Memories of the French Resistance in Burgundy

French resistance
French resistance members

Etienne Jovignot lived in a small village along the canal in the Cote d’Or department of Burgundy. These are his memories of events that happened during the Second World War in the village and lasted a few days.

During the war the Valley Ouche was a very attractive place for resistance activities against the Nazis. It is even said that the combat at the beginning of September in the village Sainte Marie helped in the liberation of Dijon during the night of the 10th-11th September 1944.

His story follows…

…I have no intention to tell the history of these battles for the liberation, which were complicated, but only to evoke, 60 years after the events, certain moments which have remained in my memory since I was 20 years old.

Summer 1944 was not a calm season in our valley; the nights were punctuated with the sounds of machine gun fire; without doubt the “Maquisards” (the French Resistance) training their young recruits in the use of weapons. We also knew through my brother, the Abbot Jovignot, who served the parish of Gergueil, that a British commando unit was installed on the hill top near the farm “de Rolle”, between Détain, Bruant, Saint-Jean-de-Boeuf and Gergueil: they were looking after the liaison with the Resistance and received the parachute drops.

In the summer, I was a monitor at the school holiday camp at Gissey-sur-Ouche for children from the Maitrise of Dijon. Whilst I was walking with a dozen boys, in the forest of Marigny, above Saint Victor, we arrived at the ruins of a fortified castle, when we were stopped by a group of men and women, apparently expecting us. “You’ll have to go back”, said one of them “and go back down as quickly as possible”. Afraid, most of the boys moved closer to me, but one of the youngsters shouted “There”s a body in the well… and it stinks”. A heavy silence. “Now you know why we do not want people walking by this place”, said a woman from the group. I now understood that we were in a nest of Resistance and that there had been some fighting.

I presented myself as the brother of the Abbey of Jovignot, priest at Sainte-Marie. The atmosphere calms: “We know him”. I explain that we are from the summer camp, as many parents, mostly from Dijon, had confided their children to us, to protect them from the bombing raids and possible fighting, but also to allow them to benefit from the country air during a difficult school term (lack of food for many). So we have to be in the country and woods. “Of course” said a man of 40 years of age, who presents himself as the group leader. “You couldn’t have guessed that we had shot some French Militia, who came to attack us. But promise me your utmost discretion and that of your boys.” So I explained to the children, that they should not tell anybody else what they had seen… or smelt, as it would put in peril the lives of Resistance members who were fighting for us. They all agreed.

Before leaving, I discretely asked the chief if he could cover the bodies of Militia with earth. “Its more hygienic and humane”. His handshake confirmed that it would be done.

Tuesday 5th September : My father and I were climbing to Liau, a forest hill between Sainte-Marie and the farm “Grand Mont”, to cut wood. The sky was blue, but during the afternoon, we heard thunder far away.”Hey, a thunder storm ? Strange”. We stop working to better listen. My father with a big smile taps me on the shoulder “And that’s not thunder. It’s the canon of the liberation, and listen well, it’s coming from the South. They’ve advanced much quicker than in Normandy”. Returning from Liau, we had a passionate talk about how Dijon would be liberated. “I hope”, said my father “that it will be less difficult that Caen”. I remarked that at the pace with which the Allies “moved up” from the beaches of the Provence, the balance of troops is no loner the same in Normandy. At that time neither of us think that the liberation of Dijon would in part pass through Sainte-Maire and Pont-de-Pany.

