The Holiday Season Hasn’t Always Been “Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Men”

“Tis the season to be jolly,fa-la-la-la-la, la-la, -la”. Or so it seems.

It’s been cold this Christmas.  Now, a couple days after the celebratory day, it still seems cold.

I have been in and out of shops today and the proprietors seem to want to save money.  The heat seems to be set on “low” in these places.

All of this has given me a tingly skin, even though I am wearing a winter coat, a fleece, wool socks and lined boots.  It also has reminded me that men have fought wars in such weather.

The first battle that came to my mind was the Battle of the Bulge.  This World War II conflict was perhaps the major American battle of the European theater.

Loraine Anderson interviewed surviviors of that battle from her town.  They remember, in addition to the artillery and noise, the extreme cold and the deep snow.

Richard Rizzio told her, “After Christmas, it was about 10 below zero and got down to about 20 to 30 below. There was no place to sleep but foxholes.”

Anderson notes one soldier, Maury Cole, complaining of frozen toes. He was able to prevent serious injury by going to an aid station.
“When toes froze, they stayed frozen,” she records Cole as saying. “A lot of men had black feet that had to be amputated if they couldn’t get to an aid station. That’s the way it was for 29 days.”

Of course, having been a resident of Finland for most of this decade, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention their most famous conflict of World War II –The Winter War which began in December, 1939. In this war, the Soviet Union tried to overwhelm little Finland by brute force, and were unsuccessful.

Present during the carnage inflicted on the Russians was Life photographer Carl Mydans. He recorded in images and print a Finnish raid on a Russian column. At the time it was 22 below zero.

He writes that he was at a Finnish aid station in which there a Russian soldier whose leg was frozen “from toe to hip”.  The next morning he visited the decimated Russian column. “The low temperature at battle’s end had frozen expressions, legs, arms, as the camera shutter would freeze action.”

Mydans paints a picture in writing which he calls “appalling”. Frozen dead Russians were found dug in foxholes.

 “The Russians had dug into the frozen ground with sharp short-handed spades and picks. Each hole was for several men and about two feet deep, Mydan writes.” The bottom was lined with blankets and furs. In and about them lay the dead and their horses.”

Even closer to home these days for me these days than Finland is Southwest Virginia. Down near the Tennessee border in the Civil War there was a battle called The Frozen Fight, better known as the Battle of Jonesville.

Authors Chaltas and Brown, in discussing this battle, note how poorly equipped the average Civil War soldier was for winter warfare. They write:

“During the Civil War there were no special winter clothing such as Gore-Tex lined coats or boots. Neither were there any waterproof gloves or thermal knit underwear. Both armies were usually scantily clothed with the boys in blue slightly better off than their brothers in gray. Rubber coated blankets were a luxury very few soldiers had and good boots even less available. Horror stories of soldiers marching without shoes or socks were common among the whisperers of tales. Winter was dreaded and as the temperature fell below the 0 mark to 6 below all became chilled to the bone.”

The Confederates traveled across a mountainous wintry landscape, much like I am witnessing today,  to confront a Union force commanded by an officer hated by the local soldiers and populace. Despite the cold, they left on New Year’s Eve 1863 to attack this army.

With temperatures at 6 below, some of the Confederates froze to death. The commanding officer wrote in his official reports that men would start fires and after they had to march again, they themselves could not be restarted. Some may have been further exposed by having to ford a freezing river.

The Confederates won the battle, however. The two authors describe them as “cold but exuberant”.

I don’t know too much about the Korean War of the 1950s, which may be (pardon the pun)  heating up again. I do have a cousin who fought and was wounded in that fight.

Korea too involved some cold weather warfare. C. Todd Lopez of the Army News Service  quotes one veteran: ” The swamps and the muskrats, and the rats and the cold weather and the freezing my butt off — I didn’t like it.”

This same soldier said that on the border “you were cold all the time”.  He recalls 10 men standing around a one-gallon tin of gas trying to keep warm. He also told Lopez,” Half mile away is the enemy — doing the same damn thing. And nobody’s shooting at anybody because it’s too damn cold.”

Winter war in Korea involved more than just exposure to the cold. Allan Millet quotes an Australian doctor from the era as saying,”Our biggest medical problem that winter  — other than frostbite — was pneumonia.  I actually saw our men spitting blood into the snow.”

Yes, war is hell. It is especially hell in winter. No wonder probably the best known movie about the Finnish-Soviet Winter War is called “Fire and Ice”.

Robert Frost wrote a fitting poem by that name:

Some say the world will end in fire,
 Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
 But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
 To say that for destruction ice
Is also great,
 And would suffice.

That great potentially erroneous online source Wikipedia says of this poem:

“Although the poem does seem to pose a scientific question of how the world may end, most critics agree that this serves to mask the darker meaning of the poem, that flaws of the human heart are capable of leading to the destruction of the world at any time.”

Winter warfare seems to be a horrible way for the world to end. I suppose this is a horrible way to commemorate the Christmas season and New Year. I shouldn’t have had that iced cold frappucino with extra coffee before writing.

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