I visited Oradour-sur-Glane in the Limousin region many years ago. The town is known as the village of the martyrs, a sad memorial to it’s tragic past and the atrocity that took place there on 10 June 1944…
I had been camping along the Atlantic Coast on my way to a rugby match at Nontron. It was mid June and the weather was gloriously hot. Passing a sign for Oradour-sur-Glane my companion and I decided to stop off and visit. He knew more than I about it. A village destroyed during World War II by occupying forces he said, it had been left almost exactly as it was one terrible day in June, 1944.
The memory of that visit has never left me. Although a sunny day, I nevertheless shivered as I surveyed the complete destruction that was laid out before me. The explanation my friend had given was in no way preparation for the sight that met my eyes and the story that unfolded and I am not ashamed to tell you that I cried when I heard what had happened here.
I visited again in June 2014. There have been big changes. A visitor centre has been erected and through a series of photographs, information boards, film and artefacts, the story of what happened in this once prosperous rural village is revealed as far as is known. For the fact is, to this day, no-one can say for sure why the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich unit wreaked such terrible havoc on the village and its people.
This visit was no less poignant than my first time though the elements have taken their toll on this eerily quiet, still place.
German forces, reeling from the Normandy D-Day landing battles sought to repress French Resistance activity, fearing that it could get out of control. Although no one can say precisely why Oradour-sur-Glane was their target it is thought that the SS unit patrolling the area decided to make an example of the village and terrify others into submission.
It isn’t easy for me to write this, the words are hard to find that can convey the sheer awfulness of man’s inhumanity to man. The SS unit rounded the villagers up, herded women and children into a church and the men into groups in various buildings in the town. They then massacred them. 642 people ranging from babies to the old and infirm were murdered. 240 women and 205 children were asphyxiated, machine-gunned and burnt alive in the church. The men were shot. The town was then systematically destroyed. Every house, shop, bike shed, chicken coop was decimated.
When years later the time to clear up came, it was decided to build a new town and to leave the old village exactly as it is. Cars rust in the streets, an upturned pram, a doll, pair of spectacles – the detritus of everyday life has been left as it was that terrible day. A memorial to the victims and a reminder that we should do all we can to ensure such days never come again. It must be said, this does not make for a happy visit but it is an incredibly powerful experience, one that stuns all those who go there.
As Victor Hugo, the great French writer once said “Those who live must think of the dead”…