Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Courselles sur Mer to Villiers-Bretoneau

Juno Beach
Courselles-sur-Mer was overcast and windy by the time we finished our breakfast - not served until
8:30am – and packed the car. My cold was a little worse, not helped by lack of heat through a night when I put on layer after layer to get warm and woke several times in a sweat. Our room was equipped with a heater but it had been turned off at the switchboard. Break and tea for breakfast didn't improve my demeanor.

Before leaving town, we drove out to the Juno Beach Centre. On the 6th June 1944, Juno Beach had been at the northern end of the largest invasion force ever assembled. Crossing from England, men leap into the water in order to try and breech the Atlantic Wall, a defensive barrier on the beaches which the Germans had spread from Norway to Spain. It consisted of a series of objects designed to block landing craft and vehicles such as tanks and to slow soldiers down long enough to make them easier targets. Behind this usually on the beaches, were bunkers from which the German Army could fire and defend the lands they had over run.

At Juno, a force predominately of Canadians stormed ashore. They lost two thirds of their tanks, intended to break through obstacles and provide cover for the exposed foot soldiers. Several of their landing craft sank, drowning 95% of the men who stood waiting but died without ever firing a bullet. The crossing had been rough and the ride to the beach rougher and half were sick and weak from vomiting. Those that made the sand had a long, ragged run up the low tide beach.

Despite enough handicaps to doom them and more than a third of the force at Juno killed or wounded in the first hour of the operation, they made it ashore and captured the first four kilometres of the twenty to their objective Caen by the first sunset. The remaining sixteen kilometres took two months.

This was all outlined for us by our guide. Like all of the guides working at the Juno Beach Centre, she is Canadian, a university student, twenty and bilingual (French and English). The Centre was established by Canada to honour their men who raced ashore in 1944. Most of the qualifying characteristics are obvious but why are they all aged twenty? That was the average age of the men who came ashore at Juno.

We were shown the defences and how they worked, including time down in the key observation bunker between the centre and the beach. The technology was ingenious for the time.

The museum in the Centre is a very good one and worth the hour or so needed to take it all in.

Leaving Juno to its ghosts, we drove for most of the afternoon inland and to the north east and accommodation for the next two nights at the Chateau Omiecourt, about twenty kilometres from Villers-Bretonneux. Our room is on the second floor, facing the woods and there are indoor pools and spas and saunas - a little spoiling before we head for home.

It was six o’clock before set off for a recon of Villers-Bretonneux. I couldn’t be this close and not see it until the morning. I found more than I bargained for immediately. Without maps other than the one in my head from studying in the months before leaving Australia, I found the railway line, chateau and wood which were my markers for the spot where my grandfather, Arthur George Langston was wounded and should have died on Anzac Day 1918. Following my nose, ten minutes later I was standing in light rain on a narrow road south of the town. The railway line was between us.

To the east, I could see him crouching in the woods, with his tin hat and gun and hundreds of mates. Ahead of them, straight past where I stood, the ground rose from the wood, flattened for a long while and then rose sharply for the last quarter of the distance before a short, flat space to a two storey chateau which I had driven past only minutes earlier. It was there and in haystacks to the left, that German machine guns waited for Pop. At the whistle, I watched them break out into open ground, running for their lives up past me and into the range of the machine guns. I could hear them cranking out death and watched the first men fall as the wave went on, reached the sharp hill before the chateau, slowed under full packs and the incline and entered the killing ground.

Somewhere on this field of mown stalks, brown and dry, my Pop fell, split from hip to opposite nipple by the machine guns. I could see him fall, hear men screaming and yet all I could do was cry: for him surely and the pain that lasted well beyond the hours he lay there in that field; for death and waste that is still perpetrated on individuals in and out of uniform in the name of causes which are always claimed just; but mostly for myself, in shame, that it had taken so long for me to know this story and meet my grandfather.

I’ll go back there tomorrow with copies of his medals, place them in the dirt and talk with him awhile.

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