Belgium / Monument
Hitler's last major offensive in the West, while accumulating devastation, also highlighted a number of civilians who played a key role in rescue operations. Their commitment is often little known as the Battle of the Bulge has long been seen as an exclusively military episode.
The fate of Renée Lemaire (1914-1944) is a good example of the civilian involvement in events. Young Renée, the daughter of shopkeepers in Bastogne, was trained as a nurse. During the war, she worked at the Brugmann Hospital in Brussels. As the Christmas holidays approached, she decided to join her family for Christmas Eve. This turned out to be bad idea. On 22 December, she found herself surrounded by her fellow citizens and the men of the US 101st Airborne Division.
Spontaneously, she volunteered as a medical assistant, finding herself assigned by Captain-Surgeon Jack T. Prior to the medical unit of the 20th Armored Infantry Battalion, established in the disused Sarma store in the rue de Neufchâteau. This store’s advantage was that it had kitchens in the back, where the Americans had set up a temporary hospital that housed 150 of them. For two days, she worked tirelessly with another nurse, Augusta Chiwy, to care for, feed and comfort the wounded. But on 24 December, a Luftwaffe bombing hit the field hospital hard. 30 bodies, including Renée’s, were found in the rubble. According to some, in particular for Captain Prior, who would become the passionate defender of her memory, she perished while trying to save several wounded prisoners out of the burning building. According to others, she was killed instantly, and only "the upper half of her body" was found in the ruins of the building.
Either way, thanks to the soldiers of the very popular 101st Airborne Disivion and to various U.S. media, including Hollywood films, Renée became the 'Angel of Bastogne' in the eyes of new generations across the Atlantic. Her tragic disappearance on Christmas Eve accelerated her process of becoming an iconic legend.
On the 50th anniversary of her death, a commemorative plaque was affixed to the building, on the rue de Neufchâteau, which now houses a Chinese restaurant. She now rests in the communal cemetery of Bastogne, not far from Augusta Chiwy, who died in 2015.