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What the trench fighting of Ukraine war is really like: The inside story of RICHARD PENDLEBURY and JAMIE WISEMAN’S unprecedented access to the Ukrainian front lines, 400 yards from the Russians in scenes eerily reminiscent of WWI
A little after 3am on a sultry summer night, we are standing on the edge of a wood, hardly daring to breathe. The darkness is fading, the stars have begun to dim and first light — with all the dangers that brings — will be upon us within the hour.
Up to now the only sounds, besides those of our footfall through the sweet-scented undergrowth, are made by mosquitos, frogs and other nocturnal creatures, punctuated every so often by the crash of an artillery shell several fields away. Someone else’s problem: not ours, yet. We trudge on.
Now, though, with sanctuary almost within reach, we are transfixed by a new and more sinister noise. The sibilant buzzing is not unlike that of a distant strimmer heard on a balmy afternoon, somewhere safer, somewhere suburban.
Unfortunately, here it is being made by a Russian drone, launched from the other side of no man’s land, only 400 metres away in the darkness beyond these trees. ‘Do not move, do not speak,’ Sergeant Oleh Leheza whispers. ‘It’s almost directly overhead.’
Richard Pendlebury on patrol with Ukrainian Special Forces soldiers in front line trenches
Now the buzzing grows louder. Mosquitos whine and bite our faces. But in our paralysis we allow them to do so, while contemplating the worst: that the machine hovering above us is almost certainly equipped with a thermal-imaging camera, which will allow its Russian operator to detect our bodies’ heat signature however stock-still we remain under these trees.
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What then? Not so good, if the drone is equipped with a bomb or grenade. Even if it’s an unarmed reconnaissance type, an artillery strike could still be directed on to us. We have seen enough footage of individual soldiers being hunted to their deaths like this to feel anything other than a sick helplessness now.
The drone fusses above us for what seems like an age (when, much later, I play back the sound recording, I find it was only 16 seconds) before, at last, it moves on to examine another part of the Ukrainian positions. As if released from a spell, we too plunge onwards and almost at once reach the trench. We step down from 21st-century warfare into what resembles a scene from the Western Front, circa 1916.
When first light arrives and hostilities resume in thunderous earnest, we will find that sheltering in or, even more so, leaving the trench in daylight is far more dangerous than this very discomforting arrival.
Mail photographer Jamie Wiseman and I, along with our translator Oleksandr Kostiuchenko, have returned to the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where we have been given unprecedented access to the frontline trenches.
The Ukrainian summer counter-offensive remains a slow and bloody grind, with small gains being made on the Zaporizhzhia front in the south and around the flanks of the now Russian-held city of Bakhmut, in the east.
We are invited to visit a sector of the line near Lyman, a town recaptured from the Russians last autumn during the successful Kharkiv offensive. Both sides then dug in, building extensive earthworks and trench systems, which now face each other across no man’s land. Our first attempt to reach the trench-line is defeated by unseasonal weather and Russian artillery. The journey begins at 1.30am, to allow us to reach our destination in darkness.
We travel by military vehicle, accompanied by Sergeant Leheza, who has twice been wounded in the unsuccessful defence of Bakhmut, and Sergeant Sasha Bobrovnyk, who was very seriously injured by artillery fire earlier this year. A livid pink, major-surgery scar runs from ear to ear around Bobrovnyk’s clean-shaven skull, like the seam on a cricket ball.
Richard Pendlebury is thrown to the floor as Russian mortars crash down around them after they leave their trench
Now the buzzing grows louder. Mosquitos whine and bite our faces. But in our paralysis we allow them to do so, while contemplating the worst
Along the way we pass through the unlit ruins of villages and towns that were recaptured during the Kharkiv offensive and are now under retributive Russian artillery fire. At each Ukrainian army checkpoint our escorts give the password of the day — a species of tree — and we are waved through.
At the last checkpoint there is a large yellow sign bearing one word, in English: Danger. Oleh switches from headlights to sidelights. A little farther on we stop to put on our body armour. We are approaching the most dangerous section of the road journey — a partially destroyed bridge over a small river that has been repeatedly hit by Russian artillery. But as we accelerate towards it, a Ukrainian army supply van turns on to the road in front of us and also begins to head for the bridge. Unable to overtake, we are forced to slow and cross the danger point in ponderous close convoy, with Oleh cursing. Everyone is on edge now.
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On the far bank we overtake the van, the road dwindles and in time we reach a narrow, rutted lane, where we pull up under trees — no one parks in the drone-scoured open here, even at 3am — beside a hedge at the foot of a hill we still have to climb.
Our escorts take this opportunity for an alfresco smoke, accompanied by the not-so-distant thud of artillery. ‘Someone’s beating carpets,’ Sasha jokes. We are not entirely alone. Presently, there comes a roaring and clattering and, out of the darkness, a U.S. Army-donated Bradley Fighting Vehicle emerges. It bustles past and disappears into the gloom.
Torrential rain earlier in the day has turned these back roads from hardened dust to quagmire. And so it is that the final, rough track up the hill proves insurmountable tonight, even for our 4×4 vehicle.
Three times we noisily attempt to reach the drop-off point. Three times we are defeated by the mud and gradient. The pickup’s steering is damaged and two of its tyres need replacing.
Only two kilometres separate us from the trench-line, but we have to turn and limp back to base. Oleh has been warned that the Russian shelling along the final part of the route is now too heavy for us to continue there on foot. We try again, two nights later, in a different 4×4 that has right-hand drive and carries British number plates. Sunshine during the intervening days has returned the rural mud to something more like concrete. Aside from occasional artillery fire, the night is still, with stars visible among furrows of cloud.
This time Oleh tackles the hill successfully. We drive up in total darkness — to use even sidelights this close to the Russian lines would be suicidal. Instead, the soldiers rely on night-vision equipment to find our way. Once on the plateaued summit, the pickup is driven into thick undergrowth and abandoned. We will have to skirt an open field on foot before entering the wood where the trench-line begins.This is where we encounter the drone.
Wading through foliage with Ukrainian Special Force soldiers, just a few hundred meters from Russian forces
But then the earth walls close around us. While it may smell like the grave, underground certainly seems a safer place to be. ‘You can smoke now, if you want,’ Oleh tells Jamie, a nicotine addict. ‘This is not British Airways.’
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The trench-line runs along the edge of the wood in a series of dog legs and zig-zags, a configuration designed to contain blast, and therefore casualties, if a grenade or shell were to land inside the earthwork. The parapet is level with the top of my head, but a number of firing steps have been cut along the side of the trench wall that is facing no man’s land.
Alcoves have also been carved into the earth at waist height on either side of the main walkway. These contain food, water, ammunition and, in one instance, we see sleeping soldiers. Tree foliage lends some cover overhead, though we catch occasional glimpses of purple-grey sky. The sound of the drone is now joined by the whine of myriad mosquitoes, which seem to be attracted to trench life.
A muffled bang behind us, then another, makes me start. A Ukrainian sentry is trying to shoot down the drone with his rifle.
Oleh leads us down a flight of steps into a subterranean passage. We find ourselves ducking through the doorway of the deepest dugout in this network. Above our heads now are three layers of tree trunks, covered by earth. We are as safe as we can be in this situation. Only a direct hit by a large-calibre shell will penetrate.
The dug-out measures little more than six square metres and contains four bunk beds that have been fabricated using wood from the forest. At one end there is a tiny galley with two shelves, where Oleh sets about brewing a pot of English breakfast tea — his favourite blend — on a small Primus stove. It is around 3.45am. First light is approaching fast. More sharp reports from above suggest the drone shoot continues.
Steaming in a metal cup, the tea is delicious. Oleh opens a tin of tuna and breakfast is served. We are snug in our little hole, but then Sasha appears at the doorway and tells us the war has begun again.
It is 3.58am. Watery daylight. The night has ended and hostilities recommence, immediately.
