Germany Honours Its Fallen!
Trip Start Apr 16, 2011
10Trip End May 03, 2011
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Where I stayed
Outside of Cretteville, Normandy
Over 21,000 German soldiers of the Normandy campaign are buried in this compact 18-acre site. The cemetery is bounded by a bocage style hedge-row with trees paralleling the motorway and access road. This perimeter provides views over the marshes which are so prevalent in the area. Large oak and beech trees provide shade for the well manicured lawns encompassing the clearing itself. The atmosphere is one of serenity and peace. This may provide solace to respectful visitors but it is, no doubt, lost upon those German combatants for which this is their last resting place.
The original cemetery at La Cambe was established by American forces as an aspect of a busy military field hospital in 1944
In the mid 1950s, the American dead were either repatriated to the United States (60 percent) or interred (40 percent) at the Omaha Beach cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer (about 12 kilometres to the north and along the coastal plain). Thus, there was no longer a need for La Cambe as an American facility. With the signing of the Bilateral Accord of 1954, the responsibility for exhuming, recouping and reburying the German dead could begin. Thus, La Cambe became available to the German Federal Republic and to the civilian authority, the Volksbund.
By 1956, the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgraberfursorge (an association of German people, founded in 1919, for the care of war graves) took over the grounds at La Cambe and started to consolidate many of the graves of the 250,000 Germans killed on French soil during World War II. Given the feelings of many French residents towards the German Occupation and the simple reality that isolated graves and small cemeteries created other complexities, there was some haste required for the transfer the bodies to a more central location
The Volksbund started laying out the new cemeteries by using the services of independent architects who, in turn, employed gardening landscapes specialists for their design and operational expertise. When entering a German cemetery in Normandy, a visitor is immediately struck by the remarkable grandeur of the surroundings: the manner in which the entrance is arranged; the complexity of the workmanship going into construction of the grounds; the solemn choice of materials; the manner in which space is utilized; and, the precision of the trees that dominate the whole.
German cemeteries are unique in that they can be seen from within but not the inside from without. Entrances to the cemeteries are narrow and stark which makes for a dramatic impression upon the visitor, particularly when the centre piece of the cemetery is a large tumulus (at La Cambe) or a cross (at Huisnes-sur-Mer in the shadow of Mont-St-Michel).
At La Cambe, the dominant feature of the cemetery is the 'Tumulus', a central burial mound rising six metres high, surmounted by a large cross of basalt between two statues. Groups of headstones and crosses dominate the cemetery itself
The approach to the cemetery is along a northern side road which leads up to a long and high stone wall. Off to the entrance side is a reception type building that has quite a prominent set of displays, most of which ascribe to the theme of peace and reconciliation. As the motto of the Volksbund is "Reconciliation above the tombs, working for Peace", there is an opportunity for visitors to write constructive comments.
Access to the cemetery is through a narrow opening which has memorial manuscripts on both sides listing each of the soldiers buried on the grounds. These 'reference' books are quite helpful for anyone looking for particular grave markers. I was interested in several deceased members of the Wehrmacht, including Michael Wittmann.
Wittmann was the SS officer commanding a formidable group of Tiger tanks (the Heavy Panzer Battalion 101 of the Panzer Lehr Division) who, almost single handedly and with the assistance of a small number of other tankers, set about destroying a major armoured formation of the British 7th Armoured Division (the famed 'Desert Rats') at Villers-Bocage
So, once inside the wall, one is struck by the simplicity of the layout of the cemetery, the impressive nature of the Maltese crosses and the understated manner in which the grave markers present themselves. This is a place that has been well planned with lawns well maintained. It is a compact place with trees strategically placed to enhance the general layout. It is a place of restful calmness and purpose.
No matter where i visited during this trip to France I was struck by the absolute dignity by which the dead from the Normandy campaign are treated
And, the one consistent observation that can be made is that, no matter at which war cemetery a visitor appears, the grounds will be attended to with an immaculate touch. The grave markers are kept in remarkable condition; the grass is trimmed in a fashion that would do justice to any golf course; the trees and shrubs are sculptured; the crosses, statues and prominent features are striking; and, all are welcoming and open to the public free of charge.
Whatever one's view of warfare, the Second World War, the futility of conflict and/or the clash of ideologies, it was those participants on the Normandy battlegrounds who paid the price. By and large these members of various armed forces did not choose to be in France. It seems to be the least that we can do to at least recognize that the combatants on both sides had little say in how or why they wound up in Normandy, in 1944, and in the many cemeteries afterwards
-Absolutely consider a visit to Normandy cemeteries. Yes, they can be very depressing. Yes, they remind every visitor of the tremendous loss to all societies of combatants who were young, so full of life, so energetic and having so much promise. Yes, this was such a waste. However, as the living and as successors to these dead souls, every visitor has a real opportunity to pay her/his respects.
-Other entries in this blog attempt to describe visits to other cemeteries, including the second half of the blog entry on Mont-St-Michel.
-"Gardens of Remembrance: The men and their destiny". OREP Editions. ISBN: 978-2-912925-15-2. This is a concise, detailed and photogenic 50 page masterpiece which describes the cemeteries that came to be as a result of the Normandy campaign of 1944.
-"Landing Beaches". Jean Quellien. OREP Editions. ISBN: 978-2-915762-70-9. A sound and comprehensive survey of the main invasion beaches and the aftermath.