Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Thoughts of Normandy on D-Day

When D-Day, June 6, 1944, arrived, the above manor house in Normandy had long been taken over by the Germans.  The occupiers had hidden mines throughout the extensive gardens, which had been so carefully created by Guillaume Mallet, starting at the turn of the century.  While the estate at Varengeville-sur-Mer was far from the beaches where the Allied forces landed, the house and grounds sustained damage from the occupation during the war years.  Guillaume's beloved gardens, filled with thousands of exotic species, were neglected and quickly covered over by weeds and giant brambles.  The land mines were not removed until 1946.

Guillaume Mallet had hidden the furniture and books before the Germans came.   Robert Mallet, Guillaume's grandson, writes in his book, Renaissance d'un Parc, that his grandfather had "marked the most significant passages in the books with slips of paper; a precious guide for future researchers."

After the war, the Mallet family faced the dilemma of whether to abandon the property or to reconstruct.  Robert's father Andre made the difficult decision to restore the damage from the war and reclaim the gardens.  Stripped of resources, a valuable gold coin was discovered and was sold to buy a tractor for the initial clearing.  It would be 1955 before the house, designed by the British architect Edwin Lutyens, was livable again.

When my two daughters and I visited Le Bois des Moutiers in 2006, we were shown around the acres of gardens by Robert Mallet.  We hit at a good time.  The rhododendrons planted by Guillaume were in full bloom (they were enormous), and the Gertrude Jekyll-influenced borders were filled with flowers; Clematis montana 'Alba' festooned the windows (above), and other flowering trees and shrubs (like the viburnum in the upper right hand corner) were at their peak.

Leaving such beauty, we drove down to the Normandy beaches.  It was a beautiful, clear day with the bluest sky and white, puffy clouds.  In fact, it was Memorial Day in the U.S., and we had just missed a ceremony attended by French dignitaries and U.S. army officers.  It was okay, though, because we were able to stay for a long time in the American cemetery overlooking the ocean - a sea of white crosses and Stars of David in rows that seemed to go on forever.  We walked among the graves and read the names of the fallen soldiers.

We ended up at Omaha and Utah beaches, where we stood quietly, trying to imagine this "longest day" in history.  The entire trip to Normandy was poignant, having seen a beautiful garden that had languished during some of Europe's darkest hours, and the beaches where history changed course and so many lives were lost.  It was a strange contrast.