HFC On Tour: Battle of the Bulge – the Ardennes
Posted by Denny Koch on September 5, 2012
This summer, we decided to tour the Ardennes in Luxembourg and Eastern Belgium. In villages and small towns like Wiltz, Diekirch, Ettelbruck, or St. Vith you can find (official and private) Battle of the Bulge museums and memorials next to medieval castles, monasteries and old churches. The scenery is impressive as well, you find deep valleys, cut by small rivers, surrounded by steep rock formations and dense forests. If you happen to visit the Western Ardennes around Bastogne, you should also consider taking a trip to the Eastern battlefields – here is why 🙂
Our hotel was located in the medieval town of Clervaux (Luxembourg Ardennes), which is a perfect central basis for exploring the surrounding locations.
The small town (app. 1000 inhabitants) is dominated by a massive castle from the 12th century, which also contains a Battle of the Bulge Museum. Clervaux is also famous for a Benedictine monastery on top of a hill above the town. The village is located at the small river Our, lies deep in a rocky valley, and is almost completely surrounded by tree-covered, steep hills.
If you don’t travel by car, Clervaux has a small railway station and you can reach it by train from Luxembourg City or Liege / Belgium. Parking your car isn’t an issue here (in contrast to the difficult and very expensive parking situation in Arnhem!), you can park your car almost everywhere by simply ignoring the no-parking signs because they are of no consequences (a recommendation from our hotel owner, and it proved to be true, we never had any parking problems in any towns in Luxembourg).
From December 16th to 18th, 1944, Clervaux was the scene of heavy fightings during the Battle of Clervaux (which has been referred to as the “Luxembourg Alamo“). American forces from the 110th Regiment and 109th Field Artillery Battalion were encircled by overwhelming German forces from the 5th Panzer Army and 126th Infantry Division, and retreated into the Clervaux castle. In the end, the US forces were forced to surrender when German tanks broke into the already burning castle, but at least they had managed to delay and bind large German forces for two days, thus slowing the German timetable of the time-critical offensive. Clervaux castle was heavily damaged during the battle, and the restoration was not finished until 1994.
In front of the castle are a German 88 artillery and an US Sherman tank which participated in the Battle of Clervaux. There is also a memorial next to the central square of Clervaux, commemorating the liberation of Luxembourg in 1944.
Other interesting sights in Clervaux are the Saint-Maurice and Saint Maur Benedictine Abbey, where you can listen to the Gregorian chants of the monks inside the church several times a day, and the impressive catholic church Saints Cosmas and Damian. In the Abby catacombs is an ongoing exhibition about life at a Benedictine monastery. There is also a golf course in the vicinity (which is rumored to be quite good) and most of the hotels also offer wellness and Ayurveda.
Beware, there is no pulsing nightlife in the quite little town of Clervaux (in contrast to lively Arnhem)! There is a nice restaurant with beer garden in the woods above the city, “Ecuries du Parc“, which is located in the rustic building of the former horse stables of the Earl of Clervaux. Prices for meals are, as everywhere in Luxembourg, quite expensive (compared to prices in Germany), but the restaurant is excellent, as is the beer, and the historical, rustic atmosphere is very enjoyable. Everything in Clervaux is reachable by foot, so there is no need to drive by car from your hotel and you can enjoy the various beers offered here.
Another recommendation for spending your evenings is the Bistro 1895 in our hotel, the Hotel des Nations. It offers good meals, diverse local beers and other drinks, so we drank ourselves through the various Luxembourgian and Belgium beers here. The atmosphere is relaxed and familiar – the hotel and the bistro are family owned since 1895, and the couple who own the hotel will happily tell you about the history of the hotel, their ancestors (who are displayed on family photos on the walls and even on the menu card), and about the good old times in Clervaux.
More Clervaux impressions:
From Clervaux it is about 30 km (18 miles) to the city of Diekirch, the canton capital. Diekirch played a vital role during the Battle of the Bulge; here the 5th US Infantry Division crossed the river Sour on January 18th, 1945.
With 6000 inhabitants, it is the largest city in the region (“large” is relative in Luxembourg, of course) and even has a small pedestrian zone. What is more important, though, is Diekirch’s main attraction (besides a large brewery which brews Luxembourg’s famous Diekirch beer): The National Museum of Military History.
This museum is the official national Museum of the Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg, and despite the fact that it is heavily centered around the Battle of the Bulge, it also contains other aspects of the Luxembourg military, for example the Korean War, KFOR missions in former Yugoslavia, and the Luxembourg military today. A section is dedicated to the Luxembourgian trauma of Tambow 188, a Russian POW camp where 1004 Luxembourgian forced recruits from the German Wehrmacht were interned under horrible conditions.
