We took a very pleasant four-hour Brittany Ferries crossing to Cherbourg, had breakfast and a nap onboard, before driving to Sainte-Mere Eglise, the village onto which two plane-loads of US paratroopers were dropped in error the night before D-Day, including Private John Steele whose parachute caught on one of the pinnacles of the church tower. Sainte-Mere EgliseWounded, he stayed suspended there for two hours, playing dead, until he was brought down and captured by the Germans. An effigy of him dangling from his snagged parachute is on the church tower today, opposite the American Airbourne museum, which was closed, as were many of the museums and visitor centres we tried to visit on our trip.
We drove on to visit Utah beach, the westernmost of the invasion beaches where there are a number of American memorials and old emplacements of Hitler’s Atlantic defensive Wall. A windowed modern hangar houses a huge Martin B-26-G bomber and the (again closed) museum is surrounded by various monuments, guns and artefacts of battle. 
La CambeWe went on to visit the sombre, understated, grey cemetery at La Cambe where 21,222 German soldiers, sailors and airmen are buried.
With daylight fading we quickly finished our first day of visits at Pointe du Hoc, the cliff top site between Utah and Omaha beaches that US Rangers scaled to capture gun emplacements that threatened the two landing beaches. Their story is a sad and sorry one because the weather meant many men were drowned before they could land, only 95 of the original 250 Ranger force survived and they found the guns had been moved when they finally did scale the cliffs. But the guns were later found and destroyed so the mission was ultimately successful. The site is well preserved with many massive bomb craters still pockmarking the area around the gun emplacements and there are good explanations of the heroic action. 
We stayed in the centre of Bayeux, a very lovely Normandy town we’d not visited before. We had no time to visit the Bayeux cemeterytapestries because our day 2 began with a visit to the largest British cemetery in France, just outside the town. The cemetery, like all Commonwealth war cemeteries, is beautifully looked after but this one has a public road running by its side so the cemetery feels like an integral part of Bayeux town itself, which was nice. Walking amongst the thousands of graves of the very young soldiers we came across two moving and appropriate graveside poems written by a Rob Aitchison from Bristol in 2005 for his grandfather. I’ve copied them at the end of this post.
We made the short drive to visit Pegasus Bridge, originally called Bénouville Bridge after the neighbouring village. It was, with the nearby Ranville Bridge over the river Orne, a major objective of the British airborne troops in the opening minutes of D-Day. A unit of glider infantry was to land, take the bridges intact and hold them until relieved. The successful taking of the bridges played an important role in limiting the effectiveness of a German counter-attack in the days and weeks following the Normandy invasion. In 1944 it was renamed Pegasus Bridge in honour of the Pegasus Bridgeoperation. The name is derived from the shoulder emblem worn by the British airborne forces, which is the flying horse Pegasus. Ranville Bridge was renamed Horsa Bridge after the gliders used by the paratroopers.
We travelled on to Gold Beach, where most of the British D-Day forces landed, and where the remains of the artificial ‘Mulburry Harbour’ is still visible on the eastern end of the beach. Components were towed across the Channel and sunk in place the day after D-Day to form a safe unloading harbour. It was used for 10 months after D-Day; over 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tons of supplies were landed at Gold Beach before it was decommissioned. As the tide was low I was able to walk out to them, huge concrete hulks still sitting on the sand washed over twice a day by the sea. A little further along the beach a line of current day troops were walking the beach, adding to the atmosphere. It was good to learn that Gold beach was one of the ‘safest’ landing beaches, although hundreds of men still lost their lives landing there. 
Next we visited Omaha beach and the cemetery containing over 9,000 American war graves that overlooks it. From the hillside vantage point we could understand why so many soldiers were lost at Omaha Beach, immortalised in the harrowing opening scenes of Steven Speilberg’s film, “Saving Private Ryan”. With German machine guns in the beach dunes and with no cover for the landing troops it was little wonder Omaha was one of the bloodiest D-Day landing beaches. Only the Omaha Beachsheer number of attackers overcame the German defences. The cemetery includes some large and impressive statues, monuments and beautiful landscaping between the acres of simple white crosses in the grass marking the sacrifice of 2,000 young men who never made it off the beach and the many thousands who died in nearby fighting. The difference between the way the graves are marked and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the German War Graves Commission and the American Battle Monuments Commission is striking.
Overnight in Bayeux again then we switched wars and made the long drive to The Somme and a much smaller village cemetery  in Foncquevillers. We wanted to visit the grave of a relative of my cousin, Lynne, second lieutenant W.H. Warner of the Machine Gun Corps, who died in August 1918. Google took us the 200 miles straight to the entrance and we quickly found Mr Warner’s grave where we paid our respects, took a number of photographs and signed the CWGC visitors book. We have no information how he died but we assumed it would have been a brave one, being in the Machine Gun Corps.
On again the short distance to find an inscription on the Arras memorial of a cousin, five times removed, with no known grave, Able Seaman R.M. Loosemore. His body may be buried in a cemetery with no inscription other than ‘A Soldier of the Great War’, or it may never have been found, or it may have been unidentifiable, or it may have been destroyed by battle, or simply ‘lost’. Quite why an Able Seaman would have died near Arras, a good way from the sea, is because his unit formed part of the Nelson battalion which was deployed to France. We seem to know nothing more, unfortunately, except he was another brave man indeed.
Overnight at a hilltop hotel near Ypres overlooking Flanders Fields from where we visited the Menin Gate, in the rain. The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were  killed in the Ypres Salient of World War I and whose graves are unknown. The memorial is located at the eastern exit of the town and marks the starting point for one of the main roads out of the town that led Allied soldiers to the front line. It was chosen to be a memorial as it was the closest gate of the town to the fighting, so Allied Troops would have marched past it on their way to fight. We wondered over the thousands of names carved on it then, as we planned to return for the 8pm ‘Last Post’ ceremony, we moved on to a very impressive exhibition in the town centre called ‘In Flanders Fields’. On entry to the museum we were given a “Poppy Bracelet” containing a microchip, which activates the chosen language and the personal stories of four war individuals as we made our way around the exhibitions. The exhibit tells the story of  the invasion of Belgium, the four years trench warfare, the end of the war, and the permanent remembrance ever since. It explains graphically what trench warfare was like, the stalemate and the risk all the soldiers lived under every day. The museum does not set out to glorify war but to suggest its futility, particularly as seen in the terrible West Flanders front region in World War I.

