I tell you, it took some willpower to read through this. I have never read a more uncompromising depiction of warfare and, at times, I decided I don’t want to see anymore. The scenes are described so visually, so viscerally. As a reader, I was there, from the word go. Thankfully I also had the luxury of putting the book down, escaping from the Eastern Front until such time as I had courage to return.
The second half was much easier – perhaps I had been desensitized? More likely I had come to terms with Ledig’s strategy to show conflict in all its inglorious reality, brutality and stupidity. There are no heroes in these pages – just frightened men, on both sides, trying to escape certain horrific deaths in the trench warfare around Leningrad. There’s no sense that they are fighting fired by belief for the greater political cause. This trophy at the end of this battle is a solitary hilltop.
The officers are morons - impossible invent the senseless nature of their decision making. Ledig probably didn’t. As an ex-Eastern front soldier, he saw it all and channelled his experiences and his anger into these pages.
He channelled that anger well. What at first seems to be a depiction of utter chaos is on reflection a well-structured meticulously plotted piece. In the first chapter a runner makes a terrifying trip from HQ to the frontline. This sets the coordinates of the battlefield. Thereafter, Ledig moves us around from HQ to the German trench to the Russian lines, to the field hospital. Like the soldiers, though, we soon lose our bearings in the heat of battle, or should that be the coldness of the trench as it fills with mud, blood and corpse upon corpse? We see it all, from both sides and it turns out that war is a machine. It is impartial. It will take you down no matter what side you are on. This impartiality is reflected in Ledig’s decision not to name the German troops. They are known only by their designated functions. The Runner, the Captain, the Major, The Sergeant, the Colonel. They are nothing but cogs in the wheels of this machine.
Interestingly Ledig names the occasional Russian – is this to emphasise the humanity of the enemy and the wrongness of the German action?
There’s no comfort in these pages. This battle takes place in the summer of 1942.
Three days later, a cold wind from the sea sucked all the warmth out of the forests. The swamps started to steam. Mists hung eerily over the low ground. The mosquitoes were no longer a problem. Autumn was in the air.
You can feel the chill of the horrors to come right there.
This wasn’t a pleasant read but it was certainly a powerful one. Not a novel I would have picked up either, had Caroline not chosen it for her German Literature Month War and Literature readalong. I’m glad I read it even though it’s not uplifting in any sense. Why, given all the lessons of the past, do we persist in torturing ourselves with the insanity of war?