Earth to Earth

When I was a child my parents, in lieu of a television, used to listen to Radio 4, especially at meal times. My mother hailed from Sidmouth and so took interest in a radio series that concerned a remote farming family in mid-Devon who one day blew their own heads off with a shotgun. Chez Newman was a barrel of laughs, I can tell you. I remembered the series, which was called Earth to Earth, and the book of the same name that someone gave my mother shortly afterwards. For no particular reason I tracked it down on Amazon and bought a secondhand copy (it’s now out of print).

The Luxton family had been farming in Devon for around 600 years, and by the 19th century the various branches pretty much owned everything within a day’s ride of Winkleigh, the village around which the events took place. The author of the book, John Cornwell, noted that marrying between cousins was common among the Luxtons simply because the family was so large it was pretty much impossible to cast one’s net beyond their geographical spread in the days when people’s worlds were very much smaller than they are today. Things looked good for Robert George Luxton, born in 1818: he inherited six farms and plenty of assets in the form of stock, dwellings, furniture, and paintings and was the undisputed head of the local aristocracy. Being a rich chap, he indulged in foxhunting, gambling, womanising, and drinking along with his pal the Fifth Earl of Portsmouth, who was even richer and built himself an extravagant mansion in 1854 to which he would invite hundreds of his friends to engage in hunting and pissing it up.

At the same time, Robert George embarked on a large program of upgrades to his farms, investing heavily in new machinery, rebuilding barns, acquiring better breeds of livestock, and adopting more intensive farming techniques requiring large outlays on seeds and fertilisers. A lot of this was financed through loans, which the banks were only too pleased to extend at seven percent interest. His sons and daughters were given expensive educations and preferred to play sport or idle rather than work the land, and soon he began to lose control of his workforce. But what happened next was worse:

The catastrophe, when it came, was more widespread and appalling and permanent than any could have guessed. The background to the agricultural depression of the latter half of the nineteenth century was the influx of cheap food from the United States, Russia, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. Steam navigation and the relentlessly spreading tentacles of the railways in every part of the world brought speedier, cheaper transport. The Americans had pioneered the mechanization of crop farming on an unparalleled scale to open up and exploit the vast and fertile prairies. Inevitably the food markets of the world were transformed. It was an era of aggressive free trade and British farming was brought to the edge of collapse. Throughout the 1870s North American grain pushed prices down to levels unknown since before the year 1700. The populations of the manufacturing towns were being fed on Argentine beef, Australian mutton and bread made with American wheat. In the 1880s the cost of a loaf fell to half its previous price. Denmark counteracted the changing market forces by rapidly switching to dairy produce. The Danish farmer fed cheap imported grain to dairy cattle and pigs, and exported high-quality standardized bacon to England.

Many British crop farmers converted their farms to grass­land, hoping to redeem their fortunes by investing in milk production. As a result there were huge milk surpluses and plummeting prices meant they failed to cover their invest­ments. Their attempts to break into the cheese markets were frustrated as they watched American cheese drop to twopence a pound. No British farmer could produce good cheese for less than fourpence a pound.

Compounding the misery of British farmers was the appalling weather I described in this post. The upshot was that many farms went bankrupt, sending thousands of farmers and agricultural workers to all four corners of the globe to seek better fortunes – including many who bore the Luxton name. Robert George was forced to sell land and other assets to pay his debts, before breaking his neck in a hunting accident in 1902 aged 84 and penniless. His pal, the Earl of Portsmouth, killed himself in 1906.

Observing all this, and taking careful notes, was a cousin of Robert George’s by the name of Lawrence Luxton of West Chapple farm. Although the two had grown up together, he was highly critical of Robert George’s extravagant ways, himself eschewing modernisation and spending almost nothing. When the crash happened, Lawrence Luxton was determined to survive with his farm intact. Believing the real danger to a farm lay in outside forces such as markets and money-lenders, and understanding that a farm can be almost entirely self-sufficient, Lawrence Luxton simply shut the farm gate and rode out the storm. Their main contact with the outside world was to barter produce in exchange for items they couldn’t make themselves, such as clothes and boots. What is astonishing is that the family carried on like this for two more generations.

