Large format. Landing in Normandy. Temporary cemeteries, this strong link that unites the Cotentin to the United States

We often ignore that temporary cemeteries preceded the great military cemeteries of Normandy. In the English Channel, three of them were born after the Landings.

After the Liberation, American soldiers often came to meditate in the temporary cemeteries set up in Normandy, like here at the Colleville cemetery (© National Archives USA).

It is a twisted bronze column that rises towards the sky, a stone’s throw from the football field of Sainte-Mère-Eglise (Manche). Inaugurated in 2019, this sculpture recalls that in this place once extended one of the town’s three temporary cemeteries.

Open the day after D-Day by the US military to bury his dead urgently, they are now gone, but their memory lives on.

13,000 soldiers temporarily buried

After being collected from the battlefield, the bodies are identified…if possible. In this photo, taken at the Orglandes cemetery, the corpses of German soldiers are being cared for by Americans (© National Archives USA).

These three cemeteries in Sainte-Mère-Eglise – number 1 to the east of the town, number 2 on the road to Chef-du-Pont and a third in Carquebut – housed the graves of more than 13,000 American soldiersincluding many paratroopers.

It was in the fall of 1947 that, at the request of the families, the first bodies were exhumed to return to the United States. Nearly 35,000 bodies buried throughout France will be repatriated in this way, while the others will be grouped together in larger cemeteries.

In Normandy, those of Colleville sur Mer and of St. James were officially inaugurated in July 1956. Today, many visitors walk through these places of memory and their carefully mowed lawns.

The largest temporary cemetery in Normandy

In the first days after D-Day, the bodies are summarily buried in parachute fabrics.  The work is carried out by German prisoners, and French civilians recruited on the spot.
In the first days after D-Day, the bodies are summarily buried in parachute fabrics. The work is carried out by German prisoners, and French civilians recruited on the spot. (© National Archives USA).

Unlike the English who bury their dead where they fell – a tradition which explains the large number of British cemeteries in Normandy, the Americans open temporary cemeteries.

The first is that of Carquebut, chosen by the paratroopers to bury their own. As of June 7, 1944, the first shovels are given in a field close to the national 13. It will become the largest temporary cemetery in Normandy with 5804 gravesof which 800 will accommodate the victims of the Belgian ship Leopoldvilletorpedoed on December 24, 1944 off Cherbourg.

On June 11, the temporary cemetery number 1 of Sainte-Mère-Eglise followed suit, next to the communal cemetery; quickly saturated, it will list 2195 American graves and 1000 German graves. As for the temporary cemetery number 2, opened on June 25 at the site of the current industrial zone, it will contain 4798 graves.

“At first, we buried them in parachutes”

these are specialized units - the Graves Registration Service Unit - which are responsible for collecting the dead, identifying them, burying them, and maintaining the cemeteries.
These are specialized units – the Graves Registration Service Unit – which are responsible for collecting the dead, identifying them, burying them, and maintaining the cemeteries. (© National Archives USA).

In 1947, when the American authorities decide to close them, the population of Sainte-Mère-Eglise is moved, considering these cemeteries as his own. Schoolchildren go there regularly to put flowers on the graves or sing during patriotic commemorations, families enjoy walking there on Sundays and travel agencies take care to include them in their tourist circuits.

Among the inhabitants of the village, some even participated in the burials of American soldiers. Hired for the occasion, they dug the graves with German prisoners, under the supervision of GIs. This is the case of Yves de la Rüe and Louis Marion, both aged 17 in 1944.

“Two days after D-Day, an officer arrived at the farm to ask that men be found to bury the dead in the field opposite. Trucks passed through the countryside to pick up the bodies and brought them to us,” recalls Yves de la Rüe.

At first they were buried in parachutes, then in special bags. Then the coffins arrived. So we had to dig up those who had been put in the parachutes and the bags to put them back in the coffins. It was very hard morally. I found two soldiers who had arrived on June 6 in front of the farm, who had offered me sweets and to whom I had poured cider. They were both charred. It was horrible, monstrous.

Yves de la Rue

“The dead were loaded by trucks”

Temporary cemeteries are opened in Normandy after D-Day.
20,000 Americans were killed in Normandy during the summer of 1944. Most of them were buried in temporary cemeteries (© National Archives USA).

Louis Marion also remembers: “We were given shovels and pickaxes, and we were taken to the field that was to become cemetery number 1.”

Our job was to dig the graves. The dead were brought in by truck, then unloaded and lined up along the hedge. A soldier removed all military equipment and put all the personal effects of each death in a small nylon bag. Then the bodies were wrapped in a large white cloth bag and it was the German prisoners who were responsible for transporting them to the graves.

Louis Marion

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A coffin for Theodore Roosevelt’s son

Sainte-Mère-Eglise also welcomes the remains of a celebrity: General Theodore Roosevelt Jr, son of former US President Theodore Roosevelt and cousin of then-incumbent President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Léon Mignot, 16 at the time, remembers the ceremony at cemetery number 2.

“Apprentice carpenter, I had volunteered to dig graves in cemetery number 1. After two weeks, my boss came to fetch me because he had work. Coffins had to be made for the people of Sainte-Mère-Eglise killed in combat. »

One day, American soldiers came to order a coffin. I figured it had to be something special because usually they didn’t need it. On July 14, at cemetery number 2, I attended the funeral of General Roosevelt. It was there that I recognized the coffin that had just been made.

Leon Mignot

“Mother of Normandy”

Simone Renaud decorating General Roosevelt's grave.
Simone Renaud decorating General Roosevelt’s grave in Sainte-Mère-Eglise cemetery number 2. (©Life photos collection)

After General Roosevelt’s funeral, American photographer Ralph Morse will sign a series of historical snapshots : he immortalizes Simone Renaud, the mayor’s wife, decorating the general’s grave.

Featured in the August 7 issue of the magazine Life, these photographs will go around America! Letters immediately flock to the town hall of Sainte-Mère-Eglise: American women who have lost a son or a husband in Normandy finally have a face to turn to. Simone Renaud, who speaks fluent English, answers each one, slipping a photograph of the tomb into the envelope or indicating its location.

Soon nicknamed “Mother of Normandy” by the Americans, she maintains the graves with dedication until the closing of the cemeteries and corresponds with these grateful families. One of them wrote to him: “I was so delighted to receive your lovely letter of January 17th and to know that you have been placing flowers and saying prayers at my brother’s grave. Your letter really made my parents and I extremely happy just knowing that he is being taken care of”

I was so happy to receive your kind letter of January 17 and to know that you had laid flowers and said prayers at my brother’s grave. By your letter, my parents and I were extremely happy to know that someone is taking care of him.

blosville june 6, 1945
At the temporary cemetery of Blosville, commemoration ceremony one year after D-Day, June 6, 1945 (©National Archives USA)

Poignant words that explain the strong bond that unites Sainte-Mère-Eglise to Americastill today.

Aerial view of Sainte-Mère-Eglise after the war. The temporary cemetery number 1 is in the foreground, the cemetery number 2 in the top right of the photo. (©National Archives USA)

Guillemette HERVÉ

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