You never know what surprises are in store when you travel on an Expat Club trip. Our day trip to Bastogne was no exception. Expat Club founder Edgar Hütte arranged for the “greatest living expert” on the Battle of the Bulge (as proclaimed by General Graham Hollands) to be our guide for the day.
Martin King is a military historian, lecturer, author and TV personality. For more than two decades, the Emmy award-winning television personality has accompanied veterans on tours of the battlefields of World War II, bringing history to life with his insightful explanations of what transpired in the dark days of the War. His level of expertise on Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge is impressive and unmatched. We realised just how lucky we were to have him present this area to us! His unique storytelling skills and fascinating anecdotes could never be found in a book or general tour of the area.
What is the Battle of the Bulge?
The Battle of the Bulge earned its name for the “bulge” created around the Ardennes by the Germans as they tried to push through the American defensive line toward Antwerp. The three-week siege, which lasted from December 16, 1944, to January 25, 1945, was the last big German offensive on the Western Front.
So many lost their lives during the attacks. According to thought.com, 20,876 Allied soldiers were killed. Another 42,893 were wounded, and 23,554 were captured or missing. The German forces also faced loses with 15,652 killed. The injured numbered 41,600 and the captured or missing, 27,582. Those numbers don’t include the local community residents who were slaughtered by the Nazis.
The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne
Martin shared some basic history on the Battle of the Bulge, pointing out relevant sites as we headed southward to Bastogne. While on the bus, we viewed one of his documentaries, gaining more insight into the era, atmosphere and challenges.
Martin shared his adventure and search for “The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne.” Augusta Chiwy was a Belgian nurse who worked with U.S. Army physician John Prior treating injured soldiers. She fearlessly cared for them both in the field hospital and on the battlefield. While the story of fellow Belgian nurse Renée Lemaire, known as “the Angel of Bastogne,” is well documented, Augusta’s story was nearly lost. At least, it was until Martin went on a four-year-long search for the nurse. The story is currently being made into a feature film.
Bastogne War Museum
Our first stop was the Bastogne War Museum, a contemporary museum that almost seems carved into a small hill northeast of Bastogne. American flags are prominent throughout the site, showing the appreciation the locals have for the American troops that fought against the Nazis in the area.
The museum is primarily dedicated to the Battle of the Bulge, and 2019 marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle. The museum commemorates the fight for freedom. Before we even entered the museum, we saw the first signs of liberty.
As part of the museum’s anniversary celebrations, a temporary exhibition – “Art Liberty – From the Berlin Wall to Street Art” – celebrates the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago. Some historians actually consider that historic moment the true end of World War II.
The exhibition pays homage to 30 street artists who have each created a piece of art on an original fragment of the Berlin Wall. There are portraits of pop icons associated with Berlin: David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. You can’t miss the pop art tank, too. And three Trabants (a popular car in East Berlin) painted in psychedelic colors flank the museum entrance.
It’s hard to believe it has been three decades already since the fall of the wall. I still remember the days of stopping at Checkpoint Charlie as we traveled from West Berlin into East Berlin. It seems like a lifetime ago!
Inside the Museum
Once inside, we picked up our audio guides and headed into the heart of the museum, greeted by a large tank and silhouettes of people caught up in the war. As we stood in front of each cut-out figure, the automatic audio shared each individual’s experiences in the first person, bringing the story to life.
This two-floor museum is definitely worth a visit — for the whole family. There are three immersive videos where you sit in an area created to look like the original scene from the war. My two favourites were the forest area and the bar scene, which provide a good look at the past and capture the atmosphere of the era.
The War Museum features multi-media installations, maps, scenography and even witness testimonials. As the museum says, “Some objects are chosen for their ability to demonstrate the “small” history of the individual while also demonstrating the “great” history of a people. They succeeded in their goal.
For me, the visit was highly personal. My father fought in the Battle of the Bulge under General George S. Patton. Seeing the route map and literally following in his footsteps was powerful. The photo of prisoners in the Mauthausen concentration camp was even more touching. My father was among the small group of officers and soldiers liberating the camp in 1945.
