The Camels

(Photo: German soldier near Stalingrad, 1942. Source: here.)

While Lily was fighting in the Battle of Stalingrad, camels would have been a familiar sight.

The first time I read about a convoy of camels bringing water to soldiers there, I was astonished. When I pictured Russia, I thought of snow and not camels, which I imagined in desert sands. But Russia is a huge country, the Soviet Union with its federation of states even larger. East of the Volga River (where Stalingrad, now called Volgograd, is situated), in the vast Asian steppe, Bactrian camels with their double humps were as necessary in the arid climate as one-hump camels in the hot Sahara.

Their wide hoofs, shaggy coats and ability to drink snow made them more suitable for winter transportation than horses. Even in a city like Engels (where Lily trained with the women’s air regiments), camels pulled sleighs over the snow. They also provided the main source of fuel for steppe dwellers: camel dung mixed with straw and dried in the sun to form “kiziak.”

American relief on its way to Stalingrad during the famine of 1921-23, source: Stanford News, April/11

During the Battle of Stalingrad, camels were used to transport ammunition, fuel, food, water, and even the wounded. And, as a bonus, their smell spooked horses employed by the enemy. When the Germans attacked Stalingrad, they soon learned the benefits of camels, too.

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