The Bully Pulpit

Issue 67 (SUMMER 2010)


by Jim Werbaneth

It's been another busy summer, marked by more travel than at any other time in my life. I attended Origins for the first time in June, working the Against the Odds/Turning Point Simulations booth. It was a great pleasure meeting many of you, and putting faces to names.

The same month, my girlfriend Lisa and I traveled to Raleigh for my nephew's high school graduation. Along the way we made the nearly-annual Civil War Tour, stopping by Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, the Wilderness and Fredericksburg. Along the way home we visited Mount Airey, North Carolina, the hometown of Andy Griffith and a place that celebrates its role as the real inspiration for Mayberry. Another stop was the New River Gorge in West Virginia, a stunning natural landmark that should be visited by everyone passing over US Route 19 through the state. It was also a great relief to pass through Summersville and not get a traffic ticket from its notoriously predatory police department.

Another major highlight was my first return to Europe since 1999. This time my main destination was the Netherlands, where I was the guest of my friend Robert Housmans in Sittard.

Yes, I was in the Netherlands, but no I did not smoke any weed, or consort with prostitutes. A lot of people asked, when they heard I was going, about whether or not I would engage in those famous Dutch diversions. For the record I did neither, and on my visit I was struck by the scorn that many had for those who did. For example, I was introduced to one person as "This is Jim Werbaneth, from America. Here's here for all the right reasons, and not to smoke marijuana or mess with hookers."

Not that people are puritanical about either. I can attest that in Amsterdam at least, there are prostitutes displayed in the windows. The ones that I saw weren't that attractive either; they tended to be prematurely old, tired and bored looking, and usually talking on their cell phones. There wasn't much that was all that erotic about it.

Regarding reefer, I got a good lesson in attitudes about that the first night I was there. Robert and I went into the center of Sittard for a beer, and there was a big public dance party in the town square. Throughout the crowd there was the unmistakable smell of high school in the seventies. I guess that scorn I noticed wasn't universally shared. Along the edge too there was a police cruiser, with two cops leaning against it and enjoying what looked like really easy duty. Neither the cops nor the smokers paid the least bit of attention to each other.

I should also note that the Netherlands can also be an excuse for some visitors to act like damned fools, on the rationale that "What happens in Holland stays in Holland." An example would be the gaggle of drunken old Englishmen I noticed staggering through the Amsterdam red light district, with one bellowing, "Oy, look at the tits on that one!"

I really was there for the right reasons, and deeply appreciated my stay. Everyone has to see Amsterdam at least once I believe; partly for the culture that exists side by side with the vice, and partly to see that Las Vegas has no right to call itself Sin City as long as Amsterdam remains above sea level.

Along with Robert, and his friends Hans and Orban, I got to see a lot other historical sites too, some of which are on every wargamer's bucket list. One of the first was Eben Emael, just across the border from Maastricht, in Belgium, and the fort famously taken by airborne coup de main by the Germans on May 10, 1940. The tour was conducted entirely in Dutch, but I was lucky to be with people who could translate. A special thanks for that goes to Hans' friend, and car mechanic, Oscar. Most Dutch speak very good English, but Oscar speaks perfect American.

Robert and I also visited Arnhem and Oosterbeek, along with the British drop zones at Wolfheze and especially Ede. There was no time for more than a swing past Nijmegen, and the American side of Market-Garden. There was no time, and that will have to wait for a return trip.

Robert, Hans and I drove across Belgium one day, stopping at Waterloo. That is one of the top places, along with Gettysburg, Normandy and the Bulge, that every wargamer wants to visit. Unfortunately I found it to be an overpriced, overdeveloped, tourist trap of the worst variety. The museum, such as it is, is rather seedy, and its main attractions are some fairly run of the mill manikins dressed up as the battle's leaders. Moreover, it was hot, humid and surprisingly smelly inside, conditions aggravated by a decidedly un-American aversion to air conditioning.

We did not stay too long at Waterloo, though we all climbed the Lion Mound, all two hundred twenty-six steps.

That was an experience not to be forgotten. Robert and Hans ascended it in cadence, marching like the Dutch army. I went up more slowly, huffing and puffing like an American obscene phone caller.

We then went to Ypres. Actually, the Dutch name is more widely used there, as the city is in Flanders, and gives a good clue of how to pronounce it: Ieper (EE-per). Not ee-PRY or for that matter Wipers, or "Bloody Wipers," as some British soldiers called the city.

