A Sud Ouest article about a solemn ceremony recently held in Cestas to remember the victims of a massive forest fire which occurred ba...

The great Landes forest fire of 1949


A Sud Ouest article about a solemn ceremony recently held in Cestas to remember the victims of a massive forest fire which occurred back in 1949 prompted Invisible Bordeaux to research the background to this tragic event, which claimed 82 lives.

The story begins around lunchtime on Friday 19th August 1949 at the Pioton sawmill in an area known as Le Murat, mid-way between Saucats and Marcheprime, 30 kilometres to the south-east of Bordeaux. A warden there was lying in his bed and fell asleep while smoking a cigarette (although some accounts suggest it was an unattended stove). The hut caught fire and the flames quickly spread to the rest of the sawmill. The column of smoke was soon spotted from the tall lookout towers in nearby Biganos, Béliet and Cabanac.

This dirt track leads towards Le Murat, where the fire started. Today it is part of the GR655 "Grande Randonnée" path.
The first people on the scene were armed with nothing more than tree branches to attempt to put out the fire, and could do nothing to prevent the flames from gaining momentum and covering further ground. The surrounding trees and bushes, which were particularly dry after a third consecutive summertime heatwave, quickly went up in smoke too.

In these post-war years, the forests in the area were poorly-maintained, dense (resin production was lucrative) and not especially accessible, and fire-fighting methods and resources were far from efficient. There were rushed attempts to set up fireproofing means to stop the wildfire spreading further, but the flames were having none of it and, fanned by strong north-eastern winds, were progressing rapidly towards Le Barp to the south-west. By now, the frontline of the fire stretched five kilometres across, and additional attempts were made to contain its progress. However, overnight, the winds changed direction, prompting the forest fire to make rapid headway, this time in a westerly direction, covering up to four kilometres per hour and soon threatening the villages of Salles and Mios.  

Fighting the flames armed with buckets of water and branches. Source: INA video.
Homes and barns going up in smoke. Source: Sud Ouest.
Then, by mid-morning on Saturday 20th August, it was thought that the forest fire had finally been brought under control when, suddenly, the winds changed direction once more, continued to gain strength and sent the flames back in a north-easterly direction. The forest fire picked up yet again, this time more powerfully than ever, including in areas where the flames had previously died down. Over the course of an incredible 20-minute spell, the fire engulfed 6,000 hectares of land, instantly and horrifically killing 82 firefighters who had been working to contain the fire on its northern flank. The victims were mainly volunteers from the surrounding villages, some civil servants employed by the Eaux et Forêts State department, and 23 soldiers from a field regiment stationed in Châtellerault, central France. Only seven people survived what instantly became – and still remains – France’s deadliest-ever forest fire.

Engulfed by smoke and flames. Source: INA video.
Throughout that afternoon, the pillar of smoke could be seen from points up to 100 kilometres away and the whole of Bordeaux and its surrounding area were plunged into other-worldly darkness by 5pm (streetlights had to be switched on unusually early that day). Around 10pm, the winds finally dropped and two danger zones remained near Léognan and the Pierroton district of Cestas, but on the whole the situation was now under control, and the final remaining flames were extinguished on Thursday 25th August, following on from a day of national mourning held on the 24th. In all, 50,000 hectares’ worth of pine forest had burnt down along with 710 hectares of bushland. According to contemporary reports (which put the overall death tally at 106), “hundreds” of farms had been destroyed and thousands of villagers had been driven from their homes (more recent accounts state that 60 homes burnt down).

The French head of government, Henri Queuille, was present at the mass funeral held a few days after the fire had subsided. Proceedings were led by the Archbishop of Paris, Monseigneur Feltin, and alongside the villagers were firemen from Kent in south-eastern England, who had been drafted in to support rescue operations in the area.

Dignitaries, mourners and Kent firemen at the funeral ceremony. Source: INA video.
Understandably, for those who had been directly and indirectly affected by the wildfires, life would never be the same again. In comments posted beneath an authoritative online account of the events (on geographer Christophe Neff's blog "Paysages"), one person recalls being 12 years old and losing his older brother in the tragedy – the latter had been carrying out his military service with the army regiment in Châtellerault when he was assigned to these fateful firefighting duties. Another writes about his father, Jean-Max Salzmann, a military ambulance driver who the Army sent into the area alone with his vehicle to rescue people from the villages which had become encircled by flames. Initially feared dead, Salzmann eventually made it home again, but was one of just three of his 30-strong team to make it out alive. He and his counterparts had however enabled dozens of lives to be saved.

All of the villages which the 1949 forest fire almost wiped out – Cestas, Saucats, Marcheprime and Mios – have, over the years, got back on their feet and been able to flourish. The forests have grown back, no doubt taking into account recommendations about organization and a diversified choice of species made by one Pierre Allemand in related articles published by la Revue Forestière Française in 1950. (See archive copies here and here).

