Drone Scans Reveal New Details About the Battle of the Bulge

Researchers used lidar to uncover nearly 1,000 previously unknown features of the famous battlefield

Tank convoy
Tank convoy through the Ardennes, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945 Tony Vaccaro / Getty Images

The Battle of the Bulge was one of the most pivotal—and remains one of the most famous—events of World War II. Researchers have devoted extensive analysis to this last-ditch effort by Nazi forces to halt the advancing Allies, which began in eastern Belgium in 1944 and ended in January 1945.

But Birger Stichelbaut, an archaeologist at Belgium’s Ghent University, says that researchers have long neglected one aspect of the battle, also known as the Ardennes Offensive. 

“Although this is a ‘high-profile’ battlefield, studied intensively by military historians and the subject of significant attention in museums and the popular media, little has been published on its material remains,” says Stichelbaut in a statement.

Stichelbaut is the lead author of a study of the battlefield published this week in the journal Antiquity. Researchers examined a section of the site with drones equipped with lidar, a remote sensing technology that uses lasers to scan a landscape. In this case, lidar is more effective than other techniques: The area’s heavy forests obscure the view from above, making aerial photography challenging. The large battlefield is also difficult to survey from the ground.

With lidar, however, the researchers uncovered nearly 1,000 previously unknown features of the landscape, such as foxholes and bomb craters. Stichelbaut tells Phie Jacobs of Science that the physical landscape serves as “the last witness of the war.”

Ardennes map
The lidar scans revealed a variety of features across a section of the battlefield. Antiquity

The researchers were able to connect their findings to events and stories from the battle. For example, many of the features they found were on the forest periphery, where soldiers may have been able to remain hidden more easily. They also found an American artillery emplacement, which they identified “based on its distinctive ‘U’ shape and eastward placement,” per Science. A visit to the site in person revealed traces of German weaponry. Researchers theorized that advancing Germans might have taken over the site from retreating Americans.

“There are multiple scales of analysis and interpretation at work here,” which all help shed light on “the global narrative of World War II,” David Cowley, an archaeologist at Historic Environment Scotland, who was not involved in the study, tells Science.

He adds that the “benchmark” study “sets a standard” for how conflict archaeology informs our understanding of history.

In the future, these methods could help experts protect historical sites, says James Symonds, a historical archaeologist at the University of Amsterdam, who was also not involved in the research, to Live Science’s Kiley Price. “[The new study] highlights the need to devise cultural heritage strategies to safeguard future heritage.”

For their part, the researchers acknowledge that lidar can only guide archaeologists; it can’t reveal what artifacts lie under the surface. Still, it is an important step forward, as Stichelbaut tells Aristos Georgiou of Newsweek.

“Prior to our study, there was only very limited knowledge about the archaeological preservation of the landscape of the battle,” he says. “Thanks to our research … we are beginning to get a view of the density, variety and distribution of archaeological traces of the conflict.”

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