Thursday, September 15, 2011

War of the White Death: Finland Against the Soviet Union 1939-40 by Bair Irincheev

The author, Bair Irincheev, is readily forthcoming in what this book encompasses and leaves out. Unfortunately for those hoping for a single volume history of the Winter War, they will be disappointed. There is a lack of any political/diplomatic history, little to no mention of the campaigns in the air or on the high seas, and little to no discussion is offered of either nation's high command and their roles in the war. But, with all those omissions, the Irincheev does a great job in offering an overview of many of the battles that took place throughout the 105 days the Winter War lasted. He regularly attempts to dispel myths and rumors that have been built up around the war, both in the lacking performance of the Red Army and the vaunted heroism of Finland's defenders, and offers evidence from both sides, including first hand accounts, to put the actions he describes in richer contextual detail. The end result is an enhanced understanding of the battles fought in the Winter War, but a simultaneously realization that there still remains so much more to be done. As Irincheev himself says, "I would be very happy if" this book "could be used as a starting point for new research on the Winter War."

While Irincheev has done a great deal of work on the subject, the final product in its present form is wholly lacking. A lot of the events discussed feel as if they are disconnected, there is no real 'thread' that is weaved between them all and a lot of context outside the actual battles being described seems to be missing. Furthermore, there are no footnotes/endnotes, so much of the information presented has no source attached to it that one can go consult themselves if the need or desire ever arose. Additionally, while there are over a dozen maps included, they are all rather small and none are specifically referenced within the text itself, so the reader is left to guess when they should consult one of the maps. This, unfortunately, brings down the value of this volume, but I would venture to say the fault there might rest with the publisher rather than the author.

Lastly, omitting all of the above for a second, there is still a good amount of value to this text. Viewing the Red Army as it existed during the Winter War is quite enlightening, especially if you can juxtapose the actions of the same troops during the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany. Within this book you'll find Red Army soldiers and commanders protesting and refusing to send their men to what they expect will be outright slaughter, and their protests are actually heeded and acquiesced to. Additionally, wherever possible the author has located and offered casualty reports for various divisions/regiments/battalions/companies for both sides. These prove enlightening, especially when dispelling some of the myths that have been propagated about Red Army performance. Soviet casualties were regularly high but almost never to the degree that they've been presented in popular accounts of the war. In the end there is much to commend about the book but enough that one can consider the effort a bit of a let down and hope that something more encompassing and comprehensive comes along in the near future.

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