Back in the area, the forest fire is a distant memory. Cornfields on the left and pines on the right: diversity at work and a far cry from the dense, resin-heavy pine forests of yesteryear.
But some observers have been vocal in their assessment that the tragic events have almost been erased from the collective consciousness (which is possibly the reason why it has taken so long for the subject to be featured on Invisible Bordeaux…). In recent years, that particular wrong has been partially righted by the release in 2009 of a benchmark publication, Joan Deville’s “L’incendie meurtrier – dans la forêt des Landes en août 1949”, which delivers a definitive overview of the forest fire and the firefighting methods used, as well as compiling the biographical data of every one of the 82 victims.

 
And, to bring us full circle back to the start of this article, two memorials have been erected alongside the D1010 road mid-way between Cestas and Le Barp, in an area known as Le Puch, not far from Le Murat. The more formal, ceremonial and imposing of the two (pictured above) comprises a haunting bas-relief that depicts the doomed firefighters in amongst the flames. It also lists the names of the locals who perished in what the monument refers to as a “cataclysme atmosphérique”, grouping them according to the communities they came from: Cestas, Léognan, Saucats, Villenave d’Ornon and Talence. The second is a more minimalist, organic pinewood offering, positioned around the spot where most lost their lives. It calls on observers to “respect and protect the forest to honour the memory of the 82 heroes”. Hear hear.

Leaving the area: a lookout tower and a warning sign serve as a reminder of the constant threat that fire represents.
> Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map: Forest fire memorials, D1010, Cestas.
> Much of the information in this piece was initially detailed and shared by the geographer Christophe Neff on his blog "Paysages", in items available here and here.  
> An incredibly detailed account of the events, including further photos and a map showing the ground covered by the fire, can be found on a personal website here. The site also includes a list of the victims and pictures of further memorials in Canéjan and Cestas, here.
> Ce dossier est également disponible en français.

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After cycling to Mirambeau , on to Royan and back down to Saint-Seurin-de-Cadourne , it was on to our home straight, although the fi...

Gironde estuary cycle tour 4/4: Saint-Seurin-de-Cadourne > Bordeaux


After cycling to Mirambeau, on to Royan and back down to Saint-Seurin-de-Cadourne, it was on to our home straight, although the first stop on this, our final day, meant a short eastward detour via Saint Germain d'Esteuil to pay a visit to the Domaine de Brion where ruins of Gallo-Roman-era edifices – a theatre, dwellings and a temple – sit silently in amongst the trees and marshland pastures. 

Back in the 1st century AD, this area was still an island, rising above the surrounded waters which have subsided and been irrigated over time. In all likelihood, a whole settlement spread in all directions, and the eminent 19th-century archaeologist Léo Drouyn believed that the area may have been known as Noviomagus, as referred to in Claudius Ptolemy’s Geography, which around 150 AD exhaustively compiled all geographical knowledge of the 2nd-century Roman Empire.

We started out by inspecting the remains of the theatre, which expert estimates suggest could have stretched to a diameter of around 55 metres and held around 2,500 spectators. This is difficult to believe when looking at the isolated sections which have somehow survived all these years, but still we enjoyed picturing the scene, imagining spectators streaming through the archways and up into the stands. To one side stood a more angular formation, which is what remains of a second-generation construction, a medieval-period tower inhabited by a knight who had been banished to the area after seeking to exact money from locals. The tower had been built from stone used for the theatre!

The remains of the theatre.
Advancing a little further into the wild, we viewed what is little more than the foundation structure of two homes, which are resolutely facing the same direction, suggesting some form of urban planning which may arguably have been applied to other Noviomagus buildings. Indeed, also facing the same direction is what remains of a full-on temple, which was reportedly destroyed by fire in the 3rd century and pillaged over subsequent years. Digs carried out in 1989 and 1991 unearthed a significant number of objects, including a number of bronze statuettes that paid homage to Gallo-Roman pagan gods. 

Gallo-Roman housing.
Inspecting the temple.
So why did this hive of activity fade into nothingness? That is a question for historians to deal with but, if our experience is anything to go by, we had to make our time on site as short as was humanly possible because, given the moist environment, we had to contend with the most humongous, aggressive and hungry mosquitoes we think we’ve ever encountered. It became so unbearable that we barely had the time to read the faded information panels, let alone explore the ruins for ourselves. Did flying insects bring down the Roman Empire’s presence in the Médoc then? Whatever, this little-known place deserves greater exposure, something that local authorities are unable to adequately fund at the time of writing.

