Forests are natural treasures to be enjoyed for hiking camping and other outdoor activities, but in the military sense they are a mixture of benefit and liability.  On the one hand, a forest is create concealment for units moving through them as aerial reconnaissance can have a very hard time seeing through the canopy of leaves above them.  They can also be a nightmare as the terrain is difficult to move tanks through or place your artillery in.  Troops lose their bearings and get lost, visibility is greatly reduced, and entrenched enemies are hard to get a clear sight picture on. If you are the entrenched enemy in the forest you might not see the enemy coming until he is right on top of you and, their artillery rounds set to burst above ground will shower you with wooden splinters and falling trees.

To illustrate the point, one of the longest battles fought by the Americans on German soil, was at the Battle of Hurtgen Forest which lasted from September 19, 1944, to February 10, 1945, according to C. Peter Chen’s article for the World War Database website. There were more than 4,000 casualties recorded in this battle from the Ivy Division alone. So for the name where it took place, you can understand why some became so creative in thinking that there were so many who got ‘hurt’ during the Battle of Hurtgen Forest.

Was It Worth Fighting For?

War is very much about the study of terrain, the army that picks the best ground to fight on is often the victor in a fight.  During the Napoleanic period of warfare, most of the casualties were caused by artillery, not muskets.  The art of generalship then was to pick a good piece of ground to set your cannons on that forced the other guy to maneuver his army into range so you could really turn the hose loose on them. If you ever wondered about battles where the armies maneuvered around each other for weeks before a fight, this was the most likely reason, a smart general would refuse a battle on ground that was disadvantageous to winning. Napolean’s greatest gift(as an artillery officer by training) was the ability to pick a good battlefield to fight on.

As we speak of picking good ground, forests favor the defense much more than the offense and a good general knows that attacking into a forest is a very difficult thing to do.

An article cited by Europe Remembers described Hurtgen Forest as “consisting of thick woodland, bare hilltops, and deep gorges. In the fall and winter, heavy rain and snowfall and a lack of roads made it extremely difficult to penetrate, either by foot or vehicle.’’ This description of the Hurtgen Forest was probably the best reason not to fight a battle there, but whether by miscalculation, ineptness or overconfidence in our own troops we fought a battle in that forest that ground-up men and equipment like crazy

The Germans knew the ground and how to exploit it as defensive terrain and an obstacle to an advancing army. In anticipation of an attack, the Germans were clever enough to turn areas of the forest into minefields, belts of barbed wire serving as movement obstacles, and trails with artillery dug deep into the ground and camouflaged.  They had also carefully sighted in the forest for their guns so they could bring fires down on it with great accuracy.

 

Private First Class Benny Barrow Helps a Buddy in the Hurtgen Forest, Germany
Private First Class Benny Barrow Helps a Buddy in the Hurtgen Forest, Germany. (National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

A paper written and researched by Thomas G Bradbeer recounted how US casualties in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest could’ve been much less if not for some very bad decisions made at the time. One was the failure to probe and patrol the ground to determine where Germans were and the size and composition of their forces.  As a result, the Americans greatly underestimated the strength of the enemy and failed to map the areas where the minefields, pillboxes, and obstacle belts were. Another big mistake was the use of the Kall trail as the Main Supply Route (MSR) for US forces. The Germans laid ambushes along this trail and could shower it with mortar and artillery fire at will. Another big mistake was not to use armor for infantry support. While the M3 Sherman was not very good(it stunk) in a fight against German tanks, its relatively small size and 75mm gun made it an ideal infantry support weapon.   Maj. Gen. James Gavin (82ND-ABD) summed things up rather well writing, “For us, the Hürtgen was one of the most costly, most unproductive, and most ill-advised battles that our army has ever fought.”

The Hurtgen Forest

This historical forest served as the stage for one of the many battles fought in World War II. Unfortunately, the Hurtgen Forest also serves as the final resting place of many soldiers. A man-made one, Hurtgen Forest is known to the Germans as Schlacht im Hürtgenwald.

The Allies were advancing to the Roer River and along the way reached the Siegfried Line – a system of pillboxes and strongpoints built along the German western frontier in the 1930s and greatly expanded again in 1944.  The 1st Army’s VII Corps was leading the advance and the Hurtgen Forest on its right flank would have to be secured to prevent any German counterattack coming from inside of it. The smart move would have been to use an army division to keep the Germans bottled up in the 11 miles by 5 miles of the forest rather than go in after them, but that was not to be.

Lessons from the Battle of Hurtgen Forest

When the three-month battle finally ended, the US Army had thrown six infantry divisions, an armored brigade, a Ranger battalion, and various other units into the forest battle at a cost of more than 33,000 casualties.  All these lives lost could be attributed to the cost of not reading the ground correctly and a stubborn obstinance on the part of American commanders determined to make a bad plan into a good victory. The Russian army in Ukraine is relearning the lesson of the Hurtgen Forrest as this is being written.

 

Weary infantrymen take a brief rest on a slope in the Hurtgen Forest in Germany. (<a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:111-SC-196619_-_Weary_infantrymen_take_a_brief_rest_on_a_slope_in_the_Hurtgen_forest_in_Germany._Left_to_right,_Pfc._Maurice_Berzon,_Buffalo,_N.Y.,_SSgt._Bernard_Spurr,_Newark,_Ohio,_and_SSgt._Harold_Clessler,_Ashland,_Pa.jpg">U.S. Signal Corps</a>, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Weary infantrymen take a brief rest on a slope in the Hurtgen Forest in Germany. (U.S. Signal Corps, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Today, the Hurtgen Forest, parts of it, serve as a historical site but it remains dangerous because of mines and unexploded ordnance still buried deep into the ground. Visitors are told not to leave the approved trails and even today explosions of ammunition occasionally still go off as growing roots disturb buried mines more than 70 years old.

 

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