Wars are packed with action, drama, and strange tales. Often, the fog of war produces anecdotes that to the outside world would seem absolutely impossible. There are countless examples throughout history of soldiers in combat who did or saw extraordinary things. The Angel of Mons was one such supernatural event when an angel supposedly appeared over the battlefield and helped win a tremendous victory for the British.
The eerie mist that hung over Fredericksburg’s battle in the Civil War right before Christmas was supposedly God weeping over the suffering. These tales are often shrouded in mystery and though real, can be attributed to much more earthly explanations. Another such story, perhaps even harder to explain, comes from the same conflict the Angel of Mons derives from the First World War.
Here, the story surrounds an equally supernatural and unbelievable story: an attack by the dead men! While the men in this scenario may not have been afflicted by a brain-eating super virus that causes them to feast on the flesh of the undead, it was fairly close to that. To understand how such a feat could be possible, it is important to place the battle into its proper context and the effects of poison gas.
World War 1: The great retreat
In 1915, the Germans and their Austro-Hungarian allies began a massive offensive known in history as the Great Retreat. During this time, the ill-equipped and poorly led Russian army was completely routed by the Germans who were wielding superior firepower.
While there is a litany of other reasons why the Russian lines broke, the general rule is that they were smashed across the entire front. A general withdrawal was ordered to save what remained of the Russian arms and manpower.
Thus, as the Russian army retreated, they needed what was called a rearguard to hold off German attacks long enough to allow the bulk of the friendly forces to escape. These rearguard actions were often suicide missions resulting in heavy losses if not the total annihilation of units tasked with this duty. One of the best ways to fight these rearguard actions while maximizing enemy casualties was using any one of the series of forts in place all over the front.
Before the war broke out, it was believed that building near-impenetrable fortresses with large guns that could be manned with a small garrison would revolutionize warfare. Placing these fortresses by major roads, railway hubs, and waterways would ensure these vital lanes of communication and transport could be easily defended. Pre-World War One strategists did not envision that armies could simply bypass these forts and continue advancing, leaving the defenders trapped in their own concrete coffin.
While bypassing these forts was an option a lot of the time, military necessity and a bit of pride among commanders occasionally necessitated their capture. Even if a fort could be bypassed and a military objective captured, having a bristling deathtrap that could rain down fire on any forces that neared the structure was not a good idea to keep stable rear areas.
Not to mention, the defenders inside the fortress would themselves be unwilling or unlikely to surrender, knowing that if they did their job properly, they might fall in battle, and if they did nothing at all would probably perish in an atrocious prisoner of war camp. Thus, the stage was set for an epic battle among one of the dozens of such fortresses that dotted Poland’s landscape through Ukraine.
If it were not for the famous actions that took place during this battle, this fortress would probably be simply another name among many of the battles won by Germany during 1915. Yet, that was not to be so. The battle itself took place in northeastern Poland at the Osowiec Fortress, located in the Osowiec-Twierdza area in the former Russian Empire. The time was early August of 1915, and the Russian army was in full retreat.
Germany vs Russia
The two opposing forces were German and Russian. The German forces were under the command of their famous tactician, Paul von-Hindenburg, while Vladimir Karpovich Kolinsky, a junior officer who happened to be the most senior soldier alive at the time of the attack, led the Russians.
Their forces were largely mismatched. The German army fielded fourteen battalions of infantry, composing between seven to eight thousand men. On the other hand, the Russian army had 900 men only, out of which 400 were locally recruited militia.
Impenetrable Russian fortress in 1914
The initial probing attacks began a year earlier in September of 1914, and the fort itself proved impenetrable to all kinds of fire that the Germans could throw at it. Artillery, mortars, and even rudimentary air attacks could not punch through the walls of the fortress.
By the time the Germans had advanced to the same area almost a year later, they were more prepared this time. While preparatory attacks began in July, these were only meant to rattle and throw off the defenders about when the real attack might come. For you see, due to their experiences a year before, the Germans intended the entire time to employ deadly chlorine gas to snuff out the defenders.
The use of deadly chlorine gas by German forces
Chlorine gas was first discovered in the 1770s and is still used today for disinfecting water in wastewater treatment facilities. It is a highly soluble vapor, meaning that it is absorbed easily when it comes into contact with water. Considering that humans are made up of 90% water, this makes it quite easy for the gas to absorb into the body if it gets on the skin or is inhaled.
Once in contact with the body, the gas will immediately cause severe skin and eye irritation. In large doses, the gas will cause an excess build up in the lungs that can cause violent, bloody coughing fits and severe difficulty breathing.
