Christmas 2012 in the north of France with dear friends….. une célébration idyllique! Despite the 8 hour drive from here (deep in the Dordogne) and the ‘vigilance orange‘ warning for heavy flooding in the north, the corgi and I set out December 21, excited for the road trip. We drove for 7 hours, reaching Basse-Normandie, to spend the night in Ver-sur-Mer, next door to Courseulles-sur-Mer and Juno Beach, site of the Canadian forces landing during the WWII liberation of France.
It was, as forecast, raining. Relentlessly. Visions of wretched WWI soldiers suffering the trenches in bone-chilling rain and boot-sucking mud--floated to mind as fields along our route rose into lakes, and portions of roads churned into racing rivers. The flooding was unnervingly real.
We arrived at our B&B well after dark, (having dodged our way around unexpected ‘routes barrées‘), tired and bleary-eyed and glad to have found port in the wild weather. The place charmed, as did the friendly owner and my new 'best friend', her golden retriever Grenade. (french for pomegranate, though the english spelling seemed mildly ironic, as my ‘raison d’etre‘ for being there in the first place was to visit the site of the Normandy invasion).
Always the rain. Heavy, sodding, cold, relentless. In the weather-slicked courtyard of the Juno Beach Centre (Canada’s WW II museum and memorial), I stood transfixed before Canadian artist Colin Gibson’s bronze-green sculpture of five helmeted soldiers, viscerally bound in courage and strength of conviction. They appear to be launching bravely and purposefully into eternity, a fitting artistic statement to that fateful day in June 1944 when Canadian forces first stormed Juno Beach as part of the Allied Invasion (Operation Overlord) to liberate Occupied France. As a work of art, regardless of location and context, it resonates to the very bone.
Inside the Centre however, there was a party going on–adults and children, mostly employees and their families, were gamely singing ‘Petit Papa Noel‘ while a rather bedraggled-looking Père Noel looked on benignly. There were seasonal refreshments, but I declined to linger, preferring to duck into the museum’s display area and have it to myself.
To enter the museum’s exhibits I had to pass through a doorway into a small, empty room with an industrial steel plank floor. As the doors closed behind me, I was left standing in semi-darkness amid the sensory bombardment of a surround-sound movie of heavy seas churning spray at me, and thundering cumbersome bombers overhead. The intent is that you experience a WWII soldier’s ‘verité‘ in crossing the English channel in a landing barge, enroute to the bloody battle for the beachheads of Normandy. Very visceral.
Throughout the museum the interactive displays and ‘living’ histories, the riveting personal stories and in-the-field artifacts struck the few visitors there that day, myself included, into silence. Suddenly the full reality of my own father’s harrowing experiences as an RCN Lieutenant aboard a small corvette in the North Atlantic, vainly trying to shepherd ‘sitting duck’ merchant convoys through U-boat wolf packs, (pardon the upcoming pun) sank home. He rarely if ever shared his war memories; naive questions were routinely deflected to safer waters. But here were the facts, figures and testimonies of life at war. Raw, vivid, wrenching, inspiring….
There is a quiet room towards the end of the exhibits, dimly lit, with simple cubicles to sit in and listen to personal letters of soldiers, as read by professional actors. Projected onto the departure wall of this quiet room is a rolling list with every name of every Canadian soldier who died in WWII. It takes 13.5 hours to scroll through the entire list. This detached and simple 'factoid' stays with me..….
Outside the museum, the weather was as grim as the German machine-gun bunker that still menaces the crest of the dunes. Juno beach itself was deserted. Well, almost. Wild wind whipped the surf to a boil. A lone windsurfer skimmed the angry waves at breakneck speed. Forlorn site in December. Gunmetal skies, sodding rain, machine-gun wind.
I walked the beach alone. Cold length of demarrara sand and dank seaweed; once bloodied horizon that spanned thousand upon thousand breaths. Two giant crosses --Christian at one end, ‘Croix de Lorraine‘ at the other--now mark that brave and sorry universe, known for time as Juno.
I confess I cried. How can you not? Such unimaginable courage in the certain face of death. Such conscious sacrifice. Such monstrous losses.
The beach is an ever open monument. Poignant elegies are yet delivered by a restless sea. A rusted rifle, still-birthed from the deep, barnacled into forever silence. A soldier’s broken helmet, the metal now sea-paper-thin. Fragile lamentations….