LA MORT EN FRANCE / DEATH IN FRANCE
I’m on holiday in south-west France at the moment. Today I visited a village called Oradour-sur-Glane. I was going to use this blogposting to tell you all about my visit. That will have to wait for next time, though. I think that the most important story to tell you is the story of the village itself.
By the summer of 1944, Germany was already beginning to lose the war. It had begun to retreat on many fronts: in Scandinavia, the Low Countries, on the Russian Front and in France, too, where the Army of occupation was steadily moving eastwards towards the German border.
In June, a German battalion of the Das Reich Division reached the little village of Oradour-sur-Glane, nestling deep in the sleepy French countryside west of Limoges. And on June 10, they committed a massacre of unimaginable savagery there.
Firstly, they surrounded the village with artillery, armoured cars and troops.
Then they advanced into the village in about a dozen lorries. Detachments of soldiers were placed in various positions around the village.
The next step was to sound the village drum - a signal for the inhabitants to gather on the village green.
Everyone obeyed, naturally. The whole place was, after all, surrounded - and in any case, they had no obvious reason to try to escape. They didn’t know what the Germans had in mind.
Except for a little 8-year-old boy called Roger Godfrin. He was a refugee from Lorraine, over in eastern France. Already orphaned, he knew what ‘they’ were capable of. He escaped through a garden and ran away into the forest.
On the village green, the Germans divided the inhabitants into two large groups - women and children on one side, menfolk on the other.
The women and children were led away to the parish church - to what they thought was sanctuary.
The men were divided into several small groups and led away to three barns, two garages, a warehouse and a hangar.
The whole village fell silent for over two hours until a single explosion signalled the beginning of the slaughter.
The menfolk at each of the holding points were machine-gunned. The Germans aimed at their legs and then walked amongst them, killing each one in turn.
Having decided that this work was complete, they piled up the bodies, covered them with anything that would burn and set fire to them.
Many of the victims, though, had not died. They were burned alive.
The women and children of the village had, meanwhile, been locked inside the church. A barrel of poison gas was exploded in front of the high altar and in the ensuing panic and terror, German soldiers opened fire through the church windows. They kept firing until they ran out of ammunition and could see that the church floor was strewn with dead bodies.
Two women, and the baby of one of them, escaped from the church. Mme Rouffanche hid behind the high altar then jumped through a stained-glass window. The other woman followed suit but she and her baby were seen and mown down on the street outside the church.
Later that night, when the acrid poison smoke had cleared, the Germans returned to the church, built up a pile of pews and chairs and ignited it. The church, and everyone in it, was consumed by fire.
Before they left Oradour-sur-Glane next day, the Germans set fire to every building in the village.
Mme Rouffanche and little Roger Godfrin were the only survivors of the slaughter.
642 people were murdered - 197 men, 240 women and 205 children. They included 5 cyclists who happened to be passing through Oradour-sur-Glane that morning and two children whose bullet-ridden bodies were found huddled together in the church’s confessional.
The man in charge that day was Lieutenant Barth, who, after the war, lived undisturbed and under his own name in East Germany until 1981.
At a tribunal in 1983, he admitted everything. He said he had simply been following orders given to him by his CO, Commandant Dickmann. He said he knew of no reason why Oradour-sur-Glane had been chosen for this treatment.
He also said he had no regrets. ‘In wartime, one acts harshly, and with any means available.’
Commandant Dickmann was killed in Normandy shortly after the events at Oradour-sur-Glane.
In 1945, General de Gaulle decreed that Oradour-sur-Glane was the ‘Martyred Village’ and that it should be preserved exactly as it was on the day the Germans left and after the last human remains had been removed.
And that’s how it is. As you walk around the ruins, the massacre coud have happened yesterday.
As you enter the village, there’s a large sign that says simply
It isn’t necessary.
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