#1136. Revoir ma Normandie

By Pascal Ollier | Travel Photography

Sep 03

One of the many consequences of the ‘rona on travel is that airlines had to completely revisit their routes. Many of them were cancelled, momentarily or long term.

To reach my destination during recent travels, ie the Brittany coast of France, taking the car thus became the favoured option, allowing for pit stops on the way.

First port of call was Etretat, with its famous “needle”; it stands high in the memory of French 20th century readers thanks to Arsène Lupin, renowned fiction character recently revisited by Netflix.

The landscape is quite special and drew many visitors, some seemingly coming from far away to see the famous cliffs.

Less well known is the Etretat garden created in the beginning of the 20th century by a Russian individual but by no means less appealing.

The premises were absolutely immaculate, the trees manicured to perfection. A real joy to look at.

Some might argue, and rightfully so, that it was not the right time of day, ie golden hour, to pay that visit. Right you are, I indeed had to make do with a glaring sun baking the alleys.

What is also worth mentioning is the artwork present at this garden which allows some interesting combination with the scenery, enhancing its dramatic appearance.

In the area, one has to watch out for sea gulls. They have a piercing eye (and cry); whenever someone is eating, they are ready to pounce in a determined and skillful way, and take that food away. Be warned!

The second part of this stint proved much more dramatic, if for quite different reasons, being devoted to some of the D-Day landing beaches and associated landmarks.

The generation before mine fought the war. My relatives wanted that door permanently shut, having lived (or rather survived!) through a period which was quite traumatic for both of them.

Additionally, at the time of my studies, World War II was not yet considered “history”, since it had ended too little time before, and was thus not wholly part of any school program yet.

If this visit was long to take place, it was all the more moving.

First port of call was the Canadian cemetery.

The carnage that took place is impossible to imagine when you read the detail of the tombstones. Children barely 20 years old for most; what makes it particularly painful is that most of the descriptions includes words like “good husband” or “proud father” despite their very young age.

Close to two thousand soldiers are buried there. Beyond the gripping emotion, I was most impressed both by the very good care taken of the premises, as well as the baffling absence of any visitor, save for the lawn mowing gardener on duty that day.

Next stop led to the memorial monument inaugurated two years ago by the French President and British Prime Minister to celebrate Anglo French cooperation to stop nazi terror.

A U shaped corridor with the names of all the soldiers who devoted their lives to that assault on the columns leads to the main marble monument.

Again, there was not a soul to be seen, except for lawn mower man.

I could not but be shocked by the crowd present at Etretat and the absence of visitors at such quintessential (in my view at least) landmarks especially as the weather was clement.

Trying to imagine what these brave among the brave must have endured to land on these beaches is beyond possible.

Final stop was at the American cemetery, which was something altogether.

There were more visitors at that site, which I read as positive news.

Ten thousand soldiers are buried there, the vastness of the location is overwhelming. And they only represent some forty percent of total casualties, the others having been brought back to the USA to be buried.

Trying to convey the emotion is difficult.

For all the Edward Daleys of this world, we must always remember and pass on the memories of their ultimate sacrifice.


​Never miss a post

​Like what you are reading? Subscribe below and receive all posts in your inbox as they are published. Join the conversation with thousands of other creative photographers.

  • Dallas says:

    Pascal, an emotive set of images and text well done. Your B&W’s IMHO do convey the emotion attached to such places likes these. Dallas

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I guess “imagine” is how I have to face off to this. It has cast a long shadow, though – and so not all of what I think or know or feel is “imagination”.
    My first real “contact” with WW1, the horrors of the Somme, and all the other disasters of that war, centred around a gentleman a school friend of mine and I used to know. He arrived in the battle fields in the middle of the war – he was a big lad, and lied about his age – they weren’t very particular about checking such details and off he went – a fourteen year old kid. His parents were frantic, hadn’t seen him for several days – they lived just near Brighton on the south coast of England – hunted everywhere. Then they received a postcard from him, sent from Flanders – arriving 3 or 4 days after he “went missing”.
    He survived. Most didn’t. By the end of WW1 he’d risen from Private to Sergeant. And he was still only 16 years old.
    Conditions on the battlefields were harsh – appalling – horrendous.
    Then I found out that one of my favourite aunts had been engaged to one of the fallen – she never stopped loving him – she just never got married – but always remembered him. This must have happened to millions of families – literally, millions.
    One of my school friend’s younger brothers went on to become a historian – a history professor, actually, at Dublin’s leading university – and his special field of interest was WW1. At one stage I found myself in possession of documents from the trenches – manuals, intended for the soldiers at the front – in oil skin covers. When I moved here, I sent them to him (through his brother, my friend).
    Our nation’s population contracted as a result of WW1 – first by the sheer numbers of dead – and then because of a lack of “husbands”, resulting in a fall in the birth rate. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the deaths in the flu epidemic that followed just after the end of WW1.
    I am not surprised by your comment on the lack of an audience for these memorials – just simply appalled that successive generations now seem to prefer to forget the sacrifice these soldiers made. My wife has made several trips to the “killing fields”, and to these cemeteries. Other members of the family have too. And we live on the other side of the planet We have a lot of photos of these places – photos that we’ve taken – that we can see and touch, and remember the “Great War” by.
    What you say about the tomb stones is much the same as inscriptions I keep finding all over France and elsewhere in Europe, about the impacts of the following war – WW2 – and the crushing behaviour of the Nazis. I cannot pass by, without reading these inscriptions – and I cannot read these inscriptions, without standing there, sobbing. It tears me apart. It’s beyond my powers of self control. Even sitting here, thinking of those inscriptions, has a similar effect.
    When people mouth off about humans being the cleverest animals on planet Earth, I think of things like this – of the absolute futility of wars – of the waste and destruction and loss of lives – and compare this with the behaviour of other animals, which generally care for other members of their own species, and couldn’t engage in such military campaigns, no matter what.
    Pascal, thank you for sharing these photos. They’ve kind of swamped the photos at the start of your article. Sorry. Maybe in a day or so, I’ll come back, and thank you for those photos too. Right now – I’m taking a break. War and its consequences kind of has that effect on me. Worse – for those who were there. Almost none of them can speak about it, except to others who were there with them, at the time. Too many of them suffered trauma because of it, during it. As a consequence, too many of them have PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder. And as a consequence of that, too many of them end their lives, too early, after they return home.

