MALTOT, France — What is left over, 75 years after the fighting ended, comes down to this: pockmarked leather fragments from a dead German soldier’s shoe scattered by his shallow battlefield grave.
The field of brown dirt in Maltot, France, cleared for a planned housing development, is quiet, like the surrounding wheat fields that saw fierce fighting during the Normandy invasion of 1944.
Nearby, the villages are now bustling with American visitors in mock World War II uniforms driving imitation vintage jeeps and playing at soldier in these days surrounding the 75th D-Day anniversary. President Trump and President Emmanuel Macron of France, and assorted other dignitaries, arrive for commemorations on Thursday.
France is engaged in an effort to preserve the memory of the days of bloody struggle in a more concrete way. For the past 10 years, a cadre of archaeologists and field researchers unique in Europe has been digging up, documenting and cataloging the physical remains of the Battle of Normandy — bodies, bunkers, weapons — in what has become known as the “Archaeology of D-Day.”
[Families of veterans are turning to professional researchers to piece their stories together.]
American soldiers left behind their signatures carved into trees and in the concrete of the artificial ports they created; bored German soldiers painted lascivious pictures of fräulein on the walls of bunkers and underground passageways. French civilians hid out in disused underground quarries to escape the intense Allied bombing around Caen, leaving behind thousands of objects including medicine vials, broken dolls, crockery and coins minted by the collaborationist Vichy regime.
All of it is now being recorded by the archaeologists.
The researchers are attempting to catalog every structure left behind by the Germans — and there were over 3,500 of them — before they disappear into the sea or are covered by vegetation. For decades, these squat little buildings have been ignored or forgotten by a local population eager to move on. They have been incorporated into bars, as at Quinéville, or built into seaside houses, or used to store hay.
“You see, here, it’s a trace, a vestige!” said Stéphane Lamache, a government-funded researcher, pointing to a thick bit of wall sticking out toward the road at Quinéville, on the eastern coast of the Normandy peninsula.
It was part of the German coastal defense. A motorist whizzed by. “People pass it, but they don’t even know what it is,” Mr. Lamache said, proud to know this secret language.
Down on the beach, he pointed to a long, low, squat wall built by the Germans. “This is one of the most beautiful anti-tank walls I know,” Mr. Lamache said quietly, moving on to a bunker still displaying the insignia of the German engineering corps.
Mr. Lamache is not modest about his encyclopedic knowledge of these structures, and with good reason: Every concrete protuberance sticking up from the ground and built by the Germans appears to be familiar to him.
Some of the bunkers, true time capsules, are still being discovered in their original state. One near Deauville, a radar station, was found with wine bottles still on the wooden table, abandoned hastily by the Germans near the end of August 1944.
In the dirt field at Maltot, the skeleton that accompanied the bits of leather, rusty shrapnel and shell casings, and remnants of an English infantryman’s boot that contained a severed foot, are all that remains of the murderous battle that took place over several weeks in the summer of 1944, the Battle of Hill 112.
Yet these fields, the nearby coastline, the deep waters offshore, and the bleak contemporary versions of Normandy’s war-devastated towns, are replete with clues about what happened during the devastating fight to rescue Europe from the Nazis in June, July and August of 1944.
“There’s been a new consciousness, over the last 10 years, that these remains were disappearing,” said Cyrille Billard, a regional archaeologist with the French Culture Ministry.
As the last witnesses die and memories fade, the abundant but half-hidden physical remnants of that long-ago time are assuming an increasing importance.
“I’m the only guy left,” Paul Grassey, a 95-year-old American veteran who flew B-24s over Germany in the Eighth Air Force, was telling a group of tourists from his wheelchair, in front of the German bunkers at Longueville last week.
“We had a rotten job to do, and we did it,” Mr. Grassey said. “You really didn’t think about what you were doing. You were just trying to stay alive. You’re dropping bombs. Somebody’s going to get hurt.”
To supplement the archives and the fading witnesses, France’s cadre of state-employed “preventive archaeologists,” assigned to dig the history-laden soil in advance of commercial or other projects, is being called on more and more. There are 2,200 of them, the largest such group in Europe. And what its practitioners call the Archaeology of D-Day has become one of their most active fields.
“We can make these bodies speak,” said Cyril Marcigny, a state archaeologist who works the Normandy fields. “There are no archives that can bring what we bring,” his colleague Vincent Carpentier added. “We bring back things that have been completely forgotten.”
Mr. Carpentier, a medieval specialist, kept “finding stuff” from the war; “for 20 years we were accumulating discoveries,” he said. Finally, it occurred to him that these fragments from the war could be used and interpreted in much the same way as more venerable remains.
The German, for instance, was buried hastily, facedown. No care was taken with his burial, a clue to the intensity of the combat. He was wearing nonregulation shoes — indicating that the German forces had their backs to the wall and were down to last supplies when he died.
“They went to the extreme limit of their forces,” Mr. Carpentier said.
“It was disturbing,” said Sandrine Barbeau, a preventive archaeologist with the state team who discovered him. “We found this German with his shoes on. We could feel that this had been an intense battle.”
Ms. Barbeau had been engaged in digging up a prehistoric Gaulish farmhouse when she came across the remains of the German, and those of four Englishmen. The British lost 2,000 men in 36 hours here in 1944.
Mr. Carpentier said, “It’s up to us to do this work, which could be seen as more objective, less hero-making.”
In the rebuilt city of Caen, the archaeologists have been able to more precisely quantify the destruction from the Allied bombing, reducing the figure commonly given for the percentage of the city that was destroyed. “What we do is nuance the interpretations,” Mr. Carpentier said.
At Quinéville, vegetation hid a rounded squat building Mr. Lamache called a “mushroom bunker.” These structures, unloved except by researchers like him, are nonetheless by now well integrated into the landscape.
“I’ve had an almost dreamlike vision of these bunkers,” Mr. Lamache said. “They have nearly inhabited me. We’ve lived with them, after all. And they were part of our imagination.”
In the underbrush by the beach at Quinéville, he skipped from concrete block to concrete block, pointing out the complicated typology.
“There’s a sort of melancholy about them,” Mr. Lamache said. “History has passed by here. And then, there’s an infernal energy that went into them.”
And yet, they proved to be largely useless when the Allies invaded, as the researcher acknowledged. “There are very few that had any effect whatever on the fighting,” he said.
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