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The forgotten emblem of French-American history that saved D-Day soldiers

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The forgotten emblem of French-American history that saved D-Day soldiers
The battlefield hospital recreation. Photo: Abbaye de Longues-sur-Mer
09:58 CEST+02:00
As the world marks 75 years since the D-Day landings in Normandy, one French abbey is again the scene of grisly battlefield surgery, writes Hannah Mermin.

The 12th century Abbaye de Longues-sur-Mer was occupied by the Germans during the early part of the war, but it is believed that after British and American troops landed in Normandy and began pushing on through France, it was co-opted to serve as a temporary field hospital.

And it is this history that is being remembered by a Belgian medical charity, which has created a reconstruction of the 28th US General Hospital - which saved the lives of thousands of Allied soldiers during the Second World War.

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Volunteers are recreating the temporary battlefield hospital

Visitors will be able to watch as a team of Belgians, led by Bram Dermout, reenact surgeries using the original medical tools that American medics used during the period.

L'Abbaye de Longues-sur-mer, like the hospital it is hosting, reminds us of the all-encompassing nature of World War II. 

It was a United States Congressman, Charles S Dewey, who owned the abbey during the war.

Following the invasion of Poland on September 1st, 1939, the French military authorities evacuated all children and elderly people from Paris and sent them to villages throughout western France.

Longues-sur-mer received 85 people, most of whom were children.

Mr Dewey and his wife Suzette were determined to help. They transformed the refectory building of the abbey into a canteen where they provided these 85 refugees with two meals a day; the refugees lived with families in Longues-sur-mer village.

The Deweys stayed in Longues with the refugees until October, when the refugees were moved to the south of France.

Charles and Suzette sailed back to the United States on the ship Manhattan, built for 900 passengers, but filled with 1,800.

When the Deweys returned at the end of the war they found the abbey still standing, but with a huge swastika (which has since been removed) on the dining room wall. The Germans had used the abbey as a headquarters.

It was during the chaotic period towards the end of the war, as the Germans retreated and Allied soldiers gradually moves through France, that is is believed the abbey temporarily became a hospital.

"It's quite likely, because it's a large building with walls that keep the temperature cool, which is ideal for receiving the wounded. The position of the abbey of Longues-sur-mer was also strategic at the crossroads of the roads of Arromanches and Port-en-Bessin," Belgian volunteer Patrick told France Info.

But the contributions the Dewey family made to the abbey go far beyond these two months of 1939.

In the 1930s, for example, the Deweys hired a group of architects from Chicago (Holabird & Root) to design the abbey's vegetable garden, which was to be modeled off of George Washington's gardens at Mount Vernon.

There are still plans for both the Mount Vernon gardens and the abbey's gardens on display at the abbey.

Every so often the local Longuais come and tell stories about the Deweys and their abbey during the 1950s - Charles and Suzette hosted annual Christmas parties in the refectory where they gave toys to all the children of the village.

The d'Anglejan family, who bought the abbey from the Deweys over 50 years ago, is determined to protect the abbey itself and the abbey as an emblem of French-American history.

In March, the abbey was selected as one of 18 sites in France to receive funding from the French heritage lottery. This much-needed funding will allow the d'Anglejans to restore the roof of the church, which was destroyed many years ago.

The battlefield hospital can be seen at Abbaye de Longues, Longues-sur-Mer, Calvados, until Sunday, June 9th. To find out more about the abbey, click here.

 
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