On June 6, 1944, the Allied troops landed on the beaches in Normandy.
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.
As I was researching the history, 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 I'd focus on Normandy itself—its origin, history, and its darned good camembert cheese. Pull up a chair and head with me to northern France.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Being predominantly Protestant, this land was the focus of a lot of fighting between the Catholics and Huguenots 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.
Some of his most famous works were painted in Normandy, including those featuring his water lily pond.
Normandy’s overall location means it's 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 omelets, 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.
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 omelets, and most significantly—our freedom from the Axis powers.
If you have time today—and I recommend you take the time—here are some more links to learn about D-Day:
• D-Day: Beachhead from BBC History
• Invasion of Normandy brief reenactment from the History Channel (not suitable for small children)
• 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.