If you study military history in the 20th century at all, one of the thorny issues you will inevitably bump into is the conduct of France in 1940 and its loss to an invasion by Germany. In particular the highly successful thrust into central France of Germany’s Army Group A through the Ardennes forest. The usual presentation in many western histories of the conflict holds a viewpoint that the French military commander was foolish (at worst) and antiquated (more common) in its belief that the rough terrain of the Ardennes forest would prove too much of an obstacle to German tank units, thereby allowing the central region to be held by a thinner French military force.
As evidenced by the above humorous description from College Humor that captures that very outlook on the battle. So I find it somewhat amusing that this week is commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, as mentioned on the History Channel website, a tactical and strategic battle that the United States normally writes up as an epic conflict that is a credit to the United States Army and Air Force – where a major force of German army and armor units were driven back after launching a surprise winter assault upon the American lines.
What is often not mentioned in describing the Battle of the Bulge is that the territory being fought over was the same location where in 1940 the German army had surprised the French, and furthermore, that American military forces in the region were weak and unprepared for the attack for many of the same reasons that the French were unprepared for the attack. Furthermore it can be argued that the Allied high command, and American military commanders in particular, allowed their perceptions of how they thought the war was proceeding to overly color their strategic assessment of the situation. In fact the initial reaction of the American military in response to the attack reflected a similar level of shock and initial inflexibility comparable to that which paralyzed the French military in 1940. Yet these failings are usually glossed over lightly in histories of the war and the emphasis shifted to the counter-attack and eventual American success in the field.
Why the emphasis shifts is an interesting question – personally I would consider it heavily influenced by the strong feelings of “hero worship” attached to many key American commanders by historians, especially American historians, when writing about World War II. The core names in the battle, Eisenhower in overall command, Patton as the “saving angel of a general” who swept into the fight, Bradley as a key area commander, and the storied 101st Airborne Infantry fighting in Bastogne and holding out against German encirclement put a high gloss of success on the battle. The reality though was that the American forces in the region were caught unprepared and were badly mauled, although the attack was a high-risk gamble by the German military it wasn’t because of the American military units opposing them, it was instead a combination of the weather, a tight timetable, and fuel shortages plaguing the German military. Had Hitler gone with a less ambitious plan, like one of several advocated by his generals, the Battle of the Bulge would have probably been a successful backhanded slap to the Allies that would have helped stall the overall Allied advance temporarily.
What is particularly surprising is the broad dismissal historians make of what can only be described as a colossal error by Eisenhower in putting the weakest American military units on the line in the same spot, with the same overall defensive importance, as the French did in 1940 and trusting in the same terrain to prove too impassable to tank assault. The only real mitigating factor is the season, winter versus fall, but one might ask why didn’t Eisenhower put a few stiffer units in the line, or at least some limited armor, having had only four years earlier seen the fact that German armor could smash through that region with great success as a surprise?