A Look at D-Day through the Eyes of A Village: Aunay sur Odon

Many lives were lost during the Normandy invasion. Among the Allies and the Axis troops, but also the collateral damage that occurred in the small villages and towns over and upon which was the battlefield for Europe at that time.

Sometimes historic events and genealogy merge and you find yourself at a crossroads. In this case my own family history with the village of Aunay-sur-Odon, in the French department of Calvados near the Normandy coast. Many centuries ago my mother’s ancestors followed William the Conqueror across the channel to England and later to Ireland, and possibly back to Wales. At some point they made a greater leap and came to America, maybe in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. (Regardless, we got here somehow.)

The village of Aunay-sur-Odon as the bombs fell. Source: By Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie / National Archives USA, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16076017

The village of Aunay as the bombs were dropping. Source:By Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie / National Archives USA, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16076017

But the real story took place back in the village of Aunay after the June 6, 1944 events of D-Day, as the Allies progressed further into the countryside of Normandy and eventually across France. On June 12th, in the British sector, a decision was made to bombard a strategic crossroads between the towns of Caen and Vire, and Bayeux and Falaise. That crossroad village was Aunay-sur-Odon. The initial bombs were dropped and the village centre was obliterated along with the lives of 100 people.

Aunay after the bombardment. Source: By Reeves (Fg Off): - http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//9/media-9416/large.jpgThis is photograph HU 92982 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30877964

Aunay after the bombardment. Source: By Reeves (Fg Off): – http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//9/media-9416/large.jpgThis is photograph HU 92982 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30877964

Then, a few days later, another decision was handed down that called for the bombardment of the entire surrounding town. On June 14 and through the night into the 15th, the entire town area was barraged. 25 percent of the population was killed.

Undoubtedly, in the crush of events that pushed the invading armies across France to free the enslaved peoples of Europe, the decisions were made quickly and with the full knowledge that collateral damage would happen. The Germans dug themselves in where they could and wanted to keep the roads open for their own defenses. A strategic crossroads was a viable and necessary target for the Allied forces. This is the nature of war.

So, as we remember the sacrifices of the men who died valiantly for their countries, we also need to be reminded that war takes a very real toll on the civilians who are caught in the crossfire, or, in this case, the crossroads. It is always thus, regardless of the conflagration. There is collateral damage, often innocent people, but always those who simply want to stay out of the way but cannot.

War is not always glorious. Mostly, war is death.

Keep thinking history.

– Amanda Stiver

EXPERIENCE HISTORY:  If you are interested in the the D-Day invasions and want to experience them as the news reports came to America through the radio broadcasts that day, tune into Conyers Old Time Radio and listen as they broadcast the original recordings from Invasion day. Try to imagine yourself, gathered with your family around the radio, waiting to hear exactly what was happening across the Atlantic Ocean. Imagine that your brother, husband, or, possibly, father was overseas and his life was on the line that day. Imagine also the villagers and people of France as they braced themselves for what was to come in the next few days once the invasion had begun.

If you’ve missed the June 6 broadcast, you can listen to some of the recordings here at Complete Broadcast Day D-Day from Archive.org.

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Quotes and Thoughts: The Revolutionary War and the Price of Rebellion

“Like most ‘wars of liberation’ the American War of Independence was a bitter civil war too. One contemporary guess divided the people into three: the patriots, one-third, the Tory loyalists, one-third, and the remainder prepared to go along with either party. It is likely, however, that those who declined to take an active part were fully half the nation, the militants being almost equally divided, though the Tories, by their very nature, lacked leaders and the extremism which drove the liberators. They looked to leadership from England and were poorly served.” — Paul Johnson, A History of the American People, 1997, page 171.

WHAT can a random quote from a history book on any subject teach us? Isn’t this an exercise in futility? Don’t we need more information?

WE do need more information, but let’s use this exercise as a memory building tool. When developing your historical memory, and yes, memory function comes pre-installed in our brains when we leave the production center (other wise known as ‘birth’), you need to retrieve the current stock of what’s stored up there. Find out what you know, and then fit in the new information presented in a quote like the one above.

So what do we know?

Let’s start with the quote itself…what era, or period of events connected in historical continuity, is the quote referencing?

Okay, let’s assume first that we are Americans reading this quote. If we have spent any time in a US school we’ll have some idea that the “American War of Independence” is also known as the Revolutionary War (note, the author is British, so he is using the academic title from across the Atlantic for that colonial disturbance centering around 1775). We know that the events surrounding that era had to do with a break with the British government, which had in various ways originally and until that time considered the 13 colonies of the eastern shore of the now United States to be British territory. There were strong, vocal colonial opponents of British oppression, excess taxation and lack of Parliamentary representation, and these we, as Americans, know as “Founding Fathers.” George Washington, John and Abigail Adams, Sam Adams, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, Richard Henry Lee, among many others. They were extremely influential in the early years of the United States and all the constitutional and legal documents written then.