The Catholic church of Diekirch is built on ancient Roman foundations; unfortunately, it is currently closed due to restoration works, so we couldn’t visit this famous location.
There is also a small park at the Sour river, and a Brewery Museum. The Diekirch brewery dominates the town (easily recognized by a large beer glass on top of a high factory building), and you can find signs, ads, and Diekirch beer all over Luxemburg and even in the Belgium border region.
In addition, Diekirch is the base of the Luxembourg Army (a 1000 soldier-strong all-voluntary force).
Luxembourg in World War II
Luxembourg was attacked and conquered by Germany in 1940, without any resistance, because Luxembourg only held a small voluntary corps and no regular army.
National socialist propaganda then tried to integrate Luxembourg into the Reich by declaring that the Luxembourgian language was only a German dialect and that the Luxembourgian people were actually a German tribe. They prohibited the use of the common French language (which is the main language spoken today everywhere in Luxembourg, besides Luxembourgian which is difficult to understand for Germans), and even forced people to change their French names into the German counterparts (for example, Henri became Heinrich). French names of locations and towns were changed into German, so Clervaux became Klerf.
The Luxembourgian press was strictly controlled by German propaganda, and the population was heavily oppressed and intimidated by the Gestapo. Ten thousand Luxembourgian young men were forced to join the Wehrmacht and sent to the Eastern Front (where it was difficult to explain to the Russians that they were actually no Germans but forced recruits from Luxembourg).
Because of the Luxembourgian resistance and the general reluctance of the population to “embrace” German culture, drumhead court-martial was installed. Entire families were relocated to Silesia or other Eastern parts of Germany, while Nazi-conform families from Eastern and Southern Europe were sent to Luxembourg to repopulate the empty houses.
Luxembourg was heavily damaged during World War II. By the end of the war, 1/3 of all houses were destroyed, many inhabitants had been arrested, deported, or killed.
More information about the German occupation of Luxembourg can be found here.
National Museum of Military History
The National Museum of Military History is a large museum which extends over several levels. In front of the museum are several tanks and guns as well as some dragon teeth from the Siegfried Line (you can find more information about those in our travellog from the Huertgen Forest we toured last year).
The museum is open daily from 10 am – 6 pm. The entrance fee is 5€ (3€ for students and military people in uniform, free for WWII veterans and Disabled). Optional multilingual audio guides are available. The museum is multilingual; most of the information panels are in French, German, and English. The museum shop offers a large selection of (original!) remains of the Battle of the Bulge, for example rusted equipment, shrapnel, and parts of bombs and ammunition as well as unit badges, books, DVDs, mugs, and toys.
The museum is in a very good shape, very clean and well sorted. The exhibits are well-arranged and often integrated into quite dramatic, authentic dioramas. One section, for example, is dark and covered with artificial snow, which conveys a quite authentic winter atmosphere.
The main hall, on the other hand, is stuffed with vehicles and equipment and strongly reminded us of the Technology Museum in Speyer. You can spend many hours in this museum because there is so much to see!
Some more impressions from the Diekirch Museum (for tons of pics, visit our photo gallery!):
After visiting Diekirch, we drove to Ettelbrück, also known as “The Patton Town” (7 km / 4.3 miles away). The entire town is dedicated to General George S. Patton – but the main attractions are the “Patton Square” with several memorials, and a General Patton Memorial Museum.
Ettelbrück was first liberated by the US forces in September 1944, then the Germans retook the town during the Battle of the Bulge. On Christmas 1944, General Patton liberated the town again. Each year in July, the city remembers the day of liberation with a large celebration.
Patton Square is a small park with a 3 meter / 9 feet high central statue of General Patton. In addition, there are an US Sherman tank and several memorials for Patton and for the people of Ettelbruck. The square was swarming with US tourists, and especially the Patton statue is a popular photo motif.
It’s a short walk from Patton Square to the Patton Museum, located in the center of the small town of Ettelbruck. The entrance fee is 5€.
The museum is centered around the Battle of the Bulge, but offers additional information about General Patton (even childhood photos) and has an interesting, large section of documents, photos, and propaganda posters which are presented in an informative and good didactic fashion. Civil life in Luxembourg during the Nazi occupation is another important focus of the museum, so it differs strongly from the military-centered museum in Diekirch.
