Belgium is a hotspot for military history. During World War I and World War II, many battles took place on Belgian soil and are commemorated in many memorials, plaques, museums and cemeteries throughout the country. Bastogne, a city deep in the Ardennes and right on the border of Luxembourg, became the central location for the “Battle of the Bulge,” Hitler’s final push to make headway on the western front near the end of WWII. In this image you can see the movement of allied forces east while Nazi forces were pushing west, but the Americans had secured the town of Bastogne. It was eventually surrounded and the Germans laid siege to it in mid December, 1944. Ten days of grueling fighting ensued, and the Americans were feeling overwhelmed – but refused to surrender. General Patton arrived on the 26th of December and broke through the siege. Fighting continued for three more weeks until the Americans finally pushed the German line back, liberating the city of Bastogne. This moment in the war was monumental as it signaled the beginning of the end the war, which was officially over in Europe in May of 1945. The Battle of the Bulge lasted just one month and cost the lives of approximately 70,000 Germans and 20,000 Americans in this most deadly battle of WWII. This is why we remember.
Most people learned about this battle in school or through watching “Band of Brothers” (if you haven’t seen the series, I recommend watching before touring Bastogne and Normandy in France, see blog here.) My grandfather fought and lost his thumb in Bastogne, so I learned about this as a child. I was fascinated by the stories he told, including how he was able to make friends in the Bastogne community because he spoke French. It made visiting Bastogne and hearing the stories in the museum even more impactful for me.
There are many historic sites to see on a visit to Bastogne, but the first stop should definitely be the Bastogne War Museum – then visit other spots as time allows. The entire town of Bastogne is dedicated to this period in history, with many commemorative details you will spot as you drive through town, including the large tank in the historical center of town, and the faces of soldiers along the buildings with “Thanks boys!” written on signs. Remember, this is a small town – the population is only 15,000 people. This place will always remember the sacrifice that was made here to liberate it.
Bastogne War Museum
The Bastogne War Museum should be the first stop on your visit to Bastogne. They are making extensive renovations and expansions right now that will eventually increase the museum by 1/3 in size. It is usually open from 9:30AM-6PM, with the last tickets sold at 4PM. There are exceptions to this during certain times of the year, so double check the website here for more information. Tickets are € 16.00 for adults and € 8.50 for kids ages 6-18, with children 5 and under entering for free. Save your ticket for a discount on parking in the town of Bastogne!
Inside, the museum is broken up into three different areas where a story is played out like an interactive theater. With the audioguide playing automatically as you near certain areas of the museum, the story of the war in Bastogne is told from the perspective of four different people: a child, a school teacher, an American soldier and a German soldier. Throughout the museum you hear their stories played out. The museum is full of information and packed with memorabilia. If you didn’t know much about Bastogne and its role in the Battle of the Bulge before, you will certainly leave with a vivid understanding of it!
Outside the museum there is an ongoing exhibit of pieces from the Berlin Wall that have been used as a canvas for art. Additionally there are changing displays to keep an eye out for. When we were there we saw old painted cars and a library-inspired giant news exhibit that we could walk through before heading over to the Mardasson Memorial.
Mardasson Memorial/Battle of the Bulge Monument
It is possible to visit this memorial for free, even if you do not enter the museum. Just park for free at the museum lot and walk to the memorial, where you will have sweeping views over the countryside. Be sure to climb to the top of the memorial and walk around every angle to see how each state is commemorated. Take a photo with your home state!
The memorial is designed in the shape of a five pointed star and was built in honor of soldiers who fought and were wounded or killed during the Battle of the Bulge. It was dedicated in 1950 and took four years to build. Inside the star are plaques depicting the battle and each battalion who fought here is commemorated as well. Perhaps it is fitting that a Belgian architect, Georges Dedoyard designed this memorial.
