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Stories

Sad souvenirs or life of the people of Stavelot during the winter of 1944-1945

Sad souvenirs or life of the people of Stavelot
during the winter of 1944-1945 
 
The author:

Mister Guy Lebeau spent his youth in Stavelot, Belgium.  His youth was characterized by the dark years of the war, especially by the battle of Stavelot during the winter of 1944-1945.

Of these tragic events he saved written souvenirs he decided to entrust to us with a view to an adaptation and publication in our newsletter.

“More than 70 publications in French deal with the Battle of the Bulge.  But also in the United States of America, in England and in Germany a lot of books on this subject have been published over the years.  All of them mainly describe the military operations. With the exception of the massacres, seldom is spoken of the hard life the civilians had to face.  That’s the reason why I, utterly without pretensions, simply wanted to describe the events the people of Stavelot have gone through.  The actors are those who in terrible circumstances simply did their civic duty by helping their fellow man in one way or another.  Despite the danger, they all acted of their own free will without reclaiming whatsoever.  At that time nobody to my knowledge got the idea to keep a diary.

It was in the fifties that I drew up notes about those bad souvenirs so that they wouldn’t be erased from my memory.  These notes were forgotten on the bottom of a drawer for more than forty years before reappearing during a moving.  What I describe is what really happened.  The only thing I could be blamed for is that I perhaps have forgotten some details or that I’ve confused certain dates or that I’m not always sure of the exact hours.  After sixty years memory can become faint indeed.  I also want to make clear that this story is not complete or exclusive at all: everybody who lived in Stavelot at that time could have told his own story.

Before starting my personal story and the stories of other dedicated citizens, I want to mention some feats of brave men and women I would like to honor here, unfortunately for some of them posthumously.

Whole war long Edmond Klein, a farmer in Houvegné-Francheville, helped escaped prisoners to get through Belgium.  He provided them with false papers, civilian clothes and traveling expenses.  When the offensive in the Ardennes started, after the liberation of September 1944, Edmond had nothing forgotten of his struggle for liberty.  At the beginning of the German attack, a group of US soldiers who were lost and hunted down by the Nazis, came to his isolated farm to get shelter.  Being aware that the place of shelter was insecure and the risk of being captured real, Edmond didn’t hesitate one moment and guided the GI’s throughout the woods so that they could reach the American lines in Petit-Thier.  Back in Houvegné, he discovered a second group in the same circumstances and did it all over again.  General Eisenhower, the supreme chief of the allied armies, congratulated and thanked him personally.

During the whole Battle of the Bulge the Gaspar de Wanne brothers undertook dangerous missions behind the German lines to watch the enemy’s movements.  Afterwards they transmitted the information to the US staff that used it for their counteroffensive in January 1945.

But let’s return to Stavelot. While the Germans surrounded the town, Mrs. Cottin-Schutz, whose husband was a prisoner in a Stalag, and who lived with her four little children in the Rue Neuve, saw an upset, lost en demoralized GI in the Chemin des Pré-Secours who held a white handkerchief in his hands and who without any doubt wanted to surrender.  Not caring about the danger, Mrs. Cottin hided the soldier while the Germans made progress in Stavelot.  Nothing could keep them from ransacking the houses and in case they would find the GI, the woman, her children and the soldier would be massacred.

Another action was that of Mister Alfred Buche, an employee of the electricity company of Bressaix.  In order to help civilians, being stuck in extremely bad conditions in the cellars of the milk factory on the left bank of the Amblève River, he managed under the fire of the enemy to operate the valves of the sluice and to reduce the water level so that the unfortunate people could ford the river to go and hide in a safer place, the cellars of the abbey.

There’s also that courageous deed of four citizens of Stavelot who, during the night from December 17th to the 18th, Route du Vieux Château, transported a wounded American soldier at the risk of their lives.  The man urgently needed medical help and ought to be evacuated by an ambulance.  If he should stay on the left bank of the river, the danger of being captured by the SS was real and one can imagine what they would have done to him.  So Mrs. Berthe Beaupain, Gustave Beaupain, Marcel Ozer and Louis Van Lancker took the courageous decision to evacuate him to the hospital.  There to they laid him on an improvised stretcher, hid him under a blanket and crossed the bridge in the midst of the German infantry that, taking advantage of a calm in the combats for the bridge, progressed towards the centre of the town.

I want to end this tribute with a little known story.  When the offensive started, Mister Paul Godin, 20 years old and a college student, wasn’t in Stavelot.  Hearing about the events and knowing that the battle would cause a lot of civilian victims, he tried to return to his town where all help would be more than welcome.  During his journey he found himself in the middle of the hostilities, somewhere between Coo and Trois-Ponts, and was hit in the leg by a bullet.  He had to creep for hundreds of meters before finding a shelter where he was taken care of and evacuated.  The wound was really bad and had serious consequences for Paul Godin: for the rest of his life he had to bear a prosthesis”.

After having recalled some figures of Stavelot, Mister Lebeau tells his souvenirs of September 1944

“In 1944 I lived in Stavelot on the main road to Trois-Ponts.  In September we expected our liberation.  While the Wehrmacht was withdrawing to the east, we were surprised seeing pass by a convoy going in the opposite direction.  This convoy was composed of equipment I’d never seen before and although I can’t remember the exact date of this event (September 3rd or 4th) it is indelibly printed in on my memory, especially because of the unusual speed.  We saw vehicles pass by towing long cigars camouflaged by means of gaudy covers.  They were accompanied by other vehicles carrying a cylindrical object with the axle in an upright position.  The diameter of the object was larger than its height.  It had the shape of a cauldron on four wheels and was also camouflaged by means of a cover.  Smelling white steam escaped from a valve.  We didn’t realize it was a V-2 passing by.  Mind you, that new type of buzz bomb was totally unknown to the general public.  In the same period that strange convoy has been seen in Grand-Halleux, a few days before September 12th, day of the liberation of Stavelot.  I also remember having seen the same long trailers returning to the east, but this time they were empty.  At the time such vehicles were rare, so they easily attracted attention.

Some years later I learned that those V-2’s were brought to Gouvy (to be more specific, to a place between Gouvy and Sterpigny) where the first operational launch of this secret weapon took place.  Paris was their target and the blast-off happened on September 8th.

The liberation of Stavelot took place on September 12th. The town was liberated by elements of the First US Army.  I was seventeen at that time.  It was a joyful, euphoric day, the finest Tuesday of my life, unforgettable hours for the population.  We got back our freedom and got to know those great boys, those GI’s who had come from so far and who continuously chewed their chewing-gum.  Those gymnastics of the jaws were totally unknown to us.  Beside the joy we had, we also were overawed by the equipment of the US Army.  Especially those peculiar vehicles, called “Jeeps”, intrigued us very much.  There was a glaring contrast with the shabby equipment of the Germans; in the withdrawing columns often was seen that horses towed guns!  For three months it was the euphoria of regained liberty.  According to his means everybody expressed his gratitude to the liberators in his own way.  Every family received US soldiers at home.  Some stayed with the occupant or spent the night at his home after service; so they found again familiar ambience they had been missing so long.  Our population discovered chewing-gum, Lucky Strikes and Chesterfields, as well as Nescafe, etc.  It needn’t be said that, after five long years of being abstained from everything, this liberation made an end to the grayness we had known during the occupation.

Some people thought war would be over soon.  The front was at about 30 kilometers but that seemed very far to us. Even the flying over of V-1’s didn’t impress us any longer.  “The Reich is going to collapse, our American friends are too strong”, that was the state of mind that inspired us at the end of 1944.

Unfortunately this situation was precarious and soon our joy changed into pain.  Stavelot and the whole Ardennes were about to go through very sad moments.  Was it a kind of a warning, but one Sunday afternoon, if I’m not mistaken it was at the end of November, an aircraft of the Luftwaffe dropped two bombs who fell east of and on the Chemin du Château?  One of them badly damaged the house of Mr. and Mrs. Renard-Pepin.

This house was situated at the edge of the woods alongside the road that leads to Somagne.  Mrs. Renard, who was alone at that moment, was flung out of the house and found herself in the garden, very bruised but miraculously without serious injuries.  The only victim to deplore was the cat.  This bombardment was absolutely unexpected. Allied aerial superiority was so great that nobody could imagine to see back a German airplane in the skies of Stavelot.  Was this a warning?  By far we weren’t thinking trouble would come over us…”

Saturday 16th of December

Malmedy was bombarded by heavy German artillery.  This news causes a certain emotion among the population.

Sunday 17th of December

At about eight o’clock our family is on its way to church to go to Sunday’s Mass.  We are surprised to see two GI’s standing guard at ten meters from our house near a machine gun that is aimed at Trois-Ponts in the southwest.  This hastily and imperfectly improvised roadblock alarms us.  Why aiming a weapon at the southwest when the front is in the east?  At this early hour it’s calm in the street and there’s no traffic.  In his book “Stavelot Cité Héroïque et Martyre”  Laurent Lombard mentions a similar deployment at the bridge on the Amblève River that same Sunday morning; that could mean that the roads to Malmedy and Francorchamps were defended in the same way.  Returning home towards 9.30 Hrs, we notice that the GI’s and the roadblock have disappeared.  Towards 10.30 Hrs. US tanks, coming from Francorchamps or Malmedy, set out for Trois-Ponts.  All day long the march of the 7th Armored Division will continue.

