Bastogne

I was twelve years old when my parents divorced. I can only remember a few things, but one thing I remember vividly was one of the first weekends my sister and I spent with our father in our old house. The weather was cold and poor and we were looking for something to do. One of us suggested a movie and we set out to the local video store. My father stumbled upon a box of the first two episodes of a newly released series on the Second World War called ‘Band of Brothers’. We took it home with us and went back for part 3 and 4 that same day. Over the course of the next two weekends, we watched the whole 10-part series and this is when and where I became intrigued with WWII and later wars in general.

Since I was twelve years old, I have wanted to visit the places I have seen in the series, knowing fully well they were mostly depicted in studios. But there were footsteps of the real men out in the real world. There are the towns in England where they trained, Normandy and the landing beaches, the towns they travelled through as they slowly but surely, moved towards Germany. Bastogne – the epicentre of the horrific Battle of the Bulge – has always been on top of that list. In that sense, visiting Bastogne has been a childhood dream of mine, albeit that sounds a little dramatic.

Now twenty-seven years old, on Valentines Day, I am quickly leaving the town of Huy (pronounced as ‘oui’, ‘yes’ in French). It disappears in my rear view mirror as the already familiar steep road carries us up and up and up until we’re over. Twisting and curving, the same road takes us through towns we’re allowed to race through, until we reach the Belgium definition of a motorway. The study of the route the previous night left me with the knowledge that it’s a straight way down to Marche-en-Famenne. The road, however, is far from boring – it flows up and down like a gigantic, concrete ocean with rippling waves and it keeps on stretching out from underneath the car every time we reach the crest of the hill. We go down rolling over the slopes and then climb back up, the car in a soft roar, most other drivers buzzing passed as if they’re in a hurry to get somewhere.

I reach Bastogne with little trouble and though ecstatic – because, after all, here we finally are – I am also disappointed. It’s a strange combination, that feeling. It’s heavy downpour on a beautiful summer’s day. An overload of sunshine in the dead of winter, the landscape covered underneath a blanket of snow. Finding half of what you’ve lost. Bastogne is hard to describe – the buildings are mostly all three stories high, dull and grey or dark brown, there is little colour and the buildings look old and in poor condition. There is little to no vibe here. The parking lot and tourist centre are modern. There are a few eccentric cafes (one of them ‘Le Nuts’, after the famous reply from the 101st Airborne acting commander General McAuliffe  to the German Commander demanding the US troops’ surrender after being encircled during the Battle of the Bulge) and they add some character, but overall the town is bleak. I’m glad that at least it’s alive, with people on the pavements and cars on the streets, loud and noisy and there are things happening. I study the monuments erected in honour of Gen. McAullife and Gen. Patton, both considered heroes. There’s a park that we walk through, finding little signs in celebration of freedom and being liberated everywhere.

The town loses it’s charm and I lose interest. The real goal – the real reason for being here, – is the Mardasson Memorial and the woods between Bastogne (Bizory) and Foy; the ‘Bois Jacques’. So we load ourselves back in the car and take off. Within minutes, we’re on a road, following the signs and the air changes.

I must note – I know I am biased. I’m naturally perceptive, but when biased, I’m especially ‘perceptive’. But it does – the air changes. It’s calm. Serene. Tranquil. Restful. It’s heavy, but in the good way.

I can see the memorial on the top of hill in the distance. It’s almost as if it’s overlooking my arrival. It’s there and I’m here and this is a memory I will most likely never forget.

The first thing I notice it how beautifully quiet it is. It hits me as soon as I get out of the car. I feel the need to whisper and hear my own breathing. I guess it’s one of the perks of travelling off-season, but it’s also a wonderfully picked location. There’s not much on the near horizon, Bastogne looms in the distance about a mile away. It’s green and calm and the air is cool and crisp. The Bastogne War Museum is a modest, humble building and the white letters stand right against the black wall. The just placed statue called ‘the Kiss’ (a sailor kissing a what looks to be nurse) looks odd, a little ‘cartoon-ish’. Behind it looms the star-shaped memorial. I am slowly drawn to it, distracted only temporary by the eagle statue as symbolisation of the sacrifice and heroism of the 101st Airborne Division (nicknamed ‘the Screaming Eagles’, hence the eagle).

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I remember that I take a deep breath when I gaze at it, utterly impressed, deeply humbled and feeling ever so little. I guess that this memorial is so tall because of its history – its history I am somewhat familiar with – and the stories I’ve read, heard and watched. It’s imposing, like a giant. Like a hero. The grey stones carry names that aren’t there. I know,  I imagined them there, for some reason thought them to be there, but they’re not and yet they are. Instead, on the outside they have listed all the states of the US. I circle around slowly, taking my time to get closer. I remember not thinking much, just looking. Looking and breathing.

Looking and breathing – it may sounds stupid, cheesy or sentimental, but I am suddenly aware of what a privilege that is and what an honour it is to be free.

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(A brief impression. Shot handheld because handheld is authentic….)

