Cyr: Of peace and war at Christmastime
The Christmas season emphasizes harmony, but includes the anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, the largest battle in the history of the United States.
On Dec. 16, 1944, Nazi Germany launched an enormous offensive through the quiet, thinly defended Ardennes Forest in Belgium. Adolf Hitler and planners in Berlin achieved total surprise. German forces rapidly gained ground.
For Europeans among the Allies, the attack was reminiscent of the stunning 1940 German drive which overran France and secured Nazi domination of the continent. Among Dwight D. Eisenhower’s associates at Supreme Allied Headquarters, fear was visible, and alarm.
The tide of the battle did not clearly turn until Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army broke through to the 101st Airborne Division, surrounded by the Wehrmacht in Bastogne, Belgium, the day after Christmas.
Brutal fighting continued through January. However, Nazi hopes of breaking the western front, and the Anglo-American alliance, vanished.
Other battles in U.S. history were in certain respects more costly or complicated. During the Civil War, Gettysburg and other engagements resulted in a higher percentage of casualties among combatants.
During the Second World War, such enormous amphibious invasions as Normandy, Iwo Jima and Leyte Gulf in the Philippines were inherently more complex in logistical terms than the Bulge. In the European theatre, the scale of the war on the eastern front was much greater than in the west.
Nonetheless, in American history the Battle of the Bulge remains our biggest single land engagement. Approximately a quarter of a million United States troops were pitted against a comparable number of German forces.
Basic lessons of the Bulge include personnel and matériel, and leadership. Eisenhower’s skills included getting difficult personalities to work together, constant attention to logistics and organizational genius. Both sides suffered enormous losses, in men and supplies. The Allies could replace them; the Germans at that point could not.
Controversial Patton undeniably was a brilliant combat leader. At Kasserine Pass in Tunisia in early 1943, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps decimated poorly led American troops. Eisenhower put Patton in command. A month later, these same troops defeated the Germans at El Guettar.
Patton immediately, accurately evaluated the Ardennes offensive. He acted swiftly.
During the Bulge, African-American soldiers were offered combat service, previously denied, but only if they sacrificed earned military seniority. Thousands volunteered and were vital to Allied victory.
At the tactical level, Corp. Henry F. Warner near Dom Butgenbach, Belgium knocked out two German tanks, and then his 57-mm, anti-tank gun jammed. He was firing a pistol at a third approaching tank, when the German driver backed up and withdrew.
One of Warner’s shots had killed the commander, and the crew was unable to proceed, a common reaction of German troops. American, British and other Allied soldiers were much more likely to improvise and continue fighting after officers went down. Warner, killed later in combat, received the Medal of Honor.
When the Nazi Reich surrendered, Eisenhower commented the war was over but not won. True victory meant Germany embraced stable democracy.
Admirable and effective German Chancellor Angela Merkel was TIME Magazine’s 2015 “Person of the Year.” The Allies have won the war, undeniably.
Honor Chancellor Merkel, who personifies contemporary Germany, economically strong, firmly democratic and committed to a stable, peaceful Europe.
Honor also Eisenhower, Patton, other commanders, and the troops they led brilliantly, insightfully, ruthlessly - successfully.
Learn more: Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, and the movie “Patton.”
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.