It is one of the great episodes of D-Day, a day that did not fail. Around 9:30 a.m. on June 6, 1944, about twenty paratroopers from companies D and E of the 101st Airborne Division of the American army destroyed a battery of four guns served by about sixty soldiers of the Wehrmacht, at the manor of Brécourt , in fact a large farmhouse, located 4 kilometers behind Madeleine Beach, better known to history and tourist coaches as Utah Beach. Four American soldiers were killed.
For nearly eight decades, the peaceful Norman cows won back from the belligerents the fields located in the town of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont (Manche), 700 inhabitants. But, since May 2, here they are again disturbed in their rumination. An excavation site has just opened on the site of the battle.
On hundreds of square meters, the surface layer of grass has been stripped in order to access the period of the war. The campaign is led by Alexis Gorgues, lecturer in archeology at Bordeaux-Montaigne University. As he is a specialist in prehistory, his knowledge of the Iron Age designated him to probe this land full of metals. At his side, eight people are methodically turning over the earth in order to bring military artefacts to light.
A successful outnumbered assault model
The assault went down in history and, in the United States more than in France, in the mythology of the Landings. Recounted as early as July 1944 in a report by expedition commander Richard D. Winters, the capture of the mansion was soon to be taught to all West Point promotions as the paragon of a successful outnumbered assault. Cadets from the American military academy will regularly make the trip to this corner of the Norman bocage to take some seed.
It was inevitable that a screenwriter should end up taking possession of such a glorious page. Based on a bestseller published in 1990 by historian Stephen Ambrose, entitled Band of Brothers (Brothers in arms), Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced a television mini-series which, from 2001, was a huge success. worldwide, under the same title. She told the story of Company E, better known as Easy Company. In episode 2, the capture of the Brécourt mansion is filmed with great detail and cinematic effects. But in a setting transplanted to the United Kingdom, for tax reasons…
The current excavation campaign, which should last three years, therefore returns to this ground that has become legendary. “The goal is to establish facts,” says Alexis Gorgues. At the cost of painstaking work carried out with a scraper and a trowel. “This research makes it possible to bring the nature of the fighting and the memory associated with it closer together and to shed new light on a part of the Second World War”, continues the researcher.
Observing the behavior of men in battle
The excavations have another interest, at first sight more complex. “They shed light on the behavior of men in battle,” says Alexis Gorgues. And to apply the lessons learned from this very documented page to other fights that are much less so.
Project manager for the regional directorate of cultural affairs in Normandy, Stéphane Lamache also has great hopes for this project and the analysis of what specialists call “fragmented furniture”, an expression which takes on this field of explosions all its dimension. “What you think you know is a reconstruction, even if it ended up making sense, just like The Longest Day made sense,” he explains. The excavations will make it possible to confirm or deny certain things. »
Charles de Vallavieille follows this work on these lands with interest. Mayor of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, this retired farmer born in 1955, whose family has owned the manor for generations, lived in the cult of this glorious episode. His grandfather Charles, and his father, Michel, were present on June 6, 1944.
Five bullets in the back
It was not until 1984 that the first Easy Company veteran, Donald Malarkey, returned to the scene. Others will follow, such as Richard D. Winters. So many heroic figures in the series. “At first, the soldiers were afraid of the reception of the French,” recalls Charles de Vallavieille. The fighting had left many ruins. Michel de Vallavieille could thus have harbored legitimate grudges.
At the end of the battle, around noon, he had been wounded by five bullets in the back by an American soldier. He barely survived, being hospitalized until February 1945 without his parents, who already had two boys prisoners of war in the stalags, being informed of his fate. He will keep the physical consequences of this untimely shooting all his life.
He will not hold it against the liberators. On the contrary, having become mayor of Saint-Marie-du-Mont, from 1949 to his death in 1991, Michel de Vallavieille will greatly contribute to the development of memory around D-Day, in particular by creating the first museum in his town. , in Utah Beach, in 1962. “When a veteran came, my father forbade anyone to interrupt him,” Charles recalled. He also remembers the day when Tom Hanks went scouting the mansion. Charles de Vallavieille still blames himself for not having taken a photo.