research

Ghost Town: The Massacre of Oradour-Sur-Glane

Looking back into my research files today to bring you the story behind one of the pivotal events in The Alice Network. (Don’t worry–no spoilers here if you haven’t read TAN yet.)

In central France, a few miles from Limoges, lies a ghost town called Oradour-sur-Glane. At first glance it looks simply abandoned—empty houses, tram lines waiting for trams no longer running, a rusting car abandoned at an empty fairground—but signs of tragedy are soon evident at a second look. Roadside walls are pocked with bullet holes, stone houses are scorched by fire marks, the church roof is gone from some massive explosion. An abandoned clock lies fire-melted in the street, forever frozen at four in the afternoon. No one has inhabited Oradour-sur-Glane since June 10, 1944.

Wrecked hardware–bicycles, a sewing machine, etc.–in Oradour-sur Glane. Public domain image courtesy of Dennis Nilsson

On that day—not long after the invasion of Normandy, as German forces rushed to meet the Allied advance—a regiment of the 2nd SS-Panzer Division Das Reich surrounded the village of Oradour-sur-Glane. The men of the village were quickly rounded up, then herded into a variety of surrounding barns and garages as the women and children were confined to the local church.

At four in the afternoon, the killing began.

A gas bomb was placed in the church and ignited. When the resulting fire and smoke failed to suffocate the women and children inside, the SS mowed them down with machine guns. The men were systematically shot in their barns and rabbit hutches, the wounded and dying locked inside as the buildings were set alight. Only a handful survived: five men managed to struggle free of a burning barn and escape into the fields, a family of children survived by hiding in an empty hotel, and a boy of eight played dead until he could crawl to safety. There was only one survivor from the church, a middle-aged woman whose daughters and granddaughter died in the inferno, yet who managed to climb out a high altar window and hide in a nearby garden, despite being shot five times.

The church in Oradour-sur-Glane where the women and children died. 

Public domain image courtesy of Dennis Nilsson

That night, champagne corks popped in the ruined town. Soon after, the Germans moved north. The town remained empty, combed over by stunned neighbors and survivors. After the war it was decreed that the town of Oradour-sur-Glane be rebuilt nearby, but that the original site stand as a memorial to the massacred dead . . . and ever since, it has attracted horrified visitors and horrified questions. Chief among them, as with any seemingly senseless massacre: why?

The Germans were certainly no strangers to atrocities, but why was tiny, remote Oradour-sur-Glane exterminated with such sweeping finality? The Sturmbannfuhrer who commanded the division so thoroughly exceeded his orders in massacring the villagers that even his own superiors were taken aback; he might have been court-martialed had he not died in action a few weeks after the massacre. So the question remains: why?

French Resistance activity was suspected in the area. The day before the massacre, reports filtered in from the Milice (French informers) that a German officer had been kidnapped by Resistance members, possibly taken to Oradour-sur-Glane, and executed. The division’s Sturmbannfuhrer seems to have assumed the murdered officer was a missing friend of his, and requested permission to mount a pursuit, take hostages, and force the Resistance to release the man or his body. But he made no attempt at recovery or at hostage-taking, simply unleashing an orgy of revenge for his murdered friend.

That’s one possibility, but others abound. It’s possible that the reprisal was intended for nearby Oradour-sur-Vayres, a larger town where rebellious activity was more plausibly located. It’s possible that Oradour-sur-Glane was chosen for extermination simply as a sweeping example to quiet an uneasy region. And there are theories that the massacre was at least partially accidental; that the village church had been storing explosives for the Resistance, and the explosion resulted from machine gun fire igniting the hidden cache.

In the end we will probably never know the reasons why death descended on Oradour-sur-Glane on June 10, 1944. I have woven my own story around it in The Alice Network; the story of the still-abandoned ghost town outside Limoges has fascinated and haunted me from the moment I saw the photographs of its burned houses, melted clocks, and cars parked at curbs as if still waiting for drivers who never returned. Many lives were silenced that day in Oradour-sur-Glane, but their echoes speak loud and clear in the ghost town they once called home.

