The Kall Trail is one of the most compelling walks I've ever taken. It's place in American military history is compelling, as it illustrates the great differences between the military of World War II and the one of today. The walk itself is, well, just another steep and muddy walk along a narrow trail in the woods. But knowing the story in advance, or having a guide tell you the story on the way, allows your imagination to run wild. You will ask yourself questions, wondering what was going through the Americans' minds when they launched an attack along this path.
A guide or map is necessary to get the most out of the walk. The beginning and end of Kall Trail are not marked, nor are the significant points identified along the way. Recently, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the battles in the Hürtgen, some memorials have been erected along the Kall River to remember the overall Hürtgen campaign. But the overall feeling in the region had been to put the events in the past, and not advertise.
The background. The campaign in the Hürtgen Forest region reached well into the fall of 1944, and the Allies were frustrated. The rapid pursuit across France was halted just inside the German border, and fears of a stalemate were looming large. Lacking German maps and good intelligence, the Allies had grave difficulty identifying the enemy's strengths and had no visibility of the coming counterattack (which would become the Battle of the Bulge). Supplies were running low. Higher command headquarters didn't understand the tough fighting the soldiers on the front lines were experiencing. The political pressures to conclude the War quickly coupled with the inability to view the battlefield led to some bad decisions.
One of those was the decision to attack the town of Schmidt using forces located in nearby Vossenack. Made sense on a map -- they were only a mile or so apart. It's just that a miniature Grand Canyon, the Kall River valley, lay in between. But no matter, the Americans did it anyway, suffering huge losses and ending up unable to hold Schmidt.
The Kall Trail refers to the path taking the most direct line between Vossenack and Schmidt. Standing at the beginning of the Trail, the approach doesn't look so bad. The farmland stretched out in front of us, and the river valley was mostly invisible, although there were signs of a valley in between. It was about 500 yards into the walk that the nature of that obstacle became apparant, and still almost 500 more yards before we reached the crest of the hill and noted the horrific fifteen-degree descent.
The first photograph was taken from one hundred meters from the crest, pointed back up the hill. It was about here where the lead tanks of the attackers struck land mines laid from by the Germans. Two of three lead tanks were disabled in the middle of the path. The photograph shows the steepness of the hill but does not show the steady drop-off right of the photo, where the remainder of the convoy had to pass around. It would take a matter of hours to clear the path.
The path turned right to follow the ridge, but it got very narrow with nothing protecting the tanks from a direct fall to the valley floor some thirty meters below. It was muddy and windy, and passage was very slow. And then, the Americans reached the next obstacle, a sharp curve partially blocked by a rock outcropping that left no room for the tanks to pass. One tank lost its tracks.
Through ingenuity, the lead tank crew figured a way around by using that disabled tank to winch the other tanks around. <go back to books to explain how> The second photograph shows the descent emerging to the valley floor. At this point, the company assault was reduced to a pair of tanks, and the river had not yet been reached.
We crossed a river over a stone bridge that was the only way available. The river was bounded by thick curtains of trees. And then it was the climb up the other side, which was even steeper.
As we climbed to the top, we were told about the eventual first contacts with the enemy. The depleted forces hit more mines and had to dismount. The third photograph shows one of the tracks that came off a lieutenant's tank mired in the mud. The track sank into the mud and was permanently glued there. Later, we walked off the path and through the woods towards the open farmland. Hosts of hasty fighting positions, simple holes in the ground, were still visible under the thick blanket of leaves. Sixty years of natural erosion had yet to level the surface.
The end of the Kall Trail was much like the beginning, a walk though open farmland to a small town, this one Kommerscheidt, still a half-mile from Schmidt. We passed a block of new residences and reached the summit, where we were greeted by the small chapel. We were then told how few troops made it this far, and how they still managed to capture Kommerscheidt, then they didn't hold it for long. Schmidt would be captured, then lost, a few times, at an enormous cost of men and equipment. The Allies did not advance the line.
The lessons of this event would improve conventional warfare. With an emphasis on developing quality world-wide military maps and studying the impacts of terrain, Americans would engage in future battles with a full understanding of the battlefield.
A heartening story was that several of the combatants on both sides would become friends and would correspond for decades afterwards. A group of military historians walking the Kall Trail at the turn of the century encountered an old German man chopping a piece of track away from the one cemented in the ground. When asked why, he responded that he was going to send it to the lieutenant from whose tank the track came from. Turned out the historians had invited that lieutenant to visit, and were able to arrange to reunion.
However, it would be only recently that the local governments and historical societies would erect any sort of memorials on the path. For the sixtieth anniversary (2004), a small stone sculpture was mounted on the Kall River bridge, and a series of billboards (see the fifth photograph) were erected along the main Kall River path containing blow-ups of photographs taken during the campaign.
Eventually, perhaps more memorials will be erected that will help explain the events there for future visitors. Unlike Belgium, France, and Luxembourg, there are fewer monuments or signs in this area to help keep the stories from that time alive. The Kall Trail is one story that more Americans should learn, as a walk down and up this steep, muddy road speaks volumes about the differences between the military as it was then, and what it is now.
Trip taken 14-17 December 2004 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2005 Tom Galvin