Attack of the Dead Men

When the true horrors of chemical warfare was realised in North-East Poland

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The Eastern Front during the First World War is often overlooked for the more infamous battles in the West, but the fighting was as if not more brutal and intense. One battle in August 1915 would change the way the German Army viewed their Russian counterparts forever. It would come to be known as the Attack of the Dead Men.

In July 1915, the Germans launched an attack on Russian forces at the Osowiec Fortress in modern-day Poland. The fortress was completed in the late 1890s to protect the Russian Empire from a German invasion. It was built at a vital point surrounded by marshland which made infantry attacks difficult. During the First World War it was the site of intense fighting.

Under the command of General Paul Von Hindenburg, 14 Battalions (around 8000 soldiers) attacked the fortress. At his disposal, Hindenburg also had 30 artillery batteries capable of raining down destruction on the Russians, including poison gas.

After nearly a month of fighting, the Germans had waited for the ideal moment to fire the gas onto Russian positions. At 4am on 6 August this time arrived. The gas destroyed everything in its path, turning the grass and leaves black and killing birds and insects alike. It was truly hell on earth.

Also in its path was the 900 Russian soldiers and militia. Most had no gas mask, those which were available were of poor quality. The men resorted to covering their faces with shirts and bits of cloth soaked in urine.

Sub-Lieutenant Vladimir Kotlinsky was the highest ranking Russian officer to survive the onslaught. When the German guns finally stopped firing, he rallied what was left of his men and attacked. The Germans, expecting little resistance, moved towards the Russian lines. What they saw horrified them.

The surviving Russian soldiers, scarred by the gas, charged at them coughing blood and parts of their own lungs as the gas eroded away at them. The gas had given them a zombie-like complexion, those who hadn’t already died were dying as they counterattacked.

The Germans, terrified at the sight of the ‘army of the dead’ charging forward, retreated. Only five Russian guns remained after the German bombardment, they began firing at the retreating Germans.

There were approximately 800 of the 900 Russians killed or wounded in the battle, with many of this number as a result of the gas attack. The Germans were aware of the limited protection the Russians had against gas, but they did not anticipate the fight to the death attitude, with some Russian soldiers taking this literally.

The Attack of the Dead Men was a brutal example of the horrors of chemical weapons in war. This was one of the earliest examples of its use, but it would be used often throughout the war. As for the Osowiec Fortress, this battle would be the last in the area.

When the Germans regained the ground lost in early August, they threatened to encircle the fortress. By 18 August, much of the fortress was destroyed and most of the Russian forces were sent elsewhere. Yet the events of that single August day will forever ensure that the Osowiec Fortress stands out in a war which changed the world.

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I am a journalist with an honours degree from Coventry University. Passionate writing about politics, culture, sport, society and more

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