Sunday, May 08, 2011

The Liberation of Lourdes (August 1944)


1. The Castle of Lourdes (65) above the town
[With the 'Pic du Béout' mountain in the distance]

2. The Hôtel Beauséjour, Lourdes
(Where the German troops surrendered in August 1944)

3. Commemorative plaque outside the Hôtel Beauséjour

For additional information click on 'Comments' below


Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

Additional information

(1) Lourdes - an important military location

The French have a saying: « Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose » (Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, 1849). It can be translated as: "The more things change, the more they stay the same". In the long run, events in history have a tendency to come round again. Let us begin this tale of the Second World War by setting it into the context of the long march of history.

In his hit song 'The Village of St Bernadette' (1959) by Eula Parker, the American singer Andy Williams eulogised Lourdes as:

"One little town I'll never forget
Is Lourdes, the village of St. Bernadette."

'The village of St Bernadette': since 1858 this is the way that Lourdes in the French High Pyrenees department (the ancient county of Bigorre) has become known the world over. Yet, for most of its recorded history Lourdes has been an important military location. This was also to be the case during WW2.

The two principal reasons for the town's strategic military importance are its topographical position in the northern foothills of the Pyrenees and its great defensive position. In times past the castle of Lourdes Castle (Château fort de Lourdes) standing on a high rocky outcrop above the river Gave was the key to controlling the region and the central mountain routes to and from Spain. Among those linked to the history of Lourdes and its fortified castle have been the Emperor Charlemagne, Edward, Prince of Wales (the Black Prince) and Bertrand du Guesclin.

(2) To fight or surrender?

Even the name of 'Lourdes' and its coat of arms harks back to the legendary siege of the castle by Charlemagne in the year 778 AD. At that time, while returning north from Spain, Charlemagne and his forces laid siege to the castle then occupied by Moorish forces under the leadership of Mirat. As with many sieges, Charlemagne's aim was to starve the Moors into submission. According to the legend by chance an eagle having caught a trout in the river Gave then flew above the castle and dropped its precious catch.

With little food left one fish was not going to sustain the Moorish defenders for long. Hence, in order to fool Charlemagne into thinking they had sufficient food to survive the siege, they sent the trout as a gift to the Emperor. Apparently convinced by this little trick that the siege was still far from being successful - so the legend continues - Charlemagne then proposed a deal with Mirat.

Turpin, the Bishop of Le Puy-en-Velay suggested the plan to Charlemagne that Mirat could keep the town on condition that he would “surrender to the Virgin” (and hence not directly to Charlemagne). In other words, Mirat and the Moors would renounce Islam in favour of Christianity. At the same time Mirat's honour would also be upheld and needless deaths would be avoided.

Mirat and his garrison laid down their arms at the feet of the Black Virgin of Le Puy and Mirat became a Christian, taking the name of 'Lorus'. The name of the town of Lourdes derived from the name of this convert to Christianity. The coat of arms of Lourdes includes an eagle holding a trout in its beak above three castellated towers above the Pyrenean mountains and the river Gave. Over a thousand years before the Second World War the beleaguered military defenders of Lourdes chose to surrender with honour to the forces opposing them.

It would not be the last occasion that beleaguered troops in Lourdes would be faced with a choice of whether to surrender or fight. Time passes but the choice would remain the same. That choice would have to be made again in August 1944 by the commander of the German troops then stationed in Lourdes.

Thursday, 16 June, 2011  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(3) Lourdes and district in WW2 before August 1944

In the 20th Century the long march of history once again saw opposing military forces in Lourdes and the whole of High Pyrenees region. Initially after the fall of France in June 1940 the High Pyrenees department fell within the 'Unoccupied' zone France controlled by the Vichy-based government of Marshal Philippe Pétain. Nevertheless, the Germans arranged a series of measures limiting the movement of people, freight goods and even the postal traffic between the German 'Occupied' and the Vichy 'Unoccupied' zone.

