When we talk about archeology, we mainly think of ancient or even medieval sites. For the general public, archeology is mainly used to discover past civilizations which are little known today. However, for several decades, this discipline has not been limited to “very old” remains: in 1978, the CILAC association (Information and liaison committee for archeology, study and development of industrial heritage) is founded to take into account this singular heritage and largely neglected until then. However, archeology can be interested in even more recent objects as shown in the book Archeology of the Landing and the Battle of Normandy by Vincent Carpentier and Cyril Marcigny, archaeologists at Inrap, published by Ouest-France.
This richly illustrated 143-page book offers an overview of the archeology of the Normandy landings and the Battle of Normandy in France. The reader of this review may wonder if such an archeology is relevant. François Fichet de Clairfontaine answers this question by explaining that in many countries this question no longer arises as in the United States. Regarding the Second World War, he explains that the archaeological sources are important testimonies which “allow to explore the mentalities and the cultures which, on several occasions, strongly modified the societies at war of the XXth century”. By the way, it is interesting to note that certain problems of these archaeologists are not so far removed from those of their colleagues who are interested in other periods (looting in particular). Of course, this archeology which emerges at the end of the years is still in its infancy, but the work presents us with some excavations and some results thereof.
After the introduction, the authors are interested in the archeology of the Atlantic Wall. After a brief presentation of the fortifications and the historical context of their development, the authors show the neglect and disinterest that this heritage has aroused. In addition, this heritage is seriously threatened (erosion and rise in sea level in particular). Despite this, the excavations yielded important results. The excavated sites are well presented and allow the reader to discover their respective contributions. Beyond the war and its art, this archeology brings elements to cultural history: the authors offer reproductions of some inscriptions and murals featuring “themes of Nazi propaganda”. Interesting data for cultural history which disappears following erosion and vandalism.
The other parts of the book focus on military or civilian aspects of the battle. Thus many objects are presented interested in the material conditions of the battle such as parachute attachments, helmets or rations. The underwater excavations are also but the most surprising is to discover that the beaches of Normandy keep the traces of the fighting and that thousands of shrapnel, steel balls and glass dot the places nowadays and still for a few decades (even centuries). The following part is devoted to logistical and combat facilities (shelters, manholes, artificial harbors etc.). We discover the importance of the Allied provisional arrangements that were necessary to carry out the battle. The photos of the remains and of the time allow us to compare the looks and the visions. Finally, the last parts focus on the civilians under the bombs and the graves of fallen soldiers. The excavations reveal other indirect testimonies such as a stone statue destroyed during the fighting in Sées which adorned the gardens of the cathedral or even the crockery of the Grand Hôtel de Cabourg and the resort of Wehrmacht officers) found in embankments linked to war destruction. A focus is also on the underground quarries which served as a refuge during the bombardments.
The archaeological evidence of the landing and the Battle of Normandy, still numerous, inexorably tends to disappear. This book is a plea for the discipline as much as an overview of the discoveries and contributions of this one. Richly illustrated, it offers short, pleasant, synthetic and accessible texts. This book is therefore recommended to all those who would like to discover the Second World War from another angle.
Archeology of the landing and the Battle of Normandy, by Vincent Carpentier and Cyril Marcigny. Editions Ouest-France, May 2014.