Happy New Year on the Eastern Front

A posed picture of Soviet troops inside Stalingrad, January 1943.

A posed picture of Soviet troops inside Stalingrad, January 1943.

Twenty one year old Mario Rigoni Stern was a sergeant in one of Italian Alpini mountain divisions that Mussolini had sent out to the Eastern front. Their presence was a reciprocal gesture after Hitler had saved Mussolini from disaster in North Africa and Albania. Along with the Rumanians and the Hungarians, the Italians troops were mainly used to consolidate areas that the Germans had already occupied.

Now these positions, on the approaches to Stalingrad, were suddenly critically important and the target of renewed Soviet attacks. The Romanian positions had been smashed. Large sections of the the Italian army were beginning to retreat. Most of them were to spend the better part of January retreating on foot in a desperate struggle to avoid capture.

For the moment Sergeant Rigoni’s position, overlooking the Don river, was relatively stable:

Then, towards midnight, the fireworks came. Suddenly tracers split the sky, machine-gun bullets passed mewing over our strong-point and the 152 mms burst in front of our trenches; immediately afterwards the 75/13mms and Baroni’s 8mm mortars split the air and the fishes in the river. The earth shook and sand and snow fell from the trenches.

Even round Brescia on San Faustino’s day one never heard such a row. The stars weren’t to be seen any more and the cats had all vanished somewhere. The bullets sent sparks out as they hit the barbed wire. Suddenly all went calm again, just as after the fireworks everything goes silent and the deserted streets are left to sweet-papers and bits of toy trumpets. The only sound was an occasional solitary shot or a short burst of machine~gun fire like the last guffaws of a wandering drunk looking for a tavern.

The stars began to shine over our heads again and the cats to put their noses out of the mined houses. On the Don the water began icing over the holes made by the explosions. The Lieutenant and I were watching the darkness and listening to the silence. We heard Chizzari coming to look for us. ‘Lieutenant, you’re wanted on the telephone, sir,’ he said.

I remained there alone looking at the barbed wire half buried in the snow, the dried grass on the hard silent river-bank, trying to make out the Russians’ positions through the dark on the other side. Then I heard one of our sentries cough and a long muffled step like a wolf’s; the Lieutenant was coming back. ‘What was it?’ I said. ‘Sarpi’s dead,’ he replied.

I looked into the darkness and listened to the silence again. The Lieutenant bent down in the trench, lit two cigarettes and passed me one. I felt as if I’d been kicked in the stomach, my throat seemed choked up, I wanted to be sick and couldn’t. Lieutenant Sarpi. There was nothing round me any more, not even the stars, not even the cold. Only that pain in my stomach.

‘It was a patrol,’ said the Lieutenant; ‘it broke into his trenches from the rear. He ran out of his dugout and got a machine-gun burst in the chest at the bend of a communication-trench. They’ve also captured one of the company drivers who was clearing away snow. Now let’s go and sleep. Happy New Year to you, Rigoni.’ We shook hands.

I went to sleep at dawn like every morning; I lay down as usual on straw which had once roofed an isba, with my boots, pouches and balaclava on; I pulled up my overcoat with its fur lining and fell asleep looking at the bunker props.

As usual, towards ten Giuanin woke me to distribute the rations. They were special ones that morning; potatoes in sauce, meat, cheese and wine; they’d frozen as they always did on the way from the kitchens.

See Mario Rigoni Stern: The Sergeant in the Snow

A wounded man, lucky enough to be evacuated from Stalingrad has a final smoke with the crew before making the risky flight out.

A wounded man, lucky enough to be evacuated from Stalingrad has a final smoke with the crew before making the risky flight out.

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