STEVE AND CAROLE IN VENCE

Normandy War Cemeteries
Remembering the Fallen of WWII

June 6, 2024

I unlatched the small, blue metal gate, pushed it forward and stepped into the cemetery. Several rows of graves lay before me on the left with more on the right. It was a small cemetery, with less than a hundred men buried there. I wandered slowly through the rows of headstones stopping now and then to read what was written on them. It seemed no one here was older than thirty years of age when they died. Most were in their late teens or early 20s. The great Phil Ochs once sang, “It’s always the old to lead us to the wars, It’s always the young to fall.” I felt the weight of those words as I thought about these soldiers buried far from home in a large wheat field in France. Who were these young men I wondered? Who had loved them? Who had grieved for them when word came back that they had perished on the battlefield. Does anyone still remember each of them today?

Steve and Carole in Vence - Brouay War Cemetery in Normandy
W.A. Morris – The Cameronians – Age 19 – The Brouay War Cemetery in Normandy

It was D-Day and I was spending the better part of the day driving from one World War II war cemetery to another. In Normandy that’s not hard to do. The graveyards cover Normandy from one end to the other like a huge quilt of the dead. One rarely has to drive more than 5 or 10 kilometers from one of these cemeteries to reach another. Some are tiny “battlefield cemeteries” where soldiers were buried pretty much where they fell. Others were created later and sometimes bodies were moved from the battlefield cemeteries to these more permanent ones. A few, especially the Normandy American Cemetery above Omaha Beach and the Bayeux British Cemetery are very well known and millions of visitors pay their respects each year.

There are, however, over two dozen more, much smaller, much less known, much less visited war cemeteries scattered throughout the Normandy countryside. All 8 of the ones I visited on this day are clustered in the French department of Calvados. Just how obscure are these cemeteries? I visited eight of them on D-Day and I could count the total number of other visitors I saw the entire day on one hand. In most of these cemeteries I was completely alone. I didn’t mind. The quiet, peaceful atmosphere allowed me to to contemplate the souls that had been lost, wonder about the lives they led and to reflect on the sacrifices they made. It rained off an on for much of the morning, which seemed somewhat appropriate. In the early afternoon the clouds parted and the sky turned bright blue. Sunshine filled the cemeteries with a warm bright light, which also, ironically, seemed appropriate.

Some of these cemeteries sit on the edge of a main road and are easy to find. They beckon from the side of the road, calling you to stop your car and walk through the rows of headstones. To sit on the stone benches and look out over the green grass and the white pieces of stone that mark each grave. To read the names and to remember their lives and their deaths though you really know nothing about any of them.

To reach other cemeteries is not so easy. It sometimes requires a trip down a narrow, rugged, unpaved dirt lane, barely wide enough for one vehicle. They lie in the middle of huge wheat fields or are partially hidden behind long ranges of tall trees. You won’t see them until you are almost upon them and then they spring up, seemingly from nowhere, tiny patches of land surrounded by the vast expanses of the fields. A few are not even signposted. It’s almost as if they don’t want to be found.

In total there are 2 American, 17 British, 2 Canadien, 1 Polish, 1 Russian, 1 French and 6 German World War II cemeteries sprinkled throughout the landscapes of Normandy.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Tilly-sur-Seulles War Cemetery in Normandy

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

The American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer is under the jurisdiction of the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). While Carole and I visited it when we were in Normandy, I’ve chosen to write here about some of the smaller, lesser known cemeteries which are taken care of by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Much has been written about the American Cemetery, millions have visited it, countless photos have been taken and published. I dare say however, that many who have visited that American Cemetery have no idea that two dozen more smaller cemeteries lie within a few minutes drive.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is an intergovernmental organization comprised of six member states: Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom. The principle function of the organization is to mark, record and maintain the graves of military service members who died in the two World Wars. All the dead are commemorated equally, regardless of military or civil rank, race or creed.

