Our entire day today was focused on the actions of Canadian troops on D-Day and the Normandy Campaign. We traveled down the various sections of Juno Beach (where the Canadians landed), beginning the day at Saint Aubin-sur-Mer and ended the afternoon with a visit to the Juno Beach Centre in Courseulles-sur-Mer. While in Saint Aubin we were approached by a local man, Monsieur Meyer who asked if we spoke French. Upon finding out that we were Canadian and at least some of us spoke French, he proceeded to share his story with us. He lived in the village during the war and was there on June 6th, 1944 when the Allies arrived, he remembers the day well. After the attack slowed in the early afternoon he wandered out to the beach and saw something he had not seen in four years, a box of chocolate. Being only 9 years old at the time he, of course, decided to get some of this chocolate. On the way he tripped on something and immediately excused himself; it was a dead body. M. Meyer, without pause, continued with another story.
What I found especially striking, other than the fact that he was a civilian child in the midst of a large-scale invasion, was how M. Meyer told this story, he recounted it without hesitation or apprehension that one might expect someone to feel as a small child coming across a dead man on his local beach. This could be a factor of the number of times he has told this story over his lifetime, or perhaps the emotion associated with the experience has simply lessened in the years that have since passed. In any case, it was strange for me as a young person with no personal experience with horrors such as those of the Second World War, to hear them recounted so nonchalantly. I cannot imagine nine year-old Brianna continuing on a quest for chocolate after tripping over a dead man, in fact I’m rather thankful that I cannot. M. Meyer then went on to tell us about how he became a sort of ‘mascot’ for the Régiment de la Chaudières who were stationed in the area, following them around and riding in their vehicles and the like. He said that when one or more of the men didn’t return in the morning that he was told they had ‘run out of luck’ rather than that they were killed, it was some small attempt to shelter the boy from the harsh realities of the war, or at least to protect him from experiencing more than he already had.
Our new friend M. Meyer also expressed his displeasure over the fact that there are a number of German bunkers and machine gun posts that are preserved along the beach in Saint Aubin and the surrounding towns. He said that the war is over, they serve no purpose anymore. He thought that they should be destroyed, or, at the very least, nature should be allowed to take its course and erase any traces of the war on the land. Unlike many people, of his own generation and younger, who strive to commemorate the war and the efforts of the thousands of Allied soldiers in the Normandy campaign, M. Meyer wanted the daily reminders of this tumultuous and tragic period in history to be allowed to fade into obscurity.
In contrast with M. Meyer, were the hundreds of men and women we saw today who were dressed up in period army, navy, and air force uniforms, complete with tents, jeeps, ‘gucci kit,’ and even a dog’s Red Cross uniform. They conveyed an atmosphere of celebration echoed by posters inviting everyone to a “D-Day Festival.” The vast majority of these people would have been very young, or not even born during the time of the war, but were representing its participants in a very public and (arguably) over-the-top fashion. Coming from a rain-soaked and foggy week studying the WWI and a particularly sombre day at Dieppe and its heart-wrenching cemetery, the jovial mood of the WWII re-enactors and enthusiasts was especially jarring. Keeping in mind that all of the towns we visited today were small coastal towns that rely on tourists, it still didn’t seem right that the brutal deaths and woundings of thousands of men in pursuit of the liberation of France (and the eventual end of WWII) should be commemorated by grown men and women playing soldier on the very beaches on which they died. I can only hope that the atmosphere will be more subdued once the official D-Day ceremonies begin.
They shall not grow old
As we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them
Nor the years condemn;
At the going down of the sun
And in the morning
We will remember them.
-Laurence Binyon, For the Fallen
Brianna Spiess, University of Lethbridge