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The Ardennes plateau November 20, 2008

Posted by Jenny in history, memoir, military history.
Tags: , , , , ,

The ArdennesCertain places are known as a battleground of two weather patterns: one bringing moisture and the other bringing cold.  The Ardennes plateau is such a place.  It is also of course known as a battleground in the military sense.  My father fought there in the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945.

The official Dept. of the Army history states, “The Ardennes lies directly on the boundary between the northwestern and central European climatic regions and thus is affected by the conjuncture of weather moving east from the Atlantic with that moving westward out of Russia.”  The terrain consists of a high plateau from which rise higher ridges and irregular tablelands covered with a patchwork of deep, dark evergreen forests.  The area is cut by winding rivers that flow through deep canyons.

A picture in the official Army book shows the village of Baraque de Fraiture, which sits at an elevation of 2,139 feet, one of the highest points in the Ardennes.  It is little more than a crossroads, and in the picture, which was taken around December 1944, drifting snow nearly covers the roads.  Wide snowbound fields form sharp-edged geometric shapes bordered by forests of pointed trees, either spruce or silver fir.

Dad gave me a written account of his experiences in the Battle of the Bulge.  He had never talked much about it.  He and his comrades had tramped along the snowy roads in bitter cold, and he struggled with the weight of the ammo box he carried: 30-caliber, for a water-cooled machine gun.  They walked through the forest by day and slept in the snow by night, coming once under bombardment, but no one was injured.  After three days they emerged from the woods at Baraque de Fraiture and faced the fire of German artillery and light machine guns.  Company D—the heavy weapons company—dug in and fired back for most of the day.  As dusk fell they ran pell-mell through deep snow down a long, gradual slope into the village of Bihain.  Dad’s company holed up in an unheated farmhouse, forbidden even to light up a cigarette that could reveal their presence to the enemy.  When dawn came, they saw the bodies of many of their fellow soldiers in the battalion’s rifle companies lying scattered across the snowy field behind the house.

Soon thereafter, Dad was evacuated with a high fever and a severe case of trench foot.  He always seemed to feel that his contribution to the war was not worth mentioning, but I felt that he was brave.  He mentioned in his account that he had grown up entranced by movies like “Gunga Din” and “Lives of a Bengal Lancer,” and he wore the badge of a British regiment, the East Yorkshire, on a chain around his neck as a lucky charm.

He told me that the run into Bihain was the most frightening experience he had in the war.  I can’t possibly imagine it clearly:  just a dim picture of the darkening blue dusk punctured by the lightpoints of enemy fire, a shapeless slope that never seemed to end, the panting for breath and that heavy ammo box banging against the strap across his chest where he had clipped it.


1. Barb - November 25, 2008

I didn’t know your dad was actually involved in combat. I’m glad I know this story now. Very few of those guys ever talked about their experiences in WWII. I know almost nothing about what my dad did, just that he was involved in training people to use radio, in the Pacific Theater. The one story he ever told was about a time when someone let him fly a plane and he ended up turned around in the opposite direction without realizing it. But he always wanted to go back to Hawai’i, one of the places where he was stationed. So it must have meant more than he let on.

2. Jenny - November 25, 2008

I think our fathers belonged to a generation that placed a very high value on modesty about their accomplishments. At any rate, I know that Dad was one of the most modest possible human beings. I hadn’t heard that story about the plane before. That’s wonderful!

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