Written By: Bill Syken

The war that began in 1939 when Russia invaded Finland is known as The Winter War, and for good reason. It was waged almost entirely in wintertime, beginning on November 30 and ending on March 13, 1940.

The Winter War lived up to its name when it came to the battle conditions, with temperatures dropping to as low as minus-45 degrees. The photos by LIFE’s Carl Mydans capture the unique aspects of this distinct theater of war. His pictures include Finnish soldiers making use of skis, sleds, and reindeer, and nestling into foxholes dug in snow.

Mydans wrote about his experiences covering the Winter War in the Jan. 29, 1940 issue of LIFE. He said the intense cold was FInland’s greatest ally in its war against the larger and more formidable Soviet forces:

The Finns are great soldiers and probably superior to any in the Arctic. They travel light, work on skis, outmaneuver the Russians, and are fighting for their own country. The daily prayer of Finland is for snow and more cold.

While Mydans recognized that the cold helped the Finnish soldiers, he also talked about how it made his photography more challenging. In the field he carried two cameras, always keeping one inside his sheepskin coat to keep them from freezing. He had to shoot with bare hands, resulting in what he called “nipped fingers.” He wrote, “Pictures lay at every glance, but I have never suffered more in getting them.”

The last of Mydans’ reports from Finland appeared in the March 11, 1940 issue of LIFE, and headline captured the tragic situation behind his compelling images: “The Last Agony of Fighting Finland is Wrapped in the Beauty of Snow.” The war ended when Finland, after earning admiration around the world for its valiant struggle, signed a peace treaty ceding border territory to Russia. One effect of this war is that Finland’s relative success diminished world opinion of Russia’s military capabilities to the point encouraged Adolph Hitler to invade Russia about three months after the Winter War had concluded. Finland estimates 25,904 of its soldiers went dead or missing. On the Russian side the numbers are even higher—estimates vary greatly by source, but some put it at 53,000 dead or missing. While not shown in this photo set for reasons of sensitivity, Mydans’s photos included many images of the corpses of Finnish soldiers laying frozen on the ground.

Reindeer were used to transport Finnish soldiers during the Russo-Finnish War, 1940.

Carl Mydans/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Finnish soldiers during the Winter War of 1939-40,.

Carl Mydans/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A Finnish soldier during the Winter War with Russia, December 1939.

Carl Mydans/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A Finnish soldier during the Winter War with Russia, December 1939.

Carl Mydans/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A Finnish soldier during the Winter War with Russia, 1939-40.

Carl Mydans/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A Finnish soldier used a sled for transport during the Russo-Finnish War, 1939-40.

Carl Mydans/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A Finnish cavalryman during the Russo-Finnish War in Finland, December 1939.

Carl Mydans/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A Finnish soldier on the frontier near Lake Ladoga during war with Russia, 1940.

Carl Mydans/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A Finnish ski patrol on the move following the Second Battle of Suomussalmi during the Russo-Finnish War, 1939-40.

Carl Mydans/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Finnish soldiers exit a bus wearing snow gear for patrolling near the Salla front lines during the Russo-Finnish War, December 1939

Carl Mydans/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Soldiers coming out of a cabin after a sauna bath on a day the temperature was minus-30, Finland, 1940.

Carl Mydans/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A naked Finnish soldier smiled over his shoulder as he carried a pail of water through the snow to a sauna, Finland, 1940. The temperature that day was minus-30.

Carl Mydans/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A bleak landscape during the Winter War, Petsamo Province, Finland, 1940.

Carl Mydans/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Finnish soldiers watched a woman preparing a Christmas meal during the Russo-Finnish War, Dec. 23, 1939.

Carl Mydans/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A Finnish soldier guarded a line of Russian carts captured in the Second Battle of Suomussalmi during the Russo-Finnish War, 1939.

Carl Mydans/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Russian bread loaves lay scattered on the ground after a battle in Finland, December 1939.

Carl Mydans/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Members of the American Ambulance Corps carried a wounded Finnish soldier from a battle with Russia, 1939-40.

Carl Mydans/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A Finnish soldier with a whitewashed Finnish staff car (a Chevrolet) during the Winter War with Russia, December 1939.

Carl Mydans/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Finnish soldiers sheltered in a dugout near the front lines during the Winter War with Russia, 1939-40; one of the images of a woman, found on a dead Russian soldier, was inscribed “Remember, I am always with you.”

Carl Mydans/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Finnish soldiers relaxed in a dugout near the front lines during war with Russia in early 1940; two weeks later the war would turn against them and these men would be among Finland’s many war dead.

Carl Mydans/Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock

More Like This

history

Eisenstaedt in Postwar Italy (and Yes, That’s Pasta)

history

A Young Actress Restarts Her Life in Postwar Paris

history

Eisenstadt’s Images of Change in the Pacific Northwest

history

Heartland Cool: Teenage Boys in Iowa, 1945

history

LIFE Said This Invention Would “Annihilate Time and Space”

history

“The Synanon Fix” in LIFE