Exploring Bastogne, Belgium

Exploring Bastogne, Belgium

by Melissa Shock
Stripes Europe

Close to the Luxembourg border, Bastogne is a small, French-speaking Belgian village in the Ardennes forest. It would have gone unnoticed if it hadn’t been the stage for one of the most famous battles of the second world war. This year marks the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.

It was December 1944 when Germany launched its last major offensive in the west. Hitler had assembled an army with the goal of breaking through the Ardennes forest and capturing the port of Antwerp. He wanted to divide the U.S. and British armies geographically, hoping to splinter their alliance. The allied troops, mostly American, were caught off guard. Outnumbered and lacking cold weather gear, food and medical supplies, the Allies were forced back by the German offensive. The weather too seemed to favor the German advance as bitter cold affected the under-equipped American army and the dense fog and cloud cover prevented their air forces from resupply and defense.

The Germans pushed deeper into the American front lines forming the distinctive bulge for which the battle is now known. Despite the odds, the Allied armies resisted and the much renowned 101st Airborne’s defense of the little village of Bastogne began. It was there the story of Germany’s last chance for victory in WWII was laid to rest by an unexpectedly determined and heroic defense.

Bastogne War Museum

The Bastogne War Museum takes visitors back in time to understand the reality of the battle with interactive experiences and vibrant exhibits. The museum is designed to guide visitors through three major phases of WWII; the prewar years and rise of extremist movements, the invasion of 1940 through 1944, and lastly December 1944 through the end of the war in 1945. It uniquely does so with the help from four main characters: a U.S. Corporal, a German Lieutenant, a teacher from Bastogne and a young school boy. These characters guide visitors through the museum with anecdotes of their past and how WWII and the Battle of the Bulge specifically had affected them and their country. This portion adds perspective and creates a powerful representation of lives that were forever altered by the event that took place in Bastogne.

The museum delivers a total immersion in history with bold architecture, 3D experiences, new technology, and hundreds of military and civilian relics. It allows visitors to truly experience the war within context that so many other war museums lack. For a complete listing open days, times and entrance fees, visit www.bastognewarmuseum.be.

Mardasson Memorial

Located near the War Museum, the Mardasson Memorial is a five-pointed star honoring the 76,890 American soldiers that were wounded or killed during the battle. The inner walls of the memorial artistically tell the story of the battle through 10 paintings, while the outer crown lists the names of the then 48 states, and the insignia of most participating battalions are engraved on the outer walls. Visitors can climb the spiral staircase at one of the star points to see a panoramic view of the defensive positions held during the siege of Bastogne to understand the terrain. The memorial also celebrates the friendship of two nations brought together during the battle. A beautiful Latin inscription on the memorial translates to “The Belgian people remember their American liberators.”

Bastogne Barracks

The Bastogne Barracks is a museum of sorts originally used as the headquarters of the U.S. 101st Airborne during the Battle of the Bulge. The museum tour includes the basement office where General McAuliffe issued the response that has forever imprinted itself on the pages of American military history. Faced with a surrender ultimatum, General McAuliffe gave an off-key and morale-boosting response of “Nuts!” The museum features a large collection of restored tanks and military vehicles, artillery, and equipment from the U.S., German and British forces.

Bois de la Paix (Wood of Peace)

Twenty years ago at the Battle’s 50th anniversary, 4,000 trees were planted at this location honoring the American veterans who fought in Bastogne, Belgian soldiers and all civilians. Although only visible from the air, the Wood of Peace is laid out to recreate the UNICEF emblem of a mother and child, which symbolizes human tenderness. Every veteran that came to Bastogne for the anniversary in 1994 was able to choose a tree, where an engraved plaque would bear his name and act as a monument to his service and sacrifice.

101st Airborne Museum

In the middle of town, the 101st Airborne Museum is located in a historical building previously occupied by German, Belgian and U.S. armies at various points throughout the war. The museum has created life-like scenes from the war including a hospital for the caretaking of wounded soldiers. Their newest display shows visitors what the citizens of Bastogne endured in their basements and bomb shelters by replicating a German air raid. The museum also offers battleground tours, which take visitors to actual scenes from the Battle of the Bulge, based on after-battle reports and stories from 101st Airborne veterans.

The Sherman Tank

You haven’t been to Bastogne if you haven’t taken a picture with The Sherman Tank. Cherished by locals and located next to the Tourist Office in McAuliffe Square, this popular tank belonged to the 11th Armored Division. Although now completely restored, in December 1944 it was taken out of action in the village of Renuamont after a German attack, with the entire tank crew being captured.

Bastogne is hallowed ground for any military history buff, but the sites and feel of this little Belgian village give more than just a history lesson. The memorials and stories that visitors are sure to encounter here show the depth and gravity of one of the most important conflicts of the second world war. On its 70th anniversary, step back in time to discover how Bastogne made history books. 

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