The Murders at the Château d’Audrieu A Case Study
International Laws are an attempt to set the rules for armed engagement between contending parties. They are designed to provide a measure of protection for civilians as well as for soldiers. In the case of prisoners of war, such laws affirm that they are no longer part of the battle. They are to be confined, but not otherwise harmed. Their basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter are to be respected. Under no circumstances should they be mistreated and certainly not killed.
In spite of these laws, the mistreatment of prisoners does occur in war. Most commonly, it happens during the heat of the battle, when soldiers are physiologically and psychologically primed for the fight. In such circumstances, it is understandable, although not acceptable, that a soldier can kill a defenceless opponent who has surrendered, particularly if the latter has just killed one of the soldier’s comrades. Fifteen minutes or a half hour later, he would probably restrain the urge to kill, particularly if his officer had already taught him the rules of war and made it clear that they would be enforced.
What happens, however, when there is no such restraint? When soldiers see their officers freely order killings themselves? Not just on the battlefield, but back of the lines hours and even days later? What type of battle culture does this promote? What should be done in such circumstances, when the laws of combat are broken so blatantly?
Just such a circumstance occurred in Normandy in June 1944, when the 3rd Division of the Canadian forces came up against the 12th SS Panzer Division ‘Hitler Youth’. During that struggle, Canadians were captured by the 12th SS and over 150 of them, or roughly one seventh of all the Canadian soldiers killed in the Normandy Campaign, were killed after surrender. In this student activity, the focus will be on the murders at the Château d’Audrieu. Using that incident as a starting point, the activity can be expanded to a consideration of a number of related questions regarding the battlefield conduct of soldiers and officers involved in war.
This activity is designed for students in Senior High Canadian History classes. Here are some of the outcomes that could result from this exercise. Students should:
Gain knowledge of major events connected with the D-Day Landing in June 1944 during World War II, especially the Canadian advance into Normandy and confrontation with the 12th SS Panzer Division ‘Hitler Youth’.
Gain knowledge of the specifics of that engagement, particularly in reference to the treatment of prisoners.
Broaden their knowledge by research into other such incidents and the military culture that prompted them.
Analyse the historiography relating to these incidents to better understand the various points of views and contexts that affect interpretation of historical events.
Be able to empathise with a particular soldier through investigation of his background and the impact his death had on family, friends, and community.
Consider the long term impact of murderous deeds on the particular soldiers who perpetrated them.
Evaluate the impact of the Normandy murders on the way they think about the Normandy Campaign in particular and wars in general, including the present day war in Afghanistan.
This will vary, depending on the class and the student outcomes envisioned. If one or more avenues of research are explored, then it may be wise to introduce the topic at the beginning of the school term, review it from time to time, and conclude with a courtroom role play activity, a class debate on the responsibility for the murders, or a major research paper. (If your focus is on a student’s intellectual and moral development, that becomes the basis of your strategy. Covering every aspect of the Canadian History course will not then get in the way of meeting that student need.)
Become familiar with the Murders at the Château d’Audrieu. Howard Margolian’s book Conduct Unbecoming: The Story of the Murder of Canadian Prisoners of War in Normandy is an excellent source because it looks at the incidents from the perspective of individual soldiers. Unfortunately, the book is out of print, although you may be able to find a used copy online or at your local bookstore. The good news is that it may be in print again, and in the meantime, you can look at online extracts [scroll down to page 82, chapter 8 "The Bremer Murders"] from Conduct Unbecoming: The Story of the Murder of Canadian Prisoners of War in Normandy. Or you may read “The Bremer Murders” in the linked document, which is a typed excerpt of the relevant sections from Margolian’s book for the specific incident highlighted in this activity.
Assign the students to read “The Bremer Murders.” Margolian’s account has an appeal for readers because it is in story form, has heroes and villains, and contains a clear moral message.
Class discussion for initial reactions to “The Bremer Murders.” Did these “murders” constitute a war crime? Students should all have opinions.
With Tim Cook’s article as a teacher reference, discuss the following:
What is the history and rationale behind international law in reference to the treatment of prisoners?
Spontaneous battlefield vengeance” is understandable, although unsanctioned, battlefield behaviour. What are some Canadian examples from World War One? Find examples that are questionable. What evidence from Cook’s article suggests that Canada was guilty of war crimes in World War One? ( In order to make that claim, there has to be evidence of a policy, either written or verbal, from officers that taking no prisoners was acceptable. Also, there has to be evidence that prisoners were murdered after they had gone back to detention areas back of the lines.)
