Normandy, France

The beginning of the end: Normandy, France

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About Tsh

Tsh is the founder of this blog and lives in Bend, Oregon with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

On this day in 1944, the Allied troops landed on the beaches in Normandy. I knew when I saw that this month’s Intellectual Grownup offering landed on June 6, I had to somehow focus on this day that went down in history, known to World War II as “the beginning of the end.”

But really—what could I say about D-Day that hasn’t already been said, and so much better than I could even muster? This is such a sacred topic; I’d be nervous to incorrectly cite details, or accidentally offend, or generally make a mess of it. No… I can’t write just about D-Day.

But I can’t ignore it either. And as I was doing my research, I found myself intrigued with the geography and history of it all—the northwestern French coastline, the significance of this location, and what it’s like there now.

So? I thought it fitting to focus on Normandy itself—its origin, history, and it’s darned good camembert cheese. Pull up a chair and head with me to northern France. Or if you’re already there, open up your front door and let us take a look at your fascinating home. We’ll wipe our feet. Thanks.

The Intellectual Grownup

A brief history

This northwest province of France is home to a number of archaeological finds, such as cave drawings, but not much is known about the early dwellers.

A very brief history of Normandy, France (and why it's so important)

Its first known inhabitants were Celts and Belgae tribes (known as Gauls) before Rome conquered it in 98 A.D. When the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century, it was mostly populated by Franks who filled the area with monasteries.

At the end of the 8th century, Vikings invaded and destroyed most of those monasteries, but still adopted Christianity as they settled there. In 911, the French king Charles the Simple (awesome name!) agreed that this slice of land should be handed over to these Norsemen—or, Normans, as it became.

Mont St. Michel in Normandy, France

A strange, small island off the coast of Normandy was used as a fortress, but in the 800s, monks built a monastery and named it Mont St. Michel. It fascinated rulers and kingdoms off and on for centuries, noted for its causeway that’s covered in high tide and revealed in low tide. It eventually became a prison, but was closed in 1863 and was declared a historical monument soon after, thanks to Victor Hugo’s passion for campaigning the government to do so.

Mont St. Michel in Normandy, France

It now has a year-round population of 44, with 3 million visitors annually. Here’s a short clip about visiting the monument, if you’re curious:

In 1066, the Duke of Normandy crossed the English Channel and crushed England in the Battle of Hastings. He was crowned King of England, and he was henceforth known as William the Conquerer.

William the Conquerer

Throughout the Hundred Years’ War, Normandy went back and forth between French and English rule, finally going to France by 1450.

In 1431 a certain someone named Joan d’Arc was burned at the stake in Norman town of Rouen.

Joan of Arc

Here’ s another brief video showcasing the town of Rouen, particularly its architectural highlights:

Being predominantly Protestant, this land was the focus of a lot of fighting between the Catholics and Hugenots in the 16th century.

Normandy remained a relatively peaceful yet poor area of France until the French Revolution, which pretty much devastated all of France. Napoleon’s rise meant a loss of “ancient privileges” (though it’s unclear what those were) but with a payoff of economic prosperity.

Later, Claude Monet was on a train crossing Normandy and fell in love with Giverny, the town he was passing through. He decided immediately to live there, so he bought a cottage with expansive land, created the gardens he always wanted to paint, and lived the rest of his life there.

Claude Monet's house in Giverny, France

Some of his most famous works were painted in Normandy, including those featuring his water lily pond.

Water Lily Pond by Monet

Here’s a brief clip about the Father of Impressionism and his home in Giverny:

Normandy’s overall location means its seen its fair share of battles, but in the late 1800s, it became a popular tourist destination for the well-off French, Brits, and other Europeans—and remained so pretty much until World War II.

D-Day

It wasn’t until the German advance in 1940 and the Allied invasion on this day in 1944 that Normandy saw war again. On D-Day, around 156,000 Allied troops landed in Normandy on June 6.

