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The Hurtgen Forest Truce

During World War II, there wasn’t anything similar to the famous Christmas Truce of World War I, in which soldiers of both the Entente and Central forces left their trenches and met the enemy in No Man's Land, creating a temporary oasis of peace in an otherwise long and bloodthirsty war. Troops from both sides were also friendly enough to play games of football with one another.

Future commanders were determined to prevent such occurrences from happening again, and sought to have such activities severely punished.

However, in December 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, in which the Americans fought for their lives against a massive German onslaught, a tiny shred of human decency was witnessed on Christmas Eve.


American soldiers of the 117th Infantry Regiment, Tennessee National Guard, part of the 30th Infantry Division, move past a destroyed American M5 "Stuart" tank on their march to recapture the town of St. Vith during the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945.

 

Three American soldiers, one badly wounded, were lost in the snow-covered Ardennes Forest as they tried to find the American lines. They had been walking for three days with the sounds of battle echoing in the hills and valleys all around them. Then, on Christmas Eve, they came upon a small cabin in the woods.

Elisabeth Vincken and her 12-year-old son, Fritz, had been hoping her husband would arrive to spend Christmas with them, but it was now too late. The Vinckens had been bombed out of their home in Aachen, Germany and had managed to move into the hunting cabin in the Hurtgen Forest about four miles from Monschau near the Belgian border. Fritz's father stayed behind to work and visited them when he could. Their Christmas meal would now have to wait for his arrival. Elisabeth and Fritz were alone in the cabin.


Hurtgen Forest during December

 

There was a knock on the door. Elisabeth blew out the candles and opened the door to find two enemy American soldiers standing at the door and a third lying in the snow. Despite their rough appearance, they seemed hardly older than boys. They were armed and could have simply burst in, but they hadn't, so she invited them inside and they carried their wounded comrade into the warm cabin. Elisabeth didn't speak English and they didn't speak German, but they managed to communicate in broken French. Hearing their story and seeing their condition, especially the wounded soldier, Elisabeth started preparing a meal. She sent Fritz to get six potatoes and Hermann the rooster, his stay of execution had been delayed by her husband's absence, and was now rescinded.

While Hermann roasted, there was another knock on the door and Fritz went to open it, thinking there might be more lost Americans. Instead there were four armed German soldiers. Knowing the penalty for harbouring the enemy was execution, Elisabeth, white as a ghost, pushed past Fritz and stepped outside. There was a corporal and three very young soldiers, who wished her a Merry Christmas, but they were lost and hungry. Elisabeth told them they were welcome to come into the warmth and eat until the food was all gone, but that there were others inside who they would not consider friends. The corporal asked sharply if there were Americans inside and she said that there were three who were lost and cold, just like they were and that one was wounded. The corporal stared hard at her until she said there will be no shooting here.” She insisted they leave their weapons outside. Dazed by these events, they slowly complied and Elisabeth went inside, demanding the same of the Americans. She took their weapons and stacked them.


Muddy road in the Hurtgen Forest

 

Understandably, there was a lot of fear and tension in the cabin as the Germans and Americans eyed each other warily, but the warmth and smell of roast rooster and potatoes began to take the edge off. The Germans produced a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread. While Elisabeth tended to the cooking, one of the German soldiers, who was a former medical student, examined the wounded American. In English, he explained that the cold had prevented infection but he'd lost a lot of blood. He needed food and rest.

By the time the meal was ready, the atmosphere was more relaxed. Two of the Germans were only sixteen; the corporal was 23. As Elisabeth said grace, Fritz noticed tears in the exhausted soldiers' eyes… both German and American.

The truce lasted through the night and into the morning. Looking at the Americans' map, the corporal told them the best way to get back to their lines and provided them with a compass. When asked whether they should instead go to Monschau, the corporal shook his head and said it was now in German hands. Elisabeth returned all their weapons and the enemies shook hands and left, in opposite directions. Soon they were all out of sight; the truce was over.

However, the reminder of the humanity and decency that occurred during the night followed the group throughout their life.

After a long search and fifty years, Fritz was able to reunite with some of the soldiers he had met on that incredible night, and feel the respect they had towards his mother – a brave woman who had made a small miracle during a dreadful time. 



Source: Public domain

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