Sunday 17th, between 14 and 17 Hrs

At the time the garrison of Stavelot was composed of non fighting units, such as maintenance, quartermasters, engineers, depot and workshop personnel, military police, etc.  Except for the MP all these units evacuated.  German paratroopers would have been dropped in the region, west of Stavelot.  We were overcome by a feeling of concern and insecurity.  Bad events seemed to develop.

Sunday 17th towards 18 Hrs.

Belgian civilians loaded with baggage and coming from the east announce that the Germans are coming back!  Is this possible?  The mayor, Arnold Godin, imposes a curfew.

Sunday 17th towards 20 Hrs.

The “Krauts” are in Lodomez (although this expression nowadays sounds insulting, at the time it reflected the feelings of all, so it’s at its place in the context of this story).  We bring mattresses, blankets, clothes and food downstairs to the cellar where we install for the night.  At that moment we didn’t know we would have to stay there for several days.

Sunday 17th during the evening

In the relative calm at the beginning of the night it seems to us hearing gunshots.  Very worried we try to get some sleep, but we can’t.

Monday 18th, between 0 and 4 Hrs.

Electricity is cut off.  A few detonations are heard.

Monday 18th towards 5 Hrs.

The noise of fighting and explosions is coming closer.  An alarming glow is seen in the far side of town.

Monday 18th towards 7 Hrs.

Fighting gets fiercer.  We can see how flares are shot from the heights of the town, right bank, in the direction of the Vieux Château where the Germans are.

Monday 18th towards 8 Hrs.

Several fires rage through the far side of town and along the road to the Vieux Château.  It’s dawning, there are low clouds and sky is grey.  Here we can make mention of an anecdote told by my friend Louis Pasteger.  Given his past of having been a resistant, at daybreak Louis just having left his house, Rue Haute, saw several MP’s covering relative young men.  They wore civilian clothes concealing German uniforms.  From this we can deduce that the “5th column” (a group of spies and saboteurs; later it became clear that these commandos had been formed by and placed under the command of SS Hauptsturmführer Otto Skorzeny) had infiltrated into Stavelot during the night from the 17th to the 18th.  Louis didn’t know what happened next to the disguised prisoners.

 
Rue Haute in December 1944. The right spot (on the left side) where the German prisoners were lined up .(Photo NARA)

The front of the house after the events (Photo J. Jacob)
Monday 18th of December towards 10 Hrs.

German tanks pass by our house and fire at the façade with their machine guns. We are very worried.  I venture to take a quick glance through the cellar window and see a soldier with the upper part of his body outside the open cupola of his tank.  An alarming perception: when a soldier shows himself like this, it means that he doesn’t fear enemy fire and that he is in conquered territory.  We feel abandoned and isolated.  How in God’s name is it possible?  How can an army as strong as the US Army withdraw for troops who fled in disarray only three months ago?  Our joy had been short-lived!  Has the great dream of liberty already ended?

Nevertheless, later in the afternoon when the sky was clearing up, airplanes of the US Air Force nose-diving attacked the enemy convoy that was dispersed between Trois-Ponts and Stavelot and between the Vieux Château and La Vaulx-Richard.  Their successive attacks seemed to last two hours.  Hurray!  Our morale gets better!  The “Krauts” won’t overthrow our liberators that easily

The nice farm of Lodomez after the events
In Lodomez after Air Force's strafing.
Monday 18th in the afternoon

We conclude our house has been damaged and then, happy surprise, US infantry troops enter with their rifles at the ready.  They’re men of the 30thInfantry Division; they reoccupy the terrain and they’re searching for Germans.  In spite of the noise of the fighting everywhere around us and the danger we’re relieved knowing friendly soldiers are there at last.  Towards 16 Hrs. we perceive shell explosions: Stavelot is shelled by American artillery.

House's back. The arrow shows the shell's point of impact. The family was hidden in the basement (under the letter "A") (Photo Jean Jacob)
Monday 18th from 20 till 24 Hrs.

