Escaping the heat of a 24 degree October day in a small ferry terminus near Fouras in Southern France with a still sea view and an hour or so to kill before a boat can take me to the home Napoleon lived in before he was exiled to Saint Helena I find myself with time to continue the story of my first full day in France as I left off.
With the mind print of the doctors many faces slowly fading away, and with the thought that there was no obvious way of getting back to the campsite, I decided to explore where fate and Yannick had left me. A plan of what to do next must surely emerge.
Soon after procuring my first baguette, and not really knowing what path to take, I found myself following two photographers I had noticed out on a derive. They took me to what turned out to be a beach of shells by a busy harbour. I discovered later that the beach was created by fishermen dumping the ‘empties’ off the harbour wall, but at that point I marvelled at the natural phenomenon that could have created such a coincidence of calcium.
Next to the beach a plain stone memorial with no words stood flat against a harbour wall. Shells covered the base of the memorial and two wind battered poppy reefs lay on top of the shells, the colours of the plastic a deep red incongruous laying on the pastel creams of the shells. To the right, up an embankment, I found a larger memorial plaque and map telling the story of the liberation of the town. As I read the detail I stopped worrying about the day that would have been and settled into the day that was. It seems losing an ear plug up ones own canal without a paddle forces one into the moment, sans grace and panache true but what does this matter.
In Port-en-Bassin they still remember the names of the soldiers whom liberated the town, the men of 47 commando, who lost 29 of their number just fighting their way off Gold Beach, before battling through 12 miles of enemy territory to take up positions surrounding the town. Here they encountered fierce fighting. Their mission was to liberate the town quickly. The allies planned to use it as the landing point of Pluto, a giant underwater pipeline delivering fuel to keep the advancing army moving forward away from the beaches.
I don’t know whether soldiers knew the strategic importance of what they were doing but they knew their mission was to take back the town. Their main obstacle was a heavily armed bunker, fortified with barbed wire, mine fields, flame throwers and machine guns.
Walk up a few boarded muddy steps and a long a hilltop path and you can easily find the bunker. It’s entrance now filled with concrete, it’s impregnability is not hard to imagine. I was moved to find beside it a second memorial to the men who took this bunker, notably a Captain Cousins, who lost his life leading a last desperate but ultimately successful attempt to capture it.
Reading the exact detail of the fighting that took place that day and the manner in which Captain Cousins died made me realise that the people of Normandie see D day in an entirely different way to most British people. For them it is still a lived experience, remembered personally. The grand children of Henri Gouget, the Gendarme who helped the commandos, probably still live in the village. To them it is all very real and marks the difference between a life lived with free will and one lived in bondage to another persons idea.
To British people D Day is a different thing. I don’t suppose most of us know the detail – of who fought in which village to capture which bunker or artillery position. We only know D day as a mythic national experience. A good thing Britain did, along with resisting invasion since 1066 and beating Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. Although most of us probably only know this because of a Swedish pop group.
But in Port en Bessin they do know the detail. The knowledge is all there on storyboards. And it is not as some may suppose glorifying or memorialising war. It is remembering those who brought with them the dignity of freedom.