Servaas Van Belle’s Pores of Hell

Rocherath. It is deathly quiet. The only noise comes from the crack of dry twigs beneath my feet. Once, this noise could have been my death sentence; now it is merely the echo of my quest for the past. Some 75 years after the start of the Ardennes Offensive I am standing a stone’s throw from what was then the Westwall ramparts, between dozens of German and American foxholes, sprinkled with a gossamer-thin coating of snow, draped like a delicate spider’s web over the land. In all their intimate proximity, they breathe a sad story.

On 16 December 1944, at 5.29 in the morning, there was probably a brief hush along the American frontline. One minute later, without warning, all hell broke loose along that frontline. The Ardennes Offensive had begun. It would be some six weeks before it ended. From Monschau to Echternach, then on almost to the River Meuse at Dinant. A total of one million troops were engaged in battle all along this 120 km-long frontline over this period. There were more than 80,000 casualties on both sides: dead, wounded, captured and missing. The dead were not killed by bullets alone: the bitter cold was a common enemy. The harsh conditions not only tormented the human combatants, but also played havoc with the machinery of war. Weapons froze solid, and urinating on them was often the only way of getting them to work again. Urine as the elixir of life. The German veterans who had survived Stalingrad will have experienced an unwelcome flashback. American troops who had hurried to defend the front line had no coats; some of them had no weapons either. The only thing that offered some meagre protection against the cold were the hastily dug foxholes. An ice-cold hole in the ground could mean the difference between life and death. In times of war, Mother Earth is your best friend.

The Ardennes are still full of the remnants of these foxholes. Elsenborn, Rocherath, Sankt-Vith, Bastogne, Nothum, Hotton… to name just a few places. One-person foxholes, elongated two-man holes, L-shaped holes on the flanks of the positions, machine-gun nests…. There are also gigantic excavations which served as command posts, surrounded by a handful of sleeping holes for the officers. Not far away is an improvised first-aid post. Some of the holes now resemble unfinished graves; others appear like soft beds of moss. Each has its own, silent story. Cold, hunger, fatigue, hardship. Receptacles full of emotions.

More than 70 years on, erosion has done its work, and yet nature has not yet succeeded in erasing the memory completely. Hundreds of these holes stubbornly remain. They are spread out across the battlefield like footprints of the Devil. Or the pores of hell.

All photos are courtesy of Servaas Van Belle.

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