Combat during the First World War was unlike anything armies had ever seen before, due to the advent of tanks and new, more effective weapons. One of the most lethal was poison gas, which floated across the battlefield and inflicted the most brutal and painful of deaths. The Battle of Osoweic Fortress saw the use of such warfare by the Germans, and its effects on the Russians led to the engagement being nicknamed the “Attack of the Dead Men.”
Chemical warfare during World War I
Chemical warfare was introduced onto the battlefield at the onset of the Second Battle of Ypres during the First World War. The engagement was for control of the strategic area, and the Germans were determined to secure a victory, even if it meant using a dangerous (and, in a way, uncontrollable) weapon.
At approximately 5:00 PM on April 22, 1915, the German troops opened canisters containing a mixture of poison gases, bromine and chlorine, which floated across the battlefield to the Allied line, forcing two colonial French divisions to abandon their positions, in an attempt to escape the deadly vapor. There hadn’t yet been equipment made to combat such a weapon, meaning the troops were forced to create makeshift respirators from linen.
The engagement saw the British withdraw to a new line and, before long, poison gas was a common sight on the Western Front, despite being a war crime under both the 1899 Hague Declaration Concerning Asphyxiating Gases and the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare. Both sides made use of it and continued to develop the types used, with the British first deploying gas during the Battle of Loos in September 1915.
The best-known gas deployed during the war was mustard gas, which debuted on the battlefield in July 1917. While not as fatal as chlorine, it was heavier than the air around it, meaning it could inflict injuries far beyond its original use, remaining active in the soil for weeks. Its effects were brutal and could seriously injure soldiers unlucky enough to come into contact with it. The pain was said to be unbearable.
The setting for the August 1915 engagement was Osoweic Fortress, in what is now northeast Poland. Built by the Russian Empire in the previous century, it was an epic thorn in the side of Germany’s plans for conquest – and that was the point. It was located in an area where the surrounding marshland could be crossed, and the desire was to prevent the Germans from doing so.
During World War I, the Germans attempted to take it on several occasions, surviving heavy artillery fire – even the Russians were surprised it had held up to such an onslaught. To get inside, they had to cross two sets of trenches before facing the walls and battlements, where they could be picked off by shooters. Amazingly, this multi-layered defense system meant the Russians didn’t need many soldiers to man the fort.
The first attack in September 1914 saw the Russians take on 40 infantry battalions of the German 8th Army and heavy artillery, successfully pushing them back. The second the following winter saw another heavy bombardment repelled, but the Germans weren’t ready to give up just yet…
Launching the Battle of Osoweic Fortress
Kaiser Wilhelm II needed Russia out of the way and reducing Osoweic Fortress to rubble was a major priority. In August 1915, he brought out the big guns. There were guns, of course, 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 battalion, 30 artillery batteries and 24-30 heavy siege guns.
With approximately 900 Russians against an estimated 7,000 Germans, the odds looked hopeless. Still, the mighty structure of Osoweic Fortress had served them well before – no doubt it would do so again. However, this time there was a factor the Russians hadn’t faced before. The enemy had brought with them a deadly cocktail to inflict maximum damage.
Deploying chlorine gas on the battlefield
Paul von Hindenburg wasn’t just packing bullets and bombs. Thirty canisters of chlorine gas were lined up to emit the poisonous substance 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 at 4:00 AM on August 6, 1915, that’s when the gruesome assault began.
Before the chlorine even reached the Osoweic 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 toward the Russians, which turned the grass black – and if it did that, it would do far worse to the inside of the soldiers’ lungs.
The reason this strategy worked so well was the Russians’ lack of protective equipment against chemical warfare. As the toxic gas worked its way around the structure, the troops were said to have put their undershirts across their faces. These garments were soaked in either water or urine.
Attack of the Dead Men
What happens when chlorine gas is inhaled? It combines with the body’s moisture and creates hydrochloric acid. The Russians were essentially being eaten alive by the air around them. With such a devastating weapon, it seemed they were done for. Many perished through Paul von Hindenburg’s diabolical move, but they weren’t beaten yet, as the Germans were about to discover.
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 their lungs as the acid did its worst. Despite this, they charged the Germans 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 that they stumbled into barbed wire.
What happened to Osoweic Fortress after the Attack of the Dead Men?
Osoweic Fortress fell following the Attack of the Dead Men, but not by German hands. The Russians later took it apart themselves that month, when they realized the situation was hopeless. The soldiers that day managed to cheat death, if only briefly, to repel the enemy and maintain their might for as long as humanly possible.
While he’d led a fierce resistance against the Germans, Vladimir Karpovich perished later that evening. Prior to his death, he’d transferred control of Osoweic Fortress to the 2nd Osovetska Sap Company and Władysław Strzemiński, who himself had been severely injured in the attack.