CHRISTMAS ’44: When the dancing had to stop.

On 16 December, code-named “Autumn Mist”, Hitler’s last great offensive was launched by three German armies in the Belgian Ardennes. Falling on the weakest part of the entire Allied front and its unprepared American defenders, more than eight thousand of whom surrendered in the initial assault, it was the beginning of what came to be known as The Battle of the Bulge.

 At this time we were still “resting” in Bocholt, Belgium, and I was writing to my elder brother, who was a pilot in Atlantic Ferry Command, thanking him for the marvellously welcome gift of a pair of sheepskin-lined flying boots which were, I told him  “worth their weight in gold”.

Four days later, the northern sector of the “bulge”, nearest to Antwerp, was put under British  command and a diary entry recorded “Slow move south through Malines and Louvain to position on high ground about 20 kms south of Brussels. Then, move south again in dark to position near Waterloo.”

SOMETIME DURING THE NIGHT OF DECEMBER 23rd, in a large and picturesque thatched cottage near Maransart, a few miles south of the village of Waterloo, our arrival disturbed a 55-year old Belgian artist , his wife, and their 21-year-old daughter, Denise. The family had moved there from Brussels in 1939 and was now awakened by the noise of heavy motor vehicles in the lane that skirted the property, then of their manoeuvering on the partly open ground near the cottage. British voices could be heard, shouting orders.

It might have been the beginning of a novel such as might be written for those famous publishers of romantic fiction, Mills and Boon. In the morning, a young British officer appeared at the cottage, asking where the nearest water supply point might be found. Right there, if only moderate quantities were needed, Madame said. The young officer was invited to take coffee. Thus I met the enchanting Denise for the first time. “All right for some!”, one of my troop sergeants remarked sardonically when it later emerged that at night I would be sleeping on a divan in the cottage instead of being obliged to bed down in the makeshift command post. But his imagination ran far ahead of reality. Romance there would be in plenty, but almost heartbreaking in its innocence. We were many years and a social revolution short of Philip Larkin and the Beatles’ first LP.

As Hitler had hoped, on the Ardennes front atrocious flying weather kept the Allied air forces grounded. Such news as we heard on public broadcasts (there was little or nothing from respectable military sources) was of continuing enemy progress and of confusion on the part of the American defenders. At regimental level we were given to understand that our rôle was the defence of the capital and the blocking of the way to Antwerp. Histrionically – as we assumed – rather than seriously, there was mention of the artillery’s traditional die-where-you stand order of ‘last man; last round’.

“You’re welcome here whenever the fancy takes you”, Madame said, meaning in particular the four or five of the battery’s junior officers they now met. Brussels had been cleared of the enemy less than a month before and on the part of the Belgians the joy was still of liberation; on ours, literally and metaphorically, it was that of coming in from the cold. A large open hearth and a plentiful supply of wood kept the cottage wonderfully cosy. The family insisted that we eat meals with them. Judiciously and deliciously we did. There were hot baths. Mending and laundry was done.

My troop position being significantly closer than any of the other three, propinquity, that most powerful of advantages, was on my side, and I was able to spend more time in the cottage than anyone else did. No less of a head start, and equally fortuitous, my French happened to be more confident than that of my battery colleagues. The artist and his wife spoke English fluently, but their daughter’s command of the language, though unforgettably endearing, was rudimentary. Finally, as the youngest of our junior officers, I was nearest her in age. “You children” was how the artist’s wife was inclined to address us when we were together. There was an unmistakable wistfulness in her maternal affection for both of us. She had been a young woman in another war and seen other hardly-fledged young men in uniform holding hands with other starry-eyed girls of twenty-one.

On 23 December Louise, one of Denise’s many cousins and “Mac”, her unofficial fiancé, arrived from Brussels.  I was legitimately off-duty all day and the four of us went to Mont St. Jean and the ridge from which Wellington had directed his troops in the decisive stages of the battle on 18 June, 1815. The weather cleared. While I strove to picture the events of 129 years ago, Allied aircraft heading for the “bulge” and the devastating erosion of the Panzer invaders, crowded the otherwise unblemished blue sky. Absurdly, we waved and cheered them on from the steps of the Lion of Waterloo.

Though it had never for a moment occurred to us, their newfound British friends, that the German offensive might ultimately succeed, it had been different for the Belgians. They lacked the blissful ignorance of our generation. The elders especially had adult memories of the First World War and the barbaric destruction of Louvain. They had lived through the blitzkrieg of 1940 and four years of occupation. They had not forgotten Dunkirk. Now, the sight of Allied air power flooding south immensely heartened them and that evening there was an almost palpable sense of relief as well as gaiety in the cottage. Champagne cooled in buckets on the frozen lawn and sparkled together with our eager chatter.

Next day, the troop was busy with preparations for a midday Christmas dinner to be held in a neighbouring barn. In the cottage a magnificent Christmas tree, decorations, things to eat and drink and armfuls of presents had arrived in two cars from Brussels along with an aunt and uncle, and more cousins – Christiane and Gérard. Tireless, ant-like industry, not least in the kitchen, turned the cottage into an Aladdin’s cave of colour, brilliance, and richly scented promise. In the Ardennes, the American 101st Airborne were surrounded at Bastogne and men were dying of cold in their foxholes. A legend (powerfully to be evoked 60 years on in Band of Brothers) was in the making, but we knew nothing of it. We drank more champagne, dined convivially and superbly by candlelight, rolled back the carpet and danced to Glen Miller. Denise said it was all “vachement chaleureux”.

In the very small hours there was a loud and urgent knocking at the cottage door.  Orders had come for a move before 10 am. The dancing stopped. The grown-ups went to bed. The “children”, energy abruptly dissipated, sprawled by the fire, too shocked and dispirited at first to talk, then sometimes murmuring the sort of endearments that are not dared among new acquaintances until high emotion overrules the inhibitions of convention. The candles burned low.

Shall I be believed when I swear that the taste of someone else’s tears is as real to me today as it was so long ago? I can hear Denise’s sobs immediately after the momentary, stunned silence that followed the arrival of the duty officer. Her cheek is against mine. With tenderness I am glad of, and which I hope provokes no embarrassment for the reader, I can recall the scent of her hair as later she slept in my arms there by the dying fire. Louise was sitting on the carpet, her cheek against the knees of one of my seniors. Christiane was sleeping on cushions, her head in Mac’s lap. There had been apple wood in the fire and in my fancy now I can hear it hissing. There was cognac in my glass and today the taste of cognac is remembrance of all those things.

Standing in my vehicle as we passed along the lane soon after 10 a.m., heading south to the battle for the Meuse, I waved at the little group gathered at the bottom edge of the artist’s steeply sloping lawn. As they waved back, Denise turned away suddenly and ran back up to the cottage. The others were still waving when a bend in the road hid them from view.