The High Pyrenees has a 90km border with Spain which was a 'non-belligerent' country during WW2. Inevitably, this offered the possibility of shelter and escape to those who were subject to persecution under the German Occupation. A number of escape networks enabling Allied airmen or escaped POWs to reach Spain and onwards to the British colony of Gibraltar, several of them by the mountain passes of the High Pyrenees. As previously noted because of its topographical location Lourdes was traditionally the key to controlling the region and the central mountain routes to and from Spain. Hence, in the 20th Century the long march of history saw the area return to being a strategically important location.

On 8 November 1942 the Allies launched 'Operation Torch' and invaded French North Africa (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia). The situation for the French people living in the Vichy zone was about to get much worse. As a counter to the Allied invasion of North Africa, on 11 November 1942 the Germans moved into the previously 'Unoccupied' zone. Occupation troops arrived from Bordeaux and occupied the High Pyrenees. Some detachments 'locked' the valleys giving access to Spain and small garrisons moved into the towns such as Lourdes, Tarbes and Lannemezan.

Despite these attempts at greater control of free movement to and from Spain local farmers and shepherds knew the highways and byways rather better than the Occupiers. The locals were able to guide people across the border by one of the many unguarded routes across the mountains. In these situations surveillance patrols by the German or French authorities proved to be rather imperfect. For some, the only form of 'resistance' was silence, while other residents of the High Pyrenees opened the doors of their homes for one or more nights so that Jewish refugees in distress could escape across the frontier. Some escaping Jewish refugees were to stay for a longer period and remained in rural villages for the entire duration of the war.

Thursday, 16 June, 2011  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(4) A refuge in the High Pyrenees

Lourdes, with its many hotels, was a perfect place to bring together children and protect them from bombing. In late 1943 children began to be moved to Lourdes and the surrounding district from the Marseille and Toulon region in anticipation of a possible Allied landing on the coast of Provence. Other children came from the bombed cities such as Bordeaux or Nantes. About 2000 such children were evacuated to Lourdes and were well received by the inhabitants of Lourdes who were well used to welcoming people of all nations.

The children were organised into groups of about 30 or 40 and supervised by a local adult, whom the children called 'Chef' (i.e. 'Chief' or 'Boss'). Several of these adult supervisor ‘Chiefs’ volunteered to work at school health centres to escape the labour service (STO). In the period before the Liberation the German Occupiers, particularly the Gestapo, maintained and increased the identity checks particularly looking for Jewish refugees.

Several of the town and village mayors, town clerks and teachers were involved in providing false identity papers for those most in need, including those residents resisting being sent to Germany by the dreaded S.T.O. (Compulsory Work Order). The local mayors and town halls also helped by providing food or organizing food collections. Some of the town hall employees also helped make it easier for food stamps to be 'stolen'.

None of this was undertaken without some personal danger. The case of the Mayor of Tarbes (capital of the High Pyrenees) illustrates how dangerous it was to resist the Occupiers. Monsieur Maurice Trélut was Mayor of Tarbes between 1935 and September 1944. During the German Occupation M. Trélut was the first link in establishing a network of refugees from the hospital in Tarbes. Many people turned to him through his position as mayor, including many Jewish refugees some of whom were originally from Eastern Europe.

Many of these refugees M. Trélut was able to send to Mother Anne-Marie Llobet, Mother Superior of the Daughters of Charity. Mother Llobet took charge of placing the children in residential schools across Tarbes while their parents were given work at the hospital. Persecuted Jews from Poland, Romania or Germany and who did not speak any French were given false papers categorising them as 'deaf and dumb' or 'mentally deficient'. This explained away the fact they could not speak or understand French.

By such ways and means, many were able to escape deportation and remain free until the day of Liberation. Unfortunately, this was not to be so for Maurice Trélut. His 'complicity' was discovered and he was arrested by the Gestapo. In July 1944 Maurice Trélut was deported to Buchenwald where he was executed in September of that year. By the time of M. Trélut's death the High Pyrenees had been liberated. His sacrifice had not been in vain. Many of those M. Trélut had been able to help during his tenure as mayor had managed to survive the war.

