Tag Archives: D-Day

British and German Cemeteries in Normandy

In my last blog post, I wrote about our visit to the American cemetery near Omaha Beach, Normandy. We also visited British and German cemeteries in Normandy. The cemeteries are different in important ways that helped me realize the losses experienced by people from different sides of the conflict in World War II.

German Cemetery, La Cambe, France

German Cemetery, La Cambe, France

At the German cemetery at La Cambe, the remains of 21,000 German personnel are interred. The American cemetery at Omaha Beach is visited by more than one million people each year, and there were scores of people there during our visit. People walked among the American graves, filled the visitors center, and took part in organized tours. During our time at the German cemetery, however, there were only two other people present, and quiet filled the air.

As you enter the German cemetery, you can leaf through a book of names of those buried on the grounds. Near the end of the book are printed words that could apply to Germans, Americans, Brits, or nearly any other people:

Darkly rises the mound over the grave of the soldiers.
Darkly stands God’s command over the dead of the war.
Yet brightly glows the sky above the towering crosses,
More brightly still shines their comfort: The final word is God’s.

British Cemetery

British Cemetery

The British cemeteries around Normandy differ from the American cemetery in two significant ways. First, British cemeteries include remains of soldiers from different countries. We visited British cemeteries in Bayeaux and Ryes. At the Ryes cemetery, 335 Germans are buried along with the Allied dead.

Second, while grave markers in the American cemetery all are white and include minimal embellishment, tombstones in British cemeteries include individual epitaphs chosen by surviving family members. Walking through the graves, I read many moving testimonies. One marker says, “You were only one to all the world but all the world to us. Mam, Dad, Sister, Brother.”

Serjeant S. Barber, Royal Artillery. Died 2nd August 1944, Age 30.

Serjeant S. Barber, Royal Artillery. Died 2nd August 1944, Age 30.

Another grave marker was especially poignant. The tombstone for Serjeant S. Barber, Royal Artillery, who died on August 2, 1944, at age 30, includes words from his mother. It says,
Dear Son of Ann Barber. His father killed in action 1918 is buried at Conde. Remembered.

American Cemetery in Normandy

During our time in Normandy, we planned to visit the American cemetery to remember the soldiers who died there. What we did not expect, however, were deeply meaningful visits to British and German cemeteries. In this post, I will reflect on our visit to the American cemetery, and in the next post, I’ll write about our time at the German and British cemeteries.

Looking toward Omaha Beach

Looking toward Omaha Beach

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial sits high above Omaha Beach near the towns of Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer and Colleville-sur-Mer. The American Battle Monuments Commission maintains the cemetery, which is picturesque with white grave markers in neat rows. The grounds are immaculately kept, and the serenity that fills the place is a fitting memorial to the brave service members who died in Normandy. Much like Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, DC, the setting is moving and inspiring.

The American cemetery contains the graves of 9,387 service members, and the names of 1,557 service members are inscribed on the Walls of the Missing.

In addition to the grounds, there is an excellent visitors center, which opened in 2007. You can learn the larger story of Operation Overlord and hear stories of individual men and women whose lives were altered in Normandy. Some of them died there, some were injured, and others lost their sons, husbands, fathers, or brothers.

The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves, bronze statue at American cemetery

The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves, bronze statue at American cemetery

One particularly moving experience is the movie, Letters, which focuses on letters written by service men who died in Normandy. While hearing their letters to loved ones and seeing pictures of these young men before and during their military service, I realized the depth of the loss when they died in Normandy.

Visiting the cemetery is well worth the time and effort involved. It is indeed a fitting memorial to the American service members who died on D-Day and in the Battle of Normandy.

A Hymn of Peace

As our family prepared to depart from France, we arrived in Paris on 7 January. As we checked into our hotel, we saw a television monitor with scenes from the attack at Charlie Hebdo. At that moment, the gunmen were still at large and believed to be northeast of Paris in the direction where we were staying. Police presence was heavy that day and again at the airport as we departed the next day. This was a chilling reminder that hostility still permeates much of our world.

British Cemetery, Ryes, France

British Cemetery, Ryes, France

Just a few days before, while in Normandy, our family visited the American, German, and British cemeteries. (I will post about our experiences there in the coming days.)

While at the cemeteries, I reflected on one of my favorite hymns, “This Is My Song, A Hymn of Peace.” While serving as a pastor in the United States, I often included this hymn in our worship on the Sunday closest to July 4, when Americans celebrate the founding of the country.

The hymn reminds me that many people from many countries love their homelands, and it calls people to peace that transcends national borders.

Some stanzas were written by Lloyd Stone in the years between World Wars I and II. Other words were written by Georgia Harkness, a United Methodist theologian and, like me, a graduate of Boston University. The hymn, which is set to the tune Finlandia, says:

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

May truth and freedom come to every nation;
may peace abound where strife has raged so long;
that each may seek to love and build together,
a world united, righting every wrong;
a world united in its love for freedom,
proclaiming peace together in one song.

Given the recent events in France, the prayer of this song is especially fitting. May it be so.

American cemetery, Omaha Beach, Normandy, France

American cemetery, Omaha Beach, Normandy, France

Normandy Beaches

Omaha Beach looking toward Pointe du Hoc

Omaha Beach looking toward Pointe du Hoc

One of the highlights of our time in Normandy was visiting the beaches where the D-Day invasion began on June 6, 1944. While walking on Omaha Beach, the scene of so many American casualties, I was struck by the incongruity of what I saw there seventy years later. The beach was calm, with a few clouds in the sky, and people enjoying their time on the shore flying kites, walking dogs, and playing with children.

Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach

A dear family friend, Zedekiah Cassel, had been a young American soldier landing on the beach at Normandy. Zeddie told a few stories about his time in Normandy, and I wondered what he would have thought to see people frolicking on the same beach where he nearly lost his life. Would he be pleased or upset, concerned or happy?

To enhance my experience in Normandy, I read Stephen Ambrose’s book, D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. Near the end of his book, Ambrose quotes General Eisenhower who visited Omaha Beach on June 6, 1964, to mark D-Day plus twenty years. Speaking with Walter Cronkite, Eisenhower looked over the scene and said,

You see these people out here swimming and sailing their little pleasure boats and taking advantage of the nice weather and the lovely beach, Walter, and it is almost unreal to look at it today and remember what it was. But it’s a wonderful thing to remember what those fellows twenty years ago were fighting for and sacrificing for, what they did to preserve our way of life. Not to conquer any territory, not for any ambitions of their own. But to make sure that Hitler could not destroy freedom in the world.

Looking down at Omaha Beach from American Cemetery

Looking down at Omaha Beach from American Cemetery

I suppose the setting in Normandy today, with its calm beaches and tranquility, is what the soldiers would have hoped for. Standing there on the quiet beach and later looking down from the cliffs, I was struck deeply by what they must have faced that day — and how fortunate I am today.