Monday 17 August 2009

Conquest and Conquerors

Ah! It's great to be back. It's August in Madrid and compared to the rest of the year it's like a ghost town. This is great for getting seated in restaurants, assuming they are open, and there's always a seat on the metro. I have just returned from two weeks in the Peña de Francia, where the temperatures never climed above the low thirties and we even had sporadic thunder storms with wonderful refreshing rain. Madrid is like an oven, giving verisimilitude to the writer Quevedo's claim that the city had nine months of winter - and three months of Hell!

While I was away I met some people who, wonder of wonders, are readers of this blog. The world is a handkerchief, as they say here. Very kindly, some of them gave me suggestions for topics to cover and they sound quite interesting. So I have work to do.

So, while I zoom off to check parts of Madrid I never knew existed, I want to give you something rather different from normal. It's not even about Spain.

Today is the 17th of August. This post is about a visit I made exactly five years ago and commemorates two events that took place sixty and 977 years before that. My Canadian readers will find something of interest in the first one. It's a long article, so get yourself a cup of coffee and settle down. I hope you enjoy it.

I sat on the black metal bench over looking the lake and wondered. I wondered if this self same bench was going to be my bed for the night. Beyond the lake the land rose steeply until green vegetation gave way to a rocky outcrop that dominated the surrounding Normandy countryside. I was in the small town of Falaise, deep in the heart of Normandy. The name means "cliff" in French and from the cliff top, the heavy bulk of a castle's grey stone keep dominated the valley of the river Ante that swelled into the lake below. From its roof a red and white flag danced in the wind. It was within these castle walls a child was born. He was illegitimate and the product of an illicit affair. Yet he rose to become a great warrior and shaped the course of English destiny. This was the birthplace of William the Conqueror. The castle was one of the things I had come to see, but right now I had more pressing matters. Number one trying to find somewhere to stay.

Falaise is about thirty kilometres south of Caen, from where, without a car, the only way to get there seems to be by route 35 on the Bus Verte (Green Bus) du Calvados. Leaving Caen at half past midday the bus spent a lazy hour meandering through gently rolling Normandy farmland, passing through little villages with steeply roofed houses set in an undulating sea of shorn fields of golden stubble. A stern notice behind the bus driver's head warned us not to speak to him while he was engaged in steering the vehicle through the narrow lanes. However, for most of the journey the driver and the front seat passengers volubly righted the wrongs of the world and no doubt cast aspersions on any passenger with the temerity to alight before the end of the trip.

The entrance to Falaise is watched over by a WWII tank, a memorial to the importance of the town during the battle of Normandy and a fact that had become the cause of my present predicament regarding a bed and a roof over my head.

From the tank, the bus zoomed down the Avenue d'Hastings, (talk about rubbing it in to the English visitor), and just after one thirty drew to a halt in the Rue de la Liberation. Not fifty metres away was the tourist office. However, it was closed for lunch until two. My little wheeled case and I set off for a trawl of the streets in search of a hotel. I found one quickly in the next street down, but its cobwebbed windows and dingy interiors were evidence that it was in the throws of acquiring a new owner. Further along the main road a “Pension” proclaimed its presence, but closer inspection revealed the dreaded “complet” board swinging from its hook on the door. Inside, the restaurant was packed. Waiters weaved between tables and although I perused the displayed menu with thoughts of lunch, they were far too busy to pay me any attention. I continued my search and to cut a long tale short, by the end of the next hour I had explored the entire centre of town and made forays out into the suburbs (such as a small town might have) and drawn a blank. "Complet" signs hung everywhere, and where they didn't my request was met by regretful Gallic shrugs.

So I sat on the bench overlooking the lake and pondered. Before leaving home I had viewed the tourist office’s web site and found a couple of places I wanted to see. I wondered if I could “do” them in a single afternoon and be able to catch the return bus at five. Three hours was hardly time to do them justice. I cannot flit through museums and castles like a bee gathering pollen. I stop, I stare, I wander back to get another perspective. In my journeys through northern France the story of William the Conqueror had loomed large. I knew where he had fought, lived, married, died and where his body lay entombed. Falaise was the place of his birth. Here was a story of love across the class divide and of a childhood that shaped a future King of England. A short afternoon just would not do. Besides, it looked like rain.

