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