This month in France, men and women in their eighties and nineties are gathering again on the coast of Normandy to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day. They are representatives of an increasingly small group of survivors of “the Longest Day,” June 6, 1944. Like many archives, MIRC holds copies of iconic films made at great personal risk that morning on the invasion beaches of Omaha, Juno, Utah, Gold and Sword.
D-Day, though, is more than the story of a single day. The loss of life on the invasion beaches was quickly multiplied in the days and weeks that followed as the Allies struggled inland one hedgerow, one meadow, one machine gun pit, at a time. Commemorating these lives began in earnest with the sounds of battle still in the air.
One such moment came on Bastille Day, July 14th. In the newly liberated port city of Cherbourg a massive public celebration was held. Films of that day show generals, politicians, and religious leaders all decked out in their finest to give speeches for the assembled citizens. But in the town of Carentan, just off the American invasion beaches, commemorations on a much smaller, but no less earnest scale, were taking place.
Bob Blair, the newsreel representative in France for Fox Movietone News, landed at Omaha Beach on June 12th. For over a month he had filmed combat and most recently had filmed the assault on and liberation of Cherbourg at the end of June. On Bastille Day, though, Blair wasn’t covering the fanfare in Cherbourg. After filming the smoke of battle on the horizon, he visited small towns and villages near the Utah and Omaha beaches. In Carentan citizens solemnly placed flowers on a monument to the dead of the first world war, an act which they probably had not been allowed to perform during the four years of German occupation. A similar event played out before Blair’s camera at (an as yet) unidentified village.
That same day, Blair also returned to the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach. Another act of commemoration was taking place and a new iconic image was being born. At the first American cemetery of the war in France a large funeral mass was held with no fewer than sixteen catholic priests presiding. By this date, this cemetery held well over 1,500 dead, some of these bodies had been moved from potters graves on the beaches to a temporary cemetery on Dog White sector of Omaha Beach, and then by June 25th to this more formal resting place. The location of this first cemetery is now the reflecting pool of the single most prominent memorial to the events of D-Day, the American cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer.
Bob Blair’s films of the wreath laying at Carentan capture the intimate relationship between Allied soldiers, French citizens in small Norman towns and villages, and the soil of France itself. They record the very real gratitude of the newly liberated and the social importance of funerary rights even when the dead outnumber the living.
–Greg Wilsbacher, Curator, Newsfilm Collections
More about MIRC’s holdings of footage from D-Day can be found here.