"The cold…like a blow from the butcher’s axe." – Excerpts on the brutality of winter from The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer

A common theme in every memoir of fighting in the Ost Heer – the East Army – is the nature of the bitterly cold Russian winters. It’s hard to imagine how one would or could function in temperatures so low that steel tools will break if one tries to use them. In The Forgotten Soldier, the author describes winter in Russia in a way which allows us to get a sense of how it must have felt to be in that kind of cold.

With darkness, the temperature always plunged sharply – often to thirty-five or forty degrees below zero. [I presume he is using Celsius. Forty below zero Celsius happens to be the same as forty below zero Fahrenheit.] Our material was paralyzed: gasoline froze, and oil became first a paste and then a glue, which entirely blocked the mechanism. The forest rang with strange sounds: the bark of trees bursting under the pressure of the freezing. Stones cracked only when the temperature fell to sixty degrees below zero [minus 76 F].

Guard duty was the hardest of all. To stand still one seriously risked being frozen alive….Fifteen of us were standing watch in the ruins of a building crusted with hard snow which cracked like glass. We got through the first half hour beating each other to keep our blood moving. The second hour was torture. Two men fainted.

One morning the feldwebels’ whistles drove us from the overheated isba where we slept. A patrol of Soviet tanks was just over a mile from Boporoeivska. The cold as we ran outside was like a blow from the butcher’s axe. [Feldwebel in the German Army equals sergeant in the US Army.]

On another evening, when the cold had attained a dramatic intensity, the Russians attacked again. We were manning our positions in a temperature which had dropped to 45 degrees below zero [about the same in Fahrenheit]. Some men fainted as the cold struck them, paralyzed before they even had a chance to scream. Survival seemed almost impossible. Our hands and faces were coated with engine grease…

[Image courtesy of The Observer/Guardian.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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