I wandered back into town and found myself across the road from the “pension." The chill in the air and a slight feeling of dejection prompted thoughts of something hot to drink. I crossed over and sat at a pavement table. Inside the proprietors and their chef chattered across a table as they ate their late lunch. A waiter, on the point of leaving, noticed me and stepped out. The “complet” notice still dangled from its hook, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. I asked if they had a room. He called inside and the proprietress came out. I repeated my question, innocently, like a dumb foreigner who doesn’t understand the meaning of “complet." Yes, it turned out, she had a room and two nights was no problem at all. I shook my head and indicated the “complet” sign, telling her I was only asking on chance. “Merde," she swore and tore the sign off its hook, “this should have been removed this morning.” She checked me in, showed me to my room. I threw my case on the bed and went down for that drink. I went to take a table on the pavement, but in those few short minutes (less than five) I had been inside, the skies had opened and it was chucking it down.

That late summer in France in 2004 had been very wet. Not just in France, but most of Northern Europe. There were floods everywhere and in the south of England the small fishing village of Boscastle had just about been washed into the sea. The rains came quickly and heavily. Within a short time that afternoon in Falaise the road was awash. Cars threw gallons of water at unwary pedestrians and left a wake. Yet just as suddenly as it had begun, not quite an hour later, it stopped. Within minutes the sun was shining, and the roads had rapidly expanding dry patches. I had finished my pot of tea long before and had just watched the hypnotic fall of the rain. Now I ventured out to explore, this time without my little wheeled case in tow.

When the generally south going N158 reaches Falaise it swings eastwards as it passes through the town. Six or seven hundred yards to the south the castle sits on its massive slab of rock. Between them lies the main bulk of the centre of the town. There are a couple of shop lined streets a block apart, which meet at the central square of the Belle Croix. A couple of side streets to the west the ground inclines steeply down towards the lake. To the east the ground climbs almost imperceptibly, allowing the town to expand with a web of new roads and housing. The centre is neatly laid with honey coloured stone buildings. Nothing seems particularly old. The reason was evident when I examined a display of wartime photographs in a shop window. They were taken shortly after the Battle of Normandy and showed Falaise centre as little more than piles of rubble spilling on to blocked streets.

Falaise was far from being alone in enduring "collateral damage" during the Second World War, but unlike other towns I had seen in my travels, it had not suffered too badly in the hand of the architects charged with its rebuilding. The war torn rubble had been replaced by neat rows of pale yellow stone. The building design seemed to be rather square and severe, but easier on the eye than the wastes of stained concrete blocks imposed elsewhere.

Those photographs of the debris strewn streets was not the only window display on a wartime theme. It seemed every second shop had a show of war memorabilia. One, using toy soldiers, tanks, ships and several kilograms of sand, had recreated a scene of the allies landing on the Normandy beaches. A toyshop was pushing every military plaything you could imagine. Only a butcher's window went against the trend. His window commemorated his success in a national competition for his preparation of tripes, a local delicacy apparently.

The sixtieth anniversary of the Normandy landings and its aftermath was being celebrated throughout those summer months of 2004. The commemoration of the actual landings had been attended by heads of state and thousands of visitors. Lesser acts of remembrance were on a much smaller scale. Two months into the battle of Normandy the allies planned to encircle and arrest the German retreat in what became known as the Falaise Pocket, but even the best laid plans of Generals can go very wrong. The Americans were advancing from the west and south and by August 14th had reached Argentan, some twenty two kilometres south of Falaise. There they were ordered to stop to avoid running into the Canadians and the Poles of Maczek's 1st armoured division who were advancing south from Caen in what was known as Operation Totalise. It is thought that the resulting gap allowed thousands of German troops to escape. Those that remained caused serious damage to the Allied effort, resisting the advance of the south bound Canadians. Eventually, on August 17th, after fierce fighting to the north of the town, an artillery bombardment in which eighty-five percent of the town was destroyed and followed by bitter hand to hand fighting in the streets, the town was liberated by the 2nd Canadian Division. I had arrived on August the 16th. The following day the liberation was to be commemorated by several acts of remembrance. Several windows displayed a poster detailing the scheduled events. Hence the hotels were full of old soldiers and why I had difficulty in finding a room.

Medieval Falaise was a walled town. Evidence of this can be found at odd parts of the old boundary where later buildings are constructed on top of the old wall or incorporated it, saving the erection of at least one wall of the new building. It is still possible to see the encircling moat to the east. The west side had no need of a moat as it followed the high crest overlooking the lake. From a side street a cobbled lane led to the round towered Porte des Cordeliers from where a path leads down to the waters. Weeping willows cast shade over anglers on the lake side. A grey stone mill house stands at the lake's head beside a millrace swollen by the unseasonably summer rains. A narrow lane leads up to the municipal caravan campsite nestling under the castle walls and where, for some reason unknown, stands a red painted English telephone box. A left turn here takes the walker back to the town centre, but it is a path for the very sure footed, (or a goat). It is extremely steep and roughly cobbled with sinuous turns that vainly attempt to flatten the steeper sections. The town is entered through another gate house.

It was mid to late afternoon. I thought to visit the tourist office in the Rue de la Liberation. It was on the other side of the town centre, but still only five minute's walk. I was almost there when I found Automates Avenue, which is not a street, but a museum of mechanical marionettes. I entered and approached the desk to buy a ticket. The receptionist welcomed me, gave a small, well rehearsed spiel about what I was about to see and gave me the price of the ticket. I found her French very easy to understand and as I opened my wallet to extract the cash gave myself a mental pat on the back for my increasing expertise in the language. I made a couple platitudinous comments in return. "You are English:, she stated. I was crushed, but I concurred. "Only I saw your Sainsbury's card in your wallet", she added, and I realised she was speaking English with a southern counties accent. I did not feel quite so disheartened. "You're not local", I smiled. ""Born in Surrey", she confirmed. She gestured at the museum around us; "Holiday job".

In the late 1800s a Parisian toy maker called Gaston Decamps made toys that moved; dolls that danced, acrobats that tumbled. At the turn of the twentieth century he began making animated scenes where nodding mothers rocked cradles, woodsmen sawed logs or cobblers hammered shoes. These scenes of animated theatrics were driven by a system of chains, pulleys, levers and shafts running on wooden cams. The original driving power of clockwork was soon replaced by those new-fangled electric motors.

When Peary reached the North Pole in April 1909 M. Decamps proposed to one of the large Parisian department stores to commemorate the feat with an animated display in one of the shops windows. The resulting crowds of amazed onlookers and subsequent increased custom soon had other stores clamouring for similar publicity, particularly at Christmas. Between 1920 and 1950 M. Descamps and his successors, notably his daughter and son-in-law, Cosette and Georges Bellancourt and their son, Jaques, provided Printemps, Galleries Lafayette and Bonne Marché with some amazing and wonderful animated scenes. A film show explains all this before the exhibition proper. The commentary was in fast French, but I got the gist of it.

Now a dozen examples of these displays, containing some three hundred of these "acteurs mécaniques" as the French leaflet describes them, or "window actors" in the English language version, grace an enclosed "avenue" within the museum. I could not find out what the connection with Falaise was, but that is not important. What is, is that these early animations, which precede today's computer driven, servo controlled, all singing, all dancing, probably Japanese, mini robots, are preserved. The exhibition begins with a potted history and some crude early examples, but rapidly they become quite sophisticated. On a few of the displays the mechanical workings can be viewed through small windows beneath the main exhibit.

The mechanical ingenuity of the model maker is impressive, but that comes an invisible second to the detail and humour that went into the construction of the visible characters. There is a scene of a village celebration together with an oom-pah band and presiding dignitaries. The mayor is crowning the May Queen. The marionettes are the size of real small children. In a stone age settlement women grind corn and warriors club each other. One window depicts a terrible accident during the tour de France, caused by a gleefully runaway pig, with cyclists tangled in each other bicycle wheels. In an eastern market straight out of One Thousand and One Nights thieves and snakes are charmed out of Ali Baba pots while the women of the harem look on. Judging by the laughter and excited squeals, today's modern, sophisticated kids, brought up on a diet of videos, computer games and remote controlled this, that and everything, can still be entertained by the antics of these rather crude and old fashioned amusements.

As I left the museum there was a quite dramatic crack of thunder and I only just made it back to my hotel before the streets were deluged once more. I ate in the hotel that evening. There was tripe on the menu, obviously a local delicacy, but I did not partake. The rain held off just enough for a brief perambulation after dinner, but Falaise is a dead town after sunset, so I returned to the hotel and practised my French with a film on TV.

The next morning found me in William the Conqueror Square. It lies below the castle entrance and after a night of heavy rain its brown rectangular cobbles glistened under a cloud free sky. In the centre of the square is a statue depicting William astride a great battle horse, his standard held aloft while he glances over his right shoulder to exhort his troops. He will probably go on without them. Following his gaze it would seem his army are all waiting to be served in the post office. In which case they will be there until domeseday, if the French postal service follows its usual slow service.

The medieval ruling classes loved their epithets. The English had Alfred the Great and Edward Longshanks, not to mention Richard the Lionheart. The French had kings they called "The Fair", "The Fat", "The Bold", "The Good", "The Bad" and maybe, even "The Ugly". They certainly had "The Bald", "The Simple", "The Do-Nothing", "The Mad" and "The Stubborn", so they were not above being rude about their royalty, which is probably why they eventually did away with them.

