"Toward dawn, a messenger from headquarters came riding up. We had been ordered to stop and make a stand.
"Our company commander was justly furious. Here the terrain was flat and almost indefensible. The ground was also icy and rocky. It was impossible for us to dig trenches. We had passed up far better positions to which it was now too late to return. But headquarters was adamant. The enemy was advancing too quickly. Time had to be gained to reinforce Mukden.
"Our commander ordered us to build ramparts out of frozen corpses, the only material that was in abundant supply…"
This was “one of the largest land battles to be fought before World War I,” according to Wikipedia, and in which Russia lost about one-quarter of its soldiers (Japan lost marginally fewer men), which is described in painful clarity:
"…With the first beams of sunlight, hordes of Japanese had risen out of the earth and, like a tidal wave, came rolling steadily toward us, accompanied by queer blasts on a bugle and a roar of voices raised in a single word, “Banzai!”
"Our company disintegrated before my eyes. We turned and ran, stumbling heedlessly over dead and wounded alike. Far behind us, from time to time, we heard a hideous shriek, which I assumed to be one of our wounded being sliced to death.
"I hadn’t yet forgotten our commander who, after a furious, pistol-waving attempt to rally us, was now running as fast as any man in the company. I had trouble catching up to him until suddenly he staggered. A bullet had tom his neck. He tried to keep running, which was a mistake, because he ran right into an explosion which tore off part of his leg."
And every once in a while I discover a contradiction with recorded history. In The Romanovs: Autocrats of All the Russias, W Bruce Lincoln writes, The “Trans-Siberian Railway remained bisected by Lake Baikal , some 13,000 sq miles of water. …To save the expense of building the especially costly stretch of tracks around the lake’s southern tip, its planners had decided to ferry freight and passengers across it.”
"The train had to cross Lake Baikal on rails laid over the ice, which at times suddenly cracked open into yawning rifts and crevices. To keep the cars from being too heavy, the officers were taken across by horse-drawn sledges, and the rest of us walked, our rifles with their eternally fixed bayonets resting on one shoulder. Forty miles across the windswept ice, with only brief pauses for hot soup from our mobile kitchens. By morning it turned out that a number of men had disappeared, probably drowned, and many more suffered from frostbite."
I don’t know why I continue to be surprised to discover that people and places that my grandfather referenced in his diaries were real people who actually existed. But each time I come across a new name, I feel a need to look it up, which is part of why this process is taking so long.