Today the Commission looks after and cares for the graves of over 1.7 million soldiers in 153 countries. It has created over 2,500 war cemeteries and numerous other memorials. Additionally, the Commission cares for over 40,000 non-Commonwealth war graves and over 25,000 non-war military and civilian graves.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Secqueville-en-Bessin War Cemetery in Normandy
From a distance it’s hard to see the Secqueville-en-Bessin War Cemetery. It seems swallowed up by the surrounding wheat fields. The “Cross of Sacrifice” points the way.

The Cemeteries

Each of the cemeteries I visited was designed and laid out in a clear, simple, elegant manner. They are all a bit different yet they shared many common traits and features. The same tombstone is used for every grave in each of the cemeteries. Off white stone, rectangular in shape with a curved top. The tombstones are always arranged in long rows which serve as flower beds. Thus all the plants and flowers grow up and around the stones. It’s really quite beautiful. A “Cross of Sacrifice,” a large stone cross, is situated somewhere near the middle of each cemetery.

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A small visitors area can be found somewhere on the grounds, usually some type of small stone building or enclosure with a bench or two. A small metal door is built into the side of one of the walls that says “Cemetery Register.” Inside you’ll find a Visitor’s Book where you can record your thoughts as well as a Register which contains detailed information about all the soldiers who are buried in the cemetery.

There’s an information panel located just before the graves which provides some general information and a map related to the Normandy Invasion. Somewhere in the cemetery is also a large stone sculpture (it’s different in each one) with the words: “The land on which this cemetery stands is the gift of the French people for the perpetual resting place of the sailors, soldiers and airmen who are honoured here.”

I was extremely impressed with how well these cemeteries are cared for. Clearly an enormous amount of work and respect goes into keeping them looking so immaculate. The grounds are impeccable, always mowed, hedged and trimmed. Trees, bushes, hedges and flowers are everywhere. It’s a remarkable job that the Commission does looking after these cemeteries and preserving the memories of these soldiers.

Several of the cemeteries have both Allied and German soldiers buried in them. Personally, I find this comforting, knowing that these men, who once fought and killed one another now lie together in such beautiful, peaceful places.

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Jerusalem

The Jerusalem War Cemetery is the smallest war cemetery in this part of France, and in fact, one of the smallest in the entire country. Only 47 men are buried here. Located on a tiny plot of triangular shaped land next to the D6 road it’s just 9 kilometers southeast of Bayeux near the small village of Chouain. It was designed by the well-known architect P.D. Hepworth.

A large row of hedges encircles the graves which are arranged in three slightly curved rows facing a large “Cross of Sacrifice.” A small stone bench and wall are situated at one end of the cemetery and a visitor’s book is located in a small compartment where one can sign their name.

Surrounded by farm buildings and open fields it’s very easy to miss this cemetery unless you know what you are looking for. In fact, some of the men buried here died in those very farm buildings which were used as first-aid stations during combat. A blue iron gate opens onto a series of paving stones which lead to the graves. The cemetery was begun on June 10th, just four days after the D-Day landings of June 6. The soldiers here were killed on June 8, 1944 during the Battle of Tilly-sur-Seulles as the Allied invasion pushed south-east from Bayeux towards Caen.

35 of these men were initially buried near the tiny hamlet of Jerusalem in the commune of Juaye-Mondaye. 12 others were buried close by on the small Belval farm. The commune of Chouain offered the land for this cemetery and the bodies were transferred to their permanent resting place here.

Among the men buried at Chouain is Private Jack Banks, a member of the Durham Light Infantry. At just 16 years of age, Jack was one of the youngest soldiers to die in Normandy. On his gravestone his family wrote, “God will tell us why some-day. He broke our hearts and took you away.”

Two chaplains are also buried in the cemetery, Reverend Cecil James Hawksworth and Reverend Gerard Nesbitt. In a cruel twist of fate, Nesbitt died from incoming German artillery when he was leading the funeral service for Hawksworth. One Czech soldier is buried here as well. One unknown British soldier lies in the cemetery and his gravestone is marked as such.

  View an aerial view of the cemetery on Google Maps.
  Download a plan of the Jerusalem cemetery.


