This post tells the extraordinary story of Vakhtang Sekhniachvili, and it follows on from my previous post of 11 January in which I visited the archives in Albi on a quest to identify a pair of dead German soldiers.
During my visit, another document caught my eye. Dated October 1944, it listed the names of ten German soldiers killed and buried within the commune of Castres during the Occupation. What intrigued me were their bizarre names and even stranger places of birth: Georgia, Mongolia, Turkestan, Kyrgyzstan and the Caucasus
What, I wondered, were men like these doing in the German army?
I went in search of answers and soon came across various articles about one of these men: Vakhtang Sekhniachvili. Born in the village of Telavi in Georgia in the Caucasus, he was conscripted into a Soviet armoured regiment in 1941. A year later, his tank was hit while fighting in the Ukraine. He survived but became a prisoner-of-war (POW).
More than three million Soviet POWs are believed to have died in German custody – that’s around half of the total. Their deaths were caused by a combination of starvation, exposure, disease and executions. Vakhtang was among the several hundred thousand who chose to escape the deadly prison camps by joining the Wehrmacht. He was drafted into a unit called the Georgian Legion, and he was sent thousands of kilometres across Europe to Castres.
By 1944, a large proportion of the ‘German’ troops occupying south-west France were ex-POWs like Vakhtang. They were known as Hiwis – an abbreviation of the German word ‘Hilfswilliger’ or auxiliary volunteer. They numbered around 600,000 in total, and the entire garrison of Castres consisted of Soviet POWs, apart from some 70 officers.
On 7 July 1945, he was awarded the French Military Cross and offered a post in the 1st Army under General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. Understandably, he chose instead to return to his home village of Telavi where he proudly displayed his French medals and was treated as a hero. For a while, even the authorities were impressed: he was promoted by the Communist party and put in charge of propaganda. Then came the Cold War and Stalin’s purges. In 1947, Vakhtang was arrested by the KGB in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, accused of being an imperialist spy, and of collaborating with the British and Americans. Pronounced guilty, his medals were confiscated and he was sent to the gulag. Most of the returning Hiwis met a similar fate or were executed.
This period of forced labour lasted until Stalin’s death in 1953. Vakhtang was one of the first to be liberated, and many more of the surviving Hiwis found freedom under a general amnesty granted by Nikita Khrushchev in 1955.
Despite his new-found freedom, Vakhtang yearned for two more things: he wanted to visit France one more time, and he wanted his medals back. His first wish came true in 2003. At the age of 82, he revisited his former area of operations on a trip funded by the French Ministry of Defence and the Conseil Général du Tarn. Then, at a ceremony in Tbilisi in July 2006, he became the first Georgian to be awarded the French légion d’honneur.
Photo credits: thank you, Pierre Kitiashvili, for supplying the two photos. Pierre lives in Georgia, and his grandfather was the man on the motorbike in the first photo.
The historic Château de Mayragues near Gaillac is an ideal place to learn about natural wines. Biodynamic since 1999, organic since 2004, the vineyards are now run by Duncan Geddes, a second-generation Scottish winemaker (his French mother may see things differently).
Marie-Christine Combes is the sixteenth generation of the same family to reside in the château, and this was one of many stories I had heard from her and her mother about the period when the Wehrmacht commandeered their home. I had often wondered about the identity of these soldiers, and no one seemed quite sure of their unit. Some sources said the troops occupying Garrevaques were from the eleventh panzer division, while others claimed they belonged to the infamous second panzer division, also known as Das Reich, and blamed for the atrocity at Oradour-sur-Glane. I had often speculated that this confusion was caused by the French way of abbreviating ordinal numbers: IIeme (deuxième - second) and 11eme (onzième - eleventh) are easy to confuse unless you spot that one uses Roman numerals and the other Arabic.
When I was researching the German Occupation for my book, I felt duty-bound to investigate more thoroughly. Garrevaques and my home lie in the Tarn, and the obvious place to start was in the departmental archives in Albi. But first, I went online to consult the list of dossiers which had not been digitised. From its title, 506 W 230 sounded promising: ‘German soldiers killed and buried in the department. Inquest: instructions and replies from the mayors (November-December 1944).’
TK de Dinatru 61, Sergeant Hilmar Büchner, born 18/2/1917, died 19/8/1944.
FEB 119, Lance-Corporal Alvis Gatuska, born 9/6/1913, died 19/8/1944.
