Throughout the départements of the Dordogne and neighbouring Lot, you’ll find war memorials in virtually every town and village. What might strike you as surprising, however, is that most of the memorials relate to the first World War, and not to World War II.
However, there was a short, especially tragic period of WW II when events demanded the creation of many specific memorials, and that was the late spring and early summer of 1944, just 69 years ago. It was a bloody period of executions, both individual and mass, that are marked with plaques and other monuments throughout our area.
To give you an overall idea of the difference between the French losses in the two world wars, here is a photo, taken today, of the memorial in our village of Daglan, immediately in front of the restaurant Le Petit Paris:
On one side of the column are the names of 19 people killed in World War I, and on another side are the names of an additional 18, for a total of 37 residents who died in that conflict. By contrast, look at the names of the Daglan residents who died in World War II:
Yes, only three names are shown, despite the length and bloodiness of that conflict. What accounts for the difference, of course, is that during the first great war, battles were fought throughout the country, while France capitulated early in World War II (in 1940), and was occupied by the Germans under Hitler.
As the war raged on, however, things began to shift dramatically in 1944. Within France, the resistance had strengthened and become more sophisticated and more active. Elsewhere, the Germans were increasingly bogged down on the Russian front, and of course the Allies (the Americans, British, Canadians, Australians and others) were not only bombing Germany but preparing for the invasion that finally took place on June 6 on the beaches of Normandy, in northwestern France. It was around that time that the German occupiers of southern France began to lash out.
One of the worst atrocities in our area took place on May 21, 1944, in Frayssinet-le-Gélat, a village in the Lot about 30 kilometres south of Daglan. When members of the resistance killed a German officer, the SS took 15 hostages in the village and assassinated them — 10 young men from one-child families, and five young women, with the object of blocking their families’ lines of descent.
Initially, this tragedy was marked with a relatively small memorial in front of the church in Frayssinet-le-Gélat, which I’ve shown here:
However, in a move that I find somewhat remarkable, a much larger and more dramatic memorial was created and installed, almost immediately in front of the smaller memorial. Immortalizing the 15 residents who were killed, it reads: “To the martyrs of the Nazi barbarism.” It then goes on to implore us: Souvenez vous! Remember!
That is the largest and perhaps most dramatic memorial we have found in our area. But there are many others. This next monument is in remembrance of an 80-year-old woman, and is located on the road to La Roque-Gageac, just off the main road between Cénac and Sarlat:
In this closer view, you can see that it was exactly 69 years ago today, on June 26, 1944, that Marie Delteil, aged 80, “fell victim to Nazi barbarism.” The plaque ends with the statement that passers-by “remember you.”
Near Madame Delteil’s monument are two more, also related to killings on June 26, 1944. These plaques are located on the middle of the bridge spanning the Dordogne River, just north of Cénac.
This first plaque is in memory of 53-year-old Louis Desplat of Sarlat, an “ardent patriot,” who was “killed here by the German hordes.” The reddish plaque next to this main plaque goes on to describe his death; it says he was a clock-maker and a member of the F.F.I. resistance, who was captured, wounded and then tortured by the Germans during a mission, but would not talk. It says he met his “tragic end” on this bridge.
Near the plaque in honour of Monsieur Desplat is another, this time in memory of two Spanish resisters, Daniel Arazo Garcia and José Lopez Tomas, who were also “victims of Nazi barbarism.”
A plaque immediately next to this memorial provides more details. It says the two Spaniards were captured in Montignac by the “Wilde” unit of the Wehrmacht. Then they were driven to this bridge, shot, and thrown into the river on June 26. The plaque goes on to say that their bodies were found a few days later in La Roque-Gageac, and given a dignified burial.
Finally, this plaque honours the memory of Irénée Crestou, who became “a victim of Nazi barbarism” on July 7, 1944. The smaller plaque provides more information; it says that he was chief of the railway station at Fayrac (now disused), and had been captured and put on a truck to be taken away to prison. Along the way, Monsieur Crestou jumped from the truck, but was immediately killed by soldiers of the Wehrmacht.
It is chilling to think that some of the younger people who were killed in that wave of violence in 1944 could be alive today if it weren’t for the Wehrmacht or the SS lashing out. A 20-year-old man or woman would be 89 today; of course that is old, but he or she could still be a loving grandparent or great-grandparent.
So yes, I do think it’s worth remembering events like these — and thinking about how to prevent them from happening again.