Down but not out in Saint-Lô: Frank McNally on Samuel Beckett and the Irish Red Cross in postwar France

While the sea-borne invasion of Normandy began 75 years ago today, US planes were raining bombs onto the inland town of Saint-Lô, a stronghold of the German occupiers just south of the landing beaches.

The “night of fire” that coincided with D-Day reduced it to rubble, although there were more bombs to come in July, this time from the retreating Germans, during the ground battle for the town.  On finally entering Saint-Lô, one US soldier quipped: “We sure liberated the hell out of this place”.

So complete was the destruction that for a time afterwards, some people thought it should be left like that, as a museum of war ruins, with surviving residents rehoused elsewhere.  But the residents disagreed and went back to rebuild lives from the chaos.

Hence one of the more remarkable Irish humanitarian missions of the 20th century, when a group of volunteers decided to set up a Red Cross hospital in Saint-Lô's remains.  Among the advance party in August 1945 was the writer Samuel Beckett, who had been stranded at home in Dublin until securing the job of "quarter-master/interpreter" with the project.

He recorded the extent of the chaos in “la Capitale des Ruines” as follows: “Of 2600 buildings 200 completely wiped out, 400 badly damaged and 200 ‘only’ slightly […] It has been raining hard the last few days and the place is a sea of mud. What it will be like in winter is hard to imagine.”

Beckett would be back in Paris by the time the hospital opened, in April 1946. But according to one of the doctors who witnessed his short paramedical career, he had been “terribly conscientious”.

The many shortages he faced as stores manager included rat poison, then much in demand everywhere. After consulting experts at the Institut Curie, he improvised a concoction that could be smeared on food scraps.

His time in Saint-Lô was not without its lighter moments too. One of the town’s few surviving houses – although shells had passed through the walls – was home to a family with a miraculously intact piano. On visits there, he played pieces by Mozart and Chopin from memory.

And according to his biographer James Knowlson, there were other places to de-stress too. Beckett warned his friend Tom MacCreevy, who also thought of volunteering, that he wouldn't like the "promiscuity". Some of the project team were known to pass evenings in a bordello, where the ambulance – occasionally driven by Beckett – was a common sight.

By stark contrast, while showing a colleague around the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris in late 1945, it was noted that Beckett “pounced on a little rosary beads” from a stall to bring back as a present for his assistant quartermaster, a devout Catholic.

Short as his time in Saint-Lô was, it must have had a profound effect. At the least, it coincided with the start of “a frenzy of writing” in which, over the next few years he would produce the prose trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable, and the breakthrough play Waiting for Godot.

No doubt there were other factors too, not least his imminent 40th birthday. But the experience of seeing humanity in ruins, and yet struggling fiercely to live, must have fed the flood of creativity about to burst. He expressed some of his feelings in a talk he was supposed to give about the hospital for Radio Éireann in 1946. A keynote of this was his suggestion that the dispensing of physical relief supplies was less important than the mutual recognition among relieved and relievers of their ability still to “smile at the human condition”.

Another postscript on the experience was a short poem called Saint-Lô, published in this newspaper in June 1946: “Vire will wind in other shadows/unborn through the bright ways tremble/and the old mind ghost-forsaken/sink into its havoc.”

This was too abstract for one Irish Times reader, “Bewildered”, from Sutton, who wrote in requesting an explanation. He or she had looked up the word “Vire” in dictionaries, to find it meant either “crossbow bolt” or “small ring”, neither of which made sense.  The correspondent pleaded for guidance “in language understandable by an ordinary reader”. It’s a bit late for “Bewildered”, presumably, but Vire was and is the river that runs through Saint-Lô, a town long since rebuilt, as if the bombs had never happened. And that presumably was Beckett’s point. That the river would one day wind its way through pristine new buildings, showing no trace of the war, while all the horrors would be housed instead in the minds of the survivors.

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