As the quote shows us, there were also opponents of the rebellion who were called “Tories”. They desired to remain loyal to Britain, wherein many of their business interests were entwined. They were fighting for a “status quo”, which is a difficult position to fight from, and particularly, as the quote implies, without solid recognition and support from their motherland, England. Indeed, may of the Tory families were treated with nearly as much contempt as rebel families by the British Army when it arrived in the colonies and was installed in the homes of the colonists. It was difficult to remain loyal to a country that didn’t seem to want them.

An additional fact that we can add to our historical memory is that, as the quote explains, there was another group of people who simply wanted to live their lives, without interference from either side of the battle. Perhaps they were unsure of the outcome, or unsure where their true loyalties rested, or maybe it took a bit of convincing through the brutal realities of British occupation that they eventually had to stand for something. Who knows, but it does tell us one thing, that despite the noises of the “militants” and “activists” in any nation, and any cause, there will always be those who simply want to grow their crops in peace, make a life for themselves and their children. These are the people who eventually struggle on when the voices of the extremes have faded and, sadly, these are usually the people who get trampled by both sides in their quest for supremacy.

Am I saying the Revolutionary War was an aimless quest? Not at all, Britain and America were on a course for separation, and the tendrils of financial investment and history between the two made it almost impossible for a separation to come without bloodshed. Is this the best way for people to reconfigure their alliances? No. Is it the way of humanity? Yes. Is there another way? Yes, but not without help from a power greater than the finest of our human minds. A subject for another time.

SO, AS OUR EXERCISE comes to a close take a moment to realize all that you already had in your historical memory about the Revolutionary War. Are other details coming to you that you may have picked up from articles, books, or even movies? The way people ate, fought, dressed, scenes reenacted of the battles and atrocities wrought on some colonists (I’m thinking of The Patriot here)?

We’ll do this again sometime, using a quote as a gateway into history. You’ll be amazed at what you know already and can learn!

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

The Window of History

window

Image: morguefile.com/hamper

Sitting in my office I have a great view of the woods. I can see birds, cats, deer, my neighbors, lush deciduous trees, the change of seasons and the occasional fox or raccoon. My view out the window is never the same twice. It can be similar, but never an exact copy. A leaf moves, the clouds are different, the dappling of sunshine through leaves changes, and different creatures troll the yard.

I never get tired of peering out that window to see what’s below. Such variety is refreshing and I often turn to look out when I get filled to saturation with staring at the computer.

Window of history

In the same way I never get tired of peering through the window of history. Okay, sometimes I do get tired of the same historical subject. So I solve the problem, I rotate subjects. On the whole, though, I don’t get tired of history. I find that a trip back in time via a well written history book helps me to see the present more clearly.

According to the StrengthsFinder program this is a particular trait called “Context.” StrengthsFinder is a workplace personality testing program that helps users find out how to use their strengths in connection with others.

Context is the use of a knowledge of history to see how that past shapes people and events. The ultimate goal being to anticipate what may happen in the future. According to StrengthsFinder it is also a way of relating to other people by empathizing with how they came to be the way they are.

Thus history becomes a window into not only the past, but also the future.

Back to the future!

I have been on a recent stroll through the boulevard of history, peering into various centuries and cultures as I go. It’s really a form of historical tourism, only you learn stuff and don’t pay as much as you would for a third-rate hotel room assigned to you because of over-booking.

Since the beginning of the year I’ve been to ancient Greece, the American Civil War era, the Revolutionary War era, and I’m just beginning a look into the history of the City of Jerusalem. Each book is a window, allowing me to see into the past with an eye open to the potential of what may come in the future.

What have I learned?

People haven’t really changed much despite centuries and millennia of existence. The window dressing may be different, but human motivation, greed, lust, anger, jealousy… are still the same and they still are at the crux of what turns the tide of world events.

So what window of history will you peer through today? What will you see and how will it affect your understanding of the present and the future?

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

The Boundaries of History: Mountains

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

I’m watching a storm break over the Bitterroot Mountains. It’s a spectacular show of grays, blues, greens, and a touch of white off and on. Almost as spectacular as the sunset I watched over the same mountains a few days later. I live in the Midwest in a house among grove of trees and I rarely get to see a solid sunset, just a tint now and then, so watching the mountain version on my visit to Montana was worth the wait.

Mountains. What can I say about them? They are solid, craggy, and looming. They get in the way, they make people go around them and occasionally, they spew lava and pyroclastic muck.

They also make history. For without mountains, the conflicts, borders, traditions, and cultures of our human history would be something completely different. If it were plains all the way around, history would probably look like a glorified game on a chessboard.

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

Kings and their armies would charge across and gain a few miles, and then the opponent would charge over and take them back. Like an endless replay of the trenches of World War One. It takes a lot of manpower and materiel to gain and hold an indefensible flat space. It’s harder to take a mountain fortress, but easier to hold it.