Landing of Normandy, World War II

More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the invasion, and in all, there were more than 10,000 Allied casualties—on one day. (The term “casualty” actually means people killed, wounded, MIA, and POWs, if you were curious.)

Allied troops on the D-Day landing

These soldiers were from everywhere the Allied powers represented: the UK, Canada, the US, Australia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Poland. 400 towns and villages were also completely destroyed and about 15,000 French civilians were killed.

Taking the beaches in Normandy, World War II.

But in the end, this meant that by June 11 more than 320,000 Allied soldiers, 54,000 vehicles, and 104,000 tons of supplies gained access to Europe, and the soldiers were able to march across to eventually defeat Hitler (Paris was liberated in late August 1944, not quite three months after landing on Normandy).

Plan of D-Day

The Battle of Normandy is the name given to the fighting in Normandy between D-Day and the end of August 1944, the few months essential to establishing an Allied beachhead in France (aka, the beginning of the Allies’ take over the Axis territories). It’s estimated that in these few months, there were over 200,000 Allied casualties, 200,000 German troops that were killed, and 200,000 German POWs.

But because of their ability to establish a beachhead on Axis territories, June 6, 1944 was the beginning of the end of World War II.

Allied troops of World War II

In other words? The people involved in all this deserve our sincere gratitude and respect. And it would do us good to remember those whose lives were lost today—on both sides.

Here’s a short clip honoring the events of D-Day, and it’s family-friendly (not all of them on the Internet are safe for kids, in my opinion):

Normandy today

The best D-Day museum in Normandy is officially called The Caen Memorial: History to Understand the World, often nicknamed the Museum of Peace. It also includes wings dedicated to the Cold War and Nobel Peace Prize winners. It’s supposed to be one of the best history museums in Europe.

Food & drink

Camembert cheese, hailing from Normandy, is some of the best soft cow’s milk cheese. In order to receive the title “Camembert de Normandie,” a cheese is required by law to be made only with unpasteurized milk.

camembert cheese

Norman cheeses also include Livarot, Pont l’Évêque, Brillat-Savarin, Neufchâtel, Petit Suisse and Boursin. Norman butter and cream are also used in upscale specialties.

Normandy is also famous for its enormous omelettes, and in many restaurants, you can watch the chefs whip one up in the kitchen. And this area is also famous for its ciders. Yes, please, on the eating and drinking in Normandy.

Omelettes in Normandy

See the Rick Steves video of Mont St. Michel, above, if you’d like to see more omelettes in action.

So, in a nutshell, should you ever think of the northwest corner of France, think of this: low-tide island capped with a monastery, lots of old history, Monet’s famous works, Joan d’Arc’s death, camembert and omelettes, and most significantly—our freedom from the Axis powers.

Learn more

If you have time today—and I recommend you take the time—here are some more links for learning about D-Day:

• D-Day, the U.S. Military

• D-Day: Beachhead from BBC History

• Invasion of Normandy brief reenactment from the History Channel (not suitable for small children)

• Newsreel footage of D-Day—interesting clip they’d show people back home for morale-boosting

D-Day FAQs from the Portsmouth Museum

• Normandy landings on Wikipedia—lengthy, but worth a read. Lots of important details that’ll make you appreciate the greatest generation’s sacrifice all the more.

Do you have any personal connection to World War II, D-Day, or Normandy in general?

All photos from Wikipedia.

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Comments

  1. Wonderful post, I love these Mental Floss-ish type posts. I feel very, very lucky to have gone to about 3 out of the 4 spots you’ve mentioned, including Omaha Beach.
    Sarah M
    Sarah m´s latest post: why I think “Call the Midwife” is the best show on tv

  2. Mont St. Michel is absolutely gorgeous and its location is very unique. I heard there are a lot of tourists there every year. I really would like to go there myself next time I go to Europe. Thank you for such beautiful story and pictures!
    Elena @ Bad Back Pain´s latest post: 5 Powerful Ways to Overcome Bad Back Pain Naturally

  3. avatar
    Jennifer Pighini says:

    We took a side trip to Normandy on a visit to France a few years ago, and I would have loved to have had more time! It is a beautiful part of France. Visiting the beaches of Normandy was a sobering experience and I will never look at D-Day the same way again. And Mont St Michel is absolutely gorgeous! Worth the trip!

