Oradour-sur-Glane, June 1944

Tuesday 18 June 2019

Just seventy-five years and eight days ago, on June 10 1944, four days after D-Day, a group of SS soldiers entered, then surrounded, the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, north of Limoges.

At the time, the area was within Vichy France. In simple terms, when France surrendered early in the war, France, under General Petain, offered to police an area of the country on behalf of the Germans. This area, to the east, had its capital in Vichy. The Germans managed the arc of the west and north of France, essentially the coast.

This arrangement served both parties well but, as the resistance developed, groups targeted both the Germans and the Vichy ‘traitors’.

The SS were brutal in their punishment of the resistance, and did not hesitate to make an ‘example’ of, or wreak sadistic revenge upon, villages thought to be supporting the resistance. But Oradour-sur-Glane wasn’t one. Why what happened next happened at all, is still a matter of conjecture.

At first, the nazis told the Mayor, Jean Desourteaux, that there was to be an identity check and that everyone must assemble on the Champ de Foire whilst this took place.

After rounding up all the inhabitants they could find, the SS changed their message to one of searching for hidden arms, explosives and prohibited merchandise. Local people, knowing they’d find nothing, were relaxed about the search.

The soldiers said that while they searched for the arms, the women and children must wait in the church,

and the men in nearby barns and workshops.

The women and children were marched off to the church, the children being encouraged by the soldiers to sing as they went. After they had left, the men were divided into six groups and led to different buildings in the village under armed guard.

When the people were all safely shut away, the SS began to kill them all.

A large gas bomb, seemingly made out of smoke-screen grenades and intended to asphyxiate the occupants, was placed in the church. It did not work as intended so the SS had to use machine guns and hand grenades to disable and kill the women and children.

Bullet holes can still be seen in the church.

After they had subdued all the occupants of the church, the soldiers piled wood on the bodies, many of whom were still alive, and set it alight.

One person managed to escape alive from the church, a Madame Rouffanche. She saw her younger daughter sitting next to her killed by a bullet as they attempted to find shelter in the vestry. Madame Rouffanche then ran to the altar end of the church

where she found a stepladder used to light the candles. Placing the ladder behind the altar, she climbed up and threw herself through a window, onto the ground three metres below.

As she picked herself up, a woman holding her baby tried to follow, but they were seen by the soldiers and both woman and child were killed.

In spite of being shot and wounded five times, Madame Rouffanche escaped round the back of the church and dug herself into the earth between some rows of peas, where she remained hidden until late the next day.

At the same time that the gas bomb exploded in the church, the SS fired their machine guns into the men crowded in the buildings,

such as this garage,

where the event is recorded.

Lieu du supplice translates as place of torture. The nazis deliberately fired low, so that many of the men were badly wounded but not killed. The soldiers then piled wood and straw on the bodies and set it alight, so many of the men burned to death.

Six men did manage to escape from Madame Laudy’s barn,

but one of them was seen and shot dead. The other five, all wounded, got away under cover of darkness.

While these killings were taking place, soldiers searched the village for any people who had evaded the initial roundup. They killed them where they were found. One invalid man was burned to death in his bed and a baby was baked to death in the local boulangerie’s ovens. Other people were killed and their bodies thrown down a well.

People attempting to enter the village to see what was going on, were shot dead.

However, a local tram

that arrived during the killings, was emptied of passengers who, after several terrifying minutes, were let go in peace.

After killing all the villagers they could find, the soldiers set the whole village ablaze and, early the next day, laden with anything of value stolen from the houses, they left.

The soldiers journeyed on up through France to Normandy and joined the rest of the German army attempting to throw the D-Day invasion back into the sea. Many of them, including Sturmbannfuhrer Adolf Diekmann, who led the attack on Oradour-sur-Glane, were killed in the Normandy battles.

Oradour-sur-Glane stands preserved as it was on June 10 1944, a silent memorial to the deaths of 642 children, women and men.

There is a level of macabre voyeurism in visiting the site, seeing the cars,

this, known as the ‘doctor’s car’, although I’ve read accounts that it is the wine-merchant’s car.

Either way, it’s the ‘frozen-in-time’ image that sums up the town.

And these.

Looking into the houses, so many of which have a sewing machine,

being solid enough to withstand the fire,

or bikes,

or other domestic scenes,

one might view it as a sad curiosity, but when you carry the images from the photographs of the people,

still memorialised in the cemetery,

as their families still live nearby,

and do not euphemistically refer

to being killed by hostiles or aggressors,

but to being massacred and burned by nazis, nazi hordes or barbarians, the tragic humanity overrides everything.

They were people like you and I, with families like ours, hopeful that their ordinary lives in their lovely town would flourish beyond the period of uncertainty and conflict. Then one Sunday afternoon, for reasons the world doesn’t fully understand, they were slaughtered.

Speculations look at the resistance, misunderstandings of events around the capture of a senior German officer, a gay relationship, or possible misunderstanding of places – Oradour-sur-Vayres is nearby.

After the war, people were tried but given amnesties, creating much anger on all sides.

If you’re as intrigued as I was, read this website. It’s a bit repetitive because the author is building his arguments, but it brings together all the events and theories about why the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane happened. It’s worth sitting down with a coffee.

The decaying village remains,

but the presence of those that lived there is tangible in the details,

like this collection of inkwells from the school desks.

How do such horrific events happen? I didn’t know of this story, but I believe everyone should know about it. In 1944 we were a civilised and sophisticated society, yet barbarity on this scale could happen. Lessons had not been learned after the war to end all wars. Looking around the world today, who thinks we can be complacent?

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