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The ‘Battle of the Bulge’

Listed under Battlefields in Walloon, Belgium.

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On an open hillside in the furthest eastern part of Belgium - with deep woods behind, a small village in front, and superb views across farmland to modern power-generating windmills in Germany just 5 kilometers away - stands a simple monument. A plaque reading “In honor and memory of all soldiers who fought here - December 16th 1944” is fixed to a one-meter sized slab of Ardennes rock; under which often flowers are laid. This is Lanzarath in the German-speaking ‘East Cantons’ part of Belgium, just one location amongst many along a line 60 miles long from north to south which German forces attacked at dawn on 16 December 1944 in Hitler’s last big gamble in the West. The goal: breakthrough in the Ardennes and take the Allies main port of Antwerp 100 miles away and the Allies would sue for peace. Aiming to reach and cross the River Meuse near Liege in three days and Antwerp within a week, the Germans never even reached the Meuse. Principally because they were fought, slowed, tied up right here near their starting lines in two days of fierce combat - villages, hillsides, woods echoing to the sounds of gunfire, surprise, and struggles by small groups of men on both sides to seize the initiative, hold on, press forward or regroup.

The action at Lanzarath, where one platoon of 18 men held off a regiment of around 900 German paratroopers in a day long action, is part of that - a story brilliantly told in “the Longest Winter” by Robert Kershaw. Two things explain the huge German losses here: the tenacity of the Americans, and the inexperience of many German troops as raw young recruits refilled the ranks of experienced troops lost on the massive Eastern Front.

To visit the battlefields of the Ardennes - the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ as it became known because of the final shape on the map of the German advance - is to visit the sites of actions spread out over a huge distance (a triangle 60 miles on each side) in a most beautiful part of northern Europe. The Ardennes is a region, not a forest; it HAS lots of forest, but it is rather an entire region with forest, open plateau land, much cattle rearing and logging, villages with attractive stone houses with slate roofs, and deeply incised valleys which you take twisting lanes to get down into; it covers south-eastern Belgium and northern Luxemburg. Touring is the essential way to understand the battle - you learn how the battles fought on the start line (approximately the German border with Belgium and Luxembourg) gave time for defences to be set up and reserves brought in to the areas further west. You see the route followed by a spearhead of the 1st SS Panzer (tank) Division led by Colonel Peiper - down the twisting Ambleve valley to the villages where he was cut off; a Tiger II tank - the biggest tank of World War II, weighing 70 tons - stands in the village of La Gleize today. You see Panther tanks (the Panzer V) on display at Houffalize, Celles, and Manhay; Shermans stand guard at Vielsalm, La Roche and Bastogne.

Bastogne: the BIG name of the Battle. The site with perhaps the most to see - but, nevertheless, just one set of actions within a tale of hundreds of actions, all of which played a role in slowing, stopping and then pushing the Germans back. It took until early February to get right back to the whole of the start line. British forces were involved in the western areas (Dinant, Marche, Hotton, La Roche), and there is a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Hotton, but this was a 95% American battle - by many reckonings the largest battle that the Americans have ever fought. And Bastogne symbolises the story for them; a symbolism underlined by the striking Bastogne sequences in “The Band of Brothers” which brought to the life the harrowing experiences of 101st Airborne troops in the cold forests around Bastogne. Touring Bastogne you see how battles fought by 10th Armored Division - in the area two days before 101st Airborne arrived - slowed the Germans enough in the surrounding villages to give time to get sufficient American men and supplies to hold the town. Bastogne was finally surrounded on 21 December. Today you can see the fields where supplies were dropped when the weather cleared on December 23rd (without the artillery ammunition in particular the 101st would have been overrun in the huge German attacks that came on December 25th), the woods where the perimeter was held, the superb American Memorial at Mardasson, the museum, and the site where Patton’s tanks broke through from the south at dusk on December 26th to relieve the town.

Drop down into Luxemburg and you see beautiful terrain and can explore the US actions defending the ‘Southern Shoulder’ of the Bulge around Echternach and Diekirch. Diekirch has the best museum, a superb and diverse collection. 40 minutes south to Luxemburg City allows you to visit one of the three US cemeteries - this one contains General Patton’s grave.

And finally make your way west to see the ‘end’ of the Bulge - the village of Celles where 2nd Panzer Division was forced to a stop on December 25th/26th by British and American armour, and lack of fuel. Just 3 miles away is the River Meuse at the pretty town of Dinant.

Personally guided tours of 'The Bulge' battlefield with expert Andrew Thomson are available.

Written by  Andrew Thomson.

Other expert and press reviews

“The Complete Guide To: Luxembourg”

By Tim Skelton for The Independent. First published 18th October 2008. ...Luxembourg's prime location at a strategic European crossroads made it highly sought after by everyone from the Romans to Napoleon. Each wave of invaders staked their claim by bu… Read more...

Written by press. See the full article in The Independent, 18th October 2008

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