Living memory of Bastogne

© Bastogne War Museum
© Bastogne War Museum
© Bastogne War Museum
© Bastogne War Museum

Living memory of Bastogne

by: Martin Cugnon | .
Bastogne War Museum | .
published: November 08, 2016

Bastogne, the name of a small town in the Belgian Ardennes, is forever associated with the Battle of the Bulge and the incredible resistance of famous American units, among them the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division. Now a peaceful place of memory with an impressive memorial and interpretation center, Bastogne is a major site of American history in Europe.

An otherwise peaceful town

Though an important crossroads in conflict since the Middle Ages, Bastogne was never struck as hard as during the sinister winter of 1944. Despite several wars that crossed what would become tiny Belgium, Bastogne remained protected by its walls. The Porte de Trèves, once a tower of those fortifications, can still be seen next to the Church of Saint-Pierre.

Surprisingly, the town survived WWI and the German invasion of May 1940 nearly unscathed. In autumn 1944, after 5 years of terror across Europe, North Africa and Russia, the Nazis were finally facing total annihilation. Celebrating liberation on Sept. 10, 1944, the inhabitants of Bastogne did not know the worst part of their history was yet to come.

The Battle of the Bulge

Not giving up on victory, Hitler was preparing for a final full-scale offensive to break the Allies’ efforts in the west. Coined Operation Wacht am Rhein, the German plan was to wait for weather conditions that would suppress the Allies’ air superiority, and strike hard through the area they had already broken through in 1914 and 1940.

On Dec. 16, 1944 at 5:30 a.m., the Germans launched an inferno on the otherwise quiet American lines. Bastogne was one of the major objectives of Hitler’s last ditch offensive. The major crossroads was key to the quick access to bridges on the Meuse River, which had to be taken intact to reach the port of Antwerp, through which vital supplies were brought to the allies.

After a huge artillery barrage, masses of German soldiers and tanks emerged from the fog, overwhelming outnumbered U.S. lines. Once aware of the scale of the attack, the Allies committed their reserves, consisting mainly of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. These divisions were neither fully resupplied nor equipped for the harsh winter conditions, but were deployed nevertheless.

Nuts

South of Bastogne, troops could only slow the Germans down enough to buy time to build a defensive perimeter around the town. On the evening of Dec. 21, Bastogne was surrounded. Largely outnumbered and lacking ammo and supplies, the 101st, along with isolated servicemembers from different outfits, was seemingly in a desperate situation.

An ultimatum came from the German commander, urging the surrounded forces to surrender, only to receive a surprising reply from the acting commander of the 101st Airborne Division Brigadier General McAuliffe. Confident in the ability of paratroopers to resist to the last bullet, he sent back a bitter “NUTS,” soon to become a symbol of resistance and defiance.

On Dec. 23, the sky finally cleared, allobesieged Bastogne. American troops were not to give up! On Dec. 26, soldiers of Patton’s Third Army finally broke the encirclement. The siege was over. The Battle of the Bulge would drag on yet another month, claiming the lives of many soldiers and civilians. Its brutality made it one of the bloodiest battles of American history.

A place of memory

Since those troubled times, Bastogne reclaimed peace, but residents never forgot the winter of 1944. After the war, the concept emerged of a memorial to the American servicemen who gave their lives during the battle. A first stone was set down on July 4, 1946, followed in 1950 by a huge memorial shaped as a five-pointed star. The Mardasson Memorial now stands as a tribute to the many young men who fought valiantly to free Belgium of tyranny.

On request of wives and mothers of the fallen, a crypt was added on the ground of Mardasson Hill, next to the monument. This sanctuary for peace displays three altars, one for each major religion of those who fought in the U.S. Army. Mosaics were built by famous French artist Fernand Leger, making the monument one of the jewels of Bastogne.

A brand-new experience

In March 2014, a new interpretation center opened its doors near the impressive Mardasson Memorial. Equipped with the most modern scenography, it follows history through the eyes of four fictional characters: Emile, a Belgian schoolboy; Mathilde, a young teacher; Robert, a corporal of the 101st Airborne Division; and Hans, a German officer.

Well-documented panels, as well as more than 1,000 original artifacts, illustrate a complete timeline: starting at the causes of the conflict, culminating at the Battle of the Bulge and ending with the world-shaking consequences of this global
conflict. Three immersive movies bring visitors closer to the conditions soldiers and civilians faced during one of the worst winters in Belgian history. This new approach immerses visitors in the lives of witnesses as never before. 

In less than three years of existence, the Bastogne War Museum has welcomed more than 300,000 visitors, an unexpected but well-deserved success. With the objective of becoming a true reference center on WWII and the Battle of the Bulge, many new activities are to be offered in the future, such as battlefield tours, educational activities for youngsters, temporary exhibits, conferences and many more.

Nuts Days

If you wish to discover this incredible new site of memory, the best time might be Dec. 10, 2016. Each year on the second weekend of December, Bastogne remembers the battle during “Nuts Days.” Actors and period vehicles fill the streets and meet you on legendary battle sites, such as the Bois Jacques. Moreover, actors from the famous “Band of Brothers” series will be back for the first time in 15 years for autograph signing sessions to raise funds for the WWII Foundation. If you wish to take part in this incredible opportunity, please send an email to info@bastognewarmuseum.be. Be aware, places are very limited!

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