Saturday, June 06, 2009

D-Day in the Forge: Invading Troops Find a Farrier in Normandy

When allied forces landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944 and fought their way inland from the beaches, a couple of soldiers on a detail with a photographer discovered that, in spite of the invasion, you could still get a horse shod down at the forge. This beautiful and peaceful photo was taken during one of the bloodiest, deadliest weeks of human history. I would have thought the town would have been evacuated. Perhaps it was--and the farrier defied orders and stayed behind in case anyone needed him. 

Note: This article was written in 2009. Since then, an account has emerged that British troops used a French horse to carry their mortar as they advanced. Could it be the same horse in my photos? Gray draft horses are common in Normandy, which is the home of the Percheron breed. But perhaps the British realized that the horse they commandeered had lost a shoe, or needed the attention of a farrier.

Today (June 6) is the anniversary of D-Day, the World War II invasion of France by an allied force of troops and air support from Great Britain, the United States, Australia, Canada, and other nations. They came by sea and they dropped from the sky by parachute. You've seen the movies, and you probably know the story.

This possible angle on the horseshoeing story emerged in 2019, when the BBC News posted this video about a gray work horse commandeered by British troops to carry their mortar. Did the horse lose a shoe? Click the arrow to start the video.

Imagine my surprise years ago when I found these photos in the archives of the invasion. In the midst of all the fighter planes, tanks and artillery, we find some unidentified soldiers who appear to have stumbled on a smithy in Cruelly, one the first towns inland from the beaches, and hence one of the first real places in France to be "liberated" by the invading allies. Or, was he shoeing their horse?

Here's an enlargement of the men's faces. This could be a Norman Rockwell painting.
The elderly marechal ferrant (that's French for farrier) is not caught up in the revelry of liberation. I am sure that when this photo was taken you could hear the battle going on, yet inside this smithy, time has stopped.

It's easy to imagine a scenario here--perhaps one of the soldiers is a farm boy from Tennessee or Yorkshire or even a farrier himself, who has never seen the European way of holding up the hind foot for the farrier. He'd be saying (with a helmet on, after just almost being killed on the beach at Omaha), "Geez, that's dangerous! Watch out you don't get kicked, old man!"

Or perhaps he was an inner city boy from Chicago or Montreal or London who had never seen a horse shod in his life, and after surviving the landing on the beach and marching inland, sees life with new eyes. He and his detail may have been assigned to check that all the buildings of this village are empty and secure and instead they find this old man and a farmer's son shoeing a plow horse. He's dismayed. They have to leave. But first, they insist on finishing the horse, the translator in the beret tells him: they're not going anywhere until the last nail on the last shoe is clinched.

Perhaps they needed the horse to be shod so they could use him for transportation to evacuate.

I think these photos illustrate one of the most magical things about shoeing horses, anywhere and everywhere it happens, but especially in a purpose-built shop or a real smithy. Time does seem to stop. No one can go anywhere until it's done. No matter how modern the materials, the ritual is as timeless now as it was then.

The farrier's name was Monsieur M. Le Jolivet and the forge was on rue de Bayeux in Creully. I wondered if he invited the soldiers for a sip of calvados, the fine brandy of the region, after the horse was done. That would be the French way, even with shells falling around the town and tanks rolling down the land. Or maybe he had more horses to do. 
Another amazing thing about this photo is the skill of the photographer. Taking photos of this quality in the available light of a forge was probably a delightful challenge to a photographer who had been dodging artillery shells or seeing soldiers fall the day before--or perhaps the hour before. Everyone must have been mentally and physically spent, beyond belief. He or she was probably dumbstruck when stumbling upon this timeless scene. I am very sorry that the archive did not provide the name of the photographer.

So many years later, I was amazed to find these photos and couldn't wait until June 6 rolled around on the calendar to share them with you. I hope you will remember the importance of this day and all the people who died, and know that this day in history has many dimensions, and many stories that should be told again and again so we never forget.

--by Fran Jurga

Photo credit: Conseil RĂ©gional de Basse-Normandie / National Archives USA. Many thanks for the loan of these photographs.

© Fran Jurga and Hoofcare Publishing. No use without permission. You only need to ask.

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