In his book, Citizen Soldiers, Stephen Ambrose tells of a battle that took place in January, 1945 at Rittershoffen, Alsace France, toward the end of the Battle of the Bulge. Colonel Hans von Luck, the commander of the 125th Regiment of the 21st Panzer Division, characterized it as “one of the hardest and most costly battles that have ever raged.” The Germans and Americans fought street by street and house by house, in the process turning the town to rubble.
On January 21, the Americans received an order to retreat and establish more defensible positions elsewhere. Colonel Luck realized what had happened only after the fact—after the Americans were gone and the town had grown quiet. Luck wandered the streets, so deadly the day before, and came to the village church, which lay in ruins.
Climbing over the rubble, Luck came to the pipe organ, which remained undamaged. As one of his men pumped the bellows, Luck sat down to play Bach’s “Danket Alle Gott” (see note below). At the sound of music, soldiers and townspeople alike began coming out of their hiding places to listen.
Ambrose tells about visiting Rittershoffen fifty years later in the company of Luck and a handful of veterans from both sides, German and American. The church, as well as the rest of the town, had long since been rebuilt. There were people present who remembered the music from the church organ on the day after the battle. And so, “the mayor invited Luck to the new church, sat him down at the organ, and once again he played Bach” (Citizen Soldiers, page 388).
NOTE: Bach’s “Nun Danket Alle Gott” is a different tune than Johann Cruger’s tune of the same name, which is the tune usually sung today with Martin Rinkhart’s “Now Thank We All Our God.”
Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan