My husband and I started our tour in Normandy. Seeing the windswept dunes of Juno and Gold Beaches, where Canadian and British forces attacked, and the towering bluffs of Omaha Beach, where Americans saw the bloodiest battles of the invasion, we tried to imagine what it was like to be a soldier on D-Day. The famous Normandy American Cemetery & Memorial and museums in Arromanches and Caen offer endless information, including personal accounts, to visitors to give perspective on the historical significance of the operation and the sacrifices of the thousands of men involved. The crisp white marble crosses and Stars of David lined up in rows amidst an expanse of meticulously tended green lawn makes visitors soberly contemplate how many died both on June 6, 1944 and the days ensuing, especially the 9,387 American soldiers buried in the cemetery.
Many of Normandy’s World War II sites have been left as they were that terrible day--bomb craters and all. In Longues-sur-mer we saw the huge gun emplacements capable of blowing up ships miles away left by the Germans, some of which seemed only slightly damaged. Pointe du Hoc, where the Rangers famously scaled a cliff to destroy heavy artillery (which turned out to have been moved inland before the invasion), still looked like a moonscape with huge craters from the massive shelling by US warships. In Arromanches, we saw many of the caissons still sticking out of the water that the British military used to build a temporary harbor to unload tanks, trucks and other heavy equipment during the invasion. As we drove from site to site we realized that it is, perhaps, testament to the success of World War II soldiers that the rest of Normandy is once again verdant fields, elegant hedgerows and charming villages navigated by narrow country roads snaking their way throughout the countryside.
Movies like The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan and special series like Band of Brothers have given World War II, and especially Normandy, a special place in American consciousness. So, perhaps my husband and I might be forgiven for being so unprepared for the seemingly endless and shocking World War I sites and memorials we encountered during our visit to Verdun in northeastern France. Ninety years on, the quaint town of Verdun, nestled among breathtaking rolling hills, remains the catchword for trench warfare at its most horrific and death and destruction on a scale never seen before – and, hopefully, never again. We didn’t expect that the visit would be even more numbing than our visit to Normandy. We started at the American Cemetery which is the largest American war cemetery in the world. Who knew? There are 26,000 American soldiers buried in two separate cemeteries near Verdun. Few visitors were there, but we did meet a few locals who, when they'd discovered our nationality, recounted to me in detail all the wonderful things that American soldiers from both world wars have done for France (much of which I'd only learned myself during my stay in France!) and finally bade us farewell with an animated "Vive l'Amerique!" That was remarkable to hear considering that 400,000 Frenchman lost their lives in the same war. Just as many Germans did as well and it was unfathomable to us as we drove around such pretty countryside the carnage that existed at one time there.
After the cemetery, we saw the remnants of one of several villages that were completely destroyed during WWI by German shelling. Where once an entire community lived now stands piles of rubble overgrown by vines and weeds with bomb craters peppering the area. We couldn't believe the residual damage 90 plus years after the fact. A sign near where the village church once stood explained that the village cannot be restored due to live ammunition still turning up and pollution of soil and ground water by decaying bodies and lingering mustard gas.
Our final stop was at a place called Les Tranches des Bayonets (The Trenches of Bayonets). It is also a cemetery of sorts by a group of French soldiers who were taking cover in trenches from German shelling that was so severe they were buried in the process, many of them with bayonets still sticking straight up out of the ground. You can still see them today--a morbid sight to be sure.
A visit to war sites, especially sites as horrific as those mentioned here, may not be everyone’s first choice destination for a vacation. But on a 65th and 90th anniversary, you can be sure to walk away from them with a greater respect, admiration and appreciation for the sacrifices made by the brave people who wrote the history of the places with their lives.