By Laura Goedert et Martin Cugnon
The new Bastogne War Museum: commemorate, understand and relive the battle
Bastogne, or the “hole in the donut” as the Americans called this Belgian locality in the winter of 1944, has for many years been synonymous with the Battle of the Ardennes. You will recall that this town was encircled by German troops during this terrible winter and withstood a horrific siege between the 21st and 26th December 1944. Although the heroic acts of the American defenders are still the stuff of history books, the devastation of the town remains a bleak period of history for its inhabitants. 70 years on, Bastogne continues to perpetuate the memory of these events with the opening of a brand new museum, the Bastogne War Museum, incorporating the very latest developments in museum techniques and interactive facilities.
An important town in the early Middle Ages
Bastogne had enjoyed over a thousand years of history well before the events of the Second World War. Art and history buffs can enhance their trip by visiting the musée en Piconrue, a real display case of Ardennes culture and its intangible heritage. A new permanent exhibition, built round the theme of the stages of life has been developed, providing a discovery circuit which has been thoroughly re-designed, brought up to date and expanded.
Just a stone’s throw away, Saint-Pierre’s church with its successive architecture styles (Romanesque and Gothic) and its 17th century chandelier, reflects the vicissitudes of history. It was painstakingly restored in the 1950s. Enjoy a moment of peace and quiet within its walls.
December 1944: to be held at all costs
Today it is mainly for the role that it played in the Battle of the Ardennes that Bastogne is known to the general public. The heroic resistance of the American units and the utterly memorable “Nuts!” voiced by General McAuliffe, have contributed to make the town an important area of interest for visitors of all nationalities. It has become an absolute “must see” pilgrimage site, especially for Americans.
The large-scale offensive launched on 16th December 1944 by the Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt was intended to enable Nazi Germany to reverse the course of the war after the Allied landings. Rapidly encircled by the German armoured tanks and the thousands of soldiers who followed in their wake, the town was defended in Inferno-like conditions by ill-equipped American troops in the depths of one of the harshest winters ever experienced in the region.
The construction of the Mardasson Monument
In the euphoria of the Allied victory a few months later, the inhabitants of Bastogne expressed a desire to commemorate the terrible winter battle of 1944, which had left such an indelible impression. Starting in 1946, the town of Bastogne instigated this commemorative process by laying the foundation stone of a colossal monument on the Mardasson Hill.
Construction work was complete in 1950. The commemorative building takes the form of a five-pointed star, like those on the USA flag and the vehicles of the liberators. The names of the 50 American States figure in bronze letters around the monument. This posed a bit of a problem to the designers, because the United States only had 48 at the time the plans were drawn up. The insignia of each unit which had taken part were also represented, while the history of the battle is inscribed in gold letters inside the monument. In the centre, a Latin inscription is engraved on a block of marble: Liberatoribus Americanis Populus Belgicus Memor (The people of Belgium remember their American liberators).
It is quintessentially this memorial, accessible via a spiral staircase, that attracts history buffs. Located on the top of a hill, the monument offers a spectacular view of the adjoining villages and defence perimeter. A map at each point of the star shows visitors the key points on the landscape as well as the position of the fighting units and the movements of troops at each important stage of the battle. Those lucky enough to have an enthusiastic guide, will probably receive an outstanding history lesson on the siege of Bastogne …
Religious ceremonies in the crypt
Below Mardasson, a crypt decorated with multi-coloured mosaics, produced by the French artist Fernand Leger, is where commemorative ceremonies in the three most important religions of the time are held: Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism. It was on this site, when the monument was inaugurated, that the authorities paid homage to the soldiers who had lost their lives during the combat, most of whom were very young. Today, the crypt is available to families who wish to celebrate the memory of a loved one, or more anonymously, to those who wish to pay their respects by remembering the countless other victims of this bloody battle. The small metal boxes will certainly arouse your curiosity. These are urns containing soil samples collected on the battlefields in the vicinity.
Keeping memories alive
Various museums joined the memorial in the years that followed and Bastogne has become the symbol of resistance to the Ardennes Offensive. In 1976, the bi-centenary of American Independence, a brand new museum opened its doors just a stone’s throw from Mardasson Hill. The building, entirely covered in slate and in the same, star-shaped form as the memorial, houses collections from various sources, including a vast number of donations provided by the veterans themselves. It was an instant success.
Unfortunately, the Bastogne Historical Center lost its appeal within a few years and visitor numbers plummeted dramatically. It was therefore decided, during the 60th anniversary year of the battle in 2004, to develop a new, thoroughly modern and ambitious museum space.
Understand, take stock and experience
The Bastogne War Museum was inaugurated in 2014. It provides an immersion not only into the history of the Battle of the Bulge but also into the general context of the Second World War.
The visitor will discover History with a capital H through the prism of 4 imaginary people from the inter-war years right up to the end of the conflict. Emile, a young man from Bastogne, Mathilde, a teacher carrying messages for the resistance, Robert, an American soldier and Hans, a German soldier, will accompany you throughout your visit and give you a personalised and different point of view. This unconventional narration will provide you with a greater identification and deeper insight into the conflict.
This impression is highlighted by the three scenovisions, real, multi-dimensional and multi-sensory reconstitutions which punctuate your visit. You will find yourself parachuted by turns into a press conference announcing the Allied landings, into the snow and frozen woodland around Bastogne and finally into a café cellar during a bombing raid.
The museum has been designed to provide a complete, all-embracing view without distortions of this terrible conflict. Contrary to most museums covering the battle, the Bastogne War Museum also makes a point of showing not only the strategic aspects of the conflict but also the viewpoint of civilians caught in the cross-fire.
There is no need to have a thorough grasp of Second World War history to appreciate this tour round the museum: it has been designed to help you put the stakes of war in context and better understand the unfolding of events, which have a powerful influence on the society of today. The items on display have been chosen with care and speak to us all, whether young or veterans.
Bois Jacques is once again at peace
When you leave the museum, take the opportunity to discover some vestiges of the battlefield. It is possible, for example, to visit the foxholes (defensive positions for riflemen) in the Bois Jacques a few kilometres away. Made famous thanks to the Band of Brothers television series – which retraces the route of the Easy Company of the 506th PIR, 101st Airborne Division from the landings until the summer of 1945 – the wood is criss-crossed throughout the year by World War II enthusiasts and all those moved by the tragedy which played out during the winter of 1944.
Prepare for your stay in Bastogne
Signposted routes, exhibitions, commemorative circuits, books, films and conferences, educational events … and many other sources of discovery are available once you are in situ. Give them all a try! And don’t hesitate to contact the museum for additional information:
To get a real feel of such an intense and life-changing event as the Battle of the Bulge, a two to three day stay is a must. To overnight in a place so charged with history, why not reserve a room at the Hôtel du Vieux Moulin or the old coaching Inn in Asselborn (25 km away)? This is where representatives of the Texas A&M University, responsible for setting up the exhibition “From Texas to Bastogne” stayed.
The Chateau de Isle-la-Hesse (the “Nuts Castle”), within the perimeter encircled Bastogne, served as headquarters to General McAuliffe and his staff. A four-star holiday cottage for 8-16 people can be hired in the part of the castle occupied by the GIs n 1944.