Detailed stories from civillians are rare these days. By accident we bumped into this one.
While studying on the 551st PIB whereabouts in the hamlet Rahier, in february 2012 we knocked upon a door of a big farm. Nicole and her husband Paul lives in that farm and when we said what we were doing, Nicole jumped up, picked up the phone and made a call.
20 minutes later, a huge man came in with his wife, saying his name was Pol Servais. He started to tell his incredible story, when he was only 10 years old.
Years later, verifying every detail, we are ready.
This is the story of Pol Servais.
Pol was born in Monceau in May 1934 and raised in Froidville, where his parents had a farm. He was the seventh in a row of eight children.
His brother Maurice, a soldier in the Belgium Army, was captured in May 1940, and held as a POW for the duration of the war.
Belgium was liberated by the Americans in September 1944. The people were very happy to be free of German occupation and very grateful to the American army that liberated them. That is why the people in the villages went out looking to meet their liberators, to show them their gratitude and sympathy. So did the people of Monceau, a little hamlet near the village of Cheneux.
One day, (October or November) Pol, his mother, his sisters and some other people went to Trois-Ponts for that purpose. In vain! When the group arrived at Trois-Ponts, nobody was there. On their way back home, via Brume, they saw American jeeps arriving from the direction of Stavelot. The soldiers were being welcomed with a big applause and the soldiers give sweets to the children.
There was a group of ten American soldiers stationed at the La Gleize train station, and all the boys from Monceau and Cheneux would go out every Saturday to visit them. The soldiers would pass out chewing gum, chocolate and even offer a ride in a jeep to the boys.
One time Pol and his friends went all the way to the Stoumont train station, a distance of 5 km, by foot to meet some other American soldiers.
Saturday 16th december 1944:
At this day, Pol takes his usual walk to the train station of La Gleize with some friends. But the atmosphere is different. The Americans seem nervous. It looks like they are going to leave the area. On their way back home, near the Stone Cross (on the Froidcour road, BK), the children meet two unknown men: they are wearing binoculars and are carrying a radio transmitter. They ask the children about what they have seen at the station. Their accent is strange. Weren’t those German soldiers hiding behind American lines? (It seems that Pol have met some of the men, belonging to Operation Greif. BK)
Monday 18th December
This morning Pol goes to the Cheneux school together with his sisters Janine and Betsy. When they arrive, their teacher, Mr Genot, tells them to go back home: there is a rumor that the Germans are coming back. On their way back home, the children meet citizens heading from the direction of La Gleize.
In Monceau the return of the Germans is announced by youngsters who have had a dance night in La Gleize.
Pol’s mom tells her oldest sons, Georges and Roger, to leave the village: she remembers very vividly the reprisals made by the Germans, following the liberation of Basse-Bodeux. By the time Pol gets home, his brothers’s bikes are already prepared for departure.
[Pols mother is referring to the 7 men form the Basse Bodeux area who were murdered at Gerardwez on september 1944. When we took a closer look, they have been murdered as a retaliation, because of the attack and brutally mutilation and killing of SS sturmbahnfurher Hans Waldmuller and Untersturmführer Karl Markart, 12thSS, by Belgian partisans on the day before, september 8th 1944]
Pol had heard from the mailman, mr Rene Kolm, that there were still letters at the La Gleize train station from POW’s, who are working in Germany. But they would not be delivered, because of the German threat. Pols mom, Lea, decides to go to the train station herself, because there might be a letter from her son Maurice.
Around 13.15 hrs:
Around 13.15 hrs of december the 18th, while Pol is cleaning the water-tanks with his father in the village of Monceau, a small group of citizens is leaving for La Gleize. Mrs Lea Servais, her daughter Betsy, Mr Joseph Gilson (who wants to buy yeast in La Gleize), Alphonse Gillet’s wife and her daughter Renee.
At the south side of the bridge over the Amblève River, everyone stops: they see the silhouette of a tank next to the stone cross! Mr Vauchel, a member of the resistance, shows up in the field on the left from the direction of Cheneux. He is dressed in his khaki uniform and is carrying a submachine gun. He tells Lea and the others not to worry; the tank has an American star on its side which means it is an American, so it’s safe to cross the bridge.