Ieper is a worthy destination too, and somewhat less designed to pick the money from visitors' pockets. That does happen at the In Flanders Fields Museum, housed in the rebuilt Cloth Hall in the center of town. It's not that it's a bad museum, as anything as devoted to World War I can't be all bad. But the main theme seems to be that war sucks, hammered home in one unusually pretentious room filled with flashing lights, displays (including some underfoot) that light up and go dark, films played on the walls, and the sounds of witnesses' first-hand accounts, punctuated by screaming.

Yes, war is terrible and violent and generally bad. We know this. We don't need to have it pounded in by avant-garde art. It probably goes over well with the art critics, but I just wanted to move on.

At the entrance to the town square is a much more moving memorial, and a testimony to the bloodshed of the Great War far more effective than the bright lights and shiny objects of the museum. It is the Menin Gate. A great marble triumphant arch, the "triumphant" part is undercut by its purpose and decoration. The full name is the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing. Finished in 1927, it bears the names of almost fifty-five thousand British Commonwealth soldiers, from all parts of the Empire except New Zealand and Newfoundland, who are remembered at other memorials.

Roughly equal to the number of Americans killed in Vietnam, this is not a complete list of the Commonwealth dead, except those from those two places. It is the list of the missing in action, and killed but never identified. Even so, it is a partial list, as even this massive structure proved too small to accommodate all of them.

Soldier's names are given according to place of origin, and regiment. One can see entire regiments destroyed through the quantity of names. In addition officers, including commanders, are abundantly listed, so at the regimental level at least, there was little room for safe chateau leadership.

Another stop at Ieper was Hill 60. It's not much of a hill, a barely perceptible rise, but in a landscape that otherwise has all the topographical diversity of a pool table, it was crucial landmark. There, one can see German pillboxes and bunkers, and trench lines too, though it takes a discerning eye to tell the trenches from the shell holes.

We didn't forget the American battlefields either. One day, Robert and I drove to the Huertgen Forest in Germany. One of the most ill-advised and tragic battles of World War II, a grinding contest in a frozen hell of hills, ravines, and forest, where the Americans' access to artillery and airpower was largely negated. It was a battle on German terms, with crippling American losses, and for very little in return.

When Robert and I visited, it looked entirely different. We hiked over the Kall Trail, named for the Kall river in the middle of the battlefield, on a warm, nearly cloudless summer day. Along the Kall, we had lunch at a restaurant, an old mill, that once served as a Wehrmacht supply depot.

Though there was little superficial resemblance to the battlefield of 1944, except that most of the forest between Vossenack and Schmidt-Kommerscheit remains basically uninhabited. There are a few houses, and one restaurant with excellent schnitzel, but it remains a land of hill and forest, with one dirt road, the Kall Trail, running between the two towns.

It still bears many signs of war though. The Kall Trail is flanked by old German foxholes, trenches and gun positions, and back from the road especially, heavier concrete bunkers. There is also a section of the road with exposed rock, into which a Sherman tank gouged the pattern of its tracks. Another stretch features the track of a Sherman, left behind by an immobilized tank.

On one of the last of my days in the Netherlands, Robert stated that he and Orban had a day planned, visiting a surprise destination. Robert further suggested that I consider sunscreen, as we were headed south. I suggested a few places where it could be, and he gave no indication whether or not any were correct.

We drove down to Maastricht, Orban and Hans' hometown, and picked up Orban. We'd have another friend for the trip too, Orban's dog Donna, Belgian shepherd-German shepherd mix. Donna jumped into the storage space behind the backseat, and then Orban got into the car. Almost the first thing he said was: "Robert, how long will it take to get to Bastogne?"

There goes the secret.

So we got to the see another American battlefield. There was no chance to see the northern flank of the Bulge, though we did drive past it. Actually, we bypassed Bastogne too, as my hosts had a pilgrimage planned, to Luxembourg. There we visited the American cemetery, and paid our respects as well to one of the interned soldiers, one George Smith Patton. After that, we headed to Sandweiler, and the German military cemetary.

Our next stop was Wiltz, site of one of the first engagements in the battle. Again we saw foxholes, and plenty of them.

Only then did we go to Bastogne.

