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Saint-Lô (Municipality, Manche, France)

Last modified: 2019-01-14 by ivan sache
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Flag of Saint-Lô - Image by Pascal Vagnat, 3 August 2002


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Presentation of Saint-Lô

The municipality of Saint-Lô (18,961 inhabitants in 2016; 2,319 ha) originates in the ancient Gaul town of Briovere, built on a schistose spur dominating the valley of river Vire. The Gaulish root briov- ("a bridge", also found in Brive and Brioude, indicates the strategic location of the town. In the 6th century, the town belonged to Saint Lô, Bishop of Coutances, and was renamed after him. St. Lô, who allegedly cured a blind woman, was invoked to heal eye disease. St. Lô, along with St. Pé, is also the cruciverbists' prefered saint, if not their patron saint.

Saint-Lô is an important junction of roads to Britanny (Rennes), northern Lower-Normandy (Coutances, Cherbourg) and eastern Normandy (Isigny, Caen).
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". 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 Fire Night or Great Blaze) 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 honor title of "Capital of the Ruins", since 95% of the town had been destroyed and hundreds of its inhabitants killed. After the war, President of the Republic Vincent Auriol awarded the town with the Legion of Honor, with the War Cross and palms. Auriol said: "During the night of 6 to 7 June 1944, the town 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 town, immediatly initiated, was achieved in 1962 only. A proposal of transfer of the Préfecture of 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 of the departement of Manche". The inhabitants of Saint-Lô were immediatly helped by an Irish hospital located inside the town. One of the servants of the hospital was Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), Nobel Prize 1969 in Litterature.

Several towns and vilages located on the way of major fighting experienced total destruction. For example, Valognes, on the road between Sainte-Mère-Eglise and Cherbourg, also was virtually totally destroyed. In 1946, the re-established Tour de France crossed the departement of Calvados (around Caen), which was "awarded" the title of the most damaged departement. The radio speaker Jean Nohain (1900-1981) 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 Épron, in the northern outskirts of Caen, winner of the award, has been nicknamed since then the "village of the radio". The small town of Aunay-sur-Odon, totally destroyed in June 1944 except the church's bell tower, was rebuilt from scratch in less than three years (1947-1950).
Saint-Lô was initially planned to be rebuilt on a brand new site, the ruins being preserved as a memorial; the inhabitants of the town, however, eventually decided to rebuild it from its ruins. The two towers of the Botre-Dame church 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 town, was transformed into a War and Resistance memorial.

At the main eastern entrance of the town, a monument decorated with two American flags recalls Major Howie's heroism. Howie, who had required to be the first trooper to enter Saint-Lô after its seizure, was killed on 18 July. The next day, after the liberation of the town, his coffin was ceremoniously placed upon the ruins of the bell tower of the church of the Holy Cross. 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.
[Saint-Lô, capitale des ruines]

Ivan Sache & Norman Martin, 16 August 2002


Flag of Saint-Lô

The flag of Saint-Lô (photo) is a red square quartered 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-lis. The second quarter, based on the municipal arms, "Gules a unicorn argent a chief azure three fleurs-de-lis or" is charged with a white unicorn and a blue canton.

The chief of France appears on the arms of several town that 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; it 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. Designed by Mireille Louis, the daughter of the heraldist Robert Louis, this was the first postage stamp manufactured in France by rotogravure. 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


Simplified versions of the flag of Saint-Lô

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Simplified flags of Saint-Lô - Images by Ivan Sache, 3 August 2002

Two "simplified" versions of the flag of Saint-Lô are hoisted on the remains of the former town walls. Both flags are square with a yellow thin cross, one with a red field, the other with a blue field.

Ivan Sache, 3 August 2002