Updated: Jun 8
In the first of four special blog posts, I take a look at what happened on 10 June 1944, in this famous village in Haute-Vienne, France. Further posts will cover the people of the village, the question of why this place was chosen, and finally a profile of two of the very last remaining survivors, who recently passed away.
Oradour-sur-Glane is a name seared into French consciousness. It was the scene of a tragedy singular to France's modern history, and unmatched in Western Europe. Over the course of almost eight decades it has become an important part of French political and historical vocabulary. Oradour's material remains were frozen in time when General De Gaulle ordered that this village martyr be preserved as a national monument to France's collective suffering during the German occupation. Hundreds of thousands of people continue to visit the site each year. What happened there that rendered this a place of such historical importance?
Just after lunch on a warm Saturday afternoon in June 1944, a battalion of approximately 200 men from the now infamous SS Panzer division "Das Reich" drove over the bridge that traversed the river Glane, linking the ancient village with the nearby city of Limoges. As a number of half-track vehicles and trucks passed through the main street that wound uphill past the church, and towards the village square, troops with weapons in their hands surveyed the shops and houses. The villagers looked on with a mix of fear and curiosity. They had no idea that a perimeter had already been set up whichincluded some of the farms and hamlets around the main village. Anyone inside the perimeter was rounded-up, whether native to Oradour or not. They were taken to the town square. No identity checks were carried out, but there was a long wait. The village, the mayor was told, would be thoroughly searched for weapons hidden there by the Resistance. Everybody who overheard was confident that nothing would be found because there was no resistance activity to speak of in the village.
Eventually the men were separated from the women and children, and put into groups. They were taken to barns and outbuildings. The women and children were taken to the village's ancient church. After an hour or so of waiting the men were shot, their bodies covered with old wooden farming equipment, bundles of kindling wood, and anything else that would help set them alight including phosphorous brought into the village for the task. The animals were set free to find their way to safety while the village was systematically set ablaze.
The women and children, meanwhile, had been locked inside the tiny church and could only guess at what was happening to the male members of their families. Very soon after the shootings outside, an incendiary device which had been calmly brought inside by two soldiers began to billow black smoke. Those who were not asphyxiated in the panic were hit by spray after spray of bullets. Finally, once church pews and furniture had been thrown onto the stacked bodies, the church was set alight. The heat of the inferno was such that the bell in the church tower melted and fell.
Overall, 643 men, women and children were slaughtered. Only a small number of people survived. Six men who were assumed to be dead, managed to escape from one of the burning barns. One woman, Marguerite Rouffanche, crawled through a window in the church before being shot and left for dead outside. She had just witnessed the death of her daughters and baby grandson. One young boy, Roger Godfrin, ran away from a school that had been set up for refugee children from Alsace Lorraine. Small groups of others managed to hide and remain undetected. Some fled at the first sight of the Nazis though not all got through the perimeter of guards. These rare survivors provided vital eyewitness accounts.
Other accounts were recorded by parents living in hamlets that fell outside the perimeter of the round-up, whose children they had sent to school that same morning. The four village schools were filled with children. They had been preparing for a religious procession that was to take place the next day, and were also due a medical check. They walked calmly to the round up having been told they were to be photographed. Many of those parents saw events unfold from afar, as smoke rose. They told of a growing sense of panic and then grief. Some of them died by going to the village trying to collect their little ones, others were witness to the horrors of the immediate aftermath, entering the site while SS sentries were still patrolling the smoking embers.
Nobody was spared at Oradour, pétainist, collaborator or otherwise. In fact, no identity checks were even made. Killing was indiscriminate. The erasure of a whole community from the map of France would warn the county's population. The implication was that more would follow should Resistance activity continue in a region that had earned the nickname of 'Little Russia' among the Nazi commanders on the ground. There had been no Resistance activity in Oradour, but that was unimportant. There had been a lot of Resistance activity in the wider region and Oradour was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Proposals were put forward for the site of the massacre to be preserved as a memorial even before the end of 1944. General De Gaulle concurred and the 'village martyr' became a historical object, a site of memory.
In his book Prisoners of History: What Monuments to the Second World War Tell Us About Our History and Ourselves, Keith Lowe compares Oradour to another community ended suddenly. "The whole village' he writes 'has the atmosphere of having been abandoned in a hurry, as if in response to a natural disaster: it is like a modern-day Pompeii. In a way that is exactly what happened, although there was nothing natural about the disaster that engulfed this place".
This is the first of four special blog posts.
My book about Oradour-sur-Glane, Silent Village: Life and Death in Occupied France is available from all good booksellers. Follow the link on my website to purchase signed copies.