The Mystery of Rzhev

There are a great many questions surrounding the Eastern Front. Over the years living in Canada, I’ve realized that the general public doesn’t know much about this area of World War II. But this lack of knowledge isn’t exclusive to Canada– there is one battle in particular about which even Russian historians and scholars know very little. That battle is Rzhev.

This lack of knowledge is rather baffling, since the Battles of Rzhev (‘battles’ is plural because there were many different offensives and fronts around the city over an extended period of time) were very serious for the Soviet Union. Rzhev is not far from Moscow, and the fighting was so fierce that the capital city’s fate hinged on the conflict at Rzhev. A startling representation of this is Rzhev’s title as a City of Military Glory, compared with the lack of writing and knowledge surrounding the battles. It’s agreed that the fighting here was intense and important, but no one seems to know the details surrounding it.

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The document stating Rzhev’s status as a City of Military Glory, bestowed in 2007. Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Kastey. Public domain

Rzhev was so crucial to both the Red Army and the Wehrmacht that immense numbers of troops and concentrations of equipment were committed there between late 1941 and early 1943– around 40% of all German divisions on the Eastern Front were stationed there at one point. And the losses were truly shocking. An estimated 2.1 million Soviet soldiers fought here, and modern sources estimate that out of these 1.3 million were killed. This conflict was not called the “Rzhev meat-grinder” for nothing.

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View of the Rzhev salient, showing its proximity to Moscow. Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to a member of the United States Military Academy. Public domain

As with all battles on the Eastern Front, Soviet commanders made many inflexible demands, just as their superiors did on them. This, coupled with the lack of organization in the Red Army of 1941, made Rzhev one very arduous and troubling campaign. Numerous offensives and counteroffensives were made on both sides around Rzhev, but neither side gained the ground it set out to gain. The Red Army and the Wehrmacht simply ground each other down, pouring in more men and more equipment, until the Germans finally retreated in 1943 in the lead-up to the Battle of Kursk.

Russland, Soldaten auf nasser Strasse

A pair of German soldiers trudging through the mud at the beginning of what was to become a horrible, fruitless battle. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-269-0219-24/Böhmer/CC-BY-SA 3.0

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These Russian soldiers are transporting their artillery-piece to defend Rzhev. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #253/V. Kinelovskiy/ CC-BY-SA 3.0

The mystery– and the tragedy– surrounding Rzhev and the battles around Rzhev, Sychevka, and Vyazma fascinate me; and although there’s not much written about them, I want to find out as much as I can. I recently purchased Svetlana Gerasimova’s book The Rzhev Slaughterhouse, and although it’s very academic I’m really enjoying reading it. Book two of the World War II trilogy I’m working on at the moment takes place at Rzhev, so I’m eagerly researching for that purpose as well.

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An obelisk in Rzhev, commemorating the fighting there. Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Kastey. CC-BY-SA 3.0

So although there’s much mystery surrounding Rzhev and its massive conflict, it is also remembered. In recent years, Soviet sources have become declassified and efforts have been made to piece together what happened at Rzhev. I’m sure it will take many years to figure out something so enormous and complicated, but for the moment I’m satisfied that the name “Rzhev” is recognized as something we should examine; and I look forward to adding my own contribution to that end.

Танк3

A T-34 monument in Rzhev. Thousands of these tanks served in this area, and it is a fitting memorial to the fighting here. Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Valentina69. CC-BY-SA 4.0

REFERENCES:

Gerasimova, S. (2013). The Rzhev Slaughterhouse: The Red Army’s Forgotten 15-month Campaign Against Army Group Center, 1942-1943. Solihull, England: Helion & Company

Roads to Moscow

Winter is coming, and that’s always an ominous feeling for me. But it must have been even more ominous to the Soviet nation 74 years ago– because 74 years ago, not only was the harsh Russian winter approaching, but so was the mighty Wehrmacht; threatening the gates of Moscow and all that the Soviet people had achieved and held dear. With this post, I wanted to mark the Battle of Moscow because it was such a pivotal part of World War II. With the Battle of Moscow, the Soviet Red Army was able to dig deep and hold off the Germans from the all-important capital city– and they did all this through atrocious conditions and almost impossible odds.Roads to Moscow

 

This outfit is meant to be broadly representative of the female Red Army soldier; and there were many of these soldiers throughout the Great Patriotic War. During the Battle of Moscow women made a great contribution, both in combat and also in preparing antitank defenses and the like around Moscow. Although I added some jewellery to this ensemble, female soldiers often wore exactly the same uniforms as their male counterparts. Skirts were sometimes issued, but didn’t seem to have been guaranteed. The women of the Red Army were just as brave and just as effective as the men were, and they had to cope with the same meagre equipment and poor organization as well. I have always admired that. On a side note, this post is titled after one of my very favourite songs– Roads to Moscow by Al Stewart. It’s a beautiful song about the Great Patriotic War and it tells a very powerful story, and I’d encourage you to take the time to listen to it in its entirety! The Battle of Moscow was a true trial for the Red Army and the Soviet Union as a whole, but it became one of their greatest triumphs as well, and it deserves to be remembered.

I Wish you Well, my Lonely Friend: A Poem

I wrote this poem a few days before Remembrance Day; and given the context of war and the fear of death I hope it has a sort of honest sentimentality to it. I envision this poem as being between two friends, one of whom has died and the other of whom doesn’t wish to be forgotten and left behind. But if I’ve written it effectively at all, then you should gather that just from the poem itself! Although the first two lines have been in my head for months, I only took about twenty minutes to write the entire poem; so I hope that you, my readers, still find it polished and appealing.

I Wish you Well, my Lonely Friend

I wish you well, my lonely friend

On this, your chosen journey

But will you ever think of me

At some uncertain turning?

For it was in life that we shared,

And change tears much apart;

So my lasting prayer will be

That I may remain in your heart.

But if you cannot remember,

Then I’ll remember enough for us two

Until time recalls me to your mind,

Or our memories prove too few.

Friend, I wish for you to know me

Wherever it is you are;

And if you miss me like I miss you

Then I’ll never be too far.

The Pale October Sun

October is gone, and I’m sad about that since it’s one of my favourite months. And even though November has been strangely nice this year, I’m still partial to October’s pale sun and colourful leaves. I think I also appreciate October because it was such a pivotal time during the Battle of Moscow in 1941– the autumn rains came and the temperature dropped; while Moscow and the Red Army braced for a desperate fight against the Wehrmacht. All of this contributed to the Soviet Union’s eventual victory in World War II, and especially around this time of year remembering such things is important to do! So to commemorate the Battle of Moscow and to celebrate my favourite non-summer season, here is a beautiful and unique outfit I created through Polyvore.
The Pale October Sun

 

For me, the 1940s dress with muted colours and a floral print conjures up visions of faded grandeur, which is rather appropriate for autumn. Paired with an extraordinary military-style cape and olive-coloured shoes and handbag for continuity, a vintage military flavour is added. The decade of the 1940s is solidified as the dominant theme by the gold jewellery and glamourous red makeup. To me, October is one of the most beautiful and meaningful months of the year; and I hope my outfit reflects that!