by Tyler Young
Tommy Stephens has been fascinated with history, particularly military history, since he was a young boy. He grew up consuming any stories and depictions he could get his hands on. From reading books on military heroes to watching war films like Saving Private Ryan, Stephens has devoted a lot of his time to learning about war history. But there was something different about actually getting a first-person experience in Europe and seeing all of the history himself.
Stephens, a junior history major, spent 25 days from May 31 to June 24 traveling through Europe and staying in bed and breakfasts to observe and study war memorials and cemeteries from World War I and World War II, primarily looking at Canadian memorials between the two wars. He was interested in learning whether or not Canada’s memorials moved in a direction of a more pronounced nationalism after the country’s identity was cemented following World War I.
“I wanted to see if there was a reflection of that in the memorials, and ideally if the designs moved away from the more British expressions,” he said.
The trip was paid for through a $3,000 grant from the Kenan Fund for Faculty and Student Enrichment. The combined support from the Kenan Fund and the David and Betty Jones Faculty Development Fund sent 11 students all over the world on faculty-directed research projects this past summer. Stephens, who was directed by history professor Frank Russell, had never been outside the United States, and the grant enabled his first experience to be an impactful one.
The American Cemetery and Memorial in Normandy, France, is an American World War II memorial.
Stephens flew into London and took a train and ferry to Caen on the Normandy coast and saw the American Cemetery and Memorial and Pointe du Hoc. From there he spent five nights in Bayeux on the English Channel and then went to Albert, a town in northeastern France before rounding out his excursion in Belgium, where he stayed in Bourges and Ieper.
He took a tape recorder, camera, and a notebook to each of the monuments to document his observations. He picked up pamphlets and spoke to folks working at visitor centers. Because of the huge amount of information he gathered, he decided to narrow his focus to the military cemeteries he came across. One of the more interesting features he observed was the difference between the Commonwealth (British, Canadian, and Australian) cemeteries and the American and French cemeteries.
The St. Julien Memorial in Belgium is a Canadian World War I monument.
“In America, individualism is highly prized, but I found that in the cemeteries, that wasn’t expressed at all,” Stephens said. “In the massive cemetery on the Normandy coast, you have these plain, white crosses that just have the name, rank, and date of death of the soldier. In the Commonwealth cemeteries, they have the name, rank, unit crest, age at death, and a quote or saying picked out by the parents or loved ones. It’s a much more personal experience being in those cemeteries, and a lot more moving.”
While he had read plenty about these places, visiting the memorials in person and seeing the towns from the textbooks was a whole different experience.
“Pretty much everywhere I went, it was weird and moving seeing these places I’d read about,” he said. “I’d seen the names in books, and now I’m seeing them on road signs. Even watching movies, the places they mentioned, you’re there, and it’s just surreal.”
Nothing he read could have prepared him for what it was like standing on the storied battlefields themselves, sometimes just a couple of acres of land where tens of thousands of men were killed in a matter of hours. He found it an unlikely mash of reverence and normality.
“It was pretty shocking how normal the battlefields were,” Stephens said. “But you knew that in certain areas, everywhere you were stepping, someone had died. There are people living there, and they’re still turning up shells and bodies. It was strange that everything seemed so normal.”
The highlight of Stephens’s trip came on June 6, the 66th anniversary of the first day of the Allied invasion on the beaches of Normandy, also known as D-Day. He scheduled his itinerary to make sure he would be able to go to the memorial on that day. But when the day came, he was not able to find transportation to take him to the beach, and it was too far to walk. He was upset—after all, it is one of the most important places in military history.
He went to another cemetery to observe a memorial service held by some British veterans who had served on D-Day. There, he struck up a conversation with the wife of one of the veterans, and through the conversation, he told her of his disappointment at not being able to go to the beaches. She told her husband about Stephens’ predicament, and he offered Stephens a ride to the beach with him and some of his friends.
Stephens visited the Bayeux War Cemetery in Bayeux, Normandy, on June 6, the anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
The scene when he got to the beach surprised him. Instead of a solemn, tearful memorial as he expected, the veterans and their families were jovial, choosing to spend the time celebrating instead of mourning.
“A lot of them had been there several times before, and I guess they had made peace with what had gone on,” Stephens said. “Most of them were pretty chipper and confused as to why an American was interested in this stuff. But they were incredibly friendly and very helpful.”
Now that he is into the book-work portion of his research, he’s seeing that the in-person observations were much more meaningful than he knew even when he was there. He found that in many books and articles, the writers shucked details for the more intriguing writing, like the battles and strategies. Stephens said he was just as interested in learning about the scenery and the weather and what surrounded those battles.
“I feel like I’m more critical about what people are saying rather than just accepting it,” he said. “They want to talk about the exciting parts. It’s rare that historians get to write things that can be really exciting to the normal reader, so some of them skip over the things that I’m more interested in. Having been there clears things up—monument designs, things like that.”
Along with the hands-on learning Stephens did, the Kenan grant provided him with another significant benefit. Because it was his first time out of the country, he was nervous about how he would fare not speaking the languages and being by himself in a foreign land for 25 days. Now that he’s back, he said he’s more confident to take on similar projects and opportunities down the road.
“It was a massive boost to my self-reliance and even my self-esteem,” he said. “I see, yeah, I can do this; I don’t even need to speak the language. It’s something that I had never done before. Going over on the ferry to France, I was like, ‘Oh no, I don’t speak the language.’ I had my phrase book, but there were times when it was just really hard. Overcoming that was pretty awesome. It was also a new experience being alone for such a long time. I didn’t have anyone. It was hard, but I learned I was able to do it.”
Click here for more information about the opportunities Transylvania students have had thanks to the David and Betty Jones Faculty Development Fund and the Kenan Fund for Faculty and Student Enrichment.