In fact it is a decoy, the star is painted on a canvas, camouflaging a vehicle that is definitely a German panther. Suddenly it opens fire. Mrs Gillet, who is hit by a bullet in her head, is killed instantly; her daughter Renee is being hit in her arm. Mrs Lea Servais is hit in her leg, just as Mr Gilson. Pol’s sister Betsy and Mr Vauchel remain unharmed. He runs of, without caring for the others, reaches Monceau through the woods and upon reaching Mr Gillet’s house, takes off his uniform and throws it in a manure-pit.
At 14.00 hrs the German column of Joachim Peiper is in sight of American airplanes and is being attacked by them: Sixteen P-47’s strafed Peipers column for over two hours. The column, stretched from Stavelot to the Cheneux bridge, got hit very bad. Jochen Peiper hid in the small bunker on the other side of the Dumont house.
Earlier, at the other side of the bridge, the Dumont house is hit by a bomb. The house is totally destroyed, killing the two inhabitants, mr Jules Dumont and mrs Maria Goffinet.
A nearby German tank is disabled by the force of the explosion and ends up blocking the road to the vehicles following behind. Some of these vehicles take the direction of Le Moulin and park next to the farm of the Gillet family. There they use the bushes belonging to the farm to camouflage their vehicles. In the meanwhile, Joseph Gilson escapes the shooting by fleeing into the water. He hides under the bridge, where he will be standing in the water for several hours.
Alarmed by the sounds of the battle, Pol, his father and Mr Francois Gillet go to a high position in Monceau, from where they have clear vision all the way to La Gleize. From there they could see the house of the Hakin family (La Gleize) on fire. Several vehicles in the convoy are hit on their way to the bridge over the Amblève River. The Germans left the vehicles and ran to the fields at the edge of the river. Some of them drowned attempting to cross the river.
In the meantime Mrs Lea Servais has fled into an aquaduct under the road to Cheneux, together with her daughter. There are also Germans in it, whose vehicles were disabled by the American P-47’s. Unfortunately one of the vehicles rolled down the field right towards the exit of the aquaduct. It is on fire and explodes. Mrs Servais gets severely wounded in her belly and her face. While being pushed by the Germans towards the exit of the aqueduct, she loses her balance and falls into the cold and freezing water. Her daughter Betsy manages to escape by running up the hill to Monceau.
Back in the village Pol, his father and Mr Francois Gillet hear that Mrs Servais has been wounded.
Around 16.30 hrs:
When the bombardment stopped, mr. Servais hitches his horse to a cart and heads for Moulin in order to pick up his wife and the others. It is not an easy trip due to the many burning tanks and dead bodies of Germans lying on the road. Using a blanket, he brings his wife and the body of Mrs Gillet to the farm of Moulin. At that time it is being used as a hospital by the Germans. There is nothing left to be done for Mrs Servais and the German medics refuse to treat her. Her husband returns to the village to feed the cattle, leaving his wife at Moulin. After that, he returns together with Pol to see his wife, because she had insisted on it. In order to spare him the suffering of his mother, Mr Gillet suggests Pol to try to get some sleep. But they cannot sleep because of the noise of retreating German tanks heading toward La Gleize.
Joachim Peiper also knew about this terrible incident. In the book “Duel in the mist part II” from Timm Haasler a.o he is quoted:
“We saw some people rushing around the bridge, and since we had to expect that this bridge would be blown right in front of our noses as others had been, the point vehicles stopped and opened fire.”
On the same page you can read:
“When they reached just in front of the bridge, they saw what they believed to be Americains about to blow the bridge. Stubaf Poetschke ordered the leading tank to fire the machine gun and then to make a dash for the bridge.”
In another book about Werner Poetschke, we found a short statement about what happend on that bridge: “Peiper later said, that they saw people rushing about the bridge, since thet expected it to be blown they opened fire on these people, one was killed and the others were wounded. The one that died was a woman and at the later trials the germans insisted that they were wearing American uniforms, this of course was not considered and the crime was added to the list. However, in 1991 one of the Germans there, Hennecke, still insisted that they were wearing unifroms. Then in 1993 (author) Michael Reynolds learned from a local Belgium historian, monsieur Gerard Gregoire that one of the men had indeed bene wearing an American army jacket. “
And in another book we found this:
“Peipers mood improved on hearing from his spitze t hat the Cheneux bridge had been taken. It had been readied for demolition, but no orders to blow were recieved by the American engineers, guarding it.”