At the corners and the middle of the long sides of the statue's plinth are six preceding dukes of Normandy. The first is Rollo, the French name taken by Hrolf Ganger, the Viking leader whose army conquered the lands of northern Neustria, (as it was then) and settled in the Norseland, or Normandy. In 911 he agreed the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte with the French King Charles the Simple, who granted him the land and the title of Duke of Normandy. This was basically to stop the Vikings from pillaging any more French territory. He also had to marry King Charles daughter, Giselle. History does not recall her beauty or whether this was a pleasure or a pain for Rollo. Rollo was known as "The Gangler", which means "walker".

His son, the next duke, was Guillaume"Longue-epee" - long sword. I presume this referred to his weapon of battle, but you can never tell with the French! Then there were three Richards: "The Fearless", "The Good", and, unimaginatively, "The Third".

The sixth duke, William's father, was known as Robert "The Magnificent", if you believe the Normandy tourist board, or "The Devil", if you read any other reference.

The dukes of Normandy had several castles at their disposal, but it was at Falaise that Robert fell in love with Arlette, the daughter of Fulbert, the tanner and his wife, Doda. Some accounts say the girl's name was Herleva and that "Arlette" means harlot, which is probably what she was. The trade followed by her father, a tanner, was a dirty, smelly job reserved for the poorest and most menial of people, and it is unlikely that his daughter was "any better than she ought to be" as one of my aunts would heave put it. There again, I have also seen Fulbert described as a "Burgher" of the town, so perhaps his tannery was a prosperous business and Fulbert had scaled the social ladder. However, the disparity between the lover's social classes meant that they could never marry. So from when Arlette / Herleva gave birth to William in 1027, until he became "The Conqueror" he was known as "The Bastard". There was no doubt, though, that Robert loved Arlette. He would refer to her as his "handfast" wife and after William they had a daughter. Despite having other, legitimate, sons, it was the love-child he had with Arlette he chose as his successor.

There is a legend of a dream that Arlette had. She dreamt that a tree grew out of her body and all of Normandy was covered by its shade. It was, of course, taken as an omen of the growing power of the ruling Normans. A power that her son fashioned into a kingdom.

From the square a narrow lane led up to the castle. The fortress did not, figuratively speaking, lower its drawbridge until ten o' clock and I was dismayed to see a long queue snaking around the massive stone walls. Had I realised the place was so popular I would have not dawdled on route taking notes of silly epithets. However, I need not have worried. The snaking queue turned out to be a party of visitors taking a picnic breakfast on the sloping grass. I had, in fact, beaten the rush.

Like visitors of old, today the inquisitive enters the castle via the bailey, an open, walled area below the keep which served as barracks and workshops for an army. Today it houses a modern visitor's centre and gift shop. The cost of admission includes a clever electronic tour guide. This little device works out exactly where you are within the castle and presents a mini lecture. The young lady, in impeccable French I found easy to understand, handled the device and asked "Français?" The thing was multilingual. I replied, "Anglais", and handing it to me, explained in the fluent English of a native born, how to operate it. "You're not related to the young lady in the animatronics museum?" I asked, suspecting them to be daughters of one of the ever increasing English families taking up residence in France. "We go to the same university", she explained.

The first stronghold at Falaise, probably dating back to the ninth century, was probably no more than a typical wooden Viking fort. This would have been a dwelling raised on stilts and accessed by a ladder. The Norman dukes had several bases; Rouen, Caen, Falaise, Arques, Gisors, Domfront, Argentan and elsewhere, but they probably did not look like what we think of as castles until the eleventh century. The first record of a Castle at Falaise is dated 1027, which is, coincidentally, the year of William's birth. But several important events occurred that year.

In 1026 Richard the good died and was succeeded by his son, Richard the third. The new Duke argued with his brother, who just happened to be Robert the Devil. Robert is recorded as being the Master of "Falasiae Castrum", the castle. Richard laid siege to the castle and as the story refers to "balistae" and "arietum", (stone throwers and battering rams), the building must have been pretty substantial. Drawn out sieges are quite boring for both parties and Robert occupied some of his time, at least I am bold enough so to presume, in his dalliance with Arlette.

Who bested who in this family quarrel history does not relate. However, from whatever cause, later that year Richard died and Robert became Duke of Normandy.

Robert went off on crusades and died in 1035. Arlette married Herluin de Conteville, with whom she had Odo, later Bishop of Bayeux and Duke of Kent following the Battle of Hastings. William had other thing to occupy him like growing up, defeating those who opposed his accession to the dukedom on account of his illegitimacy and eventually invading England and becoming its king. So it was left to William's son, Henry I Beauclerc to make the first significant modifications to the castle.

