The Unknown Dead: Civilians in the Battle of the Bulge.
Over the past sixty years, scholars have written extensively in English, French, and German about the Battle of the Bulge, 1944-1945. Comprehensive studies in English include The Ardennes (1965) by Hugh M. Cole, Hitler's Last Gamble (1994) by Trevor N. Dupuy, The Bitter Woods (1995) by John S.D. Eisenhower, A Time for Trumpets (1984) by Charles B. MacDonald, and Battle (1959) by John Toland. To Win the Winter Sky (1994) by Danny S. Parker examines the role of airpower. Given that it was the largest land battle of World War II in which the United States participated, numerous volumes, articles, and unpublished papers focus more narrowly on specific locations or units in the Battle of the Bulge. Until publication last year of this work, however, no historian thoroughly narrated the impact of this ferocious military engagement on civilians in Belgium and Luxembourg.
Belgian-born Schrijvers perused dozens of secondary sources, including most of those previously mentioned, and culled details from primary materials written in three different languages. He found the latter sources filed in four central archives in Brussels and two local collections, printed in books and magazines, or posted on the World Wide Web. In addition, he personally visited Belgian families and individuals who shared quite frankly their stories of fear and suffering during the Battle of the Bulge. From these various references, Schrijvers compiled noncombatants' harrowing stories of life and death under heavy artillery barrages, German aerial attacks, and massive bombings by Allied air forces. Even more horrifying are the vivid accounts of war crimes committed by German military units and Nazi security services as they reoccupied territory vacated by the retreating Allies.
The approximately 3000 civilians killed might have suffered less than the tens of thousands who endured and survived the six weeks of the Battle of the Bulge. Diseases such as typhus, dysentery, meningitis, paratyphoid, pneumonia, diphtheria, croup, scabies, and cholera were common among the survivors, especially the young and old, who huddled in damp, dark cellars and caves. Leaving such shelters to care for cattle, pigs, or horses or to seek food and water endangered one's life. Soldiers on both sides distrusted noncombatants and often mistreated them. As The Unknown Dead reveals, military forces on both sides gathered bricks from damaged homes to pave roads, confiscated furniture for firewood, and slaughtered livestock for food. German troops rudely forced civilians to labor on clearing roads, rebuilding bridges, and digging trenches. With mind-numbing, heart-wrenching repetition, Schrijvers records how death and destruction visited farms, villages, and towns across the entire battlefield. Amidst the appalling callousness of war, however, he found remarkable examples of individual German and Allied soldiers' compassion for the plight of civilians.
According to Schrijvers, civilians feared attacks from the air more than gunfire, landmines, or artillery. He describes how a series of bomb blasts catapulted a farm girl through a window, propelled her brother from the stable onto a manure pile yards away, returned him to the stable, and left no trace of the farm's owner. Napalm dropped on the village of Cobru, just north of Bastogne, killed six people in one house and left nine others severely burned on Christmas Eve. Meanwhile, German Junkers 88s assaulted Bastogne, leaving residents' nerves shattered and homes destroyed. Another napalm attack by Allied planes on Christmas Day set ablaze half the buildings in Rouette and incinerated all the livestock. From beginning to end, readers of The Unknown Dead will ceaselessly confront similarly terrifying tales. Not recommended for the faint hearted or easily disturbed, this book nevertheless conveys with incredible thoroughness and accuracy the suffering of civilians caught in the path of war.
Dr. Rick W. Sturdevant, Deputy Command Historian, HQ Air Force Space Command, Peterson AFB, Colorado
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|Author:||Sturdevant, Rick W.|
|Publication:||Air Power History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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