“At the bottom of the trenches there lay frozen green Germans and frozen grey Russians and frozen fragments of human shapes, and there were helmets, Russian and German, lying among the brick debris…………..How anyone could have survived is hard to imagine. But now everything was silent in this fossilized hell, as though a raving lunatic had suddenly died of heart failure.”
He got that right: war is a raving lunatic, let loose from it`s shackles by the greed, arrogance and over weening hubris of politicians anxious to make their mark on history, and send the young of their nation into battle to make it so.
Russia has only recently celebrated the 70th anniversary of that great behemoth of all battles, Stalingrad. This monstrous clash of Titans occurred from August 1942, until the surrender of the German Wehrmacht in February 1943 to the Red Army; it is generally considered the turning point of WW2. Combined casualties are estimated at over 1.5 million dead, although Soviet estimates put the total nearer 2.6 million. The life expectancy for a Soviet private sent into the front line was less than 24 hours; an officer could expect to last up to 3 days. By pouring in an inexhaustible supply of human fodder into the meat grinder, the Soviets managed to stop the German advance dead in it`s tracks, and force them to take a breather to assess the costBesieged in Stalingrad during the bitter winter of 1943, the German 6th Army sent home one last post before surrendering in February to the encircling Red Army. Here is an extract from one such letter…………………
“It`s strange that one does not start to value things until one is about to lose them. There is a bridge from my heart to yours, spanning all the vastness of distance. Across that bridge I have been used to writing to you about our daily round and the world we live in out here. I wanted to tell you the truth when I came home, and then we would never have spoken of war again. Now you will learn the truth, the last truth, earlier than I had intended. And now I can write no more.
There will always be bridges as long as there are shores; all we need is the courage to tread them. One of them now leads to you, the other into eternity – which for me is ultimately the same thing.
Tomorrow morning I shall set foot on that last bridge. That`s a literary way of describing death, but you know I always liked to write things differently because of the pleasure words and their sounds gave me. Lend me your hand, so the way is not too hard.”
It was never delivered. The writer was probably one of the quarter of a million German soldiers who perished from Hitler`s megalomania at Stalingrad. The battle took a toll of roughly 7,700 souls a day; only 6,000 German soldiers lived to return home. Hitler had told General Paulus that with his Sixth Army, the most powerful in the Wehrmacht, he could “storm the heavens” , but only succeeded in discovering hell.