Except for war buffs and military historians, battlegrounds are not the tour-generations and a couple of World Wars back. Bastogne, however, the improbable scene in the peace-looking Ardennes Forest of the decisive Battle of the Bulge of World War II, continues to grow in the interest of foreign tourists, European as well as American.
The Germans, French, British and Belgians were first to discover the rewards of the Bastogne pilgrimage, and now the Americans, who had the greatest involvement of the Allies here - 76,890 American men were killed or missing in the battle - are coming in steadily increasing numbers.
This village is only an hour and a half drive down from Brussels, 90 miles of excellent highways, and it can be encompassed by leaving a Brussels hotel after breakfast, visiting the town and its war memorials and museum, having a first-rate luncheon in Bastogne, and being back in Brussels in plenty of time for dinner. There are virtually no tourist hotel rooms in and around Bastogne, so most vistors are day tourists, running close to 125,000 a year now.
While the Ardennes Forest is known today most often as the source of Ardennes ham, an appetizer without which Belgium's finest restaurants would soon be out of buiness, this happens scenically to one of the most beautiful parts of this corner of Europe. On the drive from Brussels the first half is flat, the highway still coursing the Lowlands. Imperceptibly, at first, the land starts to rise toward the southeastern horizon, the stands of trees in the wide green fields grow (See BASTOGNE, G10, Col. 1) (BASTOGNE, From G6) thicker and darken with pines, and then the landscape starts to undulate in long gentle horizontal dips and rises that eventually climb into quite respectable hills.
The farmhouses and barns, large and profitable looking, stand here in the gray-beige native stone, solidly representative of the centuries spent in taming and cultivating this earth, from the days when the Romans had a forward base at Bastogne and posted watchmen on the Mardasson, a rocky watchmen on the Mardasson, a rocky outcrop of a hill a mile and a half east of Bastogne that took the brunt of the frontal attack of the German armies.
Two five-pointed American stars stand atop the Mardasson today. One is the 45-foot-high local granite War Memorial, its outstretched points topped by the names of the American states, on whose walls the story of the Battle of the Bulge is inscribed in golden letters. A short walk over the crest of the hill stands the newer Bastogne Histoathed on its walls and roof with local gray-black slate, its five-pointed arms making it seem like an enlargement of the white U.S. Army star painted bright again on the side of the U.S. tank standing guard outside the museum entrance. It looks outside more like a redoubt than a museterior is a small but complete set of exhibits about the great battle for Bastogne.
It was through the then thinly-held American lines east of this point that Hitler directed his masterstroke designed to split the Allied forces in Europe and end the war. He massed several Panzer armies here, ordered them to drive over Bastogne, by-pass Brussels and recapture Antwerp, depriving the Allies of that essential supply port, cutting all connections between the north and south branches of Allied forces and, in der Fuehrer's words, "forcing the Allies to sue for peace."
The attack started in fog, rain and later snow on Dec. 19, 1944, and by Dec. 21 Bastogne was completely surrounded and isolated, the center of an unceasing pounding by attacking armies. The siege was not lifted until late in the day of Dec. 26, a run of bad weather having grounded the American and British air forces, and the Battle of the Bulge continued as one of the most unorganized, scattered and flercest battles of World War II until complete Allied victory late in January.
historians compare Bastogne to the Battle for Stalingrad both in size and number of men and machines involved in each, and in their relative historical importance to the eastern and western fronts. Stalingrad was Hitler's highwater mark in Russia, Bastogne was his farthermost and his last advance in a grandiose, do-or-die plan to drive through the Lowlands to the North Sea and end the war. The retreats from Stalingrad and from Bastogne were defeats from which the German military never recovered.
The first signal to the arriving motived when Rte. 4 glides down into the town square of Bastogne and there is an American flag flying on a pole beside an American tank, a venerable war veteran with ragged shellholes in both ends. The center of the square, where tall shade trees grew before the siege smashed them into skeletons and took down almost half the houses on the four sides of the square, is now a public parking lot.
When Bastogne rebuilt itself after the war, the wquare was renamed Place McAuliffe for Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe, who commanded the 101st Airborne Division which held the town through the siege and gave a kind of immortality to American slang when McAuliffe casually answered "Nuts" to the German commander's formal demand for sturrender.
Inside the squat museum (admission $2.40 adults, $1.50 children during the July-August high season) lifesize dioramas show the Bastogne fighters in their uniforms and with their equipment - American forces in one set of exhibits, the Germans in separate displays. Included is an amphibious German jeep that played a small but important part in one aspect of the Nazi assault; in it a general crossed a river his armored troops had been unable to break across.