A Memorial to the Americans
After lunching with Martin and the group in the museum cafe, we walked out to the famous Mardasson Memorial. The pillared structure, built with the five points of the American star, rises high above the fields. It honours the memory of American soldiers who were wounded or killed during the Battle of the Bulge. I walked up the stairs and found the name of my father’s battalion, the 11th Armored Division, posted on a pillar. The names of the other units fighting in the three-week siege were also there.
To the Barracks
Every kid seems to love tanks, and age didn’t seem to matter when we arrived at the Bastogne Barracks for a special tour that Martin arranged. His knowledge of the tanks, their locations and lineage were impressive, to say the least. We even got an opportunity to climb up and see what a tank looks like from the inside out. I’m not sure how they squeezed more than one person into these frightening looking metal machines!
We learned about the Panzer IV, the workhouse and powerhouse of the German army. And we learned about the less efficient Sherman tanks of the American Army. There were dozens of tanks and armoured vehicles to explore. Who knew military history could be so interesting?
There was one enemy in the war that a tank couldn’t fight: the weather. During the Battle of the Bulge, temperatures dropped below zero and up to 8 inches of snow fell in some areas. Martin explained that American soldiers, whose boots absorbed water, suffered from trench foot and other ailments. The inclement weather killed soldiers on both sides.
The killing fields extended beyond the battlefield. For example, the village of Noville was taken over by the Germans when the American troops withdrew. The town church, like much of the village, was not much more than rubble after German attacks.
Then, a few days before Christmas, the Gestapo raided the village, searching for people hiding in their cellars. The pulled 20 hostages from their homes and read out a list of names. Those whose names were read were released, but eight people whose names were not read, were dragged behind a house and shot to death.
Father Louis Delvaux, Roger Beaujean, Felix and François Deprez, Auguste Lutgen, Romain Henkinet, Joseph Rosière and Michel Straenen were slaughtered by the Nazis 75 years ago. On December 22, 2019, a memorial service will be held at the Church of Noville and Enclos des Fusillés, the monument remembering those who were slain.
A German Memorial
Reminders of lives lost were everywhere. In the German cemetery at Bastogne-Noville, we saw the graves of many of the young soldiers who perished in the winter of 1944/45. Reading their names and seeing how young they were when their lives were snuffed out was sad.
The peaceful setting was dotted with colourful trees changing hues from green to yellow. Below, crosses stood in neat little rows across a tree-covered field. Each cross designated the final resting place of five to six soldiers. They were gone, but not forgotten, as evidenced by flowers adorning some graves.
Into the Woods
In what was one of the most profound experiences of the day, we walked into the Bastogne-Noville woods where American soldiers hid in foxholes, ready to fight the Nazis. The foxholes lined the road. You could almost imagine the Nazi tanks roaring up the lanes.
Martin brought the scene to life, explaining how a small group of American soldiers would huddle in a foxhole, changing positions every few hours so each man had warmth on both sides of his body.
The soldiers couldn’t light a fire or the Nazis would seem them. For many, it was a one-way trip into the woods. They were sitting ducks with nowhere to flee as the Nazis fired into the trees, causing them to splinter and send down flaming bits of wood. The soldiers soon learned if they left the foxholes and hugged the trees, there was less chance of being killed or injured as the trajectory of the burning projectiles would fall away from the trees.
Last stop: Luxembourg
Next, we stopped at Schumanns Eck, near Wiltz, Luxembourg, to see the 1944-1945 Liberation Memorial, erected to honour the units that fought in the area.
The “Thunderbolts” of the 11th Armored Division was among the units cited. I wondered what the area looked like back when my father fought here. It was almost impossible to picture. Martin explained the roads weren’t more than cow paths.
We walked up the hill to Schumann’s Eck restaurant for some beverages before heading to the bus. Then, it was back to Bastogne for dinner before the drive back to Brussels. What a memorable trip and exciting adventure!
Main picture: © Jean-Pol GRANDMONT (own work), via Wikimedia Commons