While attached to the Russian army Clausewitz witnessed Napoleon’s fateful retreat from Moscow during the winter of 1812: even such a hardened campaigner as Clausewitz was moved by the sight of 30,000 French soldiers freezing to death and being speared by Cossacks while trying to cross the Beresina: ‘I shall not be able to think of it for many years without terror’, he wrote.
If Hitler repeated the strategic error combined with the ravages of ‘General Winter’, it was the ‘Winter War’ of 1939-40 between Finland and Russia that fully crystallised winter’s powers of combat choreography.
The Finns treated winter as an ally: passively, by bending to the priorities of adequate hot food, proper clothing and heating, both in forward and rear bases; proactively, such as donning white smocks, using snow-drifts for ambushes, cutting ice-traps for tanks, and of course wide-spread use of skis that turned the pine forests into a vast, amorphous ‘killing-ground’.
By contrast the Russians, certainly in the first two months, ignored all the winter-imposed rules – and paid a heavy price in lives and material, as well as the incompetent commanders who were liquidated on Stalin’s orders. ‘For many of the encircled Soviet troops just staying alive, for one more hour or one more day was an ordeal comparable to combat. Freezing, hungry, crusted with their own filth, for them the central forest was truly a snow-white hell’ ( The Winter War, William R. Trotter, Aurum), Jasper Humphreys, The Marjan Centre.