Hubris, Stupidity, and Incompetence: The US Army High Command and the Battle for the Hürtgen Forest (Part 3 of 3)

The Hürtgen Forest campaign is a battle that should never have been fought. Thousands upon thousands of American GIs were killed or wounded for no reason in this bloody series of battles. In their CPs far behind the lines, American generals would often wait for hours and hours to hear the results of attacks they had ordered. But word often didn’t come until the next day when a scout from another unit would report the attacking unit had been completely shattered with half their men killed and almost everyone else wounded. This went on for months.

The fighting was so intense that platoons, companies, battalions would have three or four commanding officers in the same number of days. Many units sustained 100% casualties in a few days. When the Battle for the Hürtgen Forest concluded, the “butcher’s bill” was as follows: 24,000 Americans: killed, missing, captured, and wounded, plus another 9,000 non-battle casualties which includes soldiers suffering from trench foot, respiratory diseases, and combat fatigue, this last also known as ‘shell shock’, ‘battle fatigue,’ and now ‘post traumatic stress disorder’. Many soldiers put in a situation of constant danger for long periods of time will suffer various psychiatric symptoms. Everyone has a breaking point and the longer a person is in a situation such as that the sooner they break.

Writing in Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945, the journalist and historian Sir Max Hastings gives the following figures on combat fatigue in the US Army in the ETO (European Theater of Operations):

In the course of the north-west Europe campaign, British Second Army recorded twelve men per thousand as psychoneurotic admissions to hospitals. Comparable American ETO figures were fifty-two men per thousand, a total of 109,989 cases. Some 8.9% of all men who passed through the US Army in the Second World War were recorded as suffering at some time from combat fatigue.

In addition to the number of men who suffered combat fatigue, with almost all cases of combat fatigue confined to front line infantry or bomber crews, there was also a number, probably a relatively large number, of men who shot themselves in the foot. The army doesn’t like to talk about it. These men are put into the category of non-battle casualties but if you read books by veterans they certainly talk about it.

Captain Sawyer had sent a runner to Colonel Rudd to report that another SIW (Self Inflicted Wound) had shown up at battalion aid. This was the third one today.

– From Crossing the Sauer: A Memoir of World War Two by Charles Reis Felix.

(In the Wehrmacht, any soldier found guilty of causing a self inflicted wound was shot.)

Finally, and this is not confined to the Hürtgen Forest campaign, there is the issue of desertion in American forces in Europe, mainly from combat units. I will post on this at greater length next week but suffice it to say that Sir Max Hastings writing in Armageddon cites the following official statistics: “desertion rates in the US Army ran as high as 43 men per thousand in 1944 and 63 men per thousand in 1945.” Historian Martin van Creveld states that in the roughly one year the US Army fought in Europe, several hundred thousand men went AWOL or deserted, obviously not all at the same time and many AWOL eventually returned to their units. The US Army Provost Marshal, who controlled the Military Police, admitted to a figure of 18,000 deserters on the run in the European Theater in January of 1945. Why weren’t these men rounded up? There is a reason Eisenhower was the first US Army Commander since the Civil War to have someone shot for desertion.

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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