Ukraine's volunteer army prepares to face the trenches

The National watches recruits training in First World War-like conditions in Britain

Watch: Ukrainian civilians train in UK for war against Russia

Watch: Ukrainian civilians train in UK for war against Russia
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There is mud, smoke and the deafening sound of gunfire as Ukrainian recruits try to capture a trench, in a battle with the enemy for a tiny patch of moorland.

This is not the First World War, but the brutal, modern-day combat Ukrainians are preparing for as they undergo training by western instructors at a base in the north of England.

These are volunteer soldiers with little or no military experience, many of them in their 30s or 40s, who had jobs as taxi drivers or furniture makers until Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago.

They are signing up for grim conditions when they return to Ukraine, with the trench drills specifically requested by Ukrainian commanders to reflect the real-life battlefield.

Yet the instructors were unanimous, when The National visited the base, that the Ukrainians are highly motivated, quick learners whose five-week training will turn them into soldiers.

One recruit, Artem, said he gave up his ordinary life in Odesa to defend Ukraine’s freedom from the Russian invaders, who were played by Dutch marines in the battle for the trench.

“Before the full-scale invasion started, I was 100 per cent a civilian person,” said Artem, who decided to join the army last year.

“I didn’t see any other options for myself. I had to go to the army to defend my home country, my family, my children. And also to defend all the freedoms that we have, which Russians unfortunately don't have."

Ukrainian soldiers train in the north of England - in pictures

Artem is one of 10,000 recruits who have entered the training programme in the UK, where they are assigned instructors from the British armed forces or from allies such as the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway.

Britain is running a separate school for Ukrainians to command Challenger 2 tanks, and training has been promised for marines and fighter jet pilots as Nato allies decide whether to send their warplanes.

But the recruits in the north of England are still learning the basics.

They are taught to handle weapons, treat stricken comrades and respect the laws of armed conflict, before being sent home with body armour, cold-weather gear, sleeping bags, helmets, first-aid kits and pairs of boots.

"I would call it quite difficult," Artem said of the training. "But all of us are motivated. We hope to acquire all the necessary experience that will eventually help us to liberate our country."

Return of trench warfare

Another 20,000 volunteers are expected in the UK this year, taking a course modelled on British reservist training but adapted to the fraught conditions on Ukraine’s front line.

The trainers admit they have never fought in a conflict like this, with Ukrainians being readied for a metre-by-metre war of attrition that many have compared with the fields of Flanders between 1914 and 1918.

Trench warfare “is old fashioned, but it’s coming back now,” said Clemens, a Dutch marine corporal who is one of the trainers in Britain. Like other troops, he withheld his full name to protect his identity.

As they attack the trench, the Ukrainians have their view obscured by smoke grenades, but persist through the cold, wind and mud until they reach a patch of woodland, where they must advance despite taking make-believe casualties.

It brings together much of what they learn in a crash course that also covers house-to-house warfare and firing at moving targets on a range, where orders from Norwegian trainers are relayed by a female Ukrainian translator.

“Just a couple of weeks ago they were civilians walking into the camp for the first time. Now they're looking like soldiers, acting like soldiers,” said Mikkel Rev, one of the Norwegian instructors.

Both sides have taken heavy losses in bitter struggles for territory in Ukraine, with Moscow and Kyiv bracing for spring offensives by their adversaries.

Even Ukraine’s strongest allies concede that the winter has been tough and that the conflict has shown signs of grinding to a stalemate.

Despite these gloomy prospects, those at the base report no sign of Ukrainian troops being unnerved or buckling under the mental pressure that the drills are meant to simulate.

As Russia mobilises, western officials have described the Kremlin’s conscripted troops being thrown into action as cannon fodder with little training and poor equipment.

The training for Ukrainians may only be five weeks, but Cpl Carter, a British instructor, said there was no comparison between his trainees and Russia’s battlefield novices.

The Ukrainians “get well equipped, and also get training from some of the best armies in the world. When they leave here, they shood be up to a good standard”, he said. More training is envisaged when they return to Ukraine.

Whereas British recruits are typically between 18 and 25, the average age of the corporal’s Ukrainian trainees is over 30, he said.

While some have manned checkpoints, been to shooting ranges or had low-level roles in the defence of Ukraine, some arrive with no military experience at all.

“It’s quite extraordinary really, seeing how motivated they are,” Cpl Carter said. “They’re a lot more motivated than the usual people you get.”

Britain has proudly spoken of its training programme as a key plank of its support for Ukraine, and the country’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed his gratitude for it during his address to the UK parliament last week.

The prospect of helping Ukraine was alluring enough for hundreds of allied Nato troops to apply for instructor roles, with only a handful successful.

All are adamant that learning the basics will turn the Ukrainians into good soldiers in any conditions.

But there is an acknowledgement that the fight they are about to enter will be one that Europe had hoped never to witness again.

“I think it’s been a long time since anyone’s experienced this in modern times,” said Chris, an instructor from Sweden.

“At this moment we are sharing our knowledge and what we know from doing this for many years. When this war is finished, all these trainees will come back and we’ll have to learn from them.”

Updated: February 17, 2023, 6:00 PM