Posts Tagged ‘Normandy American Cemetery’

Normandy Invasion and the Cemetery

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Jun 05 2015

Last year, I wrote this article about the invasion of Normandy, what went according to plan (some things) and what didn’t (most things). Quite honestly, if it hadn’t been for the dogged courage and sheer numbers of Allies that just kept running up that relatively-undefended beach, WWII might have gone on for much, much longer, or even ended differently.

 

Painted by military artist Joseph Gary Sheahan, 1944.  history.army.mil

“Omaha”  Painted by military artist Joseph Gary Sheahan, 1944. history.army.mil.  As usual with any image on this blog, click to see it at full resolution.

But no matter what, no matter how well the plan went, everyone involved knew that there would a a high cost in life. Even there, things did not always go as planned.  But how cemeteries like Normandy came about, had a long history, stretching back centuries.

What to do with the Battle Dead

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, in America and Europe, the battle dead were often buried near the battlefield, with little to no marker listing even a name. Most often, these graves were communal, so while you may know where your loved one was buried, he would not even have his own grave.

Taken from a 1905 archaeological excavation from the Battle of Visby.  The battle took place in 1361 on Gotland Island, Sweden.  These five mass graves are unusual as they were buried pell-mell while still wearing their expensive armor.   In most medieveal battles, bodies were stripped of their armor and weaponry before burial, but in this case, it appears that in the hot weather, 2,000+ bodies were more than the survivors or locals could strip before decomposition set in too far...so they were buried wearing all their battle armor.  A tragedy in the 14th century is now a grisly archaeological treasure.  Photo Source: Wikipedia.

Taken from a 1905 archaeological excavation from the Battle of Visby. The battle took place in 1361 on Gotland Island, Sweden. These five mass graves are unusual as they were buried pell-mell while still wearing their expensive armor. In most medieveal battles, bodies were stripped of their armor and weaponry before burial, but in this case, it appears that in the hot weather, 2,000+ bodies were more than the survivors or locals could strip before decomposition set in too far…so they were buried wearing all their battle armor. A tragedy in the 14th century is now a grisly archaeological treasure. Photo Source: Wikipedia.

Only the most influential would be able to have their remains shipped home for a warrior’s funeral (and even then, the corpse would be pickled in a barrel, hello Admiral Nelson!)

In the American Colonies/United States, the dead were buried more or less where they fell. My own fifth-great-grandfather, a man named Henry Dorton (later Dalton), narrowly missed being killed in a 1777 battle/incident now known as “Foreman’s Massacre”. The 22 dead in that incident were left for 24-48 hours until Dorton and those who didn’t die were able to lead others back to the area. The men were buried in a communal, unmarked grave until 1835, when the grave was marked. It wasn’t until 98 years after their deaths that the men were disinterred and moved to a cemetery, again, in a communal grave.

Another example of this mass battlefield burials (or non-burials) in Europe comes from the pen of  Louisa Adams,  First Lady of President John Quincy Adams.  In 1815, however, that was still in her future as she and her son traveled from St Petersburg Russia to Paris, where her husband was now stationed as a diplomat.  During the carriage ride, they had tried to avoid the battlefields and carnage stills strewn across Europe in the wake of Napoleon’s first series of wars.  But they failed.

“About a mile before we entered the town [of Hanau] I had observed a number of mounds like graves with crosses at their feet, in the ditches on the sides of the roads–we entered on a wide extended plain, over which was scattered remnants of clothes; old boots in pieces, and an immense quantity of bones laying in this ploughed field…this was the field of battle in which the Bavarians had intercepted the retreat of Napoleon, and that in this plain ten thousand men had been slain.  Conceive my horror at the sight of such a butchery!”  

The Battle of Hanau, painted by Vernet.  It currently hangs in the National Gallery in London.

The Battle of Hanau, painted by Vernet. It currently hangs in the National Gallery in London.  The road Louisa and her son passed over is likely in the background, heading to the town in the far back on the left.

Louisa was seeing the results of the Battle of Hanau, which had taken place sixteen months earlier.  Obviously, many of the approximately 13,500 dead from that “minor” battle were still visible over a year later.   It didn’t help that, while Louisa and her son traveled across Europe, Napoleon escaped Elba to start the wars again!

