Before June 1944, time in Oradour-sur-Glane trundled along at the same pace it always had done. The sun rose and set each day, seasons changed, young people grew old, old people grew older, and with enough time, a new generation took over where the last generation had left off.
But on Saturday, June 10th, 1944, time in Oradour-sur-Glane simply stopped passing. The small agricultural village, 15 miles west of Limoges, bore witness to one of the most harrowing atrocities of the Second World War.
Despite sitting in the German-occupied French territories, life in Oradour-sur-Glane had remained largely unaffected by the outbreak of war. Cattle still grazed in the surrounding hills, residents still went fishing, frequented the local cafes, and enjoyed a level of tranquillity.
Then, a few days after the allied landings in Normandy, a group of German soldiers from the 2nd SS-Panzer Division Das Reich entered the village. They immediately informed the town’s mayor, Jean Desourteaux, that the villagers should assemble at the village fairground for an identity check. They separated the men from the women and children, ushering the men into several barns nearby, while the women and children gathered in the village church.
Suddenly, a gas bomb, comprised of several smoke grenades exploded in the church, asphyxiating many of the women and children. Those that survived the initial smoke bomb, were gunned down in a subsequent flurry of bullets and hand grenades.
While the women and children were undergoing their horrifying ordeal, the Nazi soldiers opened fire on the men gathered in the barns. They deliberately aimed their shots low, leaving many of the men unable to move, but still alive. They then dragged the incapacitated men onto mounds of piled wood and straw and burnt them alive.
When the embers had settled, 642 villagers had been killed, their bodies burnt along with their homes and buildings. The village was razed to the ground. Only six survived the atrocity. Madame Rouffanche used a ladder next to the church alter to climb out of a window 10 feet high. She was able to bury herself in the dirt to avoid detection, only emerging late the next day when she was confident the soldiers had left.
The five other survivors were all men who escaped the barns, badly wounded, they scrambled away under the cover of darkness. After they had killed the residents, the Nazi soldiers systematically searched the village, killing anyone that had not gathered at the fairground, and burning the houses to the ground. One man who was physically unable to leave his bed and gather with the other residents was burned to death in his bed. In another incident, a baby was killed in the village bakery ovens.
The reason behind the massacre still remains unclear. Following an attack on German positions the day before from French resistance fighters, the commander of the Das Reich, SS-Major General Heinz Bernhard Lammerding, had given orders to the 2nd SS Division to clear the region of partisan resistance fighters. It is thought that the massacre in Oradour-sur-Glane, along with a mass hanging of 99 civilians in the nearby village of Tulle, could have been retaliation for the attack from the French resistance.
However, there was no evidence of partisan activity in Oradour-sur-Glane. Those that survived the attack also give no account of the soldiers making it apparent that the massacre was an act of revenge.
The explanation of the event offered by the German Army High Command also made no reference to the massacre as a revenge attack. It told the State Secretary that the men had perished during a gunfight with the 2nd SS Division, and the women and children took refuge in the church, which then caught fire when a partisan ammunition supply exploded nearby.
Today, Oradour-sur-Glane stands exactly as it did on June 10th, 1944. The footsteps of time simply stopped. Following the war, Charles De Gaulle ordered the village to be rebuilt on a new site, adjacent to the ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane. The remains of the site stand unaltered, as a memorial to those that perished in the violence, and a warning to future generation about the violence and destruction that war creates.
Seven decades later, visitors are confronted by the rusted silhouettes of cars, toys, and broken jewellery and crucifixes, untouched and unmoved. Even while the houses burned, objects stood stoically, a sewing machine, weighing scales, a pushchair, and meat hooks still occupy the same spaces they did in 1944, surrounded by destruction and devastation.
Bullet holes still litter the alter in the church, like scars covering open wounds. Plaques list the names and occupations of those that died, fabric workers, cobblers, and shop owners.
Perhaps most troubling, is that even following the war, those responsible for the atrocity were not held to account. Lammerding was convicted of war crimes in 1953, for which he received the death penalty, however, the German authorities refused to extradite him to France. He died many years later in West Germany.
In 1953, the French courts tried 21 former members of the 2nd SS Divison who had been present at Oradour-sur-Glane in 1944. It found 20 of the 21 guilty and awarded two death sentences, and 18 prison terms ranging from between five and 20 years. However, again, the men escaped justice. All 20 of those convicted received pardons and amnesties before 1958.
The only individual who received punitive action from the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre, was SS Sargent Heinz Barth. He received a life sentence in 1981. Barth spent 16 years behind bars and was released in 1997. He later died in 2007 aged 86.
Featured image by TwoWings, slight edit by Calibas – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3524623