Vehicles pass by in the direction of Trois-Ponts.  Apparently they are German vehicles.  The bombardments of the US artillery continue, shells fall almost everywhere in Stockeu, at the far end of town, close to our house… This continuous shelling is very nerve-racking.  We can’t fall asleep, all the time there’s that fear of getting killed and our prayers are a substitute for an impossible sleep.  The shelling has lasted till the early hours of the 19th; that night nearly 3000 shells hit Stavelot.  US batteries were positioned in the valley of the Eau Rouge River near Francorchamps.  Battle raged, shells fell, explosions continued, we were convinced of getting killed one moment or another.  A heavy explosion on the first floor shook the house.  We went on praying when my father said this invocation: “O Lord, thy will be done, not ours!”.  An infernal noise and an intense red glare, immediately followed by a hot blast.  Air couldn’t be breathed because clouds of dust from bricks spread in the room and suffocated us.  We were deaf, our ears whistled.  For some time, I cannot say how long it was, I thought I was dead.  While the bombardment continued, one of us, willing to stay alive, cried: “Let’s run from here, otherwise we will all be killed”.  Without thinking, we’ve followed him and left the house imprudently, running as fast as we could to the Rue Neuve.  When we rushed past a Sherman, a soldier opened the cupola and followed our noisy run with an intrigued look.  We didn’t realize we took serious risks.  The characteristic sound of automatic weapons came from the upper end of the street, undoubtedly from the sawmill.  During the repairs of the house we found a piece of a shell (a deformed tube with a diameter of 150 mm and a length of 50 cm), badly exploded, that was stuck in a wall.

Sketch A: dud's remnants found back into the wall (Guy Lebeau's drawing)
Wednesday 20th in the afternoon

It still was day when we left our house.  We descended running the deserted Rue Neuve.  All the people of Stavelot were hiding in their cellars.  We arrived at Mister Lemaire’s (nowadays at Dominique Chauveheid’s, a physiotherapist) and hurried to a vaulted cellar, the type of cellar you can find in old houses.  We hid there with 16 persons, packed together on only a few square meters.  We could only stand under the keystone.  If the loamy house should be set ablaze it would be difficult to evacuate it.  After the war my mother reminded me of her concern when she entered that house: “This will be our grave”.  For six days we’ve lived there, all the time in a lying posture.  The very relative lighting came from two oil lamps the master of the house had knocked together.  They were made from jars of jelly with a conic form, filled with water on which floated a layer of oil, about one centimeter thick.  A plate in cork served as the float and through it stuck a wick.  The lamplight was rather weak; the flame produced a stinking smoke that filled the room, depositing black soot on the faces of the sleepers.  During their sleep they automatically wiped their faces which had a comic effect, all those striped faces.

Sketch B: jar of jam turned into a light spot
From Wednesday 20th till Saturday 23rd of December

We stayed in the shelter of this cellar without leaving, except for those few moments to go to the first floor to relieve ourselves and to fetch some potatoes.  Concern sometimes substitutes hunger.

From Saturday 23rd till Monday 25th.

Things seem to normalize for the Allies.  US soldiers, walking around with their rifles slung over their shoulders, are seen in the streets of Stavelot.  The “Krauts” have been stopped on the left bank of the Amblève River and the bridge is destroyed what makes that a new breakthrough of the enemy is impossible.

Monday 25th of December, a sad Christmas

Towards 8.30 Hrs. I go to church together with my father and brother to attend the Christmas service celebrated by Chaplain Lecrenier. I served at Mass. There weren’t many people to attend Mass, American soldiers sat among the civilians. During Mass several shells exploded, the Germans didn’t comply with the Christmas’ truce. In the entry hall of the former Banque du Crédit Anversois (next door J. H. Meys, at the Place Grandprez), Reverend Balthazar, a religion teacher at the Athénée, celebrated the three traditional Masses served by Alfred Lemaire. Amongst the inhabitants of the district who attended Mass, there were the unlucky parents of Julien Gengoux who was massacred by the SS exactly 7 days before. A few GI’s attended piously worship. It was a sad Christmas for these American soldiers who were so far from home. For us, people of Stavelot, things weren’t better because many didn’t have a house anymore, or even worse, members of their family had been massacred or killed during the fights.

Civilians looking for a shelter into the Town Hall basements (Photo NARA)
From 26th of December 1944 till 14th of January 1945

At that time the Amblève River practically made up the front line.  The town is solidly held by the US soldiers.  Civilians feel safe in spite of the danger that represents a combat zone.  Morale is better than the days before and the faith in victory, even still far away, inspires them even when the front is at about 350 meters, or at only 75 meters from the cellars of the abbey where a lot of people of Stavelot have found a shelter.  All that’s left behind on the right bank are German corpses, prisoners or members of Skorzeny’s commandos who got lost.  It’s at that time that life in town seems to become reorganized.  On the other hand the situation stayed very difficult, even dangerous for the inhabitants of the left bank and for the hamlets east of Stavelot which were still in the hands of the SS.”

Here ends the chronological part of Mister Lebeau’s story.  What follows are loose souvenirs, badly situated in time, but most of them must be placed in the period that comes after the fights on the right bank.