Using the nearby north-south railway line as our guide, we glided fairly effortlessly to our next port of call, the picturesque, semi-perched village of Vertheuil. As peaceful as it was on this springtime Saturday mid-morning, it had clearly geared itself up for its steady trickle of visitors passing through, with a series of ten information panels dotted around the centre, providing stories of bygone times and archive yesteryear photos of the village as it used to be. The small-scale heritage trail, known as Le Musée dans la Rue (museum in the streets), takes in predictable sights such as the war memorial, a small fortified castle, the village hall, the church and its neighbouring abbey. But it also taps into some of the fixtures of village life including the bakery, hairdressers and butchers. It is a fine initiative that makes grassroots history instantly accessible to tourists.

Vertheuil fortifications.
We were then magnetically drawn to the largest community in that central Médoc area, the town of Saint-Laurent-Médoc. There was more life about the place there than anywhere we had encountered since Soulac-sur-Mer. Despite being located some 45 kilometres to the north of Bordeaux, the town is now viewed by many as being inside the city’s commuter belt. But while we were tucking into locally-purchased food sat on a bench on the church square, we spotted a coach service to Bordeaux picking up passengers. Watching people saying their goodbyes, the city still felt a long way away. Just as we were about to leave Saint-Laurent, we stopped outside a café and were about to set up shop on the establishment’s terrace with a view to enjoying a pick-me-up combination of coffee and soft drinks. The café staff turned us away, claiming the late-lunchtime hour meant the place was now out-of-bounds for patrons. Feeling simultaneously thirsty, rejected and ever so slightly dejected, we got back on our bikes.      

The most logical route hereon would have meant cycling along the hard shoulder of a busy dual carriageway, so we instead looped around to the hamlet of Benon where, to our immense surprise, in the leafy environment niched in behind a fairly anonymous housing estate lay a remarkable 12th-century country church, Eglise Notre-Dame de Benon. We ventured inside and enjoyed the respite delivered by the cool air there, before trying to make sense of one of the wordiest, most incomprehensible memorials I think anyone has ever positioned anywhere in the world. It appeared to commemorate a service held there in remembrance of a Maltese dignitary who died in a plane crash nearby in 1991. The story certainly appeared to merit further research, but we were all so exhausted from just trying to read the panel that we were reluctant to take things to the next level. We went back outside and instead admired the three church bells visible up high, and which alone provide an instant journey through time, cast as they were in 1776, 1873 and 1886. The eldest (and smallest) of the three bells is even listed as an historic monument.

And the Invisible Bordeaux award for the most incomprehensible plaque EVER goes to...
The linear route then took us through another mid-sized town, Castelnau-de-Médoc (where we were at last able to buy in some drinks!), and on to our final brief stop, outside Saint-Raphaël chapel. This tiny place of worship was built here around the late 15th century on the spot that, in 1375, saw the birth of one Pey Berland to a father who was a labourer from nearby Avensan and a mother who was a peasant from Moulis. In spite of these humble roots, Berland was educated by a local notary before being sent to a clerical school in Bordeaux after the death of his father, then to university in Toulouse. Returning to Bordeaux, he became a priest in Bouliac to the south-east of the city around 1412. He went on to become secretary to the Archbishop of Bordeaux, travelling around France, Italy and England in this capacity, before Pope Martin V appointed him Archbishop of Bordeaux on August 13th 1430.


Pey Berland subsequently went on to become one of the most influential of all figures in medieval Bordeaux, and much of what he instigated (at a time when the city was in profound moral and economic turmoil) continues to live on today. The aptly-named Tour Pey-Berland, the cathedral’s bell tower, the construction of which began under his authority in 1440 (it was completed in 1500), is the lasting landmark which is most naturally associated with him, but he is also responsible for the founding of the original University of Bordeaux (in 1441), Saint-André hospital and a number of secondary schools. Pey Berland, we therefore salute you, as does the virgin mother and child statue positioned at the very top of Tour Pey-Berland, which symbolically faces in the direction of Saint-Raphaël.

By now we were barely ten kilometres from our Saint-Aubin-de-Médoc basecamp. Four days of virtually continuous cycling had taken their toll and our average speed over the final stretch was certainly nothing to get overly excited about, but there was a definite sense of job very much done as we turned back into our street. Via Margaux, Lamarque, Blaye, Mirambeau, Talmont-sur-Gironde, Saint-Georges-de-Didonne, Royan, Le Verdon-sur-Mer, Soulac-sur-Mer, Jau-Dignac-et-Loirac, Saint-Seurin-de-Cadourne, Vertheuil, Saint-Laurent-Médoc, Castelnau-de-Médoc and many more places in-between, we had cycled all the way up one bank of the Gironde estuary and back down the other, and life on the saddle of a bicycle doesn’t get much better than that.

Gironde Estuary cycle tour day 4 mapped out.
And, in case you missed them, here is where you can rewind to day 1, day 2 and day 3 of the Gironde estuary cycle tour!

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