Stalingrad was rapidly turning into a disaster for the German armed forces. Yet the tragedy in personal terms, the sheer scale of of human misery involved was only just becoming apparent. The intense battles, when wave after wave of men, from both sides, had been thrown into the battle with their life expectancy measured in hours or days, had seen enough suffering as it was. Now the long, drawn out agony of those who had survived so far was becoming clear.
Vasily Grossman was a Soviet journalist keeping a notebook of his impressions of life on the frontline, undated vignettes of what he saw. Much of this material would find its way into his novels, including ‘Life And Fate‘ one of the masterpieces of literature to emerge from the war. But the original source material has also been published and paints the Russian perspective of the front line in graphic detail:
Ice is moving down the Volga. Ice floes are rustling, crumbling, crushing against one another. The river is almost wholly covered with ice. Only from time to time can one see patches of water in this wide, white ribbon floating between the dark snowless banks.
The white ice of the Volga is carrying tree trunks, wood. A big raven is sitting sulkily on an ice floe. A dead Red Fleet soldier in a striped shirt floats past. Men from a freight steamer take him from the ice. It is difiicult to tear the dead man out of the ice. He is rooted in it. It is as if he doesn’t want to leave the Volga where he has fought and died.
Barges full of captured Romanians pass us. They are standing in their skimpy greatcoats, in tall white hats, stamping their feet, rubbing their frozen hands. ‘They’ve seen the Volga now’ say the sailors.
A group of two hundred prisoners usually marches under the guard of two or three soldiers. The Romanians march in an organised manner, some groups are even lined up and keeping in step, and this makes those who see them laugh … Prisoners move on and on in crowds, their mess tins and flasks rattling, belted with pieces of rope, or wire, blankets of different colours upon their shoulders. And women say laughing: ‘Oh, these Romanians are travelling just like Gypsies’.
Romanian corpses are lying along the roads; abandoned cannons camouflaged with dry steppe grass point eastwards. Horses wander about in balkas dragging behind them broken traces, vehicles hit by shellfire are giving off a blue-grey smoke.
On the roads lie helmets decorated with the Romanian royal coat of arms, thousands of cartridges, grenades, rifles. A Romanian strongpoint. A mountain of empty, sooty cartridges by the machine-gun nest. White sheets of writing paper are lying in the communication trench. The brown winter steppe has turned brick red from blood.
There are rifles with butts splintered by Russian bullets. And crowds of prisoners are moving towards us all the time.
They are searched before being sent off to the rear. Heaps of peasant women’s belongings that were found in rucksacks and pockets of Romanians look comic and pitiful. There are old women’s shawls, women’s earrings, underwear, skirts, swaddling clothes.
The further on we move, the more abandoned vehicles and cannons we see. There are trucks, armoured vehicles and staff cars.
Images courtesy War Albums Ru.