Review the evidence of what happened to Canadian soldiers who were killed by the 12th SS in Normandy See Canadian Soldiers murdered in Normandy in 1944. How many of these can be described as “spontaneous battlefield revenge”? There is room for interpretation here. Some deaths described as “murders” may have been spontaneous battlefield revenge. What is important is that students’ provide reasoned arguments for their assessment.
At this stage of the activity, point out that determining what is murder and what is understandable, but still not condoned, battlefield behaviour depends upon context and one’s perspective. This may be an appropriate time to introduce the historiography associated with the treatment of Canadian prisoners by the 12th SS in Normandy. See Lackenbauer’s paper. Rather than having students read the paper in its entirety, select relevant passages that show how changing political realities, philosophical developments (relativism), and personal bias have affected historical interpretation. This is where you instruct them directly. What you want to do here is muddy the water, so that students are forced to think through the various issues that can be raised in such circumstances. They have to evaluate rather than making snap judgments.
Before a final evaluation of the events at the Château d’Audrieu, students need further information on the SS officers who were involved in questionable treatment of prisoners, because those actions occurred in a context that was possibly unique to them. They were fanatical Nazis committed to the doctrine of Aryan superiority that had been espoused in Hitler’s writing, they had mostly served on the Eastern Front as members of the Leibstandarte SS Adof Hitler, fierce combatants who were known for their harsh treatment of enemy soldiers and civilians. A number of them had helped organise and had served in the death camps that were set up for Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, and religious minorities like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. (If your stomach can handle it, you may wish to show films on the death camps. They are readily available on the Internet, and expose in graphic detail the evil core of Nazism) The young soldiers they led had been thoroughly indoctrinated in Nazi beliefs and were prepared to die for them. They had nothing but contempt for the ‘vermin’ Canadian soldiers they faced. Within this context, it is easy to see why international law was violated by them and why their officers should have been tried for war crimes.
In a class discussion, review with the students their initial assessment of the events at the Château s’Audrieu. Have they modified their initial reaction? What insights have they gained from additional research into international law, spontaneous battlefield revenge, and officer responsibility to control those he commands?
The murders of Canadian soldiers by the 12 SS ‘Hitler Youth” in 1944 went unpunished, but the issues raised by those murders are still with us. In 2008, a Canadian army officer named Captain Robert Semrau shot a wounded and unarmed Taliban insurgent in Afghanistan. As a result, he became the first Canadian soldier ever to be court-martialled on a charge of murder. In October 2010, he was found not guilty of murder, but was found guilty of lesser charges that resulted in his demotion and dismissal from the armed forces.
a) Compare and contrast the SS murders with the alleged murder committed by Captain Semrau. What are the differences and similarities between them?
b) Outline the arguments for and against Captain Semrau.
c) Evaluate those arguments and take a reasoned stand either for or against the court’s decision.
Note to Teachers: The research project above is designed to evaluate students’ ability to apply knowledge in a new setting and to analyse, synthesise, and evaluate research material. It can be modified in any number of ways to fit the needs and abilities of your students. For a more detailed alternative activity, see Captain Robert Semrau: Murder or Mercy on the Battlefield?
Resources: There are links to the following articles online. However, they have been summarised as well on this website, in the event that the originals are removed from Internet circulation.
Choose a Canadian soldier who died at the hands of the 12th SS during June 1944 in Normandy and write a detailed biography about him. See Canadian Soldiers murdered in Normandy in 1944. This activity could be started at the beginning of the term for completion at its end. Students will be expected to use a variety of research strategies to complete this assignment and will need plenty of time to gather information from a variety of archival and family sources.
There was a young SS officer captured on 19 August 1944 at St. Lambert sur-Dives by Canadian forces under Major David Currie. (See a close up of this officer in the video “South Alberta Regiment at St. Lambert-sur-Dives” and on page 111 in Copp, Terry and Bechthold, Mike. The Canadian Battlefields in Normandy: A Visitor’s Guide. Waterloo, Ontario: Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies, Wilfred Lauria University, 2004. Third Edition 2008.
These images put a human face on the thousands of young German soldiers who became part of the 12th SS Panzer Division. Like the Canadian soldiers who died at the hands of the 12th SS, this young man had a family back in Germany who cared about him. Investigate to find out the type of education to which he would have been exposed from childhood as a member of the Hitler Youth Movement. Is that background a mitigating circumstance in assessing blame for acts in violation of the rules of acceptable battlefield conduct in which he may have participated? If so, why? If not, why not?