Some of these mass graves still come to light even centuries later.  Another Naopleonic-war mass grave was found in 2001 in Lithuania, for example.

 

The Civil War

Fifty years after Louisa, the Civil War in the United States changed many things in the nation, and the disposition of the war dead was one of them.

For one thing, it was now the Victorian Age. Not that Victoria had anything to do with it directly (at least, not until her beloved Prince Albert died in December 1861, when she turned death and mourning into an intricate art form) but both the British and American cultures had embraced an ideal of “dying a good death”. That is, dying surrounded by family, saying last words, being buried with dignity and grace.

But in the melee of the North verses the South, where Industrial Age Weaponry met traditional battle tactics, the sheer number of bodies that were left behind was far more than even the most hardened war veteran had conceived.  Bodies could be left open to the elements for days. Letters were written of the horror of seeing men, friends and family, laughing and living just days before, now being eaten by wildlife, exposed to the wilderness with no provision for death, burial, or proper remembrance.  The advent of photography on a scale that allowed the aftermath of battles to be photographed in detail also brought home the magnitude of the problem.  (For more on this topic, I recommend watching Ken Burn’s fascinating Death and the Civil War documentary. It’s usually available through PBS.)

As the months stretched into years, small feats of humanity were often the least that could be done for the dead and dying.

So many nameless men come down to us, speechless and dying, that now we write the names and regiments of the bad cases and fasten them to their clothing, so that if they are speechless when they reach other hands, they may not die like dogs, and be buried in nameless graves, and remain forever missing to their friends.” -Katherine Wormeley, civilian volunteer, US Sanitary Commission, and author of The other side of war: with the Army of the Potomac

Still, things were often impossible. The winners would bury their dead with as much dignity and identification as possible, but the enemy dead on the same battlefield would be left exposed, or thrown into a communal grave with no name recorded (in part because the other side would not have the records of who these men were).

A mass of dead after the Battle of Antietam.  I do not know if this is a prepratory mass grave, or where the dead laid after the battle. (If you know the story of this photos, please comment!)   But it was images like this that brought home the horror of war and the desire to have cemeteries, not matter how far from home, that gave a dignified resting place for the soldiers fighting.  Brady photograph.

A mass of dead after the Battle of Antietam. I do not know if this is a prepratory mass grave, or where the dead laid after the battle. (If you know the story of this photos, please comment!) But it was images like this that brought home the horror of war and the desire to have cemeteries, not matter how far from home, that gave a dignified resting place for the soldiers fighting. Brady photograph.

People who expected to lay their families to rest in family graveyards now faced the possibility that their men, who had marched off to defend their way of life, could be buried in a graveyard far from home, be buried in a mass grave with no marker, or worse, be forgotten and left to decay and be scavenged.  The government who called these men up and asked them to fight should, at the very least, people said, make sure that for those who fought for their country, at least had a decent burial in consecrated ground.  And so, in 1862, Abraham Lincoln established the first National Cemeteries, owned and operated by the Federal Government, not churches or localities.  After the war ended, the temporary battlefield dead were exhumed, identified if possible, and re-interred with dignity beneath a single marker.

World War I

Fighting abroad didn’t change this policy.  After WWI, the Americans created twenty-two cemeteries and memorials for their 70.000 war dead. The British, who had not anticipated the sheer numbers of dead modern war could create (the Americans had the “advantage” of the lessons of the Civil War), started WWI with no means of sorting, recording or identifying their dead at all.  For them, battlefield burials had been traditional mass graves near the battlefield or in the nearest cemetery, with little to no identification. Such burials were the norm for the “business” of war in Europe for a number of centuries.

This ended with the establishment of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission under the guidance of Sir Fabian Ware.

The WWI memorials, mostly in France and Belgium, spent years gathering, identifying, and repatriating or burying the dead of WWI.

Sadly, some of the WWI memorials were finished and dedicated as late as 1937, when it was all but certain the “Great War to End All Wars” wouldn’t be.

