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Literature / The Winter War

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In the afternoon they came again, supported by tanks and artillery, at about one o'clock, and we battled them until eight in the evening. They started to believe that it's difficult to come to Finland through there, and at eight in the evening they stopped fighting for the day. We started looking at what the Russian had managed to do to our positions and fixing them. We waited for warm food. Six tanks were burning and smoking in front of the lines, and many neighbor's men were lying there. No food came, and there would not have been many eaters either.
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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. The infantry regiment JR 23 that he is assigned to 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 real 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.

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This work provides 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 Equals 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.
  • Beige Prose: A plain man tells 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.
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  • Conscription: The narrator is one of many called-up reservists, and he notes that there's a variety of people already among the four hundred men of their municipality. Units are formed on geographical basis, so the narrator 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 stands upright against a tree to fire his submachine gun at the oncoming enemy. He is said to live surprisingly long.
  • 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.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The very first sentence. The narrator suggests walking to the gathering place, but his little brother 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 exact words.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Since the story is told long afterwards, the narrator reveals things before they happen in-story. The whole story, of course, is also about a well-known (at least for Finnish audience) historical event.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: The narrator's platoon leader saves the day by disabling a single, trouble-causing tank with a rifle. He aims at its observation hatch, killing the tank commander and causing the crew to abandon the vehicle in panic.
  • It's Personal: 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.
  • Language Barrier: The Finns fail to deliver a surrender demand to the Russians in the casemate because they simply cannot find a Russian-speaking man from their local units.
  • Loaded Words: A subtle version: most of the time, the narrator refers to the enemy soldiers as "men", while Finnish soldiers are called "boys".
  • Mildly Military:
    • The older reservists won't obey just any order as readily as young rookies.
    • 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.
  • 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, while also laconically told, is clearly a heavy blow.
  • Molotov Cocktail: Used against Russian tanks. Historically the cocktails got their name in the Winter War, but the term is not discussed further, and mostly they are called just incendiary bottles.
  • New Meat: A new boy arriving to the front says he'd like to try firing a rifle because he's never fired an army rifle before. All we learn about him after that is that he did not last long.
  • No Name Given: A lot of people appear in the story, but we learn the names of only a couple of squadmates and officers.
  • No One Gets Left Behind: The Finnish soldiers' attitude. For example, a horse gets lifted up from a hole in river ice, under artillery and machine gun fire, to make sure a wounded soldier gets into treatment in time. 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 men don't get free rides just like that. They are needed in their destination in a hurry.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • "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, possibly with Red Army soldiers inside.
  • 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.
  • Sibling Team: The narrator and his little brother are squadmates in the war, and they are often on watch duty together.
  • 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: 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.
  • 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 that in another sector the Russians break the Finnish lines with proper use of tanks.
  • Up to Eleven: The narrator says that at one point toward the end of the war, he thought he already knew what the Russian artillery bombardment could be like at its worst, but was mistaken.
  • War Is Hell: Even though the story is told a long time after the war, in a chatty way and with the immediate terror absent, and the Beige Prose style does not go into details or philosophical pondering, the elements of the story speak for themselves. The usual hardships of war - constant fear of death, uncertainty of the future, hunger, little sleep - get the added bonus of Winter Warfare, and the enemy shows no sign of wearing down despite their horrendous casualties, which alone are enough to show that this trope applies to the Russian side too.
  • 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.
    • 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.
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