Do They Know It’s Christmas? — Day Six
Christmas Connection: Battleground recounts the Siege of Bastogne, which took place from December 20th to December 27th, 1944. That’s the battle where, when asked by the Germans to surrender, American commander Brigadier General Clement McAuliffe responded, “NUTS!”, which pretty much makes him the most awesome man in the history of everything.
Man, Christmas sucks. Parking at the mall is a nightmare, the crowds are even worse, relatives come crawling out of the woodwork bearing every annoying family tradition they can think of, it’s usually cold and/or wet, and it seems like just when you finally get all the decorations up, you’ve got to take them back down again. What a damn nuisance.
Yeah, right. The 101st Airborne Division had that beat. Oh, they had the cold and/or wet. But they also had to sleep in frozen holes in the ground, had to deal with dwindling supplies with little hope of resupply due to bad weather, had trees exploding around them due to the sap freezing inside them, and oh yes, four German divisions bearing down on them who wanted nothing more for Christmas than to roll over them on the way to Antwerp. That line for the mall Santa doesn’t seem to bad now, does it?
Before Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, Battleground was THE definitive World War II film. Made just four years after the end of the war and so steeped in both the weariness of the war and the euphoria of its ending, it’s a film widely praised for its authenticity, not only in its historical aspects, but in how it shows the day-to-day routine of the men who made that history There’s no John Wayne here, no larger-than-life hero who somehow saves the day. It’s just a bunch of guys who were in the right place at the right time and with the right amount of stubbornness. They want to go home. They make mistakes. They’re afraid. But they’re also determined, and watching that determination stand up to ever bleaker odds is an inspiring experience.
There’s a great moment that caps the film, where the group’s platoon sergeant (played with template-setting grit and world-weariness by James Whitmore), rouses the now-relieved defenders into marching formation and faces them back towards the front, only to have them about-face and head to the rear. And you can see all the weariness and hurt just melt away as they know they’re about to get the first real rest they’ve known for nearly two weeks.
And they definitely earned it. The defense of Bastogne was a major part of stemming the massive German counter-offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge, and it’s for no small reason that those defenders were given — and proudly accepted — the nickname “the Battling Bastards of Bastogne”. All told, more than three thousand American soldiers were wounded or killed in the action. So think about that when someone grabs up that last Xbox Kinect off the shelf or swipes that really close parking space. People suffered through a much worse Christmas than that so you could suffer through yours.
Do They Know It’s Christmas?: Oh, they’re painfully aware of it. German propaganda dropped into their lines goes out of its way to remind them of the fact. And an Army chaplain, his feet bundled up in blankets and rags, leads an outdoor Christmas service where there are no Catholics or Lutherans, just a bunch of weary guys who want to spending Christmas anywhere else.