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The widow and the battle for Caen

This simple postcard of an old church took us to the outskirts of a quiet village near Caen and into the centre of a war.

Behind that tree is the perfect match!
Behind that tree is the perfect match!

Inside are the church sit pews from the 8th century and along the walls are paintings from the 13th. Perhaps the survival of these blessed remnants gave hope to a congregation when they faced terrible uncertainty.

A perfect manor house

A short walk from the church is a perfect yellow manor house and across the road from it, vast ancient Norman barns set in the  traditionally square.

The road is quiet and each building has a timeless quality. Our visit on that hot summer day could have been any time in 100 years. But not 1944. For what we admire are renovations, buildings re-born after bombing and occupation.

Better view of the church
Better view of the church

We know this because during WW2 the owner of the manor house at Périers-sur-le-Dan was Marie Louise Osmont and she kept a diary form 1940 to 1944.

4 years of occupation

By 1944 Occupation by the Germans and their Allies had been ‘normality’ for four years in Normandy.

Life was of course very hard for many, particularly in the towns and if your religion or race set you apart from the Nazi ideal. But in the countryside of Normandy there was an uneasy peace. The occupying army had respect and need for Normandy’s produce to feed their armies, so they trod as lightly as they could along the lanes and through the fields, in their hobnail boots.

Now a perfect, private, manor house
Now a perfect, private, manor house

This does not mean they were welcome.

By 1944 and the start of her published diary Marie-Louise Osmont has been for some years a widow.  An eminently sensible woman she runs the manor, the farm and her workforce with a practicality that can seem abrasive, but it is effective.

She met her doctor husband when she worked in Paris as a nurse. Impressed by her intelligence and fearlessness (she drove an ambulance for the Red Cross in WW1) he quickly whisked her back to Normandy to be Madame Osmont.

Now her home has been occupied by a stream of German, Polish and Russian solders. She notes that after 4 years of war they are becoming increasingly dishevelled and depressed.

The farm
The farm

In the evenings a group harmonise sad songs of home and she gives thought to their mothers so far away. They are losing hope.

Battles at home

But Marie also has a daily battle to assert her own authority over the forces occupying her home.  Day by day what is hers, and her life is destroyed.  This destruction builds gradually.

Early in 1944 she is concerned that German lorries are destroying her lawn. This soon changes to anger as huge ancient trees are chopped down for the army.  She secures  a promise that some of the oaks will be left unharmed.

Then as she sees even the saplings in the local wood cut down it becomes clear that the pain of loss is a long way from over.

The road to the church
The road to the church

Marie-Louise does not know that in a matter of weeks she will be curled up under the stairs of her home, praying the roof of her house will protect her, that she will survive the night.  But she has seen enough.  Nothing will be the same again. As military vehicles pile onto her land on 13 February 1944 she says:

“The fate of this property is no longer in my hands, we are in the midst of chaos, heading towards a near and terrible unknown, and the preservation of rare furniture, antique tapestries, fragile curios, all that seems ridiculous.”

Invasion!

Early in June bombing is heard on the coast. On 6 June the world appears to explode all around them.

Bombing of Caen from the air
Bombing of Caen from the air

June 6 1944 “Invasion!…We’re deafened by the airplanes…The shells hiss and explode continually…exploding everywhere, and not far away with short moments of calm.  We take  advantage of these to run and deal with the animals.  We return with hearts pounding to burrow in the trench.” 

Madame Osmont’s quiet rural farm is in the centre of the bombardment.  Périers-sur-le-Dan is just 10 km from Caen, and 8 from what became known as ‘Sword beach’.

The British Tommy

During the morning the German soldiers leave in a panic, at 2pm the first English soldiers appear, walking steadily, throught the pasture behind the farm.

During a lull in the longest day Madame Osmont reviews the damage; the farm hayloft destroyed by a shell, a superb calf killed and a ewe, another calf wounded… the list of destruction goes on.

British Sherman tanks and infantry during the advance on Caen 9 July 1944
British Sherman tanks and infantry during the advance on Caen 9 July 1944

By the evening a few German soldiers are rounded up from the woods.  Prisoners of war, they are distraught, Madam Osmont recognises the friendly German tailor who had been billeted at the manor.  He is weeping , he talks to her of his family. She tries to reassure him it is better not to have been killed.

In shock after hours of military attack she notes the “the Tommies distribute cigarettes, chocolate, candy.”

