642 people died in one day in the once thriving village of Oradour-sur-Glane. Was this caused by a natural disaster or perhaps an industrial accident? No, this was a premeditated massacre during World War II.
Four days after the Normandy Landings, on the 10th June 1944, 200 German soldiers surrounded the village. They were on their way north to support the troops on the front line and planned to clean up pockets of resistance fighters on their way. But the village they chose contained no known members of the resistance and was mostly made up of old men, women and children.
I’ve come to see for myself the result of this horrific historical act. The ruins of the 1944 village lie to the east of the new concrete creation which replaced it and entrance is gained via a tunnel from a Memorial Centre and Museum, completed in 1999 and carefully concealed beneath the local landscape.
I want to experience the village without being disturbed by the inevitable school groups who are on a history field trip and so I arrive just after it opens at 9am. It’s a chilly morning but the sight of all the burnt out houses is even more chilling. Along the main street, shops and business are marked by plaques but inside I only see piles of wall stones and roof tiles, plus the occasional rusting pot still hanging in a fireplace. There are buckled bedframes, fallen from the upstairs living quarters, tools of the trade, motor vehicles (some half-buried beneath collapsed walls) and sewing machines. Almost every building has a rusty old Singer sewing machine inside and soon they become a symbol for me of the number of families who lost their lives here over 70 years ago.
Located in the far east of the village is the church. From the outside it looks intact but inside it is open to the sky. By the door lies a large, melted, iron bell, a reminder of the fact that the church was set on fire with 241 women and 204 children inside. To the north I find the cemetery, full of graves from the 18th century to the present day. At the back is a large pillar, a memorial to the martyrs, and below it are two graves containing the bones and ashes of some of those who died that day. But what I find more disturbing are the 9 huge plaques which are needed to list all the names of the dead and the smaller memorials featuring faded black and white photographs of the villagers. Seeing the faces of those who died somehow makes it seem so much more real. In the Memorial Centre they have a temporary exhibition called “Oradour, Visages” (Oradour, Faces), a video showing photos of the martyrs and complemented with a soundtrack listing their names and ages, although some still remain faceless to this day.
Next to the cemetery, I find another memorial and a crypt displaying some of the items found in the village after the massacre which reminds us of the life that existed there before the soldiers arrived. Dirty spectacles, broken pocket watches, religious statues, singed bank notes, children’s toys, metal cutlery, warped glass bottles and dozens of white porcelain ink pots recovered from the school.
So, how did I feel as I walked back along the tram tracks of the main street? Well, I felt sad for the past, concerned for the present but hopeful for the future. And could I feel the spirits of the departed souls? Well, perhaps they were calling to me through the melodic birdsong of the great tits, wrens, warblers and blackbirds which accompanied me on my visit. Although the cackling crow high in a pine tree made me think about the 200 soldiers who took part in the senseless slaughter. Finally, I doubt if I will ever be able to look at a Singer sewing machine again without thinking of the martyr village of Oradour-sur-Glane and the 642 villages who lost their lives on the 10th June 1944.