Wednesday 6th September : At 8:30am , I was in the main street of Saint-Marie. I was walking in the direction Pont-de-Pany to Gissey. I heard a raffle of machine gun fire, close by, coming from the road to Gissey. A few seconds later, a German truck arrives at a crazy speed and misses the corner of the road beside the church and crashes into a Chestnut tree. Five soldiers are upside down, wounded but alive.I hear them, after a long silence due to the shock, trying to get out. I approached the vehicle and with much effort open one of the doors. One of the soldiers, who must have been less hurt, threatens me with his weapon and shouts “Maquis ! Maquis!”. In my bad German I explain to him, that if I do not have a gun its because I’m not in the Maquis. I noticed that his comrades were badly bleeding. I propose to all of them to come to my house for first aid. They hesitate and then accept when understanding that my home is the presbytery, rented by my elder brother who is the village priest. Rapidly the house is transformed into a “Country Hospital”, my mother, sister and some neighbours helping the wounded.

It remained to negotiate with the Resistance, the status of the wounded Germans. I take the road to Gissey to meet the Resistance members. Most importantly they wanted to recuperate the weapons left in the truck and to verify the condition of the injured. I ask them to leave the Germans, as it is certain that more soldiers would be sent by the “Kommandantur” to look for the missing. The village would have been burnt and the villager shot if we did not give back the wounded. The leader accepts to leave 3 wounded Germans, but takes 2 soldiers, in better condition as “POWs”. Both of the POW’s were executed on sunday 10th September after the village was liberated, despite our protests.

The rest of the day concerned the evacuation of Sainte-Marie to the other villages in the hills, away from the main roads and where the Germans no longer ventured because of the fear the Maquis inspired them. The people of Gergueil organised the barns, made beds for the old folks and reviewed food. Other villages such as Agey also became mobilized to help.

At 7.00pm (German time), the sun still shines and it is still hot for the first days of September 1944, when a column of German vehicles and motorbikes arrived in Sainte-Marie and stopped in front of the church, where there are already villagers grouped, troubled by the idea of leaving their homes. The officer, who spoke correct French asks where are the wounded soldiers that they have come to collect. They entered our dining-room where the three “remaining” wounded are laying. We are very worried as we assume that they will ask about the other two members (taken by the Resistance). To our surprise, the Germans did not ask anything, nor did the wounded men said a word. During the day we find out that they were forced to join the German army: Polish ? Alsacien? we will never know. The officer orders his soldiers to bring all the villagers to the main square by the church… Quickly accomplished as there were few people remaining. He orders the wounded to be taken on to a vehicle, then climbs the stairs to the church ans shouts aloud “You are all Resistance members, but as you have treated our wounded we will not burn the village, but if, when leaving here we are attacked by you Resistance friends, we will immediately return and burn the village, shooting some of the people! Understood!” The German squadron leaves in the direction of Pont-de Pany and after a minute we hear machine gun fire of the Maquis hiding along the canal.

The inhabitants remaining in the village had an immense anguish on hearing the gun fire. Some fell to their knees and asked the Abbey Jovignot to give a collective final absolution. He does this from the porch of the church and cries out “Now save yourselves and escape to the other side of the canal, as far away as possible. Go to the village of Gergueil, they are waiting for you.” The crowd disperses to escape the return of the German squadron. We all knew what had happened at Oradour-sur-Glane. However the Germans did not come back. Later on the the road to Pont-dePany, we found traces of blood. There had been wounded, perhaps some killed amongst the Germans. The office had judged preferable not to expose his soldiers to the risk as Resistance were numerous and fear of the village.

In the evening many of the villagers from Sainte Marie reached Gergueil via the forest, where the welcome ws excellent. Others went to different villages where they had family or friends. The School Camp found refuge in Agey, where the conditions were excellent, especially the food (very appreciated during at time).

During the night 6th to 7th September, parish members find the Abbey Jovignot : “Is it possible to take Mr Henry to the hospital at Dijon?”, Mr Henry is a older man, wounded on the morning of the 6th in his garden, whilst watching the German truck pass by. He had received first-aid but now needed to be operated urgently. One of the Maquis leaders in the village had agreed to allow a vehicle from the Resistance to take Mr Henry to their own “country hospital” to be operated. This meant having to send a message requesting help to the hospital between Pouilly en Auxois and Vitteaux. “We thought of you Mr the Abbey, as we always see you on your bicycle riding from one village to another”. The abbey replies “It’s true, I know all the tracks and roads, also the location of the Resistance’s hospital. The Maquis leader gave the abbey a message, telling him to hide it in his clothes. Smiling the Abbey says “In case of a bad meeting, my cassock, often encumbrance, will protect me!” We follow the small light on the bicycle as the priest of Sainte Maries rides away on the road to the village of Agey. Early in the morning, we are all relieved as the abbey Jovignot returns in good health. He had been warmly welcomed by the Maquis in the hospital and a car was sent for Mr Henry. The make-shift ambulance arrived shortly afterwards.

We then climbed slowly up the hill to the village of Gergueil via “Liau”, with our ruck sacks. We found other inhabitants from the village. I’m nominated as a “attendant” because I knew the farmers of the village… and at Gergueil everybody is a bit of a farmer.

The group of “refugees” remained at Gergueil until Sunday or Monday, however some people returned to Sainte Marie, mainly those with live-stock to feed. A certain number  stayed in Saint Marie and were present during the battle of Saturday 9th which left 1 dead and 1 wounded among the civilians.

Thursday 7th September : This is the most tragic day of the week before the the liberation. A group of young Maquis are arrested by the Germans, leaving the village in direction of Pont de Pany, two manage to escape, but the 6 others, including Christiane Perceret (a 17 year old grammar school girl appreciated for her dynamism) and Pierre Lessiau (son of Professor at Carnot School in Dijon) are shot to death in front of the house of Mr And Mrs Guenot. Their bodies are found the next morning by Mrs Guenot abd her niece who came to feed their animals. The outside wall and the room which is on the roadside had numerous bullet holes.

Saturday 9th September : A column of German soldiers arrive on foot, probably from the central France, retreating to the East, they install at Sainte Marie to rest and eat. The village had two wells with fresh water and easily accessible, one by the school and the other at what we now call the “Place Nasicaa”. From these wells, where the Germans refreshed themselves, they occupied all of the village, when suddenly machine guns fired, placed strategically on the exit points of Sainte Marie. It was the Maquis of Arnay le Duc with their leader Doctor Nasicaa and 9 well trained men engaged in the combat.

The Germans surprised, disorientated, gather their weapons and began to shoot anywhere, at the houses, the windows that were open. This is how the teacher Miss Bazerolle was injured. My father and brother take shelter, lying down in the kitchen while the bullets flew by on the 1st floor, braking things in the bedroom. A young German soldier suddenly entered the presbytery, with no weapon and afraid. He makes signs to my father that he wants to hide under the staircase and protects his head with a large metal umbrella holder. The shooting continues for a few minutes then moves away. The “German Visitor” leaves with haste and rejoins his unit  and leaves for Pont de Pany, where there are incidents with the population. The Germans burn the prettiest house of the hamlet, which belonged to the Pelissonnier family, and also threaten to kill two members of the family, saying that there were part of the Maquis.

In Sainte Marie we felicitate Doctor Nasicaa and his companions for this “lightning liberation” but regret the death of one of the liberators killed above the village near by Marigner farm.

Here is the story of Mr Pelissionnier

In the evening, whilst all the inhabitants of Sainte Marie who were in the village think that it’s finished, a German squadron pass by on the road. They are armed, on the defensive, scared of being attacked when crossing the village. My father, brother, Sister Marie de la Trinité from the presbytery, hide in the attic, afraid of being seen. Suddenly a gun shot bursts. “Its close to the church” said my brother. My father was worried “has a soldier fired on someone seen in a window?” When the squadron moves away we come out of hiding. Nothing strange going on.

