Stories of The French Resistnce are often shrouded in romance, lanterns swinging on bicycles pushed by young men and women in dark trench coats wearing berets, with a half-smoked Gitanes hanging from the side of their mouths, ferrying allied airmen to safety through shadowy village streets.
The Resistance, also known as “Le Maquis” after the thick undergrowth where they often hid, were most active from 1943 in Limousin, where they were known as “refractaires” or as “terrorists” to the Germans and to “La Milice”, the PÃ©tainist arm of the Gendarmerie, who were responsible for an equal amount of treachery and atrocities in occuppied France as the Germans.
Most of the resistance prior to 1944 were made up of young men and women escaping from the “STO” or the forced labour, that was the deportation to work in the German arms factories and other “essential” work for the German war machine.
In a corner of the Haute Vienne department, in the Limousin region among the kilometers of thick forest, bordering the department of La Dordogne, lies “La FÃ´ret de Boubon”, in which, today, there can be found the re-excavated “Trous des Maquis” or the holes of the resistants, where young resistance members were holed-up since 1943 due either to their left-wing political allegiances (mostly young communists) or escaping from the STO.
Today, the road passes just a kilometer from where the holes are situated, but during the 1940’s the roads were rare in this remote part of the Haute Vienne, so the siting of the holes, on a densely forested ridge between the villages of Cussac and La Chapelle Montbrandeix, was an ideal, if not logical site to hide away.
The holes were dug in a series of 4 or 5, about 3 meters into the soft forest floor then a roof was added of chestnut “piquets” a layer of dried leaves, earth and covered and camouflaged with leaves and forest litter.
The holes were a simple affair, with a main chamber and two sleeping chambers dug, horizontally opposed from the main chamber and a set of steps to the forest floor.
Although the holes have remained covered since the end of the war, there has been renewed interest, thanks greatly to the association of soldiers and resistance members which finally saw the inauguration of the re-excavated holes as recent as 2009.
The holes that can be seen today are the originals that have been re-constituted and there are others that are being planned in Boubon.
There was another maquis camp at the Forest of Gaboureau just a few kilometers down the road, but the holes are now on private property and not accessible today.
I had the good fortune to meet a man who was as he called himself, a “resistant du dernier heure” that is to say, joining in 1944, which some cynics criticise as joining when all was done and dusted.
However, at the time, May 1944, nobody really knew when the war would be over – the man was 17 years old at the time, a communist who joined the resistance to be with his older brother who was active in the movement.
I asked him some questions, which he willingly answered and told stories with a twinkle in his eye, his wife also had some stories to tell of the time.
He told a story of two English airman who had parachuted into the Limousin forest after their plane was shot down after bombing Limoges.
The airmen were sheltered by the Maquis in the forest and later transferred to the cellars of a local textile factory in Cussac, which has since closed, la Monnerrie.
They were then transferred in a truck to AngloulÃªme in the Charente, where an RAF plane was to pick them up.
The airmen were hidden in the truck and the back of the truck was filled with beehives full of bees, the airmen were instructed, in the case of being stopped and searched by a German patrol, to kick the hives over, thus releasing the bees and to try to save their necks. This was unnecessary as they arrived in AngoulÃªme safely and were later ferried out by an RAF aeroplane.
Another story was that of the way in which the resistance members were fed and helped by the local population – the man’s wife said that her mother cooked a pan of potatoes each night and when she asked her mother why she cooked the potatoes, she replied, “it’s for the rats”, which was accepted as an explanation from the young girl. She later added that even parents hid secrets from their children as one slip of the tongue could mean death for all of the family.
Just to put things into context, the village of Cussac, within the canton of Oradour-sur-Vayres and not far from Oradour-sur-Glane – the scene of a massacre by the German soldiers where a whole village and its population was wiped out – the story still circulates that the Germans meant to go to Oradour-sur-Vayres and went to Oradour-sur-Glane by accident to mete out the terrible crimes as a revenge for the activities of the Resistance in the region – although this story has never been officially corroborated.
I asked RenÃ© if they were aware of the atrocities at Oradour-sur-Glane at the time, 1944, he said that they knew about it shortly afterwards and could see the smoke rising from the burning village for kilometers around but were not Â immediately unaware of the significance of the smoke nor of the stories that were filtering out of the village.
Another story was when the family was sleeping one night, in their house which was fairly isolated, when they were surrounded by 50 German soldiers who were searching for traces of his brother, who was in the forest. The Germans came in the dead of the night, completely surrounded the house and didn’t even wake the dogs up, they were so silent. They searched the house from top to bottom, not leaving anything unturned and disappeared as silently as they came.
The family was terrified that they would return at any time and were also sure that they had been denounced by someone in the village, luckily their father had insisted on burning the magazines and tracts that were distributed by the resistance and the communists that very night – had they been caught in possession, they could easily have been killed.
RenÃ© told of a neighbouring farm that was rebaptised “la Maison neuve” (the new house) after being torched by the Germans after they found resistance tracts in the house, before being rebuilt after the war.
He also spoke about a villager who cooked food for the resistance members, put the food into a closed saucepan every night in a wheelbarrow and covered it with rabbit droppings, to avoid prying eyes and suspicion, before leaving it at the end of their garden. people became suspicious of each other, apart from those that they were 100% certain shared their convictions – RenÃ© said that they didn’t know who was part of the Milice and who wasn’t so the safest thing to do was to exercise extreme caution in everything we did.
Another story was when a cow which was suffering from a disease was slaughtered in the village of NÃ©grelat, there were no lorries to take the carcass away and incinerate it, so the villagers dug a hole in the middle of the forest to bury it.
Hours later a German patrol went directly to the spot and ordered the villagers, at gunpoint, to dig up the carcass that they suspected to be an arms cache – RenÃ© was sure that this was a clear indication of denunciation by a collaborator.
It was great to speak with this man, we spoke for about 2 hours and finished with a glass of Pastis together, he invited me back to speak with him next time I was back in the area and also suggested some others whom I could speak to who had actually lived in the Maquis holes, but who were now getting thin on the ground due to the advancing years.
Cheers RenÃ© – to your good health!