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Tilly-sur-Seulles

The small town of Tilly-sur-Seulles saw some of the most intense combat of the war during the months of June, July and August 1944 as British and German forces battled for control of the nearby roads. Operation Bluecoat was one of these campaigns. Many soldiers were lost on both sides and civilian casualties were especially high. The town had to be almost completely rebuilt after the war ended. Just over 1,200 soldiers are buried in this cemetery: 990 British, 2 Canadians, 1 Australian, 1 New Zealander and 232 Germans.

Tilly-sur-Seulles was liberated by the Allies on June 18, 1944 and the first soldiers were buried in this cemetery on July 8. A number of soldiers who had been previously buried in field graves were re-interred in this cemetery. Casualties are mostly from the 7th Armoured Division, 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division and 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division. Additionally, a number of Irish Guards officers and servicemen from the Royal Norfolk Regiment are buried here as well.

The cemetery sits directly on the roadside and is clearly visible as you pass by in a car. The rectangular shaped plot is contained on three sides by large, well trimmed bushes and trees. The entrance is composed of several stone columns and benches and lies just a few meters from the road. Graves are arranged in 12 small plots on the left and the right of an empty center section that leads to the large Cross of Sacrifice. On each side of the cross are small stone arches, beyond which lie stone benches shaped in semi-circles. At the far end of the cemetery is a large stone wall with benches and information for visitors.

Located on the D13 road about 13km south of Bayeux, the cemetery is the final resting place for Captain Keith Douglas, considered by many to be one of the finest war poets of his generation. Keith landed in Normandy in 1944 after having served several years in Palestine and North Africa. He was killed by shrapnel at the age of 24 on the front lines in the nearby village of Cistot.

  View an aerial view of the cemetery on Google Maps.
  Download a plan of the Tilly-sur-Seulles cemetery.


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Brouay

The cemetery at Brouay is one of the few war cemeteries in Normandy which is located next to a church, in this case the small village church named the Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Church of Our Lady of the Assumption). The war cemetery is situated near the top of a small hill just behind the civilian church cemetery.

A small set of stone steps leads from the civilian cemetery to the large stone entrance of the war cemetery. Here you’ll find a wooden bench, the cemetery register, information about the war and the dedication of the land. Most of the graves are laid out in a large rectangle with 14 rows in two sections arranged near the north end. More are arranged in long rows near the edges of the cemetery and the Cross of Sacrifice is located in the southeast corner.

377 soldiers are buried here, 375 from the UK and 2 from Canada. 7 of those from the UK are unidentified. Located just two kilometers south of the N13 (about halfway between Bayeux and Caen), this small cemetery contains soldiers who were killed in the heavy fighting of June and July 1944 when the Allied troops pushed hard towards Caen, which was a key strategic target at the time. Operation Epsom, Operation Jupiter and Operation Spring were three of the campaigns fought in and around this area from which casualties were buried in Brouay.

  View an aerial view of the cemetery on Google Maps.
  Download a plan of the Brouay cemetery.


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Secqueville-en-Bessin

This cemetery is another of the smallest war cemeteries in Normandy and definitely the most isolated of those that I visited. It is a battlefield cemetery, soldiers were buried here where they were killed. Located between Bayeux and Caen it lies in the middle of huge wheat fields and open plains. To reach it you must take a very remote, dead-end road through what seems like the middle of nowhere.

117 soldiers are buried here. 99 are British, 18 are German and 1 is unidentified. The youngest was only 17 years old. These men were killed in July as the Allies pushed forward in an effort to take and secure the city of Caen. Most came from the 43rd Wessex Infantry Division. Originally some Canadian soldiers were also buried here but they were transferred later to the Canadian cemetery at Bény-sur-Mer near Reviers.

The cemetery is in the shape of a large “L” with a main entrance along the small road. The entrance is composed of two small stone columns and a light blue metal gate. The register and more information can be found here. Dark hedges run along the entire perimeter. The large portion of the L shape contains the allied graves and the smaller section those of German soldiers buried here. The graves are arranged in long straight lines. There is a wooden bench opposite the Cross of Sacrifice near the north end of the cemetery.

