History, the stuff we’re taught in schools, read in books and watch on screens, is supposed to be the official, collective memory of our culture—or at least part of it. But when you talk to people who have direct experience in something mentioned in the history textbooks, you’ll often find context and texture that somehow get missed.
The Second World War certainly has its share of historical record and analysis. I cannot begin to count the numbers of books, articles, reports, films and more about it, in fiction and non-fiction.
But in talking with someone who was there at the time, I found tiny details that others somehow missed.
One memory that inspired me to write my Eastern Front trilogy came from Maurice, my father-in-law, who was drafted by the Soviet Red Army in 1941. He told me that as an officer, he had good leather boots, but the enlisted men had only cloth boots, which wore out as the army retreated before the German invasion of Operation Barbarossa. When the cold weather came, the Red Army had no replacements for those boots (among a lot of other shortages), and the men had to wrap their feet with anything they could find, like old newspapers.
I did a lot of research for the trilogy: reading books, articles and reports, watching films and, of course, interviewing my father-in-law, who passed away in 2003. Yes, it took me a long time to write those books. But I never came across any references to the Soviet soldiers’ boots wearing out. This little fact led to my title for the first volume in the trilogy: Army of Worn Soles.
Under the Nazi Heel, book two in the trilogy, describes the Ukrainian resistance to the brutal German occupation of 1942–1945. One striking story from my father-in-law was how he and others in the underground resistance army would sneak into the rail yards at night and switch the destination cards on the boxcars. I told him that seemed more like a prank than a resistance effort, but he explained that the cards determined where the boxcar’s contents would be sent. So a boxcar filled with ammunition would not reach its intended destination, which hampered the enemy’s supply efforts.
I still did not think much of this until I read William Craig’s Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad, upon which the movie with Jude Law, Rachel Weisz and Joseph Fiennes was loosely based. In the book (this did not appear in the movie) the German 6th Army, hemmed in by the advancing Soviets and running short of supplies, received a boxcar full of crates of condoms instead of ammunition. A nice-to-have, not a need-to-have. Well, not when the enemy is literally about to overrun you.
I just published the third book in the trilogy: Walking Out of War, which deals with the last year of the war and its aftermath. A memory prominent to Maurice was how much better the equipment and the food were in the Red Army compared to the beginning of the war. That’s mostly because by 1944, the USSR was getting a lot of supplies from the Allies, especially the U.S.A.
Along with weapons, ammunition and 152,000 trucks, the U.S. sent tonnes of food to the USSR. Maurice told me how all the “boys”—the soldiers—love the American canned ham. “It was very tasty.”
After the war, in a United Nations Displaced Persons camp, Maurice saw the cooks from the U.S. Army throwing away fat from the outside of hams. When he asked why, the cook shrugged and said “We don’t eat that stuff.”
That was a godsend for hungry refugees. Maurice took as much as he could to the refugees, who would use the ham fat for various recipes. It may not to be to the taste of us in the prosperous 21st century West, but it kept a lot of people from hunger in 1946.
Little details like that make history come to life for me. It’s crucial to preserve these memories that don’t make it into the history textbooks, because they make the grand sweep of history immediate to those of us who weren’t there.
What do you think about the difference between memory and history? What specific details do you think the history books have missed? Let me know in the Comments.