Living conditions in the Eastern Front trenches

A German trench somewhere on the Eastern front.

A German trench somewhere on the Eastern front.

On the Eastern Front the Soviet Army had launched another offensive and were making good progress towards Poland. Yet other parts of the 1000 mile front remained static as the two sides faced each other from trenches. Most of the time the majority of men lived in bunkers dug into the earth, hidden under the snow. Only those on guard duty had to be out keeping observation, the remainder huddled together in the most cramped quarters. The typical Soviet bunker housed six or seven men with just enough room for them to lie down side by side, and not enough height to stand up in.

Petr Mikhin, a Red Army artillery officer, spent over three months of the winter of 1943/44 living in such conditions. Generally he felt that the Germans had better accommodation, making more effort to line their bunkers with wooden planking, whereas the Russians made do with straw and lived in very primitive conditions. Yet he felt that his men were better able to cope with such conditions:

Our men were less sensitive and more stoic. We were better adapted to hunger, cold, dirt, and physical and psychological stress. The Germans on defense had lice and boils on their bodies. If you would, our skin was a bit thicker.

If we picked up lice from a visit to a German dugout, a sergeant major and a medic would place a barrel above a camp fire at the battery position, pour a bucket of water into it, lay about five logs across the rim of the barrel, and drape all our uniforms and underwear across the logs. The steam processing lasted for over an hour and it would take care of all lice.

We took turns going to a bania [sauna] in the rear. When it was your turn to wash, you had to do it quickly, in order not to freeze in the frigid weather.

If a German soldier wasn’t in a bunker and had to sleep in a trench, he would lay his head on a knapsack, just like we used our rucksacks. But our rucksacks were no match to a German knapsack, which was sewn together from soft calfskin. The contents of their knapsacks were also richer than those of our bags.

If we had any of the so—called ‘untouchable rations’, it was dry bread, rarely a tin can of American Spam. Soldiers would often eat the untouchable rations just to make sure the food was not wasted if they were killed.

But what didn’t the Germans have in their knapsacks! Portable stoves and dry spirit tablets to warm up food, small lamps with paraffin and wicks, a combination fork and spoon, a knife, preserves, Portuguese sardines, French wines, crackers, articial honey, chocolate, cheese, smoked sausage, and personal hygiene items. Letters and photos were always present. Quite often they also carried a harmonica.

On the attack, when circumstances permitted it, our soldiers often stopped to hunt for German knapsacks. Once my signalman was chasing a fleeing German with a knapsack on his back; the German was running like a jack – rabbit. My soldier shouted at him, but the German didn’t stop. He shot the German in the back, but below the knapsack so he didn’t damage the contents!

The German fell at on his stomach. The signalman tore the knapsack from the German’s back and impatiently opened it to see what goodies might be inside. But the German wasn’t dead, only wounded, and as my man was investigating the contents of the knapsack, the German turned over and pointed his submachine – gun at him. It was a good thing that another of my men was nearby and fired first. Otherwise, the inquisitive signalman would have paid for his curiosity with his life.

See Petr Mikhin: Guns Against the Reich: Memoirs of an Artillery Officer on the Eastern Front

The evacuation of Soviet wounded by sledge.

The evacuation of Soviet wounded by sledge.

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