This Christmas season, devoted to charity and peace, is also the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, the largest land battle in the history of the United States. The U.S. military remains engaged in Afghanistan and involved elsewhere around the globe even after withdrawal from Iraq. Do lessons of the Second World War apply?
Seventy years ago, Dec. 16, 1944, Nazi Germany launched an enormous offensive through the quiet Ardennes Forest in Belgium. Adolf Hitler and his planners in Berlin achieved total surprise, and initially German forces gained considerable ground. For many Europeans among the Allies, the attack was eerily reminiscent of the 1940 German drive that overran France and secured Nazi domination of the continent. At Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters, fear was visible, along with alarm.
The tide of the battle did not clearly turn until Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army broke through to the 101st Airborne Division, surrounded by the Wehrmacht in the crossroads town of Bastogne on the day after Christmas. The overall battle continued into the New Year before the Allies could claim clear victory and begin the final strategic drive into Germany.
Various battles in our history were in certain respects more costly or complicated. During the Civil War, Gettysburg and other engagements resulted in a higher percentage of casualties among combatants. During the Second World War, such enormous amphibious invasions as Normandy, Iwo Jima and Leyte Gulf in the Philippines were inherently more complex in logistical terms than the Bulge. In the European theatre, the scale of the war on the eastern front was much greater than in the west.
Nonetheless, in American history, the Battle of the Bulge remains our largest single land battle. Approximately a quarter of a million United States troops were engaged with a comparable number of German forces.
Basic lessons of the Bulge include personnel and materiel. Eisenhower’s skills include remarkable capacity to get difficult personalities to work together, plus constant attention to logistics. Casualties on both sides were enormous. At that point, the Allies could replace both men and supplies; the Germans could not.
Flamboyant Patton was controversial, for harsh discipline and extreme language. Yet he instinctively recognized the great threat of the Ardennes attack and Third Army troops performed with monumental ability, moving rapidly over difficult terrain in terrible winter weather.
African-American soldiers, generally prohibited from serving in combat, manned the Red Ball Express, a gigantic truck convoy system that supplied the front. Under the enormous pressures generated by the Bulge, they were offered the opportunity to serve in combat units but had to sacrifice earned military seniority.
Thousands volunteered on these terms, and were vital to Allied victory.
At the tactical level, Cpl. Henry F. Warner near Dom Butgenbach, Belgium, knocked out two German tanks, and then his 57-mm anti-tank gun jammed. He was firing a pistol at a third approaching tank when the German driver backed up and withdrew.
One of Warner’s shots had killed the commander, and the crew was unable to proceed, a common reaction of German and Japanese troops. American, Australian, British and other Allied soldiers were much more likely to improvise and continue fighting after their officers were hit. Warner, killed later in combat, received the Medal of Honor.
This season, we should reflect on these lessons and give thanks for our distance from the Bulge.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org