It’s early April in Alsace-Lorraine. Magnolias are flush with blooms, fruit trees in bud, yellow dandelions and tiny white daisies blanket meadows. The vines on the hills are still naked, exposing their gnarled canes, months away from bearing grapes. Some fields lay fallow while the soil of others is plowed, heaped in long rows and prepared for planting. Cool mornings give way to warm afternoons. The bells from the church tower ding-dong on the hour disturbing the quiet village. Bed linen hangs out to air. Cats sit on broad windowsills, surveying the cobble-stoned street below where chattering tourists hustle to visit a small military museum.
Seventy years ago, spring was far from idyllic in the Colmar area. (Nor throughout the rest of Europe, for that matter.) After having endured one of the coldest winters the region ever experienced and invasions from conflicting armies, spring thaw could not come soon enough for battle-fatigued inhabitants in tranquil villages such as Turckheim.
As a teenager I developed a taste for history, likely spurred on by a steady diet of movies preferred by my stepfather — The Longest Day, The Battle of the Bulge and A Bridge too Far, to name a few. With maturity came the desire to better understand myself, my family and world history. My German mother was a mystery. Guarded about her wartime experiences, she limited herself to a hand-full of stories told only when prodded.
My step-father was in the US Army. As such he was indoctrinated in the history, myths and legends of military successes and heroes like General Patton. He also enjoyed war movies starring John Wayne in The Longest Day, and Henry Fonda in the Battle of the Bulge. We had one television and the “man of the house” was in charge of what was viewed. I became quite familiar with movies depicting Operation Market-Garden and Battle of the Bulge campaigns. Until this spring however, I had not heard of the Colmar Pocket campaign.
Between January and February 1945 the Allies: French 1st Army and 7th US Army and 3rd US Infantry fought under severe conditions –extreme cold, deep snow and a mostly flat terrain that offered little protection — to push back the German troops in the area west of the Rhine. Hitler placed such extreme importance to this region (he considered the Alsace-Lorraine area as part of Germany, having annexed it in 1940 after the defeat of France) that he placed his Minister of the Interior, Heinrich Himmler, in command to defend the area and bridges over the Rhine; these were vital to his mission and to maintain supply lines.
High on a hill, with the village of Sigolsheim at its feet, a French flag furled and unfurled in the breeze above neat rows of white crosses. With the French National War Cemetery behind us and the US Memorial in front, our guides painted a picture of battles fought along the vineyards and plains.
In the distance, tucked away in an alcove off a quiet country road in the woods north of Holtzwihr, stands a simple monument to one of America’s favorite and most highly decorated heroes —Audie Murphy. We listened intently as our guide told the story of his famous one-man stand.
Overhead the sun shone warm in a cloud-flecked blue sky. The fields were lush with new grass and wildflowers. Birds flitted from tree to tree, chirping softly. 70 years ago men fought, died and left their blood to soak the earth. Today, few signs point to their struggles.
A somber, thoughtful group headed back to the bus.
It was time to reflect and be thankful on just another peaceful day in Alsace-Lorraine.
***For more information on the Alsace campaign, as well as photos of then and now, I recommend the following blogs: