Tracing the Battle of the Bulge

Photo by: Sharon Odegaard
Photo by: Sharon Odegaard

Tracing the Battle of the Bulge

by Sharon Odegaard
Stripes Europe

Belgium is a country of peaceful farmland, canals and charming small towns. But, due to its location between France and Germany, it was the site of terrible fighting in both World War I and World War II. Echoes of the Battle of the Bulge can be heard today in the small city of Bastogne as well as the nearby village of Foy.

Bastogne is one of those quiet places that would have remained unknown to the world had it not suffered the misfortune of being caught in one of the largest land battles of World War II. Just a few months earlier, Bastogne was liberated from the Germans by the Allies, and the residents settled in for a time of calm as the war wound down. Then, in mid-December 1944, the Germans struck in what would be their last major offensive of the war. Their goal was the port of Antwerp, and they bypassed Bastogne, forging ahead to create the “bulge.” Still, the Germans needed this town. Bastogne lies at the center of seven roads, and these were crucial for moving troops and supplies. One by one, the roads fell to German control. By Dec. 21, the American troops in Bastogne were surrounded.


Photo by: Sharon Odegaard

On my visit, I toured the battle sites with Reg Jans, a local whose grandfather fought in World War II. Not only has he studied the battle in detail but also hosted veterans and their families to learn personal anecdotes. While you can tour on your own, I found it extremely helpful to have a guide to point out troop movements and talk about the battles on the very spots where they took place.

You can begin your tour (on your own or with a guide) in the town, on the streets where the 101st Airborne troops marched in on Dec. 16, 1944. These are the men that inspired the Band of Brothers series. This excellent 10-part video follows the path of Easy Company of the 101st, including their time in the trenches in Bastogne. Then, travel towards the Ardennes forest that rings the town. You’ll be driving down roads that are centuries old, through rolling farmland.

Right away, I learned that the lay of the land has changed, due to this area actually farming trees. Forest area during the battle is grassland today, and new forests are planted. It takes some detective work to figure out where the troop movements took place more than 70 years ago.


Photo by: Sharon Odegaard

The heart of the tour is in the Bois Jacques, the woods where Easy Company dug in and held off the Germans despite lack of winter clothes, food, ammunition and medical supplies. Some of the trenches exist today, and you can pay respects to these men on this hallowed ground. I was especially struck by how close the Allied and German lines were in some places. Veterans have said they could hear the enemy troops talking at times. That’s why soldiers would stumble into the other side’s camp in the blinding snow of winter.

As the Allies shivered in their foxholes in Dec. 1944, the Germans sent two men into town to see the commander, Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, and present a demand to surrender. The Allies were cut off from all aid, as no roads were open and cloud cover made air drops of supplies impossible. So it was time to give up, right? McAuliffe’s famous reply was “Nuts!” The Germans, probably baffled, returned to their lines. Today you can see the farmhouse where that meeting took place. A few days later, General George S. Patton rolled down one of the roads with his tanks. That was the beginning of the end of the siege of Bastogne.


Photo by: Sharon Odegaard

The main square of Bastogne is now known as McAuliffe square, and you can eat in the cafe named “Nuts.” They serve a bowl of peanuts with each meal. On the corner of this square you’ll find an Italian restaurant, Giorgi Pizzeria, that was the childhood home of nurse Renee Lamaire, “Angel of Bastogne,” who was killed in the bombing on Christmas Eve, 1944.

Memorials to the men who held Bastogne can be found on the fields and in town. The echoes of the past are everywhere, and by remembering, we honor those lost too soon.

 

 

 

 

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