Taking a bath in the field can be a challenge. Anyone who has been in the army, or even just gone hiking, can attest to that. Rinsing off the sweat, dirt and dust after a long march is one of the great feelings one can experience as a soldier. This German soldier, a guy named Albert Schneider, must have a talent for contortionism, as he has managed to fit into a small tub in order to freshen up. It’s a miracle there’s room for the water… The location of the tub is near Dunkirk in northern France, the time late May or early June, 1940. Perhaps he’s singing “In my Bathtub I’m the Captain”, a popular song from 1937, while making his ablutions. I know I would.
There are some signs that this photo was taken in the West, probably France. The bread is baked from wheat, and isn’t the dark rye Kommissbrot that was a part of the daily ration. The cheese looks to be more than the daily 120 grams, too. I have no idea what the mash in the mess tins could be. Butter? But butter, margarine or lard was usually kept in a separate bakelite container. Semolina porridge? Possibly. Anyway, the M31 Feldflasche and M31 Kochgeschirr (field bottle and mess tin) are standard issue, but the knife is not. Did I say France? The knife with it’s horse head top is of a type more common in Finland, so that makes the location of the photo more likely to be the northern part of the Eastern Front. Well, whatever the location, the soldiers had good eating that day.
“Tag vor Einmarsch Russland” is written on the back of this photo. “The day before the invasion of Russia.” It’s somewhere in eastern Poland, and the date is 21 June 1941. After months of troop transports to the German-Soviet border, some units hidden, other conducting “field manoeuvres”, 3.8 million Axis soldiers stand poised for the invasion. This might be the last meal the men in the photo had before crossing the border at 3:15 AM next day.
The initial assault was a knock-out blow to the Red Army, and German infantry troops could advance up to 40-50 km in one day. We know how it ended, but in those summer months of 1941, the Wehrmacht seemed unstoppable. Four years later, perhaps two or three of the men in the photo were still alive.
A couple of German soldiers kicking back and enjoying the quiet during a summer day. It appears like they have built the cottage, as it doesn’t look as permanent as the dachas the Russians used as summer homes, but it could’ve been appropriated. They certainly have some creature comforts, like the deck chair made from birch branches. The pot with flowers on the table is another touch to make life in the field more home-like. The Feldwebel on the right appears to be dozing, while his friend reads a newspaper, perhaps one that has come all the way from the Fatherland. There are no clues as to when or where the photo is taken, but the Feldwebel‘s Iron Cross, 1st class, indicates that it’s at least a couple of years into the war. They might belong to a rear area unit, as I doubt that soldiers on the frontline would have access to a place like this.
Weary soldiers rest in the shade of a Stahlfeldwagen (Hf. 7). It’s probably in the summer of 1941 (or 1942), somewhere in the Soviet Union. The relentless sun, beating down on an open landscape where there was little refuge from the heat and dust, tans the faces and hands of the soldiers. Their woolen uniforms, caked with dust and stained with salt from dried sweat, look more khaki than field grey. The rifles will need a cleaning, removing dust that can cause the weapon to jam, as will the MP 40 submachine gun carried by the Unteroffizier. The dusty roads drained the energy of the troopers, but it was probably worse for the horses pulling the steel wagons. Usually pulled by a team of two horses, the heavy Hf. 7 was nicknamed “the horse murderer”.
Still, the soldiers and their horses were expected to cover 40-50 km in a day. Marching across the featureless landscape caused a sense of disorientation in many soldiers. They were used good roads and a landscape with hills, forests, villages and towns. Trudging on for day after day and never really arriving to a final destination made some soldiers question the wisdom of invading the Soviet Union. They were more right than they knew. But bad as it was, the rains in the fall and snow in the winter would make them long for summer again.
Taking a break, an Obergefreiter, a Gefreiter, and a Frettchen (ferret) pose for the camera. Armed with shotguns, the soldiers will hunt for rabbits, the ferret… well, ferreting out the rabbits from their warrens. Ferrets have been used for hunting since ancient times, their sleek build ideal for going down tunnels and driving out rabbits, rats and other rodents. Another photo shows the hunters with a dozen rabbits, so the ferret did a good job. Rabbit meat was an important part of the diet all over Europe during WW2, as meat from larger animals was rationed. Many families bred rabbits for food, keeping them in hutches in the back yard. Butchers kept the feet on the otherwise skinned rabbits, proving that they actually were rabbits and not cats. In wartime Europe, you couldn’t be picky about what meat you got…
It’s not the best photo, but one that’s relatively rare. What we see is a military mail sorting room, where sacks full with letters and parcels wait to be distributed to the addressees. The staff is hard at work processing in- and outgoing mail, the letters to the soldiers only identified by a field post number and the name of the soldier. The field post numbers were five-digit codes that made it impossible for anyone intercepting a letter to tell which unit the soldier served in, or the location of it.
A staggering 30-40 billion letters, postcards, and parcels were sent between the front and Germany 1939-45 using the Feldpost system, and it’s possible that there were even more. Back when people had to rely on letters for communication, it wasn’t unusual for soldiers to write several letters each day, much like modern people firing off text messages. The postage was 20 Reichspfennig (a soldier earned 35 Reichsmark a month) for a parcel up to 1000 grams, while postcards and letters up to 250 grams were free of charge. Being able to stay in touch with friends and family was important for morale.
Here’s an example of a Feldpost postcard I own. The Feldpost number is that of the Kfz.-Instandsetzungs-Kompanie 178 (178th motor vehicle repair company), and sent by Franz Hofmann to his parents on 25 August, 1942.
There are several Franz Hofmann listed as killed or missing in action, so it’s impossible to tell whether this particular soldier made it through the war alive, but as a soldier in a rear-area unit, his chances were better than average.