Butchery of trench warfare on the Eastern front

German artillery observers in a trench in Russia, 1943

German artillery observers in a trench in Russia, 1943

German parachute soldier fighting as infantry, Russia 1943.

German parachute soldier fighting as infantry, Russia 1943

On the Eastern Front bitter fighting erupted as the Germans attempted to stabilise their line and the Red Army sought to maintain the pressure. The seasons were changing and very soon the mud and then the cold would slow down the pace of battle.

Willy Peter Reese was already an experienced veteran of the Russian campaign. He had been wounded in 1942 but after convalescing for a long period he volunteered to return to the front. His memoir clearly indicates that he had been badly traumatised by his first experience, but then at home he found his “life had no meaning” without the war.

He returned to the East just in time to see the hospital trains packed with the wounded from the Kursk battle returning the other way. Keeping a diary when he could, upon which he based his later memoirs, he still had difficulty locating the exact date of events. It was a constant blur of forced marches to the rear, taking up trench positions and then vicious battles and further retreats.

The following episode is located in the trenches of the Dnieper line, starting on 11th October but lasting several days. They were already suffering from scabies and lice in the bunkers that were intended as their winter quarters. Then a night time artillery barrage hit their positions:

The Russians had broken through half a mile to the side of us.

It froze. The full moon rose blood red and didn’t go down till day began to break. A veiled yellow sun rose over the Russian positions. The strongpoint in front of us was vacated.

A little heap of ragged, miserable, and sleepless soldiers fled to us and hid behind the trenches, sitting exhausted and crushed in a gully, and seemed still to be staring at what they’d been through.

The shelling recommenced. The battle resumed. An inferno of fire, steel, and blood. At about noon the drumfire intensied further. The Russians were building on their success of the previous day. Tanks and artillery pieces arrived too late and were shot down; vainly our dive-bombers attacked the enemy’s lines.

Flamethrowers failed. Nothing could save us from the enemy numbers. One company withdrew from the trench, and two of our guns were lost. The Russians drove their wedge farther into our hinterland. Our reserves were being bled dry, even before any counterattack could be mounted. There was no help to come. We wrote farewell letters and waited to die.

The line was given up section by section. Corpses piled up. Behind the mounds of dead, the desperate living fought on.

Smashed by direct hits, wounded, suffering nervous collapse, my comrades quit. As if by a miracle, I escaped the shells time and again and became light-headed. Nothing seemed to matter. No one was in communication with us anymore. We didn’t try anything, didn’t fret, just waited for the end. We kept up a strange veneer of order and calm, smoked, ate.

Then we fled in panic through the choked trenches, taking nothing with us. The Russians were still a ways off, but no one thought of resisting. No one had any strength or willpower left. It wasn’t death or danger or the enemy that scared us.

But as no help came and neither smoke projectors nor artillery supervened, we felt we couldn’t do anything on our own behalf either. Shells smashed down on the overcrowded trenches. We jumped out and slowly ambled up the slope through machine-gun fire. Everything was a matter of indifference, and today was as good a day to die on – or, if we were spared, to be wounded – as the next.

I helped a comrade get to a doctor. He made it home.

We were put to the sword like sacrificial victims. This wasn’t fighting anymore; it was butchery. In the course of brief counter-thrusts, we found our missing in little pieces, and we didn’t take any prisoners either. We defended ourselves only until an opportunity arose for flight. We weren’t fighting.

But that night we went on a scouting mission into no-man’s-land. We came down from our defensive line on the crest of the hill, climbed down into the gully, and crawled up the facing slope toward our gun. Trenches and positions lay abandoned in the darkness. We listened. Nothing but the blood pounding at our temples.

We pulled the gun into the gully, got help, and lugged it up the hill. A group of stragglers passed us, going back. The last. None spoke. The wheels dragged on the grass. A few shells whirred over our heads. We took a breather.

A pair of us went back again. Slowly the Russian flares got closer. They were moving forward along a broad front, into untenanted space. We stopped at our bunker. Muffled voices sounded somewhere, not near.

It was a suicidal adventure. I lay down with my rifle, safety catch off, and my pistol in hand. My comrade fetched our bread sacks and packs, brought the blankets out. We made up our packs.

The voices grew louder. They were very near now, and we could make out Russian words. We picked up our things and ran into the gully. Shouts and rapid fire from submachine guns followed us. Shadows, outlines loomed over the heights; a fireworks display of flares lit the scene as bright as day. We ran on, tumbled into craters and ditches, stumbled over dead, and finally got back to our new position.

With a few more shells, the battle ended the next day. We were saved, or rather, we had been conditionally reprieved for an unknown period.

See Willy Reese: Stranger to Myself

The evacuation of German wounded, Russia 1943

The evacuation of German wounded, Russia 1943

An artillery position on the banks of the Dnieper, Autumn 1943.

An artillery position on the banks of the Dnieper, Autumn 1943

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