|occupation of Lasalle
by the Maquis and was understood as a major strategic move. Inaction
would have been interpreted as a major sign of weakness on the part of
the part of the German forces in Southern France.
By not taking into account
this larger strategic picture and by severely underestimating the Germans
as a fighting force, the Maquis endangered many lives and drew civilians
into the vortex. They presumed that the Germans would immediately
pull their troops out of Southern France to avoid being trapped by the
approaching Americans. And so they failed to solidify their new position
with advanced defenses. They merely mined the driveway of the chateau,
placed two machine guns in the towers, and left a guard at the entrance
opposite the Soulier house. This guard was able to see only about
a hundred yards of the main road to Lasalle. The Maquis did not establish
an advanced warning system, nor did they cut or even mine any of the numerous
bridges on the roads leading to Lasalle. In their mind an attack
on Cornelly was the last thing the Germans would ever attempt. They
were wrong. Totally wrong. For two strong German units and
one French detachment were still to be reckoned with in the plain below.
There was, first of all,
an aggressive group of Waffen SS in Alès, some fifty kilometers
to the northeast. This unit was composed primarily of foreign mercenaries
with German officers, as well as some Wehrmacht regulars who were to keep
an eye on the soldiers of fortune. They were largely responsible
for the earlier incursions into Lasalle, as they constituted the anti-insurgency
elements at the disposal of the Gestapo.
There was also, a little
farther down the road, an army base in Uzès, with tanks and artillery.
They were regular Wehrmacht, but they could be asked to intervene in any
rear-guard punitive action.
There was, finally, in
Alès, a detachment of "Milice," dark-blue-clad Frenchmen, recruited
by Pétain for the fight against both the Communists and the Résistance.
The Milice were armed by the Germans and were placed by Pétain at
the disposal of the Nazis for anti-insurgency action. We hated them
even more passionately than we hated the Germans, for they were our own,
and traitors to France. During a battle, when my brother captured
some Germans and a small detachment of "Miliciens," but had to retreat
quickly, he asked the Germans for their word of honor not to escape, and
shot the "Miliciens" on the spot. Civil war is always an ugly affair.
Having lived through one I have had no interest in the American Civil War
and its fratricidal events, celebrated these days with flourish by people
who are only dimly aware of the suffering, the hatred, and the violence
It was therefore an utter
surprise to both the Maquis and the residents of Lasalle when, in the early
afternoon of June 16, 1944, all three of these German-led groups converged
in a joint assault on the Maquis at Cornelly.
THE BATTLE OF CORNELLY