For centuries, what made the medieval village of Oradour special was its succulent freshwater crayfish. A delicacy for lovers of good cuisine, they could be found in the clear, sparkling waters of the River Glane as it ran through the wide pastures of the Limousin region in south-central France.
This was a peaceful, pastoral village whose very name, Oradour, meant ‘a place of prayer’ in the local Occitan patois.
Until one sunny Saturday afternoon in June 1944 when a regiment from the ‘Das Reich’ panzer division of the Waffen-SS surrounded it and, in scenes of unimaginable horror, ripped it and its inhabitants apart, leaving nothing but smoking ruins with whole generations wiped out.
German troops, members of the SS Division ‘Das Reich’, who took part in the slaughters at Oradour-sur-Glane and Tulles, France
The smoke was asphyxiating, so women and children began screaming and crying for help (Destroyed houses in Oradour-sur-Glane)
What happened to Oradour-sur-Glane that day 77 years ago — in a crime against humanity which can be fairly compared with the Holocaust in terms of its savagery — is graphically revived in a powerful new book, Silent Village, by British historian Robert Pike.
In it, he goes behind the grim statistics and the terrible symbolism of its destruction, taking us back into the lives of the villagers as they went about their everyday business, unaware of the disaster that was about to engulf them.
Here was a group of individuals, each with his or her own story that brought them — unwittingly, innocently, haphazardly — to the wrong place at the wrong time and to their terrible collective fate. Knowing their connections, friendships and rivalries makes their brutal end even more tragic.
Surrounded by farms and hamlets, the village itself was a bustling bourg of some 150 homes, barns and buildings spread out along a partially cobbled street.
Its shops, restaurants and bars were a hive of activity and gossip. Blacksmiths and wheelwrights plied their trade alongside a cottage industry of clog-makers, glove-makers, weavers and dress-makers. The village had its own brass and wind orchestra and regular dances were held in one of the hotels.
Once a month a lively market for animals and produce was held on the champ de foire, the village square, as it had been for the past 400 years.
There were four schools — one for boys, one for girls, one for infants and one for refugees — all thriving, and, at the hub of the village, a church, the Eglise Saint-Martin, dating from the 12th century. The villagers were blessed, living in their own semi-gilded bubble away from the war engulfing much of the rest of France. They had not seen a German uniform on their streets since 1942 when a convoy of soldiers passed fleetingly through.
Indeed, unusually for the area there were no active members of the Maquis, the armed French Resistance, in the village. Oradour was happy to be a politics-free zone: ‘What mattered to them,’ writes Pike, ‘was putting food on the table and a trouble-free existence for their family.’
They typified the generally passive French attitude to their German occupiers. Shutters closed. Eyes shut. Waiting for it all to end.
This, then, was Oradour-sur-Glane on the morning of June 10, 1944. The children were in school, one of their teachers, Odette Couty, taking lessons for the last time before moving away to a new job.
Mechanic Robert Hébras should have been at work in Limoges that day but had been warned to stay away by his boss over a separate altercation his boss had had with a Nazi officer, so was at home, fitting an electric socket for a friend.
Men from nearby farms were making their Saturday trip in to pick up their weekly cigarette ration from the tabac. There was much chat in the bars about the village team’s football match tomorrow.
Such was the serendipity of who lived and who died.
It was around two in the afternoon when, out of nowhere, the air was shattered by the roar of engines, as trucks and troop carriers bristling with rifles and machine guns approached Oradour.
An undated picture of Roger Godfrin, survivor of a massacre during which 642 citizens including 500 women and children were killed locked up in a church intentionally set on fire by Nazis
The village erased by the Nazis on June 10, 1944 was the target of denialist tags in August. The only survivor still alive, Robert Hebras, is worried about seeing the national memory wither
Robert Hebras, 86, survivor of the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre walks in the main street of the village, on October 25, 2011
At her farm above the village Maria Démery, who had two sons at school in Oradour, put her washing down and watched as men got out of their vehicles and took up positions encircling the village. ‘I saw them lie down at the roadside, some pushed up on their elbows, others lay flat on their stomachs’.
Helmeted, heavily armed soldiers fanned out into the fields and set up a cordon around the village, trapping everyone inside. Inhabitants were rounded up at gunpoint or forced from their homes and shepherded to the square.
