Battle of the Bulge: Hell on the Western Front

By Cohen, Eliot A | International New York Times, December 17, 2015 | Go to article overview

Battle of the Bulge: Hell on the Western Front


Cohen, Eliot A, International New York Times


An account of the Battle of the Bulge during World War II forces a reassessment of familiar military leaders.

Ardennes 1944. Hitler's Last Gamble. By Antony Beevor. Illustrated. 451 pages. Viking. $35.

On Christmas Eve 1944, about 30 soldiers in gray SS uniforms entered the village of Bande in Belgium, following in the wake of the German units that had punched a huge hole in Allied lines. They were, in a way, the first "European" security force -- French, Belgian and Dutch fascists led by a Swiss, all in the service of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the secret service of the SS.

They gathered all of the Belgian males of military age and, with the exception of one who escaped, beat them and shot each one in the back of the head. The SD troopers were not alone: Particularly (but not exclusively) in the elite Waffen-SS units, it was common to plunder, rape and murder the hapless villagers of the Ardennes, who had thought themselves liberated, their war over.

Antony Beevor, one of the finest narrative military historians now writing, is a master of revealing vignettes like this one. The Battle of the Bulge, from mid-December 1944 through January 1945, the subject of "Ardennes 1944," is a known story -- Hitler's last roll of the dice in the West, stripping other fronts (including the East) of prime armored and infantry units to hurl 30 divisions at the weakly defended American line in the Ardennes forest.

It was here that the Germans had dazzlingly shattered French Army in May 1940, driving tanks through the forests, defiles and villages of this compact hill country. The hope now was to split the Allied armies, shattering the Americans and driving the British into an evacuation. It was a fantasy: The German military -- sorely lacking in fuel; its cadres of experienced sergeants and officers depleted by years of high casualties; short of food and ammunition, let alone the transport to move them; and inferior in the air -- could probably not have succeeded. But at the price of around 80,000 casualties on each side, it gave the Americans and British a real scare.

Mr. Beevor captures the microevents of battle brilliantly, the ambushes and fire fights, the horrors of tanks swerving over foxholes to bury their inhabitants alive, tales of psychological collapse and superhuman courage. If he has a hero, it is the bored sergeant looking at a burning German tank about 50 yards away that he has just knocked out. The paratrooper who came upon the scene commented: "On men like this the hinge of battle swung. They did not see themselves in a dramatic role. They would do great tasks, and be abused for not doing them right, and accept this as normal."

Mr. Beevor goes out of his way to remind us of the soldiers, civilians, units and commanders who do not get much attention in the popular memory of these battles: "Lightning Joe" Collins, for example, one of the younger generals in the American Army; the village priests who ministered to the wounded and the dying; the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion and Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division, which participated in the breakthrough at Bastogne with the more famous 101st Airborne Division.

This is not simply, or chiefly, a heroic narrative. Although the weight of shooting of prisoners (and overwhelmingly, of massacre of civilians) fell on the German side, Americans, particularly after word spread of the murder at Malmedy of their own colleagues taken prisoner, were themselves in a killing mood. A general's aide wrote in his diary that "American troops are now refusing to take any more SS prisoners, and it may well spread to include all German soldiers. While we cannot order such a thing, the C[ommanding] G[eneral] himself personally hopes that every G.I. will hear these stories and make that a battle rule, as the 30th Division did." More impersonal forms of death in the shape of artillery barrages and aerial bombardments (the Germans launched a number of air attacks too) flattened the villages of the Ardennes, killing soldier and civilian alike. …

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