We at Casemate wish everyone the nicest holiday season. People are reconnecting with family now, taking long-overdue days off, and in general seeking to regenerate in pleasant circumstances for the next year to come.
While we all take a brief respite, nevertheless, a particular song has been going on in our heads that still resonates through the decades, and as a military history publisher it may be appropriate for us here to describe its context.
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was written by the songwriting team of Gannon and Kent, with credit to Buck Ram for its original lyrics. The song was recorded by Bing Crosby in 1943, right in the middle of World War II, just as America had flung literally millions of its men across its oceans—to Europe and the Pacific—to try to retrieve Western values against aggressive dictators who sought power through force rather than the universal principles to which Americans preferred to adhere.
At the time of the song’s release it was still unclear whether America and its allies—primarily the British Empire–could prevail. The climactic battles had then yet to be fought, and the German and Japanese empires, along with their subsumed nations, might have still been unassailable in 1943. Yet the Yultetide song beckoned for a positive resolution as early as possible, when U.S. forces could finish their job and return home.
By 1944 the song had become a favorite among Allied troops, and by then they had gained an upper hand. As the Christmas of 1944 approached Anglo-American forces had already caved in the Nazis’ Normandy front and had ridden across France. In the Pacific we had nearly gained the Philippines. In Europe we were at the very border of the Third Reich—while the Soviets were hammering them in from the other side.
“I’ll be home for Christmas” now seemed less a song than a logistical goal as our commanders began to think the war was nearly finished.
But then in December 1944—precisely 70 years ago–the Germans launched a gigantic counteroffensive through the Ardennes Forest that took the Americans by surprise. Two panzer armies, supported by infantry, crashed through U.S. First Army in the center, and then a titanic month-long battle ensued as the Allies’ “broad front” strategy came to a halt. Every single resource was needed as our forces from the south and north needed to converge on the enemy’s 60-mile breakthrough, known to history as “The Battle of the Bulge.”
For evenhanded details of the battle, readers need only see our recently released “The Ardennes: Hitler’s Winter Offensive, 1944–45,” by the Swedish historian Christer Bergstrom. With hundreds of photos, diagrams and maps, alongside its deeply researched narrative, we have a more
comprehensive view of this battle than seen before.
Another thing that the battle entailed was nearly half a million American troops desperately fighting across a snowy landscape 2,000 miles from home. Gallantly they did so, in their freezing foxholes or small bridgeheads or winter entrenchments as the cream of the Wehrmacht sought to destroy them.
Back to the song: by December 1944, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was more popular with the troops then ever. But now it was seen that at Christmas 1944, it was not yet. Instead 19,000 U.S. soldiers died in that horrific winter battle, over 60,000 more wounded, and some 26,000 captured. Our troops eventually did prevail and push the Wehrmacht back, whereupon Germany’s days were drastically numbered.
But in those bleak, fire-filled days amidst the snow of the Ardennes in December 1944 it was obvious that our troops would not be home by that Christmas. Instead on that very Christmas day they had to wage the greatest fight in our history as the Germans made one more lunge.
It’s a curiosity that “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was initially rejected by its NY publisher since the lyrics were considered too depressing. The BBC banned it throughout the war. But then it became a wartime hit, and for many U.S. soldiers in the Ardennes that Christmastime—survivors or not–it is doubtless that the lyrics expressed their thoughts exactly:
Christmas Eve will find me
Where the lovelight gleams.
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams.