After the sometimes harrowing but always mesmerising time on the Western Front, time spent reflecting, time spent eating – how we loved the French food ! – and time spent enjoying and admiring the beautiful countryside, we headed south through Belgium. It was the first time for both of us in that country and we were very impressed. That was partly because their road signs were clearer and they avoid the French practise of signing a town or village for three, four, five times and then, at the next junction or roundabout it disappears (presumably because they ran out of space). Luckily I had a co-pilot/navigator who was well used to map reading and don’t imagine that is a commonly available skill these days, especially amongst the ‘i’ phone / sat-nav generation. On the odd occasion when the disappearing sign sent us on the wrong road she quickly gave me the new heading and we always reached the target. In addition to navigating the quiet country roads she had to research and locate our next camping destination and the site at Ypres was a hard act to follow. Our next site was at a small village called Tonny, we didn’t actually know that until we got there, we were heading for ‘Camping Tonny’. The site was a dozen or so miles north of Bastogne and proved to be a super site much loved by families. We amused the neighbours – who didn’t know we had just completed a long five hour drive without a cuppa ! – by arriving and immediately getting the kettle on before even unpacking ! So amused were they that one of the little boys came over with some chocolate cakes for us to have with the tea ! They turned out to be a really jolly German family and within the hour the dad brought us some Belgium beer – a great hit with Miss Carolina – and sat and chatted. I found it a little awkward telling him what we had been doing – is that silly ? Anyway our evening was jolly and relaxing despite dozens of noisy children playing football around us, in fact I was forced to give a yellow card to one large ‘little’ boy who insisted on barging the smaller youngsters !
Bastogne is a place I have wanted to visit for a long time. It is more well known these days following the successful series ‘Band of Brothers’ directed by Tom Hanks which follows Easy Company through their European Tour of 1944. The ‘Battle of the Bulge’ was first brought to a wide audience in 1965 with the ‘wide-screen’ film starring most of the great American actors of the day led by Henry Fonda. As with most ‘hollywood’ historic representations it was not a strict interpretation of the events of December 1944. The truth was far more dramatic and the result not nearly so certain.
I don’t intend giving a history of the battle here, it is easily researched and there are plenty of books on the subject. Suffice to say that my interest in the 2nd World War meant it was a place I wanted to visit. In particular I wanted to see the great forest of the Ardenne for it featured in both wars. I was not prepared for the enormous expanse of the forest, it stretches for hundreds of miles in all directions and crosses several national borders.
The town of Bastogne was at the centre of the battle and was heavily destroyed. The resistance of both the townsfolk and the members of the 101st Airborne Division, of which Easy Company 505th Parachute Infantry were a part, is legendary. The ‘bulge’ into the American front line led to the total encirclement of Bastogne (prompting the best ‘throw-away’ remark of all time when the officer in command of Easy Company, Captain Winters, on being told he was going to be surrounded calmly said “We are parachutists, we are supposed to be surrounded”) and the situation looked hopeless. Such was the German’s confidence in the success of their surprise attack that they ultimately offered surrender terms to the besieged paratroops. The reply of the commander of the defenders, General McAuliffe is legendary also – “Nuts!”. So famous is that response that it is featured throughout the modern town.
It was a largely unknown battlefield to my American companion. She knew that the grandfather of her best friend had been there but she didn’t know anything about what had happened. It is strange taking a young American, so used to feeling unloved in the world, to a place which reveres the memory of what was done for them 70 years ago. Indeed the 70th anniversary of the siege is this December and many commemorative events are planned.
The little known Ardennes offensive is viewed as the worst American debacle of the 2nd World War. The German armour under Pfeiffer broke through the complacent lines – no-one believed the Germans had the resources and everyone believed the Ardennes were impassable. No-one seemed to remember that was precisely where the Germans broke through in 1940 ! It was something of a shock to my young companion to read the statistics of the battle; nearly SEVENTY SEVEN THOUSAND American troops were lost, making it the worst casualty list of the whole war.
Today the 101st Airborne Division is still lauded as is Patton’s 3rd Army who broke through to relieve the besieged town on Christmas day 1944. A stone carved relief of General George S. Patton stands in a quiet car park some-way from the main square.
There is a new museum now attached to the Mardasson Memorial which traces the history of the war as it affected Belgium; it is very well done if a little lengthy – I noticed many older visitors took various opportunities to escape the regulated through-flow of the museum’s time-line displays – and perhaps not specific enough for American visitors who want to see the Ardennes offensive primarily. On the whole I enjoyed my visit to the area, I would certainly liked to have had more time to visit some of the out-lying battle sites, not least the defensive lines in the thick forest that surrounds the area. Alas time was precious, we only had a morning to take in the whole of Bastogne and the museums before heading east.
,By some quirk of fate my first, and probably only, visit to the area in which that huge battle took place was interwoven with a journey into the very heart of the land from whence came the attackers. Germany beckoned, we were heading for the Upper Middle Rhine and the route we were to take was exactly that which the Panzer columns had used to creep through the Ardennes and surprise the Americans; conversely it was the route the Americans took to reach the Rhine many months later. It was my first visit to Germany as a tourist and it felt a little strange to be doing so after so much war wandering.
It was a four hour drive, firstly through the Ardennes and then, having crossed the border into Germany, we climbed out onto open plains of wheat and picturesque villages. It struck me that I was in a country where my language skill was limited to counting to ten …
The obvious difference – apart from the place-names – was that immediately we were in a place with no war memorials or commemorated battle sites, certainly no American flags fluttered from buildings ! Thus I was at last able to enjoy my holiday like a normal person, and this was a super place to do it.
