A snapshot of an accident, time and location unknown. Perhaps it’s during the campaign in Poland 1939. While ferrying a heavily laden wagon across a river, a soldier has fallen into the water. His friends helps the seemingly unconscious man, while others look on concernedly. Did he fall off the wagon when the ferry struck the bottom of the river, hitting his head on the wagon’s falling tongue (the pole the harness of the draft horses attached to)? This snapshot of a brief drama close to 80 years ago offers no explanations, but is almost staged like a piece of art in its composition. Then the war moved on.
“I’m happy I’m not wearing my pink thong today” is probably not the thought going through that NCO’s head while a comrade sews on a button. It’s somewhere on the Eastern Front, probably in 1941, and the soldiers belong to a motorized unit with light all-terrain cars among its vehicles. A brief moment with something very ordinary, while the war rages in the largest military engagement in history.
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.
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.
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.
A soldier tending to his Knobelbecher (“dice-shakers”), the classic German Marschstiefel (marching boot), while wearing checkered felt slippers. The sole of the boot is clearly visible, with its toe and heel irons and 33 hobnails. There were 35-45 hobnails per boot, depending on size, but earlier boots had toe irons, which might account for the lower hobnail count. The jackboot was an iconic piece of the German uniform, with roots in the 19th century. The calf part of the boot was originally 35 cm high, but it was shortened to 29 cm in order to save leather. In 1941, the laced low boot was introduced as another measure to make leather stocks last, and the jackboot was reserved for infantry and other front-line units.
Marching 40-50 km a day resulted in many soldiers developing varicose veins, something veterans blamed the boots for. Still, by the latter half of the war, the jackboots were the sign of an Alte Hase (“old hare” – a veteran), and worn with pride. The hobnails – intended to make the soles last longer and to improve footing – had the unfortunate effect of leading the icy cold through the sole, which added to the frostbite problem during the cold Russian winters. If I’m not mistaken, the boots issued to armored vehicle crews lacked the hobnails, as they would increase the risk of slipping when stepping on metal plates of the hull otherwise.
In war movies produced well after the war, hobnail-counters can often spot German troops wearing Russian jackboots (no hobnails) or post-war boots (modern rubber soles). Finding well-made reproduction boots can be hard; expect to pay about 150 USD/Euro for a decent pair.