It felt kind of appropriate that the weather was damp and grey for my latest visit to the Memorial Village at Oradour-sur-Glane. Sometimes, when the sun is shining, the sadness of this strange, ghost village’s wartime past is more difficult to compute. You find yourself gazing at the lush green fields and the wooded hills across the valley and becoming entranced by their beauty; calmed by the peacefulness and the gentle bird song. Then, turning back to face the charred, crumbling buildings in front of you, you are shocked back into the reality of this smashed, ruined community. Not so on a drizzly Easter Saturday morning when the clouds hang low and a chilly Spring wind ushers you along the deserted streets. This is a cold, stark reminder of what war can do, proof that whole communities can be torn apart in the blink of an eye, and frightening evidence of the evil acts that some people are capable of.
It was many months since I was last in Oradour, yet I still felt close to its story. Just a few days before I had been telling it to Key Stage 2 pupils at Stratford-upon-Avon Primary School, and to the girls at Stratford-upon-Avon Grammar School, during my Literary Festival events there. I had been sharing with them my inspiration for One Day In Oradour, revealing how I had woven a fictional tale into the true story of what happened in Oradour on the afternoon of 10th June 1944. And I always say to young readers that I felt compelled to write the story; that it found me rather than the other way round.
I don’t know anyone who has visited Oradour-sur-Glane who hasn’t been incredibly moved by the experience. It is impossible to look into the six buildings – three barns, a wine store, a forge and a garage – where around 180 innocent men were executed, and not wonder how anyone in their right mind could open fire on a frightened huddle of civilians, defenceless and incapable of escape. As you stand in the middle of the ruined church, next to the melted bronze bell and the mangled remains of a child’s pram, it’s so hard to understand how young Nazi soldiers – some just 18 years old – could murder over 400 women and children gathered together in the nave. It’s certainly too horrific to try to imagine what those men, women and children were thinking, or what physical and emotional trauma they must have suffered. But that’s why I had to write my story, because I desperately wanted to make sense of it all. I wanted to know what drives some people to such evil acts, and what makes some people, like seven-year-old Roger Godfrin who inspired my fictional character of Alfred Fournier, decide to run, when everyone else is following orders and hoping for the best.
Researching and writing One Day In Oradour hasn’t given me all the answers I was looking for. I don’t think anything could, and I am sure that in the years to come the Memorial Village will continue to draw me back, time and time again. But at least I can be sure of one thing: if books like mine can keep people talking about Oradour-sur-Glane, then the suffering of the people who died there on 10th June 1944 will not be forgotten.
For more pictures of my April 2015 visit to Oradour-sur-Glane, and for photographs of the real location that inspired the scene in Chapter 9, where Dietrich briefs his troops by the River Vienne, go to the Gallery.