Thursday, 16 June, 2011  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(5) The time of Liberation

D-Day, Tuesday 6 June 1944:

The Allies land in Normandy (northern France).
The time of Liberation is close to hand.

D-Day, Tuesday 15 August 1944:

The Allies land in Provence (southern France).
The time of Liberation draws even closer.

By 15 August 1944 the German forces in southern France were already facing the problem of the French resistance harrying their supply lines towards the Normandy front. The days following the Allied Landings in Provence also coincided with much of the German army in Normandy being trapped in the 'Falaise Pocket'.

Even before 15 August a large number of the Occupying forces had been moved north to fight against the Allied invaders. For their part the organised French Resistance harried this transfer of troops by various ways and means such as blowing up bridges and railway lines and setting up road blocks. In some instances the Resistance fighters had received weapons supplied by parachute drop from Allied aircraft. These Resistance groups were able to attack the columns of German troops during their move north.

The writing was on the wall for those remaining German Occupiers in the High Pyrenees. But how many Germans were there and what were the options available to them after the invasion of southern France?

(6) How many Germans were there?

On 18 August 1944 the German Occupying forces in the Argelès-Gazost district of the High Pyrenees comprised of:

At Lourdes - German Customs and frontier guards for two French departments (the High and Low Pyrenees) under the command of Heigerugsrat Kulitszcher.

At Argelès - The Frontier Customs Post under the command of Zollkommisar Blanck.

Also at Argelès - A Gestapo centre headed by Herr Kranick

At Pierrefitte, Luz-de-Saint-Sauveur, Barèges, Gèdre and Cauterets - smaller command posts of frontier customs guards commanded by junior officers and NCOs.

At Cauterets - An information & communications post under Captain Michel.

In total, the total number of German Occupying forces remaining in this district amounted to 9 officers and 340 other ranks (NCOs and privates).

Source: Saint-Pierre (1944)

Thursday, 16 June, 2011  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(7) What were the options available to the Germans?

For the German Occupiers remaining in the High Pyrenees after the Allied landings in August 1944 the realistic options open to them would seem to have been as follows:

(a) Pull the forces back to strategic 'strong points' and try to hold out for as long as possible;

(b) Link up the remaining forces locally and then move to try and support the larger force of German troops still fighting the Allies elsewhere in France;

(c) Surrender to the local Resistance fighters in the district (possibly facing an uncertain future);

(d) Attempt to hold out against the Resistance until the regular troops arrived and then surrender with likely protected rights as prisoners of war.

The German commander for the High Pyrenees department gave the order that all the occupying forces should first make for Lourdes and then move to Tarbes. From Tarbes, the troops would then head north to join up with the rest of the German army still in France. It was not going to be an easy task to carry out these orders.

The French Resistance had already made an attack on the garrison at Tarbes on 18 August. Early on 19 August the Resistance were to move on Lourdes and take control of key points within the town, such as the Pont-Neuf (new bridge). There was no possibility that any forces would arrive to relieve any siege, nor was there much likelihood they would receive supplies or reinforcements from elsewhere. The options available to the German Occupiers were rapidly diminishing. The highest ranking officer of the forces that had pulled linked up at Lourdes was Heigerugsrat (Commandant) Kulitszcher who was faced with the same dilemma as Mirat commanding the Moorish force opposing Charlemagne in 778 AD: whether to fight or surrender.

Thursday, 16 June, 2011  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(8) A negotiated honourable and peaceful surrender

The Sub-Prefect of the Argelès-Gazost district of the High Pyrenees for the Vichy French administration was M. Saint-Pierre. Generally speaking, for those Frenchmen active in the Resistance they regarded those who had worked for the Vichy administration as collaborators. If the writing was on the wall for the German Occupiers in August 1944 the same hand was writing the same message on the same wall for the Vichy administration. Yet, Sub-Prefect Saint-Pierre had one more card up his sleeve that he was able to play. He would be able to play a key role in negotiating a bloodless German surrender to the FFI (resistance). In a sense, M. Saint-Pierre had a similar intermediary role to that played by the Bishop of Le Puy-en-Velay in 778 AD. Both of them were involved in a peaceful surrender of Occupying forces at Lourdes.

