Friday, 6 June 2008

D-Day, Amiens and Hopes for the World's Future: More French Reflections

Forty four years ago today British, Commonwealth and American troops invaded Normandy. D-Day the Sixth of June carried the same historical resonance in my American childhood as December 7th 1941, “the Day that Will Live in Infamy.” It probably is natural that the history a country’s children is taught emphasizes the role that country played in world events. Yet I am continually surprised as an adult at how little we learn as children of the role of others.

Last week this was brought home when my husband and I went to see the cathedral in the Picardy town of Amiens. Lee is passionate about Gothic architecture so we visited several 12th century wonders on our trip. We knew that the magnificent stained glass in several cathedrals had been taken down for safekeeping during both World Wars, but we didn’t realize just how devasted Amiens had been until we saw the photos in the cathedral square of the destruction wrought by German bombers in 1940. The town was razed. Only the church—its elaborately carved choir stalls sandbagged for protection—stood when the raids were over.

A miracle, the cathedral’s guide suggested: as a 15 year old he said he’d seen the bombs fall everywhere except on the church. An attempt to preserve a navigation marker, Sophie and Lukas said when we arrived home. They’d been told in Cologne that both sides tried to spare the high church towers which served as guides in those pre-radar, pre-GPS days.

Inside the church there are several plaques to the memory of the Australian, New Zealand, British, and Newfoundland soldiers who fought in the battles of the Somme in the First World War. There’s one to Americans, too, but I was reminded again how in both those wars the US arrived late.

One can argue about the wisdom of that foot-dragging, but there have been times in the last years when I wished that America’s leaders took Wilson and Roosevelt as models rather than Conan the Barbarian. Maybe that will change if Barack Obama beats John McCain. Let us sincerely hope so.

Photo: the poppies are in bloom in the north of France now.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

By Montrealer Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918)

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