 

Normandy

Battle troops don’t carry coffins, or the means to bury the dead as a part of their primary duties. That was left to the Quartermasters, who also handled supplies. Thankfully, by WWII, military men carried “dog tags” on their person—a set of two. One tag remained with the dead, the second to go with the commanding officer, or burial detail. (Dog tags of various sorts were homemade during the Civil War, then manufactured by entrepreneurs for private purchase.  They became mandatory for the military in 1906 in the USA, were used by the Commonwealth from the beginning of WWI, and used by the Prussians as far back as the 1870s!)  This made tracking and naming the dead in both records and cemeteries much easier and more accurate.

So on June 6, 1944, as men landed on Normandy, the 604th Quartermasters were already assigned to land the next day, to take on the monumental task of burying the dead.

In the aftermath of the Omaha and Utah beach landings, the dead that could be located had been hurriedly buried by departing battle troops, often without the mattress cover to be used as a shroud. The arriving  Quartermasters were assigned to use land already selected near the towns of Cricqueville-en-Bessin and Sainte-Honorine des Pertes, but those towns still remained in enemy hands much longer than anticipated as the re-invasions slogged forward.

So the 604th Quartermasters continued to use the Omaha Beach cemetery.   As the battle troops drove deeper into France, then Belgium, then Germany, the 604th followed, burying men and recording names as they went.

This temporary cemetery would develop into the Normandy American Cemetery.  You can see just how close the cemetery was originally placed to the beach.  Taken 23 April, 1946, just after the war, and before any graves were moved or repatriated.  Photo Source: fold3.com

This temporary cemetery would develop into the Normandy American Cemetery. You can see just how close the cemetery was originally placed to the beach. Taken 23 April, 1946, just after the war, and before any graves were moved or repatriated. Photo Source: fold3.com

Following the war, with the heroic touchstone that Normandy proved to be, the decision was made to make Normandy one of two permanent WWII cemeteries in France.

To start with, each burial already in the temporary cemetery had to be exhumed, and families asked whether or not they wanted their loved one to remain in France, or be returned to a cemetery of the family’s choice.  In addition, there were single graves or small groups of graves buried with honor in village cemeteries all over France, where the local people had taken it upon themselves to bury airmen, paratroopers, escaped POWs, when they died in their locations.  These graves were often elaborately decorated with flowers and other remembrance tokens of the local French, who honored those who were fighting to re-take France from the Nazis.

Records differ, but between 60-66% of the American dead were returned home, those that remained in France were collected into the Normandy Cemetery and the Brittany American Cemetery.

In Normandy, the lawns of graves include the Garden of the Missing, for those who had been lost at sea, or whose remains had never been found in far-flung individual graves. Today, Rosettes are added to the wall if remains come to light and are identified. Just in front of the Garden, soars a 22-foot tall bronze statue: The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.

A chapel for prayer and reflection sits in the center of the cemetery.

Normandy American Cemetery was dedicated in 1957.  It covers over 172 acres, and still overlooks Omaha Beach, though it is now surrounded by a security wall.  The land it sits on has been gifted, in perpetuity, to the United States, which maintains the cemetery. Among the 9,387 graves include four women,  a father and son, and thirty-three sets of brothers.   One of these sets of brothers were the sons of American President Theodore Roosevelt.  Theodore Roosevelt Jr died of heart attack in July 1945, after helping lead the conquest of Utah Beach.  As he was to be buried in Normandy, his younger brother Quentin Roosevelt, who had died fighting WWI and was buried in a French graveyard, was exhumed and laid to rest beside him.  Quentin is the only WWI soldier to rest in Normandy Cemetery.

It is the most visited of the American Battle Monuments cemeteries.

Today, the dead are returned as part of war. Due to the constantly shifting battle lines of Korea, the dead were often shipped with the wounded to the closest MASH or secure unit to be sent home, rather than buried in foreign soil, which could then be re-taken by the enemy and desecrated or lost.  This is the pattern that is currently followed by the US Military.   There will, in most likelihood, but no more international cemeteries for American military.

