The Tour de France is iconic. Since its precarious beginnings in 1903, its history has compounded into legend. Its story is that of champions; of heroes and villains. More so, it is a story of France, its people, and their contact with others. As we remember the similarly iconic events now 72 years ago last week, it is worth considering that D-Day goes beyond the iconic and into the profound. In so many ways it is an event without comparison. But there is significance to the fact that the 2016 Tour de France will commence in and spend two heady days featuring and paying homage to the legacy of this defining event of the Cotentin Peninsula. As such, the Tour is an opportunity to explore, even liberate this legacy today.
It is human nature to romanticize history as time progresses. Likewise, our stories often feature major characters and rarely deviate from the protagonist/antagonist narrative to feature more populist figures. D-Day is no different. Generally, the D-Day historical narrative is purely military. Underneath such a powerful story, however, is an underlying account of survival and relationships between invaders and civilians. This is the account and framework provided by historian Mary Louise Roberts in her book D-Day Through French Eyes: Normandy 1944.
Roberts’s book is a collection of French memoirs and interviews with citizens who experienced the Allied landing and subsequent campaign to retake Normandy. Held in French archives for 75 years, many of these stories have never been told outside the family dinner table. Roberts, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison wrote this book for her students as a way to tell the civilian story of the invasion. Truly, this is not an inconsiderate story to tell. The D-Day campaign, officially known as “Operation Overlord,” spanned June 6 to August 15, 1944. During this period, Allied casualties numbered around 226,386 while German casualties amounted to around 240,000 dead. In the middle of this firefight, Norman civilians just tried to stay alive. In the end, their casualties alone rose to between 15,000 and 20,000.
The stories and experiences of these victims are those that Roberts strives to portray. Unsurprisingly, they are also highly relatable to those of us who can only imagine those terrifying days of uncertainty. The memoirs begin by revealing the specter of a mass invasion but unknowing of the place or time. In the dark of night, the first Allied parachutes opened over France. Over the next day, the invasion’s first wave brought scores of chance encounters between wounded and frightened soldiers and nervous farmers and their families. Next came the salvo of destruction from the battleships and bombers paving the way for the beach landings. As the invasion began, some fled while others stayed, many observing the battle from their roofs. Many families were separated as loved ones came and went to gather news and provisions. Meanwhile, the Battle of Normandy caught households in the crossfire of cautious Allied forces and the defending German army. No decision came without peril and many paid the ultimate price.
The landscape of the 2016 Tour de France’s first two stages can be viewed in this context. The race will be tour of the French D-Day experience. From its crossing of the Cotentin to Utah Beach to the ravaged town of Saint-Lo and the Allied goal of Cherbourg’s port, this book provides an understanding of D-Day and its aftermath from a new perspective. Dr. Roberts was gracious enough to take time out of her busy schedule to discuss a few of the overarching topics that relate to these historical events and the 2016 Tour de France. The following is our conversation.
ExlT: The Tour de France will spend its first two days, gloriously referred to as the Grand Depart, traversing the Manche and prominently featuring places like Utah Beach, Saint-Lo, and Cherbourg. With the Manche almost exclusively being the invasion responsibility of U.S. forces in 1944, what was the relationship like between the American soldiers and French civilians then and has that changed over time?
MLR: In June 1944 in the areas around the landing beaches, the GIs were greeted with joy but also often anger and suspicion. The French were happy to be liberated. At the same time, however, constant bombardment of the area had left many homeless and separated from their families. As the summer continued, and the Normans realized that the GIs were there to stay, relations became considerably warmer and more friendly.
The following year, the GIs came back into the area, particularly in the port city of LeHavre. Traumatized by the fighting, and bored as they waited for a boat home, the American soldiers wreaked havoc with the local population. They drank too much, approached respectable women for sex, and even committed acts of robbery and sexual assault. In towns like Le Havre (which was in fact liberated by the British, not the Americans) the French were happy to see the GIs leave for home.
ExlT: You compare the invading GIs to travelers. Is there a particular place, site, or aspect of French culture that they became particularly enthralled with? Why?
MLR: They were mostly interested in going to Paris, the “big” city. Most of the American soldiers were from rural areas and small towns, and had never seen a city before, let alone a European one.
They were very avid sightseers, visiting the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. But most of the city’s art had been packed away and hidden. The Americans were also interested in sex, and they had the impression that Paris was one big brothel where they could drink and have a great time.
ExlT: As Americans, we almost exclusively learn about the hallowed ground of Normadie’s beaches. If there is one thing your book explains, it is that the French experience was much more intimate, long lasting, and closer to home. Is there a particular place in the Manche that evokes and illustrates this experience from the French perspective?
MLR: Saint Lo. The city was almost completely destroyed by the Americans. The French referred to the city as a “martyr” of the war (martyre de la guerre). This is a specifically Catholic way of describing a town which was senselessly sacrificed. The city has been rebuilt; little is left of the prewar era except remains of the medieval wall once surrounding the city. But there are also some nice memorials to the Americans here and there. In this way, Saint Lo represents the ambiguity of the GI invasion for the French, that is, that it represented both freedom and loss, liberation and destruction.
ExlT: As we get further away from June 6, 1944, what is the legacy of D-Day today among younger generations in the Manche?
MLR: Young French people in the area today are not hostile to the Germans in the way their grandparents or even their parents were. The war is just another historical event to them!
Roberts, Mary Louise. D-Day Through French Eyes: Normandy 1944. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.