Last modified: 2010-11-13 by ivan sache
Keywords: manche | saint-lo | unicorn (white) | lions: 4 (yellow) | leopards: 4 (yellow) | fleurs-de-lys: 3 (yellow) | cross (white) | cross (yellow) |
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by Pascal Vagnat
Saint-Lô is a municipality of 20,000 inhabitants (Saint-Lois), préfecture of the department of Manche.
The ancient Gaul city of Briovere was built on a schistose spur dominating the valley of the river Vire. The Gaulish root briov-, which means "bridge" and is also found in Brive (in Limousin) and Brioude (in Auvergne), indicates the strategic location of the city. In the VIth century, the city belonged to Saint Lô, Bishop of Coutances, and was renamed after him. Saint Lô was said to have cured a blind woman and was invoked in case of eye disease. Saint Lô, along with Saint Pé, is also the prefered saint of the cruciverbists, if not their patron saint.
Saint-Lô is an important crossroads. Roads to
Britanny (Rennes), northern Lower-Normandy
(Coutances, Cherbourg) and eastern
Normandy (Isigny, Caen) converge
In June 1944, Saint-Lô was more or less at the center of the German defences to the Allied beachhead on the Normandy coast starting shortly after D-day (6 June 1944). It was also the center of the Allied offensive breaking out of the beachhead, which Americans generally call "the breakout" and French la percée d'Avranches. One of the largest Air attacks of all time preceded the Infantry and armored attack which occasioned the breakout. The attack started during the night (locally known as Nuit de Feu or Grande Brûlerie) of 6 June 1944.
The battle of Saint-Lô, at least the heavy fighting, ended only on 19 July 1944 with the capitulation of the German troops. In the neighborhood, the "Battle of the Hedges", the basis of the Cobra operation, progressively liberated the road from Saint-Lô to Lessay (north-west) and allowed Patton's decisive Breakthrough to Avranches (31 July 1944).
At the end of the war, Saint-Lô was given the honour title of "Capital of the Ruins", since 95% of the city had been destroyed and hundreds of its inhabitants killed. After the war, President of the Republic Vincent Auriol awarded the city with the Légion d'Honneur (rank of Chevalier), with the War Cross and palms. Auriol said: "During the night of 6 to 7 June 1944, the city was submitted to such a huge bombing that its inhabitants are entitled to consider themselves as citizens of the "Capital of the Ruins"". The rebuilding of the city started immediatly but was achieved in 1962 only. A proposal of transfer of the Prefecture of the Manche departement to Coutances, much less damaged during the war, was rejected by General de Gaulle during his visit on 10 June 1945: "Saint-Lô, by its courage, expresses what it thinks and wants. I think, too, and says to Saint-Lô: "Vive Saint-Lô, capital city of the departement of Manche". The inhabitants of Saint-Lô were immediatly helped by an Irish hospital located inside the city. One of the servants of the hospital was Samuel Beckett, later Nobel Prize in Litterature.
This kind of destruction was not unusual in towns on the way of major fighting. For example, Valognes, on the road between Sainte-Mère-Eglise and Cherbourg, also was virtually totally destroyed. In 1946, the cyclist Tour de France resumed and crossed the departement of Calvados (around Caen), which was "awarded" the title of the most damaged departement. The radio speaker Jean Nohain asked the French citizens to help rebuilding the departement by sending funds, which would be given to a village randomly selected among those completely destroyed. The village of Epron, in the northern outskirts of Caen, won the award and has been nicknamed since then the "village of the radio". The small city of Aunay-sur-Odon was totally destroyed in June 1944 and totally rebuilt in less than three years (1947-1950). Its only remains were the bell tower of the church.
It was initially planned to rebuild the city of Saint-Lô
elsewhere and to keep the ruins as a memorial, but the inhabitants of
the city eventually decided to rebuild it from its ruins. The two
towers of the Church Our-Lady were kept in their 1945 state and
incorporated into the rebuilt church. The former prison, whose porch
is one of the only remains of the ancient city, was transformed into
a War and Resistance memorial.
At the main eastern crossroads of the city, a monument decorated with two American flags recalls Major Howie's heroism. Howie required to be the first trooper to enter Saint-Lô after its seizure, but was killed on 18 July. The next day, after the liberation of the city, his coffin was ceremoniously placed upon the ruins of the bell tower of the Church Sainte-Croix. A Franco-American Memorial Hospital was built in Saint-Lô after the war. The hospital is decorated with a big mosaic by Fernand Léger (1881-1955), celebrating the Allies' friendship.
The Beaucoudray website is a tribute to the liberation of the area around Saint-LÙ and the reconstruction of the city of Saint-Lô. This website includes several historical documents and shows a lot of historical and modern pictures related to the battle (all images are thumbnailed).
Ivan Sache & Norman Martin, 16 August 2002
The flag of Saint-Lô is made of a red square field divided
by a thin white cross. The first and fourth quarters are charged with
the two yellow leopards of Normandy. The
third quarter is charged with three yellow fleurs-de-lys placed 2 and
1. The second quarter, based on the arms of Saint-Lô, is
charged with a white unicorn and a blue canton.
A photograph of the municipal flag on the city hall can be seen on the aforementioned website.
The arms of Saint-Lô are:
Gules a unicorn silver a chief azure three fleurs de lys or
The chief of France appears on the arms of several cities which were granted Royal privilege under the Ancient Regime. The unicorn was supposed to be an extremely wild and shy animal, thus explaining why nobody ever saw such an animal, and was in the Middle-Ages the symbol of virginity (see for instance the set of tapestries "The Lady with the Unicorn" kept in the Cluny Museum in Paris, which show the lady and the unicorn challenged by the five senses). The unicorn on the arms might recall the strong veneration the Saint-Lois expressed for the Blessed Virgin.
The blason of Saint-Lô is shown on a French postage stamp (0.20 F, YT 1510, M 66-36) released on 19 December 1966 and designed by Mireille Louis, the daughter of the heraldist Robert Louis. This was the first postage stamp manufactured in France by the heliogravure system. In 1971, this stamp was produced in rolls for vending machines, every stamp out of ten having a red number on its reverse. After 1972, this stamp was charged with three phosphorescent stripes. A vertical pair of these stamps, one plain and one with the phosphorescent stripes, is extremely uncommon and valuable. The stamp was taken off on 17 November 1978.
Ivan Sache, 3 August 2002
by Ivan Sache
Two "simplified" versions of the municipal flag of Saint-Lô are hoisted on the remains of the former city walls. Both flags are square with a yellow thin cross. One flaf is red like the municipal flag the other one blue, most probably recalling the chief of the municipal arms.
Ivan Sache, 3 August 2002