This is Rimont, an attractive and peaceful bastide village built on a mound (le mont riant: laughing hill) in the foothills of the Pyrénées, surrounded by hills and farms. The village dates back to the thirteenth century. So, a mystery. Why do so few medieval houses remain?
Read on. It's a long and shocking story but an important one, and its legacy lives on in our village to this day.
Over the next year, the three maquis groups in and around Rimont became increasingly active and organised various guerrilla actions: sabotaging factories, ambushing railways and Nazi troops as they moved through the department. Travelling the main road between Foix and St Girons became more and more hazardous for the occupiers. Things really began to hot up after the Normandy landings in June 1944; guerrilla actions were now happening every few days, and in turn both the Germans and the local French milice cracked down even harder: repression and reprisal became the official orders of the day - in fact it was after D-Day that some of the most brutal atrocities by the Nazis and their Vichy allies took place. In Saint Girons, for example, an industrialist and prominent member of the ultra-fascist Parti Populaire Français created his own commando group, which according to one source “sows terror, tortures, plunders, burns, assassinates with impunity and often exceeds the Gestapo itself in effectiveness”.
Gradually, he attempted to engage in the Resistance movement – not entirely successfully as the majority of resisters found it hard to forgive his original support of collaboration. He did, however, succeed in giving a large sum of money to the local maquis. All the while, Laffont was under observation by both the German police and the French milice, some of whom apparently believed that he could be the chief instigator of the resistance that they feared yet knew little about.
Meanwhile, in Paris, the Resistance succeeded in assassinating the much-hated Vichy propaganda minister, Philippe Henriot. The collaborationists in the Ariège decided on a tit-for-tat response, and a 'turncoat' ex-minister seemed like an obvious target. Early in the morning of the 13 July 1944, a group from the fascist Parti Populaire Français arrived at Laffont’s home in Rimont, seized him, took him away in a van to an unknown destination, then ransacked and vandalised his house. His close friend, Doctor Charles Labro, heard the commotion and ran towards the château; he too was brutally seized and taken away. Their bodies were found, separately, several days later, that of Doctor Labro very close to Grillou (now marked by a memorial). Both men had been tortured before being killed.
The Rimont maquis reacted. Lists of suspected collaborators were drawn up, and twenty people were arrested. Eleven of them were taken into the hills near the Col de la Crouzette, tried, and summarily executed. But as local historian Claude Delpla puts it "The rush that was inevitable in such circumstances involved certain mistakes which are explained by the power of rumour at a time when the only information available went by word of mouth". One of the dead turned out to be, like his killers, a communist; another mistake was made over an address and a fellow member of the Resistance was shot by mistake. There were also a number of instances of malicious denunciation.
the battle of rimont
Resistance was hotting up, and the Allied landings in Provence in August 1944 gave added impetus to the maquis of Ariège, which by now was playing a prominent part in the increasingly organised push towards liberation. On 20 August 1944, a long column of soldiers from the Legion of Turkestan, an adjunct to the German army made up of Central Asian prisoners from the Soviet war, was making its way from Saint Gaudens to Saint Girons; on arrival, there was fierce fighting in which the charismatic leader of one of Rimont’s maquis groups, Réné Plaisant, was killed; the maquis reluctantly decided to withdraw from the town to avoid carnage. That night was a rough one: hostages were taken, fires lit, shops and houses pillaged and women raped.
The next day, 21 August, the column set out towards Rimont – around 15 kilometres. Around 9am that morning, the local garage owner, who was on observation duty, saw it approaching. He counted 44 trucks without seeing the end of the column. Things were serious: there were at least 2000 men. The order to evacuate was given and many of Rimont’s inhabitants hid in the countryside. In the way of such things, however, the gendarmes – who were not on the best of terms with the résistants - had just received a message that a group of 15 Germans were approaching. The gendarmes went around all the houses asking those remaining not to leave but just to lock themselves in their houses. Many of the elderly preferred to sit it out at home, and complied. At the same time, the maquis managed to hold off the column until 11am, long enough for most of the population to flee, at which point they retreated, vastly outnumbered.
The German soldiers surrounded Rimont; the commander gave the order to burn the village to force a passage through it. Soon Rimont was engulfed by flames, the German and Turkestan soldiers screaming in a mad folie of rage, egged on by the French milice. The Rimontais could only flee to the surrounding hills, from where they watched helplessly as the medieval bastide village, along with everything they owned, went up in smoke. Those who lingered were attacked by German police dogs. Women were raped in their houses. All in all eleven Rimontais died in the combat, mainly elderly, one while he peeled potatoes outside his front door. Several groups of hostages were taken; the women were freed at midday, while one group of men were lined up along the wall of the local wine merchant. Realising that they were going to be shot, one of them, François Sentenac, made a break for it and escaped through the open hallway of the house behind him and through into the gardens beyond. The German soldiers gave chase, never returning. Other men were forced to lie face down in the middle of the battle until nightfall. This is how one of them described the experience:
“No idea what time it is. Not for a minute are we hungry or thirsty or cold. We feel nothing. And the battle rages around us while we serve as shields as the maquis kill opposite. And just over there, our village burns …”.
The battle of Rimont, which took place exactly seventy years ago today, put an end to the Occupation in Ariège. Remarkably, the department was liberated entirely through civilian fighting – no regular armed forces were involved. But in France, the Second World War had become not just a fight against the Germans, but also one against the Vichy government. Those who had actively helped Vichy, whether by helping the Milice, denouncing the maquis or organising deportations, were arrested and tried: immediately following the liberation, France was swept by a passionate wave of executions, public humiliations, assaults and detentions of suspected collaborators, known as the épuration sauvage (lit: wild purge); many dozens of people were shot in Ariège alone. Thirteen Turkestan and two German soldiers who had been captured in Rimont itself were summarily executed by the villagers amongst the still-burning ruins. Other escaped soldiers and several French collaborators were rounded up and killed in the days to follow.
As you enter the village today, you’ll see a chilling epitaph: ‘Rimont, village martyr’. The village was rebuilt afer the war, as closely as possible in style and construction to the original, and the 'village ressuscité' was inaugurated by the Minister for Reconstruction in 1950. As you walk the streets of Rimont, Saint Girons and the other local towns and villages, you’ll come time and time again across streets named after the men in these, and other, stories. The battle of Rimont may not have made the heroic war films of my childhood, but it lives on, here.
Postscript: many of you will have heard a truncated version of this story over the breakfast or dinner table. I first published it as a blog post in 2008, though I've rewritten parts of it for this latest version in the light of some more research I've done and discoveries I've made. It's not easy information to unearth: the village psyche still suffers to some degree from the 'civil war' that raged between résistants and collaborators and the ensuing shame; as a result much of the story has been buried under the figurative rubble of its destruction. However, with a new local council there are signs that change may be in the offing, and plans are being considered to mount a kind of village walk, with commemorative panels. For anyone visiting us this year, there's an exhibition of photos taken in December 1944 in the village library, open every Saturday afternoon. In the light of Gaza, and Iraq, and Syria, it's a timely reminder that we in western Europe are not above atrocity.