On the Battle of the Bulge Tour, our study of the bravery and heroics of the citizen soldiers who fought includes a special visit to the barracks in Bastogne that served as Troy Middleton’s headquarters at the start of the battle and eventually served as home to Anthony McAuliffe, the 101st’s assistant division commander, and his staff during the siege over Christmas. Our guests have an opportunity to visit the cellar where he gave his famous “Nuts!” answer to a German offer of surrender.
The following post, “Christmas in Wartime: Battle of the Bulge” by Kaitlyn Crain Enriquez, appeared on the National Archives blog The Unwritten Record. It expounds upon this pivotal moment in WWII history and provides a glimpse into how the soldiers “celebrated” Christmas under the dire winter conditions.
Christmas in Wartime: Battle of the Bulge
By Kaitlyn Crain Enriquez, The Unwritten Record, National Archives
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:
Continue reading on The Unwritten Record where you can see wartime photographs of the Battle of the Bulge during Christmastime from the National Archives.