The rest of the night was dedicated to a solitary action between the inhabitants. They try to put out the fire started by the Gerlans at the the farms of Marigner and Fauconnet, making a human chain passing buckets of water. The bell of the presbytery rang, the door creaked as usual. My brother who was present, went outside to the courtyard and was face to face with Mr Chevalier, the leader of the communist cell in this sector. It was of course, an unusual person to ber here, but the relations between the priest and Mr Chevalier was of “good neighbours” Mr Chevalier salutes with two fingers on his hat. “Sir, we need your help, two of our comrades Robert Nollez and Benigne Gollotte were killed yesterday by the “Boches”, above the road to Gissey at the exit to the village. So their wives ask if you can give a sprinkle of ‘holy water’ and if you can put on your white jacket, it would be better. Perhaps you could help me bring the bodies back to the village on a wheel-barrow that I found”. This is how two inhabitants of Pont de Pany “Morts pour la France”, who died for France, received the ultimate benediction before returning to the village, pushed by a priest and the local communist leader.

That night, my father ad brother return to Gergueil give news. The battle of Saint Marie, which the echos and come to the ears at Gergueil and sowed fear. After consulting a leader of the Resistance, who announced the imminent arrival of the Southern Army, the able refugees decide to go back to Sainte Marie the following morning. The older and tired people decide to stay until Monday.

Sunday 10th September : On our return to Saite Marie on Sunday, the Doctor Courtois, the village doctor said to my brother “I’m worried about Joseph Confuron (an elderly person who lived in front of the church on the other side of the road). Nobody has seen him since last night. You remember the isolated shot that we heard last night?” The doctor and my brother entered the house of Mr Confuron, by the window which overlooked the street laid his body in a pool of blood. The impact of the bullet passing through the window was very visible. This drama was even more painful as the son of Mr Confuron, who was a Resistance member had been deported to a German concentration camp, but alas he never returned. There is a memorial plate in the church with his name.

Sunday afternoon, the funerals of the Resistance members killed during the week were held, the church was to small for the crowd. The regional Maquis gave the honors. during the burial at the cemetery, we could see on the road to agey, which at that time had no houses, soldiers with khaki uniforms and strange vehicles that we had never seen. Quickly we realized that they were “Jeeps”. On the front of the cars flew a small French flag. The soldiers belonged to the 1st DFL (Free French Division), the first unit of the combating France.

Before leaving Sainte Marie, the leaders of the Resistance, ordered the killing of the same amount of Germans prisoners as Maquis that were buried this day. They were the same Germans that had been given to the Maquis on the 6th of September and were executed at the War Memorial. For most of the population this act was “too much” and no in the honour of France.

Monday 11th September : During the night we could hear gun fire, but in the morning, to our great joy, we learnt that the Germans had left Dijon, without fighting. The city was free and the 1st French Army now installed.

Tuesday 12th September : I went to the village of Gerueil by bicycle, to finish some suspended jobs. On the way back, on the road which passes through the forest,  I could hear gun fire. Some Germans, lost and in the woods.

Monday 18th September : Mr Bazerolle, father of the teacher of Pont de Pany and also a reserve officer, made contact with the medical colonel, commanding the ambulance “SPEARS” of the 1st Free French Division, to obtain medical help for the father of his daughter in law, wounded during the battle of Sainte Marie on Sunday the 9th. Note that this “country hospital” carries the name of the English general, who donated the medical equipment to France, who followed the Free French in Africa, Italy and the Provence with the landing on the 15th of August 1944. Stationed for a few days in Dijon, the hospital with Anglo-French staff, recruited young people capable of rapidly becoming nurses, but had difficult in finding the necessary people.

Vocabulary

  • Milice (Militia) people who worked with the Germans
  • FFI Interior French Forces
  • Maquis French Resistance
  • S.A.S. (Special Air Service), elite soldiers from Great Britain, secretly installed in the Morvan providing support and logistics to the Resistance.

The above text has been translated with the kind permission of Pierre LALIRE whom we would like to thank for his generous offer in allowing us to publish the text on this web.

Members of the resistance in Burgundy
Resistance in Burgundy