Ivy in the Ruins - On the Beach, a Bitter Ghost
L. S. B. SHAPIRO
CAEN, France—It was early afternoon of a beautiful summer’s day. At low tide a spa, cious stretch of beach sloped from the yawning mouth of a broken German pillbox to where little waves from a placid sea ran onto the sand and gracefully collapsed.
There were groups of people on the beach and wandering around the pillbox, plain people, mostly stocky housewives making crochet-work and snapping at their children, for Courseulles is not one of the fashionable beach towns of Normandy. Before the war it was known only to the small wage earners
of Paris as a place which was cool in summer and where the wife and children could live en pension for very few francs.
It is a drab town filled with drab boardinghouses, like hundreds of other plain beach towns along the Normandy coast.
It might have remained thus forever in grey anonymity had it not been for an inscrutable finger placed on the location by a staff officer at Supreme Headquarters in London in 1944. Amid the fire and thunder of June 6, 1944, Courseulles and its adjacent beaches of Graye and Bernières became
the immortal landing places of the Canadian Third Division.
But that was five years ago. On this bright summer’s day in 1949 it was once again the same drab lower-class resort town, somewhat more untidy because a few of the buildings remained in ruins and others were pock-marked by shrapnel and gunfire.
In the shadow of the big German pillbox next to the oyster basin, Madame Pinot, wife of a conductor on the Paris Metro, and her four small children sat on a strip of oilcloth spread out on the sand. Madame Pinot knitted and savored the cool breeze off the Channel, speculating no doubt on how hot it must be in Paris.
The Beaches and Beyond—The Battlefields Today. Photos by Ken Bell]
“You drive out beyond Caen, across the tortured acres ... You look for some sign that will make communion with the past. And find none.”
The children played in the sand. After a while, one of them simulated the noise of a machine gun and charged against the jagged side of the pillbox.
With a sigh Madame Pinot stretched on her haunches and brought down the child with a wellaimed slap. Amid the child’s wailing Madame Pinot unwrapped a paper container and began handing out long thickly cut sandwiches of saucisson sec, an operation which stilled the child as if by magic.
Two English couples examined the pillbox, peering wondrously into its dark interior. They took pictures of one another leaning against it and standing on top of it. One of the women shouted, “Now Tony, why don’t you lie down like a dead German and let them take a snap of me with my foot on your chest.”
The man called Tony mumbled, “No, let’s go have a beer. I’m tired of mucking around these ruins.”
“Oh, you’re an old stick in the mud,” the woman said.
And they skipped away laughing;
On the opposite side of the pillbox a boy and girl lay close together on the sand kissing unashamedly.
FOR ONE who stepped on that beach on D-Day, it 'comes hard to visit the place now. It comes hard because the stranger returned finds himself torn by a cruel and unreasonable resentment.
There was nothing wrong with Madame Pinot and her brood munching sandwiches in the shadow of the pillbox, nor with the gaily foolish remarks of the English trippers, nor with the kissing of the boy and girl (except that the latter might have chosen a more secluded spot). But the stranger returned feels a bitter anger.
I remember that beach and that pillbox. I had landed at Bernières, a mile or so to the west, and by the time I traveled along the shore path to the Courseulles beach the fighting was over in the immediate area. True to Montgomery’s cardinal instruction, our troops had smashed through the strip of beach defenses and had established themselves inland. The pillbox and the beach fronting it were deathly quiet.
Half submerged in the surf about 30 yards from the pillbox was one of the swimming tanks of the Second Canadian Tank Brigade. Its canvas fins were shredded, floating back and forth on the breakers; its silent cannon pointed straight for the pillbox; its turret was holed; it was burned out.
Between the tank and the pillbox there were rows of barbed wire, and on the barbed wire, face down, lay the Canadian dead, shattered as they sought to flank the German strongpoint. The dead, face down, were strewn from the water’s edge to the shadow of the pillbox where Madame Pinot and her children now sat enjoying the breeze and the saucisson sec.