Victims of chlorine gas poisoning could perhaps be said to look more dead than alive in their wretched state, wheezing in raspy breaths as their destroyed lungs struggled for oxygen, flesh irritated and covered in terrible chemical burns. It was this sorry state of the fort’s defenders that would explain what the Germans would report about the battle.
By the time the preparatory attacks had been completed, the Russian defenders were in no way prepared for what came next. According to one of the survivors’ testimony, only rudimentary gas masks had been issued to them. These were of little to no use in preventing the effects of deadly poison gases.
Additionally, the bunkers, trenches, and dugouts were not fitted with artificial ventilation, nor was a plan promulgated by the commanding officer for how troops should respond during a poison gas attack. Combine all of these factors together, and it is no wonder that the Germans thought they would simply brush the defenders by this time with ease.
The attack on the fortress itself began in the early morning hours of August 6th at four in the morning. The reason for this early attack was not only would most of the defenders be sleeping, but the winds would be favorable to keep the gas hovering over the fortress.
Preventing blowback onto your own forces was a major concern for employing chemical weapons and was a major factor in planning any such attack. While the defenders were mostly asleep, the Germans began their bombardment. Few Russians bothered to give it any attention as this attack seemed like one of the dozens launched before where the ineffective artillery shells merely bounced off the fort’s walls. Only this time, they were wrong.
Devastating effects of chlorine gas
According to one of the survivors, the gas had an immediate and devastating effect. The leaves of the trees and the grass turned black. Birds, bugs, and butterflies dropped dead. Their food provisions even changed color and became inedible from the gas. The most devastating effect was on the men itself however, as the gas asphyxiated men by the hundreds.
Because the Russians had not prepared for this attack, three of the four regular army companies were entirely wiped out. Only one company remained, the 13th Company of the 226th Infantry Regiment. The surviving defenders, gasping for air and struggling to get ready to repel the Germans, used whatever they could to stop the gas from getting inside them.
Rags, undershirts, and clothes were either soaked in water or urine then wrapped around their faces. While these rudimentary masks did little to stop the gas, they did collect all the blood and body fluids the men coughed up as they prepared for battle.
As the Germans advanced over the parapets, they saw the devastation their gas had wrought as they walked on mountains of dead Russians. As they continued towards the fort’s inner defenses, the surviving soldiers, under the command of Vladimir Karpovich Kolinsky, led a ferocious counterattack.
The men, angered by the loss of their comrades and desiring to hold the fort at all costs to save the men still retreating, threw themselves into the attacking Germans.
Dead men walking fought back German Troops
While estimates on the number of survivors during this counter-charge range from 60 to 100 men against several thousand, their tenacity and fighting spirit coupled with their otherworldly appearance were too much for the Germans to bear. Whether they believed the men themselves were dead men walking or were taken aback at the ferocity of their attack, the Germans were forced to fall back.
After the men pushed the Germans back, they took control of their artillery pieces lost in the initial assault and began firing on the retreating enemy as they made their way back to their lines. With the enemy defeated, the Russians stayed inside their fort and waited for reinforcements. Sadly, Lieutenant Kolinsky died of wounds received in the battle later that evening.
While the Russians had won the day and forced the Germans back to their own lines, the fort’s fate would eventually be decided by the Russians as they continued their retreat. Having served its purpose of protecting the flank of retreating Russian formations, the fort was abandoned and destroyed by the Russians two weeks later on the 22nd of August.
While the battle itself in the greater scheme of the war might have been relatively minor, it was a great microcosm of the war’s greater themes. Small numbers of men versus a larger foe and superior weapons sacrificed themselves for the greater good.
The battle became a military legend in Russia
Perhaps because this battle retains most of these themes, it has become such a rallying cry and memorial for people worldwide. The attack itself has surpassed its military utility and, in of itself, has become a military legend in Russia and popular culture phenomena across the globe.
For instance, the Swedish heavy metal band Sabaton released their album titled the Great War in July of 2019. In it was a song called “The Attack of the Dead Men” dedicated to the soldiers.
Additionally, the Russian metal band Aria has released a song of the same name in Russian relating to the events that day. Curiosity for this issue has spread beyond Europe and into Asia as well. A 2018 film produced by an Asian company titled “The Attack of the Dead Men: Osiwiec.”
While these various songs and films commemorating the acts of the men that day abound and sometimes border on the realm of fiction, they are all true. A small group of men, poorly provisioned but properly led, against all odds and superior firepower prevailed against an exponentially larger force.
There should have been no chance these men should have survived, much less won the day. Whether it was because of how they looked or how they were portrayed later, it cemented their place in popular history.
Featured image: Soldiers outside the Osowiec fortress church, 1915, by неизв., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons