This simple memorial marks one of the entrances to the Ardennes Forest where so many young soldiers lost their lives

Europe prepares to celebrate 75 years of freedom from Nazi occupation

Monday 11 February 2019

Alan Wooding visited the snow-covered forests in the Belgian Ardennes to learn about one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War

Back in November 2018, Europe marked the First World War armistice with numerous Centenary celebrations in and around Flanders Fields. Twelve months on, there will be further celebrations in both Belgium and the Netherlands as towns and villages mark the 75th anniversary of liberation from Nazi German occupation.

I was fortunate enough to be invited by the Liberation Route Europe Foundation to view some of the sites that culminated in the Ardennes Offensive which history now refers to as the Battle of the Bulge.

Fought primarily in the area around the Ardennes Forests and the strategic Belgian town of Bastogne, both sides were to suffer enormous casualties in a six week battle that started in December 1944.

Having transferred from Brussels where I had attended a special Liberation Route conference, I arrived in Bastogne with five fellow guests and stayed overnight at the Melba Hotel.

The following morning we transferred to the Bastogne Barracks run by the War Heritage Institute where we had a guided tour and presentation courtesy of Bruno Lacluyse.

It's a truly amazing museum, displaying simply dozens of British, US, Russian and German tanks together with all manner of military vehicles and weaponry. And it's no wonder that the barracks will feature strongly in the 75th celebrations later this year when it is expected to be visited by some of the surviving veterans who fought in the Battle of the Bulge who will be accompanied by their families.

"I love it when you see Battle of the Bulge veterans greet each other like old friends," said Bruno. "I remember watching these two," he said, pointing to one particular picture on a wall lined by thousands of veteran's portraits.

"It's Frank Hartzell of the US 11th Armoured Division greeting Gunther Fiehl of 15 Panzer Grenadier Division and it went something like 'I remember it was bitterly cold' with the German's reply being exactly the same. They were referring to the nighttime temperature which during the battle dropped as low as minus 20C degrees."

Bruno also gave us a tour of the whole barracks area including the restoration workshops where hundreds of military vehicles are being readied for a special parade this November when thousands of visitors are expected to join in the 75th anniversary celebrations.

 

Making the short trip north accompanied by tour guide Joël Lamberty, snow still covered the ground as we entered the Ardennes Forest to see the foxholes dug by the US Army after they were hurriedly driven in open trucks all the way from Paris to Bastogne.

With minimum weaponry and totally inappropriate clothing, the men were marched ten kilometres in freezing conditions and told to dig in alongside a road opposite the German front line.

The rapid Allied advance from Normandy had finally stalled in the Belgian Ardennes due to heavy German resistance and while the south of Limburg had been liberated, the weather played a huge part in what was to come.

Following Bastogne Barracks and Ardennes Forest encounter, we visited Bastogne War Museum where several hundred children were actively involved in school projects. My American colleague was intrigued and messaged her 22-year-old daughter back in the States asking: "What do you know about the Battle of the Bulge?" to which the response was: "It was a war, but it's no longer relevant to life!" Naturally my colleague was dumbstruck!

However she asked the same question of her two sons (aged 14 and 18) when she returned to Colorado and they also knew absolutely nothing about what had been a key battle for the American troops.

The museum has three multi-dimensional stage settings in which visitors relive the lives of four main characters – a child, a Belgian housewife, a German officer and an American soldier – all having been at the heart of the action.

Just a stone's throw from the museum is the huge Mardasson Memorial which the Belgian's erected in a four year period after the hostilities had ended to commemorate the sacrifices made by the Allied troops.


The Battle of the Bulge

The snow-covered foxholes dotted around Belgium's Ardennes Forest were turned into shallow graves for so many Allied soldiers in December 1944 as they attempted to repel the last major German Wehrmacht offence of the Second World War.

Both sides were to suffer huge losses in what is now known as the Battle of the Bulge after Hitler ordered his troops to break through the weakest part of the advancing Allied line which stretched between Luxembourg and Antwerp.

