Normandy: The Epicenter of Western Civilization

While most Americans have not visited Normandy, there are few places outside of the United States that have so greatly impacted our culture as this northern stretch of coastal France.  When most Americans hear the name Normandy today, the decisive battles known as D-Day come to mind.  While these battles are deserving of the tremendous attention they receive, they're not the only battles that come from that region that have shaped western civilization.  In the last post I shared with you some of the historic cities and towns that are spread throughout Normandy, but today we're going to visit arguably the most important city in the region, Bayeux.  From the reign of an outcast noble whose conquest would change the English speaking world to the brave soldiers from distant shores who rushed into unquestioned danger to free Europe from the grip of Nazi control, over the span of a thousand years, Bayeux was the center of two single day events that shaped our history, and the beaches nearby were the location of the triumph of freedom over tyranny.

As I said in the last post, I would rent a car to travel through Normandy.  The roads throughout the region are wonderful, there are gas stations located conveniently in every town, and most of the towns had ample parking.  There are train lines that run throughout the region, but if you're planning on visiting the D-Day beaches, you'll still need to rent a car and drive out there, or take a guided tour, which honestly is not necessary.  If you decide to base your stay in Bayeux, I would like to recommend the apartment we stayed in, located right in the heart of old Bayeux.  Danielle, the owner of the property, is the quintessential French lady, and speaks perfect English should you need any help getting around.

When you think about pivotal moments in world history, we often think of massive events like World War I & II.  However, not every war that changed the face of the Earth was a struggle of millions of young men fighting for years on end.  One of the most salient (big word, I'm sorry) battles ever fought was the Battle of Hastings in 1066 A.D., between the forces of Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman forces of France.  So here's a quick history lesson.  In 1066 A.D., King Edward of England was dying without an heir.  Either he was a confused old man, was forgetful in life, or just wanted to mess with some people one last time, because shortly before his death he promised the crown of England to three different men, Harold Godwinson (his brother-in-law), Harald Hardrada (King of Norway), and William the Bastard (Duke of Normandy).  After Edward's death, Harold Godwinson had himself quickly crowned the king, but the other two both set sail for England to claim what they believed was their crown.  After the now King Harold defeated the confusingly named other King Harald, that left two claimants to the throne.  That set up arguably the most famous battle of all-time when on October 14th, 1066 A.D., the Norman forces of France defeated the Anglo-Saxon forces of England.  This event catapulted William the Bastard into the much more elegant name of William the Conqueror.  The impact of this battle has resonated for a thousand years.  Now, with French rulers (who ironically identified more with their Norse heritage) as rulers of England, we get a blending of languages that would create the English language so many speak today.  Okay, back to Bayeux.  Bayeux was the seat of the Duke of Normandy, and now with their leader having gained a new kingdom of his own, he needed to tell his predominantly illiterate subjects about his amazing victory.  How do you do that?  Well, enter his brother Odo, who had a nearly 70 meter long tapestry created that could be exhibited to not only justify, but glorify his brother's victory.  Once hung from the columns of the Bayeux Cathedral, the relic of medieval times is amazing to behold.  Housed in a museum just a block from the cathedral, visitors today can walk along with an audio guide and explore every stitched scene.  While one would think it would be condescending to King Harold of England, it actually portrays him in a positive manner.  The museum has a wonderful exhibit about life in the Middle Ages, the impact of William the Conqueror on our modern lives, and has a full-size recreation of the tapestry from behind in case you want to see how it was made.  When you're done, walk down the block and go visit the Bayeux Cathedral.  A church has been on this site since the time of the Romans, and the current cathedral dates from the 12th Century.  The cathedral is believed to have been the site where William of Normandy forced Harold Godwinson to take an oath of loyalty years before the Battle of Hastings, which led to William's anger when Harold claimed the throne.  The highlight of the cathedral is the crypt, which was apparently lost for centuries until the church went looking for somewhere to bury one of their bishops, and accidentally unearthed a crypt from Roman times.  After you are done in the cathedral, walk over the Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy, located just a few blocks from the cathedral.  A very detailed museum, completely in English, it does a very thorough job of explaining the events that led to the invasion, and how Bayeux was chosen as the first city to be liberated following the invasion of the Allies.  Across the street is a British war cemetery to honor the thousands of British who died defending their historic rivals.  All of these three sites are within a ten minute walk of each other, and can easily be done in a full day.