We never found any other reports that the bridge was mined by US engineers.
Tuesday 19th December
In the morning of the 19th December, Pol helped Mr Alphonse Gillet to feed the cattle. Then Mr Gillet asks him to join him to go see Mr Metz, carpenter in Cheneux, to bring back planks to make a coffin for his wife. On the road to Cheneux they suddenly encounter a German roadblock with a machine gun and some soldiers. At first the Germans refuse to let Mr Gillet and Pol through. They even push Mr Gillet aside. He then begs: “Stop! You have already killed Maria, nobody was as brave as she was! She never hurt anyone!” After these words, mainly spoken in Wallonian, a Belgium dialect, the Germans finally let them pass. Mr Metz however cannot guarantee that he can do what he is asked by Mr Gillet, as his house and workshop are taken over by the Germans!
Mr Gillet and Pol then returned to Moulin, where Mrs Lea Servais by that time has passed away. Pol returns with his father to Monceau. In Monceau, Mr Servais trusts Pol, Janine and Betsy to the care of Mr and Mrs Gregoire and returns to Moulin. The Gregoires also take care of Mr Servais’s cattle. During the night they take shelter with their daughter, Pol and his sisters in the basement of the Servais house. Also Mrs Renard and her children Claudy and Jocelyne, who fled from La Gleize, take shelter at that place.
Wednesday 20th December
This day, Monceau is the main target for artilleryfire from the Americans, who were located on the top of the village (it must be said that Mr
Gregoire even saw German soldiers on the yard of the Servais home). At least that is what Mr Gregoire thinks. He calls the fire department: the fire from the shelling has destroyed his stable, after already having destroyed an adjacent building, a stable and attic, belonging to, his brother-in-law, Mr Gilson. Two days later there was a calf with a burning back running through the streets of the village, so heavy was this fire. Somewhere further on, an artillerygrenade riddled the roof of mr Servais’ house. Fortunately it didn’t explode and lands in a store of oats. Much later the unexploded grenade is found.
As a result of these events, Mr Gregoire could no longer use the shelter in the basement at Mr Servais’ house. On the night of 20th to 21st December, Mr Gregoire and his family, Pol, his sisters and Mrs Renard and her children find shelter in a hole in the ground, dug by Mr Gregoire, near his house. Unfortunately it is a cold and damp place and they cannot sleep. Also because the children of Mrs Renard keep shouting to each other all the time: “Claudy! – Jocelyne!”
Thursday 21st December
Because they are not satisfied with the shelter beneath the ground, Pol and his unfortunate company return to the basement they used before as a shelter. Other people join the group there, one of them is Lucien Piron. Suddenly the silhouette of an American soldier appears in the doorway, carrying in his hand a grenade with the safety pin already removed. They manage to prevent the worst when Denise Gregoire shouts at him: “Belgian people!”
This group of refugees later has to sit on a store of potatoes because they have to make room for wounded American soldiers who are brought to the basement for treatment. One of them, severely wounded, makes a gesture in the direction of Mrs Gregoire, he wants her to hand him her rosary. He just holds it when he takes his last breath.
Friday 22nd December
On this day there is a temporary rest in the battles.
Pol is worried, he does not know what has happened to his father and his older sisters. Lucien Piron decided to take him to Moulin to find out what happened with them. On their way to Moulin, they see bodies of American soldiers. A bit further on the road the Americans are digging foxholes.
In Moulin there is nobody, except for the bodies of Mrs Gillet and Mrs Servais (Note: the Americans will be transporting them somewhat later to Werbomont where they are buried in a collective grave. Several months later, after having been identified by the family, they will be finally burried in the Cheneux cemetary).
What Pol didn’t not know at that moment, is that Alphonse Gillet, his daughters Renee and Marie, as well as Rene Servais and his two daughters are captured by the Germans and taken to Cheneux and locked up in the church, together with other inhabitants of the village.
On the other side of Moulin the Germans are digging foxholes.
Lucien and Pol returned home. They have just arrived when the fighting start again.
