Christmas in Wartime: Battle of the Bulge

This post was written by Kaitlyn Crain Enriquez.

**Edit: Seven additional photographs were added on 12/21/2018. **

111-SC-200483 “Officers of the 101st Airborne Division have Christmas dinner in Bastogne, Belgium, while the city is still under German siege. Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe (fourth on the left) commanded the division during the siege.” Photo taken 12/25/1944

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.

December 24th, 1944

December 25th, 1944

December 26th, 1944

Photos added on 12/21/2018:

Photo ID: 111-SC-255610. Original caption: “Helmet worn by patient in ambulance killed as (according to eye witnesses) German piloted P-47s strafed the clearly marked convoy. Action took place in Luxembourg. 5th Medical Battalion, 5th Infantry Division, Gonderange, Luxembourg.” Photographer: Lt. Freeman. Date: December 25th, 1944
Photo ID: 111-SC-255612. Original caption: “American ambulance clearly marked just after it had been strafed by (according to eye witnesses) German piloted P-47s. Driver and patients were killed. 5th Medical Battalion, 5th Infantry Division, Gonderange, Luxembourg.” Photographer: Lt. Freeman. Date: December 25th, 1944
Photo ID: 111-SC-204300. Original caption: “Members of the 101st Airborne Division search for dead comrades killed in the defense of Bastogne.” Photographer: T5 Krochka (101 AB). Date: December 26th, 1944
Photo ID: 111-SC-255615. Original caption: “Plainly marked American ambulance, just after it was strafed by (according to eye witnesses) German piloted P-47s. Driver and patients were killed. 5th Medical Battalion, 5th Infantry Division, Gonderange, Luxembourg.” Photographer: Lt. Freeman. Date: December 25th, 1944
Photo ID: 111-SC-222467. Original caption: “German POWs clear away wreckage of houses bombed in Bastogne. They are searching for Airborne men of the 101st Airborne Division, who were buried when bomb hit…they were trapped here for 10 days, but were rescued by General Patton’s armor.” Photographer: T5 Krochka (101 AB). Date: December 26th, 1944
Photo ID: 111-SC-204297. Original caption: “Tec 5 Walter W. Streetman, of Detroit, Michigan, a member of the 10th Armored Division, stands guard by his machine gun in his camouflaged half-track, on the outskirts of Bastogne, Luxembourg. The white sheet provides camouflage for the vehicle in the snowy terrain. 10th Armored Division, near Bastogne.” Photographer: Pfc. Sam Gilbert. Date: December 27th, 1944.
Photo ID: 111-SC-204298. Original caption: “German prisoners dig for the bodies of American soldiers buried when this first aid station was bombed on Christmas night. The location is Bastogne, Luxembourg. 3rd US Army.” Photographer: Pfc. Sam Gilbert. Date: December 27th, 1944

4 thoughts on “Christmas in Wartime: Battle of the Bulge

  1. My Tom, 92, 87th Div. 345th Co.B., was there. I’ve asked him several times about Christmas ’44. He says it was like any other day and there was no Christmas.

  2. My father was there: one of many from the Airborne battling buzzards. Feet frozen in blocks of ice, suffering from wounds inflicted from shrapnel, on the verge of succumbing to hunger, cold, wounds he went on to fight for freedom and come home to knock up my mom and thus having me.

Comments are closed.