The next day we got up and set out on our two days of journeys to the beaches of D-Day.  For those who are not big history followers, then this blog probably is very boring to you, but D-Day was June 6th, 1944 A.D.  Actually known as Operation Overlord, it was the first attempt by Allied forces during World War II to retake France from Nazi control.  Launched from the coast of England, hundreds of thousands of young men simultaneously converged upon five beaches in Normandy while facing what seems like insurmountable odds.  Landing on the beaches code named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword, American forces were responsible for taking the beaches of Utah and Omaha.  Setting out from Bayeux, we first drove to the port city of Cherbourg, the largest port on the Cotentin Peninsula, located just a few miles across the English Channel from Great Britain.  Cherbourg was the location of Napoleon's planned invasion of England during the Napoleonic Wars, and the last place the Titanic sailed from on mainland Europe before suffering her fatal demise.  After walking around for the morning, we took a short drive to Utah Beach.  At Utah Beach, you will find what looks like a traditional American beach with wide patches of sandy shore.  What made this beach dangerous during the invasion by American forces is the enormous shore that's exposed at low tide.  The ships had to drop off Allied forces during low tide to make sure they didn't run into mines set by the Nazis, so this meant the invading soldiers had to run for hundreds of yards to get to the dunes protecting the Nazi forces.  While the capture of Utah Beach was much easier than capture of neighboring Omaha Beach, it wasn't without challenges.  Approximately 3,000 Americans lost their lives on those quiet beaches that today serve as horse training grounds.  After walking around the beaches, take in all of the monuments that have been erected by different groups throughout the years to honor the American fighters.  Go into the museum there, which is one of the best of the many D-Day museums in the region.  We found ourselves again almost completely alone in this sprawling museum that held many objects that were obviously left behind after the conclusion of fighting.  There is also an entire bomber on display that was used to drop bombs on Nazi forces farther inland.

The next day we drove out to the more famous Omaha Beach.  Best known by the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, this iconic location is known for the same towering cliffs that we see throughout much of coastal Normandy.  At around 6:00am on June 6th, Allied forces began the largest amphibious assault ever organized.  Young men again were dropped off at low tide, and then had to rush through the many yards of beaches dogging hedgehogs (giant crossbars of steel), land mines, barbed wire, and Nazi machine gun fire from cliff top bunkers known as pill boxes.  When they arrived to the cliffs, that's when the hard part began.  Soldiers were forced to climb the hundred foot high cliffs, avoiding enemy fire all the way to the top.  When they reached the top, they had to root out the entrenched Nazi soldiers who had been ordered to fight to the death.  Throughout the day of fighting, around 5,000 American soldiers died, which was shockingly less than expected.  While you are visiting Omaha Beach, start at Point du Hoc.  These locations are maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, and are completely free.  Wandering through, look at the house sized craters left behind after American bombers and battleships opened fire before the invasion.  Walk through the German bunker, and understand why the Germans felt they were secure in their giant concrete fortress.  Look at the massive anti-aircraft weapons that Nazis were using hoping to take down American planes.  Marvel at the cliffs that young men bravely conquered to deal a major blow to the Nazi regime.  When you're done there, go over and visit the Normandy American Cemetery, the final resting place of more than 9,000 American soldiers who lost their lives in World War I and II.  Notable among the burials is Teddy Roosevelt Jr., the son of the former President, and the general who led the invasion of Utah Beach and survived, but died less than a month later while still fighting.  At the cemetery, which is also free to visit, you will find another amazing museum.  I would highly recommend this museum over the three other ones in the area, but they are also fine to visit in you want to take in another site.

As you're walking through these sites, especially the D-Day beaches, try to put yourself in the mindset of young men who know little of the world, but knew they were about to be put into a very dangerous situation.  Most had never heard of Normandy, but they were willing to fight because they knew their cause was that of freedom.  The type of bravery they displayed freed the world from the oppressive tyranny of Nazism, and allowed a wave of democracy to spread across western Europe.  I can't imagine myself ever being in that type of situation, but what it does is help me to remember how thankful I am for the brave men and women who serve our country in the military, both past and present.  Without their courage, we may not have the rights we enjoy today, rights that so many take for granted.  If you see a veteran, especially one of the precious few from this greatest generation that is still alive, please take the time to thank them for their service. 

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