The Washington Post
11 Days in December: Christmas at the Bulge, 1944by Stanley Weintraub
It was truly a white Christmas in the Ardennes Forest in 1944, but that was cold comfort to the Allied soldiers trying to stop the Nazis from retaking Belgium in one of the most decisive battles of World War II. While a German loudspeaker taunted, 'How would you like to die for Christmas'? the Allied forces dug in, despite freezing conditions. They needed a miracle… See more details below
It was truly a white Christmas in the Ardennes Forest in 1944, but that was cold comfort to the Allied soldiers trying to stop the Nazis from retaking Belgium in one of the most decisive battles of World War II. While a German loudspeaker taunted, 'How would you like to die for Christmas'? the Allied forces dug in, despite freezing conditions. They needed a miracle.
In a medieval chapel, General Patton, who needed clear skies to allow airborne reinforcements to reach his trapped men, uttered what would become a famous prayer: 'Sir, whose side are you on'' His soldiers wouldn't be home for Christmas, but as the skies cleared, they went on to win a battle? and a war.
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11 Days in DecemberChristmas at the Bulge, 1944
By Stanley Weintraub
Free PressCopyright © 2006 Stanley Weintraub
All right reserved.
PrefaceSir, This is Patton talking ... You have just got to make up Your mind whose side You're on. You must come to my assistance, so that I may dispatch the entire German Army as a birthday present to your Prince of Peace.... - from Lieutenant General George S. Patton's pre-Christmas prayer, at the chapel of the Fondation Pescatore, Luxembourg, December 23, 1944
Thousands upon thousands of lofty snow-laden spruce that from a distance suggested a vast expanse of Christmas trees stood in the dark, rugged forests of the Ardennes overlapping the frontiers of Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, and France. Yet there was not much Christmas there late in December 1944. The Battle of the Bulge, the most intense fighting of World War II in the West since Normandy, and soon the costliest and the most futile, was at its peak.
The Christmas tree, the most recognizable image of what had become the major family-focused holiday in Europe and America, had its likely origins just south of the Ardennes. Napoleon's armies had brought decorated Christmas trees from Alsatia into the duchies and principalities of Germany, where the peasant practice took further hold. German immigrants carried the traditional tree across the Atlantic to America, where the custom spread in the 1820s, even before Clement Clarke Moore's ballad The Night BeforeChristmas established, or revived, other festive symbols. In the early 1840s, Queen Victoria's young consort, Prince Albert, further popularized the Christmas tradition beyond Germany when he brought candlelit tabletop trees to England from Saxony, and London's new illustrated magazines featured them.
A century later, the dark evergreen forests would be illuminated only by shot and shell. What there was of Christmas in the embattled countryside was remarkable for having survived at all.
In 1944, the lethal new war had reached its sixth Christmas for the Germans and the British, its fourth for the Americans. In an inhospitable terrain nearly dark in daylight, where dense, snow-covered evergreens recalled the season, there were few other vestiges of Christmas. Most troops hardly knew what calendar day they were trying to live through.
No single soldier can be said to have "saved" Christmas in the contested "Bulge" of the Ardennes. Many ordinary men did extraordinary things, and many extraordinary things happened to ordinary men. Still, one brash and theatrical general stood out, one who, as an invalided young officer at the close of the earlier world war, rushing from an army hospital to get back into the fighting before the Armistice occurred, had paused on the field to pen a poem about a dead colleague. He could always be expected to do the unexpected. As Christmas 1944 approached, at a medieval chapel near the battlefront, he knelt at the altar and asked God, as if the Almighty were merely a military colleague of superior rank, to grant a Christmas gift of proper killing weather. Although his form of worship seemed medieval, Lieutenant General George Smith Patton was an anachronism, and this was no ordinary Christmas.
My look at the Christmas war in 1944 - what there was of it on both sides - is not a detailed military history of the Ardennes campaign. Tens of thousands of pages have been published about that, from close strategic analyses to vivid first-person accounts, and many more pages still remain to be drawn from attics and archives and memories. What follows is how it seemed then - a look at ten days on a frozen World War II battlefront through the lens of Christmas.
Stanley Weintraub Beech Hill Newark, Delaware
Excerpted from 11 Days in December by Stanley Weintraub Copyright © 2006 by Stanley Weintraub . Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Stanley Weintraub is Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus of Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University, and the author of numerous histories and biographies, including Silent Night (available from Plume).
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