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Literature / The Winter War

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The Winter War (Finnish: Talvisota) is a Finnish novel by Antti Tuuri, published in 1984. It was directed into a movie in 1989. The novel has been translated into English by Richard Impola.

In the novel, Martti Hakala, as an old man, tells his story about participating in the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union 1939-1940, as a Finnish rank-and-file reservist. His assigned infantry regiment, JR 23, first sees action in Taipale, and later in Äyräpää. The story is fictional, but it is based on diaries and interviews of real veterans and other first-hand sources, and historical persons like the regiment commander Matti Laurila appear in the story.

The plot is simply a story of the war, so there is little character building and dramatic arc, but the narrator's own experiences and the anecdotes he shares form a picture of what the Winter War was like for an infantryman on the Karelian Isthmus. The film adds named characters, dialogue, and scenes from the home front to the story.

The novel and the film provide examples of the following tropes:

  • America Saves the Day: Discussed when the war breaks out. There's a rumor that America is coming to help since they will not have small, free nations attacked like this.
  • Authority Grants Asskicking: Justified by that many high officers of the Finnish army are Jägers trained in Germany before Finland's independence, and conscript leaders have generally been picked by their abilities.
  • Conscription: Most of the men are called-up reservists. Units are formed on geographical basis, so Martti fights together with his neighbors and his brother, and other units in the story are generally referred to by the soldiers' home town or region.
  • Dawn Attack: The Red Army about every day, as if coming to work.
  • Death from Above: Enemy artillery bombardments and harrassing airplanes are present more often than not.
  • Death Seeker: Probably out of sheer exhaustion, in one of the last battles the narrator's squad leader (corporal Somppi in the film) stands upright against a tree to fire his submachine gun at the oncoming enemy.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The very first sentence of the novel and the first scene in the film. Martti suggests walking to the gathering place, but his little brother Paavo says that their house is not going to war by foot, and so they take a horse and cart.
  • A Father to His Men:
    • The regiment commander Laurila personally knows all his officers, most of the men, and seemingly mourns every fallen man under his command.
    • The first company commander is said to be this in the novel in exact words.
  • Foregone Conclusion: It is a story about a very well-known event of Finnish history, after all. The novel narrator also reveals things before they happen in-story.
  • Geo Effects:
    • The Finns have prepared defensive positions and even some concrete fortifications.
    • The church hill at Äyräpää becomes important because it allows the Russian artillery to use direct fire on the Finnish positions.
  • It's Personal:
    • In the novel, the narrator says he begins to feel this way about the war against the Russians after his brother is blown to pieces by an artillery shell.
    • In the film, private Pentti Saari, having lost his brother Ahti the day before, states that this played a part when Erkkilä asks him how he could get such a dull bayonet to penetrate a winter coat.
  • Language Barrier: Delivering a surrender demand to the Russians in the casemate is not a trivial task. In the novel they fail, because they simply cannot find a Russian-speaking man from their local units.
  • Mildly Military:
    • Owing to defence budget cuts at the time, upon entering service many Finnish infantrymen must use their own civilian clothes. To identify them as soldiers, they receive a rifle, a national insignia pinned on the hat, and a belt.
    • The older reservists won't obey just any order as readily as young rookies.
  • Molotov Cocktail: Used against Russian tanks. Historically the cocktails got their name in the Winter War. In the novel, however, they are mostly called just incendiary bottles.
  • New Meat: Young boys arriving to the front are seen toward the end of the film. In the novel, one new boy arriving to the front says he'd like to try firing a rifle because he's never fired an army rifle before.
  • No One Gets Left Behind: The Finnish soldiers' attitude. Also extends to the fallen ones.
  • Oh, Crap!: The men are happy to get a truck transport instead of marching on foot, but one of them notes that rank-and-file infantrymen don't get free rides just like that. They are needed in their destination in a hurry.
  • Senseless Sacrifice: Another unit's attack to recapture the church hill at Äyräpää. They attack across open ground, with pitiful artillery support, against a numerically superior enemy. Few come back on their own legs.
  • Sibling Team: The narrator and his little brother are squadmates in the war, and they are often on watch duty together. In the film, there's also brothers Pentti and Ahti Saari.
  • Sleep Deprivation: Although the Russian activity mostly calms down after dusk, the Finnish infantrymen must spend the nights fixing their trenches damaged from the day's fight.
  • Stand Your Ground: During the pre-war negotiations the Finnish men, already suspicious of Russians and finding their territorial demands unjustified, are determined to do this if the war comes, without any specific ultimatum. Also invoked by the regiment commander in the film as the JR 23 moves to the front.
  • Tank Goodness: Zig zagged. Because the Finns are short of proper anti-tank weapons, Russian tanks often act at leisure, as far as they don't get so close that they fall victim to improvised measures. However, the tanks' impact is rather limited until the Russians improve their tactics. It is mentioned in the novel that in another sector the Russians break the Finnish lines with proper use of tanks.
  • War Is Hell: Both the film and the novel's Beige Prose make the usual hardships of war clear - constant fear of death, uncertainty, hunger, little sleep - and there's the added bonus of Winter Warfare, and the enemy shows no sign of wearing down despite their horrendous casualties.
  • We Have Reserves: The practice of Russian leadership. Especially early in the war, they stubbornly attack the same way from day to day, losing hundreds of men and making little or no gains. The Finns experience very much the opposite, often being unable to even rotate their front-line troops to get some rest once in a while.
  • Winter Warfare: Obviously when temperatures go below -40 Celsius (the same in Fahrenheit).
    • Consuming the milk and cheese delivered to the front requires an axe.
    • In the novel, the narrator has to have his hair cut with a knife because it has frozen onto the trench wall while sleeping.
    • Also mentioned is the Finnish propaganda narrative which states that the winter is an ally to the Finns, with an implication that the men on the front might not completely agree.

