Ghosts walk these roads and roam the patchwork fields blanketing this bucolic landscape. Blurs and shadows wandering through the misty forested hills and beyond. This is the feeling one gets while passing through the Ardennes foothills, a sense of a rich and painful history decades old yet remarkably palpable. Shadows calling your attention, demanding you feel their presence, calling on you to remember what happened here and their right to be here. Hoping that you won’t forget.
Here the paragraphs and photographs from countless history books, the newsreel films that captured a war fought in black and white, the battles won, the ground gained, the goals achieved, the lives lost and the reasons why, come to vivid life. Driving these roads, walking past these fields or hiking these woods one sees and feels that now seemingly not so distant past. You fail to notice driving more slowly than you usually might. Scanning the countryside you feel unease; an expectation. Something moved in those shadows, there along the distant tree line. Probably just wind and leaves. Probably. A quick glance at the rearview mirror. Rounding that same bend in the road, just as you had moments ago, coming into view now the front of...a truck. The mind plays tricks. Just a truck.
In the distance long, sleek, white propellers glint in the midday late autumn sun while turning a slow, steady rhythm, marking their own passage of time. They are spurred by a warm breeze that rolls over the verdant valley, seeking the comfort of the cool pine-forested hills of the Luxembourg countryside. Randomly placed it seems, the turbines stand a silent sentinel over stone and hedge bordered fields that effortlessly slip away from both sides of the road, reaching east and west to the horizons. Stretches of this road, that gently weaves along the foothills of the Ardennes forest, are lined with trees stripped of leaves weeks ago where Northern Goshawks perch, waiting. A flash of wings, a sudden dive; talons sharp and sure finding prey. This is the only sign of conflict now along this road, one of several winding away from the town of Clervaux, a storybook town nestled in the deep, narrow Clerf River valley in the northern part of the country. Clervaux is an ideal blend of past and present and has long been the epitome of a vacation retreat. Of the past, the 12th century castle, severely damaged during WWII but now restored and housing among other things a war museum, perches majestically on a rocky bluff overlooking the present: souvenir shops, restaurants, hotels, cafes and bars lining worn cobblestone streets. At separate times during the war Clervaux served as a retreat for battle-weary soldiers of both sides but it wasn’t until December 1944 that town’s strategic importance became clear.
In the overcast pre-dawn hours of December 16th, 1944 a heavy artillery barrage along an 80 mile front in the Ardennes forest stretching from Belgium through Luxembourg, thinly protected by battle-fatigued American troops in this the “quiet sector” signaled the beginning of Germany’s last major offensive of the war. The Germans officially called it the “Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein” ("Operation Watch on the Rhine") or the Von Rundstedt Offensive after the field marshal charged with overseeing and planning the attack. The French called it Bataille des Ardennes ("Battle of the Ardennes") while the official Allied military name was the Ardennes Counteroffensive. It was only after the Germans pushed westward deep into allied held territory creating a 50-mile salient in the battle lines that the news media coined the name that stuck: the Battle of the Bulge
The German plan was loosely founded on the blitzkrieg (lightning war) attacks at the start of the war in May, 1940. British and French commanders had shored up defenses along the Maginot line, a series of concrete fortifications, obstacles and weapon placements constructed by the French after the First World War along its borders with Switzerland, Germany and Luxembourg. Named after the French Minister of war Andre Maginot, the fortifications were designed to give the French army time to mobilized should the Germans ever consider another attack, believing that the Germans would once again resort to the static trench warfare from two decades earlier. However Germany's new blitzkrieg strategy called for their armies to bypass the Maginot line altogether, instead attacking France through the “low countries” of Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg just north of the line. While a German attack along the northern shoulder of the line was not unexpected and troops were deployed in defense, it was in the thickly forested Ardennes regions of Luxembourg and Belgium that the French and British armies were at their weakest. The Germans exploited this weakness, attacking through the formidable terrain of the Ardennes forest, catching the defending armies off guard, and driving a wedge between the French and British armies that would ultimately see the battered British army retreating to the sea at Dunkirk and bring about France's surrender a few weeks later.
This time around the German attack was focused solely in the Ardennes and relied heavily on the elements of surprise, timing and winter weather, all crucial to the Germans achieving their objective: to drive a wedge between the American and British armies while racing to capture the Belgian port of Antwerp. If they succeeded the Germans hoped this last great counter-offensive would destabilized the Allied efforts in Europe, ensnare massive numbers of Allied forces, prolong the war and the pending Allied advance into Germany and eventually achieve a negotiated peace, at least in the west. Success, Adolph Hitler believed, would also allow the Germans to move a majority of their forces eastward along the Russian front as well as allow Germany more time to design and produce advanced weaponry.