We must have spent a good 40 minutes circling around, trying to take it all in, gazing up at the names of those States and reading the story that’s carved into the inner pillars. After some time, I have arrived back where I started and sit down on a nearby bench. It’s so peaceful here, I hardly want to leave. Two French-speaking tourists cross the square and one says ‘Thank God, eh? Thank God.’ I can’t help but agree with him, and then thinking ‘No, don’t thank God. Thank those men – the soldiers, the citizens, the women, anyone who had any part or played any role in this war to help and make it stop. Thank them.’

Thank the men, dead and alive, whose names are etched into this memorial even though they’re not.

It’s time to leave. I make a quick visit to the museum and then return to the car. For some reason, I am hardly looking back. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just that I’ve got the feeling I’ll be back here. There’s no need for goodbye’s. Along the way, we stop multiple times to observe the monuments by the side of the road. There’s one specifically for the 101st Airborne (the men from Band of Brothers). I can’t help but feel like a kid when seeing it – not in the cheery, gay kind of way, but like going back to being twelve years old again. I know the Bios Jacques should be close now, but it’s not coming. I worry and start to fret – I know it’s here, it should be here, is it still here? I had read on a forum that the Bios Jacques was now private property and the foxholes therefore no longer available to the public. Some said that they had gone all together. I spot some woods on my right hand side, including a small parking area. There’s a sign with the familiar, big, blue P on it. I stop and my eye catches the sign – I swore I read ‘Band of Brothers’. Sure enough, I found and arrived at the Peace Woods. Across the road, a little further down, lies the Bios Jacques. Though I am tempted to rush towards the famous woods where they overlooked Foy, suffering through artillery, freezing temperatures and very little resources, knowing they had to (re-)capture it, I am drawn into the Peace Woods (the trees planted by UNICEF for the returning veterans of the war) and it is nothing short of it’s name.

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(A brief impression. Shot handheld because handheld is authentic….)

The smell of thick woods is faintly in the air, the light is golden and falling in diffused rays down from between the tree tops, the ground is sometimes covered in vibrant moss, sometimes in nothing but the needles of trees, pines and cones, and there are remnants of snow here and there.

We cross the road and eager to get there, I take the first entry into the Bois Jacques, nearly losing my balance as I step over a oval shaped hole. I joke to myself that it could have been a foxhole and then ridicule myself. I stop dead in my tracks when I spot another hole and then another – three foxholes laid out in a triangle, as if covering the corner of the woods. Imagine looking forward to something and then stepping right over it! It took me about 30 seconds before it all settled in. I was in the Bois Jacques, in Bastogne, in the woods, the weather could not have been more perfect, and there were still foxholes. My phrasing might be poor due to history, but I was like a child so excited. Not in the grinning kind of way, but in the ‘this is actually happening’ kind of way. I wanted to make it to the edge of the forest and see Foy so we head through the woods and I could hardly believe my eyes.

There were foxholes everywhere. Some were remarkably well preserved; deep and solid, properly shaped and intact. Others had been left to the mercy of the weather, animals or mankind, or had only been partially dug out to begin with. It’s a strange thought, to wander in beautiful woods, sunshine falling through the trees, a touch of winter lingering, alive and breathing and knowing fully well that I was standing on ground where men fought and where they died. And with the air so quiet and peaceful, it’s hard to imagine something as brutal and forcefully destructive as war raging on here.

Still, it is quiet and it is peaceful, which is strange considering what happened here. Perhaps that’s the most beautiful thing – that after such loudness, there is quietness.

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It’s well into the afternoon and we’ve got to start thinking about heading back. I decide to take the long road back and then ride the concrete ocean back for as far as we can. I am so full and saturated with all the things I’ve seen today, that I hardly see what we’re driving passed until – hard to miss – we pass a reasonably sized cemetery. I had read there was a burial ground here for British troops and think that this had to be it. My eyes follow the lines of the countless headstones, the grave markers, the crosses that mark the burial place, and it’s hard to phantom how many people would have to die in order to fill the spaces they currently occupy. And this is just a fraction of it. And even those that have been given a proper burial are not everything. Only recently they found remains of German soldiers they suspect fought in the First World War.

When approaching the entrance and the small chapel, I am pleasantly surprised. It is a cemetery for German soldiers, not the British. The other side of the story, the side that for a long time we’ve ignored, then forgotten and some still do up till this day. I cannot help but thank whomever I should thank to throw this across my path. After seeing the ‘Allied side’, seeing the German side offers a wonderful other chapter that completes this story – for now.

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“Though dead, we are not heroes yet, nor can be,
’til the living by their lives which are the tools,
Carve us the epitaph of wise men,
And give us not the epitaph of fools.”
David J. Philips, 506th PIR, 101st Airborne.
The final stanza of a poem on a memorial/marker in front of a large field that was once a Foy American temporary cemetery that served as a resting place for 2,701 American killed in action during the Battle of the Bulge.

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