Fragments from a War Diary, Part #145
I want to tell you about life on the front line. I am not telling you this from personal combat experience; I don’t have any. I am not a soldier. But I am relaying to you the experiences of others and the message I want to convey is that the conditions are horrific. Ukrainian soldiers and foreign volunteers are fighting in conditions that are simply horrific and are reminiscent of World War One.
Just as in World War One there is an over-reliance on artillery, which is being used to pound enemy positions by each side on a relentless basis. The Russians have access to more artillery shells than the Ukrainian Armed Forces because they have a substantial manufacturing base pumping out these shells whereas the Ukrainian Armed Forces in significant part of relying upon foreign military deliveries of such shells and those are coming through slowly. Therefore the Ukrainian Armed Forces are subject to a relentless barrage of incoming artillery with high explosive warheads that can tear a person apart with the shrapnel they create when they explode. There are not so many military positions of significance to attack upon a front line which is mostly a series of trenches, mine fields and tank traps. Therefore artillery is being lobbed really at anything that moves. Most of this artillery never hits anything of real value but some of it will get close enough to a person to maim them or to kill them. It is all luck. This barrage of artillery can take place all day and sometimes at night.
The front line cannot really move because the sides are dug in so firmly and it has not really moved in the last twelve months. Living conditions are diabolical. Soldiers sleep anywhere they can and they are often bored with nothing much to do save to watch a particular post for hours on end with nothing much going on. Logistics up to front line positions are often provided by civilian vehicles with limited supplies. Food more or less manages to get through but soldiers are often expected to pay for their own food and those who cannot do so look emaciated. The Ukrainian Armed Forcers are reliant on a lot of informal support. Soldiers generally have to buy their own equipment and the medical kits they are provided with are grossly unsatisfactory. The tourniquets, essential to stem blood flow upon an injury, are notorious for breaking under normal use. Therefore western gifts of medical equipment to the Ukrainian Armed Forces are extremely gratefully received.
Closer to the front line but not actually on it is a series military checkpoints each of which is maintained by a series of heavily armed troops on a 24/7 basis and these checkpoints are a collection of tank traps, land mines to prevent vehicles from going around the checkpoint, sandbags and makeshift concrete blocks and small huts that serve as living quarters. Nerves are edgy at the checkpoints as soldiers are aware that these checkpoints can serve as targets for artillery. The attitude at checkpoints is pretty arbitrary: some involve a documents check; sometimes people are pulled over for questioning; sometimes people are conscripted on the spot; sometimes vehicles are just waved through with no questions asked. The soldiers do not seem to have standing instructions on what to do or when to do it. A lot depends on the time of the day you are passing through.
There are only three cities actually on the front line and they are Kherson, Bakhmut and Avdiivka. In Kherson the Russian positions are 800 metres across the river and in Bakhmut the Russian Armed Forces control the majority of the city but it is generally a pile of rubble while the Ukrainian Armed Forces control some of the suburbs. There is street-to-street fighting but by all accounts nothing much moves. There is the constant rattle of small arms fire and snipers. Bakhmut is a stalemate but it is extremely dangerous - there is a good chance of being shot. It is old fashioned urban warfare and it grinds on on a daily basis with no foreseeable end or advancement on the part of either side. Avdiivka is under the control of the Ukrainian Armed Forces but surrounded on three sides by the Russians. It is a small town just outside Donetsk with an important railhead which is why the Russian Armed Forces are so keen to take it. The Ukrainian Armed Forces manage to keep the city under their control and keep the logistics supply line to the city open but by all accounts it is a deathtrap and completely destroyed. In Kherson the streets are close to empty because there is relentless Russian shelling and you never know which building might be hit next.
Because this is not an air war - and that is because surface-to-air missiles have improved technologically so much in recent years that it is not far easier than it used to be to blow expensive aeroplanes out of the skies - we have reverted to the techniques used in fighting war of over one hundred years ago. For all the technological advances imagined in modern warfare with the latest designs of tanks and guns and accurate missiles and all the rest, it turns out that this is a brutal war of attrition on the front line in which nothing changes except the tolls of deaths and casualties. We have to ask ourselves what it is all for and why we are continuing to do this. It is absolutely meaningless and it is horrendous for the soldiers who go through hell every day in repetitions of this depressing and gory drama longing for their short breaks where they might be able to see family or waiting for their own inevitable wounding or death.
These soldiers fight valiantly for their country and we all admire that. But the war has ground to a halt and that is why there is less about it in the international news cycles. Without doubt a dramatic reconsideration of our military strategy is in order here, because right now all this war is producing is mindless misery, chaos, horrendous injuries and death and bereavement.