Mountains have shaped us. Mountains and rivers and plains and valleys and oceans. They still shape us.

“And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings,…”

Food for thought.

Keep thinking history.

– Amanda Stiver

Book Review: “The Silver Branch”

Sometimes historical curiosity comes from reading historical fiction. Specifically, in this case a Rosemary Sutcliff book.

“The Silver Branch,” a book by Rosemary Sutcliff (Image: Amanda Stiver)

I recently read The Silver Branch by Sutcliff (a great read, originally aimed at a teen/young adult audience, but good for all ages). The Eagle of the Ninth, its better known companion, precedes The Silver Branch, but the former was checked out of my local library so I had to jump into the middle of the series. Thankfully each part of the trilogy can stand on its own.

I was thrown back to the Roman Empire, in the 3rd century AD in the province of Britannia. As the characters, Roman, British, Irish, Dalriad, and Saxon, among others, coursed through the story from skirmishes, to escapes, from espionage, to battle the story of a rift in the Roman Empire unfolds. Three Emperors claimed three parts of the empire and the book concerns the subordinates who either undermine or support the man, Carausius, who ruled Britannia. The emperors are historical figures, but the main characters of the story, Justin and Flavius, though woven into the historical events, are fiction.

Improbable?

As fiction goes, this is reasonably legitimate. There are some flaws, as many others have noted before, particularly the eagle standard (which appears again in this book after its introduction in The Eagle of the Ninth) not being a legionary standard in actuality. An eagle was found in the ancient city of Calleva (Silchester), but it wasn’t the eagle of the ninth. Still, it’s probable.  Some historical fiction is so outlandish that the story becomes completely ridiculous. Sutcliff’s writing is believable, albeit, a number of crucial events and actions are undertaken by one fictional family, but a clear thread is necessary to make a story readable.

The Silver Branch piqued my curiosity about Roman Britain, a part of history, which was, unfortunately, the Swiss Cheese of my historical knowledge – full of holes. In high school and college the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Israelites as well as the Scythians, Chinese, and then English, European and American history from the time of Elizabeth I up to World War II was my focus, partly because those were the classes on offer, but also because the late Roman Empire seemed to be rather gasp-y and sad, so I tended to skip it, but now I find myself filling in my knowledge of this era. Rome had such an impact on so many cultures as friend or as foe that it really is essential knowledge of the world.

Finding your gateway to history

A nice piece of historical fiction like The Silver Branch is a good stepping-stone to delving into a new section of history. I’m interested enough now to crack my textbooks and get the slightly dryer, though still important details about Roman history clear in my mind.

Sutcliff is a fine writer and this book makes for a great literary-historical adventure!

– Amanda Stiver

May the Sword be with You

(Image: Morguefile.com)

I just watched a fantastic documentary entitled Reclaiming the Blade. Narrated by John Rhys-Davies of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark fame, it is an excellent journey into the history of western martial arts.

The film covers the choreography of sword fights on stage and screen, sport fencing and sporting events among the Society for Creative Anachronism, comparisons with eastern martial arts, and finally the resurgence, study and practice of western, particularly Renaissance, martial arts based on written materials from that era.

It isn’t a how-to on sword basics, but if you watch closely you will pick up on a great deal of the varied techniques. On the whole it gives the interested viewer a very cool documentary that also happens to explain the history of a weapon that is infrequently used outside of action-filled adventure movies or Shakespearean plays.

Sitting on a powder keg

Swords were high technology in their day, but the western tradition of sword fighting and dueling shriveled into the tameness of modern day sport fencing with the introduction of gunpowder and gun culture. If you have ever been to a gun show at your local fairgrounds you will see the domination of explosive powder based weapons compared to blades. Sure there are always a few stands that feature knives of various kinds, but knife and sword shows tend to be subordinated to the world of rifle and revolver.

One point made very well in the film was that what you generally see in action-adventure films with any amount of swashbuckling is a strange mixture of fencing and kung fu or something similar. Not true to the western tradition in which many of these films are set. However, movies like Gladiator, Troy, Rob Roy, and a few others have been produced with a bent to historically accurate fighting sequences.

Unexpected swords

On a biblical note, if you have ever read the “armor of God” section of the last part of the book of Ephesians and wondered what a soldier did with all those weapons, this documentary will help fill in your understanding of what it took to successfully wield a sword. “The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (NKJV),” will take on a whole new meaning: the seriousness with which a scholar of the Bible needs to approach and handle the words of that historic book.

As interviewee John Howe, a well-known illustrator, says in the film, “Now, we’ve reached a point [in time] where we’re looking all around trying to find meaning to what’s happening… [so look to history because] …There’s nothing like history. History is all of us over thousands of years.”

Take the opportunity to watch Reclaiming the Blade, a genuinely interesting documentary film that just might become your gateway to history.

– Amanda Stiver