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Bastogne War Museum: A battle too far

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13:14 11/12/2014
Memorial to one of the bloodiest battles of the second world war

There are few Americans who haven’t heard of Bastogne, the strategic border town that was snowed in and surrounded by the German army in its final large-scale offensive of the war. In a desperate gamble to split the Allied armies by a surprise blitzkrieg through the Ardennes to Antwerp, Hitler ordered hastily assembled Panzer divisions to strike.

In a series of battles in freezing temperatures between December 16, 1944 and January 25, 1945, more than a million soldiers fought for control of this wooded, hilly area of south-east Belgium. The Ardennes Offensive became known as the Battle of the Bulge because the Allied line resembled a large bulge as the Germans drove deeper in an attempt to secure vital bridgeheads.

About 85,000 Allied soldiers were killed, injured or reported missing, with the American army bearing the brunt. The equivalent figure for the German army is estimated at 100,000. Almost 3,000 civilians died, and the siege left an indelible legacy on the community.

It was a different story earlier in 1944, when Belgium and its neighbours were suffering the ignominy of occupation. In June, the Allies launched the high-risk D-Day operation. Paris was liberated in August, and by September, Mons, Namur, Liège and the Ardennes had been liberated by American divisions; Tournai, Brussels and Antwerp by British troops. The Germans appeared beaten and in retreat.

In the Ardennes, six divisions totalling around 75,000 men were waiting for their Christmas parcels. They were in a ‘quiet sector’ and in their spare time shot boar from spotter aircraft. Totally unprepared for winter fighting, they lacked basic items such as overcoats and gloves and were a mix of battle-fatigued units and new recruits.

Under pressure from the Allies, on the ground as in the air, the Germans were suffering a serious shortage of fuel and other supplies. Their surprise offensive was reliant on seizing materials from their foe. To support the attack, a unit was formed to infiltrate the Allied lines dressed as American soldiers, aiming to spread confusion and disrupt Allied troop movements. Fluent in English and versed in American slang after guarding PoWs, they switched road signs and attempted to seize and destroy vital bridges. This certainly increased the confusion at the beginning of the battle, but was foiled by the US army intensifying its identity checks and interrogating each soldier on his knowledge of US celebrities and sports stars.

As dawn rose through the fog on December 16, more than 250,000 Germans attacked a 150km front along Luxembourg and southern Belgium. Taken by surprise, US troops were scattered after fierce, chaotic and sometimes hand-to-hand fighting.

The next day, a group of the 6th SS Panzer army captured 125 men from a US field artillery observation battery in the town of Malmedy, north of the bulge, then mowed them down in cold blood, leaving 86 dead. The Baugnez 44 Historical Centre records the infamous event.

The initial assault was followed by heavy snow, hampering any counter-offensive by the Allies. The 101st Airborne Division became besieged in Bastogne but held on to the town. On December 22, the Germans asked its commander, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, to surrender or be annihilated by massed artillery. His now-famous retort, “Nuts!”, stumped the Germans.

As skies cleared on December 23, the US Air Force parachuted supplies to soldiers. Embedded in foxholes in frozen ground in forests around Bastogne, they were desperately in need of food, equipment and medical supplies. Among them were the 101st Airborne Division’s Easy Company, immortalised in Steven Spielberg’s TV series Band of Brothers. But the improvement in weather opened the skies to the Luftwaffe, which bombarded Bastogne on Christmas Eve. Amid the siege and shelling, the men celebrated Christmas. A packed midnight mass took place in town, with wounded soldiers weeping on hearing Silent Night. German PoWs were visited by McAuliffe as they sang their own hymns and he wished them a merry Christmas.

There was little respite: on Christmas Day the Germans launched a further assault. American forces retaliated and held the ground, though both sides suffered serious losses. General George Patton’s US Third Army’s counter-offensive on December 26 not only broke the ring enclosing Bastogne but also destroyed a portion of the German penetrating force, eliminating hundreds of enemy vehicles and thousands of troops. It was a decisive victory for the Allies. Today, relics of the battle can be found all over the area, with memorials to lost soldiers dotting the countryside. Heavily bombed Bastogne was rebuilt and the square, complete with a Sherman tank, was named after McAuliffe.

Bastogne War Museum

Bastogne War Museum re-opened in March after a major renovation. The low-level building lies discreetly next to the imposing Mardasson memorial, and reflects its five-point star shape. Overlooking the town and Ardennes countryside, the memorial was inaugurated in 1950 thanks to a Belgian-American association founded five years before. It is also at the centre of the commemoration programme.

The interactive museum carefully places the battle within the context of World War Two. In a similar vein to In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, it avoids glorifying war, preferring to highlight the experiences of individuals.

There are three sections: rising extremism in the pre-war years; the invasion of Germany in 1940 to liberation by the Allies in 1944; and December 1944 to the end of the war. Display cases are filled with documents and objects, including everyday items revealing the harsh conditions of soldiers’ lives. In the kits of American, British and German soldiers, tins of foot powder show the shared ailment of trench foot. There is considerable military hardware: artillery and renovated tanks, including a Sherman with German shell holes. News reels take the visitor to the centre of the action, and the black-and-white images are fascinating. Throughout there are accounts from soldiers and civilians, with many interviews conducted by local children.

A common thread is the testimony of four characters, fictional but based on real lives: Robert Keane, a corporal in the 101st Airborne Division; Hans Wegmüller, a lieutenant in the German 26th Volksgrenadier division; local primary school teacher Mathilde Devillers; and 13-year-old Emile Mostade. Their narratives via the audio guide offer diverging opinions of the conflict. Emile’s voice is particularly captivating and his story heart-breaking.

Each section includes a life-size reconstruction of scenes with videos and special effects. The first shows 3D news reels, while the second takes visitors into the frozen forest where soldiers were shelled in their hastily dug foxholes. In the third, and the most engaging, visitors sit in an authentic local cafe. The multi-sensory scenario recreates the bombardment of the town and the set is elevated to reveal the cellar where the four characters come together for shelter. Older townsfolk mutter in Walloon about the presence of the injured German officer being escorted by Keane. After warming bowls of soup, the two soldiers talk long into the night with Mathilde, while Emile plays his accordion. The tour concludes with exhibits about the final months of the war, global politics and a reminder of the human cost of conflict via a path lined with graves.

For Bastogne, the museum is not only a necessary cultural and economic boost, it commemorates the sacrifice that is still etched in the consciousness of the townsfolk. It is a sensitive subject, says Mathieu Billa, the museum’s manager, but the locals are enthusiastic about the project. The character of Emile was based on Louis Mostade, who still lives in the nearby village of Noville. “He pops in sometimes,” says Billa. The conflict resonates beyond Belgium and the US, he says. “I received a letter from a woman in Germany whose great-uncle had fought here and stolen a gilet,” Billa says. “It had passed from one generation to another and he thought it was time that it be returned. It has no value, but it was a symbolic act and we will try and display it in a future exhibit.”

The museum is planning to stage temporary exhibitions and Billa is keen to draw on contemporary themes. “It is important for us to convey a modern message,” he says.

This article was first published in Newcomer, Autumn 2014

Written by Sarah Crew