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Visiting Battlefields: The Battle of Tolbiac

Posted by Denny Koch on June 20, 2015

The battlefield

The battlefield

It’s time for a new “Vising Battlefields” report!

This time, we didn’t travel the Ardennes or visited another WWII battle site (which was the focus of our previous battlefield tours), but we traveled far back in time into the year 496 AD.

We were on our way to the city of Zülpich (once a Roman vicus named “Tolbiacum“, dating back to the 1st century BC) to visit the Roman thermae (baths), which are still in excellent shape and very well presented in the “Museum of Bathing Culture”.

On our way through the plains of the Zülpicher Börde – an area strongly dominated by agriculture and the Rhenish brown coal fields -, we came upon a large field with a striking granite stele. This stirred our interest and we pulled over to investigate the place. Close to the country road was a bronze plate and we learned that this was the original site of the Battle of Tolbiac, the famous battle of Clovis I (German: Chlodwig I) and his Franks against the combined tribes of the Alamanni (whose leader is unknown).

This was one of the decisive battles in late antiquity because it was the main reason why the Franks converted to Christianity – thus opening the way for Charlesmagne and his deep impact on European history some centuries later. Clovis’ victory led to the foundation of the Merovingian Frankish Empire.

The Location

The battlefield is located between the villages of Langendorf and Wollersheim North of Bundesstraße (Federal Highway) 256, close to Zülpich and about 60 km East of the German-Belgian border.

The public baths in the Roman city of Tolbiacum

The public baths in the Roman city of Tolbiacum

Zülpich, or Tolbiacum, was located in the Roman province of Germania inferior at an important Roman crossroads – similar to the Belgian town of Bastogne – because all major Roman roads met here: The Via Agrippa, connecting Trier (Augusta Treverorum, the second largest city in the Roman Empire, therefore also called Roma Secunda) with Cologne (Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensum), as well as roads to the Lower Rhine to Xanten (Colonia Ulpia Traiana) via Neuss (Novaesium), to Bonn (Bonna) and Jülich (vicus Iuliacum).

Because of its strategical and logistical importance, Tolbiacum flourished during Roman times and was an important location for hostels, horse changing stations and trade. The public baths (Thermae) were very luxurious, especially in these remote parts of Germania inferior. Today, they are among the best preserved Roman baths North of the Alps and well worth a visit!

During the 5th century, the entire region suffered under repeated German invasions where German tribes from the areas East of the Rhine raided the cities and villages of the Western provinces. Eventually, Rome withdrew from this area, and combined German tribes advanced into these lands (which were originally inhabited by a local Celtic population like the Eburoni, who were eradicated by Iulius Caesar during the Gallic War, or the Treveri, who dominated the areas between the Eifel, Moselle, and Ardennes region for centuries) as well as Rome-loyal Germanic tribes like the Ubii.

The Battle of Tolbiac

Map of the Battle of Tolbiac

Map of the Battle of Tolbiac

The year of the Battle of Tolbiac (German: Schlacht von Zülpich) is not undisputed – most sources date it back to the year 496 AD, but there are also sources which claim that the Battle was fought in 506 AD. The battle is also known as the “Battle of Conversion” (German: Bekehrungsschlacht).

It was fought between the united Ripuarian Franks (led by Sigibert of Cologne) and Salian Franks (led by Clovis I) against the attacking Alamanni, a confederation of several Germanic tribes. Since the Alamanni repeatedly raided the lands of Sigibert, he eventually called on Clovis I for help.

It was the second battle of Clovis I against the Alamanni forces; the third battle in Straßburg eventually led to the end of the Alamanni Empire.

Whether the plains near Zülpich were the actual battle site is also disputed; some researchers claim that the location was too far in the North for the Alamanni. Others argue that the Alamanni used the old Roman highways between Metz, Trier, and Cologne for their attacks against the Franks (who were also in conflict with the Visigoths under Alarich II at this time, so that the Alamanni probably considered them to be a weakened target). So Zülpich, as a Roman crossroads town, was likely on their route.


The “Chlodwig-Stele” marks the battlefield site

Not much is known about the battle, except that the Ripuarian Franks suffered heavy losses.The main account of the battle was written down by Gregory of Tours,  a Gallo-Roman historian, bishop of Tours and leading prelate of Gaul. He is considered to be the main source for Merovingian history.

The battle was desperate, and finally Clovis I began to pray to the Christian God – the God of his wife Clotilde – after his gods apparently didn’t answer. His prayer was quite pagan, though: according to heathen custom of “do ut des” (“I give, so that You will give”), he made a special deal with the Christian God: if the Franks were victorious in this battle, he would convert to Christianity and let himself be baptized.