New this spring is a 12-minute film presentation of the Battle of the Bulge (See BASTOGNE, G11, Col: 1) (BASTOGNE, From G10) in a small open theater just added to a wing of the museum. All told, it is an impressive and easily traversed display, even though the exit leads to a souvenir shop where you can buy a genuine 1944 German soldier's steel helmet, salvaged from one of the many Bastogne area battlefields, for 1,700 francs ($51); a genuine American helmet for 950 frances ($28.50); plastic copies of both helmets for $2.40 each; or an Airborne Division T-sagles, Fort Campbell, Ky." and an eagle's head.
The War Memorial dispels any doubts caused by the ubiquitous souvenir shop. It was conceived by Bastogne and the people oericans who liberated their country ans whose heroic resistance to numerically superior forces saved Belgium from being overrun by the Nazis a second time. Money for the memorial was raised by sale of a special issue of Belgian postal stamps, and the people who designed and built it succeeded in producing an unadorned, unostentatious monument all the more impressive and solemn for its clean lines and its star shape.
The star was terribly significant for the 800 people who huddled in cellars in Bastogne during the long frightening days and nights of the siege. In the murky fog and snow. the only way anyone could tell whether the oncoming soldiers were friends or foe was by the insignia on their tanks and jeeps. When the spearhead of General Patton's relieving armored divisions broke through to the exhausted outposts of the Bastogne defenders, there was a momentary pause for identification before the 101st Airborne men recognized the siege had been lifted.
In the very center of the War Memorial's stone floor is the memorial stone placed there on July 4, 1946, with this inscription: "Liberatoribus Americanis Populus Belgicus Memor 4. VII. MCMXLVI." It was illuminated during our visit by a large wreath of plastic flowers and greens placed there, according to the attached riband, in memory of General Patton by the windows of Bastogne.
A tightly circular stairway of 60 steps leads to the top of the memorial's star, and here one can, by strenuous use of the imagination, conjure up on the peaceful pastoral scene stretching away in green fields and thick stands of forest in all directions, the horrible scenes of that frightful battle. The same sense of disbelief arises here as at most great battlefields - like Gettysburg, Saratoga, yorktown, where nature has obligingly obliterated the grotesque marks of battle and recaptured the martial fields, so that if it were not for markers and maps one would never know what once transpired and how many men lie dead and lost in those otherwise inviting fields.
Back in Bastogne it was time for lunch and our local guide led us across the street from the tank and American flag into what looked like an ordinary neighborhood bar, but upstairs the place opened up into a handsome restaurant called La Reserve. We started, of course, with Ardennes ham, tasting much better here in its home ground than elsewhere, and I went on to wild boar, another specialty of the Ardennes. My wild boar chops in a rich wine sauce had a strong game flavor, interesting but not enough so to inspire a reorder. Incidentally, restaurant prices here in the country ranged franc for franc with those in comparable restaurants in Brussels; the food, service and attention to detail oe to the finest dining places in the capital.
After lunch, we took a brisk walk from Place McAuliffe down the road to the Patton Memorial, a rectangular field of grass surrounded by low walls with narrow gray walks crossing the otherwise unbroken field. At the far end, far being about 200 feet, a gray stone wall carries a bas relief of the General in another very simple memorial.
Before leaving Bastogne we drove in the opposite direction a quarter of a mile to visit Eglise St. Pierre, the local parish church that is 1,000 years old with 11th century towers. The parish bulletin board inside the interesting building indicates the church is a very active religious and community center today.
Halfway back to Brussels, 45 miles by the speedometer, you will note the flow of traffic slowing down and turning off into the parking space in front of a combination coffee house, patisserie and bakery. It is near the turnoff to Namur and no other identification is needed, although the name is Patisserie Pierson, because the number of cars turning in and parked there are marker enough. It is tradition for the Bruxellois, returning from their weekend homes in the Ardennes or from sightseeing trips, to stop here to load their cars with pies ($3 each), cakes and the famous Ardennes bread, slightly darker than ordinary white bread and full of the taste and healthful ingredients absent from our sliced white bread. At least stop for tea or chocolate and calorie-filled patisserie.
Bastogne is a very rewarding excursion from Brussels, and it is also an easy stop on the way to or from Luxembourg and West Germany and eastern France. The southern part of the Ardennes Forest runs into a fateful corner of France where Sedan was of historical importance for centuries past, as well as in World War I and II; and Verdun, the center of what was perhaps the largest and most costly battle of the First World War.
The natural beauty of the countryside of the Ardennes belies its bloody history and one can with due deliberation drive through it for the sheer pleasure of being in this lovely country, with no thoughts of the myriad armies who over the centuries crossed and recrossed the Rive Meuse. However one travels through here, it is one of the more rewarding itineraries of Europe.