Villeneuve-Loubet mass grave

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Villeneuve-Loubet mass grave is a grave site near the village of Villeneuve-Loubet, near Nice, in the Maritime Alps region of southern France. On October 18, 2006 the bodies of 14 German soldiers killed during World War II were exhumed at the site. The bodies were discovered by local medical student and World War II enthusiast Jean-Loup Gassend, and were subsequently exhumed by a team of local volunteers including an archaeologist and several medical students under the supervision of Mr Julien Hauser, representative of the Volksbund (German War Graves Commission) in France. The Villeneuve-Loubet grave was the largest mass grave of World War II German soldiers discovered in France since 2003, when 17 bodies of German prisoners executed by the French Resistance had been exhumed from a mass grave at St Julien de Crempse, in the Dordogne region.

The soldiers in the Villeneuve-Loubet grave were members of Reserve Grenadier Battalion 372, of Reserve Division 148, who had been killed in battle against soldiers of the Second Battalion of Second Regiment of the famous First Special Service Force, also known as the Devil's Brigade, on August 26, 1944, shortly after the Allies invaded southern France during Operation Dragoon on August 15, 1944. The bodies of the dead Germans were buried by local civilians in a specially dug trench after the battle, and forgotten about.

Jean-Loup Gassend managed to discover the location of the grave by interviewing some of the surviving locals. He and archaeologist Pascal Boucard made arrangements with the Volksbund in order to exhume the bodies in archaeological manner, which is only very rarely the case for German World War II era graves. The goal was not only to exhume and identify the bodies, but also to attempt to find the cause of death of each body and to try to extract a maximum amount of historical data from the grave. In this aspect, the work at Villeneuve-Loubet was innovative as battlefield archaeology usually concentrates on more ancient sites.

The bodies were rediscovered at a depth of approximately one metre, along with several helmets and large amounts of military equipment. Battle wounds caused by bullets or shrapnel fragments were found on several of the bodies. Seven identification tags (dog tags), including one that had been pierced by a bullet, were also discovered, leading to the identification of six of the bodies. Two more bodies were subsequently identified by cross checking information contained in the personal files of German soldiers reported as missing or killed in the Villeneuve-Loubet area in August 1944. The ages of the identified soldiers ranged from 17 to 35. One soldier in particular had been killed the day before his 18th birthday.

The exhumation team carefully analysed the artifacts found in the grave, which led to some interesting conclusions about the events surrounding the burial. For example only one of the fourteen bodies was still wearing his shoes, meaning that all the other pairs of shoes had been removed from the bodies by local civilians before the bodies were buried. Also, the only two canteens that were found had been pierced by shell fragments, rendering them useless, and it can be suspected that all the other canteens that should have been on the bodies were taken by the civilians. Several of the helmets that were recovered had been damaged by shrapnel or bullets, helping to establish the cause of death.

All the bodies were reburied in the Berneuil German war cemetery (fr), France, on June 23, 2007, in the presence of 60 German families, as well as many French and German officials.

Following the discovery of the grave, Gassend interviewed a large number of participants of the battle, did an extensive search of the existing literature and archival documentation, and contacted the families of the killed soldiers, in order to reconstruct the context in which the mass grave had been dug. His research results are presented in the book Autopsy of a battle, the Liberation of the French Riviera.

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