According to Gregory of Tours, the Alamanni leader was killed by an axe just in the same moment, and the remaining Alamanni fled the battlefield. The Franks followed them, killing the fleeing Alamanni until they surrendered.

This story closely resembles the conversion of Constantine the Great during the Battle of the Milvan Bridge.

After their defeat, the Alamanni left the Ripuarian kingdom and withdrew to the South. Clovis I respected the Ripuarian claim on the territory, but demanded their assistance in fights against the Visigoths later in return for their help against the Alamanni.

Conversion of the Franks

Clovis I delivered on his promise. He was baptized in Reims on Christmas in 496 AD (this date was firmly attested by Gregory of Tours and in a letter by Avitus of Vienne who congratulated Clovis on his baptism).

The baptism of Clovis

The baptism of Clovis

In contrast to the Romans, where conversion or belief in a specific deity was a personal matter, the conversion of the Germanic leader had impact on his entire tribe, so his men soon followed their king’s example.

Since Clovis I converted to the orthodox Athanasian Catholicism (in contrast to most other Germanic tribes who followed the Arianian Catholicism), the Franks seamlessly coexisted with the local Gallo-Roman inhabitants and the local clergy, who also were Athanasian Christians. This eventually led to assimilation and peaceful merging of the Franks with the local population. It also empowered Clovis I to undertake crusades against the Arian Christians (who were considered heretics) and to Christianize and so win new territory, so his conversion to Christianity was tied to a strong gain in power – and he certainly never regretted his conversion on the battlefield… this God had certainly delivered 😉

Visiting the Battlefield today

Since the battlefield is located in a rural area, you can simply park your car next to the field. There are no signposts, but you cannot overlook the granite stele which is widely visible from the highway.

A small path leads across the battlefield

A small path leads across the battlefield

A footpath across the field leads to the granite stele, which serves as a Memorial of the battle. A bronze plate contiguous to the road informs about the site (and the stele) – unfortunately, the text is only in German. It reads: “Clovis stele. Battle near Tolbiacum (Zülpich), Franks vs. Alamanni 496. Stele created by Ulrich Rückrieh, donated on September, 18th, 1999 by Manfred Vetter and Henrik Hanstein”.

As the text suggests, the stele was built by sculptor Ulrich Rückrieh, who also built more steles around the city of Düren. The Clovis stele, which is made of solid granite, is several meters high. It was gifted to the city of Zülpich by the “Manfred Vetter charity foundation for Arts and Culture” and financed by Professor Hanstein, who paid a symbolic price of 100,000€ for the monument with one condition: The money had to be spent for a specific purpose – for the installation of the Museum of Bathing Culture, thus for the conservation and presentation of the ancient Roman baths of Tolbiacum.

The bronze plate

The bronze plate

So the granite monument contributed to the preservation of the Roman heritage of Tolbiacum while serving as a memorial on a battlefield site – a good deal!

The entire area of Eastern Gaul / Germania inferior is full of Roman heritage sites, temples (especially for the Gallo-Roman Matronae, but also temples for Mercury, Apollo-Grannus, Lenus-Mars, Sirona, Epona etc.), Roman industrial sites like millstone quarries, iron smelting factories, civilian sites like baths, villages, villae rusticae (Roman rural estates), and last but not least, military sites like castles, forts, and fortifications. So traveling around western Germany and visiting Gallo-Roman places is a worthwhile alternative or addition to visiting WWII sites and highly recommend!

Some of these places are UNESCO world heritage sites, and many are among the best preserved or largest North of the Alps.


The Battle of Tolbiac in a 19th century painting by Ary Scheffer

The Battle of Tolbiac in a 19th century painting by Ary Scheffer

The battle of the Franks under Clovis I against the Alamanni was a key moment in European history and the beginning of the rapid spreading of Christianity all over Europe.

Our question to our readers:

Does anyone know of a wargame or scenario about this decisive Battle of Tolbiac? Since there isn’t much knowledge about the battle, the size of the participating armies or even the name of the Alamanni leader, it’s certainly difficult to design a game of this battle (at least without improvising or without assumptions and well-educated guesses about how this battle would have been like). But nevertheless, there are so many wargames about exotic and unknown battles, for example in magazines or published by companies like SPI, who were not fazed by uncommon locations and eras, that there may be a small chance!

If you know of a wargame or (scenario within a game series) dealing with this specific battle (or, on a larger scale, of the battles between Franks / Alamanni / Visigoths in the 5th, early 6th century), leave us a comment!

