The Instruments of War: D-Day Then and Now

A novelist in search of setting meditates on WWII, writing, and terror

I was driving north out of Caen when I noticed the machine gun pointed at me. It was late October, 2015. I’d come to northern France for research on World War II, so I pulled over for a closer look. The gun sat in a metal dugout with a seat for the soldier who would fire it. The barrel was twice as long as my arm, painted thickly yellow for visibility and to prevent rust. It was aimed at the oncoming traffic.

I lowered myself into the dugout and sighted down the barrel. A flood of commuters flowed by, while the oddball American observed from their faces that they considered him more out of place than a weapon from seventy years ago.

I lowered myself into the dugout and sighted down the barrel. A flood of commuters flowed by…

What does it mean to leave the instruments of war in place? What lesson might these artifacts teach us? In the next few days, I would receive bloody instruction. So, in fact, would the world.

I had come to Normandy to find my town. A hundred pages into a novel, I had stalled despite a clear plot line, not to mention a contract with a New York publisher to bring it out the following year. I had never lost momentum on a book before. But the prose in this one felt shallow, and I knew perfectly well why: It lacked a sufficient sense of its setting. Imagine Huck without his river.

Somewhere amid the hedgerows of northern France, there had to be the place where my imagined people had lived for four years under Nazi occupation, then survived the D-Day invasion. To tell their story, I needed to know where it had all happened, the precise location.

I had already done my homework. There are many excellent books about D-Day. The Eisenhower Center in New Orleans contains hundreds of oral histories from the invasion’s combatants. Films make the battlefield vivid: Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, The Longest Day. I interviewed a survivor of Omaha Beach. I held all kinds of guns, trying to imagine running with them.

All of these sources, however compelling, contained a hole big enough to write a novel in: They were all from the warriors’ perspective. They lacked the experience of the French.

Caught in a crossfire between democracy and totalitarianism, between America’s juggernaut of can-do gung-ho and Germany’s ruthless defenses, French people were slaughtered in Normandy in numbers that exceeded the Allies and Nazis combined. Yet their story, in the English language at least, has gone untold. I could not do them justice, unless I stood in their setting and felt the rain on my face.

Friends teased me before I left for France: Good thing I was willing to suffer for my art. I laughed along. We did not know what was coming.

There are two ways to assess D-Day, both of which explain why an invasion in 1944 still matters today. The first measure is in blood. Roughly 5,200 Americans died during the 13 daylight hours of the initial invasion. That’s about 400 per hour.

Friends teased me before I left for France: Good thing I was willing to suffer for my art. I laughed along. We did not know what was coming.

During those same 13 hours, the number of French people who died was 11,800. About 850 an hour.

The second measure is the severity of the subsequent campaign. After Allied armies invaded Sicily on June 9, 1943, they did not take Rome until June 4, 1944 — nearly a year. But the Allies came ashore in Normandy on June 6, 1944, and freed Paris on August 25. The liberation of France required only 80 days.

The effect of this pace was the opposite of Sherman’s march to Georgia in the Civil War, in which the Yankee general took the time to burn everything as he passed. The Normandy campaign was so swift, Allied soldiers simply left the artifacts in place.

My machine gun, for example. But I felt the impact of history more tangibly the next morning, at Pointe du Hoc. In any other locale, the outcropping’s beauty alone would be a tourist attraction. A hundred-foot cliff rises from beaches on either side, the highest point for miles. With the English Channel sluicing gray sand below, the view was lovely in the low autumnal light.

But in 1944, that promontory held heavily armed German forces, and the cliff stood between the beaches known on June 6 as Utah and Omaha. Holding such high ground, with concrete pillboxes to shelter them, Nazi soldiers could fire down without risk. Any men who came ashore would be committing an act of elaborate suicide.

U.S. Army Rangers had other plans. Their mission was to throw up grappling hooks, climb those ropes, and overwhelm the German battlements. The first officer assigned to command the attack declared it impossible, certain death, and he was relieved of his responsibility. His replacement led 225 Rangers in an assault on the cliff soon after dawn.

Germans poured down machine gun fire. The Rangers kept climbing, even as fellow soldiers fell by the dozen from above. Yet eventually they reached the summit, swarmed the defenders, and captured the point. About 90 men survived.

The pillboxes stand today at the cliff’s edge, undecayed but for a skin of lichen. They look like gray concrete helmets, thirty feet across. I ran my hand along the rough surface, feeling pock marks where Ranger bullets had ricocheted. No one stopped me, or even took notice. The only constraints at the site, in fact, were fences to keep people from stumbling off the cliff.

They look like gray concrete helmets, thirty feet across. I ran my hand along the rough surface, feeling pock marks where Ranger bullets had ricocheted.

