The Big Trip, Day 3: Oradour sur Glane – Souviens Toi

“Down this road, on a summer day in 1944, the soldiers came. Nobody lives here now.”

Distance covered today: 175 miles

Total distance covered: 608 miles

I first heard about Oradour-sur-Glane when I was 16 years old. It was when BBC2 were repeating the classic 1973 documentary The World at War, which I’d never seen till then. Episode 1 opens with a montage of the village, left empty since all 642 inhabitants (bar one) were murdered on 10 June 1944 by 200 Waffen SS troopers, on the pretext of reprisals for a kidnapped German officer, and the village razed to the ground by fire.

Oradour has been left empty since. The village was rebuilt nearby, but the original left as a memorial to the horrors men can inflict on each other. The ruins are as they were when the fires died down, frozen in time and aged 74 years. 

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When I researched my route to Barcelona, I realised that Oradour was on the way – right next to Limoges, where I’d planned to stop for the third night. The story of the place that I heard when I was 16 had never left me, so I changed my plans. Rather than stay in Linoges (which doesn’t seem all that interesting anyway), I’d go to Oradour-sur-Glane.

It’s a pretty straightforward route to there from Orleans – actually more of that endless dual carriageway, for most of the 175 mile distance. I don’t think I’d ever realised how BIG France is before. I mean, yeah, I’m familiar with a few of the cities, but this is just endless farmland and forests. I see what appears to be the same farmer walking through his field with a shotgun crooked in his elbow in fields dozens of kilometres apart. The views are spectacular – but of course I can’t take any pictures because I’m driving.

I get to Oradour about three hours after leaving Orleans, at about 1pm. There’s an actual Aire de Repos (campervan park) in the new village, so I park there. It’s not a big place, and walking to the Memorial Centre and the ruins of the original ‘Village de Martyrs’ takes no more than 15 minutes.

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The Memorial Centre is an understated collection of brown triangles, into which you descend to the inevitable gift shop (it’s called a ‘library’ because ‘gift shop’ would sound crass under the circumstances). But this is how you get to the ruins. A tunnel takes you under the road and you emerge, blinking, into the silent sunlight. In front of you is a wall emblazoned with a simple motto in French and English – Souviens-Toi. Remember.

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As you enter the village proper, the first thing you see is a faded sign propped against a tree – Silence. And everyone is; some are talking to their children in hushed tones about what happened here, even some English visitors. But no voices are raised. No laughter or banter is heard. Perhaps it’s because the ghosts are too loud.

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I walk down the street, peering through what were once windows into what were once living rooms, kitchens and workplaces. At the local bakers, delivery boys’ bikes hang on the wall, rusted and twisted. The skeletons of overturned tables and chairs litter the remains of the cafe. Here and there, a sewing machine rusts in the sunshine, left where it was being used when the bastards in black stormed into the town.

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Rusted tramlines cross the street, power lines and phone lines still overhead waiting for calls and streetcars that will never come. Round every corner, a sign solemnly informs you that this is one of the places where the Nazis shot and burned some of the village men.

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Though the women and children had it worse. After the men had been killed, they were rounded up and locked in the village church. And it was set alight with them screaming inside it.

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Going into the church is hard, knowing this. It’s surprisingly undamaged inside, a testament to its Norman builders. Of course there’s no roof any more – it was timbered, and burnt away. In front of the altar, the blackened remnants of a pushchair bear solemn witness. The youngest victims were not yet a year old.

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I don’t know if it’s the depression I’ve been suffering recently, or the sheer weight of knowing what happened here, but I find myself crying. I can almost hear them – not their screams as they were killed, but the sounds of a village living its life, people going about their business. Everything as it was.

The baker’s delivery boys would be laughing and making dirty teenage jokes as they went to collect the afternoon delivery. Mothers would be pushing their children in prams down the street, perhaps laughing as they compared the daily trials of bringing up babies. The local mechanic might be heard swearing as he barked his knuckles trying to undo a stubborn bolt on M. Milord’s Peugeot 201. The normal sounds of a living community, people laughing, crying, loving, hating. Living. I can almost hear them.

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All that came to an end some time between 4pm and 5pm on 10 June 1944, as attested to by a collection of burnt watches in the Memorial Centre. And Oradour remains as it was then, when the flames died down. I don’t think I’ve ever been somewhere that felt so haunted.

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I find myself standing next to the rusted remains of a solitary car on a street corner. Did someone love you, I wonder? Polish your paintwork, change your oil, make sure you were running sweet as a pin, swear at you when you failed to start of a winter morning? And now here you are, 70 years later, fixed in time and decaying. Like this whole village.

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In the village cemetery, ironically the only place untouched by the Nazis’ carnage, stands a contemporary memorial to the 642 victims of the massacre. In front of it are two glass coffins, containing some charred ashes and fragments of bone – all that remains of the women and children of the village. Behind it, a wall lists them all by name. But in the Memorial Centre is something even more affecting – a wall of photos of every victim, though blank spaces are left with only names where no photos exist. I try to look at every one of them. It feels like I should. To remember.

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As you can probably tell, this visit affected me deeply. I expected it to, but nothing like on this level. It may actually not have been the wisest choice of visit, given my recent problems with depression, but I’m actually glad I came. Because looking at this place, knowing what happened here, it’s unbelievable that France could ever have forgiven Germany. That Europe could ever have forgiven itself. But it did, and despite hundreds of years of horrors like this, it’s moving forward. Not brillantly maybe, and certainly not perfectly, but in peace. Perhaps Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage might learn something from a visit to Oradour-sur-Glane. If they have the perception.

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