Val d'Isère at War

Based on an account by José Reymond

Most communities have a story to tell about the Second World War, the events or losses which touched them, and the villages of the Haute Tarentaise are no exception. The war memorials in each community demonstrate the range of emotions felt and experiences shared. The statue on the main square in Moûtiers commemorates the efforts of the Resistance, and shows an enslaved French woman defiantly casting off the chains of Occupation. In the smaller mountain villages the memorials are more personal, mourning the loss of precious sons. One small village has a simple statue of a mother in village dress, her head bowed, her face in her hands, and expresses more grief than any words.

Val d'Isère's war memorial is a simple obelisk bearing surnames startlingly familiar to the modern visitor - names which are seen on the signs outside ski shops, or shared by the owners of hotels and restaurants, and by favourite ski instructors, and we can see that their ancestors died for their country.

Outsiders coming to the high villages would have been few during wartime, but there is one story told by José Reymond, an old Tignard and chronicler of the Haute Tarentaise, which tells of a group of British soldiers who tried to reach the safety of French territory in Val d'Isère.

On the French-Italian border, east of the village of Val d'Isère, between the peak of La Galise at 3343m and the Grande Aiguille Rousse at 3482m, facing to the west, is the glacier which is the source of the river Isère. It's a deep glacier and provides a serious quantity of water to the young river. At the beginning of its course, before entering Val d'Isère, the Isère crosses a very pretty round 'circus', appropriately called "Le Prariond' in patois, which is "Le Pré Rond" in French, and means the "round meadow". After crossing the Prariond, the river then passes through a deep gorge, just as suitably named "Le Malpasset" (in patois), "Le Mauvais Passage" (in French) - the equivalent of "rough passage" in English.

In November 1944, the Malpasset gorge was witness to a sad drama. Some British prisoners of war, captured by the German Afrika Korps in North Africa, were held as prisoners of war in Piedmont, Italy. They managed to escape from their prison camp as far as a place called Cerisoles, still on the Italian side of the border, at the foot of the Galise peak. Their aim was to cross into France, which had by then been liberated by the Allies. The group consisted of 23 British servicemen, who had been joined by 16 Italian partisans. Winter was approaching and the weather was appalling.

If they could climb to the Galise Pass they would be in France, safe from the German and Italian armies, but the band of men were aware of the dangers ahead. Driven by their desire to win their freedom, they set off. Having climbed to a height of 2987m, they arrived safely at the Pass. But the weather was rapidly worsening, and the storm had doubled in intensity. It was impossible for them to find their way and go on, and they were forced to spend the night where they were, packed tightly beneath an outcrop of rock, which gave them a modicum of shelter. The next day two of the British soldiers were too weak to carry on, and two Italians stayed behind with them. The rest of the party began the descent into France, eventually reaching the Prariond plateau, but the storm continued to rage, and several of the men died of exhaustion on the round meadow.

The rest of the group struggled on to the unfamiliar and dangerous terrain of the Malpasset gorge, which was too much for them in their state of exhaustion. The rocks were slippery and the path non-existent, and tragically all fell to their deaths. The whole brave group had perished, not victim to the Germans or their allies the Italians, but to the fierce weather and terrain of the Haute Tarentaise. Of the four who stayed behind at the top of the Pass, one of the British servicemen died where he was, but the other Briton and the two Italians were saved by French Alpine troops, still fighting the Germans in the mountains.

Today, in summer, if you brave the vertiginous path of the Malpasset gorge and walk into the hollow of the Prariond, you can see a large plaque commemorating this sad event.

In winter, it is lovely to ski down the Malpasset - when enough snow has fallen and successive avalanches have formed a tight bung along the length of the gorge. From the magnificent views at the Pers pass, you ski down the narrow gully back towards Le Fornet, and many skiers do this each winter, oblivious of the treacherous Isère river which flows a few metres beneath their skis, while they admire the formidable rock faces to each side, from which the poor soldiers fell.

Based on a story by Jose Reymond, in "J'ai plus de souvenirs que si j'avais mille ans."

Emma Forrester works for the ski chalet specialist YSE in Val d'Isère.

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