I turned to look east, across a lawn the size of a football field. It was marred by bomb craters, holes in the ground forty feet on a side and thirty feet deep. There were hundreds, now grown grassy, and no one had bothered to fill them in. I didn’t need to imagine what happened there. The landscape explained everything.

This was an unforgettable place, but as a location for my imaginary town it would not work. Despite the Rangers’ heroism, it said nothing about the French.

Feminism and the Pursuit of Relentless Happiness

Other battle sites brought the same frustration. On Sword Beach, where the Scots came ashore, a bagpiper named Bill Millin had accompanied them, playing “Highland Laddie” to frighten the Germans and inspire his mates. Nearly half of the 1,400 Scottish commandos died in that assault, though somehow Millin survived. Just above the beach stands a bronze statue of a piper, kilt and all. It’s a striking image, but not French.

In Arromanches, a few hundred yards offshore lay a semicircle of metal hulks — remnants of the Allied effort to create a manmade harbor for resupplying troops. Any story the ruins tell does not concern the French, however, but the stubbornness of iron despite years of waves and tides.

At Juno Beach in Courseilles, where the Canadians landed, D-Day was memorialized in photographs mounted under glass and posted around the town. One that hung beside a building’s front door showed a line of soldiers on the march. They’d just made it ashore, and were now proceeding inland. That house in the photo’s background, with the unusual upper windows? It’s still standing, not a block away. The place is unchanged. And if a writer wanted to know what soldiers smelled there, invading at low tide, all he had to do was breathe.

I was getting closer.

My next stop was Longues-sur-Mer. The Germans had built an especially effective gun battery there. It was a quiet place, winds gusting up the coast, a paved path through the grass. Following that path, however, brought me to a truly frightening weapon: a concrete and steel pillbox with room for a dozen soldiers, and the gun it took all twelve of them to operate. The machinery remained intact, as did a barrel easily thirty feet long.

Following that path brought me to a truly frightening weapon: a concrete and steel pillbox with room for a dozen soldiers, and the gun it took all twelve of them to operate.

Further along I saw three similar guns, identically massive. I knew from my reading that this battery had proved immensely capable, firing 170 rounds during D-Day, forcing ships to retreat, and in general presenting a mighty barrier. Though British shells damaged several of the guns, one continued firing until 7 that night. Today its barrel remains pointed high, as if aimed yet at some distant Allied ship.

Standing at the last giant gun, I could see how smart the set up was, how the casements had been arrayed to inflict damage in virtually all seaward directions. I placed my hand on the barrel, felt its surprising coldness, and realized the darkest lesson of warfare. I should have known sooner. But it took that battery, and its clever design, to teach me: War demands intelligence. It takes discipline, yes, and fanaticism, and patriotism, and many other qualities. But above all it requires brains. The deliberate, cold-blooded application of the human mind.

I was overwhelmed. I strode away from the sights, away from the sea, out of the historic area altogether.

From rocks to rifles, from gunpowder to the hydrogen bomb, few enterprises have been lavished with human creativity as much as our capacity to slaughter one another. The idea filled me with sadness. We are killers, we humans. When it comes to devising ways to end the lives of others, our minds are terribly good at it.

We are killers, we humans. When it comes to devising ways to end the lives of others, our minds are terribly good at it.

Eventually I stopped and looked around. I had come to the edge of an orchard. I live near an orchard at home, so I gazed on the trees with a familiar eye. They had already been harvested, not one apple left dangling. They were meticulously pruned, too; someone had shown dedicated husbandry to these trees for many years. And with a shiver of delight, I knew. Here, half a mile inland from the guns, this was where my town would stand.

I drew a mental map: the village square, the popular bakery, the steeple of St. Agnes-by-the-Sea. Also the German garrison, the mess tents, the stores of food and fuel guarded to prevent theft by starving locals. My villagers would not be warriors, though, nor members of the Resistance. They would be Yves the fisherman with a fine singing voice, Pierre the cowherd who constantly craved tobacco, Emma the baker with secret ways of feeding other villagers. They would be the kind of people who cared for their trees. And the intelligence of war would broil them alive. My poor people. I loved them already.

There was one more stop I needed to make, in Colleville-Sur-Mer. The place has a formal entryway, a flagpole, pillars around a statue. But the arresting image is not any of these objects. The sight that commands is of the crosses. No matter where you stand in the American cemetery of Normandy, they fall in a straight line, plain and white, and in sufficiently staggering number — 9,387 of them, on 172 acres — to silence anyone, to slow anyone’s walking.

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Photo: Stephen Kiernan

I had already visited the Canadian cemetery, where maple leaves ornamented the markers. I’d seen the German graveyard too, its clusters of five small crosses, and the large burial mound in the center. Neither had prepared me for the impact of those long white rows, luminous in the seaside sun.