  View an aerial view of the cemetery on Google Maps.
  Download a plan of the Secqueville-en-Bessin cemetery.


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Hottot-les-Bagues

One of the largest of the cemeteries I visited that morning was the one at Hottot-les-Bagues. With over 1,000 graves it lies next to the D9, southeast of Bayeux and west of Caen.

The majority of the soldiers buried here are from the UK, but the cemetery is also the final resting place for soldiers from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. 56 of the dead are unidentified. 132 Germans are also buried in a special section. There are 21 graves known today as “Special Memorials.” They bear the inscription “Buried near this spot.” These men are buried close-by, but the exact location in the cemetery is unknown and unmarked.

Many of the soldiers buried here were killed during the intense fighting that took place around Tilly-sur-Seules as the Allies encircled Caen. Two brigadiers (the highest field grade officers in the British Army) are buried here: John Roland Mackintosh-Walker of the Seaforth Highlanders and James Hargest from the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment. Hargest had fought in World War I at both Gallipoli and Somme. He was taken prisoner in North Africa during World War II by Rommel’s Afrika Korps, but later escaped and made his way back from Italy to Switzerland to Spain and finally to England with the help of the French Resistance. He was the New Zealand observer for D-Day, attached to the British 50th Division.

24 soldiers from the Scots Guards, 3rd Battalion, are also buried here. Most were killed near the village of Les Loges as the troops pushed south from Caumont.

Designed in the shape of a rectangle the cemetery is divided into 12 small plots with a Cross of Sacrifice near the center and a shelter at the north end. The entrance is an impressive collection of stone columns and walls. A large stone sign announces your arrival at the cemetery. Looking straight ahead you can see the Cross of Sacrifice and the shelter building at the other end of the cemetery which houses the register, visitor information, benches and more. Large trees are distributed throughout the grounds with plenty of spacious open areas around the plots of graves.

  View an aerial view of the cemetery on Google Maps.
  Download a plan of the Hotot-les-Bagues cemetery.


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Fontenay-le-Pesnel

The only access to the Fontenay-le-Pesnel cemetery is a small dirt road off the D139. It sits almost completely hidden among large, sprawling wheat fields. It’s distance from the main road provides a very peaceful setting with a sense of isolation and solitude that hangs in the air like a thick mist. It’s so ironic when you think of the terror and horror that occurred in these very fields not so long ago. Now it’s the most beautiful, calm, tranquil setting you could ever imagine.

520 men are buried at Fontenay-le-Pesnel. 457 are British, 4 are Canadian and 59 are German. Most are from the South Staffordshire, East Lancashire, Royal Warwickshire Regiments, and the Durham Light Infantry. The German soldiers are mainly from the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend.

Most of the dead buried here were killed during Operation Epsom near the end of June 1944. Also known as the First Battle of Odon, this was a British offensive that lasted from June 26 to June 30. The goal was to outflank and seize the city of Caen. Caen would eventually fall into British hands during Operation Charnwood in mid-July.

The cemetery consists of 3 small sections, each containing 7 or 8 rows of graves. The graves are flanked on the east and west by large groves or trees. The small entrance is composed of two blocks of stone and two waist-high pillars connected by chains. Just inside the entrance is a large square open area surrounded by a very low stone fence. The shelter sits in one corner and contains the register, visitor information, some benches and more. The Cross of Sacrifice is found at one of this section and all the graves are arranged facing it.

  View an aerial view of the cemetery on Google Maps.
  Download a plan of the Fontenay-le-Pesnel cemetery.


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Saint-Manvieu

Men from the 43rd Wessex, 53rd Welsh, 15th Scottish and 11th Armoured Divisions spent ten weeks during June and July of 1944 fighting for control of a battleground that became known as “Hill 112” located about 10 kilometers to the southwest of Caen. It was one of the bloodiest battles of World War II and cost the lives of over 10,000 soldiers. Today it is known as The Hill of Peace and a special foundation (The Hill 112 Memorial Foundation) has been set up to preserve the area and construct a viewing platform.

