Marking “An ever famous American Victory”

Dotted across the pristine grounds of Arlington National Cemetery are dozens of commemorative monuments and memorials recognizing individuals, military units, wars, battles and other historical events. On a quiet corner, not far from the Tomb of the Unknowns, stands a chest-high memorial to what Winston Churchill described as “undoubtedly, the greatest American battle of the war.”

Churchill spoke those words to the British House of Commons on January 18, 1945, a month and two days after an attack by German forces caught Allied armies by surprise. The protrusion in the lines caused by the limited German advance gave this campaign its prevalent name: The Battle of the Bulge. 

The Battle of the Bulge Memorial is designed in Greek temple style, with a pitched top supported by a Doric column on each side. The monument is built of white Vermont granite. It bears the inscription “Triumph of Courage” and is dedicated to “World War II American Soldiers who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the Greatest Land Battle in the History of the United States Army”.  

The Battle of the Bulge, known more formally as the Ardennes Counteroffensive, was Hitler’s last major attack in Western Europe, a final gambit to stop the Allies steady advance from the west which had begun after the Normandy invasion.

His plan was risky.

A massive force of 45 divisions would attack through the Ardennes Forest of southeastern Belgium, Northeastern France and Luxembourg against exhausted and unprepared Allied troops.  German forces would then push northwest and retake the port of Antwerp, Belgium, denying its use as a vital supply link to the Allies quickly advancing armies.  

This would be a blitzkrieg attack, relying on surprise, speed, and captured Allied fuel to be successful. Hitler’s ultimate goal was to divide and encircle the US 12thand British 21stArmy Groups, then force a negotiated peace on his terms. 

The famous “Bulge” in the lines is depicted on this map from American Military History, Volume II, Chapter 5, published by the US Army Center for Military History

While Hitler’s senior advisors counseled against the attack, Hitler judged the Americans unable to withstand the massive blow he envisioned and he ordered the attack to proceed. 

Before dawn on December 16, the German launched a three pronged attack along a 40-mile corridor with over 250,000 troops.  Rainy, foggy weather covered the attack and kept Allied planes on the ground. At first, the assault moved quickly. Initially the Germans encountered American units either diminished from earlier combat operations or newly deployed and untested. Advancing German forces cut off and surrounded many US units, including the 106th and 28th Divisions. While the Germans captured over 8,000 prisoners, they also met determined resistance which began to slow their advance. 

Shoulder Insignia of the 106th Infantry Division The 106th Division’s 422nd and 423rd Infantry Regiments were encircled and captured during the initial German attack on 16 December. The remnants of the division were able to join other US units in the successful and heroic defense of St. Vith, an Ardennes City with several key road junctions.

One example that has become part of American military lore is the experience of the 101st Airborne Division, which was centered on the Belgium town of Bastogne. The 101st Airborne was rushed to Bastogne arriving on 19 December to relieve other American forces and help defend the city.  Bastogne was the junction of seven roads which traversed the Ardennes and was vital to the German advance, making the 101st’s mission of holding the town critical.

Shoulder Insignia of the 101st Airborne Division – The 101st received its “Airborne” designation in 1942. In addition to its service during the Battle of the Bulge, the division fought with great distinction during the Normandy invasion, Operation Market Gardens and in the liberation of the Netherlands. 

Soon surrounded by German forces and running low on ammunition, food and other supplies, the 101st withstood continued German attacks. When a German commander demanded the surrender of the American defenders of Bastogne, the acting division commander, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe famously replied “Nuts” in a written response.  The 101stwould hold their position until December 26th, when the US 4thArmored Division broke through the German lines and provided necessary relief.  

Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, acting 101st Division Commander at Bastogne – US Army Photo

While the Germans took the Allies by surprise and achieved some initial success, they did not meet their objective of retaking Antwerp nor dividing the allies and forcing a settlement. Tenacious defenses by American units denied access to key transit routes through the Ardennes, slowing the German assault. Clearer weather allowed Allied air forces to return to the skies. The advance was ultimately blocked and Allied armies began maneuvering in order to launch counterattacks against the salient in the lines. Meeting ever stiffer resistance and lacking fuel, German forces withdrew back toward their original positions by January 25th. Through it all, the Germans sustained critical equipment and manpower losses they could not replace while only delaying the Allied advance east by about 6 weeks. 

The victory came at a tremendous cost to the US Army.  The Allies would commit over 700,000 troops to countering this German advance, approximately 610,000 were US soldiers. The US Army sustained over 89,000 casualties during the fighting, including 19,000 killed during combat.  These were the highest American losses for a single operation during World War II.  

Soldiers of the 347th U.S. Infantry Regiment, 87th Infantry Division, receive rations in La Roche, Belgium in this January 13, 1945 US Army photo. Note the soldiers’ heavy winter weather gear. The winter of 1944-1945 was one of the coldest on record. 

In 1981, several veterans of the battle founded the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge® to perpetuate the memory of the sacrifices involved during the battle and to preserve historical information about it. The group was instrumental in building the Battle of the Bulge Memorial, lobbying Congress to authorize its location in Arlington National Cemetery, raising funds from the Governments of Belgium and Luxembourg for its construction and organizing its dedication in 2006. 

Today, this veterans group is known as the Battle of the Bulge Association® and remains active in commemorating the battle and honoring the sacrifices of the brave men and woman who secured victory.

The newsletter archives available online contain a treasure trove of firsthand accounts of the battle submitted by members through the years. These vivid narratives convey the courage, tenacity and ingenuity of American soldiers which were indispensable in securing what Churchill would predict would be “an ever famous American Victory”….