We are reminded by The New York Times that it was 70 years ago this month that Soviet troops finished wiping up the last remaining pocket of Nazi resistance at Stalingrad (now Volgograd). The Germans had lost over a half-million men killed, wounded or captured, along with staggering quantities of materiel.
On a decidedly less somber note, The Wall Street Journal reports that the Russian army, after having worn foot-wraps (portyanki) under its boots since czarist times, is abandoning that footwear (cotton in summer and flannel in winter) In favor of socks.
These two stories are not unconnected.
Russia having one of the coldest climates on earth, the fighting at Stalingrad was fought in horrific -40◦C weather. Some of the Soviet soldiers wore valenki, knee-high boots constructed from compressed layers of wool felt, which had been worn by Russian peasants since time immemorial. They aren’t waterproof (they don’t need to be in sub-zero temperatures) but they are warm. The reason for the underlying portyanki wraps -- aside from added warmth -– is that valenki boots are haphazardly sized, and the foot wraps fill in the gaps.
Many of the Russians wore Kirzachi, elemental but sturdy boots fashioned from a man-made leather substitute developed during the Russo-Finnish war. Here again, the portyanki wraps proved their value because, as a former Russian infantryman wrote, “Kirzachi were a tough piece of work. There were stitches in places where you’d least expect them and measurements were rather vague; so the thicker the layer between your foot and your boots, the better.”
The Germans, on the other hand, wore standard army-issue leather boots with hobnails. What nobody apparently realized at the time (despite the laws of thermodynamics having been known for a century) was that the steel hobnails carried heat away from the feet, thereby allowing the cold to penetrate even more perniciously. Widespread incapacitating frostbite was the consequence.
Although Napoleon (an earlier victim of Russian winter) once fancifully declared that an army marches on its stomach, the WWII Wehrmacht at Stalingrad slogged on its all-too-vulnerable feet. Frostbite was not the proximate cause of the epic defeat of Field Marshal Paulus’s Sixth Army at Stalingrad, but it was certainly a factor in keeping The Internationale from being replaced by Das Deutschlandleid.