Belgium’s Forgotten Angels
On 16th December 1944, German forces began a counteroffensive that aimed at turning the tide for Germany. The attack, focused in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium, France and Luxemburg, aimed to divide the Allied forces, cut off Allied use of the port of Antwerp and prevent the Allies from reaching Germany. The Battle the followed would become known as the Battle of the Bulge. The area around town of Bastogne in southern Belgium came under siege, and it was here that two Belgian women would show their heroism and bravery, in the midst of one of the costliest battles of the Second World War.
Renee Bernadette Emilie Lemaire, a nurse born in April 1914 in Bastogne, had travelled from Brussels to visit her parents, who owned a hardware shop in the town, when then German offensive began. Renee had been engaged to a Jewish man, named Joseph, who had been arrested by the Gestapo in 1943. As she was unable to leave Bastogne, she decided, on 21st December, to volunteer at a American Military aid station for the American 20th Armoured Infantry Battalion, where many wounded soldiers were evacuated during the siege. Alongside Renee, was her friend and fellow volunteer Augusta Chiwy, a Belgian-Congolese nurse born in 1921 in modern day Burundi. Augusta was also visiting her parents in
Bastogne, when the call for volunteers arrived, owing to the shortage of medical personnel in the town.
Dr Jack Prior had been the Battalion surgeon at the SARMA aid station, based on Rue Neufchateau, near the town square, and worked with both of these women. Dr Prior said that Augusta, ‘was always in the thick of the splinting, dressing and haemorrhage control’ and Renee, who found it difficult dealing with some of the more horrific casualties, ‘had cheerfully accepted the herculean task and worked without adequate food or rest’. As well as administering medical care, these women fed and bathed the wounded. Dr Prior believed ‘the presence of these two girls was a morale factor of the highest order’.
On the freezing night of 24th December 1944, midway through what would turn into a week long battle, a German shell hit the aid station. Renee Lemaire continued to re-enter the burning building and evacuated six soldiers but tragically died, alongside with thirty other US soldiers. Dr Jack Prior later stated that he recovered her remains and presented them to her parents wrapped up in a white parachute. Dr Prior asked for the Commanding General for a commendation for Renee, stating that ‘her very presence among those wounded men seemed to be an inspiration those whose morale had declined’. The commendation was not acknowledged. Augusta was also nearly killed that night, having been blown through a wall. She continued to work with Dr Prior, in a new aid station, until January 1945, when the Battalion left Bastogne. Augusta continued her work as a nurse after end of the war and kept in contact with Dr Prior until his death in 2007.
There is a plague on the site of the former aid station in Bastogne in memory of both Renee and the US troops killed that night in 1944. Augusta was awarded a Knight of the Order of Belgium in 2011 and was given a Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service by the US Government. Both of these women were briefly but beautifully portrayed in the series Band of Brothers and although they were inaccurately depicted as serving the 101st Airborne
Division, it did bring these two women to the attentions of many for the first time.
The people of Bastogne are immensely proud of these two women, who put themselves forward to help the casualties of the siege. Both women put themselves in the path of danger, for which Renee paid the ultimate sacrifice, and showed courage, bravery, kindness and humility in some of the darkest days of the war. Friends Renee Lemaire and Augusta Chiwy, who died aged 94 in 2015, are buried near to each other in the same cemetery in Bastogne.