Today at Grosslangenfeld
Silent footprints in the falling snow betray a grim column of ghosts, bleeding west through the low southern neck of the narrow Alf valley and slowly blanketing the south-western corner of the “Schnee Eifel.” Still dark at this early December hour — just past fifty degrees northern latitude — German artillery punctuates the crisp morning air in Grosslangenfeld, a small farming village near the center of the Bulge saddling the ridge southwest of Bleialf. Several kilometers to the south, Josef “Jupp” Reusch, a native of the village and a seventeen-year-old conscript fresh from artillery training in Norway, is crossing into Luxembourg near Tintesmühle with the 560th Volksgrenadier Division...
As the mental echoes of sixty-year-old artillery fade, Josef, his daughter Anita and an American son-in-law follow the faded tracks of German 6th Panzer tanks over the Our river past Schönberg on the morning of December 16th. Navigating icy memories and clinging fog, they join a large procession of hundreds of Belgian and German officials, soldiers and Bulge veterans with their families in Büllingen, to commemorate the fallen soldiers whose memory endures in numerous monuments honouring their individual and collective sacrifices.
Counting several veterans of the Golden Lion — fellow survivors — as comrades today, Josef was determined to act on a long-held desire in the weeks leading up to the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge: to create a monument in Grosslangenfeld offering due respect to all who perished in his village during the war.
Intended not as a memorial to war or glory, the uncomplicated “naturstein” design bears no overt symbolism, only a simple message in German explaining which units engaged and the loss of life and property sustained. Ultimately, its real value to posterity is the blunt historical reminder to current and future generations of the heavy toll war exacts on all involved.
Grosslangenfeld’s location, sandwiched between one of the most famous man-made landmarks of the war — Siegfried’s “West Wall” — and the natural barrier of the “Schwarzer Mann” on its eastern flank, also places the new stone within a vast historical context spanning over two thousand years. The Eifel is a region far too familiar with war, World War II marking only the final phase of five centuries of steady conflict surging back-and-forth through the windy hills and verdant valleys of the ancient Rhenish slate plateau.
Bounded on the north, east, and south by the famous Ahr, Rhine and Mosel rivers, the Eifel first appeared in recorded history when Julius Caesar arrived in 54 B.C. with four legions, confronting the distinct Celtic culture of the “Treverer.” They and the Germanic “Eburonen” to the north were pacified and intense Romanization of the lands between Trier — “Treveres” in the roman lexicon — and Cologne began. When Franks occupied the Eifel by the middle of the 5th century most romanized Celts fled, and with them the remains of roman culture.
The Eifel was the favorite hunting ground of Emperor Charlemagne in the 8th Century, whose empire was fragmented by his sons, triggering a long period of violent division as local lords also quarreled, raising over 140 fortresses by the 12th century. Such fragmented power offered easy prey to four large surrounding powers, Kurtrier (Trier), Luxembourg, Kurköln (Cologne) and Jülich, but the scale of battle had not yet impoverished the locals. Diverse agriculture still produced enough food for self-sufficiency. Mining of basalt, iron and lead permitted modest trade. When monk Sebastian Münster wrote a glowing description of the Eifel in 1541, he could not know he was capturing its last peaceful moments.
Beginning in 1542, internecine conflict between the predators on the perimeter turned the region into a near-permanent battleground. Armies settling in for the winter meant misery for local farmers and trade in the region eventually collapsed. Ravaged by the Thirty Years War, a starving population was nonetheless expected to provide food for every invader. In one chronicler’s telling description, agriculture had ceased to exist and once-prosperous livestock were wiped out. People fled or starved to death. Whole villages disappeared.
In 1667, Louis the XIVth of France sought to annex the region by force. In 1672, the Dutch defense of the Rhine Delta pushed back, laying waste to the North Eifel and central “Hoch Eifel.” In 1688, after the Sun King’s armies again failed to reach the Rhine, he set out to raze the entire Rhineland-Palatinate. Over a thousand castles, forts, villages and towns were systematically levelled. With few exceptions, the once-abundant medieval jewels of Eifel craftsmanship disappeared into antiquity.