  4. We went to Normandy and Mont St Michel when we were in France almost 12 years ago on our honeymoon. Mont St Michel is one of the most beautiful and romantic places on earth. I wish we had stayed there longer – we only spent one night. We also toured the D-Day landing beaches and cemeteries. Incredible to think what those men went through during that time – the Band of Brothers series and Saving Private Ryan really brought it to life in a terrifying way.

    We also went to Rouen and saw where Joan of Arc was held prisoner and the church that is on the site where she was burned at the stake.

    Thanks for the reminder of such an amazing trip and a brush up on history!
    Holly F´s latest post: Karate Kid

  5. my husband and myself found ourselves in Normandy one winter, after political upheaval in the African country we were headed to do medical work stopped our plans. I went there becuase he loves WWII history, but I was profoundly affected by our time there. When I returned back to the states, I was working as a resident physician in a VA hospital, and within 2 weeks I was sitting across from a veteran who was near the end of his life. we’d been discussing his end of life wishes, the sort of things he wanted done and didn’t want done when his time approached. I noticed his dates of service spanned WWII. There are not many of them left. I asked where he served. His eyes filled and he told me that he landed in Normandy on D-day. That He met The Lord on that beach. I was able to tell him I had just been there, had seen people who were still grateful for his sacrifice, that I was grateful. It was difficult for either of us to speak bc of emotion but I prayed with him and felt so honored to be one of his last doctors.
    sarah´s latest post: The Gilded Lady {a diy}

    • ….and now I have tears. Thank you for sharing, Sarah.

    • Sarah, I just wrote my blog post yesterday about my visit to Normandy in 2010 and tried to convey what you summed up so well – “had seen people who were still grateful for his sacrifice.” SO true! I met a French couple at the American Cemetery who were giving out roses (with tears and great thanks) and cards with specific grave information for us Americans to honor their memory (I visited on the 4th of July) as well as a woman passing by on a street in the city of Caen who thanked me profusely for America’s help in their liberation – which occurred before she was born! It is a lovely region and although I was sad at the loss of life and destruction that occurred their, I was very proud of our American military. Blessings, Laura

  6. Beautifully done Tsh! So much history in one place! Could you elaborate a little more on what you meant by “Thanks to Victor Hugo?” I’ll admit, I didn’t watch the video you posted under it (it attracts little ears to my computer!) and I’ve never finished Les Mis (the novel) so maybe the answers are there!
    Sarah G´s latest post: April 2013

  7. Tsh – great post! I took a group of my European History students to Normandy last summer and it was amazing. It is such a moving experience to visit the American cemetery, and the Caen museum is fascinating, I could have spent a whole day there. As a history teacher I never fully appreciated the daring and bravery of June 6 until I saw the cliffs, the artificial harbors, the fortifications, and the bomb craters for myself. And to think it was young 19 and 20-year-olds taking part in this courageous act. Thanks for sharing this and reminding us of such an important part of our history.
    Sarah @ LeftBrainBuddha´s latest post: Living a Mindful Life: Creating Reminders for Mindfulness

  8. I LOVE Intellectual Grownup….thanks for you time and effort :D

    • You’re welcome! I love writing them. It’s like I get permission to go to school for the afternoon again. :)

    • avatar
      Christine says:

      I love it too, thank you Tsh. I feel so much smarter after having read today’s!! I have a BA and MA but I don’t get to use them being home with two little ones…

  9. Love this info. Thanks for the important reminder on this day in history and for putting it all in perspective. Amazing how much we forget about history. Really great stuff – thanks!

