NEWSLETTER 5 – 2005
By Roger Stanton
Many evaders in France were given help and shelter in small villages hidden in the triangle of roads linking Limoges, Angouleme, and Poitiers in the area of Limousin. Resistance activity was active in the Vallee de la Dordogne and causing concern to the German army. In France, before WW2, a traveller from Limoges to Angouleme would have marvelled at the rich and fertile farming country where the farmers specialise in animal breeding; at the meandering River Glane with willows and poplars growing on its bank, leading towards the 15th century church of Oradour sur Glane, a charming, attractive small village of Limousin, in the area of Rochechouart. In a 1936 census, the population of the area was 1,574, with 330 living in the town.
On the 10th June 1944, it was on this quiet, tranquil, and delightful village, that the Nazi war machine perpetrated perhaps the most monstrous and abominable crime in French history. The previous day 99 French hostages had been hanged at Tulle and, on the day after, 48 were executed by firing squad at Mussidan.
On the morning of Saturday the 10 June 1944, the 3rd Coy, SS ‘der Fuhrer’ Regiment, which was part of the 2nd (das Reich) Panzer Division, had behaved with great brutality towards the inhabitants of Rochechouart prior to moving on, later in the day, to the village of Oradour-sur-Glane. At that time the village was bustling with people. By about 1400hrs, most had taken lunch, although it was still being served at the Milord hotel in the village where many holiday guests were staying. Seven teachers and 191 pupils were registered at the local school that day including 21 refugee pupils from Alsace – Lorraine. None were to survive.
At 1415hrs, ten vehicles (five lorries, two half-tracks, and three cars), entered the town and stopped near to the church. The SS swiftly alighted their vehicles and immediately forced entry to all the houses in the village. The occupants, even the sick, were ordered to an assembly point in the market square. Some people rapidly grasped the situation and instead evaded the roundup, heading out to open countryside, only to be gathered in by troops surrounding the village and forced back to the market square. By 1500, the entire population were assembled on the square. The Germans demanded thirty hostages. The Mayor, Doctor Desourteaux, refused and offered himself and his entire family instead. The SS ignored his pleas.
The population was divided into two groups: the women and children, and the men. The men were forced to face the wall and the women and children taken by 10 SS soldiers to the church. At 1530 the men were then marched to seven barns in the village. Five minutes later the SS opened fire on the barns with machine guns, followed up by the execution of those not already dead, with pistols. Minutes later hay, straw, ladders, and anything that would burn was piled on to the bodies.
Monsieur Roby was eighteen and still alive, when the SS returned and set fire to the barn and its contents. The air was dense, and breathing difficult, but Roby escaped through a broken wooden wall and hid under some straw in a different area together with four friends who had also escaped, one suffering from four bullet wounds. With their ‘hide’ now alight the men moved once again. After three hours their new hiding place was also alight, and they moved once more only to have the burning roof fall in on to them. The men left the barn and crossed through scrub to a coppice, then on to the middle of a rye field where they spent the night. Roby returned to his home at 1100 on Sunday morning when the SS had left the village.
More savage and horrific was the massacre of the women and children in the church. Again, the SS used machine guns to massacre the women and children, and again the building was set alight. Only one lady, Madame Marguerite Rouffanche from Limoges, escaped, but she lost all her family. Madame Rouffanche was not hit but remained motionless with her eyes closed. With the church full of flames and smoke she took advantage of the smoke to move behind the altar, where she grabbed the stool used to light the altar candles and climbed through the shattered windows, falling nine feet to the ground below. A second lady with a baby tried to follow but the baby cried and mother and baby were mown down by machined gun fire. While these massacres were taking place, other SS entered all the houses and buildings, executing anyone they found, then setting the building alight or blowing it up. Anyone entering the village was shot on sight. Each house was carefully searched before torching, and emptied of its valuable contents. The SS did not leave empty handed.
The total number of victims who died in the massacre was 642. The number of villagers who escaped was in single figures. On the 10 July 1945, the Court of Rochechouart pronounced that all the victims of the massacre on the 10 June 1944, should carry in the register of death, the inscription;
‘Died for France’
In January 1953, the trial of those identified as responsible began. There was no officer on trial, only twenty one enlisted men; the officers could not be traced. The trial satisfied no one, leaving the local people disgusted as only two men were sentenced to death, the Sergeant Major and a Sergeant, with the rest receiving light jail sentences. Later, on the 21 February, all were granted an amnesty by the French Parliament. On that day, Oradour returned to the State the Cross of the Legion of Honour and the Military Cross that had been presented proudly to the village a few years earlier.
In 1996, I visited Oradour sur Glane. There is a small office at the entrance to the town, where staff were extremely helpful, and answered all my questions. The village is unusually quiet. There appeared to be no birds. The village remains as it was left by the SS on that terrible day in June ‘44. Cars remain where their owners left them, burned out. Charred sewing machines and charred meals and plates are still on tables. Babies’ prams lie burned out. No repairs have been attempted and no building work undertaken. No one lives there. The village is the Martyrs Memorial. The martyrs bodies were all entombed in the cemetery within a very tall memorial. The only changes to the town are the Martyrs Memorial, the cemetery and the small information office on the edge of the town. Two signs mark the entrance to the town: ‘Souviens–Toi’ and ‘Remember’. The visitor is asked to be silent as they walk around the town.
I would like to thank the staff at the information office for their help, and for providing me with the official publication of the Remembrance Committee, of The Association Nationale of the Families of the Martyrs of Oradur-sur-Glane. Written by Dr Pierre Masfrand, Curator of the ruins of Oradour sur Glane, and also Guy Pauchou, sub-prefect of Rochehouart. Much of the information above is taken from the official publication by these two men.
Should you wish to visit Oradur-sur-Glane. Head south from Poitiers along the N147, through Bellac, to Limoges. On reaching Limoges, head NW on the N141. Leave the N141 at the turning for the D9, a right hand turn. The D9 will take you to the village. Distance from Limoges is approx. 20km. The junction with the D9 is approximately 12km from Limoges.