Memories of Smolensk

Keep Calm and Remember was born one year ago today! From the beginning, I intended this blog to be a platform through which to share my travels, writing, and life; and it has been all that and more! But the primary focus of Keep Calm and Remember, then and now, is to remember the things that must not be forgotten. For me, these are things like decommissioned ships, retired aircraft, aging buildings, and especially the Eastern Front of World War II. I believe that the world doesn’t know nearly enough about the Eastern Front- indeed, I only found out about when I was 16- and through this blog and all my work, I am trying to change that.

One year ago, I began this blog with a post titled Memories of StalingradThat post detailed the suffering and stoicism exhibited by Red Army soldiers in perhaps the fiercest battle ever known to mankind; and it exemplified my vision for this blog. Today I will write not of Stalingrad, but of a similarly arduous battle at Smolensk in 1941; and I hope that it will honour the scarred and the fallen as I always strive to do.

For some reason, the First Battle of Smolensk isn’t one of the Eastern Front’s best-known battles. Much better documented are battles like Stalingrad, Moscow, Kursk, and Sevastopol; and even the Second Battle of Smolensk, fought in 1943. But although details on it may be relatively scarce, the First Battle of Smolensk was a defining feature of the combat on the Eastern Front.

Smolensk Defenders

Some of the men who fruitlessly tried to defend Smolensk and the surrounding area. Attribution: RIA Novosti Archive, image #2415/P. Bernstein/CC-BY-SA 3.0

Smolensk Diagram

This map shows the progression of events at Smolensk from July to August- note how German corps in the north and south quickly encircled Soviet armies holding out around the city. Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Livedawg. CC-BY-SA 3.0

A few short weeks into their invasion, the Wehrmacht reached the environs of Smolensk. After advancing hundreds of miles in such a short time, they were confident and eager to reach Moscow (roughly 250 miles east) before long. But the Soviets, despite their recent shocking losses, were reorganizing- and Smolensk was the site of their renewed efforts. The Red Army created a extensive defensive line around Smolensk and also conducted counteroffensives against the Germans; and ultimately dragged the battle out to a length of two frantic months.

20-th Smolensk

A machine-gun crew and riflemen of the Soviet 20th Army engaging the Germans near Smolensk. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #76/L. Bat/CC-BY-SA 3.0

Partisans Smolensk

Partisans are instructed in the features of a pistol, as they prepare to help defend Smolensk. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #965/Petrusov/CC-BY-SA 3.0

However, the Soviets didn’t manage to retain Smolensk. Their resistance did prove costly and troubling to the Germans, but the First Battle of Smolensk went worse for the Red Army than it did for the Wehrmacht. Thousands of pieces of military equipment such as tanks were wiped out at the hand of the German panzers, and the Smolensk pocket created by the armoured advance yielded around 300,000 Soviet prisoners. Entire armies were circled and nearly destroyed at Smolensk, although sizeable contingents of men did manage to escape the German pincer movement. In the end, many Soviet units were left in disarray; and the Germans were free to push on towards their next major target: Vyazma.

Soviet PoWs Smolensk

Taken partway through the Battle of Smolensk, this photo depicts some of the thousands of Soviet prisoners the Germans would end up capturing. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-L28726/Markwardt/CC-BY-SA

Assumption Cathedral

Humans were not the only victims of Smolensk- the city’s Assumption Cathedral was severely damaged by fire in the war. Image from Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii and Oleg Polyakov, public domain

Smolensk might seem like just another painful defeat for the Soviets, but this was the first major battle in which they were able to significantly delay the Germans and give some much-needed resistance. This fact, along with the innumerable casualties and prisoners created by this battle, means that it is remembered often in Russia.

Yartsevo Memorial

This memorial, in the town of Yartsevo (an hour northeast of Smolensk), remembers the defenders of 1941. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to VityazRus, public domain

I also think of the First Battle of Smolensk quite often- I really can’t help it, since my novel-in-progress follows a tank crew of the Soviet 20th Army in 1941! My first book also deals with Smolensk- partisans like the ones seen above and Assumption Cathedral both feature in it. It’s hard for me to believe that the First Battle of Smolensk isn’t examined more often, since it happened at a crucial time for the Red Army and resulted in some surprising resistance for the German invaders. I hope that my books and this post will draw some merited attention to it!

I can also hardly believe that I’ve been blogging for a year- and I want to thank my readers and followers most sincerely for your interest over this year! I’ve now got over 200 followers and I keep getting views from all over the world, which truly staggers me. I’m so grateful and amazed that anyone ever took interest in what I’m doing! When I see likes and comments on the posts that mean so much to me, it’s so encouraging, and I’m so happy that people are receptive to my principal message of remembrance and education when it comes to WWII and the Eastern Front. Thank you so much, and I hope that you will continue to follow Keep Calm and Remember for another year- I can’t wait to share 2015 with you!




4 thoughts on “Memories of Smolensk

  1. I think t hat the Eastern Front never received the coverage that it should have for several reasons: 1. The war there, for nearly 50 years, was written from a German perspective as reported in the memoirs of German troops. 2. Much of what was written tended to be anti-Communist, the Cold War was in full force. 3. The cities and locations of the Eastern Front were terra incognito for most Westerners, the areas vast and the scale of battle difficult to grasp. Finally, I think that few westerners have every wanted to come to grips with the scale of atrocities committed by the Germans on the Eastern Front.

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