  10. I might also suggest the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which actually started at the D-Day Museum but has expanded with additional wings since it first opened. It has an amazing collection of 1st person narratives, interactive exhibits, and phenomenal artifacts. Learn more here:

    http://www.ddaymuseum.org/
    Dee´s latest post: More

  11. avatar
    Kristin says:

    I feel the intellectual-ness! Thanks Tsh! And gratitude to the soldiers who bravely fought this battle!

  12. Tsh- I am a newcomer to your site but I love the idea of this series! It is the first time I have caught it and I’m so glad it was about Normandy! How appropriate for the day. Your history of the location, event and tourist sites was great. As a former French teacher and avid traveler of France, it was so fun to relive all of those sites via this post – the D Day beaches, Mont St. Michel, Giverny, Rouen, Caen Museum, etc. I spent a fabulous two weeks there visiting all of these locations with some friends almost 10 years ago. Thanks for the walk down memory lane.

    Also, I love the town of Honfleur that you posted a pic of at the top of the post. Such a beautiful port town – I have almost the same exact angle photo as that one. Would love to go back with my husband and eat crepes and cider all day long!

  13. I was a french major and spent 2 weeks in Fleury-sur-Orne (in Normandy) during college. It is such a beautiful area of France. We spent one day traveling to all of the cemeteries on the beaches of Normandy. They were all beautiful, but the American cemetery took my breath away. My sister and I stayed in Bayeux, one of the first towns to be liberated, and we ate some of the best food in our life. 5 years later my husband and I went back to Normandy and spent one night at Mont St. Michel. Incredible!

    Thank you for your post today. Not only does it bring back cherished memories, but it is also an important reminder of the sacrifice that was made by so many.

  14. My husband’s 96 year old grandfather was on a minesweeper at Normandy. He rarely speaks of his time at war, but when he does it is always profound. Thank you for the lovely post. I look forward to sharing it with my oldest child.

  15. Thanks for this excellent history lesson. I appreciate the broad reach of the topic of your posts. I did not remember that is was D-Day. My parents are cycling in Normandy this week. I never connected that they would be there for this day but I assume now, it was intentional as both my grandfathers fought in the war. I would love to travel there one day–for the history, food and beauty.

  16. avatar
    Heather says:

    Fascinating! Iknew a little about Normandy before but this sums up the region beautifully. My grandfather fought in England during WWII and both he and my grandmother traveled to the museum in Caen on a veterns tour. They said it was an incredibly moving experience.

  17. Thanks for that, Tsh. It is a pleasure to read a blog where I actually LEARN something…definitely a perk for my mommy brain.
    Steph@livingbrilliant´s latest post: Finding community and digging in the dirt

  18. Thank you for this. This is just beautiful.

  19. My grandfather was in France with the Allied forces during the war. He never spoke of it much, but I’m always moved when I think of the sacrifices of those who fought as well as their families back home. My grandmother was only 19 when she was a young mother of three little boys and a husband at war!

  20. avatar
    Catherine says:

    Another great topic choice – thanks!

    We’re just back from a trip to Giverny, something we’d intended to do for years but never got round to. It was quite odd how familiar certain parts of Monet’s garden felt. A beautiful place, not at all diminished by the visitor numbers, which are (rightly) high.

  21. So enjoyed this! One of my dear (French) friends is from Brest (on the Northern coast), a city nearly destroyed during the invasion. It’s a beautiful, old fortress and I’ve the fondest memories of our visits there. I know the French aren’t exactly known for their warm hospitality, but we found it quite different up in the Northern country. The people were always lovely and welcoming. And the food was phenomenal!! (I know, that’s a bit off-topic, but couldn’t go without mentioning it). :)
    Lisa Jacobson´s latest post: Looking for Bits of Quiet

    • In my experience, the French are incredibly friendly! I think it has so much to do with our attitude and “posture” with how we travel in their country.

      And OH yes, the food… Whenever someone asks me what I think about France, I bring up the food in about 2.4 seconds.