A hundred years later, in the 1970s, West Chapple farm was owned and occupied by the last remaining members of the once-enormous Luxton clan: brothers Robbie and Alan, and their sister Frances, Lawrence Luxton’s grandchildren. Their father, Robert John, had been raised by Lawrence to run the farm and view the outside world much as he did, and Robert John in turn passed this outlook onto his own offspring. As such, the Luxton’s farming practices remained unchanged from those of a hundred years before: everything was done by hand, there was almost no machinery, they used draft horses in place of tractors, and there was no mains water or electricity (at least, according to Cornwell’s book: this is disputed). By all accounts they were excellent farmers, producing good animals and taking tremendous care of their land, and they didn’t spend a penny more than was absolutely necessary. When WWII arrived, and brought with it thousands of American and Canadian soldiers, the world opened up a little for Alan, the youngest of the three siblings. He joined the Young Farmers club and, after long days in the fields, would scrub down, head into Winkleigh, and go drinking in the pub.

When the war ended Alan tried to persuade his elder brother to modernise the farm but Robbie, wedded completely to his father and grandfather’s methods, refused. He allowed the lane leading to the farm to grow over, claiming he wanted it for grazing, and erected gates at either end. Anyone driving by on the public road would just see a meadow on the other side and never guess there was a farm in the valley beyond, hidden completely from view. The family fortunes changed dramatically when Alan met a local woman and became engaged. He approached Robbie and said he wanted to sell his share of West Chapple so he could buy a small property of his own and raise a family, but again Robbie refused: he couldn’t afford to buy Alan out of his share, and to split the farm up was unthinkable. Furious rows ensued and even physical violence, with Frances – who was older than them both – caught in the middle but sympathising with Alan. Eventually, unable to win his brother over, Alan called off his engagement and returned to the farm. He then suffered a complete mental breakdown, locking himself in his room and hurling abuse at everything and nothing, roaming the farmyard dressed only in sacks and incapable of doing any real farm work. He was to remain that way until his death years later.

Frances had a few romantic liaisons but none developed into anything serious, probably because her brothers were so dependent on her staying at the farm. Once it was clear Alan’s condition wouldn’t improve, her fate on the farm was sealed. Robbie, for his part, was uninterested in women believing his sister was all he’d ever want or need. As the siblings grew older the farmwork grew more difficult. They began to think about succession but had nobody to pass the farm onto. Deeply aware they were the last remnants of a great Devon farming family, Frances took to researching their ancestry in the hope of finding a suitable heir. But as time passed and none was forthcoming, the weight of family history bore more heavily upon them. By the time Robert and Frances were in their sixties, and the erratic Alan in his mid-fifties, the farm had become too much for them and they agreed to sell it. Then they changed their minds, then they found a purchaser and agreed to a sale, but immediately regretted it. Witnesses say Frances spent her final days in a sort of delirium over the sale of the farm, repeating over and over that they should stay and die in West Chapple.

One morning, in the autumn of 1975, a grocer’s delivery man approached West Chapple and found Robbie, Frances, and Alan lying dead in the yard with massive shotgun wounds to their heads. The police quickly ruled out the involvement of a fourth person and concluded that Alan had probably committed suicide first, with Robbie following suit an hour or so later having first dispatched Frances who didn’t appear to offer any resistance.

Suicide rates among farmers still remain high everywhere, including in the UK, France, and USA. While most observers focus on economics and isolation, there is often also a great weight of family history pressing down on the shoulders of farmers whose forebears have worked the same land for sometimes hundreds of years before. As the case of the Luxton’s shows, this can exert an enormous psychological pressure on farmers faced with no choice but to sell up. If they have nobody in the family to hand over to, this pressure can become unbearable. Having grown up in a rural area and known several farmers who died early from heart attacks (although thankfully, none through suicide), I can relate to the pressures they are under even if none is exerted on me. Back when I was a kid listening to Earth to Earth on Radio 4, I thought the story immeasurably sad. Now I’ve read the book as an adult I still do, particularly the Luxton’s despair in a world which had passed them by, leaving them stranded on an island able only to look backwards. There is nothing as relentless as the passage of time, and nothing so unforgiving as the march of progress.

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Severe weather is nothing new

I’m currently reading a book which contains this section on the farming conditions in Devon in the second half of the 19th century:

[I]n 1879 it simply rained without ceasing throughout the whole of the summer, turning much of the English countryside into a desperate, oozing mire. It continued to rain until the end of 1882, causing an epidemic of pleuro pneumonia and liver rot in sheep, while the crops collapsed in the fields. The middle of the decade was marked by severe droughts and catastrophic frosts. S. G. Kendall, the West Country yeoman farmer who kept a detailed diary of the weather, vividly describes the year 1879 and the following five years of appalling summers. The persistent rain that summer, he wrote, was accompanied `by a damp, dark, cold atmosphere which struck a chill almost into one’s bones, bringing ruined crops with widespread devastation in their train … We had no barley crops at all that season on heavy soil’, and the wheat ‘turned blighty and black and seemed to shrink back in a different way yet not dissimilar to the barley two months earlier’.

Another diarist, George Rope, describes the floods that summer: ’23 Aug. Began cutting tolavera – slightly sprouted as it stood – from continual rains for the last fortnight. The wettest season since 186o and similar, but not so cold – about two-thirds of the hay and clover spoiled – and a large quantity carried away by floods – on 22nd July we had the greatest flood I can ever remember.’ He goes on to describe cows drowned, houses flooded, and how people had travelled by boat from farm to farm.

At the end of 1879 Kendall wrote: ‘This dismal, wet, dark, never-to-be-forgotten year is now at an end; may the coming eighties bring with it better luck and greater good fortune.’ But 1880 was if anything worse – bad weather and disease carried away five million sheep in England; and 1881 brought fresh disasters including a blizzard lasting forty-eight hours. G. E. Mingay, who has chronicled the weather during this period in his Rural Life in Victorian England, summarizes the continued disastrous weather thus:

The following summer was wet, and 1882 had a very wet autumn so that little wheat could be sown. The summers of 1885 and 1887, by contrast, were dry, with shortages of roots for the stock … the early nineties saw fresh disasters. The great blizzard of 8-13 March 1891 brought twenty-foot snow drifts to parts of the West Country, and claimed over 200 lives on shore and at sea. The farmers suffered great losses of livestock – some sheep were blown over the cliffs into the sea – as well as devastation in orchards and woodlands. The summer of 1891 also produced a wet harvest, and 1892 and 1893 brought very severe droughts. In [the West Country] hardly any rain fell between February and July 1893, and there was almost no grass for haymaking. On the heavy land the harrow marks of April could be seen right up to harvest. Then came a most bitter and persistent frost in the winter of 1894-5, when drifts of snow from six to fourteen feet deep covered the ground for weeks.

I’m posting this mainly to counteract the view of a rather dim BBC presenter who, the other day on television, opined in the context of global warming that “the weather is definitely getting more extreme”.

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Do we get our Empire back, then?

This is from a Lib Dem MP:

Wasn’t the supremacy of sovereignty and self-government over economics and political stability the entire basis of the anti-colonial movement?

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Contrasting Camps

In the comments under this post, Toblerone-scoffing abacab makes this remark:

And precious few know about the Soviet policy of deliberate starvation of entire regions, or of shipping thousands of people out into the tundra or the taiga in the middle of winter and leaving them there without food, shelter or tools.

The Soviets didn’t need extermination camps when they could just dump people in the middle of nowhere with little chance of survival. Solzhenitsyn reports an anecdote about one such group actually surviving until years later, when they were promptly rounded up again, shipped off somewhere else, and perished.

Although this is true, there is still a difference between the Soviet GULAG system and the concentration and extermination camp system run by the Nazis. I put this in a comment at Samizdata recently as an explanation as to why the horrors of the Soviets don’t resonate as much as those of the Nazis:

Every major power has massacred other people or those who they deem a political threat, and what the Soviets did was of much the same form albeit on a larger scale. Furthermore, when you read the accounts of the Soviet terror, there is a definite air of callous disregard: the camps weren’t really built to kill people, they were set up to get them out the way and put them to work. Nobody cared if they died, but nobody cared if they lived either. The Soviet system simply didn’t care about the lives of these people. Even those who were actively identified and shot were often selected simply to fulfill quotas, or killed along with a load of others “just in case”. The Soviets were not the first to do this, and are unlikely to be the last.

What made the Nazis different is they didn’t kill through callous neglect; their victims were specifically selected and the Nazis made sure there wasn’t collateral damage, i.e. they didn’t just massacre the whole village in trying to kill Jews as the Soviets would have done, they expended considerable resources finding the individuals while leaving the rest alone. They cared about the names of their victims, and took their photos, and documented their possessions, all during the process of exterminating them. The Nazis built camps specifically for the purposes of killing people (the Soviets never did) and went about it with an industrial precision. The suffering they inflicted on inmates was quite deliberate and calculated, and not just the result of callous neglect on the part of the administration (or incompetence, as it often was in the case of the Soviets). The Nazis counted their victims and took meticulous records, the Soviets never did. The Nazi administrators and guards were of a totally different class than the inmates, whereas in the Gulags the guards were considered little better than the prisoners, often sharing the same conditions and fate, and there are thousands of cases where prisoners became inmates and vice-versa. This never happened with the Nazis.

So in short, the horrors of the Soviets had been seen before and since; the Nazis, purely because of the way they went about it, inspire a unique horror. From the accounts I’ve heard of those poor individuals who experienced both, the Nazi camps were a lot worse.

When abacab mentions the Soviets dumping a bunch of people in the middle of nowhere with little chance of survival, that would almost certainly have included the guards as well. I don’t like Anne Applebaum’s newspaper columns much, but her book Gulag: a History of the Soviet Camps is excellent and there is an account in there of a few hundred unfortunates being dropped off on an island in the middle of one of Siberia’s enormous rivers. The plan was to get the prisoners to build a camp but there was no wood, so they had to stay in tents. Before they could get anything more robust set up a terrible storm blew through and everyone perished: prisoners, guards, dogs, the lot. It wasn’t so much the authorities wanted these people to die – the ones they considered really dangerous were shot out of hand, along with a whole load of others who were mostly unlucky – they simply didn’t care and were too callous and incompetent to prevent it.

Another point Applebaum makes is that most people survived the GULAG, and the harshness of the conditions varied greatly between individual camps and eras. During the war, when there were severe hardships outside the camps, life behind the wire was particularly tough but conditions improved afterwards. The general idea was to get prisoners working not to kill them off, even if the result was just that. By contrast, the conditions in the Nazi camps were kept universally harsh purely as a matter of deliberate policy, independent of incompetence and outside factors.

The other point Applebaum makes is that the numbers in the GULAG system waxed and waned. The population swelled during times of repression and decreased during periods of relative calm, and it was quite possible for a Soviet citizen to be imprisoned, released, imprisoned again, and released once more. I presume there are instances of Nazi concentration camp inmates being released, but their numbers must be few and I expect are limited to particular groups such as troublesome POWs or non-Jewish Germans. I’ve never heard of anyone being released from an extermination camp, although Soviet POWs were held at Sobibor who may have been. Most accounts of the Nazis camps come from people who were liberated, not released. It’s worth bearing in mind that the inmates of the Soviet GULAGs were never liberated, they were simply released (into exile mostly, but released all the same).

As anyone who has read Applebaum’s book or Solzhenitsyn knows, the GULAG system was abominable in its entirety and absolutely horrific in parts, but it differed from the Nazi camps in some fairly fundamental ways. It’s why a comparison of the two can only be taken so far, and it’s important to acknowledge the differences.

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More Civil War Revisionism

Lately there has been a lot of historical revisionism surrounding the US Civil War, the latest of which is outrage over General John Kelly’s remarks that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War”. This led to howls of outrage from people who believe the only words anyone is allowed to say on the subject are “Slavery is evil!” over and over until our brains melt, but Streetwise Professor has done us all a service by pointing out that what Kelly said was factually correct and would make sense to anyone who knew what they were talking about.

This group would probably not include the author of this thread which I came across this morning on Twitter:

Now I understand that a lot of the pro-Confederate views in the South were a reaction to the Civil Rights movement, but that notwithstanding, what is this chap on about? “Black people were thrown under the bus of revisionist history?” Were they? How? By whom?

And the South was allowed to keep it’s “pro-slavery culture and institutions”? Well, other than having their institutions as well as homes and property utterly destroyed by the Union forces and slavery being abolished along with the economic system the South relied on, presumably.