And Henry probably had good reason for doing so. In less turbulent times he would not have been king at all. His eldest brother William succeeded his father. This was William Rufus, so called because of his red hair. The next in line was Robert. Henry only came a poor third. But, while Robert was away crusading, William Rufus was shot and killed by a stray arrow while hunting. Suspiciously, Henry was in the same hunting party. In the absence of Robert, Henry quickly seized power and when Robert returned had him thrown into prison where he spent the remaining twenty eight years of his life. Sensing he was threatened by the English barons who had supported his brother, Henry had them demolish their castles in that country. Meanwhile, rebellious Normans were usurping his authority in France. So he began a programme of building new and strengthening existing castles there. As part of this, in 1123, he added the large square keep and the encircling high walled bailey with twenty guard towers at Falaise.

In 1120 Henry, with his heir William the Aethling ("prince" in Saxon), defeated the French king Louis VI at the battle of Brémule. This put a stop, for a while of French claims to Normandy. William, young and headstrong, set sail for his return to England aboard the infamous White Ship. It is said both passengers, which included several notable toffs of the time, and the crew were in a celebratory mood after their victory and so quite drunk. At night and with poor navigation the ship foundered and all were lost except for a butcher from Rouen, called Berold, who was there to collect money owed him by the noble revellers.

This left Henry with no male heir. Wanting to keep the succession in the family, he had the English barons swear loyalty to his only other legitimate child, (there were several who were not), Matilda. However, it was not yet the time for a female to wear the crown and on Henry's death in 1135 some of the barons broke their oath and installed his nephew, Stephen of Blois as king. (His mother was Adela, William the Conqueror's daughter). Hell having no fury like a woman scorned, the resulting nineteen years of civil war kept them far too busy in England to worry about the state of their castles in Normandy.

Matilda's first husband, the Emperor Henry V of Germany, died leaving no heir. She remarried in 1127 to Geoffrey of Anjou and this alliance produced a son. It was Geoffrey who stuck a sprig of Broom in his hat, the Latin name of which is 'genista, and from that took the name Planta Genista or Plantagenêts. His son, Henry II was the first of the Plantagenêt kings.

Before he was King, Henry had already inherited the dukedoms of Anjou and Normandy on the death of his father. Then, by his marriage to Eleanor he became the duke of Aquitaine as well. This made him a powerful man and in 1152, to avenge his mother, invaded England in an attempt to depose Stephen. He was only half successful. Stephen accepted him as his heir. Henry did not have long to wait as Stephen died twelve months later. Henry was now ruler of lands that stretched from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees.

All of which made Falaise a convenient rest stop for the king, his wife and their huge entourage while they toured their domains. Eleanor liked her home comforts and it was during Henry's reign that Falaise changed from being solely a fortified stronghold to a royal residence. The poor woman probably needed somewhere to rest. She had ten children.

Henry's successor, his eldest son, Richard the Lionheart, in his turn as duke, strengthened his hold over Normandy by building his massive castle Gaillard at Andelys. His successor and brother, King John, so annoyed the strong French king Philippe II Augustus by kidnapping the future wife of one of his vassals, that in 1204 he attacked Normandy and brought it back into French hands. Then, following the Battle of Bouvines of 1214, in which John had planned to take his revenge but was, in fact, was soundly beaten, Philippe got back the rest of the English king's French territories. So the next stage in Falaise Castle's development was typically French.

When it comes to castle building the Normans were squares, both literally and figuratively. Their keeps tended to be massive squat cubes of stone that defied any besieging army through stubbornness. This was the old way. The eleventh and twelfth centuries had seen a change of military tactics with the increased use of heavy artillery. Two mighty machines now augmented the infantry armed with little more that swords and axes, neither of which had much effect on stone walls. There was the siege engine, basically an enclosed ladder used to storm castle walls. It was great against flat, vertical surfaces, but none too stable against a curved surface. Then came the trebuchet, a huge counterweighted catapult that hurled huge boulders. A flat wall could do nothing except absorb the impact and eventually crack and shatter under the bombardment. Projected against a round sided tower though, unless the missile hit dead square, the circular surface had a good chance of actually deflecting the impact. So the French preferred round towers, which is what Philippe Augustus had built.

At Falaise it is called the Talbot tower. Its purpose was purely military and was a common design seen at many other castles which Philippe had reinforced. Standing off to one side of the main bulk of the earlier keep and connected to it by a very narrow passage it is easily defended. It stands higher than the original castle and provides excellent coverage across the surrounding countryside for any lookout.

