(Our blog is longer and later today because of the events of the day.)
Today is the story of two epic battles, staged about twenty miles apart and separated by 878 years, each dividing history into before and after. The first is known today as the Battle of Hastings in October of 1066. This was the day that a native of France, known the day before as Guillaume de Normandy, became known the day after as William the Conqueror, King of England.
The city of Bayeux, situated in “Upper Normandy”, is known worldwide as the host city of the famous Bayeux Tapestry. This 70-meter long, 1-meter high piece of embroidery (not tapestry as we know it today), tells in 57 scenes the why and how of William’s establishing himself as King of England. I would share with you my own photos of this stunning piece of handiwork, but photography is forbidden (tell that to the guy who put his smartphone in video mode and walked the full 70 meters in record mode, but I digress). Instead of my own photos, I suggest you check this out for more details than I could provide here: Bayeux Tapestry
Beyond the tapestry, Bayeux is a lovely city to visit and – guess what? – they have a stunning cathedral.
The cathedral itself provides an architectural segue into the main subject of the day: D-Day plus 70 years. On this day seventy years ago the largest invasion in the history of warfare took place, this time in the opposite direction from that of William the Conqueror, and not for the purpose of seizing control, but of returning it to its rightful owner. Make no mistake about this: Europe at large, and France in particular, have not forgotten, nor have they belittled, what happened on that day. This documentary movie poster is evidence. The French title is On a Tous 70 Ans, and in English We are All 70. The message is plain—the producer wants the French to feel as if their life began anew on D-Day. There is a certain hyperbole, to be sure, considering that a few hundred yards away is the Tapestry that tells a slightly different story. But there is room for multiple points of view.
I’m afraid I almost started an international incident. I noticed, as we approached the building and I was grabbing a few external shots, that flying atop the main spire were the flags of France, Great Britain, and Australia. The US flag was conspicuous (to me) in its absence. I guessed (correctly, as it turned out) that this was probably because that part of the coastline was penetrated by primarily British and Australian troops, with the American troops landing farther west. But I made the mistake of picking the wrong person to ask. A sweet gift-shop lady took my question to mean “doesn’t France understand the USA was involved too?” even though I was ably assisted by a bilingual gentleman who offered to help explain my question. She insisted I pay attention to this window, which clearly includes the American flag in the upper right. The prayer inscribed in the white square at the bottom, which in English in the window itself, reads:
O Lord my God, when thou givest thy servants to endeavor any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning, but the continuing of the same until it be thoroughly finished which yieldeth the true glory.
We left Bayeux and moved west to Ste. Mere-Eglise. For you WW II and D-Day history buffs, that’s the first village liberated on D-Day. The town was immortalized in the film The Longest Day, not only because it was the first, but also because of what transpired that day. In brief, the paratroopers missed their landing zone and instead of landing in a nearby field with time to regroup and attack the village’s defenses, they floated down into the town square and were met by the German defenders who happened to be on alert due to a fire in the village. One soldier’s parachute caught the church bell tower and he hung suspended, unnoticed by the German defenders, watching in horror as his buddies were massacred before his eyes. The event is immortalized today with a reproduction on the bell tower, with real parachute silk catching the breezes.
One thing we didn’t expect was the popularity of WW II reenactments not so much by Americans, but by the French themselves, complete with authentic period uniforms, weapons, and vehicles of all types. There is a certain cognitive dissonance one experiences walking up to group of John Wayne-type soldiers speaking fluent French to one another!