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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…”  

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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.

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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?

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SOURCES

 Normandy Visit

La Cambe German War Cemetery Visit

The Heart

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.

42 Comments on “Normandy: Under the Black Crosses

    • Thanks Dave! It was a hard one to write, as it’s always a bit nerve-wracking putting one’s heart out there! 🙂 Glad you took time to read it.

  1. Thank you for your post on this subject. In Denmark, we have quite a few big German graveyards like this one. We had many German fugitives who came to Denmark, fleeing the Red Army in the last half year Of the war. Sometimes the graves are placed close to the allied graves. Here as in Normandy, the German grave sites are desolate but consistently well-kept by German volunteers

    • We visited another German graveyard while we were in Europe – the one outside Huertgen Forest. For those willing to venture there, it’s certainly a powerful reminder that human life is very complicated! Thank you so much for reading. One of these days I really need to make it to Denmark.

  2. What a powerful post, M.B! I didn’t visit the German cemetery, but I visited Normandy a few years before you. Like within most people, it evinced a deep since of reflection in my heart and mind. I, too, abhor the division within our country today and the perception of those with differing political view as our enemies. It hasn’t been that long ago in my lifetime, considerably longer than yours, when that wasn’t the case and we could enter civic discussions without getting angry or calling each other names. In short, although we may have adamantly disagreed, we respected each other’s opinions and tried to understand their viewpoints. Sadly, I don’t see how we get back to those times. I suspect that you and I have different political views although you go to great length to keep your political views out of your posts (a trait I and others, I’m sure, appreciate) but I am confident that if you and I ever got into a political discussion, you would respect my views as I yours. I hope that Americans can one day reach that state again. Thanks for that moving post.

    • Thank you so much Lee. Yes Normandy definitely provokes a lot of reflection in those who visit there. It’s truly a haunting place. As for my political views, I mostly keep them private because I don’t always know where I fall anyway. My values and convictions are in flux a lot as I evolve and learn and talk to other people – which is how I truly believe we can get past polarization is by talking with others. Which means you would always be welcome to share opinions with me and I’m sure we could do so respectfully!

  3. I love both your story and the points you bring out. We can destroy our country from within more swiftly than our external foes.

    • Completely agreed – I know we’re capable of taking better care of each other than this.

      • That’s the tricky part, isn’t it? Want vs. Should/Could. I think there are a lot of people who want to help, but they’re being drowned out by louder voices who don’t.

    • This is one of your best ever. Your looking through a German lens for a moment reminded me of a friend whose father was one of those German conscripts. He was drafted while studying medicine and poorly suited to be a soldier. He gave himself up to the Americans at some point and was sent to the western US as a POW. He went home after the war, finished his studies and had a family, and immigrated back here with them in 1960 because he had liked what of America he had experienced. He eventually became a professor of neurology with a national reputation. He was one of the lucky ones.

      I used to enjoy respectful political discussions with those who disagreed with me. Those seem almost impossible to have now, which saddens me.

      • It’s a complicated thing, isn’t it? That sign in the graveyard was right. Not all of them asked for it, and it was a good reminder for me. I’m so very glad the piece moved you. I agree, it’s getting harder and harder to have discussions with people who disagree with us. I think so many passions are getting inflamed on both sides, and people (including myself at times) are having a hard time looking at it through a different lens.

  4. That was beautiful, and wise.
    I have pondered what drives people towards demagogues and autocrats, a lot. I don’t have any profound answers beyond that people fear “the other” — people not like them, who have different languages, and customs, and values. And rather than try to work against that initial fear to find a commonality between them, it is easier to find ways to be threatened by them. And demagogues and autocrats use that human trait to rise to power.
    So very sad.

    • Yes – a very profound thought on what I agree is a big driving factor in how dictators take power. Fear. That, and pain. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

    • You found a perfect way to sum up what I was trying to say. Thank you for reading. <3

    • Yes – me too. It’s hard not to weep when standing among the wreckage of human life.

  5. Once again your insightful, descriptive, post takes us to the scene and does, indeed, put a human face on the victims of war. It is interesting that I have never before heard of the German graveyard with its significantly black crosses

    • Thanks so much Derrick – it’s called La Cambe, and if you are ever near Normandy I highly recommend taking a stroll through there.

  6. Well written… we were in Normandy and saw where my Uncle survived D-Day. It was quite emotional.
    I too am upset with the division in our own country… we need to get back to speaking to each other respectfully when sharing ideas.

    • I can imagine that must have been very emotional <3 We will find our way back. We just have to start listening to one another.

  7. Such a poignant piece – I can feel your compassion, your humanity.
    The conflict between good and evil is never truly in black and white, is it?
    One of the most often repeated quotes to me in my Southern Baptist doctrine from a life of long ago was “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”
    A bit too simplistic, of course – but something akin to the German graveyard lesson for you.
    For me, the “sin” is often overwhelming – making my love for the “sinner” so very, very difficult.
    Good for you for taking a stand.

