Zombie-like soldiers of the Russian infantry took on the Germans in a horrific fight to the finish in the Attack of the Dead Men. Sounds like a heavy metal album cover brought to life, but it’s all true, and it took place back in 1915 during World War I!
How did they wind up looking like zombies? This grim tale of the Kaiser’s cruelty, and those brave souls who fought back, is known as the “Attack of the Dead Men”. What led to the bloody and brutal confrontation? Read on to find out…
The setting for the attack was Osoweic Fort, north east Poland. Built by the Russian Empire the previous century, it was an epic thorn in the side of German plans for conquest. During WWI they’d attempted to take it a couple of times, bombarding it with heavy artillery fire. Even the Russians were surprised it held up to such an onslaught.
To get inside, an enemy had to cross 2 sets of trenches before facing the walls and battlements, where they could be picked off by shooters. Amazingly, this multi-layered defence system meant the Russians didn’t need many soldiers to man the fort. The Kaiser needed Russia out the way, and reducing Osoweic Fort to rubble must have been a priority.
In August 1915 he brought out the big guns. There were guns, but this is in reference to a human-shaped weapon… Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg. Accompanying him on his march to the site were 14 infantry battalions, a sapper – or trench digger – battalion, around 30 heavy siege guns, and more.
With approx 900 Russians, many of them militia, against thousands of Germans the odds looked hopeless. Still, the mighty structure of Osoweic Fort had served them well before. No doubt it would again. However this time there was a factor they hadn’t faced before. Their enemy had been busy at work in the lab, and brought with them a deadly cocktail designed to inflict maximum damage.
Field Marshal von Hindenburg wasn’t just packing bullets and bombs. 30 canisters of chlorine gas were lined up to pitch into the fortress and flush out the enemy. It was just a matter of waiting for the correct weather conditions. When God pushed the wind in the right direction, that’s when the gruesome assault began!
Before the chlorine even reached the fortress, its terrible effects were observed. The gas looked like something out of a horror movie. Accounts mention a green and yellow cloud floating menacingly towards the Russians. This cloud turned the grass black. And if it turned grass black, it would do far worse to the inside of mens’ lungs.
The reason this strategy worked so well was due to the Russians’ lack of protective equipment against chemical warfare. Sure they had gas masks, but were rudimentary. As the toxic gas worked its way around the fortress, men were said to have put undershirts across their faces. These garments were soaked in either water or urine.
What happens when chlorine gas is inhaled? It combines with the body’s moisture and creates hydrochloric acid! The poor Russians were being eaten alive by the air around them. With such a devastating weapon, it seemed they were done for. Many perished through von Hindenburg’s diabolical move. But they weren’t beaten yet, as the Germans were about to discover.
2nd Lt Vladimir Kotlinsky was determined to hold back the enemy. He and 60 other men suffered terribly, covered in gory bandages and coughing up parts of themselves as the acid did its worst. Yet they decided to charge the troops as they entered the fortress.
It was a bloodbath… for the Germans!
As far as the Kaiser’s finest were concerned, they were fighting a group of undead monsters. The sight was so frightening they retreated. Some were so out of their minds they stumbled into barbed wire.
Osoweic Fort fell, but not by German hands. The Russians took it apart themselves later, when they realized the situation was hopeless. Soldiers that day managed to cheat death, if only briefly, to repel the Kaiser and maintain their might for as long as humanly possible.
Kotlinsky and company didn’t have long for this world, but they ended the battle in spectacular fashion. Their bodies may have been dead, but their spirits were very much alive…
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Steve is a writer and comedian from the UK. He’s a contributor to both The Vintage News and The Hollywood News and has created content for many other websites. His short fiction has been published by Obverse Books.