Skip to main content

A Catastrophic Battlefield

ISSUE:  Autumn 2002

Hell in Hürtgen Forest. By Robert Rush. University Press of Kansas. $34.95. The Bloody Forest. By Gerald Astor. Presidio.$29.95

The flood of World War II memorabilia shows no signs of ebbing. The vast outpouring of books, memoirs, letters, diaries, and television documentaries has covered the historical waterfront, providing an incredibly rich trove of material for future generations.

There are reunions galore of comrades-in-arms and special tours for old timers wishing to revisit battlefront scenes of gore and glory. A new D-Day museum in New Orleans is attracting big crowds. Some of the more famous clashes, such as the turning-point struggle for Stalingrad in the Soviet Union and the Pacific battles for Iwo Jima and Okinawa, have been freshly examined, even though they have already been analyzed and reanalyzed in scores of works.

Here and there, though, a few gaps remain, omissions that seem surprising in light of the latter-day avalanche. In the European theater, for example, there is no shortage of lengthy and graphic accounts of the Allied sweep across France and Belgium after the Normandy invasion in June 1944. The bitter Ardennes woodland Battle of the Bulge, coming at the depths of the coldest European winter in 40 years, has been fittingly celebrated as the breakthrough event that enabled Western armies to hammer German forces back onto homeland soil.

And yet, another related but equally agonizing action during that crucial 1944—45 advance has received only minimal attention, perhaps because it did not reverberate with the same dramatic overtones or produce a definitive triumph that captured public imagination. This was the fight for the Hürtgen Forest, a sprawling 70 square mile tract along the Belgian-German border south of Aachen,

Two veteran military writers, Gerald Astor and Robert Rush, have recently stepped forward to describe a chilling story of battlefield catastrophe, one of hand-to-hand combat at its ferocious worst. It is also a story of military miscalculations, high command blunders, and human, sometimes pathetic frailties. Because so many things went wrong and the casualties were so great, the five-month Hürtgen campaign degenerated into an unexpected bloodbath of attrition, confirming the ancient aphorism that war is the devil’s madness.

By autumn 1944 it seemed only a matter of time before Hitler’s empire would collapse. German armies were reeling everywhere. During a three-month period a million men were lost. The invasion of the Soviet Union had proved to be an unmitigated disaster, and Joseph Stalin’s legions were moving with dazzling swiftness into Poland, Rumania, and Bulgaria. Allied forces in the west had broken out of their D-Day beachheads, and General Charles de Gaulle had strolled triumphantly down the Champs Elysees after the surrender of Paris. Allied bombers rained round-the-clock death and destruction on German cities and industrial targets.

Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, was constantly prodding his senior commanders to stay on the offensive, believing a policy of unrelenting pressure would shorten the war and save thousands of Allied lives. Accordingly, the Allies were soon poised to reach the heavily fortified Siegfried line along the German border and to cross over the Rhine for what promised to be the climactic chapter of the Western drive. No one thought it would be easy but neither did anyone reckon on the resistance that would be encountered in the ruggedly forested Ardennes and Hürtgen areas. In particular, Allied commanders never imagined that Hitler would decide on one last bold counterstroke, pulling together his dwindling brigades to try to isolate enemy forces and to smash through to the English channel. By so doing, he apparently hoped to persuade the Allies to begin armistice talks that might stave off the occupation of German territory.

At first the tactic appeared to work as the Germans pushed back the startled Allied troops, striking through the December snows to punch a 45-mile hole in their lines. Within a few weeks, however, the thrust ran out of steam, and the Battle of the Bulge ended in a memorable showdown at the crossroads town of Bastogne. By February the Allies had resumed their offensive and breached the Siegfried Line.

Even so, it was hardly a shining moment for the Allies. Apart from the exceptionally high casualties—among the highest in the war— Western strategy had been exposed as flawed and confused, with an unjustified optimism about German capabilities for counterattack. The wrongheadedness was even more obvious in the savage struggle for supremacy in the Hürtgen, which one general called “an ice coated moloch with an insatiable appetite.”

The dark and sinister forest, which was first fought over during Roman times, was something out of an ancient Grimms’ fairy tale with its pervasive gloom, towering, densely packed fir trees, steep hillsides and deep ravines. In some ways the battle for its possession was reminiscent of the slaughter that occurred in the Civil War’s 1864 Wilderness campaign near Fredericksburg, VA. In fact, the going proved so rough that during the first month two American divisions were held to a gain of just 3,500 yards, all at a cost of 4,500 killed and wounded, less than a yard per soldier. Eighty per cent of front line infantrymen were lost. Before the forest was eventually cleared of German troops, eight additional divisions would be summoned to lend a helping hand.

