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Two hours before midnight on 20 December the leading troops of the 84th entered Marche. The remainder of the division was coming out of the line about the same time, ready to begin the seventy-five-mile move from Germany to Belgium. As it stood it would be some twenty-four hours before Bolling could be sure of having the entire division in hand. The 84th had been blooded on the West Wall fortifications in the Geilenkirchen sector and had spent a month in combat before the move south. Battalions had been rotated in the front lines and were less battle-weary than many of the troops thrown into the Ardennes, but losses had been heavy and the division was short 1,278 men.


The area in which the 84th Division (and the VII Corps) would assemble was high and rolling. There was no well-defined system of ridges but instead a series of broad plateaus separated by deep-cut valleys. Although some sections were heavily forested, in general the countryside was given over to farm and pasture land dotted with small wood lots. Concealment was possible in the narrow stream valley and the larger forests. The sector in question was bounded on the east by the Ourthe River, a natural barrier of considerable significance. At a right angle to the Ourthe another and less difficult river line composed of the Lesse and its tributary, L'Homme, ran south of Marche, through Rochefort, and into the Meuse near Dinant. Beyond Marche a plateau suffused with the upland marshes and bogs so common to the Ardennes extended as far south as St. Hubert. Marche was the central and controlling road junction for the entire area between the middle Ourthe and the Meuse. Here crossed two extremely important paved highways; that running south from Liege to Sedan; and N4, the Luxembourg City-Namur road which ran diagonally from Bastogne northwest to Namur and the Meuse with an offshoot to Dinant. Eight miles south and west of Marche the Liege-Sedan highway passed through the town of Rochefort, at which point secondary but hard-surfaced roads broke away to the west, north, and southwest. Rochefort, by road, was approximately twenty miles from Dinant and the Meuse. Marche was some twenty-eight miles from Bastogne and about the same distance from the confluence of the Sambre and Meuse at Namur. The entire area was rich in all-weather primary and secondary roads. (Map VIII)


In the small, dark hours of 21 December while the leading regimental team of the 84th Infantry Division was outposting Marche and bedding down in the town, the advance guard of the crack 2d Panzer Division bivouacked on the west bank of the Ourthe only fifteen miles away. Neither of these future antagonists had knowledge of the other. At this point in the battle, the Fifth Panzer Army had taken the lead from the Sixth, whose hell-for-leather Peiper had run his tanks into a net on the north flank. Two armored divisions from the Fifth were driving for the gap which German reconnaissance had found open between the XVIII Airborne Corps and the VIII Corps. In the north the 116th