French revolutionary troops arrived in 1794, eliminating the old class system, granting civil rights and ending compulsory labor and onerous taxes levied by the cloisters and nobility. During the twenty-year occupation old Eifel industries found new markets. Quarries and mines took up large-scale production. Even today, fond memories of the French occupiers persist, as later Prussian influence was to isolate the region until well after World War II. Under the Prussian thumb, the area became an isolated borderland, its iron industry severed from traditional markets by new western boundaries. Neglecting to connect the remote region to a growing transportation network and new markets to the east brought economic ruin. Famine emptied the land and the Eifel became known as “Prussian Siberia.” World War I found the region a forgotten country; a white spot on the German map.
Which brings us back to a cold December morning and a certain stone in Grosslangenfeld, standing among the ghosts of centuries and dedicated in spirit to the sixty years of peace following the events it tacitly describes. A peace paid for with the lives of men honored by the memorial — and raised by a benefactor whose ancestors were no strangers to the sacrifices and struggles inherent in war.
Originally scheduled for the afternoon of December 18th, plans for the dedication ceremony shifted abruptly after a phone call out of the blue from a representative of the US First Armored Division. Just returned to Germany from a long tour in Iraq, he bore news that five of the now-famous “Band of Brothers” were heading for Germany to take part in the Bastogne events and extending an invitation to join them.
Unfortunately, poor organization and “security concerns” put an unceremonious end to our invitation to a coffee and breakfast welcome we offered to provide for the veterans in the local community hall on the morning of the 16th, as well as rescheduling our own dedication ceremony to suit their tight schedule. Sadder still, the invitation to join them was also rescinded later due to “budget issues” and “security concerns.”
What was at first a small contingent including the veterans had ballooned into busloads of soldiers arriving at 0700, rumors of Tom Hanks’ possible presence with the veterans being leaked to the global press and a developing Army public relations exercise that ran contrary to the spirit we’d intended for the event. Though disappointed by the outcome, all breathed a collective sigh of relief when the event reassumed more normal proportions no longer involving the early morning feeding of so many hungry young soldiers.
December 18th arrived cold, windy and threatening snow, not unlike its counterpart in 1944. At exactly 1500, Josef’s wife Mia rang the church bells to signal the start of a short procession from the community house to the monument, including local citizens and the village’s volunteer fire brigade, in which Josef served for forty years. Several reservists from the Bundeswehr, including two in accurate period uniforms, were positioned at the monument, led by Josef’s good friend Lieutenant Manfred Klein.
The procession complete, a trumpeter struck up the German national anthem as the bells rang out and the black velvet shroud covering the memorial was lifted. The trumpeter then played a beautiful rendition of “Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden,” a song traditionally played in honor of fallen comrades. (It is important to note that in German the word “comrade” doesn’t carry the same linguistic baggage as it does in English, referring simply to another person to whom one is closely bonded by shared experience — like a fellow soldier.)
As the final haunting notes drifted away on the wind, Mayor Erich Kribs spoke, emphasizing the importance of such a memorial to the younger generation, as a reminder of history that should not be forgotten. Herr Karl Kneissl, parish dean, read from 2nd Isaiah, echoing an ancient call for peace exhorting mankind to beat swords into ploughshares, before blessing the memorial. Josef then offered a sober recollection of the events of sixty years ago, even as the snow started falling again:
“The German charge was repelled by American defensive fire. Retreating and regrouping, they opened fire again later that morning. A part of the 164th Infantry Regiment joined in the attack from Wallerich. A second assault was successfully thwarted by the Americans, with heavy losses on the German side. The attack was relaunched from various locations and at different times in the afternoon, but the American resistance was unbeatable. The Americans sent wounded towards St. Vith in an armored vehicle, with orders to bring back ammunition. They never returned…”
Retreating from the monument to the community house for coffee and sandwiches prepared by Mia and Anita — none of Mia’s famous cakes this time — everyone sat together talking and reflecting, Josef thanking all who had contributed their time and energy and expressing his happiness that the commemoration went off without a hitch despite the skittish weather.
Later, as the assembled friends and neighbors dispersed, a sharp ray of sun leapt through the leaden clouds and illuminated the new monument for several lingering seconds, the unexpected burst of brilliance triggering images of frozen soldiers ranging the steep wooded hillsides of the Schnee Eifel, their searching eyes turned toward a capricious Eifel sky.
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Story and photos by Doug Mitchell
w/English translation by Anita Reusch
Contributed by John Kline, 106th Division