For the GIs, the Hürtgen was an unimaginable, never-ending nightmare. They could barely see one another because of the near-impenetrable growth. There were few passable roads for the movement of tanks and trucks, which often bogged down in axledeep mud. Some of the trails were heavily mined. Food shortages were endemic, and some units became woefully short of manpower. Communications were abysmal because radios rarely worked and phone lines were repeatedly disrupted. Even the maps were poorly drawn and often defective. And always the trees, the terrible trees that made everyone feel imprisoned. Water dripped down incessantly, even when there was no rain, sometimes flooding foxholes. German artillery was particularly punishing, touching off massive tree bursts that showered foxholes with shards of wood and steel. With so many trees felled, precious time was devoted to clearing paths for movement. The warriors who lived to tell about it vividly described the brutal atmosphere:

Every day we would pray for darkness and then when night would come that was so bad we would pray for daylight.

I had to fight with all I had to keep from going to pieces. I had seen others go and I knew I was on the black edge. I could barely maintain the minimal control I had after fourteen or fifteen days of brutally inhuman fighting in those damned woods.

Show me a man who went through the battle of the Hürtgen Forest and who says he never had a feeling of fear and I’ll show you a liar.

The dark of night in the forest was almost beyond description. A man couldn’t even step out of his foxhole to relieve himself with any certainty he would find his way back.

We put raincoats over our holes and tried to catch some of the rain and sleet, but invariably a shell would come along and splash some mud into what we had carefully collected.

The bodies of three German soldiers didn’t bother me; it was the sight of a wounded German boy, looking not over seventeen years old, crying for his mother. This was war. I shouldn’t allow myself the luxury of compassion.

Gerald Astor’s version of the forest tragedy is essentially told through the bitter voices of those who were there. As a military historian, he found in his interviews “a depth of anger about the Hürtgen that surpassed anything I had encountered elsewhere.” More significantly, he indicts Eisenhower and other top commanders including Omar Bradley and J. Lawton Collins for slipshod leadership in promoting the campaign, noting they had completely under-estimated the deadly hazards. “Totally ignorant of the thickness of the forest and the absence of genuine roads through it, the top command sent men into battle,” writes Astor, suggesting the forest could easily have been bypassed in favor of an alternate route into Germany.

Robert Rush prefers to emphasize the positive, that the Hürtgen campaign drew German forces away from Hitler’s buildup for the Ardennes push, thereby making it less likely that his Panzer units would succeed in their counter thrust. Indeed, he quotes General-major G.V. von Gersdorf of the Seventh German Army as acknowledging that the consignment of troops to the Hürtgen made it impossible for the Wehrmacht to win the Battle of the Bulge. Thus, while the price may have been great, there was a redeeming side. Rush concedes that the casualties were horrendous and that some units were rushed into combat without proper preparation. Cooks, clerks, and drivers became part of a virtual assembly line of non-combatants who were hastily reclassified for front line duty. With so many losses, many squads and platoons wound up being led by lower rung officers and even privates. On the whole, though, Rush credits the replacement cadres with persevering through the excruciating circumstances and out-performing enemy soldiers.

Astor and other experts take a harsher view. As they see it, the entire machinery for replacing troop vacancies was badly organized and inefficient. And because of this, the Germans were able to hang on much longer than expected despite their steadily depleted ranks. Historian Stephen Ambrose has characterized the American army approaching Germany as partly a children’s crusade with hundreds of thousands of largely untrained 18- to 20-year-old troops. To his thinking, the replacement system was “grossly, even criminally wasteful” because it stressed quantity over quality, with the consequence that “it was paying lives but getting no return.”

Whatever the merit of these contentions, one fact is indisputable: Allied losses in the Hürtgen far exceeded expectations, with the ultimate toll some 24,000 killed, wounded, and captured, plus 9,000 victims of frostbite and trenchfoot. Hence, it is demonstrably clear that the operation was not only poorly conceived but poorly planned as well. In short, the battle should never have taken place—certainly not without much more painstaking consideration of the likely cost.

Rush’s book, a more polished and insightful analysis despite its softness toward the Allied command, actually makes the case by dramatizing the fate of one battered infantry regiment which was virtually wiped out during an 18-day period. Every battalion commander and 60 per cent of all officers were lost. Still, the regiment slogged on, never quitting even when its ranks were almost totally infused with raw and frightened rookies. This pointed up something else—that learning on the job was an essential part of this carnage of hell. Unfortunately, as Rush so aptly concludes, “the Hürtgen was an unforgiving classroom.”


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading