A bit nerdier than my normal blog vibes, this post is centered on the history of a region I recently visited while working on an archaeological dig. This region, the Ardennes region, is located in Southern Belgium, near the borders of France and Luxembourg and it was the site of the famous ‘Battle of the Bulge’ during World War II.
Now, I’m not a history fanatic, and when it comes to military history I truly demonstrate my naivety, yet after visiting a couple of museums I became quite invested. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of this Battle before, nor did I know too many details about the 101st Airborne division… thankfully, a lot of my coworkers had a wealth of knowledge and experience to bestow upon me, and history started to come to life. We would learn about and then drive through battle locations… tanks as well as plaques everywhere reminding people of what had happened. In fact, Bastogne’s buildings don’t look new and while simply wandering the streets it wasn’t hard to imagine what it must’ve looked like during the war. In the end, I left Belgium with an ample amount of history knowledge that I hadn’t known before, and a huge desire to continue my learning – specifically with a military history focus.
Let’s start with the Battle of the Bulge.
The Ardennes area was known as the quiet “ghost front” during WWII. At the end of 1944, it was a remote stretch that held about 220,000 Allied troops, mainly American, who had lost many members and needed trainings, rest, or recovery. Newly arrived divisions tended to go to this front as well and it was here where the Germans decided to try a surprise attack.
There were roughly 400,000 German troops with the objective to break through this weakly held Allied line before crossing a major river and moving to Antwerp, where they hoped to capture the Allies supply operation center. Taking place from December 16, 1944 to January 25, 1945, the Battle of the Bulge was the last German offensive campaign on the Western Front, and unfortunately, one of the most gruesome.
The German’s surprise attack on December 16th was successful and the Allies suffered their highest casualties of any operation during the war. However, the Allies demonstrated excellent resistance north and south (around Bastogne), blocking key access roads for the Germans. This put the Germans behind schedule and gave time for the Allies to reinforce their troops. On December 24, 1944, air attacks by the superior Allied air forces secured the offensive defeat, and the battle continued for another month while surrounded German troops did their best to break out of the Allied lines. Overall, the Battle of the Bulge was a blood battle, the third deadliest in American history, and an Allied victory.
Like I said before, the Allies had superior air forces, primarily due to the 101st Airborne Division. Also called the Screaming Eagles, they are a division of the US Army that specializes in air assaults, and they were renowned during WWII for their operations during the D-day landings and during the Battle of the Bulge. A lot of plaques around the region were for them, but a specific 101st Airborne Museum in Bastogne did the best job. There were wax figures recreating scenes from the war, giant maps with routes, donated war items, and even a bomb shelter simulation room so we could understand what it would feel like to hear the constant bombings and feel the ground shaking. We all left with goosebumps.
Now, time in the city of Bastogne was not all history-based. After plenty of time in museums, it was important to rejuvenate with the tasty food that we were surrounded by, with a meal of typically Belgian ‘Moules Frites’ being an obvious choice.
Another restaurant, called ‘Le Nuts!’ served as the perfect place for a mix of both history and food, because of not only the name of the restaurant but also because of a beer on their menu.
As the story goes, on December 22nd, 1944, Germans had news to deliver to the American’s… who then delivered the message to the 101st Airborne Brigade General.
“The Germans have sent some people forward to take our surrender,” said Lt. Col. Ned Moore.
“Nuts!” said Brig. Gen. McAuliffe climbing out of his sleeping bag, half asleep.
This response became famous and when my coworkers and I passed the restaurant, it was a guaranteed stop, where we settled down for some Airborne beers and some delicious Belgian fries.
Now, what are “Airborne” beers you may ask? Vincent Speranza, a paratrooper (military parachutist) of the 101st Airborne division, brought a wounded friend-in-need some beer from a ruined, bombed pub. Without a mug to carry it in, Speranza used his well-worn helmet as the beer transport device and this little act became a morale booster for those wounded. Decades later, a local brewer in Bastogne decided to make Airborne beer for all to enjoy, and it’s now served in a bottle, glass, or a miniature, upside-down, ceramic Airborne helmet.
There was no getting away from History in the Ardennes region, and it was closely intertwined with modern day life – more than I’ve noticed in many rural European cities before. In Bastogne, I could be walking down a greenway and end up at a memorial for WWII nurses… or I could be walking past modern shops, smelling delicious patisseries and taking a ‘right at the tank’ to get to the next location. The duality is everywhere.
It’s even seen outside of the city. The countryside is made up of rolling hills that showcase gorgeous sunrises and pink, cotton candy sunsets. Sometimes, on the occasional misty mornings, there’s a layer of fog that will settle into some of the valleys and it creates an eerily magical look to the hills. Some regions show the pock-marked landscape where artillery shells once landed, and some areas are full of wheat, corn and cows. What used to be muddy, bombed, war fields, are now farmland and rural towns – yet there’s no way to forget how much war this land has seen: Belgium has regrown but it continues to honour its past.
*Thank you to Chris, Ryan and Chris for your photo contribution, world atlas for your great map, and the wonderful museum of the 101st Airborne Division for historical information*