Remembering the French Resistance
Some come to the Vercors Massif in southern France for the butterflies. Others for the nearly 3,000 kilometres of stunning mountain trails. But I was there in July because 2019 marked the 75th anniversary of the deadly battles between the German army and the French Resistance aided by the locals.
In July 1944, more than a month after D-Day, Lt. Claude Falck, my French mother’s beloved brother, was gunned down somewhere on these slopes as he tried to lead his men to safety in the valley.
He was 26.
Now a Natural Regional Park, the French equivalent of our national parks, the Vercors evokes a monumental ocean liner – 60 km by 40 – built of limestone cliffs and steep meadows as it rises high above Grenoble, where the Northern and Southern Alps meet. From Geneva, where I grew up, my family would occasionally drive the two-hour stretch to pause at Claude’s grave, then press on toward our Mediterranean vacation.
From skiers to mountain climbers and wildlife explorers, nature lovers abound now in the Vercors.
I was on a different quest. Claude, an alpinist, engineer and graduate of Paris’s École Polytechnique, joined the Resistance in 1942. I knew he moved to the Vercors in 1944 to help build a secret landing strip near the village of Vassieux. Then what?
Suddenly, I was curious. I had hoped that my 93-year-old mother would join me in exploring some of the hundreds of historical markers that dot this stunning mountain range, but she was too frail. Julien Guillon, a historian at the Vercors Resistance Memorial, offered to guide me.
In 1943, young men started “taking the maquis” – not only leaving the valleys for the dense Alpine forests to escape being sent to work in Germany but also to join the Resistance. As rumors of an Allied landing intensified, the Vercors harbored more and more underground fighters. By the summer of 1944, they numbered about 4,500.
Following their lead, we drove up the short, steep road from the Grenoble area to the austere cemetery in Saint-Nizier-duMoucherotte where soldiers and Resistance fighters lie under fine gravel.
To the chime of the cowbells nearby, I crouched by Claude’s grave, picturing the black-andwhite portrait – a frank, open face; round glasses; and a gently amused smile – that adorned my mother’s nightstand. For decades, it was merely part of my familial backdrop. Now I was overcome with sadness.
France was in the throes of a heat wave, but up here, the air was crisp. Above, a bouquet of rocky spikes named Les Trois Pucelles (or the Three Maidens) rose like flames into the azure.
Another half-hour drive through rolling hills and meadows, and I arrived in the jolly resort town of
Villard-de-Lans. In the evening, families strolled along pedestrian streets lined with lively cafes and boutiques. But I felt history quiver here, too, just below the surface.
Children waited their turn at the buzzing carousel, across from the monument to the many village dead.
The next morning, we drove up toward Col de la Chau, where the Vercors Resistance Memorial, a low concrete structure built to resemble the Resistance hideouts, hugs the contours of the rocky mountain at the edge of the forest. I emerged from the fascinating interactive exhibit onto a belvedere, 300 metres above the wide Vassieux plain.
“You see,” said Guillon, his green eyes squinting, as if peering into the past. “The Resistance expected the Allies to land at Vassieux. Instead, the German army did.”
After that fateful landing on July 21, 1944, the eradication of the local Resistance took only days. Vassieux was destroyed.
Men, women and children were slaughtered. This narrative is well documented with weapons, uniforms and photographs at the Vassieux Resistance Museum.
As I walked past a storyboard, Claude’s picture suddenly jumped out at me: confirming the eternal link between our family and this region.
Beyond the rows of Queen Anne’s lace that lined the road toward La Chapelle-en-Vercors, the peaceful wheat fields had turned amber. The plateau was framed on both sides by elevated rows of rock covered with beech and pine trees.
Hearing English spoken that evening at Hotel Bellier, I asked the lively group from Britain what brought them to the region.
“The butterflies!” they answered in unison as they proceeded to educate me about the Vercors’ fauna.
Early the next morning, I strolled around quaint Chapelleen-Vercors and its many Second World War monuments. Most villages were rebuilt in the early 1950s with the help of organizations such as the Association des Pionniers du Vercors – a group my mother had joined.
It was time to lace up my boots for a hike to the Luire Cave, a monumental one within the forests near Saint-Agnan-en-Vercors, where medical staff and patients of a nearby hospital took refuge in July 1944 – only to be discovered and butchered days later.
The few survivors included Lt. Chester L. Myers of Section Justine, an OSS Operational group of 15 American servicemen who had parachuted into the area a month earlier to help Resistance fighters.
They miraculously all made it out alive.
The path crunched under our feet as we walked through the silent woods, redolent of sunny pines but when we arrived, groups of visitors were waiting their turn to descend into the rock.
We stopped at the gigantic mouth of the cave, picturing what had transpired there all those years ago.
That afternoon as we sat across from the charred Valchevriere ruins, after a strenuous climb through the woods, Guillon said, “Schoolchildren I bring here always ask if it’s a medieval castle.” We were at 1,160 metres, and from above, the forest resembled a pointillist study in green. Here and there, mossy rock formations emerged as if they had been pinched by a giant’s hand. In silence, a paraglider circled toward the clouds.
“It’s the only hamlet that was not rebuilt,” he said, “They burned everything except the chapel.”
By the evening of July 23, 1944, overwhelmed by the German army and without the Allied help he had been promised, Commandant François Huet gave the order to disband.
Guillon had brought a three-dimensional map. We knew Claude had attempted to escape the natural fortress turned trap, but we would never know which path he had taken. Stricken, I pushed open the door of the tiny, peaceful chapel and, finding a guest book, picked up the pen.
“Did you pause here, Claude Falck, on your way out of the Vercors?” I wrote. “I hope so.”
And for the first time, I signed, “Your niece, Sylvie.”
If you go
• Resistance Memorial
3425 Col de La Chau, Vassieux-enVercors 011-33-4-75-48-26-00 memorial-vercors.fr
The visual and audio installations plunge the visitor into the past and tell the story of what happened to the people of Vercors during the Second World War. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Adult admission about $7; children about $6.
• Resistance Museum
Rue du Fournat, Vassieux-enVercors 011-33-4-75-48-28-46 ladromemontagne.fr
Created in 1973 by a Resistance fighter, this museum tells the story of the Vercors during the 20th century, from the beginning of the tourism industry to the war commemorations. Activities for children involve objects and memorabilia. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Adult admission about $6; children about $4.
• Luire Cave
The Passage, Saint-Agnan-enVercors 011-33-4-75-48-25-83 grottedelaluire.com
The Grotte de la Luire, one of the largest caves in the area, offers guided visits and speleology lessons. It served as a temporary refuge for a hospital during the war until it was discovered by the German army (most patients and medical staff were killed). One of the largest caves in the area, it brings the visitor into the heart of the mountain. Children will love making their own candles before the descent. It gets cold, so bring a sweater, even in the summer.
Open mid-March to early November. First tour starts 11 a.m., last tour at 5 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Hours vary by month; check website for specifics. Adult admission about $10; children about $7.
• Saint-Nizier-du-Moucherotte cemetery
1-235 Route de Charvet, SaintNizier-du-Moucherotte 011-33-4-76-53-40-60
This simple but solemn cemetery is a national and historical monument to some of the young men and women who lost their lives defending France. Open 24 hours daily. Free.
The Memorial de la Resistance sits on a hillside in the Vercors Massif in France.
The Valchevriere hamlet, the site of fierce battles between German forces and French Resistance fighters, was destroyed and burned by the German Army in July 1944.