Desperate conditions on the Eastern Front

March saw the beginning of the thaw on the southern parts of the Eastern Front - but as it ran over a thousand miles long conditions varied enormously.

Willy Reese’s memoir of his time on the Eastern Front is remarkable as being the work of a very cultured and sensitive individual who found himself caught up in a war. He does not flinch from describing the appalling conditions suffered by German troops who were effectively cut off from their own supply lines during the Russian winter. Although an emergency collection of cold weather clothing had been made in Germany, much of it did not reach the troops who needed it until the cold weather broke. In some areas the Wehrmacht were building up for a counter-attack, in others their units were in a terribly deprived state. This undated general description gives an indication of how bad things got during this period:

It was garrison warfare. The front, such as it was, was a chain of widely separated villages. The Russians were able to march through in between us and pressed forward as far as Shchigry. We didn’t know.

We found food. There were potatoes in cellars and bunkers, and we slaughtered sheep and cattle. But when the daily ration was four slices of bread, potatoes and slaughtering were banned, so as to build up a stock of provisions for the flood season ahead. We went on starving, and our guts and bellies didn’t heal. Every day there were several hours of duty in the open, weapon cleaning also, but we had to collect our own wood and provisions. We waited a month for mail.

… [they were attacked and counterattacked ] …

Our quarters were wrecked, and there were corpses littered about everywhere. We covered the German dead with tarpaulins; with the Cossacks we took off their felt boots and caps, as well as their pants and underpants, and put them on. We now moved closer together in the few houses still standing. One soldier had been unable to find any felt boots, which were an excellent protection against the cold.

The next day he found a Red Army corpse frozen stiff. He tugged at his legs, but in vain. He grabbed an axe and took the man off at the thighs. Fragments of flesh flew everywhere. He bundled the two stumps under his arm and set them down in the oven, next to our lunch. By the time the potatoes were done, the legs were thawed out, and he pulled on the bloody felt boots. Having the dead meat next to our food bothered us as little as if someone had wrapped his frostbite between meals or cracked lice.

See Willy Peter Reese: A Stranger to Myself.

World War II Photo + Maps has original Soviet maps of the area from January 1942 giving an idea of the disconnected front line.

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gord kolle April 24, 2016 at 6:12 am

Willy Peter Reese’s account of his service in the Heer (army) or Ostheer (eastern front army) of the Nazi created German Wehrmacht (armed forces) is an incredibly moving document of one young German soldier’s experiences on the Russian front, the most important battlefield of the Second World War.

I found the book to be lyrical and poetic in nature, just like the critics said. I did not have a problem with that. Reeses was a young man living in an army that he was drafted into; essentially a civilian soldier. As a former soldier myself, I immediately identified with many of the day to day travails he writes about, common to soldiers in all armies. As such, I met guys like Reese: Introspective, bookish loners who were teased and kidded but they were still members of the family. Looking at the book’s pictures, you can see how Reese stands alone among his army buddies. there are no arms around him or hands on his shoulders.

So, unlike most critics, I see Reese’s account as genuine and heartfelt. He glosses over the true terror and misery he experiences. We see glimpses only. I mean, after they greased the female POW’s chest with boot polish and got her drunk, what the hell else happened to her? Of course he won’t say; he’s too cultured, too civilized, too guilty perhaps.

He prefers to observe in an academic reverie, when he has the chance The Nazi army forbade diaries on penalty of death. Only in the field, far from the probing hands of the Gestapo, could you get away with it, maybe.

So Reese damns the war, the Nazi government and himself .
He was just starting out as a writer. The world has lost a true talent.


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