War, History and the Kiwi-ness of France

I have just returned from a ten-day break over Christmas and, having been so slack at updating this blog during the past few months, I will do so now.

D-Day mural in a shop window in Bayeux
D-Day mural in a shop window in Bayeux
My parents have been visiting this side of the world again and this time they decided to show me that there is more to France than just Paris.

I’ve never been a fan of Paris. It always felt like a city that has been told so often that it is a beautiful, sophisticated tourist mecca that it has stopped trying.

So we spent Christmas in Saint-Malo and, being someone who has always felt at home by the sea, I fell in love with the town.

Then there were the days spent in Arras, Amiens, Caen, Ypres, Bayeux and other towns shaped by last century’s two major conflicts. Some miraculously avoided damage while others were reduced to rubble before rising up and being rebuilt as the monuments to recovery that we see today.

New Zealand war graves at Bayeux
New Zealand war graves at Bayeux

The countryside also bears the injuries of war – craters dotting the otherwise incredibly flat farmland, with shells and other battle remnants still being discovered more than a century later.

Then there are the hundreds of war cemeteries, the final resting place of many thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen, lines of white crosses and headstones stretching in some places as far as the eye can see. They still stand strong and firm against the bitter winter wind and backdrop of dark grey clouds.

There are the messages on some gravestones from parents, brothers, sisters and children. A few are to “daddy” but it is the simple “with love from mother and dad” that brings me close to tears.

And there are the headstones with the silver fern – only a handful at Bayeux (a sailor and three airmen – let me know if you’ve spotted any others) but many at Tyne Cot, for example. So far from home.

Map of New Zealand (South Island in the foreground and me trying to get out of the photo while putting my camera away.)
Map of New Zealand (South Island in the foreground and me trying to get out of the photo while putting my camera away.)
New Zealand is mentioned a lot in that region. I found a little memorial to the New Zealand forces in an outer suburb of Arras and a small town near Ypres had a cathedral with a map of New Zealand painted on the pavement outside. It is very strange to feel so close to my home country while standing half a world away from it.

I stood on Omaha Beach, where mainly American forces landed on D-Day. Seven decades later, it is only the waves that charge onto the shore. A scene where bravery was mixed with death and desperation is now peaceful, with golden sand and sun-touched sea.

And I stood at the gates to a memorial for members of the resistance in France. More than 200 brave civilians were shot dead in the ditches of that citadel on the outskirts of Arras between 1941 and 1944. It lies just beyond the entrance to a forest and is surrounded by an eerie silence.

Omaha Beach
Omaha Beach

Maybe it’s a strange way to spend a holiday. I spent many days doing more typical things too – shopping, sightseeing, eating out and generally enjoying my family. But it is difficult to ignore history – and my country’s part in it. It’s difficult to know that thousands of New Zealanders travelled across the world to fight in those two wars without wanting to see where they lie and to say thank you.

And, perhaps most importantly, nobody could see the crosses and headstones of generations slaughtered and still think that war is a glorious thing.

Bayeux military cemetery. The note on the piece of paper: "Thank You"
Bayeux military cemetery. The note on the piece of paper: “Thank You”