Travel at a Natural Pace; Enjoy the Journey

Main Street, Oradour-sur-Glane, France

Anyone staying in the Limoges area of France or travelling on the A20 should make time to visit the Martyr Village of Oradour-sur-Glane. Martin and Alison Wilson took a few hours out of their journey back to the Channel ports to visit and share their saddening and emotional experience.

There is modern visitor centre, Centre de la Mémoire, with a large car park. It was half-empty when we visited in late June. Access to the village is through the centre where one can pick up the essential map and booklets about the tragedy. A map or other guide is needed to be able to follow the events that resulted in the destruction of the village and the 642 victims.

A Place for Remembrance and Quiet Reflection

Entering the Martyr Village, one is struck by the quiet. On our visit in June there were many small groups walking slowly around the village taking in the details. Conversation was in hushed tones and even the children in the groups seemed to appreciate the solemnity as the events were explained to them.

In 1944, Oradour-sur-Glane was a sleepy village. It was popular as a day out in the country for visitors from Limoges who took the tram to the village. Since the invasion, Oradour appeared to have seen little of German troops or military activity. The events of June 10 1944 came as surprise to everyone.

Apart from removing the victim's remains and the rubble from the streets the village has been kept much as it was when the Germans left after the few hours it took to destroy a village and its people.

The start of the tragedy will soon unfold for the visitor, as there is a memorial by a well in the garden of the first houses.  Searchers discovered bodies in the well in the days after the tragedy. The road curves round towards the main street and the junction with the Fairground where one passes Denis' wine store. It is the first of the killing places where the German troops killed the men. Just across the road at the end of the Fairground is the Beaulieu workshop where another group died.Car of Dr Descourteaux Oradour-sur-Glane

In the wider space at the bottom of the fairground the car of Doctor Desourteaux remains, rusting, where it was last left and has remained ever since. Walking through the village we were struck by how comprehensively the village was destroyed; only the main walls, usually just the façades, of the buildings remain. Most are blackened with soot as after the shootings the village and the victims were systematically burned.

On the right just before the church, the visitor will come to the Descourteaux Garage. Milord's barn is across the road on the corner of the square in front of the church and Bouchoule's barn is opposite. They were the killing places for three more groups of men.

Melted Church Bell Oradour-sur-GlaneThe church is particularly poignant as it is here the women and children died. After first being machine gunned the living and dead were covered with brushwood and furniture and set alight. The remains of the melted and collapsed church bell lies as testament to the ferocity of the fire. Yet even from here, Madame Rouffanche escaped despite her extensive wounds.

Returning back past Milord barn and towards the wide open space of the Fairground are the remains of Laudy barn on the left. It was here that the largest group of sixty men were killed, and where five young men managed to survive. Amongst them was Robert Hébras who subsequently wrote up the timetable of events; it is available as a booklet (in several languages) from the visitor centre. He and his friends escaped from under the bodies of the dead and dying even as the flames completed the destruction.

The German troops had arrived at half past one. By five o'clock, the killing was over. The troops searched the village, shooting any surviving witnesses they found. After looting the village, the soldiers put it to the torch, leaving just the Dupic house untouched. They stayed there overnight and drank the wine cellar dry. The soldiers destroyed the house as they left the following day.

Now One is Saying Why it Happened

Why did it happen? There has been much conjecture. There is no clear explanation despite many trials and courts martial. Suggestions include Frenchmen using Germans to settle rivalries, or revenge for the kidnapping of a German officer. All possibly compounded by the excessive zeal of the senior German officer. To add to the confusion it is possible the target should have been nearby Oradour-sur-Vayres. It had a more active Resistance cell and it is only a few kilometres away. More than sixty years on it is unlikely that the truth will ever appear. The many groups continue to protect reputations and "honour".

In some ways the old pictures in the Centre de la Mémoireare more distressing than the actual ruins which are cleaned up with no rubble in the streets.It is, perhaps, a bit too tidy and separated from the new town. There is a danger the village will become just another set of ancient ruins detached from the event that created them. It is an event that is passing into history as even children who survived and can remember will now be in their 70s. It all happened a lifetime ago and soon there will be no living witnesses to describe and remember what happened.

As one follows the guide map around the village and reads what happened, the true horror, even distress, grows in the mind.The visitor needs to spend time, read the plaques and relate the locations to the collective and individual tragedies. The Martyr Village is not a tourist site to charge round and tick off. It is a place to be mindful; a place where visitors should take time to reflect, to pause and imagine what it must have been like on that hot June day as the tragedy unfolded.

Memorial and Cooking Pot Oradour-sur-GlaneThe picture to the right is a poignant memorial to a very human tragedy. A whole family wiped out with a cooking pot serving as a reminder that it started out as just another Saturday...

Returning back through the fairground from the cemetery the clouds turned dark and threatening adding to the sombre mood. The Fairground was the same unchanged open space, once a place of joy and festivity, where the villagers were assembled before being taken off, unknowingly, to their places of execution elsewhere in the village.

As we were heading to the exit there was loud laughter and shouting. It was the noise of happy children, a school party of ten-year olds visiting the martyred village. It felt wrong and we felt irritation at the disruption of our private thoughts.

Alone with our Thoughts, and Hope

Entrance Sign Oradour-sur-Glane We drove on to our hotel in silence and the reflective mood persisted for the rest of the afternoon as we tried to make sense of our thoughts.  We spent the time reading Robert Hébras' chronicle of the day: Oradour-sur-Glane, The Tragedy, Hour by Hour (ISBN: 2-84702-006-3). It was not until the evening when we went for dinner that we were able to talk through our reaction to what we had seen and learnt. It is still impossible to understand the mind that, even in war, can commit such brutality; especially when the barbarity serves doubtful military purpose.

On reflection the lively chatter and laughter of the children gives hope. It is evidence that communities and the human spirit can recover from the darkest adversity. The new Oradour-sur-Glane is a large modern village of more than 2,000 people. Life has returned to normal. Importantly although there will now be few who experienced those awful events on the 10th June 1944 the new generation, and the many visitors, will remember.

Share Your Experience

If you have visited Oradour-sur-Glane what was your experience? Share your thoughts with a comment below.

References

  • Oradour-sur-Glane, The Tragedy, Hour by Hour (ISBN: 2-84702-006-3), Robert Hébras

Oradour-sur-Glane, The Tragedy Hour by Hour

 

Add new comment

Support The Winding Way

You can support The Winding Way at no cost to you by shopping at:


We get a small commission on your purchases but the price is the same to you.
extreme