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Friday, July 11, 2008

WWII: Officials fell trees inscribed by US soldiers who fought for France

The names “Thomas and Dorothy” were carved in the bark of one trunk. Another said “Bob and Carma”. Other trees were marked with soldiers’ home states - Iowa, Maine or Alabama - and several bore hearts and the names or initials of a wife or girlfriend.

The beech trees of Saint Pierre de Varengeville-Duclair forest bore a poignant testimony to the D-Day landings for more than six decades. Thousands of American soldiers stationed there after the liberation of Normandy spent their spare hours with a knife or bayonet creating a lasting reminder of their presence.

Although the trees grew and the graffiti swelled and twisted, this most peculiar memory of one of the 20th century’s defining moments remained visible - until now. Amid bureaucratic indifference and a dispute between officials and the forest owner, most of the trees have been felled, chopped up and turned into paper.

Claude Quétel, a French historian and Second World War specialist, was horrified when he discovered what he called a catastrophe and a shameless act. “It is a typically French failing to wipe out the traces of the past,” he told The Times. “I am indignant.”

Local people are calling for the few “name trees” that still stand to be classified as historic monuments and saved from the same fate. “It should have been done a long time ago,” said Nicolas Navarro, the curator of a Second World War museum in the grounds of his family’s 13th-century Château du Taillis near by. “It’s sad and pathetic that it wasn’t.”

The trees surrounded land in the heart of Saint Pierre de Varengeville-Duclair forest, near Rouen in Normandy, which was once home to a US army camp named after the Twenty Grand brand of cigarettes. It was one of nine cigarette camps - along with Pall Mall, Old Gold, Philip Morris, Chesterfield, Lucky Strike, Home Run, Wings and Herbert Tareyton - used by troops needing treatment or waiting to be sent elsewhere. They were places of calm between the D-Day landings and the Ardennes, the Siegfried Line or the Pacific.

Camp Twenty Grand, set up in September 1944 and closed in February 1946, had tents for 20,000 US soldiers as well as a few hundred German prisoners. Some of the Americans stayed weeks, others months, bringing chocolate, fruit and parties to a French population emerging from occupation.

Mr Navarro’s museum contains a collection of objects that amazed the Normans: Craig Martin toothpaste, Nescafé, Coca-Cola bottles and a Durex. The soldiers left broken hearts, peach stones - which were planted to give the region its first peach trees - and their graffiti.

“Basically, they spent their time carving their names into the trees with knives and bayonets,” Mr Navarro said. “It became a real fad at Twenty Grand because thousands did it.”

He described the beech trees as one of the finest Second World War souvenirs left in Normandy. But Les Arbres des Noms - most of which stood along a small, winding road in the middle of the forest - were deemed unsafe by local officials. They ordered Patrice Robin, 79, who owns the land, to prune branches overhanging the road. “I said no at first,” he said. “But they threatened to take action against me.”

It costs about €800 (£630) to prune a beech tree, but only about €200 to cut it down. Mr Robin chose the cheaper option. “It’s complete madness - but I couldn’t do anything else.”

Mr Navarro said that more than 150 trees were felled last year, a destruction that went unnoticed beyond the district for months. He is determined now to preserve the ones that remain.

(Times Online)