More inhumanity has been done by man himself than any other of nature’s causes.Samuel von Pufendorf
A Morning Like Any Other
On June 10th 1944, the sun rose as usual over the woods surrounding Oradour sur Glane. The morning light reflected off the river and slowly warmed the golden stone buildings in the village. It was a day like any other, and nobody could have imagined the horrific events that would unfold over the coming hours.
Oradour was a peaceful, idyllic town nestling in the French countryside just 30 kilometres from the city of Limoges. Life there was good, despite the Nazi occupation of the region. The German forces had little reason to bother the sleepy village and its agricultural roots meant that food was in good supply. As a result, life went on largely as it had always done.
Like most French towns at the time, Oradour had many restaurants and cafés as well as bakeries and modern stores selling everything that the locals might need. Children attended separate boys and girls schools in the village six days a week and on Sundays would buy toffees in the stores, explore the local woods or fish for gudgeon in the River Glane.
A tramline ran from Oradour into Limoges, allowing people to work in the city and earn good money. In contrast, at weekends, the city folk would come the other way, to picnic under the willows by the river, to fish and to eat and drink in the village’s restaurants and bars.
German Soldiers Arrive in Oradour sur Glane
This is how things were on that Saturday in June – at least until early afternoon. At around 2 pm the locals started to notice the presence of German soldiers in the village. There was no immediate concern as the S.S. had always been courteous and respectful in the past. Over the next two hours, the number of soldiers on the streets steadily increased, and people were ordered to leave their homes and assemble on the village green. A sense of unease gradually started to take hold, but the soldiers explained that they were conducting a simple identity check. This was enough to reassure most of the inhabitants, who had their papers all in order. The children were fetched from the schools, and by 3.00 pm, over 600 people were gathered on the green.
Separating the Men, Women and Children
With all of the buildings empty and the population assembled outside, the Germans gave the order for the inhabitants to separate. The men were made to stand on one side of the green and the women and children on the other. The women and children were taken to the village church, a short distance from the green. Everyone assumed that they were being taken to shelter from the hot afternoon sun.
The soldiers split the men into six groups and led them to different barns around the village. They were told that they would be held in these locations whilst their houses were searched for arms, before being released. Their explanation reassured the men until, at 4 pm, a grenade detonated somewhere in the distance. The explosion was a signal to the Germans, who immediately settled behind their machine guns and opened a deafening barrage of fire. The soldiers aimed at the legs of their victims so they would fall and bleed to death on the ground. This scene played out simultaneously in all six barns where the men were held.
Meanwhile, the same fate tragically awaited the women and children who had been ushered into the church. They were assassinated in cold blood, bringing the total number of people killed in Oradour sur Glane that afternoon to 642.
The Village Set Ablaze
In an attempt to destroy the evidence of their heinous acts, the German soldiers set the town alight, and the fires blazed for days to come. Today the burned remains of the village still stand, untouched for over 75 years. General de Gaulle visited the scene sometime after the events and declared that “the ruins must be preserved so that future generations might see, realise and never forget where such evil folly may lead”.
Oradour sur Glane Today
Walking the streets of the old village of Oradour today is an eerie, emotional and in many ways surreal experience. Remnants of everyday life are visible everywhere. Bicycles hang from barn walls, and sewing machines lie where they once sat on kitchen tables. Cooking pots and utensils are strewn around fireplaces inside the broken and crumbling walls of peoples homes. Outside, the burned and rusted shells of family cars can be found. One stands in solitude alongside the village green where the people were assembled after being forced from their homes. Others can be seen on driveways or in the remains of barns and garages. Most of the tramlines that connected Oradour and Limoges were pulled up long ago, but they remain here in the village. An old petrol pump stands alongside the tracks still carrying its metal ‘B.P.’ marker plate with the ID number 3071.
The slideshow below shows some images of Oradour sur Glane today.
Despite the fires, the structure of the church survived intact, and it stands as a sombre shrine to the women, children and babies who lost their lives inside. As you enter the village, a simple sign greets you with the words ‘Souviens-toi – Remember’. Plaques displayed outside various buildings indicate where atrocities took place, but not in a voyeuristic way. Their overriding message is ‘Recueillez-vous’ or ‘Reflect & pray’.
The Six Survivors
Only six people survived the bloodbath in Oradour sur Glane that day. One woman – Madam Rouffanche – escaped by jumping from a window behind the altar in the church. Moments earlier, her young daughter had been gunned down and killed where she stood. The woman hid, terrified, between rows of peas in a neighbouring garden and stayed there until she was rescued at 5 pm the following day.
Five men who had been held in Laudy’s barn also survived the atrocities. They managed to escape through a back door and hid in rabbit hutches or wherever they could avoid the flames until it was safe to appear. The village cemetery is the resting place for those who were killed in the massacre. Countless tombs and headstones commemorate those who lost their lives that day. Certainly the most touching are the graves of the children who were killed. Simple words mark their loss alongside ceramic tiles showing faded pictures of their innocent faces.
A Tragic Case of Mistaken Identity?
The German soldiers who entered Oradour all belonged to the 3rd Company of the S.S. regiment called ‘Der Furher’. Der Furher was part of the Second Panzer Division ‘Das Reich’. The reasons why the S.S. decided to massacre an entire French community that day have never been entirely determined. German soldiers had surrounded the village, leaving no possible means of escape before closing in. Their intentions were clear and scrupulously planned. One theory relates to reports of a captured Waffen-SS officer being held in the nearby town of Oradour sur Vayre. Was this bloodbath an act of retaliation and, if so, could the choice of Oradour sur Glane be a tragic case of mistaken identity?
The New Oradour
Today a new town of Oradour stands close to the martyred village. It was General de Gaulle’s wish not only to preserve the original site, but that a new Oradour should be built nearby. The new town was inaugurated in 1953 and has grown into a community of two thousand people. The inhabitants have risen to the challenges of the past, and life has returned to normal. The permanent reminder of the tragedy on their doorstep attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
The War Trials
Trials eventually took place in Bordeaux in 1953 and Berlin in 1983, although little justice was served on the perpetrators of the massacre in Oradour sur Glane. On Friday, February 13th 1953, at 2.30 in the morning, the court in Bordeaux announced its verdict. Several people received death sentences and others hard labour or prison terms for their part in the events. Moments later, however, all of the accused walked from the courtroom as free men. When the people of Oradour heard this news, they were outraged – it was a slight to all of the victims and their families. The town’s mayor Monsieur Fougeras immediately returned the Legion of honour which had been bestowed on the village. This marked the start of a 17-year rupture in relations between Oradour and the State.
If you have the opportunity, I urge you to visit Oradour sur Glane. It is a phantom village – a window onto the horrors of war and a reminder of man’s potential inhumanity to man. Above all, remember the events of that day and pay respects to the victims – I promise it is an experience that will stay with you forever.
If you are interested in visiting some of France’s ‘hiddem gems’, including itineraries that take in Oradour sur Glane, then please don’t hesitate to contact me.
A Survivor’s Account
If you would like to read more about the tragic events in Oradour sur Glane I can recommend this hour by hour account from one of the 6 survivors, Robert Hébras. His incredible story is available both on Amazon UK and Amazon US – please use the relevant link below:
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