Sunday was the last day of our trip. We left Vianden and drove west through Belgium before making our way north to the Netherlands. While searching for a place to stop along the way, I noticed a town named Bastogne about an hour into the drive. Bastogne, for those unfamiliar with the name, is a small town made famous for its role in World War II.
We got to the outskirts of Bastogne around lunchtime. First, we followed the signs to the Mardasson Memorial, which was erected by Belgium in honor of the 76,890 American soldiers who were wounded or killed during the Battle of the Bulge. Even for those who aren’t as obsessed with history as I am, the magnitude of this single event in the course of WWII cannot be understated.
In December 1944, after Bastogne had been liberated by the Allies, the Germans once more attempted to advance to Antwerp and cut off British and American supplies. The Germans took advantage of extreme cold and fog on December 16 and attacked the Americans stationed around Bastogne. A few days later, Brigadier General McAuliffe and the 101st Airborne Division along with elements of the 10th Armored Division and the 82nd airborne became encircled within the town. According to popular legend, the Germans called for American surrender on December 22, but General McAuliffe refused to abandon the town and simply replied, “NUTS!” As if by divine intervention, the weather cleared up the next day allowing for much-needed reinforcements.
By December 26, troops under the famous General Patton broke the stalemate, and the tide turned in favor of the Americans (although the fighting did not completely end until almost three weeks later). All told, the Battle of the Bulge resulted in 76,890 American casualties, and thus was both the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the United States in WWII. This extraordinary battle became so famous it has inspired numerous depictions in pop culture over the years, the most famous being Stephen Spielberg’s award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers.
The monument sits on top of a ridge overlooking the Belgian countryside right outside Bastogne, and when driving up from the town it is an imposing sight. As it was Sunday, the visitor’s center at the memorial was closed, but there were still probably around a dozen people wandering around the site itself. The concrete structure is shaped like a massive pentagram, with a circular courtyard in the center. Around the top of the memorial is inscribed the names of each of the 48 states, and down the sides of the structure are the insignia of the battalions that participated in the battle. There is a crypt below the memorial with three altars—one each for Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish religious services.
There is also a spiral staircase that leads up to the top of the memorial, where visitors are allowed walk the upper perimeter of the structure and view the countryside. On a clear day, you can see miles and miles from the top of the memorial, but when we were there it was pouring rain. The rain gave the whole landscape a gray, somber feel. I would obviously rather have seen the memorial in better weather, but at the same time the rain felt fitting. Peering at the hulking gray monument through the cold rain, it was easy to imagine how utterly miserable the soldiers must have been during the war, and how much they were sacrificing in their fight. It made me so sad to think about how many Americans died on that same spot we were standing, but it was nice to know that those that died at Bastogne are honored in such an appropriate way.
After we spent some time at the Mardasson, we went back to the town center of Bastogne. For a town that became so symbolic to the fight in WWII, it was much smaller than I expected. One main thoroughfare and a few neighborhoods branching off around the center are really all that there is to Bastogne. In many ways, the town looked like it hadn’t changed at all since the pictures I had seen of it during the war. Take away the modern-day cars and you would be hard-pressed to find many differences. It was clear that the entire identity of Bastogne revolves around its role in the war. The main square, for instance, is named Place McAuliffe, after the American general that helped save the town from the Germans.
Many street names commemorate other famous American figures. There is also a memorial to the intrepid General Patton although it sadly sits on the edge of a parking lot. If you judged Bastogne solely by the number of American flags flying around the place, you would think the Americans were still stationed there. To be honest, it was a little strange, walking around a place like Bastogne, so stuck in the past. It is true that Bastogne’s economy benefits greatly from WWII tourism, but I couldn’t help wondering what this town would look like if it hadn’t been so affected by the war.
For lunch we stuffed ourselves with huge baguette sandwiches at a French cafe right next to an American tank that was taken out by a German artillery shell during the Battle of the Bulge. The cafe seemed to operate on “French time” (i.e. the service took FOREVER), but the food was good and we weren’t in any particular hurry to end our trip. Unfortunately, when we finally did get on the highway back to the Netherlands, we managed to choose the one road in the entire country with a traffic jam. Just our luck. Our three hour drive turned into five hours, but we made it home with no other problems. All in all, it was a perfect first road trip together. I checked another country off my list, and we got to get outside of the city for a few days. I’m already counting down the days to the next one!