On the 10th of June 1944, four days after D-Day, a retreating German SS Panzer division entered the town of Oradour-Sur-Glane in the Haute-Vienne region of France and killed 642 men, women and children. This was essentially the entire population of the town.
This was the worst civilian atrocity carried out in France during World War II.
Oradour-Sur-Glane has been preserved in the state that it was left in on that day, as a memorial to the hundreds of civilians who lost their lives.
We took a visit to Oradour-Sur-Glane on a gloriously sunny winter morning, to see what had been left behind.
The first thing that struck me, walking down the gutted and empty streets to the sound of birdsong, was quite how large this village had been. This was no backwater hamlet. This had been a thriving town. A tram line ran down the centre of the street, and there were countless houses on either side, and on the side streets leading away.
So often when I have heard about war atrocities, the numbers involved are unimaginable to my mind. How can I imagine six million – the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust? It’s just so big of a number that it stuns my imagination. It becomes almost unreal.
Even 642 is a tricky number to put into perspective. Visiting Oradour-Sur-Glane brought that number to life for me.
The houses are labelled. Some labels state who used to live there. Other depict the function of the building. There were cafes, butchers, bakers, hairdressers. A school. An entire community of people, who up to the 10th of June, had no doubt been hoping to get through the war alive.
The very human nature of the village is what is perhaps so striking. This is no concentration camp designed from the outset for mass murder. This was a place where people lived out their lives, where families were raised. That is incredibly apparent, even sixty years on, and it is terribly moving.
The reasons behind the events of the 10th June are not entirely clear. It seems there may have been a misunderstanding, that the village was mistaken for another village, thought to be harbouring resistance fighters. Personally I think trying to apply reasoning to acts like this is folly of itself. There can never be a reason to murder this many people in such a brutal manner.
At the end of the village street, which runs for about two thirds of a kilometre, is the village church. This was where the most unspeakable of acts was carried out. Into this church were herded the women and children of the village.
Of the 241 women and 205 children who were herded in, some only weeks old, only one made it out alive. The rest were first gassed, then shot, then burned.
Today, the only obvious visual reminder of this atrocity are the bullet holes in the church walls and altar.
Within the village grounds, by the cemetery, sits a memorial, where personal artefacts and the stories to accompany them can be found. The cemetery holds all that is left of the towns inhabitants, as well as a wall listing all the victims.
Just next to the original town of Oradour-Sur-Glane is the new town. Walking around here was another difficult experience. It’s another town, full of life and people. But for the acts that occurred on the 10th of June 1944, this town wouldn’t be here as it is. The dead village is the one where, were the world a kinder place, the streets should be alive and vibrant.
I don’t really have brilliant closing words for this post. War is clearly a terrible thing. And it’s not something that has gone away in the time since this tragedy. I’m just lucky to live in a time period where the countries I live in are relatively peaceful. Visiting places like Oradour-Sur-Glane help remind me of that fact. Thanks for reading, and as always, do share your thoughts in the comments section below.