The Musee de la Bataille de Normandie (Battle of Normandy Museum) in Bayeux was a perfect place to end my time after seeing the beaches and D-Day spots for three days, simply because it focused primarily on what happened after the D-Day invasions as the Allies slowly but successfully headed inland and liberated northern France and eventually Paris on their way to Berlin. It’s a part of the war that I have not read much about, even in preparation for the trip, but the museum will lead to me to further investigation (and maybe another grant?). There is no photography in the museum, but I stole a few shots just to show what it looked like and to add some historical tidbits to my collection. I learned a great deal about Charles de Gaulle (more on him in Paris) and the detailed role in the Free French Movement. He is quite a popular figure in Bayeux, as people in the underground listened to him secretly on the BBC during the war and he gave his first major speech there after the D-Day invasion. The museum also clearly explained the challenges the Allies faced as they moved to secure the port of Cherbourg and then spread to St. Lo and Caen in June and July of 1944. One of the major obstacles was the hedgerow system on dividing fields in Normandy and Brittany, which I saw first hand – what seems like a simple concept of a ditch and shrubs caused major difficulty for troops, as Germans turned them into trenches and sniper locations and many of the fields were nearly impassable. The museum has a great collection of military machinery, including a Crocodile tank – flame thrower!
A short walk from the Museum took me to British War Cemetery and Bayeux War Memorial – my third cemetery of the day. As you can see from the pictures, it appears more like the American military cemeteries we are used to than the German one I saw in La Cambe.
Over 20,000 British soldiers are interred in the cemetery, along with a number of other Allies that fought and died in France. The markers for the British soldiers are all the same shape, but they carry different symbols and also a small phrase or memo on the bottom of each – a nice touch for families, in my mind. The other Allies (Polish, Czech, Russian) buried there have different shaped headstones. The cemetery is beautiful – pristine, as military cemeteries should be. I read the poem ""At the British War Cemetery" by Charles Causely, who was moved to write his thoughts on his first visit. As I sat on a bench, and the words resonated, especially after all of my experiences of the previous three days.
I walked where in their talking graves
And shirts of earth five thousand lay,
When history with ten feasts of fire
Had eaten the red earth away.
‘I am Christ’s boy’, I cried, ‘I bear
In iron hands the bread, the fishes.
I hang with honey and with rose
This tidy wreck of all your wishes.
‘On your geometry of sleep
The chestnut and the fir-tree fly,
And lavender and marguerite
Forge with their flowers an English sky.
‘Turn now toward the belling town
Your jigsaws of impossible bone,
And rising, read your rank of snow
Accurate as death upon the stone.’
About your easy heads my prayers
I said with syllables of clay,
‘What gift,’ I asked, ‘shall I bring now
Before I weep and walk away?’
Take, they replied, the oak and laurel,
Take our fortune of tears and live
Like a spendthrift lover. All we ask
Is the one gift you cannot give.
Across from the cemetery, the Bayeux War Memorial pays tribute to the British soldiers that do not have a final resting place after losing their lives in WWII. Each name is etched in the marble façade of the memorial, making sure they are remembered and that loved ones do have a place to come to and visit.
I was also able to make a quick trip to the Bayeux Cathedral, a stunning feat of architecture and art. The cathedral was started in the 11th century in the Norman style and then was rebuilt in the 1200s in the gothic style (after some civil wars with the sons of William the Conquerer). It was quite busy when I visited, but I wasn’t surprised, since it was the Day of the Assumption, and the cathedral is dedicated to Notre Dame.
Unfortunately, I did not get the chance to see the famous Bayeux Tapestry (which I found out is technically not a tapestry, since it is woven and not embroidered).
Bayeux itself is a gorgeous small town that serves as a great home location to visit the major sites of Normandy and also to stroll the streets of a old French village. It survived World War II unscathed, not falling to bombing or battle, and is a place that I would love to visit again.