“There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Abstract words such as glory, honour, courage, or hallow were obscene.”
-Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
We left Arras behind this morning and, with it, the First World War. The drive to Dieppe went by reasonably quickly and we arrived on a cliff overlooking the English Channel late in the morning. We stood in the shelter of a hedge in a bracing wind to discuss the Dieppe raid and the catastrophe which took place here. All told, five of our group gave presentations today, discussing the various beaches and various regiments which played a role on August 19, 1942. The raid was so complicated, and in many ways so doomed to fail from the very beginning.
It was an oddly emotional day today. Most of us have read about Dieppe before, and we have seen the numbers of men who died or were taken prisoner here. We have seen articles about the planning, why Dieppe was chosen, who participated here. And we have learned about how the raid ended for the Allies: with shattering, heart rending losses. Today was a reminder that reading about it and seeing the field in person are two very different things.
A walk along the beach is difficult and exhausting. Instead of sand, the Dieppe beaches are in most places made up of rocks. Slippery, uneven rocks of varying sizes on an uphill slope. The idea of running straight up these beaches is horrifying. We were able to see the cliffs which bookend the beaches – the cliffs which provided the Germans such excellent lines of sight on the day of battle. We saw Blue Beach and the incredibly narrow funnel through which the Canadians tried to attack. And it became so obvious why Dieppe was such an extraordinary disaster. I walked away feeling small, struggling to comprehend the futility of it all.
Futile. Pointless. Tragic. These, I think, are words which come to mind when considering Hemingway’s quote (though he wrote it in 1929, the sentiment does not change). It is hard for me to consider that these men died for the sake of glory, honour, or courage, though certainly they possessed these things. These men, by and large, died for nothing here. Dieppe is etched in memory as a monument to senseless loss, tragic miscalculation, and the crushing pointlessness of war. This is not to say that those who fell in Dieppe should be remembered with anything other than pride and sadness, but the raid itself was simply a tragedy.
I’m struggling with these words even as I write them. There is always a desire to find a point. Young men died, and there must be a reason. But our sad day in Dieppe left me with the overwhelming impression that sometimes…sometimes there isn’t.