On 18 August 1944 M. Saint-Pierre was at one of the spa resorts in the mountains, Luz-de-Saint-Sauveur. According to M. Saint-Pierre's written account negotiations about a possible German surrender began late in the evening of 18 August. At that time a German emissary, Inspector Schoeffel (a-d-c for Zollkommisar Blanck), and an interpreter (Herr Janous) arrived to meet with M. Saint-Pierre and discuss a possible surrender. These negotiations went through the early hours of the morning.

According to M. Saint-Pierre's written statement it was he who first suggested to the Germans that they could initially be interned in hotels designated by the Germans and that they should hand over their weapons. If the Germans did this the Sub-Prefect gave his word that, as prisoners, the Germans would be treated as regular prisoners of war. Early in the morning of 19 August, the Sub-Prefect met with M. Lemettre (Mayor of Argelès), M. Marque (Special delegation of Pierrefitte), M. Rousset Bert (one of the local Resistance leaders) and some others to discuss what would happen.

Later that morning, M. Jean Senmartin (son-in-law of the owners of the Hôtel Beauséjour, Lourdes) and Captain Leon (Honoré Auzon) of the FFI arrived from Lourdes in a car to see the Sub-Prefect. The French forces at Lourdes had delivered an ultimatum to Commandant Kulitszcher. M. Saint-Martin then returned to Lourdes with M. Senmartin and Captain Leon to finalise the terms of surrender.

Thus, in the early afternoon of 19 August 1944 four signatories affixed their names at the bottom of the document agreeing to the surrender of the German garrison of Lourdes. This is a translation of that document:

"On 19 August 1944, at the Hotel Beauséjour, Lourdes, Lieutenant-Colonel Martial under the General Direction of the Special Services Army Staff presented his credentials to Commandant Kulitszcher, German commander of the locality who agreed to disarm and surrender his troops to the French authorities in accordance with the rules of war.

The ultimatum had been issued to them at 22.00 h on 18 August by Captain Leon, Head of the Lourdes Sector of the FFI and confirmed at 10.00 h on 19 August. Having been in touch with the German Army commander at Tarbes, the same officer made contact at 11.00 h. At 13.00 h hours, the German commander captain asked the officer to see M. Saint-Pierre, the Sub-Prefect who had been negotiating the surrender with the German officers of Argelès during the night.

The nine officers will be interned in a hotel to be designated by them. They will hand over their weapons to an officer of the FFI who will prepare an inventory. The 340 men will be interned as regular prisoners and an inventory will be made of the weapons that belonged to them.''

The signatories to this document were:

M. Saint-Pierre (Sub-Prefect, Argelès-Gazost district)
Lt. Colonel Martial, D.G.S.S.
Captain Leon (Honoré Auzon), FFI

Kulitszcher, Heigerugsrat (Major)

Thursday, 16 June, 2011  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(9) Not a shot was fired

A few days after the German surrender M. Saint-Pierre, the Sub-Prefect for the district made a written record of what took place during the negotiations. The record survives in the archives of the prefecture, and at the Resistance and Deportation Museum in Tarbes. This is how the Sub-Prefect summarised the surrender of the German Occupiers:

« ... Ainsi, sans un mort, sans un blessé, sans même un coup de feu, a cessé l'occupation de l'arrondissement dont l'administration m'avait été confiée»


"... Thus, without a death, without anyone wounded, without even one shot being fired, the Occupation ended in the administrative district which had been entrusted to me."

Heigerugsrat Kulitszcher was commanding the German frontier troops of two departments: the High Pyrenees and the Low Pyrenees. He was the highest ranking German officer remaining in the Lourdes area.

The true identity of Lieutenant-Colonel "Martial" was M. Tessier d'Orfeuil. Commander Richon, otherwise known as "Jeannot", was the third of the main French resistance leaders assisting with the formal signing of the German surrender. Many of the French Resistance leaders adopted a different name to safeguard against possible reprisals being taken out on their families. Satisfied at their 'victory' - achieved without bloodshed - the FFI leaders could be content with their efforts.

The 9 German officers told the Sub-Prefect they wanted to be escorted to a hotel at Argelès. Consequently, the German officers were taken there to be interned. The 340 or so other ranks of the German army and administration that had gathered together at Lourdes were also transported out of the town and initially interned at Pierrefitte-Nestalas.

It will be remembered that the German forces had agreed their weapons would be handed over to the FFI at the time of their surrender, and an inventory made. Up to this time the FFI had been supplied with arms by parachute drops and other means. These weapons obtained from the German forces made a significant increase to the FFI armoury in the High Pyrenees. A short time afterwards many of the FFI of the Soulé column that obtained the German weapons volunteered for the 1st battalion of the Bigorre Regiment of the French Army. Captain of the 'Bigorre' Battalion after the Liberation was Captain Jean Richon ('Jeannot').

As they were now part of the regular army the 'Bigorre' soldiers fought the Germans in the closing months of the war. The German weapons captured at the time of the Liberation of Lourdes became a significant part of the Bigorre battalion’s armoury. On 25 September 1946 General Charles De Gaulle announced that Captain Jean Richon, otherwise known as 'Jeannot', was to be nominated as a member of the Legion of Honour (i.e. the 'Légion d'honneur').

The citation referred to his leadership and achievements in the wartime Resistance, as well as his achievements commanding the 'Bigorre' battalion. In particular, the 'Légion d'honneur' citation referred to the 'Royan Pocket' battle of 14, 15 and 16 April 1945 in which 'Jeannot' and the 'Bigorre' battalion had played a key role. After the Germans evacuated most of France some garrison 'pockets' remained until the final days of the war. Royan, in the Charente-Maritime department on the Gironde estuary of S.W. France was one of these German 'pockets'.

Thursday, 16 June, 2011  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(10) Jubilation at another Lourdes 'miracle'

Lt.-Col "Martial" and Sub-Prefect Saint-Pierre still had a concern about possible reprisals from the still-significant German garrisons within striking distance of Lourdes, such as at Tarbes, Pau, Orthez, Pau, Bayonne and Toulouse. They issued a poster which was posted around town by mid-afternoon on 19 August. This announced the surrender of the local German Occupiers, but also called for 'absolute discipline' among the civil population. In particular, they formally declared a ban on public gatherings on the streets, the closing of cafés and a curfew until 10 o'clock at night.

No doubt the 'new' authorities in Lourdes had good reasons for this 'order' but the posters did not stay in position for very long! They were torn down. The townsfolk and refugees took to the streets to acclaim their liberators. Unlike as often happened during the German Occupation the authorities took no action against those ignoring an official order. This was not going to be a day for staying indoors and being fearful. There had been enough of those sorts of days over the previous four years. This was the day of days to be out celebrating on the streets! It was a significant day in the history of Lourdes and on a par with the surrender of the Moorish garrison under Mirat to Charlemagne's forces in 778 AD.

Some three months after the Liberation, a pamphlet was published in the High Pyrenees 'The Liberation of the Pyrenees and the South West'. This collection of stories about the Liberation had been prepared by M. André Messager. Among the stories featured was one entitled 'The German surrender of Lourdes'. The French Resistance who had been at Lourdes on 18 / 19 August and knew the true course of events found M. Messager's miraculous account of the events somewhat amusing! Yet, the strength of the written word is such that this is the version that has entered into popular belief.

