Even as the latest cinematic rendition of All Quiet on the Western Front battles for Academy Awards, real-life trench warfare rages on unscripted in Eastern Ukraine, where this winter Ukrainian forces are defending against Russian infantry and artillery from dug-in positions, some of which have been continuously defended for eight years since Russia’s initial, smaller-scale invasion of Eastern Ukraine in 2014.
A video posted in mid-February by a Ukrainian solider to Tiktok reveals the terrifying reality of defending a trench in a shell-scarred battlefield at close range—combat rendered even more lethal when every soldier carries an automatic weapon, not just the bolt-action rifles prevalent during World War I.
The Ukrainian soldier posting under the handle ‘Lost Generation’ was known to be a member of the 22nd ‘Kharkiv’ Separate Mechanized Battalion of the 92nd Mechanized Infantry Brigade, a formation which has been especially active in the defense of northeastern Ukraine, most famously liberating Balaklia and Kupyansk during the Kharkiv counter offensive.
Using a GoPro camera mounted on the side of his helmet, he recorded five uninterrupted minutes of combat frantically defending his trench from assaulting Russian infantry and armor. He can be overhead breathing heavily as he roams back and forth along the trench to guard his flanks and avoid staying too long in any one firing position. The trench itself is well constructed with a bend to contain the blast should a shell or grenade land inside. Foliage and brambles line the lip of the trench to obscure its contours to attackers.
Content warning: The footage, though without visible blood, depicts close combat in which persons can briefly be seen struck by gunfire.
The camera-bearer has just one companion with him under an improvised shelter. The poster writes that his companion was too afraid to venture far beyond the shelter. However, the hooded squad mate continually reloads weapons, and hands over to the camera-bearer loaded assault rifles and rocket propelled grenade launchers, allowing the camera-bearer to continuously fire bursts of suppressing fire. Over all, he clearly greatly contributes to his squad mate’s defense despite not firing directly at the enemy, save at one when he reaches one hand over the trench to blindly spray shots over the side.
The attacking Russians are supported by a BTR-82 armored personnel carrier, it’s heavy machine gun continuously chattering short bursts throughout the first minute of the video, attempting to pin down concealed Ukrainian troops so that Russian infantry on foot can seize the trenches.
The BTR is close—too close, putting it within accurate range of light anti-tank weapons. Early on the camera-bearer takes a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) and peers over the edge of the trench. At 30 seconds he fires—but apparently misses. As he drops back down, return fire shreds the earth and foliage heaped at the lip of the trench.
Grabbing a second RPG, he takes a second shot one minute in as the barrel on the BTR’s gun can be seen flashing away. As he ducks back down, the constant machinegun fire abruptly stops.
The camera-bearer then roams to the far side of the trench AK-74M rifle in hand, but upon turning around spots an unaware Russian soldier roughly a dozen meters away preparing to jump into a neighboring trench. With little hesitation, the Ukrainian soldiers drops the unsuspecting attacker with a succession of single shots. Upon obtaining a freshly loaded automatic weapon, he spots additional infantry advancing from the distance and fires at them, then blazes away at an additional Russian soldier crawled up besides the one he hit first.
As small arms fires cracks overhead, the camera-bearer asks for a hand grenade, which his trench mate obligingly tosses over, and which he in turn lobs beyond the trench. The detonation of the half-pound explosives device is only barely audible over the din of small arms, and their effect can’t be observed.
A heavy artillery rounds screams overhead 2:30 minutes in, though it’s not clear whether it’s landing closer to Russian or Ukrainian troops. Eventually the camera-bearer requests additional curved Avtomat (assault rifle) magazines, which his companion tosses his away while unshipping a seemingly bottomless arsenal of RPGs and assault rifles readied for use, including DT light machine gun ordinarily mounted on a tank, and an AK-74 outfitted with tan/gold enhancements and a fancy scope.
As more bullets fly overhead, the camera-bearer sweeps his rifle sideways over the trench more in an attempt to pin down his attackers rather than hit them, then finishes the recording firing off another RPG round.
Sometime afterwards, the soldier posted the video to his Tiktok account, which has since gone inactive.
The majority of soldiers killed and wounded in Ukraine fall victim to artillery they can’t see coming. Sometimes sheer volume of fire can compel demoralized troops to fall back without a close fight, allowing terrain to be occupied at little cost.
But seizing an entrenched/fortified position that’s being actively defended requires numbers, courage, skill and a lot of firepower.
As this video demonstrates, situational awareness on such a fragmented battlefield is a matter of life and death; none of the Russian infantry hit by the camera-bearer appear aware of his position. Another GoPro video of close combat published on social media shows a Russian soldier creep behind two Ukrainian infantryman in a foxhole facing away from him. Gun pointed, he shouts for them to surrender. Confused, the Ukrainians yell back that they’re on the same side, and the Russian guns both down at point blank range.
The Ukrainian duo’s active defense of the trench is remarkable, but only underscores the terror of how quickly and brutally injury and death falls upon those on the frontline, often to dangers they fail to perceive.
Above all, it underscores how Putin’s unprovoked invasion has recreated tortured battlefield conditions on a scale not seen in Europe since the World Wars, a conflict increasingly fought by conscripted soldiers, many with limited training. Some are defending their homeland against invasion, others are forced to try to fulfill a dictator’s ill-judged ambitions of conquest.