Inside the pillbox the German gun crew lay in grotesque positions. They were horribly mangled by grenade and bullet and knife. A heroic crew, they fought viciously to the end. Only one sought to escape; he lay on his back just outside of the rear entrance and his stiffened mouth was open as if in wonderment. I remember the body well. It lay at the precise spot where the boy and girl were kissing unashamedly.
The main square of the town of Courseulles is the confluence of a tangle of narrow streets. Only one street is clearly distinguished by a sign which reads; “Caen 18 Km; Paris 270 Km.”
If you follow this direction sign for about half a mile, you find the road squirms out of the town and runs through flat fields. The countryside is deserted. There is not a vehicle in sight—and it is almost unbelievable when you remember the tanks and t rucks and jeeps and artillery jamming this road in the days of the narrow bridgehead. No one dared make a detour into the fields for there were signs everywhere, “Achtung1 Minen!”
But now you drive fast in the bright sunshine. About three miles inland you reach a crossroads and you turn sharp right. You ascend a gentle grade toward a plateau and soon you spy a Canadian flag against the sky.
When you reach the high ground, you see, spread out around the base of the flagstaff, the crosses gleaming white against the deep green grass. This is the Canadian cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer.
It is a magnificent setting, and from it one can see a panorama of the beaches where these men died. Out to the left the ships which formed the breakwater still sit silently on the sea waiting, as these heroes wait, for time and the elements to return them to nothing.
Yet there are other fields to remember, fields more poignant than this beautifully arranged pat-
tern of death. A little farther along the Caen road, where the woods begin, there is a corner of a farm which was the first temporary burial ground. It is grown over with grass and poppies now and children of the community cavort in it.
I stopped at this field, and a young boy, perhaps eight , came away from his playmates and examined my car. I asked him, “Do you remember the war?”
His eyes widened. “I remember the war,” he said with a seriousness which is one of the exclusive charms of French children, “but I was too young to fight.”
A few miles down the road, at Basly, a fork leads across the fields toward Bretteville l’Orgeilleiythe line of advance of t he magnificent Seventh Brigade. Here was the deepest Canadian penetration and the fiercest fighting of D-Day.
The fields are not recognizable now. So neatly fenced and furrowed, so quiet, so lush with new crops surely they were never holed by shells and slit trenches, and men never screamed and died here.
Nature, you come to believe, heals more quickly than man. Towns like Colomby and Thaon and Vieux Cairon still bear the scars of war. But in five years nature has swallowed up its desecrations. The burnt-out woods are full-flowered again, the tank tracks have been covered over, and even the once-blackened walls of ruined dwellings are gay and green with creepers.
The stranger returned looks at the restoration and once again he is filled with unreasoning bitterness. The urge to forget must be great; great and justified and peculiarly obscene.
The Guns of Liberation Sang Marianne's First Lullaby Five Years Ago
Along the highway which cuts straight as an arrow for Caen, you brush the outskirts of a little town called Rots. Once again, memories. There is a manor house set in the centre of spacious grounds; a fine house with fine gardens and well-built stables. There are well-dressed people sitting about the garden on this sunswept afternoon and polite laughter rises above the tinkle of teacups.
There was a time, fewer than five years ago, when the space between the garden and the stables was filled with slit trenches; men crouched in these trenches and the air was shattered by the burst of German shells.
There was another time when a sorry cavalcade of a few armored vehicles circled into this garden, and men, white despite the grime on their faces, dropped on the grass. They sought rest but their outraged eyes would not close and they mumbled the details of the battle below Caen in which the Black Watch of Canada was cut down almost to a man.
I walked over these grounds in the bright, peaceful sunshine, and the squire who owned the place walked with me. He seemed proud that no sign of war was allowed to remain on his estate; he spoke kindly of the troops who had swept the Germans from his land.
“But,” he added stiffly, “they did not fill the trenches when they left. I have asked my government to make a claim against the British government for what it cost me to have my grounds made proper again.”
