Bastogne and Waterloo

Some years ago I was heading for Amsterdam, that was the supposed plan but in my travels nothing is ever set in concrete – my journey started at scenic Aix-les-Bains, in the French Alps.  I’d been late getting started, exchanging long goodbyes with Danielle, my ‘cousine’, who while packing a gourmet lunch kept reminding me of this anecdote or that family event.  She’d been my childhood playmate and admittedly there was always something that would crop up, “Hey, Jeannôt do you remember … ???” It was pleasant reminiscing and yet I’m not much on farewells (they tend to depress me) so that I was trying to make my get-away without being overtly brusque.  Finally, some two hours late I was free to go and happily looking forward to the drive through unfamiliar territory.  The night before I’d looked over a good Michelin map (the very best in my opinion) of Western Europe and although a little over 1000 kliks I wasn’t daunted as in the past I’ve done that and even more in one day’s driving.  As well, I had decided, more or less, on a route that would take me through the rugged Ardennes Forest, a first for me, hence to Luxembourg.  Amsterdam was obviously now  out of the question.

Driving in Europe is a joy; the landscape at the very least scenic, often spectacular and its hard to avoid yet another historic site, a famous castle, a pivotal battlefield and such was the case when I pulled over to one of the convenient rest areas frequent along European roads (take note Canada!). Munching on a tasty ‘terrine de canard‘ sandwich, the roadmap spread out on the picnic table somewhere in the Ardennes Forest my eyes widened as I noticed Bastogne located not far ahead along my way.

(NOTE: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)

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Any history buff, especially of WWII, will recognize Bastogne as the scene of a surprise attack when Hitler ordered one final and desperate advance with a powerful mechanized force to slice through the advancing Allied army, cut it in two and recapture the strategic port city of  Antwerp in Belgium.  The 1944 winter siege of Bastogne produced the celebrated response, “Nuts!” from General McCaullife when handed an offer to surrender.  Looking over the written answer the German commandant not understanding the colloquialism asked for a clarification: the emissary who delivered the note deemed it more apt to translate ‘nuts’ as “Go to hell!”  That aside proves yet again there’s always somebody who think they are more eloquent whereas in my opinion ‘nuts’ was crackling terse and to the point. Without further ado off I went to Bastogne and discovered much more than expected; an interesting museum, impressive monument to American casualties and a neat small town very much aware of its past importance.  

Below, the author of the celebrated quote, General McCaullife; incidentally he was in command only because the Commanding Office, General Middleton for that area happened to be elsewhere at a conference.  Such happenstance often leads to unexpected results, in this case fortuitous for the Allies.  

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Baptized by Winston Churchill as the Battle of the Bulge, it turned out to be the most costly in lives of any single battle fought by American troops during the entire war.  The fierce fighting took place during the week of Christmas, starting on the 20th and ending on the 27th with the collapse of the German offensive when their Panzer units ran out of fuel.  The outcome was disastrous to the Wehrmacht who not only lost men in their thousands, killed, wounded or taken prisoner, but a massive loss of vital equipment.  The victory certainly contributed to shorten the war as henceforth the Allied troops encountered a much weaker opposition than otherwise would have been the case.  So much for Hitler’s military genius, he’d have been better off heeding the advice of his professional army planning staff.  The man in charge of crafting the battle plans Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt never believed in its chances of success and stayed well clear behind the lines.  Clever? Or a chicken shit? 

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The impressive and I must say inspired star-shaped design of the huge monument is yet today yearly visited by thousands of American veterans who often bring family members along.   The pride evidenced is well-justified as it was a crucial victory achieved at a bloody cost of limb and life. 

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I spent a considerable time wandering around taking it all in and imagining how it was back then, the snow blowing, explosions, screams, soldiers on either side scared to hell but relentlessly attacking or desperately defending. 

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I’m confident one could make a case for studying the effect on a soldier’s state of mind depending on the uniform he wears.  No doubt if I didn’t know which side was on the right side of history I would have opted without a second thought for the cool almost theatrical German uniforms.  Come to think of it Hitler understood the value of propaganda, of massive show pieces such as the Nuremberg rallies, pump and circumstances, multitudes of flags, precision marching and smart uniforms.   If one is curious check out ‘Triumph of the Will’  (on YouTube) the impressive recording of the 1934 rally filmed by Leni Riefenstahl.  To this day she’s considered by many critics as the finest ever woman film director; notwithstanding the subject matter, high praise indeed. 

The museum was well designed with an interesting display of scenes replicating battle photos taken on the spot during the devastating event.  Lending depth-of-field, the background scenes were painted in, whereas the immediate foreground was recreated with authentic equipment, guns, military gear and life-like mannequins closely resembling the photos.  Well-lit the overall effect was realistic and informative.

