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Explaining the silence surrounding Elsenborn Ridge battle

For more than 60 years, Bastogne has been popularly known as the one place where the German offensive of December 1944 was stopped.

While deserving of fame on its own merits, it remains a puzzle as to why the mass media and public opinion credit Bastogne whenever the Battle of the Bulge is mentioned while excluding any information about the North Shoulder, Elsenborn, and the hard-fighting divisions there.

A 50-page booklet by Belgian historian Leon Nyssen provides one possible explanation.

Nyssen’s booklet, translated by Christian W. deMarcken gives the background and history of the Battle for the Ardennes.

Eliot Wager

Early in December 1944, the little town of Bastogne was a resting area in which many war correspondents enjoyed some R&R. Throughout the tragic days which saw fire and blood covering the Ardennes these reporters wrote numerous “articles” dated Bastogne December 1944. After 24 hours of imposed silence the same name was mentioned many times per day in various newspaper articles and broadcast on the radio. At Saint Vith you could not find a war correspondent. Obviously none were available in Elsenborn or Montjoie (Monschau).

Just as one cannot mention Waterloo without thinking about Cambronne’s famous word, it is impossible to mention Bastogne without having someone adding “Nuts!” This “historical” word was uttered by Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe. The two are inseparable. There is not a book written concerning the Battle of Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge) that does not devote many paragraphs, if not pages, to this episode. Neither generals Clarke nor Hasbrouck in Saint Vith, nor Colonels Butler or O’Brien in Montjoie (Monschau), nor Generals Lauer or Robertson at Elsenborn and Col. Daniel at the Butgenbach estate had the free time to pronounce a historical word. If they ever did there were no war correspondents there to capture and relay them. They all did their duty with the goal of being efficient. They didn’t try becoming popular by carrying revolvers decorated with mother-of-pearl grips, wearing defused hand grenades hooked up to their shoulder straps or go to the front line to take potshots at the enemy. This usually provoked the enemy to retaliate and caused unjustified losses to the GIs.

Saint Vith finally fell into the hands of the Germans. Some Americans, who were only used to seeing their troops succeed, were surprised to see the bloody and deadly Hϋrtgen battle which lasted from the end of October to early December 1944. Some even felt, erroneously, that the loss of Saint Vith was a second defeat and was inappropriate to talk about. While losing sight of the very important delay caused to the enemy’s advance.

These same people forgot the outstanding performance of the 7th Armored Division, which played a major role as an offensive unit. This division’s tactical moves and defensive operations, followed by difficult enemy delaying actions, deserve to be recognized.

The withdrawal of American forces towards Bastogne, the fact that the town was surrounded, and then freed by General Patton’s men are spectacular operations that consisted of rapid movements in both directions and attracted the attention of the public. The stubborn resistance of troops, who were holding their ground in the cold, the snow and freezing rain, while never giving an inch to the enemy, never got the casual observer very excited. As soon as the battle of Elsenborn Ridge was organized it became a static battle. No large movement of troops; nothing but stationary resistance. It was wild, determined, and never giving an inch or reacquiring a few hundred meters (328 feet) temporarily given up during the engagement. This type of action did not excite an observer’s imagination. One must remember that Bastogne was surrounded by the German forces for four days and eight hours. Even so, the battle on the surrounding areas of the town lasted much longer. It entered into the American mythology at the same level as the Little Big Horn or the Alamo. These units, who were rapidly deployed into combat, today still make young Yankees dream. No one knows how much the Indian wars still affect the American imagination.

Also fondly remembered were the impressive spectacles of gliders landing loaded with ammunition, food, fuel and other supplies. But no paratroopers were used except a few pathfinders with their special radio equipment. They guided the planes carrying medical equipment and a small number of doctors. All the paratroopers besieged in Bastogne had arrived by truck from Mourmelon, near Reims, France. The three Parachute Infantry Regiments of the 101st Airborne Division had been ordered to move to Bastogne by General Eisenhower. None of these extraordinary moves ever happened at Saint Vith and Elsenborn. On one hand these very colorful parachutes falling from the sky excited the imagination. On the other hand supply troops were crawling through the snow and mud to bring cold rations and ammunition to the front line troops located in frozen foxholes in Montjoie, Elseborn and Butgenbach did not make for exciting news.

