Normandy: 1066, 1944, and 2004

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NOS a Gulielmo victi victoris patriam liberavimus: the terse elegance of the Latin inscription outside the British War Cemetery in Bayeux carries us across a millennium of turbulent history from the Normandy of 1066 to the Normandy of 1944. We who were conquered by William have now liberated his country. This month, veterans of the greatest invasion in history will join heads of state and politicians to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day. For centuries Normandy has had a tremendous impact upon the history of the English-speaking peoples and in their relations with France and western Europe as a whole. Our language, constitutions, law, religion and customs all owe a vast debt to Normandy. Naturally this month the concentration will be on the landing and battles of sixty years ago, but we should recall the long inter-connections between the Normans and the British and also the ties to those countries, like Canada and the United States, who acquired their Norman heritage directly from the Mother Country of Britain. Canada, for example, can trace many of her earliest French settlers to Normandy.

The commemoration of 2004 will be a great media event (for details of celebrations see http://www.dday-overlord.com/indexeng.htm). In its own way so was the invasion in 1944 when celebrated radio reporters, such as Frank Gillard, broadcast sound pictures back to anxious people in Britain and across the oceans. British troops had captured the small town of Creuilly near Bayeux and its chateau became the centre of BBC broadcasts.

There have been some notable books published in recent months that would interest anyone anxious to comprehend the history of Normandy or to explore its lush countryside. Any of the books listed below would provide a good introduction to these two great historical events. Those with more time would be wise to seek out a guide who knows the area and who has studied the military campaigns. A particularly good one is the Oxford-trained historian Nicholas Kennedy (info@gitelacroix.com). He tells me that some of his visitors are even coming to this month's celebrations with military relics such as a Willis Jeep, motorcycle and sidecar, while another is sending over his own DUKW 3-ton amphibious lorry in the hope that it will once again swim off the Normandy beaches.

Bayeux was the most fortunate of Norman towns because it was captured by British troops within a day of the landings and so it was spared the destruction that so many other historic cities of Normandy suffered in the fighting and the bombing. The prolonged battles round Caen and St Lo destroyed much of the centres of those places. Today Caen, bursting with prosperity and traffic, has been so rebuilt that walking round its two great Norman abbeys--in one William the Conqueror was buried while his Queen Matilda is in the other--it is difficult to realise what that city suffered in the summer of 1944 as Montgomery bombarded it. However going southwards a visit to that vital crossroads at the small town of St Lo shows that the one remaining tower of its old church is just about the only old building visible today. Joseph Wild, an uncle of mine serving in the US Artillery, told me that when American troops entered St Lo they were booed by some local people because the bombardment had destroyed most of their homes. The difficulties of combining liberation and warfare were not encountered for the first time in today's Iraq.

Bayeux of course is closely connected with both the famous invasions of 1066 and 1944. Yet another link with Britain is seen as one enters the impressive museum where La Tapisserie de la Reine Matilda (as the French call it) is housed. By the entrance are various commemorative plaques honouring the visits of recent British royalty and grandest noblemen of Norman roots, such as the Duke of Norfolk. The most poignant of these plaques recalls a visit from the 'Le Prince et Princesse de Galles' in the happier days of that ill-fated marriage. …