What he means, of course, is Southerners were permitted to live and express their opinions rather than being forced to adhere to the narrative of the victors. Actually no, scratch that: he means they weren’t forced to adhere to the narrative of modern-day SJWs bent on historical revisionism a century-and-a-half later. I don’t know a lot about the Reconstruction of the South, but I understand it was a period of considerable hardship and humiliation for those involved. One doesn’t need to sympathise with the South to point out this is hardly compatible with a cosy compromise which allowed them to carry on as before, as this chap implies.

Even assuming this compromise is what Kelly was talking about – and it wasn’t – what were the options open to the US at the time? They fought a horrific war to prevent the Confederate states seceding, and somehow had to reincorporate them and the population back under the Federal umbrella. Other than mass murder or repressions along Soviet lines, what choice did they have other than to reach a compromise? The only people who have had that demanded of them were the Germans after Nazism, and look how that’s turned out: seventy years they’re so lacking in confidence they’ve voted to replace their own population. Even the Japanese weren’t required to hang their heads in shame in perpetuity, and nor have they paid much more than lip service (and financial reparations) for what they did in Manchuria and Korea before and during WWII. What this man is demanding is the descendants of everyone who fought for the South to grovel at the feet of the Permanently Aggrieved to atone for holding the wrong opinions about events long in the past which few seem interested in understanding any more.

And this amused:

Pa Smith has been telling Sonny Boy that their family is so woke they knew slavery in the US was wrong and would have fought against it, even though they were living in Lithuania at the time. That any Lithuanian migrant drafted into either army would have had the first idea what they were fighting for is laughable, let alone the suggestion that their opinions on blacks and slavery would have aligned perfectly with abolitionists – or contemporary SJWs.

What’s more worrying is idiots like this believe it is they who have the solution to the widening rifts in US culture, whereas they are more likely to send the US headlong into serious civil conflict.

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Another Era

This is somewhat ironic:

The East German secret police went to extraordinary lengths to track down people who wrote letters to the BBC during the Cold War. One of those arrested and jailed was a teenager who longed to express himself freely – and paid a high price.

Today the BBC is the last place you’ll find people expressing themselves freely, and the employees these days would make the Stasi’s job a lot easier by dobbing him in at the first opportunity.

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Brexit, Britain, and Mainland Europe

I have noticed on Twitter a certain propensity among the metropolitan elite, particularly journalists, to claim that Britain is now the laughing stock of Europe and that everyone on the Continent thinks Brexiteers to be delusional. I imagine that in their world this is actually true: most of them will speak French, German, or Spanish and will spend much of their time in Europe for work or visiting families and friends. Only you can be sure they’ll be swanning around the nicer areas of Paris, Berlin, Frankfurt, and Geneva with wealthy, middle-class journalists and the sort of “businessmen” whose nose is never more than half-an-inch from a politician’s arse. They sure as hell won’t be hanging around a Portuguese dock or drinking vodka in a Latvian bar with a bunch of ethnic Russians.

From what I can tell, Europeans don’t seem particularly interested in Brexit. I think everyone was rather surprised initially, but now they’re so resigned to Britain leaving that it barely gets mentioned. I work in a very international company with major operations in the UK, and talk of Brexit is conspicuous by its absence. When the subject comes up, usually over lunch with colleagues who ask me for my opinions on the matter, there is some disappointment but in general they don’t see it as a big deal. For a lot of mainland Europeans, Britain was never really part of the club anyway. We were always complaining, we seemed to prefer the company of Americans, and a few are not even sure why we joined in the first place. It’s a bit like Australia being in the Eurovision Song Contest, nobody is quite sure what they’re doing there. The attitude of everyone seems to be slight confusion as to why Britain voted to leave but now they have, can we just get on with it ASAP and if we can still work, travel, and trade that would be grand.

Unlike perhaps our lofty metropolitan elites, the mainland Europeans appreciate that Britain is quite different. The mainland Europeans, particularly the French and Dutch, still have bad memories from the war and are willing to do anything to avoid a repeat. They truly believe the EU is responsible for keeping the peace, whereas in the UK we think that was down to Nato. There are reasons for this.

