Normandy – 75 Years Later

When Gilles and I started planning our road trip through northern France, we knew there were going to be some tough, emotional moments.

This was the trip we had dubbed the History Tour during the planning phase, but to be more accurate, it should have been called the War Tour.

You see, on June 5th it is the 75th anniversary of D-Day – the landing of Allied troops on the shores of Normandy in 1944 during WW2.

This attack was the beginning of the end.

The battles that resulted along the miles of Normandy shoreline were horrific. We knew this wasn’t going to be an easy vacation, but we are part of the generation that followed that war. My father was a veteran and my mother was a war-bride. Although Normandy wasn’t a direct part of their story, this battle made my life possible.

We owe our deepest respect to those who landed on the beaches of Normandy … and so Gilles and I went.

At Courseulles-sur-Mer (code name Juno Beach) where the Canadian forces landed as part of the D-Day Operation. The fog was thick and cool the morning of our visit.

As predicted, it was a difficult week and since then I’ve been contemplating the stories I’ve gathered, how I might tell them, and quite frankly whether I even wanted to. I know the grief I feel isn’t personal to just me … but it still leaves its mark.

Maybe over the weeks and months ahead it will become easier. I am lucky that as a Canadian, I grew up with war as something that happens far away. There is a certain sterility about war when it is just facts and figures in books or the news.

It feels very different when faced with the reality.

France has made an effort to respect the memory of the war. Although many buildings had been largely destroyed, they were rebuilt true to their history, however, some like The Palais of Justice in Rouen, chose to not repair the holes from bullets and shrapnel to serve as a permanent reminder.

For the people of Normandy, the reminders are always there and they haven’t forgotten. June 1944 will be celebrated and already the preparation is there.

Banners honouring the Allies adorn the streets throughout the communities along the coast where the invasion forces landed. It was a complete coincidence that the spot where we pulled over to take photos had the banner of a Simard – my husband’s surname.

In my research of Ghislain Simard I discovered he was born in the same small town from which my husband’s family came … one of many surprises we would experience.

Simard is a very common name in Quebec, especially from the region where my husband was born. He comes from a lineage where it was not unusual for families to have 8 or 9 children. Whether or not this man is a branch from the same family tree is something we will likely never know.

At the age of 84, Ghislain Simard returned to Juno Beach in 2010 at the coaxing of his grand-daughter. It was the first time since D-Day. He is reported to have said “I spent my life trying to forget, only to find out by coming back here how important it is to remember”.

… and for men like Ghislain Simard and all those who were lost, we should never forget.

Canadian War Cemetery located outside of Caen.

85 comments

  1. I meant to put this here sorry.

    Yesterday I heard a piece on radio about a desperate race to preserve recordings and images from the two wars. It was a race the preservers were losing. What hit me most about the story was the conclusion. While we must continue to honour the heroism of these horrible wars, these recordings and images serve to remind all of us the horror of war and how we must do everything we can to prevent repeating such events. I see it every day in politics here; I’m sure you do too. Especially on social media. Your post contains a good mix of admiration and disdain.
    In Australia we have ANZAC day, where our ‘diggers’ are remembered for their service as well as the mantra ‘lest we forget’. Unfortunately there does not seem to be enough of the horror that we must not forget

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  2. Such interesting commonalities. Honestly, I was afraid this post would tear me up, and I put off reading it until I was in a better frame of mind. It’s a pleasant read, for such a heavy topic. Like you, living in a war-torn country is unfathomable to me. We may perhaps owe duty to seeing and remembering what it was like for others, and certainly we owe thanks to those we cannot repay.

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  3. Hi Joanne,
    A moving post. I agree – these memorials are important lest we forget the horror of war.
    Or the heroism of the men (and women) who fought evil and defended freedom.
    Freedom is not free. And we have generations of folks who have not experienced war. It is human nature to forget. We need to remember.

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      • Yesterday I heard a piece on radio about a desperate race to preserve recordings and images from the two wars. It was a race the preservers were losing. What hit me most about the story was the conclusion. While we must continue to honour the heroism of these horrible wars, these recordings and images serve to remind all of us the horror of war and how we must do everything we can to prevent repeating such events. I see it every day in politics here; I’m sure you do too. Especially on social media. Your post contains a good mix of admiration and diddain.
        In Australia we have ANZAC day, where our ‘diggers’ are remembered for their service as well as the mantra ‘lest we forget’. Unfortunately there does not seem to be enough of the horror that we must not forget.

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  4. My parents did a river boat tour in France earlier this month (bad luck getting to Paris 2 days after Notre Dame burned). They spent some time in Normandy and were very moved by it. They still remember when the battle happened. Anyway, this is a moving post. “The Greatest Generation” is starting to fade, so we need to remember their achievements and sacrifice now more than ever.

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    • Thanks Trent. I can’t imagine how much harder it would be for those who lived through those years to go and bear witness.

      I guess in many ways it would be like me going to NY to visit the 9/11 memorial – which I still haven’t done 😢

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Such a fascinating read and such wonderful pictures. Thee is nothing like seeing history up close. That is my goal. I can only imagine how emotional it is. I look forward to your future write ups.