The Americans who took position in the village, forbid them to return to the house of Servais, because the officers have taken position over there. For Pol this is the next stresslevel. An American soldier notices this and suggests to Pol to take revenge. They have captured a German soldier and tied him up to a peartree next to Servais’s house. The American soldier gave his revolver to Pol and encouraged him to shoot the German, but Pol refuses to shoot.
In the afternoon, when some wet snow is falling, Pol and the others, who were still in Monceau, take the road to Beauloup. On their way they meet some American soldiers who enter the village after having gone around Cheneux.
In Beauloup, Pol and the rest find shelter in a farm on the edge of the hamlet. From their host they receive flour, to make some bread. (Their stay in the farm ends on the 25th of December.)
On the 22nd of december they witness the landing of German paratroopers.
Actually, it wasn’t paratroopers wich he saw. We discussed this in 2014. I asked Pol where he saw the German paratroopers and Pol pointed in the direction of La Gleize. I asked him how it all looked like. All of a sudden he was in doubt and shaked his head. “No,no…. It weren’t paratroopers! They dropped big tubes on parachutes from the planes.
Jochen Peiper got trapped in La Gleize and asked for supplies. The airdrop went wrong and all tubes landed behind American lines. This is what Pol witnessed.
Monday 25th December
At night, when Pol and the others were sleeping on a hay stack, men in American uniforms entered the stable. They point their flashlights on the faces of all the people present. Yvan Hakin and Laurent Gazon from La Gleize are with those men (in fact they were taken hostage). They say in Wallonian to the group: “Be carefull with what you say. These men are not Americans!”
In the morning two German soldiers walk down the road that connects La Vaulx-Renard with Beauloup. They put their guns to the fence, raise their arms and say in French that they want to surrender. They are from the Alsace region. Lucien Piron and the son of the farmer hand them over to the Americans.
Joseph Gregoire suggests to Pol to go to Monceau to feed the cattle. When they arrive Mr Gillet tells them that the Americans do not want to see civilians any more in the village. All cattle are therefore transported to a field that belongs to Mr Servais. There they can eat hay from a rack and drink water from the river flowing through the land.
Somewhat later Pol returns, as he is told by Mr Gregoire, to Beauloup with his father’s horse hitched to a cart. During the night it had frozen severely and Pol is cold, hungry and very tired. While walking to Beauloup again, Pol is feeling deeply unhappy.
All of a sudden he sees a tracked vehicle with American soldiers, coming from the opposite direction, walking on the small road to Beauloup. They tell him to turn around and that he not may proceed. Pol tries to make his horse turn around, but in vain. Totally demoralized and overwhelmed by emotions of the events he had to experience as a ten year old kid, he drops himself on to the road, ready to be driven over. But two Americans then lifted him up and asked their colleagues to step behind. The vehicles drove backwards for about 200 meters and Pol and his cart could pass through. While passing these men, they all applauding for him, something he never forgot.
In February 2014, Pol stated that, while passing the soldiers, his trousers and jacked were stuffed with chocolate. Even after all these years, he smiled by the remembrance, wich is unforgetable
Somewhat later Joseph Gregoire arrives as well with a horse and cart.
The elderly people step on the barrows and Pol and the rest leave Beauloup.
Under American escort they go to Moulin. They cannot take the road to Cheneux, a cannon seems to be blocking their way. Nearby the little bunker (the bunker were Joachim Peiper hid during the aerial attack, BK) and in the ‘Grappe de Cheneux’ they have to remove numerous bodies lying on the road, in order to pass. A depressing task, undermining the moral of Honore Quoilin, as she is convinced the whole group “is going to die”.
In Cheneux, Pol and the others witness another moving event. On a small slope sits Mr Foret, whose farm is burnt down. The man appears to be dead. Next to him sits his dog, alive and kicking.
On top of the village there are bodies of German soldiers all over.
A bit further on, Pol is happily surprised to find his father back. He is returning from the village of Chevron, where he had gone after the recapturing of Cheneux by the Americans. (It is not clear if the Americans rescued the civilians, BK)
At noon the group stops in Chevron, where they are given tasty soup by Pol’s niece, Elvire Bonmariage. The Americans then order the group to move on. It seems like they feared the arrival of Germans from the direction of Werbomont.
Finally in Chession, Alphonse Gillet, his two daughters, Pol, his father and his sisters find shelter. Mr Albert Servais disposes a house to them.