    • Pascal Ollier says:

      Dear Pete, thank you for this very emotional comment.

      I can only say I fully agree with you. Visiting those cemeteries was an ordeal.

      I spent part of the summer reading Erik Larson’s last opus about Winston Churchill’s first year at number 10 from May 1940 to May 1941 (“The splendid and the vile” which I cannot recommend enough), it was both most interesting and devastating.
      While it may be painful, as for my Breendonk article, I believe transmitting this knowledge via many ways, photography being the one of choice for us DS aficionados, is a must. Take care.

  • Dan says:

    Very moving posting. We visited Normandie ten years ago and we loved the place.

    The huge cemeteries have to be seen to make one realize the real costs of war. Just reading a number is not enough in my experience.

    • Pascal Ollier says:

      Thank you for your kind comment, Dan. As you rightly say, one is forever changed after such a visit.

  • Paul Lasky says:

    /Users/paul3nt/Pictures/Lightroom Exports/Europe/0501_Etretat_Atomspherics_001.jpg
    /Users/paul3nt/Pictures/Lightroom Exports/Europe/1405_Etretat_Monet_001.jpg

    Etretat has been a focus of artists well before 1945 and afterwards. Here are two depictions of the “Needle” one by Claude Monet in 1893, and another by me in 2014.

  • Robert Kruger says:

    My father was injured in WWII and lived to tell about it. Funny thing is, he never did. Not once.

    • Pascal Ollier says:

      Both my parents were actively engaged and spoke extremely little about their experience so to speak. Too painful. While I regret it, if for my own children, as they have now both passed away, more important for me is to have respected their wish not to revisit what must have been unquestionably terrifying moments in some cases.

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      I grew up with the returning soldiers who were fortunate enough to survive WW2. I lived with them – several were close relatives – I worked with and for them – all, over a period stretching over more than half a century.
      I was even one of the pall bearers for one of them, at his funeral.
      One was quite open about experiences he had had at the same time as the war raged – but nothing specifically related to the war itself.
      One was a guy I was much closer to – I spent twenty years or more as his deputy chairman, because he hated meetings and preferred having me go in his place – I helped him form the business – twice, when things got tough, I helped him through to the other side – I frequently spent an afternoon over the weekend at his place, chatting (sometimes – but not always – in preparation for a forthcoming board meeting).
      Only one of them EVER spoke directly about his wartime experiences.
      They are generally prepared to talk about such things, to each other – but apparently not, to people who weren’t there.

      And that of course adds to the burden they carry as a result of PTSD – and increases the risk of suicides among those who have made it through to the end and returned home.

      War is hell.

      And pointless. As Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated. As Poland has proven, beyond doubt – invaded so often, by so many different nations, that between 1000 AD and 2000 AD the Poles only had self-government for 30 years. But as we all know, it’s the Poles who are now governing Poland.

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Pascal, thank you for your post including your excellent & evocative images of the affects of WWII on the otherwise beautiful Normandy coastline. They brought back many memories of my visits to the various memorial sites which still remain as valiant and sad reminders of the cruelty of war. My father fought in France & Germany during WWII, but thankfully (and luckily) he came home after four long years to join my mother and to have a family at long last.
    Let us never forget.

    • Pascal Ollier says:

      Thank you Nancee! Your compliments are very much appreciated!
      As to substance, yes, indeed, we should never forget, and just as importantly, try and transmit the experience of our elders, if at all possible.
      Take care, Nancee.

  • >