For other reasons, which are better understood by the Belgians, Saint Vith and Elsenborn are located in the German speaking zone of Belgium. This area was taken from Germany by the League of Nations in 1919 and rended to Belgium after more than one century germanization (1815-1919). We are not talking about Montjoie (Monschau) which is a German town. Many people admire the beautiful scenery of this area. However, few people realize how much this area has suffered since 1815. The general public does not understand the awful suffering and turmoil created by the various wars and the uncertainties affecting the periods between the wars. Additionally, more than half of the local inhabitants were forced to evacuate their villages; some as early as mid-October 1944. Some villages were completely deserted. Only 35 people were allowed to stay in Elsenborn and they were to take care of the cattle. The Americans told those who were displaced: “Take very little clothes and food, you will be back in a few days.” For most of these people those “few days” lasted four months.

This evacuation was hopefully meant to shelter the people from the horrors of the battle. Unfortunately, some lost their lives during the exodus. As they came back, besides the damages done to their homes by the German artillery, their houses literally were emptied by the GIs who were trying to improve their foxholes. Most of the doors had been ripped off to serve as footbridges over mudholes.

One may never forget that after the war, when it came time to honor the returning veterans of the Battle of Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge), they came back to visit the battlefields where they fought so valiantly. The little town of Bastogne was prepared in more ways than one to greet their liberators. Hotels and restaurants were available and various tourist businesses organized parades, visits to historic sites and tours of the best known combat areas. This town was able to plan ahead in order to take advantage of the resulting tourist attractions created by this historic battle. You can call this a well-orchestrated tourist attraction. It is regrettable to see many Ardennes towns like La Roche, Houffalize and Saint Vith let the world know that their towns endured destruction which was far greater than Bastogne. They suffered the ire of the Nuts-City Historical Commission.

One should also mention the rivalry between General George S. Patton, Commander, 3rd U.S. Army and General Hodges, Commander, 1st U.S. Army. Each wanted to claim that he was the one who stopped the Germans. General Patton had a knack of getting the press to talk or to write about him. General Hodges was not concerned about his reputation. This created an atmosphere concerning the performance of his men as a reflection of his own less flamboyant management style. However, it is General Hodges who should have been given credit for defeating the Germans.

The fact that between Dec. 20 and Jan. 18 the 1st U.S. Army, except for the 8th Corps commanded by General Middleton, was under the command of Britain’s Marshall Bernard Montgomery. This was difficult to accept by the Americans and especially by General Bradley. This definitely clouded the Elsenborn battle. It should be remembered that by Dec. 19 all the large military units, which participated in the battle, were already in place or already assigned a specific area of the front. Marshall Montgomery was convinced that Liège was not a major German target despite all indications to the contrary. He felt that the German’s number one objective was to cross the Meuse River between Liège and Namur. As a result he wanted to evacuate Elsenborn! General Omar Bradley obstinately refused to follow the order of his commander. Montgomery finally accepted Bradley’s point of view. From then on Montgomery did not get involved in the daily operations involving the Elsenborn battle. However, on Dec. 24, Montgomery stated, “The defense of this sector by the 99th Infantry Division is the most courageous performance of the war!” Curiously enough he was the only Allied military commander to recognize the men who were nicknamed the Battle Babies by John McDemott, the United Press war correspondent. Before January 1945, this division was known as the Checkerboard.

The Belgian government also recognized this division. On June 17, 1946, Charles, Prince Regent of Belgium, issued two citations to the 99th Infantry Division and to the units attached to it. He awarded the 1940 fourragère to these units.

After all is said and done, one cannot deny that amongst all the communities which suffered during the Ardennes Battle, one was chosen as a symbol. For reasons previously mentioned, Bastogne was chosen to be the city. This would not have been troublesome if it had not been blown out of proportion to the point of smothering other battles where other GIs distinguished themselves, and to particularly ignore the Elsenborn battle.

Last modified Dec. 23, 2011

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