But a little, shore-side temporary cemetery, begun in haste as the battle moved forward and left the shore behind, became one of the most famous cemeteries in America’s history.

The Normandy American Cemetery today.  Wikipedia.

The Normandy American Cemetery today. Wikipedia.

 

 

[1] A former intern of mine who went on to work at Fredricksburg and Spotsylvania, said that these mass graves still come to light from time to time.

[2] And again, sometimes these identities can be restored years later. In the show “Who Do You Think You Are?” actor Matthew Broderick discovered an ancestor, Robert Martindale, died in the battle of Peachtree Creek, but his remains had not been identified when they were re=interred in the Marietta National Cemetery. That identity was restored through paperwork alone…with the advances in DNA testing, more names can be restored in the future. Watch the exhumation of the Pearl Harbor dead as ithappens this year.

70 years after D-Day, May We Pause to Remember…

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Jun 06 2014

When my kids bounced on me this morning, it was already past 7.  My brother lives in Germany, and has told me that they’re six hours ahead, likely five hours ahead in Normandy.  It struck me, on this 70th anniversary of D-Day, that for those families at home, getting up this morning 70 years ago, the invasion that would come to be one of the seminal moments of history, was already secure.

It was 1 am here in the Midwest, when the boots of Americans, Canadians and Englishmen hit the beaches and parachuted out of the skies, and glided in on wooden gliders (that tended to break on impact).  By 7 am here in America and Canada’s eastern regions, the German stations were silent, manned by the dead that remained when the prisoners were taken.

An Aerial view of Omaha beach taken June 6, 1944. This is only one beach of five, and I think gives a glimpse of the massive scope of this part of the operations. Wikipedia.

 

As I’ve been watching documentaries and reading articles and papers about D-Day the past two weeks, I’m amazed at what went wrong, (a lot!), what went right, what the Germans had done that we didn’t expect (steel rebar-reinforced bunkers crossed with paranoid over-engineering), and what we did that the Germans didn’t expect (The Ghost Army and Operation Bodyguard), and how that all played out on the actual field of battle.  As one military tactician said, “No battle plan survives reality”. All sorts of improvisation moment-by-moment on June 6, saved the day.

A unique color photograph showing some of the ships getting ready to sail for the Normandy invasion. The Higgins boats that will deliver the infantry men to the beach are in the foreground off to the right. Wikipedia commons.

The reality was, Hitler didn’t expect the Allies to land at those beaches.  There were two main reasons for this.  The first was he and his advisors knew that any invasion would need to be reinforced by supply ships and more troops, and therefore, the Allies, when they landed, wherever they landed, would need to land in a place that had a deep-water bay and port that those ships could use.

He didn’t forsee that the Allies were already working on floating, pre-fab wave breakers to make an artificial bay, and floating pre-fab docks for an instant port.

The other reason was simple: Hitler expected us to land at the port city of Calais…because we told him so.  All sorts of tent cities, and inflatable (not a typo—inflatable) weaponry and vehicles were stationed all around Dover where the German submarines and spies could easily see them, all ready to head to Calais. All sorts of double agents reported the movements of phantom troops heading to Dover with orders for Calais.  Lots of radio traffic was intercepted all saying the same thing, Calais…Calais…Calais.  Hitler built up Calais and the surrounding area, leaving the rest of France, including the soon-to-be-famous Norman beaches 150 miles away, relatively undefended.

But that didn’t mean that it was going to be easy.  Hitler and Rommel had built “The Atlantic Wall” to keep the Allies out—a massive string of bunkers shielding massive guns and machine guns nests intended to drive out any invaders.  Submarines spent the spring and summer of 1944 quietly watching the targeted beaches, looking for positions, landmarks, painting the landscape to help teach the coming troops, many still on their way from Canada and America, where they were and where the Germans were going to be.  Whoever stepped foot on the beaches first, regardless of when or where, was going to face a hailstorm from even the few Germans left to defend it. The troops, from Eisenhower on down, knew it.

A photo of one of the bunkers the Allies were up against on June 6, 1944. The Germans had, unknown to us, invented steel rebar reinforced concrete structures, making them much tougher to destroy than we were expecting. This bunker still exists off of Normandy's beaches, still structurally sound 70 years on. Photo Credit "Bunker" by strengthsofcow. Flickr.com, Creative Commons License.

Due to the top secret nature of D-Day, known that day as Operation Overlord, the men involved couldn’t inform their families.  Many wrote letters to be sent if they didn’t return, and the first groups to hit the beaches had more than 90% fatality rates, so many of those letters did find their ways home.

Beginning at midnight, the invasion quietly began with paratroopers and minesweepers, and by dawn, the largest naval invasion force ever assembled and coordinated, swept into the narrow lanes cleared through the minefield surrounding France, disembarking troops to re-take the captive nation.  Many of these troops had been in school on December 7, 1941, when America entered the war.  And too many wouldn’t make it past the beaches.

Just hours later, the engineers sank their artificial floating blocks to form the sheltered bay and linked the pre-fab floating docks for the ships together.  LST ships, specially designed for this type of landing, hit the beaches (literally), discharging their cargoes of tank and trucks safe from the massive guns and machine gun nests now silent along the ridge.

A rare photo of the pre-fabbed docks that were created for this invasion. one of them was destroyed by a storm a day later, but by then, it didn't matter as much, the beach head was secure and most of the supplies that needed to come off of the ships down these docks had already done so. Source: US Archives via Wikipedia.

So much had gone wrong.  The Aerial bombs intended to destroy the German positions had missed by three miles due to fog, the naval bombardment hadn’t accounted for the steel skeleton within the concrete German bunkers, preventing their destruction, and the floating tanks designed to come in before the troops and demolish what remained of the German positions, could not withstand the rough water, and sank in the bay.  When the troops ran down the ramp of their Higgins boats, they faced the full fury of the nearly unscathed German positions.

And yet…yet…the insistent constancy of the brave men continuing to run across the hedgehog-studded beach through the hail of gunfire had won the day.  Despite what the Germans threw, the men kept coming, running, improvising attacks that took the Germans from their vulnerable side—from behind.  By noon, the worst of the initial landing was over.

Another view that gives an idea of hte scope of the landings once the beach was secure. Wikipedia Commons.

Now the fighting would take place hedgerow by hedgerow, fighting through the ancient stone walls and bushy fences built by a millennia of farmers.  Many would consider this much more dangerous than the beach landing, but that was still largely in the future by noon on June 6.

The cost had been high: over four thousand Allied dead that morning[1], and they had to be take care of.  With no access to embalming or means to take the dead home to their families, the names were recorded and the dead were interred in unofficial cemeteries.  The English, Canadians, and Americans took care of their own, and also the Germans who had fallen in the battle and retreat.  Still, a fifty-mile long battlefield was extensive, and many were missed for days, and then many were unable to be identified.

This temporary cemetery would develop into the Normandy American Cemetery. You can see just how close the cemetery was originally placed to Omaha beach. Taken 23 April, 1946, just after the war, and before any graves were moved or repatriated. Photo Source: fold3.com

After the war, everyone returned.  Wounds had to be bound up, and the dead collected.  The country of France gave land, in perpetuity, free of taxes or fees, to France, America, Britain, Canada, and even Germany, to allow them to inter the dead.

This is La Cambe Cemetery. On June 5, 1944, it was two adjoining farm fields. Following June 6, it became a dual cemetery. On one side, (I'm guessing the right) was the American dead. On the other side, German soldiers rested. After the Americans chose the Omaha Beach site for their official cemetery, they disinterred their dead from La Cambe, leaving the German dead behind. France then allowed Germany to take full possetion of this property, creating LaCambe German War Cemetery (see below). Source: fold3.com

As an American, when I think Normandy Cemetery, I instantly picture the row upon rows of white crosses set perfectly within a carpet of green at the Normandy American Cemetery.  As vast as it is, however, when you go to the Normandy cemetery, you only see ONE-THIRD of the casualties in Normandy.  When the remains of the men who died in Normandy were recovered in the years following the war, their families were given the choice to have their loved ones returned home or allowed to remain with their brothers in arms there in Normandy.  Nearly two-thirds of the families asked for their sons and brothers and husbands to come home.  In addition to those who died on or after June 6, a number of airmen who were shot down and died as early as 1942, were also returned by the French people who had buried them in honor within their own cemeteries.  Despite all the records, there were still over 1,500 missing men, and their names were inscribed on a wall near the entrance to the cemetery.  As the years have passed and more remains from this time were recovered, bronze rosettes were set next to those names whose remains were identified.  Many names, however, remain unmarked.

The walls upon which the names of the American missing are inscribed at the Normandy American Cemetery. There is a bronze sculpture in the center entitled "Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves". Photo from Wikipedia

 

The truth is, however, there are thirteen cemeteries honoring the dead of just the Norman invasion of WWII.

The Americans have the one Normandy American Cemetery.

The crosses of the Normandy American Cemetery. Wikipedia.

The Canadians maintain two cemeteries: Bény-sur-Mer Canadian Cemetery and Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery.

Teh Beny-sur-Mer Canadian Cemetery. Wikipedia Commons.

There are four British Cemeteries: Bayeux War Cemetery, Ranville War Cemetery, Banneville-la-Campagne and St. Manvieu War Cemetery

, have now set free the Conqueror's Native Land." In addition, there is a German section, where 466 German soldiers rest, their graves also maintained by the same Commonwealth War Graves Commission that maintains this cemetery.   Wikipedia Commons."”]And the Germans needed six cemeteries for their dead: La Cambe German War Cemetery; Champigny-St. André German War Cemetery, Marigny German War Cemetery, Mont-de-Huisnes German War Cemetery, Orglandes German War Cemetery, and Saint-Désier-de-Lisieux German War Cemetery.

The German La Cambe cemetery. Of the 12,000 German soldiers buried here, most fell between June 6 and August 20, 1944. The soldiers here originally rested in 1,400 unofficial or quickly organized battlefield cemeteries all over northern France. The youngest men here were 16. The oldest were 72. The large hill to the right topped by the cross is a mass grave for 296 German men, most un-identified. (It may be the site of that circular path in the 1946 La Cambe photo above). The tombstones here are low and flat, you can see them behind the large basalt crosses in the foreground. Wikipedia Commmons.

Today, as many heads of state gather over those bluffs, remembering that day when young soldiers charged through blood-soaked sand to re-take a tiny piece of France, may we all pause.  So many young people, from the infantry men who faced near certain death, to the paratroopers landing behind enemy lines, to the doctors and nurses who had to treat horrific injuries in field hospitals and ships at sea, chose to re-enter the war, and take down the Nazi regime because they believed in a good beyond themselves, and greater than their individual lives, that had to defeat the evil the Nazis wanted to take world wide.  They chose to face death and the death of those around them, in order that those left behind them at home could continue to live free, and those living under enemy rule could re-gain the freedom lost.

The cost lies under so many “white trees” along that fifty-mile beach, and all over Europe and the Pacific, and within America’s borders.

Freedom truly isn’t free.  And that proud tradition continues today with our men and women in uniform.

To those who gave their all and sleep beneath stones, thank you for giving it all up for me, and my family, and us all.

To those who continue to serve, thank you, and I pray that you do not need to lie beneath a tombstone for my sake, but thank you for being willing to do so.  May we honor your service now and always.

And to those who lived through hell, who question, “why me?  Why did I survive when so many good men and women did not?” I say, “I don’t know.  But tell me about them and what happened.”  May those of us who come after, listen to the cost, remember those who passed, and know that we stand on the shoulders of those willing to see and live beyond their own small world.

 

Thank you.

 

For more information:
The 607th Quartermaster Graves Registration History.  These personal photos taken in the aftermath of D-Day and the subsequent weeks and years show how the temporary cemeteries were created and later consolidated.  Warning, these are personal, uncensored photos.  Some may find the visual records of how these dead soldiers wer interred disturbing, but they are a unique view into this part of American military history.

[1] As a comparison, in the eight years of fighting the Revolutionary War, the Americans had lost about 8,000 soldiers.  Half of that number fell in just a couple of hours on June 6, 1944.