We drove across town to Tyne Cot, the largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world, for any war. The cemetery and its surrounding memorial are located outside of Passchendale, and again it was raining and windy. Tyne Cot CWGC Cemetery lies on a broad rise in the landscape which overlooks the surrounding countryside. As such, the location

Tyne Cot

Tyne Cot cemetery

was strategically important to both sides fighting in the area. The concrete shelters which still stand in various parts of the cemetery were part of a fortified position of the German forces and played an important tactical role during the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. The cemetery truly is huge but notwithstanding the thousands of graves, the many thousands more names of those whose bodies are lost are carved on its walls shows the unbelievable scale of the lives lost. Looking out on the graves in the gloom and the rain Paula suggested we imagine each one to be a soldier standing there proudly at attention. It was very moving. The missing British soldiers in the Ypres Salient are commemorated at the Menin Gate Memorial and the Tyne Cot Memorial. Upon completion of the Menin Gate, builders discovered it was not large enough to contain all the names as originally planned. They selected an arbitrary cut-off date of 15 August 1917 and the names of the missing after this date were inscribed on the Tyne Cot memorial instead. The Cross of Sacrifice that marks many CWGC cemeteries was built on top of a German pill box in the centre of the cemetery, purportedly at the suggestion of King George V, who visited the cemetery in 1922 as it neared completion. The memorial contains the names of 33,783 UK soldiers plus a further 1,176 New Zealanders. Three British Army Victoria Cross recipients are commemorated.

Menim Gate

Menim Gate

Every night at 8.00pm a moving ceremony takes place under the Menin Gate in Ypres. The Last Post Ceremony has become part of the daily life in Ypres and the local people are proud of this simple but moving tribute to the courage and self-sacrifice of those who fell in defence of their town. The evening we attended there were upwards of a thousand schoolchildren and others standing under the gate waiting for the buglers. On the stroke of 8pm they bugled ‘The Last Post’. We all observed a minute’s silence, a number of wreaths were laid then a boy stepped into the centre of the road under the arch of the Hall of Memory and read the Exhortation:
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.”
Longest Day 
Do not call me hero, When you see the medals that I wear, Medals maketh not the hero, They just prove that I was there.
Do not call me hero, Now that I am old and grey, I left a lad, returned a man,
They stole my youth that day.
Do not call me hero, When we ran the wall of hail, The blood, the fears, the cries, the tears We left them where they fell.
Do not call me hero, Each night I stop and pray, For all the friends I knew and lost,
I survived my longest day.
Do not call me hero,
In the years that pass, For all the real true heroes, Have crosses, lined up on the grass.
At The Cross
Step up before me child, so I can hear your name. Thank you for the flower, dear, please tell me why you came.
“Grandma had to see you, she thinks of you every day, She tells me all about you, but I know not what to say”.
“Nanny kept a photograph and I have seen your face, She keeps you on the mantle, it takes up pride of place”.
“Daddy has had your medals, since he was a lad, Says he remembers when you went away, and the good times that he had”.
“So you see we are all here, on this glorious day, We keep you in our thoughts and hearts, you’re never far away”.
both by Rob Aitchison
[A large album of photos from our trip is available on the ‘Latest Photos’ tab on the site.]
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