It took just three hours.
Three hours for the world to be aware of this sleepy little village in the middle of France.
It started just like any other day in June. But this was June 10th.
And by 5pm the entire village was dead.
Massacred. In three hours. Men rounded up and shot. Women and children taken to the church. Where a fire was started which forced them all to the other end. Where they were then shot.
The youngest a week old.
2pm The German soldiers surrounded the village and then ordered all inhabitants to go to the fairground, explaining it was simply an identity check. No force was used, no brutality. The mood amongst the villagers was quite jovial in fact. They had no idea at this point that these soldiers were anything but German Soldiers, not in fact the SS.
3pm Machine guns were installed at various points to which women and men from the neighbouring village were also directed. The school children arrived in lines, accompanied by their teachers.
3.30pm Soldiers separated the men from the women and children. The latter sent to the church. Moments later the men were divided into different groups, dispatched to different locations in those groups for execution.
4pm An explosion signalled for the SS to start machine gunning the men. When all the men had been shot (though many not yet dead) the piles of bodies were set fire too.
5pm Over at the church a box was with cords that had been set alight was dropped into the church, as the building filled with smoke the women and children ran to the doors. Where they were shot, forcing them back inside.
Only one woman survived from the church and a handful of men from the barn they had been rounded up into, and it is their testimony that provides the only account of what happened that day.
Oradour sur Glane was buzzing with locals that day, and with men from the local villages who had all come to buy tobacco as it was Saturday and therefore ration day. By the end of the day, they too were killed.
642 people in all.
328 buildings destroyed.
When Charles de Gaulle visited the scene some time later he demanded that it be preserved for future generations to be able to learn what happened. A wall now protects the town, with the only way in and out through a visitor centre that tells the story of the “Martyrs Village”.
A new town has been built on the other side of the road on the orders of Charles de Gaulle who said a new Oradour should rise, close to the ruins.
We decided to go and visit this village earlier this week, whilst on holiday in France. It is clearly not your average holiday trip day out but we felt it was important to visit. It is important that we remember what happened during the War if we are ever going to stop it happening again. It feels sometimes that we become “news fatigued” and a bit desensitised to the atrocities we hear about in countries at war. They are a two second headline on the evening news as we cook tea, a soundbite on the radio as we do the school run. Some, rightly, do make it more deeply n to the public conscience such as Syria and we create an almighty noise in an effort to stop the suffering.
We must talk about these things. We cannot let these people who died, ever be forgotten. 642 people died for France on 10th June 1944 and visiting this village is one of the most sombre days I have ever spent.
As the sun shone down on us, we wandered, in silence looking at the ruins of people’s lives. People who, by rights, should still be alive. Many who would be the same age as members of our own families.
After the buildings had been set on fire looters returned and took what they could carry. What they couldn’t carry were the huge numbers of sewing machines that the village owned. Every family would have had one and they lie littered amongst the remains.
As do cooking pots
And gas cylinders from the forge
And cars. Many cars from nearby Limoges had been driven to Oradour and hidden. They all now remain as a rusting reminder of times gone by.
And possibly one of the most gut wrenching sights I have ever seen. A pushchair in the church
It really is the most extraordinary place to visit and I urge anybody in this past of France to go and visit. The exhibition and the village are all free and there is a small book shop selling guides in various languages.
NB: there is nowhere to buy water or any other cold drinks (there is a water fountain) so do go prepared if you visit in summer. And whilst there is a lift to get wheelchair users up the stairs (the visitor centre is entered down a flight of stairs and is under ground, so you have to the ascend the other side) the village is hilly, and obviously not paved so is hard work.