Deliberately I spread out my story over a relative long period.  I can’t possibly appoint a precise date for the events I describe hereafter.  As I already said, nobody kept a diary. When you are seventeen it’s difficult to stay inside the house, you want to make yourself useful.  There were plenty of occasions to do so.  At that time, the Banque Générale was in the Rue Neuve.  Its director, Mister Charles Grodent, was also the president of the local Red Cross department.  In the entry hall of his bank he set up a centre for the distribution of foods to the population.

People standing in a queue for food. Rue Haute. (Photo NARA)

Practically all men younger than 30 years had left Stavelot when they heard the German army was coming back.  It was their duty.  Only a few youngsters, for different reasons, had stayed. In the nature of things a marvelous movement of solidarity and devotion came into being amongst the people of Stavelot.  This resulted in forming a team of volunteers who helped the population.  I mention a few names I know by heart (pardon me if I’ve forgotten some):  Mister Grodent, René Collin (coalman), Collette (who owned a horse), René Petit (cobbler), Philémon Chauveheid (printer), Edouard Wetz (butcher and restaurant owner), Masson (plasterer), Villers (baker), Remacle (baker), Jean Wetz, Paul Wetz and André Crespin (all three students), Roland Lambert whose father had been massacred by the SS.

Their work couldn’t be done without the useful help of a small detachment of Civil Affairs, the American unit that had the assignment to assist civilian populations and to ensure the administration where the local authorities had shortcomings, but that wasn’t the case in Stavelot.  A sergeant named Norman, a lawyer in his state and speaking French fluently, was in command of this detachment composed of three men at the most.  At nightfall they returned to Spa and came back early in the morning, the trailer of their Jeep loaded with provisions and medicaments that were handed over to the population via the centre of distribution.  Norman was a sympathetic fellow, calm, polite and helpful.  He performed his humanitarian action conscientiously; I want to honor him for his work. Without his two men and their vehicle the transport of the important stock of food from La Borzeux would have been impossible.  At that place a home for the children of prisoners of war has been installed in the Château Serstevens (there was also one in the Château des Rochettes).  The children had been evacuated but the food reserves of the two homes were left behind at the caretaker’s of La Borzeux.  There was flour, sugar, syrup, pickled herring, as well as potatoes, canned vegetables, etc.  It took several days to bring these treasures to town, the flour was handed to the bakers Remacle and Villers.  The “Krauts” had noticed the coming and going of the Jeep and shot at it.  Roland Lambert narrowly escaped being hit, at only a few centimeters from him a bag of flour was drilled through by a bullet (by the way, later it was found by the baker).

The supply of meat didn’t cause serious problems.  Cows which had escaped from their stables were wandering around, desperate and famished, because the ground was covered with snow (the first time it snowed on the battlefield of Stavelot was on the 30th of December); I recall having seen one wandering around at the Place du Marché.  You only had to catch them. Mister Edouard Wetz slaughtered them and chopped them up in the shed at Masson’s.  Then the meat was distributed to the population at Wansart’s butcher’s shop, at the corner of the Rue Neuve and the Rue Hottonruy, under the guidance of Philémon Chauveheid who noted down in a register the number of sold kilos and collected the money in order to compensate the owners afterwards thanks to a number that identified each animal.  Rations were distributed according to the number of people that lived in a family and never there was any contest.”

A trip to Challes

Not being members of the International Red Cross we weren’t allowed to bear the brassard of this organization in order to get (relative) protection, as we all thought.  Norman, the sergeant of Civil Affairs, had refused to give us a passage or anything else that would have been helpful during our movements.  His refusal was justified by his concern about our safety.  In case of a hardly likely arrest by a German patrol, the fact of carrying documents issued by the US Army could have serious consequences.  The supply of milk was a daily problem for the young mothers and the few farmers who lived in town, such as Mister Meys and Depouhon, couldn’t be satisfactory.

Mister Grodent asked us to go to Challes, at Lecomte’s farm, where we would be handed 20 liters of milk.  The hamlet of Challes is within a stone’s throw from the Amblève River and is dominated by the hill of Vieux Château that was held by the Germans.  In order to avoid the common way along the river, we crossed a pasture that was snowed under.  Quickly my friend André Crespin and I were shot at with an automatic weapon.  Our silhouettes clearly stood out against the white of the snow and were perfect targets.  Youthful recklessness and levity!  While we were walking past a deciduous forest branches fell on and beside us and then we heard detonations of automatic weapons coming from the other bank.  Instinctively we covered. André said “It’s nothing, they’re only lost bullets” and I answered in Walloon “Goddamn, there are lots of!”  We went on creeping, one pulling the sledge, the other the jar and finally arrived at the farm.  There stood a GI, not reassuring at all, with his weapon aimed at us.  We’ve fallen on an outpost of the US Infantry.  We were arrested as suspects.  Returning to Stavelot was out of the question!  After several contacts by means of a field telephone we can finally return to our beloved town, making a detour via Chefosse.  For some moments we’ve followed the right bank of the Eau Rouge and then we continued our march throughout snow covered meadows, creeping under enclosures, stepping over ditches, pulling our useless sled, carrying the jar.  We are drenched, are shoes and socks are wet through; our feet and legs are benumbed with cold.  I have a nasty fall and I lose a part of our precious liquid.  When we think we’ve arrived at last, a GI lies in wait for us at the crossing of the roads to Challes and Malmedy.