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HFC On Tour: Battle of the Bulge – Bastogne and the Ardennes II

Posted by Denny Koch on July 17, 2013

Bastogne: Mardassone Memorial

Bastogne: Mardassone Memorial

Last year, we toured the Eastern Ardennes in Luxembourg and Eastern Belgium, visiting famous locations like Clervaux, St Vith, Ettelbrück, and Diekirch.

This year, we set up base camp in one of the most important (and certainly the most famous) locations of the Battle of the Bulge: in Bastogne.

From there, we visited places like Foy with the Easy Company foxholes, Recogne, Houffalize, and La Roche-en-Ardenne, where the US troops joined forces with the Scottish Highland Division.

Bastogne: Place General McAuliffe with Sherman tank and McAuliffe bust

Bastogne: Place General McAuliffe with Sherman tank and McAuliffe bust

All over the area, you can find relics and reminders of the Battle of the Bulge – memorials, museums, and even traces of combat still visible on the battlefields. This combined with the impressive landscape of steep rocky valleys, soft rural hills, dense woods, and tiny villages, the Belgian Ardennes are well worth a trip!

Please check out our photo gallery for MANY MORE photos!!


Despite the fact that there are certainly more picturesque places in the Ardennes, we decided to stay in a hotel in the noisy and congested crossroads town of Bastogne, which is situated on a ridge at an altitude of 510 m.

The strategical importance of this small city (about 14,000 inhabitants) lies in the fact that all roads within the Ardennes lead to and through Bastogne. This was the main reason why both sides were fighting desperately to get control over the city – who controls Bastogne, controls the road network of the entire region.

The same is still true today – and this is the reason why Bastogne can certainly be considered to be the traffic capitol of the Ardennes. The layout of the city is simple: one main road (with shops, bars, church), one giant parking space in the central square, surrounded by bars and restaurants, and a central crossroads with numerous roads leading out in all directions, reminding us of a spider’s net. A never-ending stream of cars rushes through the streets all day long, so Bastogne is easily the noisiest and busiest places in the quite and peaceful Ardennes.

Bastogne: General "Nuts!" McAuliffe

Bastogne: General “Nuts!” McAuliffe

Bastogne then…

Bastogne was captured by US forces in December 1944 and a strong perimeter around the city was built.

On December 20th, 1944, German forces under the command of Lt. General Freiherr von Lüttwitz managed to bypass Bastogne and encircle it. The besieged city was held by the 101st Airborne Division under the command of Brigadier General McAuliffe and elements of the 10th Armor Division, which were outnumbered by surrounding German forces 5-1. The situation in the besieged city was rough because medical supplies, food, and ammunition were soon running low. In addition, winter 1944 was one of the coldest winters ever recorded with temperatures dropping as low as -28°C / -18.4 F and the soldiers where not properly equipped with cold-weather-gear. In the beginning, there was no hope for air support or supply by air because of the bad weather.

Over the following days, the weather cleared and the Allies eventually managed to supply the surrounded soldiers by air drops. The Germans attacked the town relentlessly, but didn’t manage to break the defense line. This was frustrating for German command, so finally German commander von Lüttwitz requested the surrender of the forces in Bastogne. McAuliffe’s response was simple – and consisted of only one word: “Nuts!” (which can be roughly translated into German with: “Ihr spinnt wohl!”).

On December 26th, two of the German besieging forces where commanded to press forward and leave Bastogne behind, so that the only attackers left where Panzer Lehr’s 901st regiment and the 26th Volksgrenadier Division. Since both of these units where ill supplied and near to exhaustion, they were not able to continue the attack on Bastogne from all sides, but were limited to small assaults on certain points here and there. This wasn’t very effective, so in the end, the US forces managed to destroy all enemy tanks. On December 26th, the city was liberated by General Patton’s 4th Armor Division and a corridor to the Allied controlled parts of the Ardennes was opened.

Crossroads town Bastogne is certainly the noisiest and busiest place in the Ardennes

Crossroads town Bastogne is certainly the noisiest and busiest place in the Ardennes

…and Bastogne now

As mentioned before, Bastogne is still a crossroads town. The central square “Place General McAuliffe” was transformed into a giant parking lot. There is a tourist information next to the main road which almost exclusively sells war souvenirs – you can get anything from mugs, key rings, t-shirts with a “Nuts!” logo, posters, caps, postcards related to Bastogne, the USA, the 101st Airborne, and the Battle of the Bulge.

At the edge of the parking lot is a Sherman tank (which is the main tourist attraction and very famous among kids who love climbing on top of the tank) and a bust of General McAuliffe. The parking lot is surrounded by bars and restaurants of mixed quality.

