What happened when the British flag was stolen from a French war cemetery

SAS Colonel Keith Edlin, pictured here with Mayor Florence Berlo, led the first of two remembrance ceremonies this September
SAS Colonel Keith Edlin, pictured here with Mayor Florence Berlo, led the first of two remembrance ceremonies this September

Finally, earlier this month, a decent Union Flag was raised at the Franco-British military cemetery outside the village of Ouroux, in the Morvan district of Burgundy. A wrong was righted.

Remote in deep forest, high in the Morvan hills, the unofficial cemetery is the resting place of 20 maquisards (resistance fighters), seven RAF bomber crew members and four members of the SAS. Maintained by local volunteers, the cemetery is on the site of a key Second World War maquis camp.

In theory, French and British flags flutter above it, equal in dimension and importance. In practice, recently – and extraordinarily – some passerby, a mountain rambler maybe, stole the British flag. Local villagers found a substitute, but it was small and deemed inadequate for the purpose of honouring the Britons in the cemetery.

We reported the theft earlier this year, causing consternation among readers. But thanks to co-operation between The Telegraph and Ouroux mayor, Mme Florence Berlo, the situation has now been rectified.

The Morvan makes perfect guerrilla country
The Morvan makes perfect guerrilla country - Michel Joly/BFC Tourisme

Two proper-sized Union Flags – that is to say, the same size as the cemetery’s tri-colour flag – were ordered, made and shipped over to France. In two remembrance ceremonies attended by local dignitaries over a September weekend, the flags were presented and raised into place in the presence of representatives of the British forces: for the first ceremony, an SAS contingent led by Colonel Keith Edlin; for the second by Christopher Griva of the Paris-based 51st Highland Division Memorial Reconstruction Group.

The ceremonies – which take place every year; they were adapted to include the flag-raising – commemorate the courage, ingenuity and sacrifice which characterised SAS and resistance activity in the woods and hills immediately surrounding Ouroux.

By the spring of 1944, hundreds of Frenchmen had taken the rough, winding tracks to join the Morvan maquis groups – not least to the camp where the cemetery has since been established, HQ of a maquis group called “Bernard”. They were joined by units of the SAS parachuted in just before and after D-Day, in what was known as Operation Houndsworth.

The SAS aim was to stiffen resistance activity into something more professional and effective in the harassing of enemy communications, the blowing up of things and the dispatching of as many Germans as possible. Thus might the enemy be distracted from opposition to the Normandy landings.

Members of the French Resistance and the US 82nd Airborne division discuss the situation during the Battle of Normandy in 1944
Members of the French Resistance and the US 82nd Airborne division during the Battle of Normandy in 1944 - Alamy Stock Photo

It wasn’t all plain sailing. If it had been, the SAS wouldn’t have been there. The maquisards were often fighting among themselves – communist groups against right-wing groups and both against any other group which annoyed them (there were some 30 maquis outfits in the Morvan alone).

Nevertheless, beyond that, the maquis groups were rather better organised, equipped and installed than expected by the arriving SAS. The Maquis Bernard camp – where the cemetery now is – had tents, cabins, a cookhouse and parking area for commandeered or captured cars, trucks and a 32-seater gas-fuelled bus. They had a well-kitted hospital and good food supplies, courtesy of supportive surrounding villagers.

The price for aiding could, though, be high. As SAS and maquis operations began seriously to irritate the Germans, so the Germans took their revenge. They wrecked villages and, in Dun-les-Places, slaughtered 27 village men, abused village women, pillaged everything worth pillaging, burned the village and left on trucks, as one villager reported, “playing the accordion and singing”.

A memorial centre opened in the village by President Hollande in 2016 tells a dark story in illuminating fashion.

Be sure to visit the Dun-les-Places memorial
The Dun-les-Places memorial - Michel Joly/BFC Tourisme

Of course, there were complexities. Vehicles broke down. Faulty information sent raiding parties out to where there was nothing to raid. Parachute drops missed drop zones or otherwise went awry. Non-opening ‘chutes landed radios smashed to smithereens and jeeps as so much useless scrap metal.

But successes were to be expected, for the good guys really were pretty good. Here was leader Major Bill Fraser – aloof, difficult, festooned with bravery medals who, post-war, succumbed to demons and drink; Sgt Major Reg Seekings – blunt, obstreperous and apparently fearless; and Frederick ‘Chalky’ White. Following a tangle with a German convoy, White lost three fingers, had three wounds in his leg, a bullet through an elbow and shrapnel in one knee. A fellow SAS man wrote to White’s fiancée: “He looks rather pale but otherwise he’s just the same as when you met him.”

Not the least notable was SAS padre, the Revd Fraser McLuskey of the Church of Scotland. Having arrived upside down in a tree – parachuting was apparently not his forté – he was indefatigable, roaming from camp to camp across maquis territory, holding services wherever he could. They were attended even by the non-religious. “Stand Up, Stand Up For Jesus” was apparently the favourite hymn.

The Musée de la Résistance, inaugurated 40 years ago
The Musée de la Résistance was inaugurated 40 years ago - Alain Doire BFC Tourisme

Invariably unarmed, McLuskey drove, helped medics and ambulance men, dispensed spiritual balm and listened to outstandingly brave men when they needed to talk.

With the maquisards, these fellows blew up bridges and rail lines, derailed trains, sabotaged canal locks, ambushed convoys, destroyed dozens of German vehicles and wrecked a refinery. Such harrying of Germans continued through the summer, before effectively ending in mid-September, as the maquis joined up with the 1st French Army advancing from the south.

The SAS men made their way home. Those whose tombs are now in the Ouroux cemetery all survived the war, but asked that their ashes be buried with the maquisards in the Morvan when their time came. They are Frederick ‘Chalky’ White, mortarman Alex Muirhead (later a GP and the BBC’s chief medical officer), Arthur ‘Chippy’ Wood (later a teacher), and Fraser McLuskey, later Moderator of the General Assembly of Scotland. He died in 2005. His ashes were interred in the presence of maquis veterans and maquis doctor Alec Prochianz. “We are now proud to be able to receive the ashes of our British friend,” said Dr Prochianz.

And now, once again, they have the flag they deserve.

How to visit the Ouroux cemetery

If visiting, start at the Musée de la Résistance, Maison du Parc, St Brisson. On leaving, pick up the Petit Celestin guide to the circuit of 21 war sites.

The Dun-les-Places memorial is another vital visit (£5.50 for the museum, £7.40 for museum and memorial).