I have already mentioned that this was to be my first visit to the Rhine, I should also admit to being slightly embarrassed to confess I had no idea that the area we were in was designated a World Heritage Site. The Upper Middle Rhine is certainly worthy of that status, I thought it was quite stunning.
The Rhine is enormous, even in the ‘upper middle’ ! I was staggered at the rate of flow of the water even in high summer. It was so fierce that the huge barges moving upstream could hardly make headway. I fail to see how it is economically viable to move cargo at that rate for hundreds of miles up the river, especially as every five minutes or so enormous lengthy freight trains ran on lines on both banks. Going downstream was a different matter, with hardly any power, just sufficient to steer by, the massive boats sped past.
The other trade on the river is of course the large cruise ships that tour the length of the river. That never was an attractive proposition to me and having seen them I am certain it is not a holiday I intend taking.
The little town of Bacarach (was it named after that 1960s music composer ?) is delightful. It has amazing architecture and a superb little Italian pizza house ! Clearly it is a tourist hot-spot and the shops are typical of such a resort. I resisted the temptation to buy a German drinking jug with a lid … I’ve already got one !
The town nestles into a small valley that opens out onto the Rhine and is surrounded by steep slopes on which vines are grown. How on earth anybody managed to pick the grapes is beyond me. There were some interesting dry stone walls up there but, alas, there was no time to ascend, ahem.
Of course we hadn’t just happened on to the Rhine valley as a holiday destination – another confession, I would never have even considered it. I realise now that I have been missing a very impressive area. The visit was in order to attend the wedding of two friends of my American tourist. The reason to hold the wedding in Germany – apart from the fact that it is difficult to find a castle high above a river in Colorado – relates to the bride’s heritage. Like many other American forces personnel her step father met and married a German lady, her mother. The venue was clearly agreeable to the groom and dozens of other State-side friends who made the long journey.
The day dawned hot and sunny, very hot in fact. The wedding was not until the afternoon and so we took the opportunity to wander down to the Rhine and rest in readiness for a long night. Also, I had a sneaking desire to paddle in the river, to stand in the waters of the Rhine.
The town of St Goar was the venue, or rather a castle high above the town. We took the train and walked, in the high afternoon heat, up the long steep path that led to the venue. By the time we got half way I had removed my shirt …
The medieval castle was impressive as a military structure and a superb venue for a very impressive American wedding. Such was the heat of the day that I consumed over five litres of water during the evening and no booze !! The buffet was something else, food the like of which I cannot remember having experienced before. It was an opportunity to meet up once again with the kind folk of South Carolina and the happy couple whom I had met on my visits there.
We caught the last train back to Bacarach, that was an experience in itself, German trains are impressive. The small town was quiet and finally cool and even the river seemed to have shut down for the night.
The breakfast at the Pension Im-Malerwinkle Hotel was absolutely superb and I can’t speak highly enough of it as a place to stay. By 10 am we were back on the road, a lengthy drive lay ahead and we had decided to take a quicker route back to France. We quickly left Germany and entered Luxembourg, by far the cheapest country we visited and I took the opportunity to fill up with fuel at just over £1 a litre. That took me all the way home, a journey of nearly 700 miles. We slipped out of Luxembourg and briefly entered Belgium before crossing into France. It is the first time I have driven across the open borders of the EA, it is a strange but relieving feature, no customs or passport controls, just a new language on a new sign. By 5 pm we were nearing the city of Amiens once again and a small sign pointing to a farm camp-site was just what we needed.
We spent a restful morning before heading north west toward the French coast where the infamous river Somme enters the sea. Valery sur Somme is a superb little port with a medieval walled city and a delightful esplanade with restaurants, walkways and lovely views out over the estuary.
Once again I found myself thinking aloud that this was a great place to holiday despite the awful history connected with the river Somme.
We ate our last French meal at a quaint little restaurant attached to a Crazy Golf Course, slightly bizarre but typically French don’t you think ? At last I got to enjoy a bowl of Moules in a rich cream source with a side plate of those chips that personify French fries ! As usual, my companion went for something far more healthy, full of green and red colours and crunchy in texture …. yes, can you believe she ate salad in a restaurant on the seashore in France !?
That night we returned to Le Treport to spend yet another few hours of sleep in the car before driving the hour to Dieppe for the 4 a.m. ferry. Once on board we headed for the lounge and tried to gain another few hours of shut-eye. It was still dark so why didn’t they turn the bright lights down? – but then they didn’t on the overnight sailing the other way, merde – I managed to doze off for a while and then the bright dawn drew us out on deck to see the white cliffs of the Seven Sisters growing larger as we neared Newhaven.
We off-loaded and, for once, had a polite exchange with the Immigration Officer, and slipped onto the road for Lewes. My American passenger was very worried as we approached the checkpoint. She is almost always treated very rudely by our Immigration Officers, being made to feel like a threat to National security and unwelcomed. Why it is necessary to be so outrageously offensive is beyond me; do we not want visitors to come here, do we not need overseas currency !? Furthermore, if we are so downright rude to arrivals here how can we complain when we, in turn, are made to feel like criminals when we stand before their Immigration people ? It is not necessary and is certainly not the way the world should be, especially while remembering events of 100 years ago ! What was the fight for … ?
A six hour journey followed, to complete the 250 miles back to Wales, the same time it took us to drive through 4 countries and cover over 500 miles two days previously – Lordie, our roads are SO crowded !!