This town warrants a visit for any World War II or wargame enthusiast who passes through the territory fought over during the Battle of the Bulge. To many, the Bulge and Bastogne are synonymous, and like Waterloo, the town makes the most of its historical significance. While not quite as shameless a tourist trap, Bastogne does exploit its role in the Bulge to the utmost. Nonetheless, it does feature an impressive memorial to the US Army in the Bulge, shaped like a giant star. One can climb to the top, where arrows on the railing point out nearby battlefield landmarks.

There was one that we had to see, near Foy. This is the position of the Company E, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, better known as the Band of Brothers, thanks to Stephen Ambrose and HBO. In fact, this is marked by a monument funded by the network and executive producer Tom Hanks.

One can find the paratroopers' positions easily, because as in the Huertgen Forest and Wiltz, their foxholes are still there. Eroded yes, and maybe no offering the protection that they once did, but they are there. Robert, Orban and I walked the paratroopers' line, while Donna the dog played with a red ball, chasing it through the Ardennes, and occasionally into a foxhole.

On our way back we drove through Foy itself, roughly following Easy Company's axis of advance. We proceeded to Houffalize, saw a panther tank in the Place Roi Albert, and returned to the Netherlands.

There was another fascinating destination, the German Military Technical Collection in Koblenz. Located on an active army base, it is a massive collection of military technology through the ages. It starts with some late medieval guns, and there are items from the Franco-Prussian War, but the bulk of the items there are from both World Wars, and the postwar Bundeswehr. There are some fascinating rarities in the museum, including one of the few prototypes of the MBT-70, a joint main battle tank program that, though cancelled, eventually had its technology integrated into the American M1 Abrams and German Leopard 2 tanks.

We spent a fair amount of time either closer to our base too, either in or passing through Maastricht. This ancient town is well worth time and attention in its own right, starting with its Vauban-era fortifications, many of which can still be found. In fact, we had a "family day" in which wives, girlfriends and children could come along for the "Maastricht Underground" tour of the tunnels and chambers within those walls.

Visiting battlefields, museums and forts took a lot of my time in Europe, and I have the pictures to prove it. But I was there to work as well. Robert is a councilman for the city of Sittard-Geleen, and invited me to give a presentation to his colleagues about the American system of government, and how its decisions affect Europe. Unfortunately, it almost did not happen, as it was on the same day as the trip to Arnhem; on the way back Robert and I faced some heavy traffic on the motorway, and when we were between Venlo and Roermond, the authorities closed a tunnel in front of us for at least half an hour. Why, we never found out. It was particularly frustrating because there were fewer than a half dozen cars between us and the roadblock, so the difference between speeding on through and sitting with the motor off was one of a few minutes, maybe even seconds.

My presentation went well. It was a small council meeting, with perhaps a third of the members present; after all, it was a rare meeting, called during the traditional vacation season. Those who attended were receptive and interested though, and after the meeting officially adjourned, we continued our discussions in a less formal venue ― the bar next door to City Hall.

The next evening, after our return from the Huertgen Forest, I got to observe another, fuller meeting of city council. This time it was a special session called to debate a proposed rail terminal for the chemical plants in Sittard-Geleen, a facility that would require the purchase of residential real estate and the relocation of the residents. I don't speak Nederlands, so I had to rely on summaries of the proceedings from Robert, some of his fellow councilors, and the council's clerk (griffier in Dutch).

Once again, after the meeting, we met in the bar. However, it should be noted that this wasn't about getting drunk; we were all sober, and the beer was a the lubricant for convivial discussions about city business, the differences and similarities between our cultures, and personal observations of modern Dutch history.

I spent about ten days in the Netherlands, all too short a time. That leaves one option: A return to the country. I sincerely hope to accomplish that sooner rather than later, and make a second trip by the end of next summer. Hopefully, I'll be able to see more of the military historical sites, and see more of the ones that got a cursory look in 2010. For example, we barely scratched the surface of Ieper, and just passed through the northern shoulder of the Bulge. I would also like to see more of Waterloo the next time, and dedicate more attention to the battlefield itself.

There are other frontiers worth exploring too. We went close to France, especially on the trips to Ieper and the Bulge, but did not visit that country. Its attractions are actually within reach of Sittard and Maastricht, as are more sites in Germany; from an American perspective, it is surprising how close together many of Europe's cities are. From Pittsburgh, the battlefields of Gettysburg, Antietam and Harpers Ferry are over four hours away, and the Civil War battlegrounds of North Virginia take at least another hour and a half to reach. From the Netherlands, one can drive five hours, and pass through four countries speaking three languages, and see two thousand years of history.

So that is what I did on my summer vacation.

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