    • You are right. Sometimes, certain actions make it very hard to love the sinner. Certain actions are so painful that it can be very hard to forgive. I wish I had the antidote for such actions, but all I can do is try harder to understand I suppose. And remember that we are all of us human and make mistakes, especially when we’re afraid and in pain. Thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  8. When I read a post like this, I can see how you developed your determination to share the stories you do. And how important it is that we learn the lesions history strives to teach us. Dehumanizing “the other” has been going on as long as people have existed, probably. It really is the only thing that makes such atrocities possible. It pains me to hear people in this country doing this to each other and for the most crass and shallow of reasons, too. Does it really have to take an event like 9/11 to bring us together again?

    • I really, really, really hope that’s not what it will take to unite us again. I had hoped the pandemic would bring us a bit closer together but it seemed to only drive the wedge in harder. Thanks so much for reading and raising your own great points about demonizing “the other.” The sooner we can get past that, the better off all of us will be.

  9. Dear M.B.,
    I can completely commiserate with what you are feeling. Thank you for putting these difficult thoughts and emotions into word and for showing that us the devastation that war has always wreaked–and always will.
    I so hope that your wish will come true and we can build bridges to one another, rather than fire destructive words and even more destructive weapons.
    In hopes of a more peaceful future,
    Tanja

    • <3 I'm so glad the piece resonated with you. I wish beyond wishing that we can all build bridges instead of walls, and that we can start listening to one another a bit better. <3

    • I have to say, this is one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about my writing. I want you to know it really made my day!!! It’s one of those things that makes all the struggles of a writer worth it. <3 So thank you.

  10. Powerful writing. Powerful imagery. I walked by your side, felt the breeze, heard the shouts and whistling bullets, and wept for the unfathomable loss of life on the battlefield. I’ve never been to Europe, but similar emotions have invaded my body at Little Bighorn Battlefield, Civil War sites, the various war memorials in DC, and at National Cemeteries where uniform white crosses arranged in rows span acres upon acres of green grass. Thank you for sharing your story. It touched my heart.

    • I’ve never been to Little Bighorn but have always wanted to visit. Which Civil War sites have you been to? I’ve visited a lot of the ones in Virginia but not too much outside there (other than Gettysburg). I’m very glad the piece moved you!

  11. M.B. I live in Palestine. I’m a muslim. My opinion is very unpopular, because I don’t allow my kids to just blame every Israeli of things that happen here. Enlistment in the Israeli army is compulsory at 17. They’re just kids with guns who’ve been taught Palestinians are the enemy from a very young age. Not all of them agree, but they serve anyway. Same with Palestinian boys who go throw rocks. They’re taught, at home, in schools, by friends, that when they go throw rocks, they’re defending Palestinian lands from encroachment. Often, they end up in the ER, jail, or dead.
    In the uprising of the early 2000s, many Israeli soldiers deserted. Same with whatever semblance of army we had. It’s not a war of civilians, it’s a war of leaders with the power to command “minions” to fight for their beliefs.
    Many Israeli’s here today have been brought here – their ancestors – after Hitler. It was a decision made by many leaders, some of them arabs and muslims. But the Israeli government is no better than Hitler and his needless hatred. They displace entire families, send children to jail, claim land that doesn’t belong to them.
    I don’t blame them, entirely. I blame world leaders and their compliance, their “not my problem” attitude, and the blatant disregard to human rights.
    Mmm, I didn’t know I had all that in me. As I said, my opinion is very unpopular, and I tend to not get involved in politics – people here get banned from social media for talking, some even get arrested.

    • “It’s not a war of civilians, it’s a war of leaders with the power to command “minions” to fight for their beliefs.”…. And “I blame world leaders and their compliance, their “not my problem” attitude, and the blatant disregard to human rights.”
      YES. I think you summed up quite nicely what I was trying to say here. We the people don’t benefit from being at each other’s throats like this – but people who are in power or trying to grasp power certainly do. Thank you so much for your courage in sharing your powerful thoughts and your lived experience.

  12. Very well written – have visited many of these “reminders of the past” in the northern, western and northwestern french landscapes. Imho so it is a huge part the our history – all of us. These places really deserves the greatest respect. 🙂

    • Completely agree! It’s a part of the collective human experience and we should always remember

  13. Another interesting and thought-provoking post, MB. I too am sad and angry, as I look back on my family history research, at the number of young men that were buried in foreign soil, fighting for what they thought was a just cause.

    • It’s a sad, sad thing and I fear it’s one curse we’ll never shake off. I’m very glad you stopped by for a read, thank you so much! 🙂

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