As I write this, it is the last Monday of May. For my friends in the UK, It is the Spring Bank Holiday; here in the US, it is Memorial Day.
I have previously written a little about the history of Memorial Day, and compared it to November 11, Veterans Day in the US and Remembrance Day in Britain and the Commonwealth.
Earlier today, I paid my respects at the local National Cemetery. While there, I was reminded of May 2003, when my wife and I visited Normandy and Holland.
For my British friends, hopping across the English Channel to the French coast is an easy trip. From where I live in the Western US, it was a significant journey; one could almost call it a pilgrimage.
What we had originally planned as a sightseeing vacation in England become something more when we added a side journey to Holland and France; however, most of the itinerary had already been built out, and our time on the continent was limited. There was so much to see, and not enough time to do it. But I did not know if I would ever have the opportunity to go there again, and it was important to me to see where some of the most significant events of 1944 took place.
We crossed the English Channel by car ferry and landed at Sword Beach at dawn, aware of the peaceful nature of the journey. There at the ferry terminal in Ouistreham was a memorial dedicated to the Commandos and Combined Operations. Our first objective was to drive to Benouville to see Pegasus Bridge. From there, it was a short drive to Ranville and the War Cemetery where many of the graves were for soldiers of the 6th Airborne Division. We then went to the Merville Battery, then took the coast road through Sword, Juno and Gold Beaches. There were monuments and memorials everywhere we looked. Our day ended at St. Laurent-sur-Mer and the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach.
The next day was spent exploring Medieval history: the Bayeux Tapestry, the nearby cathedral, the massive castle in Caen, and the grave of William the Conqueror. Another day was dedicated to driving from Normandy to Arnhem, to see where 1st Airborne had fought; once we reached the Netherlands, we tried to follow the same route taken by XXX Corps during Market-Garden. We only had one full day and part of another for Arnhem and the surrounding area, and much of it was lost dealing with car trouble. But we made it to John Frost Bridge, the Hartenstein, and most importantly, the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery.
Something that struck me, and what I felt compelled to write about today, was that the Americans and British took very different approaches to burying their fallen. The British believed in burying theirs where they fell. The Americans sent the remains of most their war dead back home; those who stayed in theater were collected in large, centralized cemeteries. There are dozens of British war cemeteries of different sizes across Europe, but all close to the battlefields. Just in Normandy, there are fourteen British and two Canadian cemeteries. There are just over 2,000 men buried at Ranville; in Holland, there are just over 1,700 at Oosterbeek. By contrast, there are only two American cemeteries in Normandy; the one at Omaha Beach has over 9,300 graves.
The headstones are different, as well. Each British marker is engraved with the cap badge of the soldier’s regiment or corps. Below the name and rank is often a short text chosen by the family; sometimes it is a verse from the Bible or a favorite poem, sometimes it is just a short statement about the man. Visiting the graves of the Airborne soldiers at Ranville and Oosterbeek, I felt like I learned something about each man buried there; it was a rather intimate feeling, making each loss that much more sad and personal.
The American cemetery was just as touching, but in a different way. There are over 9,000 white crosses, interspersed with the occasional marker topped by a Star of David. My wife was particularly touched by the Jewish graves, knowing what those men had died fighting against. The cemetery is enormous; standing at one end, we could not see the other. There was a vast ocean of white marble, and it was that enormity that overwhelmed us with grief. We could also look down the bluffs to see where so many had been killed coming off their landing craft and struggling up the steep terrain.
After returning home, I was tempted to give up reenacting. As much as I have always enjoyed living history, visiting the graves of those who died liberating Europe was a sobering and life-changing experience. Shortly after, however, I attended a public event when a an elderly Englishwoman thanked me for wearing my battledress. She noted the Pegasus flash on my arm and told me that she had not seen one since her brother had served as a Glider Pilot. That experience warmed my heart and reminded me of the real reason I do what I do.