As it happens, in reading a book about the Battle For Bastogne , I was struck by the fortuitous circumstance of reading about a battle on the anniversary of the beginning of its denouement, which does not often happen even given the large number of books that I happen to read. At any rate, it is worthwhile to briefly examine what importance the siege of Bastogne has nearly seventy years after its end. The importance of this battle is not only in terms of its historical value, but also has a lot to do with its symbolic value, as well as its repercussions for others and its importance to the destiny of many of the people involved in it. As such, the battle takes on an effect far greater than the size of its operations, because of the larger context of which it is a part.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Battle For Bastogne is its personalities. You have brave chaplains, heartbroken Belgian nurses who die while trying to save the lives of others, English-speaking Germans wearing American uniforms to try to cause chaos, colorful American generals who respond to demands for surrender with one word replies like, “Nuts!,” German generals who waste time trying to seduce women to do their jobs, Belgian peasants who help the Allies in times of great distress but that lie to the Germans, and many more colorful characters. There is even a flamboyant and colorful soldier coming to the rescue to crown his reputation with glory, and another general officer who knew there was glory to be found at the site of Bastogne, but ended up at a less famous site and had to await the next war to receive the glory he craved.
Concerning the battle itself, there is much of interest, from the timing of reinforcements to the supplies of ammo and food, to the skillful cooperation of different types of units for the common benefit of all. On the side of the Germans, there is the fact that Hitler ordered the attack of all of the panzer units that were left, leaving important aspects of the siege to be conducted by volksgrenadiers who tended to break when assaulted, and who were in many cases atrociously led in the area around Bastogne. The battle itself is a classic example of the technique of the anvil and the hammer. A force in a strong position that can hold out draws troops in while holding them off while more mobile troops attack the forces that have been drawn in to great effect. It is a classic offensive-defense maneuver, and one that certain generals throughout history have excelled at. Patton was a master hammer, used to great effect in breaking the siege.
The importance of the successful defense of Bastogne was that it focused the attention of German efforts and prevented larger gains from being made elsewhere while the Allies were unprepared. It is a bit shocking that after noteworthy German assaults through the Ardennes in 1870, 1914, 1918,and 1940, that anyone could be surprised that such a territory would potentially draw an attack from the Germans to avoid a defense of their home territory. Putting green units in a territory that is a known as a target for German offenses seems like unwittingly baiting an attack. Despite this considerable failure, though, the response of the Allied troops was masterful and the essential breaks seemed to go in favor of the Americans and their allies. Some leaders, like Omar Bradley, served as the fall guy for failures, while other leaders were covered in glory as a result of the successful defense of the Allied lines and their eventual counterattack.
For me, the story of Captain McDonald is an interesting case where an obscure person, a mere company commander, became a person of considerable fame as a war historian as a result of his experiences in the Battle of the Bulge. Being a part of history helped a soldier from an unusual background to become an insightful and honored student of the battle where he fought and was wounded. The fact that many books and movies of great quality deal with this battle suggests it has great importance, as the brave stand at Quatre Bras (on nearby ground) that preceded Waterloo has been little remembered in films. There has been no “Band of Brothers” sort of movie to remember the successful defense that delayed Napoleon’s army long enough for Wellington and Blucher to link up and defeat him. Few remember the successful stand at Fort Steadman that prevented the successful breakout of Lee’s army from Petersburg aside from students of the Civil War. Likewise, the dramatic Israeli success at holding similar outposts in the Yom Kippur War is also somewhat obscure. It takes more than guts and bravery for a successful defensive stand to be remembered. It also takes good press. The seige of Bastogne got good press, at least on the side of the Allies, and sometimes that makes all the difference.
Nor is this an isolated read: