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Memorial chapel at Brittany American Cemetery.

We visited quite a few cemeteries on this trip. It may be worth sharing a summary of how these cemeteries differ.

Canadian War Cemetery we visited on our first day. 

An inscription found at Canadian War Cemetery.

A family's epitaph to their fallen hero. 

Our first visit was to a Canadian Cemetery. This is one of many that belong to Britain and the Commonwealth. Custom for these cemeteries was to mark the graves with a somewhat rectangular tombstone that contained an appropriate symbol for their branch of the service, personal details (name, rank, unit, date of death), and a possible epitaph from their families. Families were provided the option of having an inscription carved in (within a certain word limit) for their boys’ resting places. Most families took up that offer. I didn’t know what I would think of the words they chose, but found myself moved from them more than I expected. The Canadian cemetery is dotted with various flowers that one would find in Canada planted between the graves.

The epitaphs offer a meaningful way to personalize the gravestones. The unit names are more colorful than what one sees on U.S. gravestones where units are pretty much identified by number. Also, the tombstones were written in English or French, and I observed that two different men from the same unit had their tombstones in different languages from one another which suggests a lot of attention to honoring the identity of the the soldier. 

From a visit to the Airborne Museum. This was a temporary marker set aside by French civilians to mark the grave of an American G.I. Note the message on the back of the stone visible in the mirror. The French civilians' care of our soldiers' first graves moves me profoundly. 

Brittany American Cemetery. 

Memorial chapel at Normandy American Cemetery.

A row of unknowns at Normandy American Cemetery. 

The two American cemeteries we visited included Normandy and Brittany. These are the only two that exist in Normandy. (Yes, the Brittany one is actually in Normandy.) They’re grander, larger, with rather imposing structures at each. The chapel at Brittany contains a pair of beautiful murals chronicling the victorious campaign and various units’ locations in that victory. Normandy has a similar display, but I found the one at Brittany more beautiful. A large chapel sits at the top of the Brittany cemetery, a smaller one sits in the middle of Normandy.

American graves are marked mostly with crosses. Occasionally there is a Star of David instead. The inscriptions contain name, unit, date of death, state of residence upon entry into the services. There is not inscription from the family. It creates a beautiful uniformity: perfect rows, columns and diagonals at Normandy, gently arcing (but perfect) rows at Brittany.

An interesting thing to note is that only 40 percent or so of American servicemen who died in France are buried in France. When the war was over, the U.S. government offered families a choice: free burial at an overseas cemetery or free repatriation so that next of kin could bury their fallen at a place of their choosing (and at their own expense). America had the resources to make this possible. The British did not.

This is a good time to comment on the fact that the French residents of Normandy suffered losses of nearly 20,000 (which is about the size of an Infantry regiment). It was a tremendous loss of life. They paid a greater debt in blood than did the other regions of France for the country’s liberation. Some cities were spared (like Bayeux) but others were laid waste, like St. Lo. We visited the civilian cemetery at St. Lo, which proved to be a very moving experience. There were graves of soldiers, veterans who survived the wars and soldiers who died for France in the war. These soldiers hailed from World War I, World War II, and colonial campaigns after 1945. Monuments in the cemetery paid tribute to both 1914-18 and 1870-71. I ponder how they grieved their dead from 1940 as they lived under occupation.

Then there was the portion of the cemetery dedicated to civilians who died in the liberation of St. Lo. In some cases families were buried together. Sometimes victims who happened to be together were buried together. Some tombstones simply said child, remains, or bones. It was hard to fathom.
The cemetery itself was a scene of fighting. In fact, one U.S. battalion commander turned one family’s crypt into a command post. Some leftover pieces of soldier kit suggested that Germans had done the same thing before his unit took up residence.

At St. Lo Civilian Cemetery.

At St. Lo Civilian Cemetery.

Civilian tombstones at St. Lo Civilian Cemetery.

Military dead at St. Lo Civilian Cemetery.

Some students and teachers outside a family crypt that was used as a battalion command post for American Infantry in the battle for St. Lo. 

Stark evidence of St. Lo's destruction: the reconstructed bell tower of a church in St. Lo. 

All outwardly evidence suggests the Normans largely welcomed the Americans as liberators. I’m sure there were exceptions. There was definitely loss, destruction, and grief. They paid a great price for their freedom. And I’m glad as an American to have the gratefulness from this region that I believe is genuine.

This brings me to the most difficult topic, the German war dead. We visited one of their cemeteries, and I’ll say more on that in my next post. 

We saw this quote at La Cambe, though this image comes from the Museum I visited in Bayeux. 


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