We understand he ordered us to precede him to the house of Degbomont in the Avenue Nicolay.  The house is occupied by soldiers.  We must give our names; we explain who we are in a mishmash of French and English: “We Red Cross.  We Civil Affairs. Milk for baby;…”  Once again phone calls are made and finally Norman himself arrives to explain the whole situation which had caused great concern to us.  We had made the whole trip at the risk of our lives and under the suspicion of conspiring with the enemy and that for only a few liters of milk.

The supply of water

As milk was a rare ware, the population wasn’t withheld from water thanks to the public fountains, generally called “bacs”.  They kept on streaming even when the houses were cut off.  So supply wasn’t a problem, especially for those who weren’t afraid of the sporadic German shelling.  In the Rue Neuve the population had two fountains at its disposal.  There was another in the Rue Haute.  I can’t recall if the fountain in the Rue Vinave was accessible amongst the ruins.  On the other hand that at the crossing of the Rue Général Jacques and the Rue de la Fontaine was used by the refugees of the abbey at the time a civilian home kept by nuns.

Charles Marville (16 years old) and Jules Chauveheid (15 years old) took care of this job.  To that end they used the cart and the dog of Mister Valentin Chauveheid, Jules’ uncle.  The danger was great: the fountain could be seen from the hostile bank and the shelling was dispersed and totally unpredictable.  And yet they succeeded in doing the job that was entrusted to them by the nuns.  At the fountain they filled milk jars.  Every day several trips needed to be done.  Arrived at its destination, the water was stocked in canvas bags (with hanger and 5 valves), put at our disposal by the US Army.  Léon Courtejoie was in charge of the sparing distribution.  The people of Stavelot will remember the German corpse lying at the foot of this fountain during the whole battle and even long time after it.

General Jacques Street's fountain (Photo US Army Signal Corps)
A grievous day

The population learned with horror about the massacre of fellow citizens on the road to Trois-Ponts in Parfondruy, Ster and Renardmont.  It was decided to give these unlucky victims a decent, temporary burial.  At first the corpses of the persons who were killed in the garden of Legaye’s house, and those of Joseph Albert, José Gengoux and Tony Lambert were laid in the garage of Fraipont (across the nowadays police station).  Mister Victor Marquet, the local gravedigger, took the initiative of digging a common grave in the garden of the monastery of the abbey.  This was practically the only suitable place that was protected against the German shelling.

From left to right: Mr.Marquet, Albert Martin, Mr.Nicolay, Notary Lebeau and the Reverend Dean

At that time it was impossible to go to the cemetery.  The transport of the corpses was done by means of a handcart that, in better days, was used to transport the luggage on the platform of the railway station.  It was built of two big wheels and a platform, the cart didn’t have brakes and its two handles stood far away from each other.  That made maneuvering very difficult.

Spot of the paupers' grave which was dug in the cloister's yard in December 1944. It averaged 1.20 m deep (Photo Centre Stavelotain d'Archéologie)

The ramp of the Rue Neuve caused other problems.  These sad trips were interrupted by stops to put back the bodies which had shoved aside because of the jolting en route.  The team that did this job was composed of Mister Lucien Legaye (the nephew of one of the victims), Victor Marquet (already mentioned) and his son René, Thomas Rensonnet (butcher), Léon Nicolay (carpenter), E. Collinet (tanner), Alfred Buche (worker at the electricity company), Willy Lenz (cobbler), Roufosse and his daughter Joséphine, Albert Martin (the future chief of the fire department), Lebeau (notary) and his eldest son.

 

This macabre mission was done during the last days of December.  The corpses of the martyrs of Parfondruy, Ster, Renardmont and of the lower part of the road to Trois-Ponts were taken to Stavelot after the 13th of January, when the fights had removed to the east.  At that time nobody knew the SS had massacred civilians without any defense on the left bank.

The civilians of the left bank evacuated

A part of the buildings of the abbey – Belgacom (a telephone company – kl) nowadays – had partly been destroyed since several years.  From the Avenue Nicolay one could see through this breach the lower part of the road leading to the Vieux Château.  One day at the beginning of January 1945, towards 13.30 Hrs. you could see a group of civilians headed by a man carrying a white flag.  These unlucky fellow citizens of the left bank had to evacuate to the east, behind the lines, on Germans’ orders.  Nobody had been spared, whatever his age was or his physical condition.  This forced march through the high snow and the cold was sheer agony for these people traumatized by the combats and weakened by deprivation.  An old woman died before she could reach the Vieux Château.  This makes me say that the inhabitants of the town centre of Stavelot in some way had been privileged in comparison with the people who lived out of town.