The attack indeed took the Americans by surprise. Even as it escalated Allied command simply couldn’t believe that the Germans were capable of striking in such force. In the early stages of the assault, on the northern and southern flanks, American front line troops held their ground with tenacious and heroic fighting, thereby delaying critical elements of the German advance. In the middle sectors however, swiftly moving German tanks and infantry overwhelmed their enemy and pushed through. With two bridges wide enough and strong enough to support rapidly advancing armor and troops, the Germans knew taking Clervaux would allow access to this road, a relatively flat, straight, paved road leading south and west through the otherwise steep hills of the Ardennes forest to the town of Bastogne in neighboring Belgium. Bastogne was a key objective in the German battle plan. Capturing the crossroads town would give the Germans control of a crucial transportation hub allowing their attack to bypass the bottlenecks of the hilly, narrow, country backroads.
The attack would eventually penetrate deep into Belgium, creating the now famous bulge in the battle lines. However as the new year approached the Allies began to counter against the German advance, once again turning the tide of battle. The Wehrmacht began pulling back, retreating to Germany and by late January the battle front had returned to where it had been prior to the “Bulge”. By that time however the American forces that had taken the brunt of the attack suffered 89,500 casualties including 19,000 killed, 47,500 wounded and 23,000 missing. For their part, German casualties were even higher with estimates ranging between 60,000 and 125,000 while approximately 3000 civilians were killed during the fighting.
Along this road now, signs point the way to monuments and memorials marking places of battle, honoring those who fought here and those who never left; signs guiding travelers to destinations now familiar with names marking their place in history: “St. Vith”, “Wiltz”, “Bastogne”; and signs showing the names of destinations less known, yet vying for their claim on this county’s past. Due south from Clervaux and just four miles north of Wiltz is one such sign, its black lettering on a bright yellow background declaring: “Eschweiler 4km”.
This Luxembourg road is officially Route 328 and winds around the Ardennes foothills, cleaving eastward through stands of towering pines and hardwoods before leading to open pastures as the town nears. This is farming country and always has been. Highland cows and horses wander fields worked by families who have farmed here for generations. Approaching Eschweiler, homes sturdy and practical toe the road. They are typical of Luxembourg countryside with their traditional gray-black slate shingled roofs topping weathered but colorful stucco walls built on stone and brick foundations. These homes and farm buildings cling to a prideful past amongst newer, sleeker structures, boasting the latest architectural designs and materials that mark the present and eye the future. A map-dot town with a population of around three hundred people, Eschweiler was at one time a commune of neighboring Wiltz until 2015 when the two municipalities merged. So small is Eschweiler that one could easily drive into town from one end and be out the other end before you knew you’d been there, had it not been for the sharp bend in this narrow road at the center of town. There at the outer elbow of the bend sits the small, modest church of Saint Mauritius.
While the parish of Eschweiler dates back to the 10th century, construction of the present-day church began in 1870 and was consecrated on May 26, 1877. The only church in Luxembourg named after St. Mauritius, the patron saint of soldiers, sword smiths, armies, and infantrymen, it too is typical of the Luxembourg style. Rising from a gray stone foundation are gleaming white exterior walls spaced with oak rimmed, round-arched, stained glass windows. The sharply angled black slate roof covers a building twice as long as it is wide. At the front of the church, stone steps lead to the heavy, arched, dark brown oak doors of a small vestibule jutting out from the apsidal cathedral flanked, charcoal gray facade. One of the unique features of St. Mauritius is the round-cornered, square steeple and spire towering above the alter at the back of the church, rather than above the choir and organ in front as is typical. However it is when visitors step through the front doors and into the glass enclosed vestibule that they realize the simple features of the church exterior belies what awaits inside. There visitors are met by even more remarkable features: the saturated colors of the stained glass windows aglow from the light streaming in; the high arched ceiling vaulting above an ornately carved wooden altar and the richly painted mural adorning the wall behind the altarpiece. Perhaps the most obvious feature is the one that greets visitors the moment they enter the vestibule. There on the wall to the left is the reason why here in Eschweiler, and in the surrounding towns and well beyond, the church of St. Mauritius is also and best known as the church of Mergenthaler.