Brittany, France: Remembering WW II

Remembering Brittany on Allied Forces Liberation 70th Anniversary

By Marc Latham

Grand plage at Saint Malo, Brittany France. Marc Latham photos.
Grand plage at Saint Malo, Brittany France. Marc Latham photos.

Shivering in the sun, waiting hours for it to set. The sun was slowly falling towards the horizon above Petit Bé Fort and Grand Bé Islet, like a ball about to be caught in a hand reaching out to sea from Saint-Malo’s northern walls, a mile of golden sand away from where I stood on the Grand Plage.

However, the sun eluded the fort and continued descending north-westwards, as if reluctant to leave the blue sky stage.

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I’d mainly visited the beach for a swim, but the horizon was clear, and with cloud forecast for my final day it was my last chance to see the sun set over the sea.

I was eventually rewarded by seeing green high frequency light from the sun for the first time, just after taking a photo of its yellow top looking like a pressed shrunken oval ball as it dipped out of sight.

My sacrifice and reward were small compared to the Allied soldiers who fought on the Brittany and Normandy beaches seventy years ago this year, but the time waiting for the sunset near wooden posts, one with a nail through it, made me think of a sacrifice theme running through my experiences in Brittany.

Grand plage at Saint Malo, Brittany France. Marc Latham photos.

After the D-Day landings on June 6th, 1944 in Brittany’s eastern neighbor Normandy, the Allied forces moved west, and retook the historic

walled fortress city of Saint-Malo in August.

Saint-Malo’s ancient defenses, dating from the Middle-Ages through to the 19th Century, when it was a privateer stronghold notorious for pirating passing ships, provided an ideal fort for the Nazis, and they defended it resolutely. Eighty per-cent of the port and walled city were destroyed in the mainly American Allied Forces attack, as the narrow historic streets saw hand to hand fighting, while the city’s sea forts were bombed from air, land and sea.

Swimming to the Buoy

Fort National at Saint Malo.
Fort National at Saint Malo.

While waiting for the sunset I saw a group of German youths swim out to a buoy, as I had done earlier that evening and several times that week: it was perfectly placed on the late afternoon-evening tide to provide a target for a good swim.

I wasn’t sure if they’d seen me swim to the buoy, but I think they were staying at the same hostel, as there was a German bus parked there. I was relieved they all swam around the buoy okay, and seemed to enjoy the achievement as I had done.

The sacrifice theme was probably in my mind that night because I’d visited Saint-Briac-Sur-Mer that day. The small seaside resort is a little farther than Dinard, west across the Rance Estuary from Saint-Malo, about an hour by bus

Overlooking La Plage du Béchet I saw a memorial stele for three American soldiers who died in the August 14/15, 1944 battles to liberate the town. Before spending a couple of hours sunbathing on the beach I also visited Le Château du Nessay, which was used as a prison after the French Revolution of 1789.

Women's memorial statue at Cancale cathedral and park.
Women’s memorial statue at Cancale cathedral and park.

A Jesus Statue

The nail through wood on Saint-Malo’s beach had also been evocative in my slightly suffering state because I’d seen a Jesus Christ statue on the outskirts of Cancale after walking seven miles from Saint-Malo two days earlier.

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I took a photo of the Christ statue, and then continued on the D355 until it turned into Rue Général Leclerc; named after a World War Two Free French Resistance soldier. It led to Cancale’s retail center.

It was a typically French scene, with shops, bakeries, bars and cafes framing a line of grass. I took photos of a two-women-washing-oysters statue with flags of France and Brittany above, and a church the other side of the esplanade.

The statue celebrated the sacrifice of women for the community. I wonder if men had sacrificed a representation on the statue, or was the statue balancing out the Jesus statue, and the one of 17th century sailor Daniel de la Touche de la Ravardiere in the port.

Down to the Harbor

St Briac sur mer near Dinard Brittany.
St Briac sur mer near Dinard Brittany.

I sat on one of the seats and ate lunch, before walking down the Rue de Port to the harbor. Restaurants with outside seating facing the sun were doing a brisk trade, and there were also people buying the town’s famed oysters direct from farms near the harbor.