You drive along again toward Caen and soon you pass the shattered hangars of Carpiquet and you remember how the decimated Chaudières fought hand to hand one terrifying night on these runways. Their opponents were the young blond tigers of the 12th SS and every inch of runway was paid for in blood. Now graceful sport planes wing in and out of the airport; it is the headquarters of the Normandy Flying Club. *
* * *
NOW YOU are in the city of Caen. It is still shattered. Fields of-rubble reach down to the Orne River. Spanning the river are the Bailey bridges constructed under fire by engineers of the Third Canadian Division. This was one of the most gallant jobs of the war.
The people of Caen travel back and forth across these bridges; they are sad people to be sure, for the vista is still dreadful to behold and in the summer heat the smell of death still seeps from beneath the rubble.
Of all the people of France, the Caennais are the most sullen when one speaks of the war. They refuse to admit that our heavy bombing was necessary and they become emotional recalling the medieval charm of the city before the dawn of June 6, 1944.
Nor is their bitterness softened by the memory of men who crossed the ocean to liberate them. Except for official pronouncements few kind words for the Canadians can be heard in Caen. True, they longed to be freed from the grip of the hateful SS, but not at such heavy cost.
“You know,” a hardware merchant said as he looked me blandly in the eyes, “you are not popular in Caen. They may cheer you everywhere else in France, but in our streets you will hear no cheers. One half of our city was destroyed and one quarter of our people were killed by your bombs. It is a high price to pay.” He sighed softly.
“You say the bombing was necessary. We were here and we know. On the morning of June 6, even before the landings, the city was destroyed—yes. But I reckon not a single German. The Boche were not here, not in the city itself. Your intelligence was at fault.
“How can we be grateful to you when every family in Caen has a relation lying under the rubble?” You drive then out beyond Caen across the tortured acres toward Falaise. The road is deserted and the quiet is shattering. You look for some sign that Will make communion with the past. You find none.
The valley of the Laize is rich and peaceful.
There’s not a scar to show that these urgent yards on the way to Falaise were measured by the bodies of youths from Montreal and Toronto and the western plains.
And you come to the head of the road that descends into Falaise. You turn into the hamlet of Vaston and from its high ground you see the spread of valley between Falaise and Argentan.
You stood here once before, on August 17, 1944, when the valley was known as the Falaise pocket and the verges of its roads literally ran red with German blood. Again you find no sign. There are birds instead of rocket-firing Typhoons, gardens where cannon were based, poppies in the fields instead of bodies.
It has taken you less than two hours of leisurely driving to cover the ground the troops covered in 77 terrifying days. You look across the spread of valley toward Argentan and again you are assailed by an empty bitterness.
* * *
YOU retrace the road to Caen and you wonder: Why bitterness? Why blind resentment of people who are trying to recapture the flow of life? What sin has Madame Pinot committed that she feeds her children on the cool beach at Courseulles? Or the English trippers, the youthful lovers, the country squire?
Suddenly you know. You remember that D-Day five years ago, how the little ship approached the stricken beach and you determined desperately you would not die. Death might be for the man beside you; not for ydti.
Then you consoled yourself: If you did die, it
would be for a great ideal; if death must come, it was a good way to die; better than in an automobile accident, or a lakeside drowning, or of a wasted old age. Here was high purpose. This is the way you consoled yourself.
Now you revisit the beachhead and in the mind’s eye you see yourself lying with the others, face down on the wire. This is the way it is five years later when you have long gone to earth.
It is not Madame Pinot you resent. Or the others. They live their lives as though men never fell here. That is all right. You do not want them to mope and be mawkish for the rest of time.
It is the huge world of which they are the essence that you resent. The world has learned nothing. We are edging ever so slowly to the precipice of another 1914, another 1939. The brave things that were uttered as the inspiration for D-Day are obscure as the flat cemeteries well hidden up from the beach.
In politics and diplomacy, in economics and world authority, the brave words are obscured and men are scrambling once more for power.
The resentment is not in you. It is in the ghost of you.