Today I walked by Pegasus Bridge and saw all the flags were torn because of recent wind-storms. It looked sad. Of course I know that it’s just because the local town of Bénouville has not have the time to change them yet. But I think it’s better to have empty flagpoles rather than torn flags.
Then memories started coming back… It was 1984, the 40th Anniversary of D Day, the first of large international ceremonies. Like others, it was prepared during months by many different institutions, associations, municipalities and individuals.
I was only 14 but could feel the solemnity and excitation in the way adults were talking about it : it was going to be a great event, very important for us , the inhabitants of the towns where allied forces had landed on June 6th 1944, to welcome our liberators, and it’s true, it was very powerful…
To meet the veterans who had never come back to Normandy for most of them, to see these men who were not so aged then, to watch their smiles on their faces, in their eyes, in their hands opening to thank us for our welcome was powerful.
As for me, my level of English was not so good yet and at 14 , I was still very shy and filled up with my « normand » education : it is not polite to talk to someone without having been invited to, not polite to ask personal questions to someone who is not a relative or close friend and it is even less polite to ask for something that will let this person feel embarrassed or even worst, cry.
So like most people of the region I didn't ask many questions. Fortunately, there were people who dared and we could listen.
I understood later, listening to veterans who said they had been better welcomed in Belgium and in the Netherlands, that they had people in these countries warmer that these old heroes would have rather met less « polite » normand people. Most veterans like when people came to them to thank them or ask them questions.
Going back to the organization of the 40th Anniversary of D Day I remember hearing my parents talking about the fact that the town council had recommended the inhabitants of the houses along the way of veterans, active-duty militaries and officials’ procession to make their gardens and homes look nice and deck them with the flags of the countries who took part to the Normandy campaign.
As it has to be done with French flags on Bastille Day celebrations.
Yes ! Because it was a celebration for our grand-parents to meet their liberators again and for most of them it was even the first time they could really see and thank them … In 1944, many civilians had to escape far away from the frontline, or hide in building basements , trenches, or ditches in order to survive the air-bombings or naval firing, mostly allied : it was necessary to destroy infrastructures and disorganize German forces so that liberators could progress town by town.
This is why allied soldiers, after weeks of fierce fighting, often met only a few normand civilians completely exhausted, disoriented in the middle of ruined streets, houses, churches, and corpses of family members, neighbors, men , women and children. They had a lump in their throats, and in their empty eyes, it was impossible to read the relief of liberation at last, and feel the gratitude towards these young men who came from so far away.
But nevertheless it was a need to tell « Thank You ». Our grand-parents explained us , we had to know what had happened, and how hundreds of thousands foreign soldiers had left their homes and their countries to liberate our occupied land. We had to welcome them well and thank them well.
Then yes, buildings, streets, shops, children had to be decked … with the flags of nations who liberated us. Flags, flags, flags everywhere ! Colours and the sun to let them shimmer, and the wind to let them fly, it was so nice !
Flags to tell veterans (because most of the locals could not speak English)they were welcome, they had not been forgotten, their stories had been transmitted to children.
Flags to warm the hearts.
Then, it became a tradition to deck buildings and streets with flags every year .
I became an adult and a guide approximately at the same time and meet hundreds of visitors surprised by seeing non French flags everywhere. Sometimes they believe that flags are corresponding to a place where a non French lives. Other times they are convinced that if there is a flag at a certain place, it’s because something special happened at this place, which can occasionnally be the case but not most of the time. Then I explain them the tradition of decking with flags to welcome our liberators.
But veterans are less and less : they are not immortal… Like flags as a matter of fact.
The beautiful, colourful new flags put at the beginning of the season are suffering a lot from sun, rain, wind and are damaged quite fast.
Unfortunately we can see faded flags, torn, shredded, falling apart…
We, the locals, don’t pay attention any more and we know that the owner of the flag has no bad intentions. That he just hasn’t taken the time to change the flag, that it’s not such a problem if the flag is torn as it’s still possible to identify what country it is.
But foreign visitors don’t understand this and sometimes feel insulted : because a flag is a national symbol that a nation feels proud about. The action of tearing a flag apart is an insult to the country represented by this flag.
When these visitors are accompanied by a guide, they can be explained but many come on their own and go back home with a strange feeling.
All of these flags can give a very positive image of the people of Normandy… Only if they are in good condition.
And it’s better to see an empty flagpole rather than a torn flag.
See My Normandy