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La Cambe

Some grave markers and crosses at La Cambe. 

I’m struggling to find the right words to describe La Cambe, the German War Cemetery we visited in Normandy. Perhaps I can start with some context.

The Treaty of Versailles stipulated that German war dead would not be repatriated. Their burial and cemeteries would be subject to the control of the French people. Those provisions still applied at the end of World War II. France buried Germany’s dead. In the late 1950s, France negotiated a new treaty with Germany that transferred ownership of the cemeteries to a German commission for the war dead. That commission (not a part of government) now administers the cemeteries.

From the German Cemetery at LaCambe

La Cambe is a somber place. From what I understand, the design of the cemetery began with Nazi planners who, during the war, conceived of places where their victorious fallen heroes could be memorialized. La Cambe obviously does not employ the overt Nazi symbolism contained in those original plans. Where a swastika might have been perched atop a central mound (a tumulus, really), there is now a Christian cross flanked by the figure of a mourning father and a mourning mother.

The tumulus contains the remains of many unknown German fallen as well as some who seem like high-ranking casualties of the war.

An inscription at the tumulus.

View from the top of the tumulus.

Interrupting the graves at regular patterns are sets of five crosses. Each set of five crosses oversees a plot of forty graves, though not every plot has such a set. The sets alternate. From a distance, the crosses look like formations marching.

Some sort of lava-esque rock is used for the monuments.

There are quite a few trees. An earthen fence (like a hedgerow) surrounds the cemetery. Some students thought it was dark and oppressive. I prefer the word somber.

Soldiers aren’t buried individually. They’re buried in pairs or even threes. Rank, date of death, identity (known and unknown) are buried together. Plain plaques like flat in the ground identifying the soldier name and dates of birth and death.

How do people memorialize the fallen youth from a war that ends in defeat? How does one mourn those lost and buried on soil that had been conquered but then lost? How does one memorialize the fallen (sons, brothers, uncles, friends, husbands) who died for cause long considered odious and offensive to the sensibilities of man?

A lecture in Washington prepared me for this, so it’s inaccurate to say that this site moved me more than I expected. But had you asked me one month ago that I would find this the most haunting part of my trip, I wouldn’t have believed you. But my brief stop at La Cambe might be the experience that gnaws at me more than any other.  


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