In februari 2014, Pol told me another story. It must have been around the last days he spent time in Monceau, before he was moved out of town to Lorcé. He said he was on his way to Beauloup when he saw three Americans in the distance. One guy was on the left side of the road, with a tripod aiming towards chateau Froidcour and the other two were on the right side of the road. His attention was drawn because the one on the left side was a ginger and it was the first ginger Pol ever saw in his life. Curious about these men, Pol approached them. When he came closer, he saw all the men were dead. And when he came closer, he saw the soldier on the left was not a ginger, but a soldier who was shot through the head. It was blood…..
From 26th December until 5th January
Except for Renee Gillet, who is about to have a baby, and is taken by a US medic in a American jeep to La Gleize for medical support, the shelter in Lorcé for the group ends on the 28th of December, the day on which the Americans again give the order to leave. This time they are heading for direction Xhierfomont. Pol is welcomed there by his uncle Maurice Matthieu, while his father and sisters are being welcomed by Marie Servais.
Pol’s father then gets permission to return to Monceau, but only for that day. Pol joins him. After having a meal at Mr Olivier Servais, another uncle of Pol, they leave and soon arrive at the totally destroyed village of Cheneux.
In Monceau they find Pol’s brother Roger. He is back in the village for two days now and has permission from the Americans to stay there to take care of the cattle. Pol decides to stay there with him. He and Roger stay in the basement of their old home. They are not allowed to enter the other rooms of the house, since all rooms are occupied by the Americans. At least the Americans give them some food and in exchange they ask Roger and Pol to provide them with some eggs.
One or two days after Pol has arrived, Mr. Huby, originally from the Waimes region, arrived with his wife in Monceau. Trying not to get caught by the German army mr. Huby had been hiding in the house of his parents-in-law. In the attic he had a little room of which the door was hidden behind a wardrobe.
On Sunday 7th of January Pol, Roger and the Huby’s visit a US service, on invitation by the Americans, which is held in the barn of Mr Francois Gillet.
Joseph Prince from Cheneux, whose farm burnt down, asked Pol if they can watch after his pony, they do so. They benefit by the occasion to go to the fields owned by their family and walk in the snow covered landscape. On one of these walks they discover several American raincoats, hung on poles. No doubt the owners had hung them there to dry and left them when they suddenly had to leave.
The next day other stuff is found, like a crate filled with chocolate bars, which should be limitedly consumed, especially in the evening, as they contained stimulating ingredients meant to keep you awake……
Here the story of Pol ends.
But, during one of the meetings I had, Pol tells me something that costed me some time to digest:
Years later, when Pol was an adolescent, a former German soldier came to le Vaulx Renard. He asked the lady of the house if she knew any relatives of the victims who were shot near the bridge of Cheneux. The lady of the house sent out one of the servants who went to Pol and picked him up. Pol spoke with this former soldier, who said that he was very sorry about what happend to his mum on that terrible day. This former soldier, who was the gunner of the Panther tank, started to shoot at the people near the bridge, because he saw a fully dressed man of the resistance with a submachine gun. The German was afraid he was going to blow up the Cheneux bridge….
Pol Servais is still living with his wife Mariette.
For years he was hoping to find out who the soldiers were who let him pas when he was on his way to Beauloup. And he still hopes to find out wich unit that was.
Personally, I think it was the 504th, company A who gave him this memory wich he never forgot.
In December 2014, a small monument was erected for the killed civilians at the bridge of Cheneux, a final honor to the mother of Pol Servais.
May we never forget….
Many thanks to:
– Pol Servais
– André Bodeux who wrote the story with Pol in april 2010
– Eveline Konings: translations on the spot, translation of Pol’s testimony in English
– Ron Langeveld: fieldtrips, filming and photographs
– Tom Konings: translation of documents
– Jo Peeters: sharing his fabulous knowledge of the Belgian resistance
Final editting, additions and storyplot by Bob Konings
– Pol Servais testimony
– Interviews and touring with Pol Servais
– Story about the killing of Hans Waldmüller
– Picture of Jules Dumont
– Duel in the mist, Timm Haasler a.o
– “SS Leibstandarte, Ace of the Waffen SS, Werner Herman Gustav Pötschke”, by David G. Williams
– “Snow and Steel: Battle of the Bulge 1944-45”, by Peter Caddick-Adams