Not far from us here in the Gers is a monument that marks a battle that took place between a group of French Resistance fighters and a battalion of German soldiers on the night of July 6th and 7th 1944. The Maquis de Meilhan commemorates the bravery and eventual death of 76 individuals.
‘Maquis’ is the collective name given to the French Resistance fighters of the second world war. The word originates from the name given to terrain in south-east France. In England, this would be scrubland, an upland version of heathland. Here in the Gers, this is land that consists of dense bushes of broom and juniper, together with oak trees. It is difficult terrain to walk across and provided ideal cover for groups of guerilla fighters who wanted to avoid being captured by the Germans. Maquisard was the name given to individual fighters.
In 1944, the German occupying forces began an intensive campaign against the French maquis, which also included reprisals against civilians who were believed to be sheltering them. France is dotted with memorials to different groups of fighters who lost their lives in this period of the war, and the memorial here in the Gers is just one of these.
The battle at Meilhan
In late June of 1944, a group of about 100 maquis (many of whom had come from L’Isle en Dodon under the command of doctor Raynaud) assembled at two abandoned farms, du Priou and de Larée. Their presence there must eventually have been notified to the German forces because on the night of 6th and 7th July a battalion of Wehrmarcht arrived from Lannemezan, encircled the farms and mounted a fierce attack.
Although the battle raged for three hours, the maquis were inevitably overwhelmed. A German mortar destroyed an ammunition lorry and in the end the fighters ran out of ammunition.
Four civilians from nearby farms were killed, three maquis were taken to Lannemezan and executed, but the wounded were slaughtered. There were seventy-six victims in total. Their ages ranged from 17 to 70.
The monument and its mural sculpture
The monument itself consists of the ruins of two small farmhouses, a cemetery, a memorial tower and a long mural sculpture, all clustered in an unspoilt valley. Its natural and simple setting is one of the moving things about the site, but perhaps the most moving is the mural sculpture that dominates the valley. Created only 4 years after the battle, in 1948, this stone mural pulls the visitor into an imaginary depiction of the events that took place.
The mural can be read from left to right. It begins with four maquisards under a broad-canopied oak tree. Two are wearing the Basque beret favoured by Resistance fighters and are lightly-armed with Stens guns, the archetypal resistance machine gun, probably made inexpensively in England and easily delivered by parachute drop. One of them, bare-chested and apparently uninjured, looks down at his gun in despair, his ammunition spent. The men’s absolute resoluteness to defend each other and their obvious vulnerability are clear.
In addition, this first group of maquisards is shown against leaves of bracken, a plant which is notoriously tenacious and resistant. This helps to describe the character of the men who were defending their position that day in July 1944. (Thanks to Cécile, one of our students, for pointing out the bracken’s significance here.)
Next are two unarmed maquisards. The older of the two reassuringly holds the hand of the younger, perhaps the 17 year-old of the group. Both look out from under a sheltering oak tree, towards where their colleagues are and, beyond them, to mortal danger. The older man is placed, protectively, closer to the danger. Behind them stands a field of ripening corn which, like them, will soon be harvested.
Next are four men, unarmed, dressed differently from the fighters. These are the four civilian hostages, lined up against a wall to face their executioners.
Finally, on the right-hand end of the mural, the grim harvest has been completed and graves stand ready to receive their dead.
This mural’s simplicity conveys something powerful to old and young alike.