Cruel and Now Forgotten,
Like an Unmarked Grave

By John C. Ausland

OSLO - General George S. Patton described it as an "epic of stark infantry combat." The U.S. Army Command and General staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, later used it as an example of how a battle should not be fought. These conflicting views refer to a battle that has been forgotten by all except those of us who got a taste of hell in a patch of German woods near Aachen in late 1944.

During a recent tour of the battlefields along the German-Belgian border, I revisited the Huurtgen Forest. In a matter of minutes I drove from one side to the other. Returning, I stopped and walked into the woods. New trees had replaced those that American and German artillery annihilated. The earthen bunkers had been smoothed over and the slit trenches filled. The barbed wire and mines had been removed.

There was no way of knowing that anything unusual had taken place there, and this made me angry. It is bad enough, but to forget it is like leaving a grave unmarked.

After racing across France and Belgium, the allied offensive stalled along the German border in September 1944. we had outrun our supply lines, which still depended on Cherbourg and the beaches in Normandy.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower diverted those supplies that were available largely to Field Marshal Bernard L. montgomery's dash across the Netherlands in an effort to seize a bridgehead over the Rhine, an episode later dramatized in "A Bridge Too Far." That attack not only failed but also delayed the opening of the port of Antwerp.

Hitler took advantage of allied logistic difficulties to rush troops to Germany's western border, while he quietly gathered the forces which in December launched what became known as the Battle of the Bulge.

As part of his effort to move his Seventh Corps toward the Rhine, Major General J. Lawton Collins decided that it would be necessary to take the Huurtgen Forest. The German generals were puzzled by this decision, but they had orders from Hitler to defend every inch of Germany.

Before the American forces could fight the 14 miles (23 kilometers) to the other side, the Germans had mauled five divisions. One of these was the 4th Infantry division, in which I was artillery liaison officer to an infantry battalion. The division had about 14,000 men.

During our three weeks in the forest we advanced about three miles and had more than 4,000 casualties, more than 400 of whom were killed. Most casualties were suffered by the rifle companies, which made up about a third of the division. Some replacements were wounded or killed by artillery or mortar fire before they could even reach the front lines. Everyone who went into that forest asked the same question: Why?

It was only recently, while doing research on this battle, that I learned the answer: It was all a mistake.

Before he launched the attack, General Collin's intelligence failed to inform him of the dams on the Rur River, to the east of the forest. Even if we got through the woods, we could have gone nowhere for weeks because the Germans would have opened the dams and flooded the flat terrain along the river. (They did this after the Battle of the Bulge.)

In his memoirs, General Collins admitted that his intelligence had let him down. He did not explain, however, why he continued the attack after learning about the dams.

The leading expert on the Huurtgen Forest was the late Charles B. MacDonald. In his book "The Battle of the Huurtgen Forest" he concluded: Those in the forest "fought a misconceived and basically fruitless battle that could have, and should have, been avoided."

Given this history, it is perhaps understandable that the U.S. Army would just as soon forget the Huurtgen Forest and has made no effort to mark the battleground.

The only indication I could find that the Germans, most of whom prefer to forget the war, remember this battle was a cemetery near the town of Huurtgen. A large sign near the entrance, in German, gives an account of the battle.

Nest year will bring the 50th anniversary of that terrible bloodletting. U.S. military authorities are busy planning to commemorate the landing in Normandy and other well-known operations. They have no plans to remember the thousands of men who fell in the Huurtgen forest. This is wrong.

At the very least they should erect a monument at a suitable place in the forest, such as one of the parking areas between Schevenhuutte and Duuren. there should be a joint American-German ceremony to dedicate this monument. And the Germans should mark the trails to some of the key sites of the battle, such as the monastery ruins at Schwarzenbroich.

Then at least those veterans who revisit the Huurtgen Forest next year will know that they and their comrades who fell there are not entirely forgotten.

International Herald Tribune


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