Normandy: Under the Black Crosses
It was a quiet day in 2018 when I came up over the hill, looming over a place called Omaha Beach. It was cloudy and cool for summer. A rough breeze tossed my hair and clothes around. The channel was visible on the horizon – the water a silvery blob stretching all the way into the distance, surrounded by a bed of tawny, wet sand. The vast section of beach sat mostly abandoned. Silent, where the rest of the place was busy and bustling in the height of tourism season.
A host of tall monuments joined me on the green hill. Gray and quiet, like the somber sky up above me. Some were made after the fact, commemorating brave regiments here and solid actions there. Some were made on the day itself – broken pillboxes, shattered bunkers, and deep craters. Remnants of the terrible fighting that had taken place here on that day so long ago. That day…
As I continued walking up the hillside, I tried to imagine what it must have been like on that day. With thousands of boots slopping through that thick, heavy sand. That channel so full of ships, one probably couldn’t even see the water. I heard the whistling of countless bullets zinging past my ears. The shouts of men, so many men, in peril. Somewhere in another space in time, I could see the red in the sand. The red in the water. The carnage. I could see the craters as they first appeared – deep pits in the black, muddy earth, ringed with debris and bodies. Nothing like the grass-covered, quiet scars of today.
I clutched my camera and travel bag a big tighter as I crawled down into an abandoned bunker and pillbox. A defensive post that had sat there, dusty and unused, for seventy-four years. As my own boots dropped inside the musty, dank place, my senses came to life again. Just on the other side of the time veil, I could see them. I could hear them. I felt their hurried presence. I sensed their growing alarm. Their fear.
Germans. Many of them young boys just like the enemy they would face on that world famous day. Boys from many different backgrounds, holding so many different sentiments. Some of them probably wanted more than anything to be there, the preceding years having filled them with a terrible hate and bloodlust. Propaganda and lies that had warped them from the time they were children. Made them burn to preserve their so-called way of life from monstrous enemies they were told would steal it from them.
Others knew a little better, having already seen the war up close. In Russia. In Italy. In Africa. Their fighting had taken limbs if not life – leaving these men maimed for whatever years they had left. But there would be no return home for these wounded warriors. War had grown too desperate and soldiers too scarce. So, even though they were closer to the grave than not, these shattered boys would take up their arms again, as one of the biggest onslaughts in military history landed right at their feet.
And the prisoners. Boys who had no interest in fighting for Germany, because they weren’t even from Germany. Many were from Poland – pressed into fighting for Hitler on pain of death. Facing the dreaded concentration camps, it’s no wonder so many decided to chance it out on the battlefield. Besides, they could always surrender to the other side – if they lived through the initial attack, anyhow.
I drew my lips in a tight line as I stepped up to the end of the pillbox facing the beaches. Where one hell of a big gun had probably been pushed to its limit on that day. I peered out the opening and down to the water below. I saw it all laid out before me in a remarkably clear view. A clean shot, with hardly any obstacles or resistance to quell the bullets. Tears filled my eyes as I took it all in. What it must have been like for the boys on those beaches – cut to pieces from a gun placed right here where I stood.
Another climb up the hills around Omaha Beach brought my husband and me to the graveyard. The one made famous by tourists, and probably in some part by the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” Once again, the water called out to us from the distance. Only here, it somehow seemed more peaceful and inviting. It looked blue instead of gray. The hills around here were greener and more lush. The sun filled the whole place with a serene kind of glow, making it a peaceful resting place for all the boys. Allied boys from many different faiths, nations, and backgrounds. They now laid under a sea of white crosses, shiny and bright in the summer sun. I do mean a sea of white crosses. Too many to count, each one representing someone who fell on the beaches, some from the gun in that bunker I had stood in minutes before.
It filled me with rage, while also reminding me of what I truly believe is my mission in life. To put a human face on those thousands of crosses. To give them back something that was so brutally taken from them before it should have been. Life. Love. Happiness. In a painful amount of cases where the cross said “known but to God,” war also stole their very identity.
I walked out of the graveyard burning from the inside out. I felt more ready to do my job than I ever have in my life. Perhaps the only other time being when I stood in a similar graveyard near Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. When we got into the car to go home, I slammed the door as I took my seat. In anger but also in determination. I had work to do.
But sometimes, when you are traveling, especially across the world, the trail takes you to a most unexpected destination. As we journeyed down that road in France, ready to call it a day, we saw a sign for another graveyard. Even though we were tired, I decided to make an unplanned stop of it. Because those boys deserved our respect, and as long as I had come all this way, I wanted to try and visit as many of them as possible.
We climbed out of the car and approached the cemetery, this one even quieter than the last. Hardly anyone had come to see it. I found that curious. Just as I did the stones themselves. Most of them were just solid square blocks – carved from unsightly black stone and stuck in neat yet very bland rows. The crosses were black too. With more of a gothic appearance than the other graveyard – which made them feel somehow even more tragic.
As I took it all in, I happened to notice a sign off to my right – just near the entrance to the graveyard. A sign that said in part – “…With its melancholy rigour, it is a graveyard for soldiers not all of whom had chosen either the cause or the fight. They too have found rest in our soil of France.” Then it said something about thousands of personnel. The largest German graveyard in France. My heart dropped into my stomach as my eyes tore away from the sign, falling back to those black crosses. Just like in that bunker, I could suddenly see them and feel them on the other side of the veil.
Germans. My husband and I had stumbled upon the German graveyard, commemorating the enemy combatants that fell on both D-Day and in the subsequent fighting. A final resting place for the people who had put all those brave American soldiers under their own crosses in the graveyard across the way. Standing there, practically alone in this cemetery, made me feel strange. Almost like a traitor somehow. Some of these boys had proudly worn swastikas. They had cheered a cause that spelled a death sentence for countless millions of people. They fought for a man who wanted nothing but death and pain for anyone he considered an enemy – and more than a few whom he considered friends.
Part of me wanted to wheel around, stomp out of there, and never look back. But I didn’t. Instead, I started walking up and down the rows and examining the individual stones. The German writing on some of them. I picked up a certain sadness in the way the breeze rustled the leaves above me. I heard a whisper in my ear. As I looked at those stones, so many of them nameless, sorrow overwhelmed me. Honest, genuine sorrow for them all. Because they were humans too, weren’t they? Someone loved them and cared for them. They felt pain. They suffered. Under the jaws of war yes, but also under the jaws of hate. And sometimes under the jaws of something else entirely. A war machine that stopped for no one. “…not all of whom had chosen either the cause or the fight…”
In the end, my visit to that German graveyard was utterly and completely transformative. I walked out of there with a totally different perspective than I had when I walked in. It actually had such an impact that it knocked my entire life’s mission in a completely different direction.
Bringing some semblance of life back to forgotten soldiers hasn’t changed. I’m always going to want to do that, but walking through the rows of German black crosses taught me something almost more important. And that is the power of humanizing. Not just the winning side, but the enemy. Ever since that day, I think it’s fair to say I’ve been more drawn to the “other side” of the battlefield. I have become curious as to what those men (and women!) were like. What made them fall into something so dark? What kind of pain drove them into the arms of someone like Hitler? Sometimes, it wasn’t so simple as being a good guy or a bad guy, either. Honestly, it never is. As that sign pointed out, not all of them supported Hitler or even wanted to fight.
I have many regular visitors to this blog (and I’m thankful to each and every one of you). Some of you may have noticed, in your years supporting my work, that I tend to gravitate towards sharing all sides of a story. I try to include accounts from both sides of the battlefield. I try, as hard as it is sometimes, to humanize. No matter what side people fought for. When you read those things, what you’re seeing is that German graveyard visit in action. Humanizing is what it made me want to do.
I’ve caught a lot of flak, and I’m sure I’ll get more, for what that graveyard taught me. Especially in our current environment of polarization. We live in a time where it has become perfectly acceptable, and even encouraged in some cases, to turn someone who disagrees with us into an enemy. To paint them in an evil light and rattle our sabers at them. Well, that German graveyard spelled me out a lesson in literal black and white. Perhaps, before someone gets hurt, it makes more sense to step into the gray layer and look around. See who you can find in there. Maybe you can find some common ground. Maybe you can remember…. They’re human.
I think it’s been made plain throughout history that evil lurks in the world, and sometimes, it’s just too powerful to go down peacefully. I’m not sure we could have rid the world of Hitler and the Nazis without a fight. Because some people won’t be pacified. Some evil forces have to be ripped out by their roots. But war is a terrible, nasty, cruel thing, and it’s so rare that the forces responsible for it actually pay. Instead, they turn human lives – mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives – into meaningless targets through a crosshair. Which violates every fiber of what it means to be human. It’s something we should be avoiding at any and all costs, and I think a lot of people have been quick to forget that lately.
I don’t know what our current problems will come to. I don’t know what it will take to stomp out things like racism, gender inequality, wealth gaps, and corruption. But my stroll through a quiet graveyard in France gave me a good place to start. I can remind myself that we are all of us human. We all hurt. We are all in pain. Especially right now, and pain leaves some people vulnerable to the darkness. This doesn’t make certain actions forgivable, but it provides us a road map into the why of it. Once we answer that, we can hopefully get another road map out of the mess. One free of fighting, with any luck.
I’m not sure what the final point of this article is. I think it’s just something I wanted to share with you. Because I’m deeply saddened at what I’m seeing today. I really want us, we the people, to band together. Because it will take all of us to solve these problems. Those people you’re so angry at? You’ll need them eventually. So I thought I would let it start with me. I thought I could open a piece of my heart and reach my hand out. To come to you as a flawed human. One who has made mistakes in my time. Grievous ones. My actions have hurt people. So have some of my beliefs. But I’m trying my best and so are a lot of others. My mistakes, and that graveyard, have taught me that now more than ever is the time for compassion. For trying to make out what’s going on with people – especially the ones we can’t or won’t understand.
No one deserves the cruelty that ends with black and white crosses in a quiet field in France. So I’ll be here, in the layer of gray, waiting for someone to talk to. Will you come and join me?
La Cambe German War Cemetery Visit
All photos by M.B. Henry – except the one I appear in, taken by my husband! For more photos from Europe and Normandy, click here
If you’d like a very detailed look at how D-Day unfolded, from many different view points, please check out my debut novel, “All the Lights Above Us.” It follows five women, their movements, and their life-changing decisions on June 6 itself. To learn more, click here.
I welcome conversation with diverse opinions in the comments below, but in the spirit of unity, let’s please keep it respectful. Thank you.