Whilst as many as two hundred thousand German troops remained trapped in Stalingrad many more found themselves cut off or in exposed positions outside Stalingrad, as the Soviet army consolidated its territorial gains. The approaches to Stalingrad had been guarded by a mixture of German, Rumanian, Hungarian and Italian troops. Many had been captured. Hundreds of thousands more were now in a headlong retreat as they sought to avoid encirclement.
Eugenio Corti was amongst the disparate elements of the Italian army now retreating westwards. The majority were forced to march out carrying whatever supplies they had to hand, often very little. They walked in sub zero temperatures across the snow of the steppe, stopping only when they could find shelter. They were harried all the way by the Red Army.
At the beginning of January Corti’s group found themselves in the town of Chertkovo. Corti estimates that of the 30,000 men who set off from his position on the Don river only about 8,000 made it that far. Large numbers were wounded or frostbitten, all were exhausted. Every scrap of space in the small town was taken. By the 7th January they were encircled and under regular bombardment:
I had turned up at the infirmary with Antonini at the very moment that Lugaresi – who had been taken to the small room allocated for the purpose – was about to have his wound dressed. He hadn’t been medicated for six or seven days. The wound on his right biceps seemed to have completely healed: I pointed this out to him, and he looked at it in surprise; until that moment he hadn’t realized that he had had a bullet through that arm!
The wound in his left biceps, by contrast, and the one under his chest muscles were oozing pus abundantly I supported him while he was sitting up having his wounds dressed: the medical officer washed his lacerated flesh with a mixture of water and cognac. Then he bandaged it.
At a certain point I was compelled to ask Antonini to take over for me and went outside for a few minutes. As I helplessly watched that rose-colored, soaking flesh and, still more, the contractions of the yellowish face of Lugaresi, who seemed to me to be at death’s door, it was all I could do not to vomit. Luckily this didn’t last long.
When his wounds had been dressed, Lugaresi seized me by the arm and beseeched me to make sure he wasn’t taken into the bedlam of the large room of the infirmary. First I had him taken to the hut, where I gave him my small iron bed. Bozza, his ever faithful orderly went along with him.
We all gathered around Lugaresi, who, sitting up with his head against the headboard, looked at us in silence. If only we could have healed him with our eyes. He made an effort to exchange the occasional calm word with us, but his face, beneath the bristling hairs of his beard, and with all that yellow both in his eyes and on his skin, seemed to be that of a man who was done for.
The larger construction and the other small building were now filled to overflowing: some of the big rooms were beginning to assume the same bedlamlike appearance as the infirmary. There were about seventeen hundred patients: nevertheless, both in the infirmary and in the houses there were still hundreds and hundreds of frostbitten and wounded men.
Some mortar shells had plummeted into the main building, smashing the windows and wreaking havoc among the bodies stretched out on the straw. When the corpses had been removed and the walls and windows repaired as well as possible, the space vacated by the dead had been occupied by other wounded men.
And to think that there were many people in the town who would have liked to have gone to the hospital.