I look in all sorts of places for blog ideas. So far (this is number eighteen), most of my ideas have come from folders in file drawers or from books or binders on shelves mere feet from where I sit in my comfortable Ekornes leather chair. (If you’re curious, it’s navy blue and it swivels—there’s a footstool, too. I spend most of my writing time in this chair.) For today’s blog, all I needed was a glance at the National Museum of the U. S. Army calendar hanging on the side of my bookcase across the room. It told me The Battle of Saint-Lô began on this date in 1944. We’ve been to Saint-Lô (it's in Normandy, France); this could work.
By July 1944, Saint-Lô had been occupied by the German Army for four years. Located about thirty-eight kilometers (twenty-four miles) from Omaha Beach, it was strategically important as a crossroads for moving troops and supplies. Under the command of General Charles H. Corlett, the XIX Corps of the First U.S. Army was sent to take control of Saint-Lô as quickly as possible after D-Day. By June 18th, they had battled their way to within three kilometers of the city limits, but they lacked critical supplies and were forced to halt their advance. They remained in place until July 3rd when their movement south towards Saint-Lô could finally continue.
[Above: the Eglise (Church) Notre Dame de St Lô, before and after World War II]
There is much to say about the Battle of Saint-Lô, but as I began to learn about it, what really struck me was that 95% of the city was destroyed by both American and German bombardments during June and July 1944. At the conclusion of the battle that lasted for twelve days (and yes, the Americans prevailed), the city was known as “The Capital of Ruins.” It is hard to fathom—95% of a once thriving city in rubble, with very few recognizable landmarks remaining. Imagine that happening to the city or town where you live.
I don’t know if German prisoners of war were forced to rebuild Saint-Lô. If nothing else, maybe they helped clear the rubble. I do know that one million POWs were sent to France after the war, and seventy percent of those came from POW camps in the United States. Did some of them come from Camp Algona? It is certainly possible. The French government did offer the former German soldiers the opportunity to remain in France after their confinement and forced labor had ended. Almost 137,000 accepted the offer.
If you’d like to read a fascinating memoir by Charles Cawthon about his participation in the Battle of Saint-Lô, check out the article in the June 1974 issue of American Heritage magazine (www.americanheritage.com/july-1944-st-lo). I’ve read it once but intend to read it again.
It was late afternoon on Saturday, May 8, 1996, when Joe drove our rental car from Pointe du Hoc on the Normandy coast to Saint-Lô where we had decided to spend the night. We found a room at the Ibis, a comfortable budget hotel, and got settled. At the front desk, we asked the manager who spoke very good English for a recommendation for dinner. Now, the thing about us is that we’re not “foodies.” When we travel in Europe, we usually “tank up” in the B&B or hotel breakfast rooms in the mornings. In the afternoons, we rely on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and fresh fruit and sometimes cheese and boxed fruit drinks. At the end of a long day of sight-seeing, we enjoy a simple dinner at a nearby restaurant if we don’t bring something in from the local supermarket. But we were in France, and we thought we should experience an authentic, (hopefully) reasonably priced French dinner at least once. The manager recommended Le Filet Bleu and we found it easily.
What a treat! We opted for a five-course dinner with wine (French, of course) and spent over two hours savoring everything the nice non-English-speaking waitress placed in front of us. Here’s how I described it in my portion of our trip journal.
Appetizer = paté, thin sliced, with a dollop of caviar in a dollop of cream cheese and a large roll on the side. Soup = fish soup that is absolutely out of this world! Three things to dump in it = croutons, shredded cheese, and some sort of thick sauce, similar to Russian dressing. It sounds weird but it is marvelous. For the main course, Joe has a type of white fish in a light cream sauce, and I have salmon in the same or similar sauce. Steamed veggies on the side (including a red flower-like food item that we decide is a very thinly sliced tomato). We get smaller rolls with the main course. The waitress then brings a tray with several varieties of cheeses—we can choose three and we do. Yum! Last, but certainly not least, dessert! I choose a soft light cake in a delicious sauce; Joe chooses a nice helping of chocolate ice cream with whipped cream.
We spent 250 French francs on this meal (about $53.00), including tip—not bad.
Joe added this to his portion of the journal.
Serving us was the pretty, teenaged waitress who speaks no English. Through the use of a phrase book, we were able to tell her that we wanted some water and a paper clip. Of course, the water was for drinking and Sally needed the paper clip for [something]. Incidentally, paper clip in French is trombone. (Can you see a connection? [Both Joe and I are trombonists, in case you don’t know.]) I gleefully told the pretty, teenaged waitress who speaks no English that I play the trombone and show her my business card. Now I suppose she’s wondering why anyone would want to play a paper clip! Is there a future in it?
Saint-Lô is one of Roanoke, Virginia’s seven sister cities. I’m glad we got to spend some time there. And, I’m glad they were able to rebuild that beautiful city, at least it was beautiful twenty-five years ago.
Blessings to all.
Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband and two dogs. My Mother’s Friend is her first novel. You can find her web site here: www.sallyjamesonbond.com.