Written in Latin on the stones, the inscription reads, “The Belgian people remember their American liberators – 4th July 1946.“
Of course the Battle of the Bulge didn’t just take place in the city of Bastogne, but all around the countryside as well. To help us appreciate it further, we hired a guide to drive us to locations, tell stories and share his paraphernalia. Unfortunately our experience with the guide isn’t one we recommend. Although we did learn a lot and he was funny, the tour was a bit haphazard and we ended up stranded because his car broke down (something we laugh about now). Instead, I recommend booking with Battle of the Bulge Tours if you want a deep dive into the war history of this area. Below you can see photos of memorials we viewed, a few in depth “the place where it happened” stops we made complete with photos, and plenty of shrapnel and bullet holes from battlefields. My favorite stop was learning about the house General McAuliffe was asked by the Germans to surrender and he reported back “Nuts!” as in, “No way, José! You must be crazy!” That house is located here, at the Kessler Farm.
Battle of the Bulge Foxholes
Visiting the Bois Jacques Foxholes is an immersive way to feel what it must have been like for our soldiers fighting in the freezing, ice-foggy days of December, 1945. It is great to visit the Foxholes in Bastogne on a beautiful day, but even more impactful in foul weather as it is more reminiscent of the conditions our soldiers endured during the Battle of the Bulge. These woods are marked somewhat erratically on Google maps, so I have marked the best place to park here at the nearby Easy Company Memorial. You can also park right along the road for a quick look into the woods. The Bastogne War Museum is in the process of cordoning off the area and charging for visits, but as of this writing it is still free to walk through the woods and visit the foxholes. To me, the trees were just as symbolic as the holes themselves.
Other Notable Spots
If you don’t have time for a private tour of the area, here are a few other noteworthy spots to visit on your historical tour of the Bastogne area.
101st Airborne Museum: This museum recaps the timeline of the Battle of the Bulge using dioramas. Nearby is the location of the German headquarters prior to when Bastogne was recaptured by the Americans. For more information here.
Bastogne Barracks Museum: During the siege of Bastogne, General McAuliffe’s headquarters were in the basement of these barracks. Today this space serves as a WWII history museum housing and restoring many historical vehicles from the battles. For more information here.
Historical Route Bastogne: This is a series of 15 informational boards at various locations around the town, commemorating significant points during the battle. Many are marked on google maps, but more information can be found here.
Bois de la Paix (Peace Woods): This outdoor memorial was created on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge and is located in the field where fighting occurred. It is an intentionally planted circle of 4,000 trees that commemorates veterans of WWII. It is a beautiful place to walk and read the accompanying plaques, paying tribute to the martyred cities and lives lost. Learn more about it here.
Recogne War Cemetery: Remember that this war costs lives on both sides. Nearly 7,000 Germany soldiers are buried here, just north of Bastogne.
General George S. Patton Memorial: Visit the memorial dedicated to the her who broke through the German lines to reinforce the American battalions stationed in Bastogne and help win the war. It is located here.
101st Easy Company-Battle of the Bulge Memorial: This is another memorial, paid for by the survivors of Easy Company and others including Tom Hanks, is dedicated to the men of Easy Company and especially the 14 men who lost their lives from that division during the Battle of the Bulge.
Native American Memorial: This small memorial was dedicated on the 50th Anniversary after the Battle of the Bulge. It is located here and the inscription reads, “In loving memory of the
American Indian soldiers fallen for the liberation of Belgium.” This memorial is located at the back of the fields on the grounds of the bison farm.
Foy American Temporary Cemetery Memorial: This memorial is located at the place where over 2,000 American men were laid to rest and then later moved to other cemeteries. It is located here and the inscription reads,
We have only died in vain if you believe so;
You have to decide the wisdom of our choice,
By the World which you shall build upon headstones,
And the everlasting truth, which have your voice.
Though dead, we are no heroes yet, nor can be,
‘til the living by their lives which are the tools.
Carve us the epitaph of wise men,
And give us not the epitaph of fools.(David J.Phillips. 506th P.IR/101st Abne Div.)
“Nuts” Weekend: This weekend event takes place at the beginning of December each year in Bastogne. Each museum has events so be sure to check the schedule here so you don’t miss a thing!
LODGING: There are several hotels in town that are reasonably priced to stay, but it is not necessary to stay in Bastogne. This can easily be a day trip from various places in France, Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany. Other good options for places to stay include Dinant and Durbuy in Belgium, Trier in Germany, Luxembourg city, or Reims or Metz in France.
FOOD: There are many great little eateries along the main street in Bastogne. Park in the large lot in town located here and walk along the streets to find something that appeals to you. It’s all good – you can’t go wrong!
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