There are, of course, the usual collections of weapons, ammunition, equipment, vehicles from the Battle of the Bulge, as well as a room dedicated to aircraft parts from Lancaster bombers. By offering a different focus, both museums complement each other quite good and should be visited in turn.
More impressions from Ettelbrück (and, as usual, much more impressions in our photo gallery!)
Esch sur Sûre
On our way from Ettelbruck to Wiltz we stopped in the small medieval town of Esch sur Sûre, in a steep valley at the river Sour. There where no heavy fightings in this village during the Battle of the Bulge because the town was liberated by US forces in September 1944 and never retaken.
Nevertheless, it’s a nice old Ardennes town and only a small detour, so you might consider to visit the town for a cup of coffee and piece of cake and enjoy the wilderness of the rocky Ardennes. Esch lies in the heart of a National Park and is popular among tourists for a nearby reservoir, the Upper Sûre Lake, which allows sailing, kayaking and fishing, and tours with a solar boat. In addition, the dramatic shale cliffs are an impressive sight. The town sits on a spur of a land within a sharp meander of the river Sour.
Above the village is an old castle ruin, dating back to the year 927, which can be climbed. It offers a great view over the Sour valley. The streets within the medieval town are so small that most of them are impassable by car. Often, you have to climb steps to reach a higher street. The old catholic church is also worth a visit.
More Esch impressions:
Especially famous among (Advanced) Squad Leader players is the small city of Wiltz (known from the classic scenario “Road to Wiltz”).
Wiltz is located at the Sour river and dominated by the old Wiltz castle. The castle dates back to 1727 and has hundreds of rooms and large gardens and parks. Inside the caste is a Battle of the Bulge and a beer museum. At the entrance to the town, in a parking lot named Martyr Square, you can find a Sherman tank.
Today, the city is of transregional importance because of the famous annual Wiltz open-air festival at the castle. During the festivals, operas like Aida or musicals like West Side Story (in the original English version) are on stage here. Wiltz is also a center for the international scouting movement.
During World War II, Wiltz became known as the “Martyr Town” because the population organized a general strike in 1942 which soon spread across the entire country. The Nazi government stamped down the resistance and punished the Wiltz population with heavy repressions. Today, a memorial remembers this significant moment of resistance in Luxembourgian history.
All over Wiltz, especially in the museum and on a monument outside the castle, you can find the “Blood Bucket” insignia of the US 28th infantry division, which played a vital role in the liberation of the city.
The museum in the Wiltz castle is small, but well worth a visit – the location inside the historical building is interesting and conveys a special atmosphere. The entrance fee is 2,50€ and the staff is very friendly and helpful.
There are some curiosities in the museum, for example a boat made out of a bomb shell, or everyday objects (like ash-trays and bookends) made from rifle cartridges. There are also paintings in all rooms of the museum, showing destroyed and burning Luxemburg towns and cities. This, combined with the thick old walls and creaking floor panels of the old castle, is an exciting experience.
Some Wiltz impressions:
The Luxembourgian town of Weiswampach lies in the tri-border region of Luxembourg, Belgium, and Germany. There is a Lancaster Memorial, remembering the crews of two Lancaster bombers which were shot down here.
Besides this, the city is mostly famous for a large shopping center and lots of filling stations. In Germany and Belgium, gasoline is incredibly expensive (currently, a gallon costs 6.43€, that’s 8.07$!). In comparison to this, gasoline is cheap in Luxembourg (4.99€ a gallon, or 6.05$), so many people from the border region drive to Weiswampach and fill their cars there.
The shopping center is specialized in goods which are also expensive in Germany and Belgium, due to special taxes, for example alcohol, coffee, and tobacco products. It has a large selection of Scottish whisky (and a smaller selection of American, Canadian, Irish and international Whiskeys), and each other alcoholic beverage you can think of, so we stopped here to fill our car and to buy whisk(e)y.
Then, we moved on to Belgium towards St. Vith. Despite the fact that we went here in July, the weather was very cold and unfriendly. It was wet and rainy most of the time because of the micro-climate within the steep, rocky valleys and dense forests in the Ardennes. When we reached St. Vith, it was 12°C (53.6 F) which is quite cold for July in Central Europe (July last year in Arnhem in the Netherlands, we had around 24°C/75.2 F, and in July two years ago, when we were in the Imperial City of Speyer in Germany, it was 40°C/104 F).
