WWI was a brutal and vast conflict which resulted in the deaths of about 40 million soldiers and civilians. We are familiar with stories from the larger battles of the war, tales of the trenches, and chemical warfare. When recording the history of war, some of the smaller battles get pushed to the side, only mentioned in a few books or found in the depths of some forgotten archive.
One of these battles took place in an effort for the Germans to capture the Osowiec Fortress from the Russians. What occurred during that battle was the stuff horror movies are made of. A battle so brutal that it inspired both Russian metal band Aria, and Swedish metal band Sabaton to sing about this specific event.
The battle is often referred to as “the attack of the dead men” because, it was said, the walking dead themselves rose and fought to defend Osowiec Fortress. The attack of the dead men sounds like a work of fiction but the events at Osowiec Fortress in early August 1915 are hauntingly true.
Osowiec Fortress was a 19th-century fortress constructed by the Russian Empire in what is now Poland. Construction lasted ten years (1882-1892), and the fortress was built as a defensive spot along the Western border of Russia from the German Army. During WWI, Germany desperately wanted control of the Osowiec Fortress.
The fortress was in a perfect location. Built less than 50km (31 miles) from the border of East Prussia, it guarded the only crossing of the Biebrza river. The bogs and marshes surrounding the tower made attacks difficult. What was even more appealing than just a chokepoint for the Germans, was the Belostok-Lyck-Königsberg rail line. It ran through the fortress and was also able to cross the Biebrza river. The German army needed this fortress.
In September of 1914, the German army made its first attack on the Russians in the Osowiec Fortress, which was unsuccessful. A second attack was launched in February and March 1915, and again the Germans failed to capture the fortress. The Russians in the Osowiec Fortress had a better position and were comfortably entrenched in their fortifications.
But this was all about to change. The German Field Marshal, Paul von Hindenburg, decided that the third attack would be nothing like the first two attacks.
The Return of The German Army
Field Marshal von Hindenburg returned to Osowiec Fortress in late July 1915 for an all-out offensive. The 900 Russian soldiers in the fortress watched as 13 to 14 German infantry battalions, 24-30 siege guns, and an engineer combat battalion surrounded the fortress.
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The Germans came with a secret weapon as well. On April 22, 1915, the German army had fired over 150 tons of chlorine gas at the French at the Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium. This was the first major attack in which the Germans used chemical weaponry, and the effects were deadly. To ensure the capture of Osowiec Fortress would be a success, the Germans brought 30 balloons (containers) of the gas, along with 7,000 men.
The defeat of the Russians at Osowiec Fortress was expected to be swift. The German troops lay in wait, only pausing until the wind changed and blew in their favor.
At 4 am on August 6th, 1915, the moment arrived and the German army began attacking with heavy artillery fire, as they had done in the first two attempts to capture Osowiec Fortress. As the barrage of shells began raining down on the fortress, the Germans also released their 30 balloons of chlorine and bromine gasses. After 5 to 10 minutes, the entire fortress was blanketed by a massive foul-smelling blanket of gas.
The attack was described as follows “Dark green smog of chlorine and bromine mixture moved towards Russian positions. The emitted gas wave of 3km (1.9 miles) wide reached 8km (5 miles) width and 20km (12.4 miles) depth. All alive died in this ‘Death Zone’. The leaves on the trees turned yellow, curled up and fell off, the grass turned black and fell to the ground.”
Chlorine is a greenish-yellow gas that is naturally occurring in the environment and used in drinking water and pesticides. However once chlorine gas touches the skin or is inhaled by a person the chemical reacts quickly. The chlorine immediately breaks down into hypochlorous and hydrochloric acid once it dissolves in water (the human body is composed of 60 to 70% water).
Chlorine’s attachment to water means that when the gas comes into contact with the eyes, it causes acid burns and melts the optic nerve. Nausea, vomiting, and perforations in the oesophagus occur along with triggering pulmonary edema (a large buildup of liquid in the lungs). It takes only 800ppm (0.12 oz/gal) of exposure to the gas to be lethal.
Bromine, the other gas used, is a brownish-red smog-like vapor found naturally in soil and water. Like chlorine, the amount of gas exposure required to be lethal is very small, only 30ppm (0.005 oz/gal).
Bromine burns the skin causing lesions and blisters, eventually completely melting the skin off a body. Bromine is absorbed by the lungs and mucus membranes of the body causing edema and catarrh (a huge build-up of mucus in the nose and throat). Breathing in a large amount of bromine will eat away at your lungs, trachea, kidney, and liver.
Attack of The Dead Men
This was the horror facing the Russian defenders that morning, but they were not deterred. In an effort to protect their faces, the Russian soldiers resorted to tearing pieces of clothing and urinating on them. They would then begin wrapping or holding the cloth to their faces to try to stop the gas.
The Germans, confident in their victory, waited outside the fortress for the gas to clear in preparation to take control of Osowiec Fortress. They expected no counterattack, but as the gas began to clear, what the Germans saw was something out of a horror movie.
Running (likely stumbling and crawling) towards the horrified Germans were the hundreds of Russian soldiers that had not died. Their bodies were melting from the inside, skin covered in chemical burns or missing entirely, some spitting out pieces of their lungs as they ran.
The German army was so terrified of these disgusting zombie-like men that they fled in terror, trying to get away from the attacking dead men of Osowiec Fortress. The regiments at the front of the German line trampled those behind them killing their own men as they fled. Regiments with bayonets turned and tried to escape, impaling those around them.
Soldiers got tangled up in the barbwire nets that lay in front of the second trench. A fire broke out and began to spread causing more chaos. Soldiers in the trenches abandoned their weapons trying to crawl out of the trenches while those fleeing fell into the same trenches.
By 11 am, everything was over. The Germans, taking stock of the situation and decidedly shaken, decided to wait a few days before coming back to the Osowiec Fortress in hopes that any “dead men” would in fact be dead men.
Osowiec Fortress was taken by the Germans when they came back. The Germans learned that day sometimes truth, is stranger than fiction, and both they and the Russians opened a new chapter about the horrors of war.
Top Image: Were there zombies at Osowiec Fortress? The Germans thought so. Source: Sergey / Adobe Stock.
By Lauren Dillon