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Saturday, June 06, 2009

Re-imagining History: D-Day at the Forge

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, life was going on as usual down at the forge. This beautiful and peaceful photo was taken during one of the bloodiest, deadliest weeks of human history--and right down the road. I would have thought the town would have been evacuated. Perhaps it was--and the farrier defied orders and stayed behind to get his work done. 

Today (June 6, 2009) is the 65th Anniversary of D-Day, the World War II invasion of France by an allied force of British, US, Australian, Canadian, and many 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. (If you don't, you need to find out more!)

Imagine my surprise when I found these two 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 the countryside 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.

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; he has horses to shoe, and looks pretty nonchalant about his foreign visitors. 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 the American-looking soldier is a farm boy from Tennessee 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! you might get kicked, old man!"

Or perhaps he was an inner city boy from Chicago 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 are supposed 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, how buzzed up the hairstyle of the farrier or the number of body piercings and tattoos of the horse holder, the ritual is timeless.

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.

Sixty-five 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 from all the many nations that day.

--by Fran Jurga

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

P.S. Someone may be able to re-create this photo or check in to see if the forge is still there; Normandy has been chosen as the site of the 2014 World Equestrian Games. Bayeaux is also near CIRALE, the equine locomotion and lameness diagnostic and research center lead by Professor Jean-Marie Denoix.

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

Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog is a between-issues news service for subscribers to Hoofcare and Lameness Journal. This blog may be read online at the blog page, checked via RSS feed, or received via a digest-type email (requires signup in box at top right of blog page).

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Seth said...

The best HoofBlog ever... and that's all there is too it.

Helyn said...

D-Day, Beautiful photographs! Exceptional!

Fran Jurga said...

Thanks, Seth. If you are referring to this particular post, I think the shoeing photo might be one of my all-time favorite photos of any horseshoeing scene. Even if I didn't know the date and place, I think it is absolutely beautiful.

Thanks again. I am so glad that someone else liked this one.

Seth said...

Hi Fran... At first I didn't believe that it was a photograph. Either of them. Then upon closer examination, I still didn't believe that they were photographs. So impossibly beautiful... and the scene within miles of Hell Raging on Earth. What were they thinking? It's impossible to ever know, and even if we knew, I don't think that it could ever explain a single thing that's truly important.

Anonymous said...

Fran this is a wonderful article. Love the photos, appreciate how you wrote about it.

Oddly enough, I think moments of normalcy during war make you realize all the more how devastating it the reality was/is.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't it be fabulous if someone were to recreate the photos?

Riley Henson said...

Beautifully done Fran,thank you for your insight and dedication.

Rhonda Lane said...

Thank you, Fran. I'd never, EVER seen these photos. They are beautifully lit and composed. I also wonder about the stories behind them. What a find!

Anonymous said...

These have a sense of timelessness, I also imagine that this is not the first war the farrier has been through. Maybe he served in WW I and continuing his daily activity was a way of resigning himself to things way beyond his control as well as out of necessity. Thanks so much for sharing.