The desperate Italian retreat struggles on

Soviet troops advance during an attack somewhere on the Eastern Front early in 1943.

Soviet troops advance during an attack somewhere on the Eastern Front early in 1943.

The Italian retreat from their positions outside Stalingrad continued. Around 130,000 had set off when their positions had been outflanked or overrun by the Red Army at the beginning of January. All along the way they were harried by attacks from the Russians trying to cut them off.

There was no food, just what they carried or the scraps they could steal from the Russian peasants. There was no shelter apart from these peasant village houses. Eugenio Corti had been cut off in the small town of Chertkovo, under Russian fire.

Mario Rigoni Stern had been walking across the open steppe since 10th January when his strongpoint on the front line had been outflanked. He had celebrated a grim New Year’s Day there – but that was now just a distant memory:

We pass another narrow deserted valley. We walk along it, anxiously; I feel as if I’m suffocating and wish we were out of it. I look everywhere apprehensively, listen and hold my breath. I’d like to run. At any moment I expect to see the turrets of tanks appear and hear bursts of machine-gun fire. But we pass through.

I’m hungry. When did I eat last? I don’t remember. The column passes between two villages a mile or so apart. There’s sure to be my something to eat there. Little groups detach themselves from our column and set off towards the villages in search of food. The officers shout at them, tell them there might be partisans or Red patrols there.

Some soldiers from my platoon also go off in search of food. During a short halt we stop for a drink at a well and then I go off to what seems the nearest isba [Russian house]. But it’s one of the biggest and has already been visited by many others. All I find is a handful of of dried apples which the Russians use to make syrup.

We are still walking and night’s coming on. It’s cold; colder than ever, perhaps forty degrees. The breath freezes on our beards and moustaches; we walk on in silence with our blankets pulled up over our heads. We stop. There’s nothing. No trees, no houses, just the snow and the stars and us.

I fling myself down on the snow; and even the snow doesn’t seem to be there; I close my eyes on nothingness. Perhaps death will be like this, or perhaps I’m sleeping. I’m in a white cloud.

But who’s calling me? Who’s shaking me so violently? Let me be. ‘Rigoni! Rigoni! Rigoni! Get up. The column’s left. Wake up. Rigoni.’

It’s Lieutenant Moscioni calling me anxiously, and I see him bending over me as I open my eyes. He gives me another couple of shakes and now I can see his face clearly, and his two dark eyes fixed on me, his beard hard and shiny with white frost, a blanket over his head,

‘Rigoni, take these,’ he says. And he gives me two little pills. ‘Swallow them, come along, make an effort.’ I get up, walk along with him and gradually we catch up with the company and I understand what’s happened . . .

How many have thrown themselves down on the snow and never got up again? Cenci and Moscioni make me mount a horse. But it’s worse than waking up; I’m frightened of getting frostbite, dismount and walk on.

Cenci gives me a cigarette and we smoke. ‘Say, Rigoni, what would you like most now?’ I smile, and they do too. They know the reply because I’ve said it at other times, walking along at night.

‘To get into a house, into a house like ours at home, take off all my clothes, be without boots, or pouches, without a blanket on my head; have a bath and put on a linen shirt, drink a cup of coffee, and then throw myself on to a bed, but a real bed with mattress sheets, a big bed in a warm room with an open fire; and then sleep and sleep and sleep; wake up, then, and hear the sound of bells and find a table laid; wine, spaghetti, fruit, grapes, cherries, figs; then go back to sleep and hear music.’

Cenci laughs, Antonelli laughs, and my companions also laugh.

See Mario Rigoni Stern: The Sergeant in the Snow.

Earlier in the war:

Later in the war: