Trois-Ponts (or Three Bridges) sits at the intersection of two quaint rivers, the Salm and the Ambleve. It is a small village, but hardly peaceful. A steady stream of motorcycles and cars zoom by in the midst of their summer joy rides. To the east, the road heads towards Germany via Stavelot and Malmedy. To the south, the road leads to Luxembourg, and to the west towards Huy, across the Meuse River and onwards in the direction of Antwerp. I stepped into a busy bend in the road during a brief respite of vehicles to look up at the façade of a building. I pulled out my phone to snap a photo when the proprietor of the ice cream cafe in the building emerged from the entrance and started to interrogate me suspiciously in French. I pointed up, and he looked in the direction of my finger, not interpreting the significance of my gesture. My futile efforts in pantomime revealed the unsympathetic man’s lack of historical awareness, so I just nodded and smiled until it was clear to him that I was neither spying on tenants nor reporting him to the county building inspector. In a sarcastic kind of way, I imagined the same guy rushing out in his apron in December 1944 to scold some crouching American GI’s completely oblivious to the fact that the Germans had just strafed the front of his building with machine gun fire.
Trois-Ponts was right in the coming path of the Kampfgruppe Peiper, lead by infamous SS-Standartenführer Joachim Peiper of the 6th Panzer Division. They were on their way to Huy along the River Meuse and that way ran right thru Trois-Ponts. But to do so required crossing the bridges over the Salm and Ambleve Rivers. The Americans were aware of the strategic importance of Trois-Ponts and blew up the bridges, forcing Peiper to detour north towards the village of Cheneux to find another way across. The events occurring in this area around the days of December 18-25 are what is known as the Battle of Trois-Ponts. It is within this crucial conflict that we find ourselves on a beautiful August day.
Ironically, this hike would go on to suffer similar frustrations, not by blown-up bridges but by a huge tract of private property owned by a power company around a large reservoir. This prevented the hike from being a circular route.
|Starting/Ending Point||Parking in Trois-Ponts|
|My Moving Time||4h 27m|
It’s Not Just a Beer, It’s a Journey
I parked along the road just before the Trois-Ponts train station. The hike heads uphill along the road behind the station and a trail runs off into the forest. With such rapturous late Summer weather, it is hard to contemplate how it would have been around December 18, 1944. The sound of rumbling Panzer tanks or the footfalls of German soldiers on dead leaves would have echoed through these woods.
While the Americans and their 57mm anti-tank gun were hunkered down around Trois-Ponts, Pieper and his men were coming in from the east. The Americans were outnumbered twenty to one1. Lying in the German path was an old chateau where Benedictine nuns were looking after more than 40 displaced or orphan children. This was Petit Spay. Once the SS arrived, they promptly assassinated the priest, and the woman and children were forced to hide out in the dark cold basement where they remained for almost two weeks. It was only after the more sympathetic German Volksgrenadiers came along after that the children were moved to a new safer location. Meanwhile, they faced an even greater threat from the American Air Force which bombed the area relentlessly when the cloudy skies would permit2.
The way to Petit Spay is a haunting road when you know the story. The structures still exist, overrun by nature, like corpses which the overly-imaginative cinematic mind fully expects to suddenly open their eyes and detect you. I have one of those kinds of imaginations, so I preferred to keep moving rather than explore the creepy isolated ruins; meanwhile, trying to at least give the memory of the incident a measure of respect. Click here for an old postcard image of Chateau Petit Spay.
After Petit-Spay, I walked back to Trois-Ponts by the main road, in historical context called the road to Trois-Ponts from Stavelot and Malmedy. This is not a pleasant road to walk along as cars are bursting from the speed limit constraints of Trois-Ponts and accelerating back to joy ride speed. In December 1944, this road would have been infinitely worse; lined with refugees from eastern Belgium trying to stay ahead of the German lines or by the ruthless Kampfgruppe Peiper and their advance. At the eastern entrance to the city are memorials to both the American military and the Belgian civilian victims.
Memorial to the 526th Armored Infantry Battalion
This memorial honors the Americans who defended this area with the 57mm anti-tank gun.
Memorial to the Civilian Victims
The hike then passes back through Trois-Ponts. For beer lovers, I strongly recommend to stop into Au Petit Lou, a shop selling local products. They have a fine selection of local beers. I picked up a bottle of La Vieux Pont which I carried with me on the hike for the featured photo.
From here the hike heads north out of the village but not before passing a bunker.
The hike heads upward with a grand view looking back over Trois Pont. The Salm River valley is in the center and the forest where Petit Spay is located is in the hill on the distant left.
The hike continues upwards past the eyesore of the reservoir and eventually bypasses it thru some beautiful forest.
Eventually you will come out to a panoramic viewpoint which is basically showing you the area that became known as Peiper’s High Watermark or the furthest he’d reached before turning back. You can see Stoumont and La Gleize from here, which I will feature in a future post.
Along the road down thru the small village of Monceau towards Cheneux, there are signs referring to this way as Les Souffrances de Decembre 44 (The Sufferings of December 44), memorializing the evacuation route taken by civilians.
At the base of Cheneux is what is known as Peiper’s Pillbox, a small Belgian-built fortification that Peiper took cover in during an American bombing raid.
Squinting against the light of day, the inhabitants of Cheneux barely recognized their village. There were ruins everywhere and houses were still smoldering… Paratroopers had to take care of so many of their own casualties that for a while after battle they scarcely paid attention to the civilians dead in the streets.The Unknown Dead: Civilians in the Battle of the Bulge by Peter Schrijvers (2005)
Civilians holed up in this chapel for 3 days during the battle, emerging after the Americans had secured the village.
Cheneux Civilian Memorial
Memorial to the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment
From Cheneux, the hike doubles back to the reservoir and then veers into the village of Brume before arriving back in Trois-Ponts.
The hike then heads back down into Trois-Ponts where there is one final memorial near the church.
Memorial to the 80th Airborne Antiaircraft Battalion and 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment
A perfect way to end a great hike is to have the local “city beer”, a La Vieux Pont blond at the Brasserie du Vieux Pont.
Prior to the arrival of Kampfgruppe Peiper to Trois-Ponts, the “fatal road to Trois-Ponts”2 had already been the scene of numerous SS barbarities against civilians. Schrijvers describes one scene which seems right out of an exploitation film where an “SS soldier in an armored vehicle laughed hysterically as he emptied his machine gun in the house…”. By blowing up the three bridges, the Americans slowed Peiper’s progress but also diverted his wrath into the path of other small villages like Cheneux and Monceau. As I sipped my beer and watched the joy-riders navigating the bend in the road, anxious to reach the edge of town and hit the gas down that infamous road, I thought of the ice cream proprietor who probably has never wondered why there are chunks missing in some of the bricks of his building façade. As time goes by, the memories become like Petit Spay, a hollow shell overgrown with weeds. The threats to Belgium these days are not coming from the territorial aspirations of their neighbors. It becomes harder and harder to connect today’s privileges with the events that occurred in December 1944. Every time I do these hikes, it is still touching to see these memorials, most of them quite humble. It is human nature to see the engraved names on them without really seeing them. Each of those individuals stared down the barrel of a gun or faced their worst fears. The ear-shattering rumble of some motorcycles suddenly snapped me out of these thoughts. I returned my attention to the here and now. My beer, tired legs, and the beautiful day.
- Citizen Soldiers by Stephen Ambrose (1997)
- Unknown Dead: Civilians in the Battle of the Bulge (2005)