browser icon
You are using an insecure version of your web browser. Please update your browser!
Using an outdated browser makes your computer unsafe. For a safer, faster, more enjoyable user experience, please update your browser today or try a newer browser.

The ghosts of war

Posted by on 09/12/2013

The enemy? His sense of duty was no less than yours, I deem. You wonder what his name is, where he came from. And if he was really evil at heart. What lies or threats led him on this long march from home. If he would not rather have stayed there in peace. Well, this war will make corpses of us all.
― J.R.R. Tolkien

Normandy. A name that keeps popping up in European history. It comes and goes, asserting its importance for a time, then sinking back into obscurity, only to doggedly arise again. When it does show up, it matters.

Not all that much remains, here, of Guillaume le Batard, though in Bayeux his account of 1066 still hangs proudly. But I’ll save that tale for another day. For we have just toured the sites of a more recent bloodshed.

We started at the German War Cemetery in La Cambe, a small town not far from the Normandy beaches. It holds the final remains of some 21,000 German soldiers, all of whom died in the attempt to hold the allies back on D-Day and the weeks that followed. It’s a downbeat, solemn place, even by the standards of Normandy war memorials. That ought to tell you something.


At the center of the cemetery is a hill with a sculpture, of an austere cross with two sorrowful figures beneath, representing the parents of all those sent off to slaughter:


At the base of the hill is an inscription in German which ends with “Gott hat das letze Wort” (God has the final say).

What many don’t realize about the Normandy landings is that, for the most part, the beaches were not defended by the elite of what remained of Germany’s Army. Nor indeed even by fit, fully functional fighting units, let alone fanatical Nazis. Many of the bunkers and machine gun nests were staffed by Poles and other eastern Europeans dragooned into service, or with Germans who had “seen too many winters, or too few” (to quote Tolkien again). Some of these men didn’t believe in Hitler, only in his threat that their families would be murdered in the camps if they didn’t fight. Some of these men weren’t men at all, still children, really. Some of these men who lay here, surely, deserve a measure of sympathy.

But not all. On the tenth of June, 1944, a Waffen-SS company, led by SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann, passed through the town of Oradour-sur-Glane in southwest France, on their way to reinforce the positions in Normandy. Nearby, they had found the corpse of a German officer killed by the resistance, and this had enraged the unit. They entered the town, rounded up every man, woman, and child they could find. They shot all the men, and burned the women and children alive in the town’s small church. Only six people from the town survived the massacre; one is still alive today.

Diekmann was killed in action at Normandy a week later, and now lies buried here. I didn’t look for him.

Normandy is overflowing with such stories. Heartbreak after heartbreak piles on you. It can be numbing, if you let it.

But I came here for a different reason. I have a fascination with Nazi Germany, and the war it unleashed on the world, but my interest has always been mostly an intellectual, academic one. I came here to counter my tendency to abstract things away, to remain in the realm of statistics and dates. I wanted to humanize my understanding, to take it beyond the books in my library.

Our guide Stewart Robertson, a passionate Briton who now lives in Normandy, was all too happy to oblige. As we drove through the hedgerows toward Utah Beach, he painted a vivid and detailed portrait of the struggle that occurred almost seventy years ago. As he talked, I tried to picture the scene, tried to superimpose the then over the now. I concentrated my mental effort to resurrect the ghosts of war, but they remained hidden and silent. Despite what I knew of the battle for Normandy, all I saw was tidy little towns of half-timbered buildings and people sitting at outdoor cafes catching what sun they could through the low-hanging clouds.

At Utah we saw, hundreds of meters off the shore in the waters of the high tide, the buoy that marks where the first men stepped ashore at low tide on June 6th, 1944. Staring out into the sea, I again called to the past, to see some semblance of the titanic struggle about to unfold. Again the ghosts refused the summons.

Later, at Pointe du Hoc, between the Utah and Omaha beaches, where on D-Day the US Army rangers staged one of the most daring raids of the war, I found what I was looking for. Pointe du Hoc was, then, a very well-reinforced battery of massive artillery guns, guns that could have rained hell on not just Utah and Omaha beaches but also the massive troop transports 12 miles out in the channel. These guns had to be destroyed, at any cost. The Air Force did their best, dropping thousands upon thousands of bombs on the German positions over several weeks. The area still bears the scars of the massive onslaught.


Craters litter the area,along with the remains of German bunkers. But the guns were not destroyed. It was up to the Rangers to come in by sea under cover of darkness, scale the cliffs under fire, and destroy the guns by hand. This, incidentally, isn’t the half of what they eventually had to do, but the story is a long one, and I don’t have room for it here.

In any event, the terrain is wracked with craters, and the going can be difficult in stretches. Going overland from one wrecked bunker to the remains of the forward observation posts, I saw an elderly couple engaged in a struggle of their own. Slowly, with difficulty in every painful step, they made their way along the path.

The man was very old, in his eighties at least. The woman seemed a bit younger, or at least more vigorous, but she was small and it was no easy task for her to support him along the way, but support him she did. There was something they were looking for.

It’s not the statues, or the monuments, or the stirring words inscribed upon them at these sights that really gets at your heart. It’s not even the moving words of Stewart Robinson, however eloquent he may be. It’s the old people, the ones who have some deeply personal connection to the place. Maybe they’re coming back for the first time, or the last. Maybe it’s the hundredth or thousandth time they’ve been here. For this old couple, I don’t know.  I didn’t know this man, didn’t know his name, story, his nationality. Maybe he fought here. Maybe he lost a brother, a cousin, a friend. Whatever it it was, it was important. He was in no shape to be out there, but he was there all the same. This man has no need to concentrate, to imagine, to summon the ghosts of war. They live with him, and he with them.

One Response to The ghosts of war

  1. anne haren

    John, You have written the most beautifully profound piece I have yet to read about this or indeed every war.This should be required reading in high school history classes.. My own interest in the Nazi war only increases with time. I am so grateful that if I could not make this trip, it’s you who have, not just for what you can tell me but for what has touched you. Love, Mom and Pops