They were nervous, some in tears, but reassuring each other that this was just a routine identity check or some sort of military exercise. Nothing to worry about.
Mothers pushed babies in their prams. One old man had to be physically supported, having been forced out of his sick bed. Some villagers had been snatched from their workplaces — a baker stood semi-naked in his vest, still covered in flour from the bread he’d been making in his boulangerie.
Then came the schoolchildren, toddlers walking hand-in-hand in a line, their teachers calming them by telling them they were going to have their photograph taken.
In the square, four heavy machine guns awaited them. Soldiers carrying grenades were stacking up firewood. An armoured car arrived with more people picked up in the surrounding fields.
They were all left standing in the square for an hour. What was going on? Nobody knew. Nerves began to shred in the afternoon heat.
Then they were divided into two groups — men on the left, ordered to face a wall; women and children on the right, lined up together in a column. Fears grew. There were anguished cries.
As they were marched away to the village church, several women fainted.
Back in the square, the questioning began. Where was the Resistance’s arms stash? No one said — because there wasn’t one. The mayor was asked to select 50 hostages. He refused on principle.
The 200 men were split into six groups and herded into barns and warehouses in the village. Outside, machine-gun posts were set up.
Again they waited. Half an hour ticked by. Suddenly there was a loud boom from a tank and on this signal — it was clearly a planned operation — the Germans opened fire at random into the buildings.
‘Bullets screamed in from everywhere,’ Robert Hébras recalled, ‘ricocheting off the walls.’ Bodies fell under the hail of bullets and piled up.
‘The injured were crying out, howling, some calling for their wives and children,’ remembered one man. ‘The Germans came in and climbed on to the bodies to finish them off with a revolver.’
Another recalled: ‘A friend was laid across my chest and his blood was soaking me. I heard the breech of a gun click and then a muffled blow. I felt him shudder, tremble, then nothing more.’
Hébras himself was shot multiple times, but survived. ‘The bullets had passed through the others and by the time they reached me they no longer had the power to go in deep.’
Given that the Germans must have been aware that some of their victims were still alive, what came next was even more barbaric.
They hurled straw and wood on to the bodies and set the buildings ablaze. Another survivor recalled the soldiers, drunk on wine and champagne looted from the village bars, laughing as they did so.
In the village church, 250 women and more than 200 children were squashed in and the doors locked behind them. They felt safe enough in God’s house. Surely no harm could come to them there?
Farmer’s wife Marguerite Rouffanche recalled them all waiting anxiously. Suddenly two soldiers forced their way through, carrying a heavy box, which they left in front of the altar.
She noticed it had lots of white strings hanging out. Several moments later a muffled detonation came from within the box and acrid black smoke began pouring out of it, filling the entire church.
The smoke was asphyxiating, so women and children began screaming and crying for help.
‘Everybody was panicking and trying to get clear but there was nowhere to get away. People were climbing over each other, whole families, schoolchildren, mothers carrying babies.’
As the smoke engulfed her, Marguerite forced open the door of the tiny sacristy (the priest’s robing room) and hid there with her daughters and baby grandson.
In the nave of the church hundreds lay dead and dying, suffocated by the smoke.
The SS threw open the doors and sprayed bullets in all directions, killing anyone still alive and splintering the plaque to Oradour’s 99 1914-18 war dead. Incendiary grenades followed, and the whole place went up in flames.
In the sacristy, Marguerite could only watch dumb-struck as her daughters and grandson fell through the burning floor into an inferno below.
‘More than half of those people were burnt alive,’ Marguerite would later say.
Miraculously she escaped, creeping out of the sacristy under cover of the smoke, climbing a step-ladder to the window behind the altar and throwing herself through it.
‘A neighbour, who was a mother of a small baby, followed me through the window but was killed as she did so. She tried to pass her baby to me but I was unable to catch him.’
Badly burned and riddled with bullets, Marguerite somehow managed to get away and hide. When it was all over, she had to be told that, as well as her daughters and grandson, her husband and son were also dead.
No one was spared. People approaching the cordon were shot and killed, including mothers looking for their children. Cyclists just passing through were stopped, lined up and gunned down too.
In one of the blazing barns, Robert Hébras managed to extricate himself from the tangle of bodies on top of him and discovered a door into a walled courtyard. He found himself with three other survivors, all of them badly injured.