This date of their deaths tied in with what I had read elsewhere. On 19 August, members of an unidentified Resistance group machine-gunned a German vehicle and killed two of its occupants on the road between Garrevaques and Revel. The wreck was towed back to the Château de Garrevaques, and the two casualties were buried in the park by their comrades.
If you want to know how they tried to blow up the château as they left, or read stories about their operations against the Corps Franc de la Montagne Noire, you will find them in ‘Lauragais: Steeped in History, Soaked in Blood’, or if you visit the château’s hotel-restaurant, you may be lucky enough to hear some of these tales from Marie-Christine herself.
Why do Sergeant Büchner and Lance-Corporal Gatuska no longer lie in the park? Between 1958 and 1961, nearly 20,000 German soldiers were disinterred all across southern France and reburied together in the cemetery at Dagneux near Lyon. Most of them were killed after the Allied landings of August 1944.
Monday morning at the office isn’t always so bad! My task today is to continue exploring the world of natural wines. What’s that? you may ask. I spent yesterday afternoon trying to find out at the Glouglou natural wine fair in Durban-Corbières. Most of the exhibitors were certified organic, but they have all gone much further in their quest to minimise the artificial techniques used in most modern wine production.
For others, such as Florian and Gaelle at the Domaine des Deux Clés, it means following the biodynamic principles of Rudolf Steiner. These include taking account of solar and lunar cycles, and using homeopathic preparations to improve the health of their soil and vines.
The Abbey of Sorèze may have been founded as long ago as 754 under King Pepin the Short. It was attacked and pillaged many times over the centuries by, among others, the Normans, bands of unemployed soldiers during the Hundred Years’ War, and both Catholics and Protestants during the Wars of Religion. Louis XVI made it a Royal Military School, and it remained an educational establishment until 1991.
Today, the abbey complex houses the Dom Robert tapestry museum and the school museum.
Last weekend I joined a group of eight other local authors to share a large stand at the Cracker Fair Christmas Market. Anglais et français, tous ensemble, and all talk of Brexit strictement interdit !
This annual event takes place in the historic Abbey of Valmagne near the town of Sète on the Mediterranean coast. Founded by the Benedictines in 1138, the abbey was taken over by the Cistercians twenty years later and remained in their hands until the Revolution.
If you missed this year’s event, make a note in your diary for mid-November 2020.
How many generals are buried in your local graveyard? I have found three in mine, all from the same family!
But back to the generals. Jean and Louis were brothers, both born in Puylaurens in the 1860s. Louis survived two world wars and died peacefully in 1960 at the age of 94. His brother was less fortunate. Throughout the Great War, Brigadier-General Jean Rey commanded the 5th brigade of dragoons. On the day of the armistice he was still alive, but he died five weeks later on 17 December 1918 from an illness he had contracted during the war.
During Napoleon’s exile to Elba, General Rey was given a knighthood by Louis XVIII and appointed military commander for the department of Basses-Pyrénées (now called Pyrénées-Atlantique). He remained in post during Napoleon’s Hundred Days, but after Waterloo he was placed on the reserve list. Under Louis-Philippe, he was appointed military commander of several other departments until his retirement in 1832.
I live close to one of Europe’s most-travelled pilgrimage routes – the road to Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle. This proximity has often made me toy with the idea of making a pilgrimage of my own, but frankly, it’s a long, long way to the wild western coast of Spain. Last weekend I had the opportunity of making a much shorter pilgrimage – less than three hundred metres from my front door. How could I resist such an easy alternative?
The hill above my village has been graced by a life-sized effigy of Christ on a seven-metre-high cross since 1943. Usually I can see if from my kitchen window, but for over a year, the skyline has been empty. In a winter storm, the cross fell, and Jesus broke his arm. The original cross was the initiative of a local priest, Julien Salles. He believed it would watch over Saint-Sernin-les-Lavaur during the German Occupation. Since then, it has often been the other way around, and the villagers have had to watch over the cross.
After a photocall, the assembly headed back down to the village. A pause at the church would perhaps have been in keeping with the spirit of a pilgrimage, but instead the mayor led us all to the Salle des Fêtes for a different kind of spirit: whiskey or pastis, accompanied by a celebratory buffet.
Over a glass I reflected that my short pilgrimage was a good illustration of the French concept of laïcité – the strict separation of civil society and religious society. The mairie can pay for the upkeep of the village church, repair fallen crosses, and provide a good buffet, but it must not involve itself in religious practices such as entering a place of worship.