With superior firepower, three huge armoured Panzer divisions were aided by some of the worst weather conditions of the Second World War and the Germans were to break through and surround the town of Bastogne in southern Belgium.

Of paramount importance to the Allies, the US 101st Airborne Division led by Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe was ordered to hold the town at all costs and, after setting up headquarters in Bastogne Barracks, they somehow held firm. The Germans sent a written request to seek a surrender, but McAuliffe entered the history books by sending back a one word answer… it read 'Nuts' in response to the request.

The weather finally improved and thanks to the superiority of the Allied Air Force, the US Army led by General George S Patton managed to fight its way towards the town, only to find that the once trapped German forces had managed to fight a rearguard action and they were able to escape the Allies well-planned pincer movement and were able to head back into their homeland.

The Ardennes Offensive or Battle of the Bulge lasted for six weeks and proved to be the costliest operation ever fought by the US Army. It left 10,733 American soldiers dead and another 42,316 wounded while the German losses totalled 12,652 killed and 38,600 wounded. Added to that, around 2,500 civilians also lost their lives in Belgium while another 500 perished in the nearby Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.


From Bastogne we travelled east into the Netherlands to the town of Norbeek, having stopped en route to visit the Mesch Memorial. The village of Mesch was the first in the Netherlands to be liberated on 12th September 1944 by the 30th American Infantry Division which was affectionately nicknamed 'Old Hickory'.

Staying at the delightful family-run Herberg Sint Brigida Hotel, our hosts were Brigitte and Frans van Wissen while we learned about the history of the enormous US War Cemetery at nearby Margraten where more than 20,000 Allied and German bodies were laid to rest. Then almost three years later, more than 10,000 US soldiers and over 3,000 Germans were exhumed by prisoners of war and repatriated back to America and to Germany.

That night Mieke Kirkels, a Dutch author and public historian, gave a talk about the establishment of Margraten where she discovered hundreds of African-American liberators were not officially recognised as they had only been used as transport drivers or for digging graves.

The following morning we visited Margraten itself were cemetery superintendant Shane Williams explained that following the exhumations, there are now just 8,301 American military graves remaining.

Our Battle of the Bulge trip ended with a short visit to the Eyewitness War Museum at Beek (pronounced 'Back') where there are 13 dioramas depicting different war scenes thanks to 150 lifelike mannequins all correctly dressed in salvaged uniforms.

Guided round by the knowledgeable Merijn Bevers, the fictional main character of the museum is German parachutist August Segel who takes visitors along the most important fronts in Europe, one of them being the Battle of the Bulge.

You can follow his story through letters back to this family at home. These letters are based on true stories and thanks to the German angle, it gave us another perspective on the Battle of the Bulge.

FACT FILE

Motel One Brussels

Rue Royale 120, 1000 Brussels, Belgium – https://www.motel-one.com/en/hotels/brussels/hotel-brussels/

Hotel Melba

Avenue Mathieu 49-51, B-6600 Bastogne, Belgium – https://hotel-melba.eu/en/

Herberg Sint Brigida

Dorpstraat 36, 6255 AN Noorbeek, The Netherlands Hosts Brigitte en Frans van Wissen –  http://www.herbergsintbrigida.nl/

PLACES VISITED 

Liberation Route Europe Conference at the Claridge, Chaussée de Louvain 24, 1210 Brussels – https://b2b.liberationroute.com/conference/

Bastogne Barracks (War Heritage Institute) – http://www.bastogne-barracks.be/300-2/?lang=en

Bastogne War Museumhttp://bastognewarmuseum.be/home.html

Mesch Memorial – audio spot ‘Welcome in Holland’ – https://liberationroute.com/the-netherlands/pois/w/welcome-in-holland

Margraten American War Cemetery – https://bit.ly/2roMfPp and https://bit.ly/2Tl9ypJ

War Museum Eyewitness, Beek, The Netherlands – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rkg5eg0G-y8 and https://www.eyewitnesswo2.nl/ https://liberationroute.com/the-netherlands/spots/e/eyewitness-museum

*** Many thanks to Gert-Jan Jacobs, Communications Manager for the Liberation Route Europe for the kind invitation and for arranging the visit.

These Daniel Libeskind designed 'Vectors' will mark the way in the ambitious Liberation Route Europe Hiking Trail which link many Second World War monuments and historic sites and will stretch almost 3,000 kilometres from London to Berlin.

Europe's new Liberation Route Hiking Trail is dedicated to peace and learning

Sunday 10 February 2019

"I had a vision that one day a 3,000 kilometre hiking trail to rival that of the Camino Way would link London and Berlin," said Jurriaan de Mol, founder and initiator of Liberation Route Europe.

He was also instrumental in establishing the Europe Remembers Campaign which, later this year, will mark the 75th anniversary following the liberation of Belgium and the Netherlands just months prior to the end of the Second World War.

Mr de Mol is also a five time veteran of the famed International Four Day Marches to Nijmegen. As the world's largest multi-day walking event – around 40,000 people take part each July – he was happy to chat to me about the LRE Hiking Trail at the Liberation Route Europe Conference which took place at the Claridge Events Hall in Brussels on Thursday 7 February.

The scheme was originally launched in 2008, while the plan for the LRE Hiking Trail was taken up by Daniel Libeskind, the famed Jewish American architect whose triangular-style route markers called 'Vectors', will mark the way through up to five countries ahead of the trail's completion which is to be finally inaugurated in 2020.

Jurriaan de Moll (left) with Remi Praud, managing director of the LRE Foundation

However the trail quickly became reality in the Netherlands where the Dutch hiking organisation, Wandelnet, installed some 200 key information points which, by using a mobile phone app, you experience both history and heritage via audio spots, thus keeping alive the memory of those who sacrificed their lives for freedom.

We actually tried one of the information points when we visited the ‘Welcome in Holland’ Mesch Memorial audio spot which was also the first town in the Netherlands to be liberated by the advancing US Army.

"It's becoming a proper remembrance trail," said Mr de Mol. "It connects all the regions that the Western Allied Forces took back in 1944 and 1945 and one day will stretch all the way from the South of England, through France, the Belgium Ardennes and into Luxembourg and then into Netherlands.

"The idea is to reach Berlin, although Gdansk in Poland and even a Southern Route sees interest already established in this Italian section which will stretch all the way from Sicily," he added.

As with the Camino de Santiago or Way of St James – which marks a pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in North-Western Spain – there are multiple starting points on the LRE Hiking Trail.

Martin Shulz, former President of the European Parliament and a current Member of the German Bundestag and patron of the Liberation Route Foundation

Many have already experienced sections of the trail while it's particularly interesting to those who have tackled the annual Nijmegen March. Mr de Mol explained that depending on age and gender, the Nijmegen participants will walk either 30, 40 or 50 kilometres each day, covering a total of 200 kilometres.

"The 'Vierdaagse' (that's Dutch for four days) has actually been in existence since 1909 but the town of Nijmegen became its permanent home in 1916," Mr de Mol explained. "In 2016 it was the 100th anniversary of the walk and by day four my legs had all but given out… it was only the beer that kept me going!" he joked.

Among the guest speakers at the conference were Second World War British historian Professor Richard Overy, prolific military writer Peter Caddick-Adams, Helen Patton (granddaughter of US Wartime hero General George S Patton) and award-winning Dutch filmmaker Sytze van der Laan whose film The Resistance Banker - a true story about bothers Walraven and Gijs van Hall - is now high on my viewing list.

One of the most passionate speeches was made by Martin Schulz, a former President of the European Parliament and a current Member of the German Bundestag as well as being a Patron of the LRE Foundation since 2012. He said: “The memory of our past shapes the way we see our present and work towards our future.

"The Liberation Route is a milestone project that I gladly support and that I hope will help keep the memory of our continent vivid and alive. I hope that the Liberation Route Europe can attract even more international support in the upcoming years for the Hiking Trail’s inauguration in 2020," he added.

The Liberation Route Europe Foundation is designed to help preserve history and to connect hundreds of points of interest, monuments, heritage sites and cemeteries across Europe while promoting peace and reconciliation following the horrors of the Second World War.


