Belgium / Story

Demining the Ardennes




As the experience of the First World War had amply demonstrated, the end of the fighting did not mark the end of the danger in the combat zone. The ground was littered with weapons, mines and ammunition. The same applied to the Ardennes.

Although the end of the fighting was a relief for the civilian population, the traces of the recent clashes remained. Destroyed houses, ravaged crops, slaughtered livestock added to the loss of human lives. Also, many wounded people did not survive, and new victims were caused by mines that were temporarily hidden by snow or deliberately buried. In addition to being dangerous, their presence hindered the resumption of communications, forestry and the recultivation of land. In the vicinity of Bastogne alone, around 40 victims were reported. More than 150 civilians were said to have died in hospitals during the first months of 1945.

Sometimes, young boys fell victim after left-behind military relics caught their attention. In Steffeshausen (in the contemporary municipality of Burg-Reuland), four young boys aged ten to thirteen died in May 1945 after playing with grenades. The demining of the Ardennes was an urgent matter. It began on 17 February 1945, under extremely difficult conditions and with voluntary and poorly protected personnel. Belgian soldiers from the 1st Ardennes battalion, which consisted of both professional soldiers and conscripts, took over afterwards. Allied soldiers were also involved in cleaning up the battlefields, but this was not their priority.

In October 1945, the Ministry of Defence considered the task completed: approximately 4,800 km² had been cleared, and some 5,800 tonnes of dangerous devices, including 114,000 mines, had been neutralised. Some deminers paid for this work with their lives. Not all the mines could be found, and new lethal explosions still made the news. The last victim fell in the summer of 1972. Deminers continued their work. In 1953, the Monument National des Démineurs (national monument to the deminers) was erected in Stavelot. It has more than 120 names engraved on it. It is not the only one, however. Other monuments and steles pay tribute to them in various villages throughout the Ardennes.