The novel provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Beige Prose: A plain man telling what he heard and saw during the war, and there's little romanticism in it.
  • Bittersweet Ending: For the Finnish soldiers. The war finally ends, and the men have the impression that they have won, simply because they have not let the Russians come through. But the peace terms dictate that a lot of territory, including the battlefields they have defended to the end, is given up to Russians.
  • Bring My Brown Pants: The narrator is mistakenly thought to have a case of this, because in a nightly mission he has unwittingly taken cover in a hole that the enemy has used for... business.
  • Delaying Action: Happens offscreen but gets described a bit, for example in the first days of war, when the front is not yet fully manned. Also, when the narrator's unit is moving to occupy the front in Äyräpää after a Russian breakthrough, they meet soldiers from delaying units, who are heading the other way in panic.
    • The whole war on the Finnish part is frankly just a big delaying action, with the hope of some kind of help arriving.
  • Dramatic Sit-Down: The narrator's unit is ordered to attack and recapture the church hill at Äyräpää, which they have already seen others try, and now the enemy has had the time to properly dig in. When the quiet men are prepared for their fate, the order is cancelled. The narrator can only sit down and try not to weep.
  • Friend or Foe?: Many cases of confusion occur.
    • A group of Russians walk right through the Finnish lines in the dark, thought to be tired and grumpy Finnish combat engineers when they don't answer the password challenge. The narrator thinks the Russians themselves were unaware of what happened and believed the Finns had already withdrawn further.
    • A story is heard about a Finnish pilot who makes a forced landing between the lines and is fired at from both directions, and being wounded and confused, he himself can't tell where the friends are since there's a Swedish-speaking unit on the Finnish side.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: The narrator's platoon leader kills the commander of a single trouble-causing enemy tank by shooting at its observation slit, causing the crew to abandon the vehicle in panic and saving the day.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: The horrific loss of life on the Russian side is treated rather indifferently by the narrator, while killed Finns evoke a bit more reaction. The death of the narrator's own brother is clearly a heavy blow.
  • No Name Given: A lot of people appear in the story, but we learn the names of only a couple of squadmates and officers.
  • Red Shirt Army: Justified. While the Russians resume their offensive with even bigger numbers, a fresh but unexperienced regiment takes over the Taipale front, as the narrator's unit moves to rest. The front line doesn't hold for a day.
  • Rivers of Blood: In a costly but successful Finnish counter-attack, the blood of the Russian casualties pools at the bottom of the reclaimed trench so that it's halfway up a man's boot shaft. The narrator points out that this is what he was told, since his own unit did not participate.
  • Second-Hand Storytelling: In addition to his own experiences, the narrator tells about what he hears from others.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: The opposing sides fight bloodily for the control of a concrete casemate, and in the end it is totally razed by Russian artillery fire.
  • Shrouded in Myth: The propaganda-exaggerated Mannerheim Line is a minor geographical example. The men hope to find a well fortified position when they are transferred to Äyräpää. They find nothing and dig in into the snow.

The film provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Bayonet Ya: Rifle bayonets (and traditional Finnish knives) are used as hand-to-hand combat occurs every now and then.
  • Casual Danger Dialogue: The company commander asks 2nd Lt Kantola about the amount of Russians in the trench just as they prepare to engage them. Kantola tells him "Haven't had the time to count them yet" while shooting down two that appear in his face.
  • Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!: The essence of the Finnish march song that is sung in a pre-war scene.
  • Improvised Weapon: In the absence of anti-tank guns, the men jam a log in the tank tracks and throw in a Molotov Cocktail. Also shovels in close combat.
  • Last Stand: Discussed in the last scene, where the few remaining Finns wait for the day's onslaught.
  • Laughing Mad: Pvt Korpela gets scorched by a flame-thrower tank, but after his mates have neutralized it, the man is seen putting out the flames, smoking a cigarette, and bursting out to laughter.
  • Only Useful as Toilet Paper: Russian propaganda leaflets get the treatment immediately after being dropped to the Finnish positions.
  • Onrushing Army: The Russians, again and again.
  • Perilous Old Fool: Ylli, veteran of the Finnish civil war of 1918.
  • Rule of Three: Martti's first rifle shots at the enemy are shown in slow motion, and he misses the first two.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: The film ends in Martti's apathetic stare while the Russians loudly celebrate the cease-fire.