Others flee to the east.  Others have more luck: if they wish, the can go to the centre of the country.  The Americans organized this evacuation to more clement places. In order to avoid being discovered by the hostile artillery the evacuation took place at nightfall. The GMC trucks were parked in front of the houses of Massange and Otte, Place du Marché.  The drivers were Belgian civilians who were in US Army’s service.  Several families and children embarked.  My late friend Albert Martin, a war volunteer, took advantage of the transport to join his unit at its assembly point.  He was accompanied by his bride-to-be who took refuge in the Hesbaye at her parents’.  My brother Robert and my sister Titane left for Brussels.  This evacuation took place at the beginning of January via the only possible route: la Haute Levée. Misfortune joined in as well.  It happened in Henne (borough of Vaux-sous-Chèvremont) where a truck with its human cargo tipped over in the Vesdre River.  Unfortunately several people fell victim. Besides a lot of wounded, a child of the Lentz family got killed, together with Mrs. Maréchal and her little daughter.

Picture of a painting showing the inner courtyard of the City Hall before the war. Through the breach we can see the lower part of the road leading to the Vieux Château. (Photo: Guy Lebeau. Painting of Mr. Ondeppinter).
Herrings have a nasty smell

A distribution of food was held at the Banque Générale in the Rue Neuve.  I was in the entry hall, sitting on a wooden barrel containing salted herrings.  I was talking to Annie Grodent and Ginette Mathieu when a shell exploded in the neighborhood, producing panic among the people who were waiting.  During the jostling that followed I toppled, the cover broke and I fell with my backside in the brine and the herrings.  As I had left the house with only one pair of trousers, I’ve been reeking of herring for several days

A strange question

I was in the Rue Massange in front of Ozer’s grocery shop when a jeep driving down the Rue Neuve stopped at me.  There were four soldiers in it dressed in American uniforms.  One of them asked me if it was the German artillery you could hear.  I didn’t speak English very well but I understood the question.  A strange question anyhow, especially when a US soldier puts it.  At the time the civilian population was totally ignorant of the action of Skorzeny’s commandos, but the people remembered the stories about the 5th Column in 1940 quite well.  The person who was speaking to me must have noticed that I looked surprised and they immediately left the place.  Probably they were German soldiers disguised as GI’s who wanted to reach their lines. Unfortunately, there weren’t any real American soldiers in the neighborhood who could have demanded an explanation from them.  This strange crew left in the direction of the Avenue Nicolay.  I’ve never forgotten this innocent incident and still I’m asking myself what really happened at the time.

A trip to Malmedy

Our friend Norman of Civil Affairs asked me and André Crespin to guide him: he had to go to Malmedy but didn’t have any road maps.  The road Stavelot-Malmedy, being shelled by the enemy, couldn’t be taken.  The only possible thing to do was to make a detour via Francorchamps.

The nowadays police station (Photo: Guy Lebeau)

Coming past at Bicoque, we’ve seen the remains of the gas dump that was set ablaze on the 18th of December.  Afterwards we heard that the fire was set deliberately by elements of the US Army, helped by Belgian soldiers of the 5th Battalion Fusiliers.  The road was jammed by black, deformed jerry cans.  They were bulging as if a strong whirlwind has gone through.  The driver had to zigzag amongst the widely spread jerry cans on the road; others were flung in the verges.  Arrived in Francorchamps we went on in the direction of the bridge on the Eau Rouge, close to the former Customs’ post.  From there we went through the woods, following a wide fire lane.  We came past the Apollinaire Monument to go down to Malmedy via the Thier de Liège, arriving in Outrelepont, a suburb of Malmedy we went to a villa in red bricks in front of the Cathedral (the nowadays police station).

This area had been spared from bombardments and their resultant fires. I took advantage of the situation to go to the Place Albert Premier that was totally razed to the ground, the ruins still were smoldering. We loaded two parcels (maps, if my memory serves me well) and medicaments. We returned via the same route and the presence of two civilians in the jeep didn’t make things any easier: several times we have been controlled by the Military Police and Norman’s explanation didn’t always seem to convince the MP’s. All these long-lasting stops made that we arrived in Stavelot only during the night where an anxious mother was waiting for me….

