When I think about war cemeteries, this is the sort of thing I imagine – somewhere quiet and bleak and sombre.
Recently I went to Normandy with Dan and we visited Bayeux War Cemetery and the Marigny German Military Cemetery. I had been to both before but this time, in late summer/early autumn we were greeted with something I hadn’t experienced on my previous visits – a blaze of colour.
The German cemetery is located about 2km from the village of Marigny, on the D341 – Rue du Cimitière Allemand in the part of Normandy called La Manche. It’s in among fields and is very green – spread out under a blanket of trees, in front of a stone chapel. It’s definitely quiet, and sombre in a way, but mainly peaceful and respectful and beautiful. Stone crosses grouped together in trios with terracotta slates spaced out in the grass, bearing the names of the 11,169 German soldiers who are buried here (and many which say simply ‘ a German soldier’ in German) are ordered in simplistic fashion that stays true to the German spirit. The trees make it seem almost like one of the Woodland cemeteries popular in Germany. On this day it was raining, but under the trees we seemed protected from the misery of cold water falling on us and the rainbow of wild flowers gave a celebratory atmosphere – a celebration of heroes and an optimistic way to remember thousands of men who died far too young.
The cemetery at Marigny was originally a temporary American war cemetery, used to give a decent burial to the soldiers who fell during Operation Cobra. German soldiers were buried here too, and after the war the U.S. soldiers were removed to a war cemetery just outside Omaha Beach on the Normandy coast, with bodies of German soldiers who had fallen throughout northern France and been buried in temporary graveyards or unmarked graves disinterred and moved here by the German Government, so that they might have a decent burial. Today the cemetery is maintained by the German War Graves Commision. Volunteers look after the site – they are mostly young people, the idea being to teach young people in Germany about what happened here, and the realities of war, as well as to develop a shared understanding with other nations.
The day after we visited Marigny, we drove to the city of Bayeux, famous for the tapestry that isn’t actually a tapestry, and that probably wasn’t made in Bayeux. Just outside the centre of town is Liberation Alleè, the street on which Bayeux War Cemetery is located. It’s the largest World War 2 cemetery of commonwealth graves in the whole of France. Over 4000 men and women are remembered here. Rows and rows of bright white gravestones, bearing the names of those from the UK & other countries in the Commonwealth who died between 1939 and 1945 stand here. And heartbreakingly, some bearing the words ‘a soldier of the 1939-1945 war – known unto God’. Walking around, reading the dates on the stones, I noticed that most who are buried here died in the weeks and months following D-Day (June 6th 1944). And here, again, on the day that we visited (sunshine and showers – big showers that sent us running for cover) were rows and rows of wild flowers, all different colours and growing to different heights – as if refusing to be contained. A haze of colour to celebrate so many lives.
A poppy from last year’s sweeping sea of 800,000 ceramic red flowers at The Tower of London had found its way to Normandy and was touchingly displayed in front of the memorial stone in the centre of the cemetery.
Some of the graves stood shoulder to shoulder in among the evenly spaced stones. Friends? Members of the same company?