The Huisnes-sur-Mer German military cemetery

The mausoleum of dark secrets

The overview of the cemetery with Mont-Saint-Michel in the background
(Photo: Alamy)

During World War II, around quarter of a million German soldiers were killed in France. Those killed in Normandy were buried in six military cemeteries maintained by the German War Graves Commission (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge). We will look at the story of a unique cemetery even among the German war cemeteries, namely the mausoleum at the small village of Huisnes-sur-Mer overlooking the island abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel (Read our earlier article - The liberation of Mont-Saint-Michel). In addition to the graves of soldiers in the ossuary, one can find the resting place of many babies and their mothers who died in French internment camps before and after the end of the war. This article will show how the unpredictable and horrific nature of war can influence and ruin the lives of families regardless of which side they were on.

The logo of the German War Graves Commission 
(Photo: Facebook)

The Volksbund is responsible for taking care of 2.75 million fallen soldiers in 832 German war cemeteries in 46 countries since its inception after World War I in 1919. Its motto reads: „Versöhnung über den Gräbern – Arbeit für den Frieden“ (“Reconciliation above graves– work for peace”). Following WWII, the Volksbund established six cemeteries in Normandy. Beyond Huisnes-sur-Mer , the other five cemeteries were created in La Cambe, Champigny-Saint-André, Marigny, Orglandes and Saint-Désir-de-Lisieux. La Cambe is the resting place of more than 21,000 German soldiers, making it the largest German war cemetery in Normandy (Read our earlier article - The German war cemetery of reconciliation). The Volksbund functions based on government funds and private donations. In their international youth camps, young European volunteers help to care for the sites whilst building bridges of understanding.

As for the Huisnes-sur-Mer cemetery, the Volksbund interred German soldiers from graves in the region to the mausoleum on the Mont-de-Huisnes hill in 1961. The cemetery was officially inaugurated in 1963. It is also called a Totenburg (“Fortress of the dead”). It is the only German crypt-type war grave in France. It contains 11,956 burials of German military personnel and some Russian volunteers, plus women and children. The majority of the fallen in the cemetery died due to the American breakthrough during Operation Cobra
(Read our earlier article – The Cobra strikes) around July 1944. 

The stairs leading up to the cemetery
(Photo: Author’s own)

The narrow entrance leading to the actual mausoleum breaks up visiting groups into individuals and makes them focus on and take in the view of and the stories behind the cemetery. The mausoleum has two floors and a terrace overlooking the nearby abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel. The outlook on the abbey creates a spiritual link between the cemetery and the abbey with the latter representing a place of pilgrimage and solace. A large Latin cross dominates the central grassed area. Inside the mausoleum, there are 34 crypt rooms on each level, containing 180 burials per room. The names of the interred are written on bronze tablets on the walls. In case of unidentified soldiers, the text reads “ein deutscher Soldat” (“a German soldier”).

The outline of the cemetery and the crypt rooms
(Photo: findagrave.com)
Right at the entrance to the cemetery, there is a black marble plaque on the ground, a mass grave surrounded by torches listing the names of 39 dead, mostly babies (for example, Evelyne Dieser was born on July 06, 1945, and died a month later on August 13, 1945), young women and a few German soldiers, and 58 unknown dead including 20 children who died during internment. There is no clear indication on the plaque why the women and children are interred in a German military cemetery.
The entrance of the mausoleum
(Photo: Author’s own)

It is not widely known that internment camps existed in France in 1936 already. The first ones were set up for the internment of Spanish Republican refugees fleeing from General Franco’s Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War between 1936-1939. These refugees numbered over 500,000 men, women and children. They crossed the French border illegally and were imprisoned until a decision was made if they were to be permitted to stay in France. As the number of Spanish refugees grew, more camps were soon built across France. By 1939, these camps started to house other European citizens fleeing from the deteriorating situation in Nazi Germany, as well as Czechoslovakia and Austria. When World War II broke out, more camps were opened in light of the increasing number of refugees fleeing the German and Soviet invasion of Poland.

The common grave of children and women at the entrance
(Photo: Author’s own)

After the German invasion of France in June 1940, camps were established to house, what the French collaborationist Vichy Government of Marshal Petain deemed, as undesirables, most notably Gypsies, Jews and communists. A camp was also created for British and Commonwealth citizens who had not escaped France, and for American citizens after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Surprisingly, these French- and German-run camps were not closed and dismantled when the Allies liberated France. The provisional French Government of General Charles de Gaulle was still uncertain what to do with many of the inmates, such as Gypsies, and many of the camps continued to house them until the Fourth Republic was proclaimed in 1946.

The central area of the cemetery
(Photo: Author’s own)
The last significant French territory to be liberated was that of Alsace-Lorraine, on the western bank of the Rhine River facing Germany. As the Allies re-captured more and more of Alsace-Lorraine, they encountered, for instance, women who were married to German soldiers and their loyalty to the victorious French State was questioned. During the French campaign in 1940, several camps for French prisoners of war were established by the Germans near Poitiers, including one at La Chauvinerie. The latter was emptied of its French inhabitants when the Allies liberated the Poitiers area, but it was not closed.  As it was on the opposite side of France from Alsace-Lorraine, it was deemed perfect to imprison thousands of women, who along with their children had been deemed to be German sympathizers solely because their husband or father, was serving in the German army. The La Chauvinerie camp was commanded by a retired French Gendarmerie colonel, Justin Blanchard who had been called back into service and hated the Germans.
A crypt room of the cemetery
(Photo: Author’s own)
The inmates arriving on trains sometimes had to wait for 40 hours in overheated railway carriages. The living conditions were also appalling in the camp. The commander ordered his guards to systematically starve the internees and deprive them of medical care. He even sold the milk that was sent for the babies and young children by the French provisional government on the black market. As a result, hundreds of children and women died. None of the 65 children born in the camp survived the internment. It is the women and their children killed in the camp who are commemorated on the plaque covering their tomb at the entrance of the cemetery. These events took place between the fall of 1944 and November 1945 until the closure of the camp when the French authorities were informed about the commandant’s illegal activities by the Red Cross. The commander was tried for his activities in 1947 but was granted amnesty. All he had to do was to pay back the money he earned from his illegal activities.
 
Let’s discover two personal stories from the cemetery, one of a fourteen-year-old child and another of a German soldier.
 
Edmund Baton was fourteen years old in 1945. In February, as the front was getting closer, he was evacuated from his hometown of Lauterbach in central Germany to the more secure Bad Reichenhall at Berchtesgaden with his fellow schoolchildren. Without informing his parents, he tried to get back home with one of his schoolmates. They made it close to Stuttgart where they had to hide for days because of the heavy fighting. He managed to convince American soldiers to take them to Strasbourg, from where they wanted to take the train home but got arrested on their way by the French or American MPs. To their surprise, they were taken 600 miles (1,000 km) further to the internment camp of La Chauvinerie where he starved to death on July 14, 1945.
The crypt of Edmund Baton
(Photo: Author’s own)
Günter Schlüter was a German soldier who died in October 1945 in Champagne, France at the age of 35. His wife was already pregnant with their son, Wolfgang when he died. Wolfgang was born later in the communist East Germany and, due to the Cold War, was not allowed to travel abroad and visit the grave of his father until the fall of the Iron Curtain. Eventually, he visited the grave of his father in 1993, 48 years after his death.
The view on Mont-Saint-Michel from the terrace
(Photo: Author’s own)

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A paratrooper landing at Mont Saint-Michel, France to honor paratroopers who descended on D-Day
(Photo: U.S. Army, Army Sgt. Hannah Hawkins)
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