This post was written by Kaitlyn Crain Enriquez.
In December 1944, American forces had been spread across a 75 mile stretch of the Ardennes Forest. The Ardennes was considered to be a minimal fighting area and therefore, the troops that had been placed in the area were either inexperienced or had been moved there to rest. However, early in the morning of December 16th, 1944, American troops were caught off guard by a surprise counteroffensive attack. The attack consisted of approximately 200,000 German troops and 1,000 tanks. Hitler had been planning the counteroffensive since September 1944. He had hoped to break through the American front lines, with the ultimate goal of splitting the Allied Armies in half. Hitler had also hoped to take control of the supply port in Antwerp, Belgium. This counteroffensive attack led to what we now remember as the Battle of the Bulge.
The Battle of the Bulge lasted six weeks, though it came to an apex during the Siege of Bastogne, which had begun on December 20th and lasted through December 27th. Bastogne was a key location for both the Allied and Axis armies. The Germans knew that they had to capture the city of Bastogne in order for their counteroffensive attack to be successful. On the other side, the Allied Armies knew that to successfully stop the German Army and to regain the upper hand, they needed to hold on to Bastogne. Unfortunately for the Americans, the German Army had already encircled them. Recognizing the predicament of the American troops, the German Army hand-delivered the following note to General McAuliffe on December 22nd:
To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne,
The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. More German armored units have crossed the river Ourthe near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompre-Sibret-Tillet. Libramont is in German hands.
There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.
If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hours’ term.
All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well known American humanity.
– The German Commander.
General McAuliffe replied the same day, writing:
To the German Commander,
N U T S !
– The American Commander
And with that, the Battle carried on. For those entrenched in this war, there would be no Christmas truce like there had been during WWI.
Many soldiers spent Christmas 1944 “celebrating” the best that they could. For American soldiers within Bastogne, Christmas services were held by the Army Chaplain. For the soldiers that were defending Bastogne outside of the city limits, their Christmas was spent on the battlefield. There have been many stories shared by veterans who described Belgian families taking them into their homes on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As one veteran recounts:
“We were out in the outskirts of Bastogne, we found this farmhouse… Inside was a man and a woman, and a little boy and a little girl…the wife, she gave us some soup and some black bread. We stayed there all night in this farmhouse. The war was going on fiercely outside and for some reason the farmhouse never got hit. We were there Christmas Eve. We sang Christmas songs that night with this Belgian family. We sang Jingle Bells and Silent Night. The words were different but the music was the same….”
-Keith Davis (in an interview with the BBC Witness Podcast)
This Christmas marks the 72nd anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, and more specifically, the Siege of Bastogne. In remembrance of the soldiers that spent their Christmas in war, we are presenting photographs held by NARA’s Still Picture Unit that document the Battle of the Bulge during Christmastime.