Vossenack, Kommerscheidt, Hürtgen, Schmidt – the names of these German villages are better known in the US than in Germany. If you tell your co-workers in Germany that you will spend your next weekend in the Huertgen Forst, they will give you a weird look and ask you: “Where? Where is that?”
The reason why this region and the Battle of Huertgen Forst are almost unknown to the average German citizen is the fact that this battle “didn’t take place”. Actually, when the Americans got over the Siegfried Line and crossed the German border, Hitler was deep into his preparations for the Ardennes offensive. The fact that Allied soldiers had entered the German homeland was a disaster for German propaganda – which was anxious to make the public believe that the Allies were held up in the West, in France and Belgium. So this battle was swept under the carpet and the German public was told that the Allies were stalled somewhere in the West. The locals of the Huertgen Forest were evacuated, so there were no eyewitnesses to the events in the region, and it was prohibited to talk about what happened there.
The Battle in the Huertgen Forest was one of the bloodiest battles in World War II, it was the longest single battle ever fought by US forces and the trench warfare character of this Battle made it known as “the Verdun of WWII”. Veterans of Huertgen Forest stated that this battle was bloodier than the landings at Omaha Beach. Nevertheless, even today many Germans never heard about the Battle of the Huertgen Forest or could locate this region on a map.
The Huertgen Forest (German: Hürtgenwald) is located in the far West of Germany, close to the Belgian border, in the National Park Eifel close to the Belgian National Park Hohes Venn, South of the cities of Aachen and Düren and north of Monschau.
Fortunately, the Hürtgenwald region is very active in commemorating history. Even today, people in Vossenack or Schmidt are still living with the after-effects of the battle: Some areas are still mined because there are almost no maps left showing the position of the minefields. In addition, there were also glass and wood mines used which cannot be detected by metal detectors. You are advised not to leave the signposted routes in the forest, and if you want to build a house, first thing you do is call an explosive disposal team to check the ground. Each year, the remains of about 7 soldiers are discovered in the forests and fields.
The Battle is still present everywhere in the region. In Vossenack is the Hürtgenwald 1944 museum which is maintained by the private “Historical Society Hürtgenwald in 1944 and in peace”. There are many memorials all over the place, for US soldiers as well as for Germans. One memorial is quite special: it is a memorial for a German officer donated by US soldiers.
You can follow the infamous (well sign-posted) “Kall Trail” down into the forest where many remains of the Battle are still visible today. There are two large German war cemeteries in Vossenack and Hürtgen (US soldiers were buried in cemeteries outside Germany, for example in Belgium and the Netherlands, or transferred back home).
The German veteran organization “Windhunde” (former members of the 116th Panzer Division (“Windhunde”) and their families, friends and descendants) is still very active in commemorating the Battle. They set up a large memorial next to the Vossenack cemetery, and they cooperate closely with US veterans. Each year in October there is a Remembrance Walk through the forest by US and German veterans, visitors, and citizens together with many events like an American style BBQ, meetings, and lectures.
We went to the Huertgen Forest in September, on a very sunny day, but when you walk deep down into the forest, you learn very soon that you wouldn’t want to spend an entire winter there. The forests are very steep, the ground consists of solid rocks, and the conifers forest is dense and dark.
As guide books, we used the “Militärgeschichtlicher Reiseführer” by Peter Többicke and the very good “Hürtgenwald 1944/1945 Militärgeschichtlicher Tourenplaner” by Rainer Monnartz. The last book is especially good and highly recommended if you can read German because it offers complete tours with location descriptions, photos, and even GPS coordinates, which proved to be very helpful.