Bastogne is located in the francophone part of Belgium, in Wallonie, so the dominant language is French. We made the experience that many locals only speak rudimentary English (if at all), so knowing at least some basic French expressions is highly recommended (and much appreciated by the locals). Many information boards and signs are in French only, in rare cases with a Flemish and sometimes with an English translation. Luckily, at least some information boards regarding the Battle of the Bulge are multilingual.


War Memorial at the Main Street

Despite the fact that there are lots of hotels in Bastogne as well as many restaurants, it isn’t the typical “tourist town” – we rarely saw any tourists at  all and in the evening, we were almost exclusively among Belgians. Most battlefield tourists probably stay in one of the many beautiful and idyllic Ardennes villages, which are much more catered to tourism, with higher quality restaurants and bars.

Since everything in the Ardennes is in close proximity to each other, it doesn’t really matter where you set up your base camp. Last year’s Clervaux was perfect because it is probably the most central town in the Ardennes with everything within a 30 km radius (including Bastogne). If we had known how beautiful La Roche is, we probably would have booked a hotel there. Wiltz is also a very nice town with many cultural highlights.

The Main Street

The Main Street

But so we had the chance to make the curious experience of spending several nights in Bastogne, which was at least interesting, if not very relaxing, due to the constant traffic and the ugly parking lot which comprises the city center. At least there’s no problem to find a place for your car, but we had a car-house rented for our Mercedes because we remembered our experience in Arnhem, where all places to park your car cost 2,50 € per hour and parking spaces were limited.

In addition to everything related to the Battle of the Bulge, other touristic sights include the annual bicycle race Liège – Bastogne, the museum en Piconrue (a museum about religious art and popular belief in the Ardennes) and Eglise St Pierre, a Gothic church with a Romanic bell tower. The three bells were donated by veterans of the 101st Airborne, German Fallschirmjäger Regiment, and the Anciens Combattants de Bastogne to commemorate the destruction of  Bastogne in 1944.

You can get a city map for free in the tourist information with the location of all relevant sites in and around Bastogne and the staff will gladly give you directions.

Church St Pierre

Church St Pierre

It’s difficult to get to Bastogne without car – the town had a railway station once, connected to Wiltz and St. Vith, but it was cut off from the railway net in 1984 because the route was unprofitable. So despite the fact that Bastogne is the central traffic hub of the Ardennes, it’s hard to reach with public transport. There is a central bus station and several bus routes lead to the city, but getting there by car is strongly recommended, or you will miss all important battlefield sites outside town, which are impossible to reach by public transport (if you are the sporting type, you could get there by bicycle, though, the area is very popular among bike and hiking tourists and the cycle and hiking path network is good and well signposted).

There are several museums in and around Bastogne dedicated to the Battle of the Bulge. Unfortunately, the largest one, “The Bastogne War Museum” is currently closed and under reconstruction. It will reopen in March 2014 as one of the largest and modern World War II museums in Europe.

Another large museum, the “Battle of the Bulge 44” museum (9 km outside of  Bastogne, close to the Luxembourg border), was (theoretically) open, but each time we got there, it was closed – despite the fact that we went there during the official opening hours, so we finally gave up on visiting it.

Unfortunately, many information boards are French-only

Unfortunately, many information boards are French-only

Bastogne: Patton Memorial

Bastogne: Patton Memorial

The 101st Airborne Museum in Bastogne

The 101st Airborne Museum in Bastogne

The 101st Airborne Museum Bastogne

The 101st Airborne Museum is located in the town center, close to the central bus station. It is located in a historical building, the former officers’ mess of the Belgian army, which was later used as a German “Unteroffiziersheim” during the occupation of Bastogne. After the war, it served as a Red Cross hospital. The building was carefully restored and is a perfect location for a museum (as is the Villa Hartenstein in Arnhem-Oosterbek). The museum is quite new, modern and nicely styled.

What distinguishes this museum from the many other Bulge museums we visited during our tours, is the fact that there are no common shop window mannequins used for the dioramas – but lifelike, very realistic figures with highly detailed faces and expressions, reminding us of wax figures in Madame Tussaud’s. Every soldier and person depicted has an individual, expressive face and conveys strong emotions. So all dioramas appear to be realistic and naturalistic.

Together with these excellent mannequins, decent faint and classic music from hidden speakers conveys an almost pious atmosphere, in contrast to many other loud, crowded and colorful War museums. Especially remarkable are the “re-enactments” of famous photographs with life-size figures.

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