I’m now reading Triumph in the West, the second volume of the Alanbrooke diaries. The English gentry continue to amaze me. A month before D.Day he spent a contented Sunday afternoon in a hide watching a marsh tit. The odd pheasant shoot with the King with scores of birds being despatched. I am up to the landings and the battle for Caen.
Anne and I had a holiday in Nomandy in 1999 including a weekend country homestay north of Caen. Our host took us to Aramaches, one of the beaches where the British came ashore on D.Day. My diary reads: ‘The remains of the old Mulberry harbour are still there, part of war's debris but a reminder of the size of the enterprise. The Channel looked choppy and uninviting, even the little cafes with names like Churchill looked rather empty and forlorn. At the museum there were displays of the harbour and relics, a very good slide-show in English and a documentary made not long after the war - one forgets the tone of those old news-films. It finished with a small French girl giving flowers to the Allied soldiers.’
Not far away there was ‘a little cemetery where British, Canadian and German soldiers lie in row after row. A considerable number had the tag, an unknown soldier. Each grave had a little rose in front of the stone. The countryside was so quiet. Back home Anne and I went for another walk up a trail, arched over in places with beech trees with the sun shining on wheat stubble and contented dairy cows. Courting couples and family groups all said 'bon jour' as they passed.’
Caen’s a city steeped in history with its two fine cathedrals, one housing the remains of William the Conqueror, the other his wife Matilda. We were impressed by the Museum for Peace, especially by the large split-screen display of the actual beach landing, a montage of Allied and German newsreel plus additional material from movies such as The Longest Day. The build-up of events on both sides of the Channel was well-done. There was also an audio-visual programme of the Caen hinge battle - those poor civilians and that wrecked town.
We visited Bayeux, a town ‘crisscrossed by a little stream which has millwheels on it and ducks and swans’ and saw the famous tapestry. It exceeded all expectations, the original comic strip, ‘William, the build-up in Normandy, Harold's oath of allegiance, funeral and death of Edward the Confessor in that order, the channel crossing, the battle itself, dead knights having their armour stripped off. It’s a miracle such a flimsy piece of material survived while stone walls have been battered and demolished. Not only was there the story, but the scenes of peasant and animal life above and below it were delightful. I liked the cameo where the priest is bringing William's daughter to Harold in the main text. In the sub-text there is a man hastily disrobing obviously eager to get into the marriage bed.’
I wrote this poem on my return:
The Channel sources
a chill wind, jet trails
clutter the sky, inside
a comic strip tapestry
narrates William’s battle.
Once called the Bastard,
now the Conqueror. Peasants
strip armour from the dead
Not far away, beyond
placid tractors and stationary
cows, stranded hunks of rusted
floating harbour, evidence of that
more recent landing. Men died
in what is now the carpark where
sparrows struggle for the tourist crusts.
Two slaughters that
helped assemble my existence.