France did not get it all their own way. In 1415 the English king Henry V defeated the French at Agincourt and regained all the Norman strongholds. Falaise fell after a particularly bitter winter siege in early 1418. The Siege caused serious damage to the castle and Henry had much of the town walls and the civil and religious buildings restored. The upper floors of the Talbot tower were modernised into gracious living quarters with windows and fireplaces.

By the early 1450s the French had regrouped and drove the English out of Normandy. The French capture of Bordeaux saw the English out of France altogether. But if the French can't pick a war with another country, they will have one with themselves and a hundred years later Catholics fought Protestants in the forty year long off and on skirmishes of the Wars of Religion. Falaise sided with the Catholic league, but the then protestant king of France, Henri IV, attacked the castle. Weapons of war had moved on from big ladders and catapults. This was now the age of gunpowder and cannon. The castle's defences were no match for this modern warfare and was soon taken. It was greatly damaged in the process and it was all for nothing. Four years later, with the famous words, "Paris vaut bien une messe", - Paris is worth a mass - , Henri converted to Catholicism.

From then on the castle was on no great importance. Its stone was pillaged for other building and it was abandoned. At the end if the nineteenth century it was a dilapidated ruin. Enlightened authorities declared it to be a site of historical importance and an architect was engaged to prevent the structure crumbling away to nothing. But that was all he did. He preserved the ruin. A hundred years later it was decided to restore the building, recreating the original inner spaces. In this way the original functional and historical purposes of the chambers might be better understood.

Floors and roofs had collapsed. To restore them would have meant rebuilding the castle; an expensive and undesirable option. An internal metal framework was used. The new roof was made of stretched Teflon. Floors are metal and glass. Yet somehow the architect has produced an air of power and regality. You half expect to meet a knight or princess on the stair. It is difficult to believe that you are really in a tent. Albeit one with stone walls. Concrete blocks have been used to replace some of the stone and galvanised metalwork replaces the long decayed wood of the drawbridge. These modern additions are obvious as to what they are. They do not attempt to look medieval and yet do not detract from what obviously is. Consequently Falaise is now a modern ancient building combining historical authenticity with easy access.

The tour informs the visitor of the purpose of the structure, the history of Falaise in particular, the nature of medieval warfare and tells the story of William, both Bastard and Conqueror. The clever electronic guides direct, educate and entertain. It was a morning well spent.

From enjoying the company of the ghosts of kings and dukes it was time for something more down to earth. I had been on the road for the best part of a week and my case held no more clean clothes. I went from shining armour to dirty washing. Such is life.
I found the laundrette along the rue Trinité (Trinity), a couple of doors up from the Crêperie du Conquerant, which I suppose it sounds better than "Bill's Pancakes"! The rue Trinité takes its name from the Eglise Sainte Trinité (Holy Trinity Church) at its southern end. Just before the hour, as I stared, as one does, at the hypnotic tumbling of my shirts, I heard the tinkling notes of a carillon play. The Egise Sainte Trinité dates from the fifteenth century. It is a squat, gothic building and not particularly beautiful either inside or out. But that afternoon it was to hold a service of remembrance for those who lost their lives in the battle for the town. The tinkling chimes of the carillon played a tune I knew, but could not remember its name. The chime was almost finished when it came to me. It was "O Canada", the national anthem of the victorious army.

Whether the tune is in the usual repertoire of the carillon I do not know, but it was a pleasant enough tribute. It was followed by one of those French folksongs they make British schoolchildren sing to help them practice the language. It was not "Frère Jaques" or "Sur le Pont de Avnignon", but something like that. Fifteen minutes later, as I left the "laverie” with my clean clothes, neatly folded, under my arm, the carillon chimed again. The tune was unknown to me.

Beyond the castle, just outside the town, is the Musée Août 1944 - the Museum of August 1944 , which retells the story of the liberation of Falaise. The exhibits paint a graphic picture of how the peaceful valley of the Ante river was turned into a quagmire by the ceaseless aerial and artillery bombardments of both sides. Dozens of Sherman tanks, trucks and jeeps were bogged down in the attempt to liberate the almost completely destroyed town. The old men who sat in the coach in the castle's car park needed no such display to recall those events of sixty years before. For them the battle would be forever relived in their minds. Wearing dark blue blazers and berets, they sat stiffly behind the large glass windows. There were barriers erected in the Boulevard de le Liberation. Gendarmerie in dress uniforms and their less uncomfortably clothed motorcycle colleagues patrolled the street. Near the coach a film crew from a TV station filmed an interview of a man in medals and gold braid.