Madam Beaurin isn’t pleased

The “Oeuvre des Nourrissons” (“Work of Infants”, literally translated – kl), later called “Oeuvre Nationale de l’Enfance” (“National Work of Childhood” – kl), was managed by Mrs. Beaurin, Mrs. Nézer’s mother.  The centre of this association was in the right wing of the City Hall at the time.  Mrs. Beaurin was deeply distressed she couldn’t distribute the stock of medicaments, vitamins for expectant mothers, restoratives for babies, powdered milk,… The access to the centre wasn’t easy and the Rue du Châtelet was exposed to German shelling.  After long hesitations, we decided to go over there.  I don’t recall whether it was with André Crespin or Paul Wetz.  We passed through the garden of the Massange family, crossed the park concealed by the tower, passed underneath, and then penetrated into the courtyard via the gap between the buildings running close to the walls.  In the centre we quickly stuffed the goods into bags.  We returned via the same route and all went well, except for me. Mrs. Beaurin had given me a list with the names of those who were entitled to receive goods.  Let’s suppose there were three expectant and five young mothers.  As I wanted to keep my work simple and not knowing most of the names mentioned on the list, I made eight equal bags which all contained vitamins for the expectant mothers and vitamins for babies.  That means some possibly would receive goods which were meant for others.  When Mrs. Beaurin, who was an authoritarian and who knew what she wanted, heard of the matter, it wasn’t my luckiest day!  Fortunately there have never been harmful consequences for the newborn babies.

The macabre mission of the 13th of January 1945

This time they were pushed back once and for all.  The American paratroops crossed the Amblève River and the Germans withdrew, leaving behind ruins, suffering and tears.  Mister Close, a country policeman, proceeded to a reconnaissance of the quarters on the left bank.  When he came back he reported to Mister Gondrent that he had seen the corpses of civilians at Le Stockeu and on the road leading to the Vieux Château.  The latter requested volunteers to fetch the bodies of the unlucky.  A team climbed Le Stockeu, André Crespin and I go to the Vieux Château.  We find the frozen corpse of an old person lying in the snow in the verge.  We lay the body on a stretcher that has been left by the German army. In the house n° 79 we find the bodies of Mr. Lekeux and one of his daughters, both killed about 28 days earlier during the battle.  In a cellar bodies decompose.  After several attempts we finally can remove the corpses.  This was the toughest thing we had to do, a souvenir we can never erase from our memory.  I try to explain how difficult this mission was for the two young guys we were at the time.  Having nothing to transport the corpses, we lay them in the garden.  A fourth corpse, the body of Mr. Gonay, a postman, was found in front of his house.  Having returned, we report to Mister Grodent what we have found and indicate the position of the corpses so that their problematical transport can be organized.  This story wouldn’t be complete if I don’t mention the body of aGI who had been overrun by a Panzer at the end of the bridge, on the left bank, at the right side of the road.  I’ll remember this horrible scene till the end of days. I tell you all these details, not because of morbid intentions, but to inform the generations which have never known the war, how cruel a war can be, bringing only misfortune and horror.  The following days, the same macabre work continued in Parfondruy and Renardmont from where the bodies of massacred civilians (139 victims) have been transported.

After the battle, life re-established slowly and difficultly.  The luckiest ones, those who still had a roof, even damaged, repaired their houses as well as they could do.  The inhabitants of the Rivage and a great part of the quarters on the left bank had to survive starting with nothing at all, materially speaking.

Towards the 1st of February 1945, following the example of many young fellow citizens, I saw service as a War Volunteer.  In the end, Stavelot is said to be the town with the most War Volunteers in Belgium: many say there have been about 80!  Together with four other young men of Stavelot I served in the 12th Battalion of Fusiliers who participated in the German Campaign as a unit of the First US Army.  At the time, for a young Belgian, it was a marvelous thing to take part in the efforts of Allied war.

Here ends my story that is absolutely not unique.  Everybody who lived in Stavelot at the time could have told his own story.  Perhaps these stories would have been different, or more dramatic.  But in the end all those stories would have ended in the same way: no more war!  We were lucky to survive, others weren’t.  167 fellow citizens, all victims of Hitler’s murderous insanity, did not have the chance to survive.  Let’s never forget it, and let’s never forget those young boys who came from so far to get killed on our soil for our liberty and survival.  They all were too young. War only brings mourning, tears, ruins and misery.  When will mankind understand?

I want to thank

Madam Albert Martin and Messrs. Louis Pasteger, Charles Marville, Emile Martin, André Peters and René Rousseau for having brushed up my memory.  Mister A. Martin lent me the picture of the fountain, Rue Général Jacques, Mister Laby lent me the one showing the traffic-jam in the Rue Neuve, Mister Bernard Lambotte, who found the exact location of the common grave, and finally Mister Noël Deprez for the printing of the photos.

Guy LEBEAU

Pass away May 26, 2011