The town of Bayeux is 24km north-west of Caen and the Bayeux War Cemetery lies to its south-west. It’s located on the Boulevard Fabian Ware stretch of the bypass opposite the Bayeux Memorial. Ware was a leading figure in establishing the Imperial War Graves Commission. This would later become the current Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
During the Allied offensive, there was little fighting in Bayeux. It was one of the first significant liberated towns. The Bayeux War Cemetery is now the largest Commonwealth cemetery of WW2 in France. It contains burials from nearby field hospitals. Many of the men died in the war-torn surrounding districts including Sword Beach.
France assigned the cemetery grounds to the United Kingdom in perpetuity. This gesture was in recognition of the sacrifices made by the British Commonwealth in the war.
Bayeux War Cemetery dates back to 8th June 1944
The cemetery took shape in 1944 and work on it finished in 1952. The first burials were only two days after the Sherwood Rangers entered Bayeux on 6th June 1944. Simple wooden crosses marked the initial graves. Stone markers have now replaced these.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission operate the site. They are responsible for maintaining the graves. Of the 18 Commonwealth cemeteries in Normandy, Bayeux is the largest. The bodies of 3806 Commonwealth servicemen and women are at rest here. There are 338 unidentified graves and over 500 of other nationalities. The majority of these are German.
The breakdown by nationality is as follows: United Kingdom (3935), Germany (466), Canada (181), Poland (25), Australia (17), New Zealand (8), Rusia (7), France (3), Czechoslovakia (2), Italy (2), South Africa (1).
These figures include 338 British soldiers with no known identity. A headstone inscribed with “A soldier of the 1939-45 War – Known unto God” marks their graves.
One reason for the high number of British burials dates back to an old tradition. Through history, British soldiers’ burials took place alongside comrades close to where they died. This leads to a vast dispersal of British military graves and monuments.
A tour of the cemetery
In the centre of the cemetery stands the Cross of Sacrifice, sometimes known as the War Cross. Sir Reginald Bloomfield designed the sculpture for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Graves radiate out in neat rows. In contrast to American and German cemeteries, the headstones are not uniform in shape. Commonwealth headstones have rounded tops and other nationalities differ a little. Polish markers have pointed tops, German ones are triangular and bear the Malta Cross. Russian gravestones display a Soviet star and a stepped crest.
Many headstones in the Bayeux War Cemetery show personalised inscriptions. Again, this is different from the American or German custom. As well as name, rank, dates of birth and death, Commonwealth headstones also carry images of the country or regiment. The final difference is the flowers planted in well-maintained rows next to the headstones.
The cemetery in 2014
Queen Elizabeth II and Frech President Francois Hollande attended a ceremony on 6th June 2014. This act of remembrance was to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
Visitors to the Bayeux War Cemetery may access the grounds at any time for free. Several companies operate guided tours, either of the cemetery or as part of a larger package.
As well as the cemetery and the Bayeux Memorial, there are other nearby attractions. The Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy is a short walk away and worth a visit. Also in the vicinity, is the memorial to the 2000 war correspondents and journalists who have perished on battlefields through the years.