We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France


Normandy battlefield preservation
16 September 2010, 18:02
Filed under: Gettysburg, Normandy | Tags: , , ,

I was just posting a note to the Easy Company re-enactors about the Gettysburg casino and it morphed into a discussion of preservation and licensing of battlefield guides. As I neared the end of the post, I realized it was really something I ought to post here.

Having spent a number of years becoming familiar with American Civil War battlefield preservation and with the Gettysburg battlefield in particular, I’d been surprised when touring the Normandy battlefields for the first time that there are no French laws about battlefield preservation in Normandy. In theory, you could build whatever you want, wherever you want.

This gigantic silver-winged woman is supposed to represent peace

Having spent a number of years becoming familiar with American Civil War battlefield preservation and with the Gettysburg battlefield in particular, I’d been surprised when touring the Normandy battlefields for the first time that there are no French laws about battlefield preservation in Normandy. In theory, you could build whatever you want, wherever you want. One case in point is the 30-foot tall statue that China donated to Grandcamp-Maisy for the 60th anniversary of D-Day. It dominates the surrounding terrain (nothing else is over half it’s height) and especially the monument to the National Guardsmen who fought there. Of course, as we saw at Gettysburg, even having rules would likely not have prevented this well-intentioned monstrosity (though the locals may have rejected it had they seen it in advance). When talking with Paul Woodadge at the time, he felt that one of the good things about having no areas marked legally off-limits to development is that every piece of ground could be considered historically significant and worthy of protection. That is, if you mark only certain areas as protected, you lose the right to oppose development on areas not specifically protected. If I recall correctly, this very problem has occurred in Antietam, where someone put up several statues on their own land that may not fit in with typical battlefield interpretation. In Gettysburg, it’s lead to arguments over whether to allow a casino to be placed near the battlefield or even on non-protected battlefield land. Eric Wittenburg, who is an eminent civil war cavlary historian has noted that even preservation groups might end up supporting this nonsense.

Fortunately, Normandy is in the middle of nowhere from a French perspective (three hours from Paris, mon dieu!) with minimal industry and not a lot of job growth. Being so far from Paris makes it off the beaten track for any internationalists out there and without a lot of infrastructure that developers crave. The population of France is growing slowly – about half a million more people per year, I think – so there isn’t a high demand for new housing. Also, Utah and Omaha beaches are not particularly warm and delightful, even in summer (you see more French vacationers further east, near Honfleur and Le Havre). I’m guessing that if you’re a beach-lover, you end up with choices close to the beaches in Normandy if you want them.  So, there’s not a lot of pressure to put new housing or resorts in Normandy. Melissa and I love it there and hope it never changes significantly.

Having seen what can happen when you do have demarcation lines in Gettysburg – that is, some people will think that anything outside the lines is fair game – I wonder if Paul is right. I would think that identifying the battlefield in Normandy might well be an impossible task because…. the whole of Normandy was the battlefield.

That said, I know that the southern end of the causeway into Carentan is far more densely built than it was in 1944. Similarly, Easy’s assault into Carentan, as shown in the series, approached the edge of town in 1944 (open fields on either side of the road) and now proceeds through an industrial and residential section of town. Carentan is likely the most changed part of the battlefield, since it has some light industry and has grown in population over the last 65 years.

If you wander back north, visiting Angoville-au-Plain, you’ll find that the commune has around 40 residents, just as it did in 1944. The town changed hands several times and I would venture that not a foot of ground couldn’t be labelled battlefield ground. How, then, would you regulate or legislate what these people could do with their land? All of Normandy suffered dearly for being a battlefield, with many civilians killed and wounded, others homeless and all scarred by what they endured. Would it be fair to rule that they and their descendants be again bombarded, this time by regulations? Or should we work to keep the history alive, the appreciation in the hearts and words of the French people and the love of that place alive in Americans? I’m not sure what the right plan is, but I know I want to be involved in ensuring Normandy can remain tranquil and beautiful, a monument to the people and to the soldiers who fought there.

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