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    • Thank you for the kind words.

      For all the times I’ve seen movie footage of Normandy, it doesn’t quite match the feeling of standing on the cliffs looking down on the beaches.
      Quite frankly, to me it looks like the Allied invasion was a miracle.

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  6. This is a lovely, poignant post, Joanne. The photo of the building with bullet holes… I’m glad they kept it that way. What a *loud* reminder. I think I’d be overcome if I saw it in person. That’s an evocative quote, “I spent my life trying to forget, only to find out by coming back here how important it is to remember”.
    Hugs on the wing.

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  7. Your picture of The Palais of Justice in Rouen really brought it home for me. And that picture of Ghislain Simard on the ‘we will never forget banners’ sent goosebumps up my arms with the story of his return to Juno Beach in 2010 repeating that sensation even more so. But I kept thinking as I read through your post ‘will we never learn’? We emerged from that war with such hopes but as time passes (75 years), mankind’s collective memory seems to be fading and we seem to be gearing up for it all over again. There are new enemies and ever more creative ways to communicate hate and to destroy, but it is just the same old story. May we come to our senses before it is too late. Sorry for my depressive babblings on this sunny Sunday morning.

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    • We saw several groups of people from Australia in our travels along the Belgium border following the front line of WW1. One group in particular were wearing ANZAC shirts so I suspected Anzac Day was soon. It was so nice to see so many people out at these memorials. It’s important we never forget.

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  8. A very moving, sad, yet important post. Difficult to put into words. I have been to Auschwitz, and I will never forget the pervasive, deep sadness. As many of the other comments say, we must not forget. A common saying “a photo speaks a thousand words” holds true here. Thank you, Joanne.

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  9. You left me with a lump in my throat, Joanne. I’ve never really wanted to visit these graves, any more than I could bear to visit Auschwitz. But the memory is always there. A beautiful post!

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    • I know what you mean about not really wanting to visit – and yet at the same time I’ve been drawn to them in a way I can’t define.

      A few years ago we went to Auschwitz and I REALLY didn’t want to go. I felt it was voyeurism, but my husband said these memorials are important for the world to remember. Afterwards I decided he was right.

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      • The Oskar Scindler museum in Krakow is the closest I’ve been. It’s full of the most moving stories and haunting pictures, and incredibly beautiful. I’ve read a lot of the literature but something in me wouldn’t go and look at the camp.

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  10. What a moving post, Joanne! I can’t imagine how sobering it must be to actually stand there and look upon those places. The bulletholes in the building really do offer a picture of how horrific it was. Thank you for sharing this post.

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    • My father never talked about his war years but my mom occasionally would make comments – like when I asked her why she didn’t like fireworks. How can you not like fireworks? … however they reminded her of the bombs dropping and suddenly I had an entirely different perspective. That’s what standing on the cliffs of Normandy felt like … getting that entirely new perspective. You can read about it, see it in pictures, but standing there gives you a visceral feeling that cannot be put into words.

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  11. This was a great post, Joanne. You expressed the horror, sadness, and reality not only in the narrative, but in the photos as well. I gasped when I scrolled down to the photo of the facade of the Palais of Justice in Rouen. Well done and many thanks.

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  12. It is SO important to remember, and only fair to those who gave up their lives so we could have our freedom. I visited Normandy when I was but a lass – a senior in college. A Frenchman took me (a friend of my parents, but also in his 20s). Interestingly, he didn’t get as moved as I did, but I remember how the fog rolled in as we began our drive out of the town toward Paris. The town and its history held me in the grip of fog and of lives gone in an amazing display of courage.

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    • Obviously people react to things in different ways, but I can also see that it could be viewed quite differently by a French person. They see and live it on a regular basis so they might not have the same visceral reaction we do.

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  13. Wonderful and touching post. We must not forget. On a similar but different memorial, when I went to see the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC I was touched way beyond my expectations. Since I “lived” the war and some of my friends died there, it was very moving even though it wasn’t on the same soil. I can imagine how war veterans feel when they visit.

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  14. Amazing you should post this today. It’s ANZAC Day here when we remember not only those lost at Gallipoli in WWI but all those who serve. I was lucky to visit Gallipoli and ANZAC Cove in my 20s and even though I had no personal links it was very emotional. As difficult as these places are to visit it’s important we remember. Thank you for this beautiful tribute.

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    • I thought of you (and Su Leslie in NZ) earlier this week while touring the WWI Western Front along the French/Belgian border. We encountered several groups from Australia and one group in particular were all wearing matching ANZAC shirts. I couldn’t remember exactly when Anzac Day was, but I assumed that’s why they were there.
      Obviously our tour was focused on the Canadian memorials and battle sites, but we saw the many signs for Australian ones as well. It was a very, very difficult day.

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  15. Beautifully written – I am particularly taken by the scarred and pitted walls – a fitting monument to the war.

    You must have been dumbstruck to see the Simard name on the banner. It gave me chills to read your account.

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    • We had seen many banners on our drive along the Normandy coast – both American and Canadian – and I just happened to see a place to pull over out of traffic. When we actually saw the banner we parked beside, we both did a double-take. When I subsequently researched it and found out where he was from, we didn’t quite know what to say. “Chills” is a good way to put it.
      We’ve had quite a few of those serendipitous moments in the past few weeks.

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  16. Oh wow, Joanne – such a poignant post. You’re right, we should never forget. For all that’s wrong with this world today it could’ve still been so much worse had it not been for the sacrifice of the men and women resting below those crosses.

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    • The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t really know anything at all. The subject of WWII could be studied for years and I’m sure there are those who do. It could have gone so very badly and the world would be a dramatically different place today if it had.

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  17. An emotional post, Joanne. It’s hard not to think about those who lost their lives, the courageous, the fearful, the lost potentials, families left behind, and the legacies of so much trauma. After all the suffering, war continues to be a human tragedy. It seems that human beings will never learn.

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    • I think it’s our empathy and imagination that allows us to feel the emotions and ‘presence’ that permeates these places. Sometimes I feel nothing and can view the location dispassionately. Other times the intensity is almost unbearable.

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  18. Joanne you are such a beautiful writer. I am sure that being there emits more emotions from a person and with both of you having connections to the War your emotions would naturally be intensified. I love how they protect and preserve their history. It seems like many counties are now tearing down and demolishing so much of our past because it’s either cheaper or we are ashamed of it. But I think they serve as reminders and teaching tools. You do better when you know better.

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    • As time goes by and these events become smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror, I fear that they will lose relevance. The emergence and popularity of far right politics concerns me and the mindless way that people are embracing populist rhetoric.
      We don’t seem to be learning from history and how terribly badly it can go at all 😕

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  19. You’ve visited somewhere we both would like to see. I can only imagine the emotions that you felt, but am pleased that you went to Normandy and shared your photos + thoughts here. Such a different world back then, one that did what had to be done and sacrificed immensely in the process.

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    • It is a different world – in many ways better, in some ways worse.
      I’m glad I finally got to go. Standing on the famous cliffs we’ve all heard about is awe-inspiring. You can’t help but be amazed that anyone survived this invasion.

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  20. What a coincidence that Ghislain Simard was born in the same small town as your husband’s family. With a bit of digging, you might be able to find out whether or not he’s from the same branch of the family tree as Giles.

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    • It would take a serious amount of sleuthing to figure this one out … and sadly my French just isn’t strong enough for the task.
      Gilles has already started to make some enquiries, but I doubt he will uncover much. The generation of people who could have possibly known are all gone now.

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  21. You are bringing back lots of memories of our trip along the Normandy coast to visit the various landing beaches and cemeteries. They are very emotional places for certain. We visited many Canadian cemeteries but also the US and even the German one…nice story and pics.

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    • We did as well. It was a reminder that the loss of young lives is tragic regardless of the uniform. Wars are decided by men in conference rooms … not the thousands and thousands of teenagers and 20-some year olds who eventually die.

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  22. I love that photo of the battle-scarred building. I think that’s a good way of helping people remember how destructive war can be. It must be very interesting to see this historic part of France.

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    • After seeing this scarred building and reading about why they chose not to repair it, I began to notice the scars on other buildings that had been repaired.
      Until I started looking for it, I wouldn’t have otherwise known it was there – or what they represented.

      We’ve been to France on a number of occasions but this was our first time to the north. It’s been equally interesting and heart-breaking.

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  23. “I spent my life trying to forget, only to find out by coming back here how important it is to remember”. You have written such a very important post, Joanne.The need to remember should be stamped on every politician’s forehead so none of them can have the excuse of forgetting when they vote to support the next round of regime changes and OK the proxy wars.

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  24. Normandy is still on my list to see. When we toured Belgium and Luxembourg, we were amazed at the respect citizens still pay to all our soldiers who were lost fighting WWII. One of my uncles is buried in the American Cemetery in Luxembourg and one is remembered on the tablets of the missing in the American Cemetery in Manilla. I will probably never make it to Manilla so the visit to Luxembourg was heart wrenching, but I am so glad I was able to go there. I can only imagine the feeling when you saw the banner. Wars are decided around conference tables by people who do not participate. The people on the front lines are our siblings, children, grandchildren, and friends. Now, if those at the table would remember that maybe we wouldn’t have any more wars. Nice post, and I’ll look forward to hearing more when you’re ready.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Judy. I think I remember you mentioning the 2 Purple Hearts.

      I’ve seen more war cemeteries in the past 10 days than I ever hope to see again. What’s worse is that we just scraped the tip of the iceberg.

      Some days it was hard not to simply stand there and cry … so much loss of such young lives 💔

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  25. A thoughtful and respectful post, Joanne. I’m always overcome by the amount of history to be easily found in Europe (as opposed to North America – which also has a lengthy human history but very little in the way of ancient buildings or writings, and what artifacts there are are found mostly in museums).

    It’s been centuries since there has been war on Canadian soil. I hope there never is one again.
    My parents were children during war time in the Netherlands and it was terrible and scarred them both, forever.

    I’m glad that some buildings damaged by war are kept unrepaired, as a reminder of the terrible times those stone walls have seen.
    We definitely need those. Lest we forget.

    Deb

    Liked by 2 people

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