An English boy, perhaps ten or eleven years of age, standing by the family car, asked his father what it was all for. The father, a tall, erect man, suggested rather patronisingly that if the child looked inside the coach he would see the old men carrying flags. In front of the coach were four jeeps painted in camouflage. The drivers and their passengers were dressed in jeans and open necked shirts and were far too young to have taken any part in the battle. I imagined they were to lead a parade. There were sporadic groups of men and women, dressed in smart clothes, watching from the roadside. But if, like me, they were expecting a parade, they were disappointed.

The posted schedule of events said that the first act of commemoration, a dedication at the war cemetery, was due at four. A few minutes before the jeeps sped away along the Rue de la Liberation. The coach followed at an altogether statelier pace. So no parade. The next event was to take place at the Canadian Memorial half way along the Rue de la Liberation. So I wandered down to wait.

Set on a patch of grass between two apartment blocks, the Canadian Memorial is a simple stone structure. A curved base set with flower beds on either side supports a simple column. An inscription remembers the Canadian fallen and the three hundred and fifty Falaisiens who also lost their lives during the fighting. An open pair of hands gently hold a maple leaf, Canada's national emblem. Three flags flapped lazily from their individual poles. To the left was the Canadian flag. To the right, the tricolour of France. The centre pole held a simple banded banner, white above red. I did not recognise it; the flag of the regiment perhaps?

A microphone had been set centrally within a semi circle of stacking chairs on a small paved area in front of the memorial. A crowd gathered on the opposite pavement. A large gendarme eyed them sternly. His petite female partner gossiped with a couple of housewives.

At four forty-five the four jeeps hoved into view, followed by the coach with its cargo of old soldiers. They passed the crowd, then parked. Next, a white mini-bus carrying more gendarmerie arrived, parking behind the coach, just in front of the crowd, effectively blocking their view. A surge of people moved along the pavement trying to find a new vantage point, obstructing the path of the musicians of the local school band, who were racing to take their posts before the old soldiers climbed down from the coach. They just made it across the road before a shiny police car pulled up in front of the memorial. Behind that came a black limousine.

The gendarmes from the mini-bus rushed to open the doors of the two important vehicles, standing to attention and saluting as the occupants climbed out. Now I knew why the policemen wore dark glasses. The sunlight reflected from the several metres of gold braid was blinding. The mayor in his tricoloured sash, who had been glad-handing the crowd, came forward to welcome these distinguished visitors. The old soldiers climbed down from the bus, fitted their flag staffs into leather supports suspended from straps across their shoulders and ambled forward to take their positions in a semi-circle on either side of the memorial. A large grim-faced man in a dark uniform, which had probably fitted him once, approached the microphone and tapped it. Several muffled thuds emanated from two black speakers set on stands. He looked about him as if to silently call the assembled throng to attention, but the mayor was still occupied shaking hands and the camera crew had found someone else to interview. The grim faced officer patiently, silently waited.

Interviews and PR duties finished the VIPs took their places. The grim master of ceremonies smiled ingratiatingly and began to speak. He spoke in low and hushed tones. So low that, even with his voice amplified, the crowd strained to hear his words, but the gist of it was that he was telling us the order that the events of this ceremony were to take place.

Then they took place. Three gendarmes lowered the three flags. They had some difficulty. The flags were only small and the raising and lowering cord thin, and so flapped about in the breeze and became tangled. When all three flags were down the MC mumbled into the microphone, the school band began to play a well rehearsed La Marseillaise and the tricolour was hesitantly raised to its original position. Another mumble, the band played O Canada, not quite as well as they had played La Marseillaise. The Maple Leaf struggled to the top of its pole. Another mumble, another tune I did not know, and the red and white banner was tugged upwards.

In a very touching ceremony a flame was lit at the foot of the memorial and a wreath laid. The semi-circle of old soldiers lowered their flags and a cornetist played the last post. A minute's silence followed and a Canadian the MC referred to as "major" stepped forward and recited the famous lines from Laurence Binyon's Poems for the Fallen:

"They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not whither them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them."

So far, with the exception of the unfortunate comedy of the flags, this small ceremony had been a moving homage to the courage of the fighting men of sixty years ago. It is right and proper to pay such tribute and I suppose it is only human nature that as many people as possible want to play their part, but this perfectly laudable aspiration should be resisted at all costs. I have God on my side to prove it.