The first of many sleepless nights

As the bombardment continues Madam Osmont and her friend and housekeeper Bernice spend the night in a trench dug by German solders.

It was not until reading Marie’s diary that we began to understand how intense and how long the fighting was to liberate Caen. Germany saw the town as a vital stronghold and their leaders would rather die than let it fall into enemy hands.

Rue Saint Pierre, Caen 1944
Rue Saint Pierre, Caen 1944

So Caen was bombed, and bombed, and bombed again. British and American planes flew for weeks over the city dropping sticks of death. They did not always hit the correct target. In that hot summer of 1944 dust clouds obliterated the view from the sky and rumours of terrible mistakes by pilots were heard by the armies and civilians below.

Bombardment all around

June 11 “We are surrounded by English tanks, 12 in the pasture by the woods, 3 in the vegetable garden which is devastated by them and the German shells that target them…An Englishman said 222 cannons in the district!…stampedes of panicked or wounded animals, many killed.  We bury what we can.” “What is happening at Caen? Is it still not relieved? I think of all my friends .”

Guns continue to pound day and night. But some battles are not with the enemy.  The British are now sharing the manor at Périers-sur-le-Dan and frequently take their famous resourcefulness a little too far:

June 12 “In the evening someone swipes our two mattresses from the sitting room.  I find mine a few moment later in the park, on the ground, ready to receive an Englishman for the night.  I am afraid… I swipe mine nevertheless and avoid being seen.”

Canadian soldier fires on the enemy in a house in Caen July 10 1944
Canadian soldier fires on the enemy in a house in Caen July 10 1944

June 13It’s cold, my teeth are chattering, I’m scared.  Horrible night.  German airplane spotted us and bracketed us with bombs.  We are flattened with fear.  Bernice and I are in the shelter under the stairs. The flashes light us up even there.”

June 25Very hard night.  Airplanes, bombs, shelling of Beuville, some houses destroyed, Mr Marin killed,  I sleep a little…”

July 9The offensive lasted 36 hours (we were stupefied by the noise)… shell fell in front of the arm, a sentry-man killed.”

July 11I learn for certain of the annihilation of almost all of Caen, of the death of so many people”.  After news of friends dead or lost in the chaos, Madam Osmont resolves to visit Caen.  The journey is traumatic:

Caen Rue Saint Jean 1944
Caen Rue Saint Jean 1944

July 12 “On the sides of the road the traces of the battle, broke rifles, abandoned equipment, German and English mess tins lying together, punctured by bullets..”  

“Graves on the edge of the road (one so shallow the boots and shoes stick out) a little cross hastily made, a helmet…A German corpse lies in its green tunic, the red ribbon of Russia gleaming, surrounded by flies.”

At Caen

In the town she finds heaps of rubble in the place of roads and churches, it is a wasteland.

Caen was liberated on 6 August 1944.  

Witness to the true horrors of war Marie-Louise Osmont earned the right to ask “but at what a price!”.

475e024128a0e9133a1f9010.LRead the diary

This post just touches on the fascinating ‘Normandy Diary of Marie-Louise Osmont, 1940-1944’ translated by George L Newman with a foreword by John Keegan.  It’s not a long book, it does not preach but it does reveal a unique side of the battle for Normandy that we hope you will enjoy.

The manor house at Périers-sur-le-Dan? Very private property thank you very much! But do pop by the church if you are passing.  M. and Mme Osmont are in the churchyard if you would like to pay your respects.

2 thoughts on “The widow and the battle for Caen

  1. Good day.

    I have stumbled across your website that has fascinated me, especially news of the diary of Marie-Louise Osmont. I am currently writing a book which includes in some depth the Allied bombing of Caen in ’44. I’ve researched a fair bit and have mainly only found military perspectives, but I am writing from a young local girl point of view and also of her older sister, a nun caring for the ill and wounded in the nearby Le Bon Sauveur convent. It’s such an important and almost lost story to tell, and I believe that how I am writing this will bring to many peoples attention what happened.

    Could you let me know how I can get hold of a copy of the diary please. It goes without saying that I will give full acknowledgement to the diary within my book.

    Thank you.
    Kevin

    1. Hi Kevin, thank you for getting in touch. Happily the diary is still available on Amazon. We hope it is helpful for your story, perhaps you can let us know when your book is published? It sounds very interesting.
      Pip and Ian

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