Britain had the enormous advantage of not being occupied during WWII, which had a major effect on how we viewed the war afterwards. We lost a lot of men and saw our cities bombed, but we never had to deal with the messy compromise of an occupation. The excellent book Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of WWII goes into some detail on this subject, and explains the effects of prolonged occupation on a population. At some point people cooperate, because they have to: the book cites an example of a French baker accused after the war of selling bread to the Nazis. He asks what choice he had, and points out that he was also providing bread to the French population who would otherwise have starved. It discusses the issue of young women who engaged in relationships with the occupying soldiers, and met the full fury of their countrymen when the war was over. One girl protested that as far as she could make out the Nazis were the local government and had been for some time, and plenty of other people were interacting with them. How is having a relationship with a soldier of the de facto regime a crime? She had a point.

Few people in the occupied countries wanted to dwell on matters of collaboration and cooperation after the war: there was a period of retribution, much of it vicious and used as a pretext for power-grabs and the settling of old scores, but the various governments quickly found themselves establishing a semi-believable narrative that made them look good and running with it. To be fair, they had little choice: the late 1940s was not the time for hand-wringing, there were nations to rebuild and Soviets to keep out. This is why the French, even to this day, skip over the small matter of the Vichy regime when celebrating Charles de Gaulle and the heroic Resistance. It’s why the Dutch never point out that quite a few of them welcomed the Nazi occupation initially, seeing them as Germanic cousins. Britain avoided all of this, and their particular tale of heroic resistance and defiance against all the odds was much easier to weave.

Britain also didn’t get wrecked like Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, parts of France, and other countries on the mainland. Our cities took a pounding, particularly London and Coventry, but there was not the sort of devastation seen in those cities which first saw aerial bombardment and then ground fighting as they were liberated. We also didn’t have the hunger: there was a famine in the Netherlands in 1944-5 which claimed the lives of 22,000 people. There were major food shortages in Austria and Germany after the war, and it was years before food supplies were back up and running across the continent again. Britain had rationing, but nobody starved.

The mainland European view of the war is very different from the British: our culture makes light of the war – Dad’s Army, and ‘Allo ‘Allo being two examples – because for us it was a jolly old ruck with the Bosch that we won. Our families, homes, and communities weren’t wrecked, for the large part. So when we talk about keeping the peace in Europe, we’re not haunted by the same memories as mainland Europeans. We saw the priority as keeping the Russians from occupying all of us, hence Nato. If Europe got demolished in the meantime, then meh. Whereas for the Europeans, particularly the Dutch and French, they are equally if not more concerned about keeping the peace among themselves because that is what caused so much destruction last time. It’s hardly surprising, then, that they see the EU as a greater guarantor of peace than Nato.

The way people think, vote, and behave differs wildly between nations, regions, groups, and individuals and there are usually very deep cultural and historical reasons for these differences. It is not a lack of intelligence, information, and values which drive the French to maintain a political and economic system which is unfathomable to an Anglo-Saxon: they simply have a different history and culture than us. This is why I find the self-righteous posturing of London’s elites over Brexit so irritating. They may share pro-EU views with their counterparts in mainland Europe, but they have no idea why. If they did, they’d understand why so many people don’t share their views. They hope that by writing puff-pieces about pro-EU attitudes on the mainland while sneering at their own people they will ingratiate themselves with the former and show themselves to be superior than the latter.

Neither will happen for the same reason I will always be considered a Brit and never a Frenchman: culture and history matter and shapes who you are, even if you detest them and wish you were someone else.

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Saint-Lô and the Mausoleum of La Famille Blanchet

I first visited the old mill near Campeaux mentioned in the previous post in August 2014, two years ago.  When I was there I took the opportunity to visit the nearby town of Saint-Lô, where I went to the cemetery and then spent twenty minutes or so locating the mausoleum of the Blanchet family.  Readers are entitled to ask why, and so I shall duly explain.

There is not much to see in Saint-Lô.  It was destroyed to the tune of 97% during the battle for its liberation in July 1944, causing one American solider to remark “We sure liberated the hell out of this place”.  It was rebuilt, as Wikipedia puts it, as follows:

The dominant style was a neo-regionalist functionalism which was dominated by concrete. Its dated and monotonous character was soon criticised.

