Streetwise Professor

June 10, 2010

Being There

Filed under: Military — The Professor @ 3:05 pm

When you read a lot of military history, as I have, you can try to use your imagination and understanding of terrain to envision how the ground shaped a battle.  But there is nothing like actually seeing–and standing on–the spot where a battle was fought to help you comprehend what actually happened and why.

Today dad and I followed the route of Kampffgroup Peiper, the spearhead of the 1st SS Division that made a mad dash for the Meuse bridges during the Ardennes Offensive (known to Americans as the Battle of the Bulge).  I had read about the action, and could understand intellectually the importance of road junctions, as emphasized by historian Russell Weigley (in Eisenhower’s Lieutenants), in the heavily forested, hilly, and stream-cut Ardennes.  I could envision how the banks of a minor creek could be important.  As Weigley wrote, “[l]ike most of the streams of the Ardennes, the Ambleve cuts a deep trench through the hills.  It is not wide or deep but, because its banks are steep, tanks can cross it only by bridges.”

But you really can’t grasp the relevance of such a fact, you can’t internalize it, you can’t understand it, until you see that stream.  Until you drive the same roads that the panzers did.  It was slow, hard going in a single, small automobile over the rough Belgian roads and the hilly terrain, nearly at summertime, after a restful night in a warm bed.  One can only imagine the difficulties of moving a column of Tiger II (one of which stands outside the museum at La Gleize–a truly awesome sight) and Panther tanks, with their supporting vehicles, along these same roads during winter, driven by wet, exhausted, frightened men.

We saw the bridges over the Ambleve at Stavelot and Trois Ponts and Cheneux, and the bridge over the little Lienne Creek at Neufmoulin.  Seeing the terrain, seeing the dense forests that made off-road movement unthinkable, made it possible to truly comprehend how valiant little bands of American engineers, supported by hastily assembled odds and ends of infantry, armor, and anti-tank artillery, were able to defeat a force that was far more powerful on paper than anything the Americans could throw against  it.  Blowing a bridge or picking off the first couple of tanks in a column effectively  made further advance impossible.  One can, for instance, cross the Lienne Creek on foot in a couple of jumps.  But the banks are very steep, and once the engineers of A Company, 291st Engineer Battalion blew the bridge to splinters in the Germans’–the Nazis’–very faces, that way to the Meuse was barred; the narrow creek might as well have been the Atlantic.  Four kilometers beyond, Pieper would have been on a good road with open ground.  But a few satchel charges stymied him.  Read a book about it and you are amazed: seeing where it happened and you nod in comprehension.

Being on the ground I could imagine that Peiper was frustrated.  Following the twists and turns of his route you could sense that he was like a cornered animal, desperately lashing out in all directions, frantically looking for a way out of the embrace of the forest and the hills.  I doubt one could sense that without being on the same terrain, following the same route.  While on our drive, I remarked to dad that it would have been a miracle for the Germans to have prevailed, despite their superiority in manpower and equipment at this spot.  Everything had to go right.  They had to draw an inside straight.  The Americans only had to get lucky once or twice.  Nature was on our side.

Relics of the battle also indicate how a few gritty men exploiting the landscape can overcome huge technical disadvantages.  In the Bastogne town square, immediately outside our hotel (the lovely Hotel Collin) there is a US Sherman tank.  It has two clean holes right through it, one through the left side, the other through the rear, made by 88mm rounds.  The aforementioned Tiger II had three nicks in the front armor, made by the 75mm main gun on US Shermans; dead hits that probably did little more than leave a slight ringing in the ears of the Tiger crew.  But the Tiger was abandoned, out of fuel and out of options, cornered by guys with M1 carbines, riding in jeeps, but carrying enough explosives to blow up bridges.

Being on the ground also brought home the futility of WWI.  Yesterday we visited Verdun.  I have read little about WWI, because stories of mass slaughter are depressing even on the flat printed page.  But that’s nothing compared to the feeling you get visiting the Citadel in Verdun, and Forts Vaux and Douaumont.  The interiors of these forts are dank and bone chillingly cold.  They are dispiriting beyond belief.  Everything is dripping wet.  There were no toilet facilities in Vaux and Douaumont to speak of.  Even without hundreds of sweating, breathing, shitting and pissing soldiers, without the cordite fumes and the smoke and gas and cooking odors, the air in these places was smelly and dank.  Walking around these places 94 years after the battle was enough to suck out your soul.  Just think of what life–for as long as you had it–would have been like in these places, under constant artillery barrage, gas attack, flame thrower attack.  With the knowledge that your life could end any minute–and perhaps thinking that that might be preferable, given the horrors of living.  The only thing worse than being underground in these tombs would have been to venture outside, into the hailstorm of shells.  I have never been in more depressing places.  I don’t think I will ever visit a WWI battlefield again.

And if I think about doing so, memories of the endless shell craters that still scar the landscape, and most importantly, the memory of the Douaumont Ossuary, a massive stone structure that houses the bones of upwards of 100,000 unidentified French and German soldiers killed on the hills around Verdun will quickly disabuse me of the notion.

I know that even standing in these places today I cannot truly understand what went on there in December, 1944, or February-June, 1916.  But one can come far closer to such an understanding walking and driving where the soldiers walked and drove.  It is an educational experience, and a humbling one, and a haunting one.

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