‘Grüne Hölle’ (Green Hell) is what German soldiers termed the Hürtgen Forest. It is a heavily wooded area of evergreen pine trees about twenty miles long by ten miles wide along the Belgium/German border. The battle lasted for five months from September 1944 till February 1945.
My research began from a premise that information represents an ever-present dimension of warfare and strategy. Although World War II bore witness to the exploiting of new information technology, such as the electromagnetic spectrum, long-range missiles and precision munitions, the fighting in the Hürtgen was mainly close-quarter combat, either using hand grenades, artillery fire or even hand-to-hand combat.
The question I wanted to explore through this research trip was: does the physical terrain of the landscape continue to dictate how a battle is fought, itself becoming a weapon of war? Or will the Clausewitzian model of war be superseded by Baudrillard’s notion of ‘clean warfare’.
The Hürtgen is one of the best-preserved battlefields in Europe because of the unorthodox terrain of dense forestland. Bunkers and Dragon’s Teeth litter the area, and there is even evidence of the sunken trenches. The area is still heavily mined and so I hired a guide – Klaus Shultz, who had fought in the Hürtgen as a young German soldier. My plan was to retrace the American’s advance through the forest along the Kall trail.
In September 1944 the first Allied patrol crossed the German frontier at the deep forest belt of Hürtgenwald. Months of bloody battle ensued, sucking in more and more men from both sides. The American’s reason for pushing through the forest rather than going around was simply to deny the enemy a base from which to counterattack. The Germans stubbornly defended the Hürtgen as they were protecting the Roer Dams, which the American’s were unaware of. But the terrain also made it ideal for defence and slowed the American advance, allowing the Germans time to build up troops in the Ardennes for a counter-offensive planned for December 1944.
The Kall Trail runs through the forest, dropping down the Kall Gorge to the river. In places it is only nine-feet wide and it was flanked on both sides by German-held territory, but this was to be the 28th Division’s main supply route. Many tanks got stuck as they threw tracks, hit mines or slipped down the steep gorge.
The Hürtgen produced its own grim type of warfare. The terrain of dense evergreens, tightly packed and rising to seventy-five to a hundred feet above the damp forest floor, made orientation difficult. Many units lost their way as trails were blocked by felled trees and mines. The weather was also a factor as it rained for days on end, producing thick mud. To make matters worse this soon turned to sleet and snow as the autumn progressed. The Americans were unable to make use of their superior armour and air power. Artillery fire proved all the more deadly because of tree bursts and the use of hand grenades and hand-to-hand fighting was common. The muddy forest floor soon became chocked with broken-down weapons, making it impossible to move supplies forward or to evacuate the wounded. Many soldiers also fell victim to trench foot, frostbite and respiratory diseases.
By the second week of December 1944 the Americans finally crossed through the Hürtgen forest and reached the Roer Plain. By then the importance of the Dams had become obvious, but the Ardennes offensive prevented any further operations.
Approximately 33,000 Americans were killed in the Hürtgen, which was more than a quarter of the total of force committed. The Germans lost approximately 28,000 men and the forest floor is littered with memorial symbols: flags, makeshift wooden crosses, or sometimes just piles of stones. Many local civilians also lost their lives.
In the end the American’s claimed victory, but all that was really gained was 50 square miles of real estate of no real tactical value.
In April 2005 I headed over to Aachen to meet my guide. I found the first-hand experience of this claustrophobic and disorientating terrain gave rise to an emotive quality in my work. Following the Kall trail and listening to my guides personal experiences gave a chilling perspective to the quiet forest.
Thrown tank tracks are still evident in places as are dugouts, as well as the crumbling bunkers and Dragon’s Teeth. The lack of any horizon increases the sense of claustrophobia, and even in April when I made my trip, the sunlight barely filtered through the trees.
The viewer of these works is no longer confronted by faceless machinery, but instead is confronted with history in its rawest state. The work portrays the impact of war’s destructive power, left as inscriptions upon the landscape.
The Battle of the Huertgen Forest. Charles B. MacDonald. University of Pennsylvania Press. 2002.
The Battle of the Hürtgen Forest. Karel Margry. Published in After the Battle, Number 71, 1991.
On War – Carl Von Clausewitz originally published 1832, republished by Penguin 1982
The Gulf War did not take place – Jean Baudrillard. Power publications. Translated by Paul Patton 1995.
Museum Hürtgenwald – Vossenack