In the middle of the green sea bay living up to its Emerald Coast name I could clearly see a grey structure rising up from where sea and land merged in a horizon haze. It was twenty miles away, and could only be Mont Saint Michel.

I walked along the harbor, passing the bottom of Rue de Port to more restaurants on the other side of the road. I walked through a compact group of old houses and colorful gardens, before exiting Cancale on a winding tree-lined uphill road heading south. Emerging from the trees, there was another view of Mont Saint Michel from the top of the hill, and back down at Cancale.

A Ranch Like Texas

I passed a ranch looking like a little taste of Texas, and diverted down to La Coudre just because it looked so quaint and colorful; sleeping in the mid-afternoon sun; and because it seemed as if I had all the time in the world, and I was enjoying it.

Mont st Michel
Mont st Michel

I felt like walking to Mont Saint Michel, but when the D76 met the D155 at Les Porte I turned right and headed back to Saint-Malo as planned.

I visited Mont Saint Michel the next day. I’d wanted to see it for many years, after seeing its day and night images.

When I’d found out that the Dinard airport with cheap flights from Leeds was near Saint-Malo in Brittany the first thing I did was look up how far away Mont Saint Michel was, and how easy it was to get there.

I thought about walking there, and sleeping out, as I had hitched and slept rough on my first visit to France in 1987, but in the end decided I didn’t have enough time to walk the sixty-miles round-trip, and there was some rain forecast overnight.

Inside Mont St Michel, a maze of shops and stone pathways leading to the top.
Inside Mont St Michel, a maze of shops and stone pathways leading to the top.

The Bus to Mont St Michel

So I took the only bus between Saint-Malo and Mont Saint Michel from outside the eastern city wall at 9:15 the next morning. I enjoyed the comfortable journey, and especially after reaching the bayside D155 under Cancale.

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When I saw some rucksack-bearing hikers along the way I did think what could have been, but after the hour-long journey each way and five hours spent in the Mont I was content with my decision and experience.

Although I had seen the Mont’s image many times over the years I was still amazed by its location, size and splendor. From the car park, about a mile away from the island commune, the human construction seems to rise from its rock without wasting an inch of space.

The long walls and windows decorated by gothic roofs contained halls, kitchens, stores and living quarters. Above them are the monastery and abbey, topped by a gold statue of Saint Michel.

Fort du Petit be Ile du Grand Be in Saint Malo.
Fort du Petit be Ile du Grand Be in Saint Malo.

3000 Stones

I had thought about visiting the Carnac standing stones in the south of Brittany. The 3000 stones are thought to have been arranged there about 5,000 years ago.

Not believing in a monotheistic God, I’d considered them of more interest for my amateur delving into the origins and development of humanity and spirituality.

However, although the Carnac stones look an amazing sight and impressive feat, seeing Mont Saint Michel made me think they are not separate; they are two links in a chain spanning over five millennia.

If the Stone Age people could have built Mont Saint Michel they probably would have done; they built as big a religious temple as they could, and it was a tremendous testament to human industry and spirit.

However, with 5000 years of development the Normans and their descendents built the highest temple they could from the 10th to 21st centuries, and Mont Saint Michel does look like a 1000 years of work.

On my last day I returned to the walled city of Saint-Malo, to buy some gifts and treat myself to a crepe, ice-cream and coffee lunch in the shops and restaurants lining the stylish streets, after sacrificing such luxuries the rest of the week. However, I didn’t frequent any bars, instead buying supermarket beer and drinking it on the edge of the city, as I had done on the first night. Was it a sacrifice or a preferred choice?

It was probably a bit of both, like they all are.

I was mainly remembering my travelling of twenty-five years before; but my photos reminded me of the sacrifice theme I’d thought of when waiting for the sun to set on Saint-Malo beach, and after returning home I made a video representing the sacrifice of others.

Marc Latham

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Marc Latham works on environmental issues and lives in Leeds, UK. Read another of his stories on GoNOMAD about his hometown, Leeds.