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In contrast American Gi Joe garb was less than awe-inspiring.  Below a five star general, Dwight Eisenhower who payed a visit after the battle was won.  The displays were rather imaginatively set-up. 

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In the meantime the terrified populace huddled in their basements and prayed for an end to the mayhem.  War is hell!  I can’t think of three words that are more appropriate to describe any situation other than ‘I love you’. Now lolling about in the shade of one of the tanks that saved their present home, I wonder how much these young people knew about the town’s historic past.

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French fries are certainly well known but they don’t compare to Belgian ‘patates frites et merguez’.  If I say so, believe me, I’ve sampled them in every corner of France but in Belgium, straight from the frier, drenched in mayonnaise along with spicy merguez sausages it’s a treat.  As I was trying to avoid dribbling all over my  map to see where to next, another name jumped out – Waterloo! Certainly I couldn’t resist having a look at that battlefield, a pivotal result that surely changed European history for ever.  Imagine had Napoleon won? Well,  let me try. Today most of Western Europe would have been unified for two centuries instead of now slowly integrating into the European Union and the rest of the world would have been altered beyond imagination.  For one there surely not have been two world wars, at least not with the same participants on either side.  However, the Little Emperor lost and that was that, still it’s interesting to speculate, right?

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So off I went to see what there was to see and again so much more than I had expected.  The field of battle was much larger than I had imagined but on thinking back at what I’d learned in history class, the opposing armies were massive, even by modern standards.   I have throughout Western Europe stood on ancient battle fields, from Hannibal’s encounter with Roman legions, through several major wars, and yet I am always struck by how peaceful the countryside becomes after farmers reclaim their land and lovingly bring it back to its rightful purpose of growing life-giving food.  

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A fine museum displayed on a clever electronic board the day’s momentous ebbs and flows of battle and the resulting carnage.  I took the time and made the arduous climb up the man-made hill (there’s an oxymoron as every square inch of the huge mound was built by women carrying the earth on hods strapped to their backs,) to where the imposing lion roars a challenge towards France as a reminder of who won.  As I took each of the 229 steps up I  imagined the backbreaking labour but when were women not abused physically and economically?  The hill and monument were ordered by the King of the Netherlands to honour his son for bravery and sustaining a wound.  Sheesh, it wasn’t even fatal, imagine if he’s actually died on the field of battle? A hill twice as big and an entire pride of lions? 

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P1090508The battle as I was taught in a Canadian high school text-book was a brilliant victory by Wellington.  Years later I learned that in actual fact he was conceding defeat and surrounded by his personal guard was preparing to leave the field when the German Army under Gen. Blucher showed up at the crucial moment and swung the tide of battle against Napoleon, who was waiting for his own reserve army under Marshall Grouchy.  French history books make much of the fact Grouchy was a Royalist and who betrayed his people by refusing to join the battle.  Napoleon is famously quoted as repeating over and over, “Ou est Grouchy?”  I’ve a suspicion there must have been a few choice epithets included.  As I’ve been fortunate enough to read history books in both languages as adjudged from the perspective of winner and loser, I can safely say that almost always ‘revisionism’ rules the day.  Historians tend to have their own national bias, they are almost always subsidized and research grants accepted from by interested parties, inevitably, even in good faith, they wind up shading the unappetizing truth when such appears.  The probable best chance to get near the actual truth is to read accounts from a third and neutral party and still it would only be an approximate guess at how it really was on the ground at the time, there and then.

The modest monument to the German army is hidden in a copse, miles away and if you didn’t know what and where to look, it would be invisible.  See what I mean? 

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So there you have it.  I apologize for the poor quality of some, well if I’m going to be candid, most of the pics, but they were all taken with my digital camera from printed pics taken with my long serving Nikon.  Next time, I’ll provide much better visuals of Bruges and Ghent, I promise.  

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2 responses to “Bastogne and Waterloo

  1. As usual, well-written and informative. Yes, the victors do get to write the history. Interesting point re the subsidized historians and their shading of events. I do recall reading how Waterloo might have turned out differently had Wellington not had the support of German troops but I wasn’t aware Napoleon had been double-crossed by Grouchy.

    • Thank you James, I can always count on you to praise my efforts. As for Grouchy, he commanded 38 000 men and over one hundred artillery pieces and was charged to counter the Prussian army. He refused to ‘march to the sound of canons’ and instead since there was a light rain explained it as ‘thunder’. I’ve since done a bit more research on the subject, and whereas almost non-existent in English reports, on the other hand he is the subject of a lively debate, in favour and against, in French accounts. In exile Napoleon later said that Grouchy managed the impossible. “His army must have been swallowed up by an earthquake.” Interesting to view history from different perspectives.

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