“Down this road on a summer day in 1944 the soldiers came. Nobody lives there now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, a community which had lived for a thousand years was dead.” – Laurence Olivier, World At War (BBC)
The reason I visited Oradour-Sur-Glane in summer 2016, indeed the very reason I discovered its existence, was thanks to the outstanding documentary series from the 1970s The World at War.
I consider The World at War to be the best documentary series ever made on the Second World War. The opening episode began with an aerial shot of Oradour-Sur-Glane, and the aforementioned hard-hitting words narrated by Laurence Olivier.
On the 10th of June 1944 the inhabitants of this little traditional little French village were massacred. The village was scorched. Men shot. Women and children burned to death.
642 of them killed. Murdered. Martyred.
The massacre was led by Sturmbannführer Diekmann of the Waffen SS. Incidentally, proceedings were started against him by the German authorities shortly after events took place for not following orders – it would seem the massacre was carried out on his authority and not that of the Reich. However, the proceedings were never finished because he and most of his company were killed a few days later. Incredibly there were also French SS soldiers involved in this atrocity on their fellow countrymen.
After the war French President de Gaulle ordered that Oradour-Sur-Glane be left untouched as a monument to those martyred during the war.
What follows is my experience of visiting this ghost town.
The village is now fenced off and entry is gained to it via a memorial museum, which is underground. The entry is free but the experience is invaluable.
I entered straight away at opening time, picking up a timeline guide of events and map of the village on my way in. I walked around it myself on that cool summer morning.
There were a few other people about but all was eerily quiet. Even the children. This is a place I genuinely didn’t see or hear any animals. I’ve never been anywhere like it.
Drawing a slow, deep breath I could feel the hairs on my arms standing on end.
I had visited Tyne Cot WW1 Cemetery near Yprès a few days previously. I didn’t think anywhere else on earth would be capable of having such an harrowing, still eeriness. How wrong I was.
It’s difficult to get your head around. It was a double-edged sword for me as well – the amateur photographer in me wanting to capture the incredible sights my eyes were seeing and struggling to comprehend, yet not wanting to miss the experience by only seeing it through a camera lens.
Standing there as a 32-year-old who was driving across a free Europe. Reflecting for a moment that my grandparents generation, in their late teens and early 20s, were at war with their European neighbours. How fortunate we all are today, by nothing more than sheer fate, not to have experienced these atrocities first hand.
The houses here have little plaques on them with the name of the family that lived there. The shops and businesses have similar little plaques. The car garage still has the old Renault sign on it, which unlike the rusting cars has held up well.
There are spots around the village marked. These are spots where families were executed. Some of them have photographs of those people.
You get the idea.
Peer in through the ruins of the butchers for example. The rusting meat hook still hanging. What is left of the cash register there. Chimney stacks. Tiles. Tram lines outside.
Ghostly ruins everywhere. The village school. Everything untouched in over 70 years.
My words cannot do this place justice. The photographs convey an idea of the spirit of the place but this is somewhere that is best experienced rather than read about. It doesn’t seem to be terribly well known about in the UK. Most of the visitors there were French. Which is good, in a way, because it’s a more meaningful experience when you don’t feel like you’re on a tourist conveyor belt like you do at Auschwitz.
If you do visit consider finding a quiet spot to pause. Take a moment to pay your respects to those that lived here. I think they deserve at least that.
I stayed at Camping de la Glane, situated in the nearby town of Saint Junien. It was a fairly basic camp site, with good facilities and a friendly host. I’m happy to recommend it.
The receptionist didn’t speak much English and thought I was Belgian due to my spoken French!
The village itself is 25km from Limoges in Central France.
Your kind of place?
Then be sure to check out Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy.