south-east of La Roche, Bastogne is the town where the heavily outnumbered
Americans resisted the German offensive in December 1944. Famously, the
American commander responded with a single word to the Germans’ surrender
demand: “Nuts!” An American tank sits proudly in the town’s handsome main
square, named Place McAuliffe in honour of the laconic commander.
Three kilometres to
the north, one of the finest American war memorials in Belgium sits atop Mardasson
hill. The star-shaped structure is inscribed with the names of all the American
states, with informative panels around the sides and a sombre crypt with three chapels
at the foot of the hill. The memorial was built in 1950 to honour the scarcely
believable number of 76,890 Americans who were killed, wounded or missing in
action in the Battle of the Ardennes.
site has been greatly enhanced with the opening of the
new Bastogne War Museum, a striking piece of architecture that’s also star-shaped.
As well as displaying numerous artefacts from the Ardennes offensive, including
at least three tanks, the museum is strong on interpretation, explaining
the context of the battle and the causes, significance and consequences of the
Second World War as a whole. The vast space is packed with hi-tech,
interactive displays and 3D projections, and tells the story of the Battle
of the Bulge from the perspective of two soldiers (one American, one German),
as well as a local teacher and a teenager who lived through the onslaught that
devastated their town. In one recreated scene, visitors enter a dimly lit
tavern to experience the heavy bombing of Bastogne over Christmas 1944.
Visitors to the area in search of more wartime memorabilia should seek out yet another new museum, Ardennes 44, 10km from Bastogne near the Luxembourg border. Here, another private collection vividly recreates the battle experience at close quarters. The realistic displays in the basement, created with truckloads of mud and vegetation, bring the bitter – and bitterly cold - encounter to life, as you follow a gangway through the ‘battlefield’, passing waxwork soldiers huddled in their snowy foxholes. On the ground floor there’s a treasure trove of recovered vehicles, guns, radio equipment, uniforms and rare German propaganda films.