On June 6, we will mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy. On that slate gray day, American forces waded ashore into a maelstrom of steel and fire, launching the bloody, heroic slog that would end the following year in Berlin. In countless books and ceremonies, we have devoted great attention to the liberators, our GIs.
Yet until recently, Americans have largely ignored the experience of the liberated, the French civilians—in particular the Normans—during those first days and weeks. After four years under the Nazi occupation, the men, women, and children of Normandy welcomed their liberators. But their gratitude was often mingled with confusion and bitterness: On D-Day, American firepower took 3,000 French civilian lives, as many as the Americans lost to German firepower at Omaha Beach. By the time Normandy was fully liberated, more than 20,000 civilians had died, most of them victims of the Allied bombings that pummeled the region’s cities and towns.
It is only of late that we can again hear the echoes of those explosions. Since the 50th anniversary of the landings, there has, in fact, been an explosion of a different sort: a great surge of testimonials and memoirs by those who survived their liberation. Local historians at the University of Caen have collected and published these accounts—an archaeology of individual and collective memories that has re-created a city utterly razed by Allied bombings. More recently, American historians like William Hitchcock and Mary Louise Roberts have joined this effort to unearth the variety of experiences, French as well as American, that came with the invasion and liberation of Normandy. While their work has not undermined the heroic dimensions of D-Day, it does prod us to consider the true complexity of this vital chapter in the “good war.”
History writing has always hummed with tension between two perspectives: one from above, the other from below. Some historians tell their stories from the perspective of kings, generals, and presidents, while others write from the viewpoint of commoners, soldiers, and citizens. This division goes back as far as the founders of the historical profession, Herodotus and Thucydides, whose respective accounts documented Athens’s wars from the ground and in the big picture in the 5th century BC.
In the case of D-Day, the distinction between above and below is literal as well as figurative. Consider the case of St-Lô, a strategically important city that American military planners expected to capture the first day. In fact, the GIs, struggling against a landscape of hedgerows as formidable as the entrenched German forces, needed several days of bloody combat to reach their objective. In classic accounts like Steven Ambrose’s best-selling “D-Day: June 6, 1944,” the experience of St-Lô’s population is pushed to the margins. In a rare reference to the city, Ambrose notes that RAF pilots, after a quick breakfast between sorties on June 6 “were at 0800 in the air again, bombing St-Lô and other inland targets.”
The view from the ground, like that of 18-year-old city native Jean Roger, was quite different. As he recounts in an interview with historians from the University of Caen, Roger heard a deep rumble in the sky on the morning of June 6. Looking out his apartment window, he glimpsed seemingly endless rows of bombers. As he marveled over the number and discipline of the planes, Roger noticed “hundreds of small objects detaching themselves from the planes and swaying towards the ground.” And then, quite suddenly, “all the windows on the street were shattered” and he watched the building across the way collapse. Fleeing the apartment building to take shelter in a nearby basement, Jean Roger and his family watched the walls of their haven ripple and sway during two more seemingly interminable bombing runs. They were torn between the fear of being buried underground and the certainty of the bombs from above. Finally, they emerged from their shelter at night and found a spectacle “no movie director could re-create.” Everything was in flames, “a vast funeral pyre. Everywhere came cries: ‘Help, don’t leave me, I’m suffocating, I’m under this rubble....’” Before Roger could act, however, “the bombers returned.”
Mary Louise Roberts, a widely respected historian at the University of Wisconsin, has explored and expanded on the experiences of civilians like Roger in two recent books: 2013’s “What Soldiers Do,” which cast a brutal light on the behavior of American soldiers in the conflict, and her just published “D-Day Through French Eyes.” As Roberts recounts, outside the cities, the bombs had transformed the countryside into an immense abattoir, countless craters tiled with the bloated and rotting carcasses of cows and horses, as well as German soldiers, all blanketed by maggots and flies. These macabre still lives overwhelmed Normans and Allied troops alike, as did the miasmal odor hanging over them. It was hardly surprising, then, as Roberts observes, that the locals did not welcome their liberators with cheers and flowers. As one Norman admitted upon seeing American troops for the first time, “there was little enthusiasm: alas, a screen of terrible visions stood between us and joy.”
Many GIs, particularly those who did not witness this destruction at first hand, were disappointed that they were greeted with such a mixture of resentment and relief. Yet Roberts notes that other GIs passing through this blasted world understood: As one wrote to his mother, “I must say, I feel sorry for the French. In order to get back their freedom, they have to see their country ravaged all over again from another direction.” Another GI, gazing at the ruins of St-Lô, imagined what the survivors were telling themselves: “When the Germans were here...they left us our homes. Now the Americans have left nothing.” At the same time, Roberts emphasizes the tremendous price that our GIs paid. Not only were more than 10,000 soldiers killed during July in the hellish battles of the hedgerows, but shell shock and exhaustion accounted for about one quarter of all casualties.
For the historian, there is an inevitably tense relationship between commemorating the past and telling its story in all its shades of gray. We need only recall the Enola Gay controversy of 20 years ago, when curators and historians on one side and veterans associations and Republicans on the other clashed over the Smithsonian’s plans to mark the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima. Similarly, “What Soldiers Do,” which documented widespread instances of rape, whoring, drunkenness, and black-marketeering among the GIs, was noted as “controversial” and “explosive” by papers like The Washington Times and the British tabloid Daily Mail. But Roberts insists that we can commemorate the “sacrifice without having to think of the GIs as heroic supermen.” She concludes that it makes for a “fuller, more human memory of Normandy.”
Roberts ends her new book with French recollections of dinners and rituals, including the celebrated “trou Normand”—tossing down a glass of Calvados in one gulp—with which Normans thanked their liberators. In 2014, these joint rituals continue: Earlier this month, the French National Assembly voted unanimously on an official message of “thanks and gratitude” to the Allied forces that liberated France. To examine the real price of the Allied invasion is not to question the achievements of the Greatest Generation; it allows them the greater luster that comes in the full light of history.