Irresponsible and Right: Letter from Stalingrad

John Dallman
19 May 2013

Dear Millie,

The only way you'll get this letter is if I carry it home. I'm writing it to try to describe the strangeness of this place, which I think will fade in my memory when I leave it.

The vastness of the land is unbelievable. You could add all of England here, and it would not make much difference. Distances that we could not fit into Great Britain are not "nearby", but not that far off either. The Germans want to conquer it to live in, to make a bigger Germany. Normal Germany is bigger than England, but this is so vast that I do not think the Germans really understand what they have tried; they have bitten off more than they can chew.

The city itself is strange to me, because it's all new and all built to one plan. That is very different from London, which is built in so many parts on top of each other, all fighting for space and access to roads. The sameness of the buildings would make it hard to find my way if it wasn't for the simplicity of the road layout, which means I don't need to remember individual buildings so much. You get used to that, but it stays strange, if you stop to think.

The Soviet soldiers are different, but they are human. "Soviet" is the right name, because they have lots of different peoples and languages serving together. They use Russian as their common language, and in some ways it is like the Empire, but if you try to treat it that way, you go wrong quickly, and they all get offended. I don't understand how Communism works, but these people are not monsters: they are fighting to get rid of invaders, and that is much the same everywhere.

Like everyone whose homeland is invaded, they are brave. But their bravery is different to ours. Englishmen always hope they will not be hurt or killed, and don't think much about what will happen if they are. They make jokes to distract themselves from fear; they are fairly sure they will win in the end, but they fear that they will not do their own part well enough.

Soviet soldiers are very sure their side will win in the end, and while there may have to be a lot of sacrifice, they are part of the greater whole which will triumph. They are happy enough with this, although of course they want to distract themselves while they are waiting. Like all soldiers, they look for better food, drink, smoke and talk. Their talking is different. They tell entertaining lies and talk about women, but not as much as British soldiers. They talk more about what they want to do after the war, which we keep much more private, for fear we'll curse ourselves. And they quote poetry.

Back when I was in the Great War, you got educated conscripts who carried books of poetry. They had poetry because it takes you away from yourself better than prose, and poetry comes in smaller books. Some of them wrote poetry to try to make sense of the madness of war. Most of it was awful; you got just a few who were good, usually educated men, and the poignancy of making art in the middle of death means we take more notice of it. I suppose it's the easiest art to do as regards materials, since all you need is paper, pencil and time.

But quite a few Soviet soldiers have learned lots of poetry at school, or have books of it, and they recite it to entertain their fellows, who listen and appreciate it. It is hard to imagine British soldiers doing that now although some officers might. I suppose the Soviet schools don't have class divisions, although that's hard to imagine. But some of the British soldiers of the Great War did do that, now i think about it. I was young, and the young chaps had no time for it. It was the older educated conscripts who did that in the last war, and the Soviets are doing it now. The 25-year-olds are hard to distinguish from the youngsters who barely shave; suddenly, I feel older.

Yours, Pete