We’d set aside today to spend at the Caen Memorial and we did indeed spend the entire day there. It’s a blend of war memorial and museum, with information and exhibits focusing on WWII and also a specific focus on the Battle of Normandy and D-Day. It’s a fantastic place and I happily spent the day reading. We had audio guides to listen to as well, to give us more background to the exhibits, but I liked just taking my time to read all the information. I already knew a bit about this period of history, from my own interest and reading and various documentaries, but I learnt heaps and it was especially interesting to see how things were portrayed from a French perspective. The exhibits began from 1918, which reinforced how the seeds for WWII were planted with the Treaty of Versailles. There were images I obviously hadn’t seen before and one that struck me was a photograph of a group involved with establishing the divisions in Europe post-WWI and they were standing in a field beside a river, actually physically deciding where a line of division would be established. So it wasn’t all done on tables, with maps, it was an “on site” task of actually standing in a place and a group of men deciding which country would now own which side of the river. I had never considered it having been done like that.
The other image I found really interesting was a photo taken during WWII, of German women surrounded by piles of globes and their job was to physically mark on the globes where Germany’s new lines of occupation were. So they had marker pens and were drawing lines on the globes to show which parts of Europe were now under German control. One of the globes was on display and it had their texta marker pen lines over it, to show Germany’s occupation in Europe.
We walked through each year from 1939-1945, reading and listening to the information and stories from those involved in the war. The holocaust section was, as always, extremely moving, particularly the letters written by the German officers at the camps, describing what they did and their thoughts about their actions. Always very hard to read and think about and I learnt more than I had previously known about those events. Even reading some of the statistics that I hadn’t heard before, such as after the war, only 6-11% of Jewish children remained in the whole of Europe and in some places there were no children left at all. It’s just staggering to comprehend.
In the Normandy section we learnt that the battle of Caen was one of the major battles after D-Day and was instrumental in ending the war. It lasted days, rather than the hours it had been planned to take and after Caen was liberated, it was a major turning point for the allies. It left Caen in ruins though and 80% destroyed. That was the other thing I hadn’t realised, or had but forgotten, was the enormous civilian death toll in the Normandy villages, as a result of Allied bombing. The bombing wasn’t targeting German divisions or even German emplacements, but was aimed at destroying potential communication facilities. The result was horrific for the civilians in the towns and villages, made more so by the fact that they suffered at the hands of those who were fighting to liberate them.
We finished the day walking through a concrete bunker that had been used by German command during the D-Day invasions and then emerged into the Caen sunshine to sit and talk about some of the things we’d seen, read and learnt. Outside was a display of small granite and stone memorials, each from a different country, with a statement about the war. Walking along the line of these, each statement was very profound and made reference to freedom and liberty. I particularly liked the final one though, right at the end, which was from Greece. It said simply, “We prefer peace to war“. As simple as that, no superfluous words, just a simple statement that should probably be every country’s motto for international relations.
So that’s really all we did today, walked, read, listened and learned. It was really good to read about some of the towns we hope to visit as we cycle through Normandy and the history of their place in WWII has helped to give some context and a narrative for our ongoing touring.
We rounded out the day with some restocking of supplies at the supermarket and some housekeeping at the laundrette. It was at the laundrette that I was reminded again of the people we have met so far on this trip. So far, the people have been so friendly and so nice and as we were shoving an extreme load of washing into the machine we had another encounter of that sort. (By the way, we learnt our washing machine technique from the “laundry lady” at that campsite in Portugal who kept telling us to push more and more in and then she just gave the door of the machine a bit of knee and hip to ram it closed, so she was our teacher and we have learnt our lesson well and have employed her technique ever since!) While we were in the process of filling the machine, a girl walked in to use the dryer, “Bonjour!” She greeted us with a smile and chipper tone. “Bonjour,” we replied. We all sat together waiting for our respective loads to wash or dry and when she was finished, she bade us a hearty and cheerful, “Au revoir!” We have had that everywhere so far in France, strangers have been very forthcoming with their cheerful greetings and this has been the case with people from all ages and stages of life. Apart from the friendly strangers, the people we have encountered in shops or campsites or hotels have all been so polite and friendly and helpful and gracious as we bumble through the language barrier. So far it has been a very friendly introduction to France!
Tomorrow we take to the wheels and pedals again and begin heading further north towards the Normandy coast. I hope we continue to learn the history and stories of the region and have a sense of place for the facts and information we have learnt so far. We’ll have some road riding to do, so we aren’t too sure what the terrain will be like, we might have some hills to tackle. I’ve said to Steve though, that no matter what we face, we can’t complain! Given the history of the region and what has been endured here, we are in no place to complain about a bit of weather or a hill here and there, we will just have to slap ourselves with a healthy dose of perspective if we feel like moaning about anything! So on we go…with a smile…not a word of complaint…with open eyes…open ears…ready to learn and reflect…on we go!