The Saint-Manvieu War Cemetery, just outside the small village of Cheux along the D9 road, contains the graves of 1,627 Allied soldiers and 555 German soldiers. All of the Allied soldiers are British except for 1 Canadian and 1 Australian. 49 of the British dead remain unidentified. Almost all of these men died in the fierce fighting associated with this campaign.

The cemetery was designed by the well-known architect P.D. Hepworth in the shape of a rectangle. Two large stone columns mark the entrance. The graves are arranged in 16 sections of straight rows with large trees all around. The Cross of Sacrifice is located on a raised stone platform near the western end of the cemetery. An impressive shelter building and a large Stone of Remembrance are close by. The shelter contains several benches, the cemetery register, visitor information and more. A smaller shelter, flanked by large stone columns, contains a single stone bench can be found at the other end of the cemetery.

  View an aerial view of the cemetery on Google Maps.
  Download a plan of the Saint-Manvieu cemetery.


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Bény-sur-Mer

The Bény-sur-Mer Canadian cemetery was one of the larger cemeteries I visited on D-Day. It is also one of the most impressive in terms of architecture and layout (it’s another designed by P.D. Hepworth). The vast majority of soldiers buried here in this cemetery, surrounded by maple and pine trees, are Canadian. There are a total of 2,048 graves, 2,044 of which are Canadian, 3 of which are U.K., 1 which is French, with 19 of the dead unidentified. Some of these men died on D-Day as part of the 3rd Canadian Division which stormed Juno Beach (a scant 3 kilometers to the north). Others died in the subsequent battles around Caen. As with some of the other war cemeteries in Normandy, many of the men were moved here from smaller cemeteries where they were originally buried when they fell.

The Bény-sur-Mer cemetery is located just outside of the small village of Reviers, about 14 kilometers north-west of Caen and 21 kilometers from Bayeux. It can be easily found at the side of a major road (the D35) situated amongst large fields. It is divided into 16 distinct rectangular plots which together form a larger rectangle. There are two entrances to the cemetery, one from the main road and the other from the parking lot. Hedges decorate the entrances, beyond which lies a large grassy area surrounded by trees. The Cross of Sacrifice lies near the center of the cemetery with other small buildings, columns and statues spread throughout the grounds.

The remains of one soldier were misplaced when moved from his original grave to this cemetery and his tombstone is set apart from the others. It bears a special inscription saying he is buried somewhere in the cemetery. This cemetery also contains the remains of nine sets of brothers.

One of the men buried at Bény-sur-Mer is Anglican Chaplain Captain Walter Brown who died at the age of 33. Brown came ashore with the Canadian troops on D-Day, one of the first chaplains to land in Normandy, tending to the wounded and dying. He moved inland with the Sherbrooke Fusiliers but was killed later in the day when his jeep was ambushed. He was captured and executed by troops of the Waffen-SS. His body was not recovered for over a month.

The sole Frenchman buried here is R. Guenard, a French resistance fighter who fought alongside the Canadian troops.

Watch a short video about the Bény-sur-Mer war cemetery.

  View an aerial view of the cemetery on Google Maps.
  Download a plan of the Bény-sur-Mer cemetery.


Access

These cemeteries I visited are all open to the public year round. They are located in the department of Calvados in the region of Normandy. To visit these cemeteries is quite easy, though a few of the more isolated ones can be a bit tricky to find.

We stayed in the town of Bayeux and found it an excellent place to situate ourselves for a weeklong visit to the World War II sites in Normandy. However, Caen would also be a great place to stay. From either town the cemeteries are only a few minutes drive.

Juste les Faits:
What: World War II War Cemeteries of Normandy
Where: Normandy – mostly between Bayeux and Caen (Google Maps)
When: All year
Website: The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Facebook: commonwealthwargravescommission

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