The offensive was launched on 16 December, 1944, the Germans taking advantage of overcast weather conditions which grounded the superior Allied air force. Four German armies totalling nearly 250,000 men invaded the countryside from Monschau to Echternach. The offensive achieved total surprise for both Belgian and American troops resting in the region. Much weaker in numbers, they were quickly overwhelmed by events. However, they still managed to slow the German advance in a number of key places. The 6th Panzer Army, charged with seizing Antwerp, advanced much slower than expected. The 5th Panzer Army was slowed by Allied troops in St. Vith, yet continued on all the same. This Army group seized Manhay, Houffalize, La Roche, Rendeux, Saint-Hubert and Rochefort before 25th December. The Allies were swift to react; several divisions were sent to the Ardennes salient as early as 17th December. Initial delays combined with the Allied military powers and the lack of fuel finally defeated the German advance. The offensive was stopped, once and for all, at Christmas near Dinant. However, smaller battles were to continue and even intensify in some places over the coming weeks. On 28th December Hilter made the decision to abandon the march on Antwerp and to concentrate the bulk of his forces on the beseiged city of Bastogne, under attack since 19th December. Bastogne resisted, with particular thanks to the American 101st Airborne Division, reinforced by the 10th Armoured Division. The city and its surroundings because a theatre of war. After having broken the siege from the south on 26th December, General Patton’s Third Army went on to battle against an enemy determined to seize the symbolic city of Bastogne.
Finally on 23rd December, clear skies allowed the Allied air force to take wing. It proceeded in a direct attack of the enemy’s front, and also systematically pounded the supply lines to the rear. The invaded regions suffered greatly. The villages of La Roche-en-Ardenne and Houffalize, both located in valleys, were completely razed to hinder the passage of the German supplies to the front. According to historian Peter Schrijvers, approximately a third of the civilian victims of the Battle of the Bulge lost their lives during the Allied air raids. Artillery, both enemy and friendly fire, is lethal to the local population. Many civilians were also victims of land mines, grenades and stray bullets. In addition to the military personnel directly involved in the battle, more than 250 civilians were massacred by the Nazis.
During these difficult times, locals often sought out some security by coming together. Solidarity is an effective tool in managing extreme situations. Some civilians hid under the forest blankets, others in stables or barns. Most civilian chose to take refuge in their own homes, sharing their cellars with both friendly and enemy soldiers.
During lulls in the fighting adults left their shelter to search for supplies essential to survival, to tend to their cattle or to bury their dead. During battle, civilians a limited to a range of emotions, moving from uncertainty to anxiety and back. Jean Guillaume, a 13 year old boy from Sibret in the Bastogne region later gave his impression of life in the cellars. « The military move, protect and are the masters of the game. The civilians are, for their part, swept away like a straw in a stream ». In this environment, religion was often a refuge, especially in a particularly devout region as was the Ardennes in the early 19th Century.
For inhabitants living north of the salient, the ordeal went on for over a month. The Allies had to move the invader back to the start line of the invasion. On 3rd January, 1945 the American 1st Army and the 30th British Infantry Division counterattacked from the north-west. German troops began to withdraw but offered a fierce resistance. The Allied counter-offensive was slow and tough for both sides, who were also now facing the onslaught of winter. Temperatures occasionally dropped to below 20 degrees and the snow fall measured more than 40 centimetres in places. The Germans suffered greatly from the loss of supplied. The weather conditions also hindered the movement of armies and trenches were rife with cases of frostbite. The Anglo-Americans continued to push the enemy, who refuses to give up without a vigorous fight. On 16th January at Houffalize, the American 1st Army coming from the north joined General Patton’s troops coming from the south. St. Vith was retaken by the Americans on 23rd January, 1945. On the 31st, the German armies were pushed back beyond the lines they had seized a month and a half earlier. The Battle of the Bulge was finally over. As of that moment, the Americans continued to attack towards the Roer, a border river between the High Fens and Germany. Further north-west, the British, for their part, moved towards the German-Dutch border in the Lower Rhine region.
For the protagonists of this infamous battle the losses were significant. The exact number of the dead, wounded, those taken prisoner and the missing are difficult to define. According to some research, the Reich lost between 70,000 and 110,00 men. On the Allied side, the losses totalled between 75,000 and 80,000 combatants. For civilians caught up in the line of fire, the toll was also heavy. In Belgium, between 2,000 and 2,500 people were killed, while in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, approximately 500 people lost their lives. The infrastructure of the area also suffered greatly from the clashes. At least 11,000 buildings were decommissioned in the three Belgian provinces of Namur, Liège and Luxembourg.