Italian author, survivor of Russian Front, dies

italian prisoners of war on the eastern front

From the standpoint of the average soldier, there have been some pretty miserable military alliances over the past century.

The Australians and New Zealanders who ended up at Gallipoli in World War I at the behest of the British; Newfoundlanders cut down at the Somme, also fighting for the British; and most Arab soldiers who found themselves going up against Israelis between 1948 and 1973, would all have likely wondered what their nations had got them into.

But probably no group of Allies was more poorly served in the 20th century than those of Nazi Germany.

Hitler, who was only too happy to feed his own divisions into the seemingly endless maw of death that was World War II in his attempt to take over Europe, had absolutely no compunctions about frittering away the troops of collaborating nations.

Hundreds of thousands of Italian, Hungarian and Romanian soldiers, for example, perished in miserable conditions on the Eastern Front alongside their German partners.

One of the more striking accounts of this lesser-known aspect of the war was written by Eugenio Corti, an Italian officer who died earlier this month at 93.

Corti is best known for The Red Horse, a 1,000-page novel based on his experience during and after World War II. First published in 1983, it has gone through 25 editions.

But in his 1947 work Few Returned: Twenty-Eight Days on the Russian Front, Winter 1943-1943, Corti vividly described the utter hopeless of a soldier’s life on the Russian Front during the war.

Corti was among 30,000 Italians and 6,000 Germans surrounded by the Soviets deep in enemy territory just weeks before the Germans would surrender at Stalingrad and the tide of the war would turn irrevocably.

Eugenio Corti

Eugenio Corti

With no other means to save themselves from capture, they set out on foot through the desolate snow-covered landscape where temperatures constantly hovered between minus-30 and minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Italian troops, who were left to fend for themselves by the better-equipped Germans, found themselves in a daily fight for survival, battling both Soviet troops and partisans as they sought to traverse hundreds of miles in order to break through enemy lines.

Sleeping was a luxury, food was hard to come by and there was rarely little option but to leave the sick and wounded behind to either die or face almost certain death at the hands of Soviet captors.

Apparently, when the surviving Italian troops were eventually evacuated to Italy, Mussolini’s regime tried to hide them from the public because their appearance was so appalling after their experience on the Russian Front.

The Italians alone lost 30,000 men in the Eastern Theater while another 54,000 would die in Soviet captivity.

It was a drop in the bucket to losses suffered by the Soviets and Germans, but one can only imagine the disbelief of the average Italian soldier, plucked from, say, Rome or Sicily, to find himself a few months later in a scene surrounded by death and chaos, fighting for his life in utterly miserable conditions.

No one doubts that war is hell, but reading accounts such as that of Corti, there seems little question that some experiences are considerably more hellish than others.

(Top: Italian prisoners being marched to Soviet POW camp during World War II. Most would never make it out alive.)

5 thoughts on “Italian author, survivor of Russian Front, dies

  1. When are you going to write your own book, Cotton? This is an outstanding piece. You bring out perspectives that get very little coverage, in my opinion. You put the human back into inhumane.

    • Thank you, Marsha. I think if we’re able to put ourselves in the shoes of others, it’s not too difficult to understand at least a little of the difficulties they face. There’s no way I can fully imagine the horrors of war, not having served, but I can at least get an idea through reading and listening to others. I think the human aspect is something that brings history alive, and something that we can all learn from.

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