The Menin Gate at Ypres in Belgium

Marking the Centenary of the Armistice in Flanders Fields

Saturday, 13 October

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, the First World War officially came to an end with the signing of the Armistice. The guns fell silent and a war that lasted four years and four months, finally came to an end. This year, Flanders remembers the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice with a series of special events as well as permanent memorials in Flanders Fields.  

Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate

Since 1928, buglers have sounded the Last Post under the arches of the Menin Gate memorial in remembrance of the fallen, at precisely 8 p.m. every evening. This moving ceremony has become part of the local daily life in Ypres, however to mark the Armistice, there will be a special Last Post on Sunday 11 November at 11a.m. The ceremony will also be screened live from the Market Square.

Poppy Waterfall

The poppy will forever be an iconic symbol of remembrance. on 11 November St. Georges’ Memorial Church in Ypres will be inaugurating an impressive waterfall installation of 8,000 handmade poppies which will flow from the church tower into the garden. Built in 1927 to honour fallen British and Commonwealth soldiers, this Anglican church is itself a unique memorial to visit, providing a place of quiet reflection.

Field of Remembrance

In the build up to the Armistice remembrance events, The Royal British Legion has been planting thousands of artificial poppies in green spaces above the ramparts, next to the Menin Gate. Each bears a personal message of gratitude to the First World War generation. For those looking to leave their own message, there are poppies available to plant at The Royal British Legion shop on the Market Square.

To End all Wars:  27 October to 15 November 2019 – Flanders Fields Museum

Timed with the end of the centenary of the Great War approaching, the In Flanders Fields Museumin Ypres takes a look at the real consqueneces of this great battle. The peace that ensued after the war finished ended up creating the cause of many later conflicts and so this exhibition, using unique objects and images tells that story. Drawing upon personal stories and factual documents, the temporary exhibition is both thought provoking and informative in its presentation. 

Winter in Ypres Promotion: 15 November 2018 to 30 March 2019

During the winter months, Visit Ypres will be offering a special overnight discount package for visitors staying in selected hotels in Ypres at this time. A special discount booklet offering the following concessions will be offered:

* A complementary drink on arrival in their hotel as well as a free aperitive in selected restaurants ordering a meal.  

* A complementary "nightwatch" walking tour.  

* A complementary coffee or local beer at the In Flanders Fields Museum cafe.

Discounts on the following attractions and museums:

* In Flanders Fields entrance fee

* The Hooge Crater Museum entrance fee

* The Yper Museum entrance fee

* Saturday tours of the" De Kazematten’ Brewery for Saturday  

* A selection of participating shops and chocolatiers will also apply.

Hill 80 - Debrief and Findings: 10 December 2019 Ypres

In 2015 a team of archaeologists discovered an extraordinarily well-preserved trench fortress near the village of Wijtschate in Belgium. Wijtschate had been captured by the Germans at the end of 1914, and they built a formidable fortress on a ridge top known as ‘Hill 80’. 

In 1917, it was breached by the Allies during the Battle of Messines. Together with Peter Doyle, a leading British military historian, Simon Verdegem, lead archaeologist and German history expert, Robin Schäfer initiated a crowd-funded project with support from historian Dan Snow and comedian Al Murray.

The aim of the project was to excavate the site and expose the battlefield that had remained virtually untouched since the end of the war.  The secrets of this dig are due to be revealed in a special presentation of findings in London and Ypres.

VISITFLANDERS will also be looking at how this and other remembrance events in the region, will continue to preserve the memory of this important period in our history. Buglers will continue to play the Last Post at Menin Gate for ‘in perpetuity’ whilst cemeteries and memorials will continue to be visited by thousands.

Battlefield walks started in the region in 1919 with Talbot House creator, Tubby Clayton and this interest in the region, will continue to live on. Hill 80's findings help impart the story about the importance of  preserving history ‘for future generations’ as well as preaching a message of peace and reconciliation and Visit Flanders looks forward to sustain this interest beyond the end of the current centenary commemorations.