For more information about the Oradour-sur-Glane tragedy, including timeline, aftermath, and hundreds of photographs, I recommend this excellent website. I found it invaluable when writing the scene in The Alice Network which takes place on those haunted streets.

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The Research Game: Fake It Till You Make It

There’s a bit in “The Avengers” where Cobie Smulders/Agent Maria Hill asks Robert Downey Jr./Tony Stark “When did you become an expert in thermonuclear dynamics?” and he deadpans, “Last night.” That’s pretty much what it’s like to be a historical novelist: the sinking realization that you need to become an expert in some new historical period, epoch, or event—and this needs to happen immediately, or your next book/next chapter/next paragraph will never happen, either.

As I set about researching The Alice Network (diving into a new historical era means major, major, MAJOR research mode) I realized that there are four distinct research phases involved in writing a historical novel. Each has its own delights and hazards…

The Dog-Paddle comes first. You have a new book idea, probably something rather vague and unformed, and you’re reading everything you can get your hands on about Murano glass-blowers or the reign of Frederick the Great or Finnish lake mythology. This is the stage where you grossly over-use the One Click Buy feature on Amazon as you load up on used research texts to dog-ear and underline; you also make dire use of the “Customers who bought X also bought Y” feature. Your plot hasn’t firmed up yet, so right now everything is grist for the imagination, and blinding flashes of inspiration come from random footnotes. You have no idea what will be useful, so you read it all, dog-paddling in leisurely fashion through an ocean of sometimes only barely connected reading material, daisy chaining from a book about Polish airmen in World War II to the bombing of London to the building of St. Paul cathedral, and realizing that with a single brilliant plot twist you can tie it all together in one smash-hit novel. This is the fun stage.

Stage two is The Deep Dive. You have your book idea; the era and plot are chosen. Now you need to narrow your focus; understand EVERYTHING about the historical period and events you will be covering. This is where you read every account you can find on the Battle of Crecy or the early life of Machiavelli. You want the picture in your mind as complete as possible before you start playing on that historical stage. It’s easy to get lost in the research here, because no historical picture will ever be complete. There’s always more to know. At some point you have to stop researching and start writing.

Stage three is The Fast Patch. This is when you’re in the throes of writing, and hit a road-block. You cannot go any further in this chapter until you have accurately figured out the mechanical innards of a Pe-5, or figured out what boat will get your hero out of Dunkirk alive. So you repair to the books, the web, and the library for a quick research fix. You don’t need to dive deep here, find out every conflicting opinion out there on the building of a Pe-5 or every single kind of boat used at Dunkirk. You just need a fast, reliable bit of historical information that will bridge the gap to firmer, more well researched ground.

Stage four, and most dreaded of all, is The Rabbit Hole. This generally comes in the editing phase, the stage where you are tearing your manuscript apart in a haze of caffeine-fueled paranoia, fact-checking everything just to be sure you are catching every single historical error that could possibly have sneaked in there. This is when you stay up till 3am trying to figure out exactly when buttons replaced ties on women’s dresses. This is when you obsess over whether there were black bears or brown bears in Imperial Rome-governed Dacia. This is when you calculate centuries-old lunar cycles in an effort to see if your heroine really could have been looking at a full moon that night. This is the stage where you vow to take up a career as a clam-digger or a burger-flipper—anything but a historical novelist.

Until the book is off to your editor, and you start thinking about the next book, and a wonderful vague idea hits. Something about Shakespeare’s Dark Lady and the Grail myth . . . and then there you are, one-click buying on Amazon for all you’re worth, happily anticipating when your new research books will arrive, and thinking that you have the best job on earth.

The Alice Network hits stores June 6. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble…and if you pre-order, I’ve got a treat for you. Take your pre-order number or a snapshot of your receipt here, and you will get a free, emailed copy of a never-before-published short story of mine. It’s about the French Revolution, it’s called “The Tumbril,” and it’s going out as a free prize to all readers who pre-order The Alice Network before June 6!

Trailer for THE ALICE NETWORK!