Mail Writer Richard Pendlebury on patrol with Ukrainian Special Forces soldiers in front line trenches just a few hundred meters from the Russians. The soldier pictured is our Ukrainian guide Oleh
Even before we leave the dugout we hear the tock, tock, tock of a Ukrainian machine gun as it greets the new day from our woodland position. Mortar teams on both sides of no man’s land are also up early and already at work. I hear the distant crump of artillery, though that has been active sporadically throughout the night.
As we emerge into the open trench, we are greeted by a crash and a large piece of shrapnel fizzes over the parapet just above our heads. Oleh squeezes past me — no easy feat in such a narrow space in full body armour — and leads us along the trench-line to one of the firing steps that will afford us a view of no man’s land.
I notice the smell of explosive residue is now stronger than that of the bare earth and vegetation of the night hours. The eastern sky is displaying a first blush of pink.
Oleh steps from the earthwork into no man’s land and beckons us to follow him. This is not as crazy as it sounds. Once a farmer’s cultivated field, the contested ground in front of us — the ‘grey zone’ as the soldiers call it — is now so wildly overgrown that it affords plenty of cover.
Several nights ago Oleh had led a mortar team deep into this no man’s land to attack a Russian observation post. In the darkness someone dropped the base plate and Oleh had to steady the tube with his bare hands as the mortar was fired. He shows me where his skin is burnt.
The Russian front line, though close, is invisible to us. Farther to our right, two machine guns are hammering away at it. We settle back into the trench and remain there for some time, listening to the battle unfold around us.
It is not comforting to think that at some point very soon we will have to leave the relative security of this trench. Our escorts are required elsewhere. This will be the most dangerous part of our journey. A soldier had told us that his unit remained in their frontline position a week longer than instructed, because of the greater threat posed to them by Russian artillery as they were rotated out of their earthworks to the rear.
Ukrainian Special Forces urge the Mail journalists onwards as they come under enemy fire
The terrifying race in a 4×4 with a cracked windscreen to flee the Russians across a field in full view of enemy position
As we move back through the trench, a soldier blearily emerges from sleep in his dugout and, recognising me as a visitor, holds out his hand to shake as we pass.
Now we reach the far end of the trench-line, where we must emerge from cover and step into the wood again. Oleh says: ‘When I say “run”, you must run.’
We agree. We will certainly run like hell. Sasha leads the way.
The world is different in this treacherous daylight. Deficiencies and interruptions in our cover that I had not noticed on the way in last night are now all too apparent; no more so than where we find that our route through the wood is crossed by a farm track which will expose us to both drones and the Russian front line.
We have no choice. ‘Come on,
come on!’ Oleh orders from the rear, and we break into a stumbling run, across the gap and back into the wood, not slowing our pace when we are swallowed again by the trees.
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Were we spotted? We have not gone far beyond the lane when we hear the unmistakable whine of an approaching shell and I am on my hands and knees in the mud as it explodes a stone throw’s to our left.
In front of me, Sasha had merely bent his knees. More detonations near by. Something hisses through the treetops. Brambles, roots and branches broken by shellfire snatch at us as we hurry along. The wood is full of bright yellow mullein, the stalks as high as our faces.
One would admire them more if this was a ramble rather than a scramble for safety. We reach the place where the pickup was hidden.
Mortar bombs are exploding on the edge of the wood and there is a drone somewhere overhead.
At speed, Oleh reverses the pickup from cover, collides with a young tree and is briefly stuck. Our language is not polite.
Now, a new problem that must be faced. In the darkness Oleh had driven too far — beyond the field that we were supposed to cross on foot last night. Now we must drive back across the same field in broad daylight, under the eyes of the Russians.
Oleh drives like a madman. Mortar bombs are landing close enough for us to hear them above the screaming of the engine.
We buck and crab down the hill that had defeated us in the rain.
Luck is with us. We make the hedged lane intact and now even crossing the dangerous bridge feels like reaching safety. We stop for breath in a ruined village. It is 4.49am. Two stray dogs gambol around us. The soldiers smoke. The sun is a deep orange, still low in the eastern sky.
A new day is dawning along the old-fashioned front line of this 21st-century war.
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