And for this reason there is very little worth seeing in the town.  One thing of interest, however, is the monument to Major Thomas Howie, who was the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division after the D-Day landings.  As the story goes:

On the morning of July 17, Howie phoned Major General Charles Gerhardt, said “See you in St. Lo”, and issued orders for the attack. Shortly afterward, he was killed by shrapnel during a mortar attack. The next day, the 3d Battalion entered Saint-Lô, with Howie’s body on the hood of the lead jeep, at Gerhard’s request, so that Howie would be the first American to enter the town.

After the war, the town of Saint-Lô erected a monument to Howie, shown below.

However, Thomas Howie wasn’t the only US army major fighting around Saint-Lô on that day.

One of the most influential books I have read, at least insofar as it made an impact on me, is Colonel David Hackworth’s About Face.  During his development as an officer, Hackworth was greatly inspired by the wartime exploits and soldiering abilities of one Glover S. Johns, Jr who would lead the vanguard of American troops sent into West Berlin by John F. Kennedy in 1961 as a show of strength as the wall was going up.  In his book, Hackworth refers to Johns’ own book, The Clay Pigeons of St. Lô, an account of his day-to-day experiences as the commander of the 1st Battalion, 115th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division over a period of one month leading up to the liberation of Saint-Lô.  Hackworth praised the book’s extremely well written descriptions of each military operation and action the battalion undertook, and believed the book should be required reading for all infantry officers.  Having never forgotten its name, eventually I ordered myself a copy and read it for myself.  As a story of the Battle of Saint-Lô it isn’t much good, but as a highly readable account of what life was like for an American soldier fighting in the hedgerows of Normandy and the day-to-day role of a battalion commander in a major war, it is probably the best out there.  In other words, it’s for military nerds but not for the casual reader.  One thing is for sure though, it gives you an idea of the horrendous casualty rate the American infantry suffered while up against a German army that even on the back foot was still highly capable.

Towards the end of the book, as Major Johns’ unit is entering Saint-Lô, he found the place he had chosen for his command post was too dangerous and he was losing men at an unacceptable rate, and so he sent one of his subordinates off to find a better one.  Quoting from The Clay Pigeons of St. Lô:

Half and hour later the S1 came up to lead him back to his new home in St. Lo, which turned out to be an imposing mausoleum in the cemetery!  On the facade were two words Johns would always remember, “Famille Blanchet.”  He balked at the idea of moving in with the Blanchets; but when he looked inside he decided it was the best command post he would ever have.

The walls were of polished marble blocks 18 inches thick, with a heavy door set back under a small but equally solid portico.  There were no windows to be blown in, so that only a direct hit on the front steps by something big would have any chance of hurting anyone inside.  It would take a bomb to damage the building itself.

Inside, on the ground floor, was a small chapel.  Though the room was only about 10 feet by 15 feet in size, it would hold everyone who had legitimate business there.  Furthermore, there was plenty of room outside for the runners to dig foxholes so there would no longer be any excuse for bunching up.  Under the chapel was a crypt, reached by a narrow flight of stairs leading down from one side.

The vault was largely occupied by an enormous stone sarcophagus.  The thing sloped upward towards the entrance, the high end having a flat surface on top which was at an awkward height but would do better than nothing for maps.  A small stone tablelike affair was set into the wall opposite that end, with barely room for one straight chair.  The crypt was cramped, but it would do.

Space around the sarcophagus itself was limited.  A man could walk by without touching, or lie down full length and be comfortable, but two men could never pass one another.

The Germans had used the vault too.  Empty wine bottles lay about, and a half loaf of hard, dry bread took up space on the little table.

Remembering this passage from the book, I decided to find this mausoleum for myself given I was in the area, and take a look at this obscure little piece of military history.  When I did, I looked inside and poked my head down the stairs into the crypt and found it exactly as Major Glover S. Johns had described it having been there 70 years before.

The broken cross on the top bears witness to the mausoleum’s past, as does the shrapnel marks on the exterior walls.  But a small scrap of paper in cellophane off to the side marking it out as a waypoint on some sort of military tour was the only indication that anybody else knew about this tomb’s role in the liberation of Saint-Lô and the battle for Normandy.

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