Never to Forget
It is mid-December. Whatever your religion or national origin, chances are good that if you are reading this that you are in the midst of celebrating your holidays. Indeed, most of us are also getting ready to ring out the old year and ring in the new; it is a happy time.
For many, however, that happiness is muted by the fears that they have for loved ones serving in wars in far off lands. That is one of the prices that soldiers accept when they choose the warrior life. The enemy often decides when and where the fight will take them and when duty calls, the warrior must go.
That has been the case for centuries. Washington and his men attacked Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas Eve in 1776. Many were shoeless. All were cold, tired and hungry, but they endured and helped to turn the course of the war by proving that the young American army could defeat the highly trained Hessian mercenaries stationed at Trenton as well as the equally well-trained British garrison at Princeton. Those men in the Continental Army set a standard that later generations would follow and for which all Americans should give thanks.
Years later, in mid-December 1944, another American Army was looking forward to the much hoped-for end to a much greater conflict. Hitler’s Reich was collapsing. Many said the war would be over by Christmas and that no matter when it ended, it would be over soon. For the soldiers stationed in the Ardennes forest of Belgium, a forward rest area in a quiet zone, the massing of German troops in November and early December had gone unnoticed. For the German troops who were preparing their attack, they knew all too well that success in the coming battle was Germany’s last hope to force a negotiated peace that would end the war before Germany was invaded.
On December 16, 1944, those two armies met when twenty-four German divisions began their onslaught against the cold, tired, unsuspecting Americans. Over the next six weeks, more than 10,000 American soldiers would die in their ultimately successful effort to stop the German attack. Close to 50,000 would be wounded and nearly 25,000 would go missing or be captured. This was the legacy of the Battle of the Bulge and it remains the largest battle in which American troops have ever participated.
In The Battle of the Bulge: The Photographic History of an American Triumph, John R. Bruning pays wonderful tribute to the American soldiers who fought and suffered and died during those fateful days in late 1944 and early 1945. Although Bruning tells the stories that compliment the photos, and while his writing could certainly stand alone, he places far greater emphasis on the images captured by combat photographers, often at great risk to their lives. That is as it should be. As Bruning explains:
So for this book, I want to tell you the story through the photographs taken by brave and dedicated combat cameramen. They risked their lives countless times to get these photos and endured all manner of privation and suffering alongside their GI subjects. Many of these priceless images have languished in dusty archives, forgotten and slowly fading away, a fate similar to the very veterans captured within their frames. There are still a few aging survivors to be found here and there, but, sadly, one walk through a local cemetery will probably uncover many more. Let them be your connection, and cling to it in years ahead, lest this country shed their memory like it so often seems willing to do with its history. Let your eyes linger on these photographs until the details come into sharp relief. They will tell so much of the story.
And the images that Bruning assembled in this coffee table book, more than 500 of them culled from the official US archives and the author’s personal collection, will not soon leave anyone who sees them. Many of the photographs are horrific. Others are inspiring. All of them are gripping. An image of dead German soldiers in an open field following one of the many battles that made up the Battle of the Bulge, for example, shows us how cheap life can become in wartime, and yet how precious it is because it is so fleeting.
Other images demonstrate that even amidst the terrors of war, beauty can be found, as in this photo of a B-17 Flying Fortress returning from a mission and silhouetted by the setting sun.
Other photographs serve to remind us that even in nightmarish conditions people can still find the strength to smile and to hope.
The Battle of the Bulge: The Photographic History of an American Triumph, however, is much more than a photo essay. It is a stunning reminder of the strength of spirit in the warrior and a tribute to soldiers everywhere who have faced terrible odds and prevailed. Bruning is a professional military historian who, in the past two decades, has studied the Second World War, the Korean Conflict, and the current war in Iraq. He also served as an embedded historian with the Second Battalion, 162nd Infantry during Operation Southern Comfort, the relief operation in New Orleans that followed Hurricane Katrina. In his own words, he is not an unbiased historian:
I am an American, and I have spent the past three years with a unique association with an infantry battalion in my neck of the woods. I lived with these guys in the hell that was New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I’ve slept beside them in frozen deserts. I’ve been slammed into walls and dumped into icy puddles by them as the leader of their opposing force (OPFOR) while they have prepared to return to battle once again. I see their commitment. I see their love of country and the devotion they have for their brothers-in-arms. I’ve also seen the petty infighting, the jostling for rank, the slackers, the braggarts, and the shirkers. I’ve seen the effect combat has on the human mind; it has led to suicide attempts, addiction, broken families, and shattered lives. Choosing the warrior life comes with a price that most of us will never fathom.
And as I’ve gone back to study and write about the infantry in the Ardennes, I am struck by the similarities between the men I know and call my brothers and the men within these pages who staved off the worst evil the world has ever faced.
Bruning recognizes the continuity, the kinship, the fraternity that binds today’s soldiers to the soldiers who fought in the Bulge and cares passionately about the memory of the men who fought in the Bulge, just as he cares passionately about today’s soldiers. In that sense, he is unabashedly patriotic. That’s OK. Sometimes we just need to be proud of our past and let the memories and images of what has been speak for us. Wherever you are today, think about the Christmas that the soldiers on both sides faced during that winter of 1944. Both sides were doing their duty, as they were trained to do it, and both sides paid a horrible price in terms of lives lost and broken. As you approach your holidays, give thanks for those men and women who have given their all in wars past and in today’s wars because for them, the best gift that they could receive was the gift of living to the next day and the next.
As the end of the year approaches, I know that I will be able to comfortably celebrate Christmas and the coming of the New Year in the comfort of my home. I also know that thousands of men in the Ardennes Forest of 1944 never had that same good fortune. To them, I shall raise a glass and thank God for them and for their generation.
Books mentioned in this column:
David G. Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports, and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts, and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. David currently has his own law practice. He is also a contributor to Renaissance magazine. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle named Biscuit. Contact David.