Where the war will never die

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The Independent Online
IN FRANCE, as in England, there have been many memorial services and ceremonies marking the events of the Second World War 50 years ago. Here in the Dordogne, a notable centre of resistance during the German occupation, those ceremonies have a special resonance.

No one driving through this idyllic landscape can remain unaware for long of the crosses and plaques beside the road commemorating one or several local deaths: 'tues' or, more often, 'fusilees par les Allemands'.

It is remarkable how many of these small memorials date from June 1944, when the Germans were in retreat. The massacre at Oradour sur Glane, when all but five of the 650 inhabitants of a village were rounded up to be shot or burned, occurred on 10 June 1944. The village has been left exactly as it was found: a chilling memorial to the brutality and vengeance of a beaten army.

Last Thursday, on a soft autumnal evening, the sun setting in a blaze of gold behind great heaps of cloud, I attended a ceremony at Vezac, a village midway between the picturesque tourist centres of La Rogue Gageac and Beynac, flanking the river Dordogne.

A group of 50 or 60 people had gathered to honour their local hero, Jean Tremoulet. Not only was he a leading member of the local Resistance, he was one of only three Frenchmen ever to have won the 24-hour race at Le Mans: which he had done in a Delahaye in 1938, to the huge and undying pride of the villagers.

This small memorial service happened several months later than most because Tremoulet, although at the very heart of the local Resistance movement, survived the German occupation only to be killed in a car crash one night while driving for the French army.

The brief commemorative ceremony, held 50 years after Tremoulet's death on 13 October 1944, was attended by veterans of the 7th and 28th battalions of the local Resistance. Old men now, in their 70s and 80s, they had tanned faces and bright eyes. They were wearing their best jackets, accompanied by soberly dressed wives, sons and even grandsons. Several arrived with furled banners, greeting one another with formal kisses on both cheeks, men and women alike. It was a companionable yet solemn occasion.

At 6pm sharp, by the bell of the village church, a huge wreath was carried into the cemetery, followed by members of Tremoulet's family, his old comrades, and the local mayor in his tricolore sash. The rest of us filed after them to gather round the family grave, marked by a square marble slab.

The old comrades in black berets stood with their red, white and blue banners held proudly upright.

One man stepped forward to place a small plaque on the slab, inscribed: 'Les Anciens Combattants de la Resistance, a leur Camarade'. This was followed by a long patriotic oration, to which everyone listened respectfully. The speaker, Jean-Guy Modin, recalled his hero-worship of Tremoulet, first as racing driver and later as a Resistance fighter. 'I remember meeting him when he was 19. He clapped me on the shoulder. 'My friend . . .' he said.

Just a few days later, I attended his funeral.

'Vezac will not forget the month of June 1944, when the flame of the Resistance burned bright - and survived - and won] We showed our determination to uphold liberty. You, comrades, by your vigilance, you conquered] Never let that flame go out.' The banners dipped reverently, heads bowed and everyone stood in silence.

The mayor said a few words and ended by inviting all those present to drink a glass in the foyer municipale in memory of Jean Tremoulet.

It had grown dark. We walked along the village street to where long trestle tables were set out: whisky for the men, Pineau de Charentes for the women.

People asked who I was and wanted to share their stories.

To the inhabitants of this region, their fight of 50 years ago is still very real. Country people have long memories. I was told once, when buying bread in the village bakery at Monpazier, 'Ah, Madame, we are one of yours]' The baker's wife meant Monpazier was an English bastide during the Hundred Years War, five centuries ago] I am astonished by the number of Germans who come here on holiday - sometimes even saying: 'I (or my father) came here some years ago . . . I wanted to see if it had changed.' They are treated with tolerance by the local people but they are not liked, as the English are liked and welcomed.

Above all, the occasion brought home how different is our experience of war on the other side of the Channel. Whatever the carnage and the losses, we have not been invaded for nearly 1,000 years, and thus have never had to confront the moral and personal dilemmas posed by a force of occupation. Do you co-operate - collaborate, as the harsh word has it - thereby ensuring your own and your family's survival? Or do you risk everything for what must at the time seem an unrealistically optimistic belief that your country will win in the end?