In a matter of hours on a summer’s day in 1944, the men, women and children of Oradour-sur-Glane, near Limoges, were rounded up and murdered by a German Waffen-SS company in retaliation for Resistance activities.
It was ‘the day the soldiers came’ and the community which had lived there for a thousand years was wiped out. Oradour was never rebuilt, its ruins remaining as a ghostly memorial museum.
And it was during a visit to this haunting, haunted village in southern France that Brian Francis, former deputy head teacher of a Preston school, was inspired to write his first novel.
The result is Oradour: A Village at War, an emotion-packed, lyrical and remarkable story which focuses on the experiences of three men, from both sides of the conflict, caught up in the cruel winds of a war that was entering its final, bitter phase.
Although the characters are fictional, Francis has incorporated real events and elements of his own family history – including his father’s brave exploits as a stretcher bearer at Dunkirk – into this beautifully written, sensitive and thought-provoking debut.
It’s 1940 and Oradour’s stonemason Georges is part of the fabric of the village. His brother was killed in the Great War and he is all too aware of the price of conflict. With war raging again in Europe, his first priority is to protect his family.
Ambitious Waffen-SS officer Heinz is in France, doing his duty for his country and with no objective but to be a good soldier. But at home in Dresden, full of ‘small, insignificant people holding their world together,’ his wife Hannah, who has Jewish ancestry, and his daughter Sophie have come under the scrutiny of the evil Gestapo.
Meanwhile, English infantryman and medical orderly Frank is on the long road back to Dunkirk, determined not to become desensitised by war. On a stretcher, and in Frank’s care, is wounded Polish airman Toni. When a bomb explodes, Frank finds an injured girl lying on the roadside and must make a life and death decision.
The fortunes of these men, and those connected to them, will intertwine over the next four years, culminating in the Allied invasion of Normandy and the ensuing horrors at the village of Oradour.
What will be left for the survivors and can they ever rebuild their shattered lives?
The terrible events at Oradour have been well documented but Francis brings a new depth and power to the very personal experiences of those whose lives were changed forever by the massacre and its aftermath.
Alternating between multiple narratives – from the resonant voice of the village’s ancient walls and Frank’s parents in bombed-out Britain to Heinz’s wife in the ruins of Dresden and the rantings of ‘the little man in Berlin’ – we are swept into some of the darkest corners of wartime Europe.
In unflinching prose, Oradour: A Village at War recounts the breathtaking brutality and stark realities of mass murder… but this is also a story of humanity, forgiveness and redemption.
It’s the simple acts of kindness amidst the carnage, the determination to risk one’s life to help another human being that directs the action for many of the leading players. Life – and death – couldn’t get any worse, Francis tells us, but that doesn’t mean morality and decency must be abandoned.
An extraordinarily moving and original debut…
(CreateSpace, paperback, £4.24, and Kindle, £1.82, both available through Amazon)