  22. I am embarrassed to admit that I knew precious little about D-Day before this. Thank you so much for this post, and for clearing up some of the confusion in my mind about it. I think your purpose in writing this post was served, at least for me. Thank you for including Intellectual Grownup posts in your blog! My mommy brain feels a little more awake and alive now. I am going outside to plant flowers in my yard, a little more grateful that I am free to do just that. :)

  23. Thanks Tsh! In college I read Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day for a class. Normally military accounts are too technical for me to really appreciate the human sacrifice involved, but Ambrose is a grand story teller (if a little liberal with other historians works). It helped me appreciate my time in Normandy (oh the hard cider and the crepes!) so much more. I love that you used Rick Steves videos. He just makes me want to drop everything and go to Europe.
    Amy´s latest post: Reflections on Dyslexia: May B. A Novel by Caroline Starr Rose

  24. Thank you, Tsh! I didn’t know anything about Normandy besides its roll in D-Day, so I very much enjoyed your post.

    ~Emily :)
    Emily L. Moore´s latest post: Yes, Healthy People Do Get Sick…Occasionally

  25. How lovely to see so much that I love about Normandy in one place! I met my husband there when we were both studying at the University of Caen so it really is a special place for us – and we loved taking the kids back to visit Caen, Giverny and Rouen last autumn. Happy memories!

  26. Love this series!

  27. Of all our European adventures during our 2 years living in London, our visit to the D-Day beaches was by far the most memorable and moving.

    We went on a tour with Paul from here – http://www.ddayhistorian.com and he was amazing – he took me to the specific spot on the beach where my Grandfather would have landed (I had given him details of the battalion he fought in).

    I had never before truly appreciated or reflected on the significance of what the Allies did. Walking along the beach with tears running down my cheeks, the reality of it all finally struck me. It was one of those experiences that you leave thinking, everyone MUST do this at some point in their lives!
    Rachel King´s latest post: 30 Things I’ve Learnt in the Preschool Years

  28. I am so glad you chose to write about this today. My parents are currently on a cruise which started at Normandy. They wanted to be there today- on the anniversary. So cool. I’m so glad to learn more about it thanks to you!

  29. The picture of Mont St Michel makes me think of The Scarlet Pimpernel.
    What a fun article – thank you!

    • I thought of The Scarlet Pimpernel right away when I saw that picture! =)

      Thanks, Tsh, for this great article on the history and area of Normandy. I didn’t realize what all was close to the beaches and the other historical significances of the area. So interesting. This is on our list to visit. Someday. =)
      Breanne´s latest post: 22/52

    • Forgot about that movie!

  30. Love the Intellectual Grownup days! Thanks for this!

  31. What a great little history post!

  32. Normandy is beautiful and the beaches have a foggy atmosphere, a magic light indeed. You cannot see the end of the coast and if you try, you can actually imagine what happened, using your imagination and memory (from the photos you know).

    By the way, when you go there you cannot miss the apple ‘cidre brut’ and the ‘crèpe au caramel beurre salé’. humm…
    Melro Azul´s latest post: Animação maravilhosa

  33. avatar
    Rebecca says:

    I’ve somehow missed this series until now Tsh but I plan on being a regular reader.
    I’m late responding to this but I wanted to share our family’s connection to D-Day. 5 of my Great Uncles, brothers, served in WWII. My young great uncle, Julian Rexall Buzzett, was killed on D-Day while his baby brother, Harry, was simultaneously graduating from West Point Military Academy. This is a photo of my Uncle Rex’s memorial in Normandy.
    http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=56642902&PIpi=6932529
    Thanks for this great post.
    Rebecca

  34. For those who are interesting, you might want to check on the Veterans History Project at http://www.loc.gov/vets. You can find oral history by many WWII vets available there, and here their experiences in their own words.
    bibliotecaria´s latest post: Ten things I always take on vacation

  35. Thanks for sharing this … Really can’t forget the incidence that took place. But a great to the soldiers. Thay are the real heroes of Normandy. Thanks to normandy d-day tours .

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