In a book of his wartime experiences written in 2002, M. Pierre Fauthoux, a voluntary combatant in the Resistance and one of the 'Jeannot' group that took part in the Liberation of Lourdes, wrote about this popular but 'mythical' account by André Messager:

"Upon reading its contents, one can only marvel at the performance of the two negotiators cited, Captain 'Auzon' and Jean Senmartin, son-in-law of the owners of the Hotel Beauséjour. In two hours, almost without weapons or troops, they brought 340 heavily armed German soldiers to their knees!

It is true, let us not forget that the city is Marian, from time to time, subject to miraculous events. But miracle or not, this is the account that later reference books mention about this event. Thus, Jacques Longué's 'Chronicle in Bigorre' was inspired by this story, as are other journalists who are consistently rehashing this version, with only a few adjustments with the passage of time. It has been recounted so much so that over the years, that this version seems to have become historical truth ........."

Source: Fauthoux (2002), pp. 50-51

As can be seen from this example, sometimes 'myths' can become irrefutable historical 'truths'!

Thursday, 16 June, 2011  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(11) After the Liberation

By 20 August 1944, the whole of the High Pyrenees department has been liberated. The cost in life in 1944 was relatively light. But there had been a price to pay between 1942 and 1944. Post-war research estimates that between July 1942 and August 1944 guerrilla actions undertaken by the Resistance in this department was at the cost in life of 205 resistance fighters. In addition there were 527 civilians interned and deported either for acts of resistance, their political opinions or for being Jews. In the last three months of the Occupation the German reprisals on the civilian population in the High Pyrenees accounted for 78 dead and 50 wounded.

In the years after the war many tributes were paid to those who helped the Jews and those on the run from the Gestapo or actively participated in the Resistance. For example, many street signs in the towns and villages were named after some of these people, or memorials erected at the scene of where fighting or particular events took place.

Maurice Trélut, the Mayor of Tarbes who made the ultimate sacrifice for his wartime actions aiding the Jewish refugees, was declared 'Righteous among the Nations'. He is honoured on the 'Wall of Honour' at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. Maurice Trélut is also remembered in his own region. The main sports stadium of Tarbes is named in honour of Maurice Trélut. Another of those listed as 'Righteous among the Nations' at Yad Vashem is Mgr. Pierre-Marie Théas. Monsignor Théas was Bishop of Montauban (1940 - 1947) and Bishop of Tarbes & Lourdes (1947 - 1970).

Outside the Hotel Beauséjour at Lourdes, is a commemorative tablet with the following inscription:

'Ici le 19 août 1944
Les troupes allemandes de la région de Lourdes se sont rendues, sans condition, aux Forces Françaises de l'intérieur, commandées par le Capitaine Auzon'.


"Here on 19 August 1944 the German forces in the Lourdes region unconditionally surrendered to the French Forces of the Interior (FFI), commanded by Captain Auzon".

Many hundreds of thousands of tourists and pilgrims must pass by this tablet each year without actually reading it or know what it represents. Yet, this was the place that the German Commander of the Lourdes garrison surrendered to the French forces and avoided wholesale destruction and bloodshed in the town. For this reason, it is one of the most important reminders of the long history of Lourdes - even if relatively few people are aware of its existence.

(12) Acknowledgements & further reading


1. Resistance and Deportation Museum & Archives,
Tarbes (Hautes-Pyrénées département), France

2. The Castle Fort and its Pyrenean museum
25, rue du Fort

3. The Reception staff,
Hôtel Beauséjour,

Further reading (in French):

1. Fauthoux, Pierre (2002),
"L'itinéraire d'un jeune résistant de BIGORRE,
D'un maquis pyrénéen au front de l'Atlantique",
ANACR, Tarbes.

2. Saint-Pierre, M. (1944)
"Reddition des garnisons Allemandes de Lourdes et Argelès:
Déposition du Sous-Préfet Saint-Pierre au Capitaine de Clarens"
(Resistance and Deportation Museum Archives, Tarbes, France)

Thursday, 16 June, 2011  

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