one renews friendships, makes conversation, lays wreaths down, recollects oneself in silence to commemorate one’s fallen comrades, etc.
All of these things are done as veterans, but also as survivors.
There is no need for eloquent words; the veterans who return to Normandy relive the sentiments of the end of a great conflict.
It is already a lot to take in.
But all of this only scratches the surface of the public manifestations organized by diverse authorities. It is evident that one makes a great effort in order not to forget the price of the end of this vast war. To call this a gesture of commemorative honor is really an understatement.
Liberty, even though it is explained using hundreds of definitions, is not something that is free.
From 1939-1945, France was a country that was brutally occupied, oppressed, humiliated, and reduced to a police state. The first American soldiers to arrive had a difficult time restraining the French who, in their delirium of liberation, in seeing the Germans raise their hands as prisoners of war, were immediately tempted to indulge in violent reprisals.
To put these first aspects aside, I consider that other more personal reasons exist for which an American veteran soldier would return to France.
A Sense of Duty
On June 6, 1944, the American soldier arrived in Normandy to accomplish his mission, to do his duty of military service. This combines the wills of several unified nations in one sole will which demands that the soldier bind himself there where he is ordered.
The soldier is mobilized; he obeys; he advances; he retreats; he lunges toward the enemy; he plunges himself in chaos; he faces the fire of combat; he fights both physically and spiritually (body and soul); he is totally engaged. All of this is normal. But this “normal” means that there is also a very small chance that he will leave alive. The soldier in combat continually lives in tension and fear. This combat provokes conflict from minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day. The intensity of combat is impossible to explain, even more so because the duration is indeterminable. And when this is multiplied by months and years, one can easily understand that the war veteran is marked forever: he is profoundly affected, stigmatized for life. The wounds are most often those that don’t meet the eye. Humanly speaking, the soldier asks himself the question: is this war really “human” …?
The numerous public accounts underline the fact that the war was not the same for all of the combatants. One distinguishes with reason the volunteers from those who were called “conscripts” [A person drafted for military or naval service].
Among the volunteers, the parachutists of J-Day were known and respected by reason of their grave and total sacrifice. Among the 13,700 men who jumped from planes after midnight, 3,000 were already dead before sunrise.
In contrast to certain selected soldiers, the conscripts were there on duty, for better or worse. They were less motivated; they fought to survive. But, in a less glorious context, heroism was seen all the same.
War for the combat soldier doesn’t allow him to have an overall perspective, a bird’s eye view, a view of the whole conflict like you see in films.
Understand well that war, for the soldier during combat, is merely the few hundred meters before him, behind him and at his sides. He doesn’t see more than that. For him, war is a cold reality thrown in his face. He only knows his own horizon.
A World At War
A world war engages several countries; the whole world is implicated. It is enormous! But the combat soldier himself knows only a very small part.
What is more, the soldier doesn’t know anything about the advances of the war; who is winning, losing…apart from the incoherent transmissions of poorly-connected walkie-talkies. He ignores what is happening on the other fronts. The veteran who returns here, desires to better understand what actually happened. He needs to orient himself amidst the drama that he endured. He retraces the steps of his regiment; he rethinks his decisions, good or bad; he relives the moments of victory or defeat. He rediscovers the place where his best friend fell. He looks at the landscape, the roads, the battle fields where many secrets are buried which he would prefer to forget. To interpret these things, the old combatant must be both historian and student in order to understand the incomprehensible through which he lived.
The return to these places of war is not a simple visit to a cemetery or a search for the tomb of a comrade. I believe that the return of a veteran to Normandy is a pilgrimage, a spiritual march in search of serenity and peace deep within the soul. This is why the soldier returns here where he faced death and where he saw so many horrors.
After the struggle of war comes the duty of silence imposed by military law. In effect, before his return to civilian life, the soldier swears to remain silent concerning the [classified] events that he experienced. This makes it that much more important for him to return to the place where he fought. But now that the law of silence has now been lifted, he can experience seeing and perceiving the events of those days more clearly than ever in light of the numerous historical studies which have been authorized in our time.
At Omaha Beach, there is a simple reason for which a cemetery was erected above the beach. This area was the site of an extreme concentration of human effort, an extreme intensity of heroic suffering, an extreme triumph of hope, and one remembers that the liberation of Europe began at this very place. The price of freedom being the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. This is war; it is also the price of peace. This war overthrew social order in all of the countries of Europe. Despite a very opinionated concurrence of political context, the soldiers have come here to make an end. The landing places on the beaches possess therefore a sacred valor, both historical and spiritual. Here, blood ran, bullets whizzed, shells burst; yes, it was here that the war entered into its most terrible and deadly phase.
The thousands of crosses that cover the ground and the buried bodies of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice witness from now on that peace and liberty also began again here.
Peace and liberty are the most precious goods of people and individuals; they are the characters of social order and Christianity. This is, in my opinion, the most noble cause for which men accept to confront death.
For a young soldier of 18-19 years old thrown into the fire of combat, in the rage and intensity of the conflict, obliged to face the fiercest army in the world, Normandy will remain a sacred land forever; one cannot describe it otherwise. We are united in this return of the veterans to understand what remains of the war. War is something of a paradox; it is a mystery.
Thank you for reading this.
Translated from the French by Associate Editor Jane Carver.