The “Liberation Route Europe” project has progressed to the point where little more needs to be done than to “connect the dots”. More than 200 remembrance sites – battlegrounds, short memorial trails, monuments and war cemeteries – and other key milestones of WWII’s latter stages, from the preparatory stages of the Normandy invasion to the final battle for Berlin, have been identified and will provide the backbone of a 2000 km long trail across 5 countries. There will be a mobile phone app, a network of associated tour guides plus hostels and even, for those courageous enough to follow this route on foot, stamps to collect for every completion of a stage.
It is planned to have the trail ready by June 2019, in time for the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings, but the “dots” are all there already. And if you cannot wait, here are a few sites from a particularly interesting section of the trail that you can connect for your own personal journey into European history.
Clervaux in northern Luxemburg is a pretty place, with a castle, a medieval abbey and a historic town centre that are well worth a visit in their own right.
But Clervaux was also one of the first places that fell victim to Germany’s last great counter-offensive of WWII, known in English as the Battle of the Bulge.
On the morning of 16 December 1944, the citizens of Clervaux, having been woken up by deafening engine noise in the streets, must have been rubbing their eyes in disbelief: were those really German tanks rolling into their town from the near-by hills? They thought they had seen the last of them in September, having been liberated by US troops on their seemingly unstoppable march from Normandy to Berlin. But now, the Germans were coming back.
More surprisingly perhaps, the town’s US army garrison was just as unprepared. The German counteroffensive had been planned in extreme secrecy, with minimal radio traffic and any preparatory troop movements conducted only at night.
Until then, this had been a very quiet section of the front, which is why the Americans had mainly staffed it with young recruits and battle-weary soldiers on recovery assignments. The troops at Clervaux mainly belonged to a service division: engineers, medics, catering units, that sort of thing. Surprised by the German attack, they withdrew into the castle – where they then provided stiff resistance for two full days.
According to their battle plan, the Germans should have been halfway to Antwerp by then, but instead they were being held up by a bunch of cocktail waiters. One can imagine that the German High Command was less than amused, so they ordered their heaviest artillery into Clervaux which managed to set the castle roof on fire, finally leaving the defenders no alternative but to surrender.
It was small battles like this that slowed down the German advance for long enough to give the Allied forces a chance of regrouping – und ultimately of deciding the larger war in their favour.
In many towns and villages across eastern Belgium and Luxembourg, you can find short memorial trails to commemorate local events. The Schumann’s Eck Memorial Trail, perhaps the most famous and interesting of these memorial walks, starts at the old location of the Café Schumann, before the war a popular countryside inn and beer garden. Caught in the to and fro of advancing and retreating armies, the café was in the end totally destroyed. One corner of the building’s remains has been preserved as a National Monument.
Far more brutal, hand-to-hand combat was taking place in the forest just across the road. On 26 December 1944, Patton’s third US army had relieved the encircled city of Bastogne and was now trying to attack the German besiegers from the rear, but in the way of Patton’s move was the 9th Volksgrenadierdivision.
For two weeks, a bloody battle for this forest ensued, mainly fought from dugouts and foxholes, unstoppable Americans meeting unmovable last-ditch resistance. When the Americans finally took control of the forest on 12 January 1945, thousands of soldiers had lost their lives. It was the deadliest and most desperately fought action in the entire campaign.
Almost everywhere along the 3 km long trail, you can spot the old foxholes on your left and right, ...
... and picture panels give you an impression of how the area would have looked like in the winter of 1945.
Most poignantly, there are the remnants of the Melchior family’s home: in the course of the fighting, the house is said to have changed hands 10 times. After the 10th time, all that was left of it is what you see in front of you. If there is a better metaphor for the futility of war, I would very much like to see it.
And then there is the most heartbreaking way of all to revisit this particular chapter of European history: a tour of military cemeteries. If you go to Hamm in Luxembourg or Margraten in the southern Netherlands, you will see where the US Army has proudly put its dead to rest. These are places of calm and dignity, with monuments, blossoming trees and guides who are eager to bring home the reality of war to a new generation of visitors, now that the generation with first-hand experience of WWII is slowly disappearing over the horizon of history.
The Recogne war cemetery, meanwhile, tells a different story. 7000 German soldiers were buried here, but no-one has been proud of their sacrifice, and modern Germany has for 70 years tried to forget not to remember them.
And since German war graves also identify the year in which these soldiers were born, it is here where the true nature of this or any other war is most clearly revealed: that most of the men who do the fighting are actually not men at all but pimply-faced teenagers.
All wars are “children’s crusades”, in the words of the author Kurt Vonnegut, who himself fought at the Battle of the Bulge when he was barely out of his teens. It was here where he was taken prisoner before being brought to Dresden where he witnessed a different kind of massacre in a different type of “slaughterhouse”. Or, in the words of the man himself: So it goes.
On Memorial Day Sunday, we honour all the fallen!
There are several walks along the Liberation Route Europe that may interest you. Here are some we identified for you.