The American cemetery is as diverse as the nation it represents. At 1,213, Pennsylvania supplied more soldiers than any other state. There are Stars of David, hundreds of them. There are African-, Hispanic-, and Japanese-American soldiers. There are Native Americans, Navajo and Comanche, who were “code-talkers” — that is, whose language the enemy could neither translate nor decode. There are 307 graves of unknown soldiers, and a wall to memorialize 1,500 men still unaccounted for. There are three women.

It was difficult not to personalize the crosses as I read them. Not the names, but the ages. This one was 21, same as my son Will. The next was 19, same as my son Noah. My smart, beautiful, mischievous boys back home in the States, not in uniform but in college. So it continued down the row, Will and Noah, Will and Noah, all the way to the last white cross.

I reached the end, by the quiet sea, and had the day’s second realization. Despite having every imaginable background, motivation, and fear, these soldiers had served with valor by the thousands. If a mob has the power to reduce man’s capacity for reason, it also has the might to lift him to the highest aspirations of self-sacrifice.

If a mob has the power to reduce man’s capacity for reason, it also has the might to lift him to the highest aspirations of self-sacrifice.

What an idea. It felt nearly the opposite of what I had thought at the big German battery: We had changed. We had learned. The heroism of D-Day did not just defeat Nazism. It also was among the last marine invasions ever. After a few assaults in the Japanese islands, never again. Not once since 1945 have hundreds of thousands of young men rushed headlong into enemy fire.

That’s not all. Whatever you may think of the decision to drop atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, it is crucial to note that it has never happened again. In August of 1945 the American military possessed two more bombs, all built and ready, but it did not drop them. The devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was so total, the world’s warriors learned a new form of restraint. Perhaps hope was possible. Perhaps our species was actually capable of evolving.

From behind, I heard the beginnings of a song. A recording of a trumpet, playing taps. It was 5 p.m. Descendants of a buried soldier came forward to assist the honor guard with lowering the flag. All of us visitors, spread here and there among the graves, walked toward that small ceremony as if responding to a shared internal command.

All of us visitors, spread here and there among the graves, walked toward that small ceremony as if responding to a shared internal command.

Over the following year I wrote my novel, The Baker’s Secret, without stalling again. I called my village Vergers, the French word for orchard. My characters displayed their own intelligence, a cunning by which they bartered, concealed, and shared, deceiving the occupying army while keeping as many of their fellow villagers alive as possible. Those who survived the invasion continued to care for their trees, and for one another, which I believe is a form of hope.

Before flying home, however, I spent a few days in Paris. It was November, the weather unusually mild. I stayed at a small hotel on the Rue Amelot, strolling to various museums or along the Seine. One day I chose the other direction, and after a few blocks noticed the maroon awning of a café called the Carillon. Well, well. The chapel belfry of the Catholic high school I attended had held a carillon — small bells of many pitches, played like a piano. A long forgotten memory returned to me, of leaving the gym after winter wrestling practice, my wet hair freezing, and hearing those bells chime in the early darkness. I decided to have lunch at the Carillon that day, and dinner on the night before I flew home. It was a pleasant place: small tables, good wines. I felt content, knowing the location of my town and the character of its people.

On Monday I flew home, ready to dive into the writing. The spell lasted four days.

On Friday afternoon, the news broke in the U.S. of terror attacks all over Paris. At a soccer game, a nightclub; 129 people were killed. I went online and saw the photos. The café where 12 people were gunned down as they ate dinner. The maroon awning. The Carillon.

I went online and saw the photos. The café where 12 people were gunned down as they ate dinner. The maroon awning. The Carillon.

If we do evolve, we troubled humans, is it not in learning new ways of peace. That was a fallacy I told myself, a manufactured comfort after seeing the colossal cost of D-Day. The Paris attack, and those pictures of bodies under white sheets among the Carillon’s overturned tables, forced me to admit the gritty reality. We are a murderous lot. Whether by friend or by foe, advances in brutality persist without pause. What was an arrow has become a drone. Today’s innovation is merely that the targets are unarmed. Tomorrow it will be something else.

But my mind cannot forget those trees behind the giant guns, tended with care for years and years, and I know that any novel of mine about the human race must contain hope. Even in wartime, people of humble circumstances ventured out into their orchards, bearing shears, pruning to maximize the harvest. May we remember them too, every time we bite into an apple.

ARTICLE CONTINUES AFTER ADVERTISEMENT

About the Author

More Like This

Notre Dame Is Never Lost

To paraphrase Victor Hugo, the book will save the building

Apr 16 - Elyse Martin

How Do You Translate a Book About Translating a Book?

Literary translator Emma Ramadan discusses the challenges of translation, both in fiction and in reality

Feb 19 - Parrish Turner

Reading Proust Is Like Climbing a Mountain — Prepare Accordingly

Take on an intimidating book like you would take on an immense physical challenge: in small parts, with lots of gear

Feb 8 - Kati Stevens