Sunday, December 29, 2002

On Christmas day, I visited a Commonwealth war cemetery just outside Bayeux in Normandy. This was the second time this year I had visited the site of large war cemeteries. The other was at Gallipoli in Turkey in June. I had never visited a war graveyard prior to this, and the visits were quite interesting. For one thing, you simply appreciate the scale of the war in a way you may not have before. Thousands of graves together make an impression, and quite a shocking one.

One thing was that from looking at the graves you could tell, almost instantly, how different the world of 1944 was from that of 1915. The graves in Gallipoli were a mixture of nationalities from the British Empire: Australians, New Zealanders, British, a small number of Canadians and South Africans, plus a substantial number of Indians. Most of the graves were decorated with a Christian cross, but I saw quite a few stars of David, and graves with Indian (presumably Hindu) inscriptions. (A few graves had no religious inscription whatsoever. I do not know what this means: possibly that the soldier was an agnostic or atheist; possibly that his religion was simply not known).

In Bayeux, however, the graves were almost entirely British, with a few Canadians. As far as the European war was concerned, the empire was gone. The Americans were fighting with the British (although they landed on different beaches and their dead are buried in different graveyards) but the Australians, the New Zealanders, and the rest of the empire were all elsewhere. The graveyard has much less diversity. (I did not see a single grave with a religious marking other than a Christian cross, although I once again I did see a few graves where religious markings were absent).

There are a lot of national flags flying outside the Battle of Normandy museum in Bayeux, but the Australian flag is not there.

Not that it should be there. Australia was not involved in the settlement of the war in Europe. This is in dramatic contrast to World War I, in which many Australians fought in France, and after which Australia was represented by separate delegates at the conference of Versailles, and was one of the signitaries of the Treaty of Versailles and one of the Founding Nations of the League of Nations. (This was the first act of Australian foreign policy independent of Britain, and is one important stop on Australia's road to independence).

And of course, this fits my experience as an Australian. For me, the second world war is largely the war with Japan. The key event of the war is the fall of Singapore (and the inadequate British preparations to defend it). Amongst older Australians, memories of such things as the terrible treatment of Australian prisoners of war by the Japanese army are well remembered. The way I perceive the second World War, I do not forget the war in Europe, but the war against Japan looms large. Which is not surprising, as Japan bombed Darwin, and Japanese submarines fired torpedos in Sydney harbour.

However, British people see the war against Germany, the Battle of Britain, and the D-Day landings as paramount. This is hardly surprising, as their country was bombed and their nation was threatened, and their nation stood and held off Germany. And of course they revere Churchill. I have occasionally been known to belittle this British heroic myth a small amount. Although I would not dream of belittling the sacrifices of the British people or the British war effort itself, my tendency is more to see the Battle of Britain and the subsequent Normandy invasion as just one campaign in a larger war. I have sometimes felt the British see themselves as a little too central to a campaign that was, when it came down to it, won by the Americans. (That said, everyone does this. And if you go by war memorials in some parts of France (although not in Normandy itself) you would get the impression that the Germans were defeated by Charles de Gaul and three other Frenchmen, acting by themselves). And my feelings about Churchill are a little more mixed than is generally the case in Britain. All the achievements that his proponents praise him for were undoubtedly real, but I find it harder to forget his role in the Gallipoli campaign in the First World War, and some of his attitudes towards colonials in general have been known to annoy me. Sometimes British people are surprised when my emotions about the second world war are not quite the same as theirs. (In the recent "Greatest Briton" discussion, my first thoughts went to people like Darwin, Newton and Shakespeare, rather than Churchill, possibly because they were more "great people who happened to be British", whereas Churchill was a "great man who saved Britain").

It may have been that the overcast December weather and the solitude of being a tourist on Christmas day added to it, but I felt a long way from home, in a way I didn't when I visited Gallipoli (although in that case I was surrounded by Australians on a beautiful June Day) and I suspect I wouldn't if I visited the World War I battlefields in France. Normandy is not a battle Australians have memories of, and this affects my reaction.

It doesn't make my reaction any less emotional, however. The simple size of the cemetery in Bayeux reminds you of the size of the sacrifice that occurred. There are almost 5000 graves close together in this particular cemetery, around 4000 of which were of British men (the others mostly being Canadians) Almost all of them were between 18 and 30 years old.

There are of course other British, German, and American cemeteries along the Normandy coast. These men were heroes, fighting a great struggle against a terrible enemy. The sacrifice was against a terrible evil, and in the end was clearly worth it. No wonder people in Britain feel the way they do about it.

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