St. Vith suffered heavy damage during World War II – it was first invaded by Germany in 1940 and annexed. In August 1944, the church and central station where bombed by Allied bombers and destroyed. US forces liberated the city in September 1944. The German Ardennes offensive began in December 1944 with an attack on the city of St. Vith and before Christmas, German forces regained control over the city. On Christmas 1944, St. Vith was almost completely destroyed (90% of the buildings) by an allied bombing raid with countless dead civilians and over 1000 dead soldiers. The reconstruction of St. Vith was not finished until the late 1960s.
Today, large photo plates next to a small fountain on a central square in St. Vith show the destruction of the city. At the entrance to the town is a memorial site for the 106th US Infantry.
There is no Battle of the Bulge museum in central St. Vith, but 8 km outside the town, there is the (private) Poteau’44 museum, located at the site of the former Poteau battlefield in the Belgium Ardennes.
More St. Vith impressions:
The museum is located in a rural heath area, next to a lonely country road, in an old building which was the former customs house at the Prussian – Belgium border. It was destroyed and burned down during the war, but rebuilt (burnt boards are still visible in the museum). It is maintained by Rob and Jacqueline de Ruyter, a Dutch couple from Arnhem, who restored the vehicles and equipment themselves. This is certainly an ambitious private museum with an interesting private collection. The entrance fee is quite expensive (6€ per adult), but since this is a private museum in a historical building, which has to be maintained, this is certainly okay. You need a car to get there because the museum is located in a very remote rural area without any public transportation.
At the entrance, visitors get a handout in the language of their choice (English, German, Dutch, French) which serves as a tour guide through the museum, describing the exhibits and pointing out interesting details while conveying background information about the Battle of the Bulge. It appears very handmade, but also very personal and the texts are written with heart’s blood, so moving through the museum with
this folder in your hand is at least a very uncommon experience.
The museum begins with a small expo about World War I and the Imperial Era. Uniforms and equipment are displayed in dioramas with mannequins.
A large hall is dedicated to the battles around St. Vith and Malmedy and shows historical vehicles, equipment, and more scenes with German and US soldiers.
At the end of the hall is a small television room where you can watch short German and US propaganda films about the Battle of the Bulge.
Behind the museum is grassland where the cupola of a tank, perforated with bullet holes, is located. There is also a picnic site next to the tank where you can enjoy the quiet, rural landscape.
Some impressions from the museum (more in our photo gallery, of course!)
Poteau Ambush site
From the picnic site it’s a short walk through the heath until you reach the Poteau ambush site. It is marked with an information panel and a small memorial. Here, the US 14th Cavalry Group was ambushed on the road between Poteau and Recht by the German 1st SS Panzerdivision “Kampfgruppe Hansen” on December 18, 1944.
Some of the most famous photos from the Battle of the Bulge were taken here, during this ambush, by German propaganda. The pictures and films then fell into US hands, so many persons on the photo were never identified by name, but the pictures are widely known and became some of the most “typical” or iconic photographs of the Battle of the Bulge.
Foxholes, dug by the US soldiers, are still visible in the forests next to the road.
More photos from the ambush site:
The Southern and Eastern Ardennes are well worth a visit; you can find many interesting locations in a relatively small area, rustic towns in steep valleys, surrounded by dense forests and impressive rock formations. Museums, memorials, and remnants of the Battle of the Bulge (for example tanks) can be found in various places.
This year, our focus laid on the Southern Ardennes in Luxembourg, but we will certainly visit the area around Bastogne and Houffalize in one of our next tours, as well as Malmedy, where another famous museum is located.
It was a great trip (except for the cold and damp weather), and we can highly recommend an excursion to the Luxembourg Ardennes if you are in the area. It’s not too far from Bastogne and the country is so small with short distances that you will be able to visit many famous and interesting locations in a short time.
People in Luxembourg are friendly and helpful, and despite the fact that French is the main language spoken in large parts of the Ardennes, you will always find your way around even if you don’t speak this language. After a while, the Bonjours and Merci comes naturally to you 😉
Using a car for the tour is recommended (especially if you want to visit Poteau), but Ettelbruck, Diekirch, Clervaux, and Wiltz also have railway stations and can be reached by public transport (you need to bring more time, of course). Parking isn’t a problem, sometimes you have to pay a small fee for a parking lot, but this is nothing compared to the horrible parking situation in Arnhem. Most of the time, you can ignore no-parking signs, and the ticket machine in the parking garage in Wiltz is chronically out-of-order.
Photos can be taken freely in all museums (sometimes, you should avoid using flashlight). Overall, Luxembourg is a very relaxed country.