They scraped a hole in the wall and ran for any cover they could find while soldiers patrolled the village, executing anyone trying to escape or who had come into the village looking for loved ones.
Systematically they burnt down houses, shops, the schools, the town hall, reducing the village to a smoky, smouldering ruin.
A dark cloud of ash was settling over the surrounding countryside as the Waffen-SS finally packed up and left. A few returned the next day to dig mass graves, burn bodies and properties to erase the village and ensure victims could not be identified.
Slowly a trickle of people came back to the village to find horrors beyond imagination. Everywhere they looked was a personal tragedy, an unbearable loss.
The Ruins Of Oradour-sur-glane France – Untouched Since The Nazi Massacre In June 1944
Oradour-sur-Glane has long been a cause célèbre for France, its people hailed not just as victims but martyrs
Camille Senon, who had been working in Limoges when the Germans descended on her village, found her father, grandfather, cousin and other relatives dead.
‘The sister of my father, her husband, their daughter, had all been massacred, along with many other cousins. The youngest was 12 days old and he had a brother who was three and a sister who was two.’
As for the village itself, ‘window sills still had flowers on them. Cooking pots hung in the fireplaces, and coffee pots stood on stoves. But the houses were in ruins. I kept thinking I would surely see a house that was intact, someone alive or a familiar face. But no’.
Maria Démery, desperate to find her sons, struggled through the thick smoke to the boys’ school. She found it empty. One of the classrooms was in flames, the tables on fire. Schoolbags and berets belonging to the children were still hung up on the wall.
Nearby, a grieving relative who made his way through the still-burning ruins of the church stumbled on piles of bodies. ‘Others, mainly children and half-burnt, were strewn across the nave.’
Inside the scorched confessional box were the bodies of two boys, crouching next to each other, one about 12, the other a little older.
Marie and Jean Hyvernaud came looking for their sons, eight-year-old Marcel and ten-year-old René, who had gone to school that morning but not come home. They found Marcel, laid out on his side.
Jean recalls: ‘It was my little one. His mouth was open, he seemed scared. His foot was broken and twisted around. I was still able to give him a kiss.’ But of René, there were not even his remains to identify and bury.
Corpses were strewn everywhere. One woman was discovered at the bottom of a well, her body so badly burnt she could barely be identified, along with other bodies that never were. The charred remains of a baby were found in dustbin.
Maria Démery never found her sons. In total, she lost 13 members of her family.
Oradour-sur-Glane has long been a cause célèbre for France, its people hailed not just as victims but martyrs. On that single day, three, sometimes four, generations of families were murdered, whole classes of schoolchildren were wiped out, even babies in prams were slaughtered.
In total 643 villagers died. The Nazi aim had been to erase the community from the map and they very nearly succeeded: only five lived to tell the tale — Marguerite Rouffanche was the only woman. Each survival was a minor miracle.
But the question remains: why Oradour? Why did the SS pick on this particular village?
Despite German claims, there was no evidence ever of Resistance activity in the village. The truth is it was not destroyed as a reprisal for anything its people had done, but as a terrible demonstration to the French people of what to expect if they took up active opposition to German occupation.
If it hadn’t been Oradour, it would have been some other unsuspecting community.
Oradour was picked partly because its geography made it easy to surround and contain. But the main reason was that the SS knew the villagers would not fight back.
There were villages not so far away where there indeed was Resistance activity, but the SS did not want to risk a battle. Their destruction of peaceful Oradour was an act not just of evil and malice but also cowardice.
It also backfired. What was supposed to be a warning instead became a rallying cry. Until then, the Resistance had made little headway against the occupiers. Sparked by Oradour and other atrocities around the same time, the fightback began in earnest.
After the war, General Charles de Gaulle decreed the village would not be rebuilt. Instead it would remain as it was left — destroyed houses, rubbled streets, burnt-out cars — and so it is today: a permanent memorial to the 643 dead and a potent and unforgettable symbol of the cruelty of France’s Nazi occupiers.
n SILENT Village: Life And Death In Occupied France by Robert Pike is published by The History Press on April 26 at £20. © Robert Pike 2021. To order a copy for £17.60 (offer valid to 17/4/21; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.