Whereas last week’s village, Oradour-sur-Glane, was a stark reminder of the evil humankind is capable of in war, this one, Naours, shows us just how tenacious we can be when our world becomes a battleground.
Up to 2,000 people at a time found refuge in this underground complex while war ravaged the northern French countryside they lived in. It was used during dozens of conflicts over hundreds of years, from the Barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire in the third century right up until the French Revolution.
What’s left isn’t pretty. It’s grim and gritty and basic, exactly what you’d expect somewhere used as a place of safety in troubled times to look like.
The tunnels fell into disuse after the revolution until their rediscovery by a priest a century later. English troops used them during the First World War; during World War II, the Nazis used them as a munitions dump and Rommel’s staff headquarters.
Two kilometres of excavations on three levels contain 300 rooms, 28 galleries, 12 public rooms, a chapel, six chimneys, a jail and a law court.
Between five and eight people shared rooms, which were staggered on either side of passages to give some degree of privacy, which in these cramped and uncomfortable conditions, must have been essential.
Imagine the heat, the smell, the whispered conversations. The flow of human traffic through the chalky tunnels, animals tethered to the walls, possessions piled in corners. Listless children playing in the shadows. Women crowded under the chimneys, cooking, knowing their smoke was routed up through a nearby miller’s cottage but worrying all the same their hiding place would be discovered.
In short, this must have been a very crowded and tense place to live. Yet at the same time, a very hopeful one, where that basic will to survive joined forces with human ingenuity, determination and endurance.
Like I said, not a pretty place. But an evocative one. A fascinating one. And a powerful one.