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Saint-Lô (Municipality, Manche, France)

Last modified: 2022-03-11 by ivan sache
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Flag of Saint-Lô - Image by Olivier Touzeau, 1 March 2021

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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, photo, photo, photo, photo) is red, quartered by a thin white cross, 1. Three yellow leopards, 2. A white unicorn and a blue canton charged with a yellow star, 3. Three yellow fleurs-de-lis, 4. Two yellow leopards.
The flag is derived from the municipal arms, "Gules, a unicorn salient argent a chief azure three fleurs-de-lis or". During the First Empire, the arms were "Gules, a unicorn salient (sometimes, passant) argent cantoned with a shield azure charged with a capital "N" or topped with a mullet of the same".

Olivier Touzeau, 1 March 2021

Square flags of Saint-Lô

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Square flags of Saint-Lô - Images by Pascal Vagnat, 3 August 2005

Saint-Lô once used square red flags (photo):
- quartered by a yellow cross, 1. Two yellow leopards, 2. A white unicorn and a blue canton, 3. Three yellow fleurs-de-lis, 4. Two yellow leopards (2000);
- quartered by a white cross, 1. Three yellow leopards, 2. A white unicorn and a white canton, 3. Three yellow fleurs-de-lis, 4. Two yellow leopards (2005);

Pascal Vagnat, 3 August 2005

[Flag]         [Flag]

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