May, a Month for Memorials
High on a hilltop overlooking Colmar and the plain of Alsace with its charming villages and well-tended vineyards, waves an American flag. If you look, you can see it as you drive along the famous “wine route” below. It is the centerpiece of a memorial erected to preserve the memory of the American soldiers who fought and died there sixty-eight years ago in the Battle of the Colmar Pocket. Slightly behind it, on another nearby hilltop, waves the French flag, standing sentry above a war cemetery where rest the remains of the French soldiers who gave their lives in that same battle.
May 8 is a holiday in France to commemorate the end of World War II. In cities, towns, and villages across the country, this day is marked with simple, dignified ceremonies to remember the victory, those who perished to win it, and to reaffirm our shared commitment to make sure such a dark period never again descends upon Europe. This year, I was fortunate enough to participate in two such ceremonies.
In the small town of Rouffach, just south of Colmar, I joined Mayor Jean-Pierre Toucas, other local dignitaries, and the people of the town to dedicate a plaque to commemorate the “Carrefour des Allies” (“Intersection of the Allies”) in the center of the town. It was on that spot on February 5, 1945, that elements of the U.S. 12th Armored Division met up with the French Army’s 4th Moroccan Division. The village had been liberated! The Mayor and I delivered brief remarks, the American and French flags were raised, the town’s band played the Star Spangled Banner and the La Marseillaise, the plaque was unveiled and blessed by the town’s priest, and once again I wished that everyone in the United States could be standing next to me to witness the reverence the people of France still hold for their American liberators all these years later.
An hour later, I was at the memorial on the hill, high above the village of Sigolsheim, standing with Mayor Thierry Speitel, Prefect Vincent Bouvier, and other civilian and military dignitaries as nearly 300 spectators stood silently to remember the past. Two veterans of the U.S. Third Infantry Division who had fought on that spot made the trip from the United States to stand there once again, and they placed a wreath at the base of the flagpole to honor their fallen friends and comrades. Following the ceremony, we all walked up the hill to the French war cemetery to pay respects to the French soldiers who died to liberate this last corner of France.
When you next visit Alsace, and as you tour its lovely villages and sample some of its delicious wines and local products, make sure you take the time to stop by one of the many memorials to the U.S. troops who fought here nearly 70 years ago, or visit the Museum of the Battle of the Colmar Pocket in Turckheim to learn more about the history of what took place here http://musee.turckheim-alsace.com/english.html. And if you are here on May 26, stop by one of the four American war cemeteries in northeastern France (Epinal, St. Avold, Saint-Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne) to help us celebrate our own Memorial Day holiday http://www.abmc.gov/home.php.
Thanks for sharing a few moments to read about what we’re doing here at Consulate General Strasbourg. Below are the remarks I delivered at the U.S. War Memorial at Sigolsheim:
“Mr. Mayor, Mr. Prefect, Civil and Military Authorities, friends from the American community in Alsace, ladies and gentlemen:
On behalf of U.S. Ambassador to France Charles Rivkin, and the government and people of the United States of America, thank you for inviting me to participate in this moving ceremony to commemorate the 68th anniversary of the end of World War II.
As we stand on this hilltop today, looking down on the charming villages and well-tended vineyards of Alsace, it is almost impossible for us to imagine the scene from this same spot in January and February 1945. The villages below lay in ruins, the fields were strewn with the implements of war, and the men on this hill – nicknamed “Blood Hill” – were engaged in a deadly battle for survival, in the midst of one of the coldest winters on record.
The Battle for the Colmar Pocket was perhaps not one of the largest or most famous engagements of the war, but for the men who fought here it was a daily struggle for survival. Likewise for the people of the towns and villages nearby, as they took shelter in the cellars of their churches and watched their homes being destroyed in the terrible clash between the Germans, who were fighting desperately to hold on to the last bit of Alsace, and the French and Americans, who were determined to liberate every last inch of France. Many soldiers on both sides died. Some of these heroes rest only two hundred meters from here.
We all know how the battle ended: the Allies were victorious, the villages and Europe were rebuilt, and for the next 68 years – until today – Western Europe has lived in peace. It is important that we remember the glory and the sacrifices of the men who fought here, but more importantly, we must remember the pain, the loss, and the destruction which accompanied those acts of bravery. And that is why we are here today, instead of at work or at school: to remember and to recommit ourselves to the fight against intolerance, hatred, and violence so that what happened here 70 years ago will never happen again.
To conclude, let me say thank you to the people of Sigolsheim and Alsace for this lovely memorial. I have visited many war monuments in France, and this is one of my favorites. I am very proud when I see the American flag on this hill, overlooking Alsace and the birthplace of Bartholdi. I hope it will remind all who pass by of the enduring ties and shared values of freedom and democracy that continue to unite our two Peoples.”
Evan G. Reade
Deputy Permanent Observer to the Council of Europe