After the rites of the memorial were finished we were asked to listen to a speech by some local worthy. He asked us to remember those inhabitants of Falaise who had been killed during the liberation of the town. In particular the working people, which made me suspect he was the local communist councillor. He also asked us to recall those deported to Germany. In the middle of his speech the power to the public address system went off. He persisted and raised his voice. It was five o'clock and the bells of Sainte Trinité, just a hundred metres distant, began to chime. Our man was not to be put off and continued. Directly after the chimes for the hour the carillon broke into a musical peal of La Marseillaise. We could see the worthy moving his lips, but his words were obliterated.

His speech finished about two seconds before the carillon. Another man stepped forward. He would, he said, recite a poem. However, the carillon could, and did, break into a further rendition of O Canada. This was probably much more appreciated by the non French speaking Canadians present. Of the poem, we heard not a word.

The Canadian Anthem finished about two seconds after the reciter had returned to his seat. The crowd clapped politely and seizing his chance the VIP officer with his lattice of gold braid who had emerged from the limousine stepped up to speak. His opening remarks coincided with the carillon's first few notes of Sur la pont D'Avignon. We heard nothing of his, I am sure, very noble sentiments regarding the fallen comrades of the octogenarians standing around him. It was by divine intervention, I am sure, his speech and the carillon came to an end at the same time. The grim faced officer returned to the microphone. All the speechifiers had done this, despite the system's malfunction. Hope springs eternal. He thanked the golden officer and was just embarking on some closing remarks when the carillon presented us with Lord of the Dance, followed by Alouette, followed by something else and it was still charming the town with its sweet tones while the band, the old soldiers and the crowd departed.

The old soldiers had a church service in the Eglise Sante Trinité and a dinner to attend. It would be a long day for them. I made my way to the central square, the Place Belle Croix, and found a table on the terrace outside a bar and ordered a 1664, my favourite beer since a barman in Arras taught me how to pronounce it. Around the square the three and four storied buildings with their pale yellow stonework almost shone in the late afternoon sun. Across the Place a group of teenagers sat morosely on a wooden platform erected for some outdoor concert. Workmen and shopping housewives peacefully sipped a coffee or something stronger before returning home. A tiny dog, peeping from inside a shopping basket growled at a cat twice its size. How different this same afternoon must have been exactly sixty years before as the shells pounded the old medieval timbered buildings and bullets ricocheted from crumbling masonry. Imagine the relief of the townspeople as they were freed from the yoke of German occupation tinged with the sadness for the three hundred and fifty of them that perished. Had some met their deaths on the square? Had blood trickled between the cobbles where now I rested my feet? It was difficult to contemplate as I sipped my beer.

For over a thousand years Falaise had been besieged, fought over, occupied and in between known times of peace and plenty. Despite new development the town has roughly the same population it had when William was born. Around the turn of the sixteenth century more than fifty percent of them were decimated by the plague, the black death. It took a long time to recuperate.

The next morning I caught the nine forty-five bus back to Caen. A steady drizzle polished the pavement and made the flags at the Canadian Memorial sag mournfully. Past the tank the farmers of Normandy were loading giant circular bales of straw on to tractor-pulled trailers. The harvest over, the golden stubble tinged with weed, the year was dying. It all looked terribly drear. Then just as the bus neared the village of Cauvicourt the road rose to allow a view of an open quarry. This huge hole, twenty to thirty metres deep was slowly eating its way eastwards across the Normandy landscape, like a open wound. Yet just a metre below the surface spread a wall, perhaps half a kilometre long, of the yet unquarried pale yellow stone, washed by the rain and glistening like a pale reflection of the sun in a puddle. It quite brightened an otherwise dismal morning.


  1. Very interesting. Where did you dig up all the historical data?

  2. It's called research, Tom. As the X-Files said, the truth is out there somewhere. I am very pleased with this this particular article. I was only in the town for 48 hours, yet managed to get a lot of information. I stop and read inscriptions on statues, I read notices and information boards. I never refuse the chance to have a guided tour. And I never forget my notebook - guides love people with notebooks, they tell them things they don't tell the others in the trailing crowd. Later I brought in all the extra stuff, which probably took a couple more months. It all came together very well.
    I love the minutiae of history. That's where the interest lies.

  3. I understand about the research, I was wondering if there was some specific personal connection. My father-in-law was captured in the Battle of the Bulge, marched by the Germans to Koblenz, then taken by train to a stalag in Leipzig; he died in 2004. When my wife and I were in Europe in 2006, we followed much of this trip. Thus, between his time in 1944/45 and my US Air Force time in Europe 1967-1970, we looked into many of the areas our paths crossed. I also have an interest in history, both the minutiae and the broad strokes. Thanks again for a most interesting and excellent post.