Attack of the Dead Men
Osowiec Fortress was built in the late 19th century on a strategic hotspot near the river Biebrza in what is now Poland, but back then was part of the Russian Empire. It was about 50km away from East Prussia, along the important railway line from Bialystok to Königsberg, which conveniently ran straight through the fortress.
This was quite the headache for German High Command during the Great War. This close to the German border and effectively controlling one of the few railway lines through all the bogs and marshes in the area, the fortress had to be either taken or destroyed. Otherwise, it would prevent any advance into northern Poland.
In fact, the Germans had tried to take the fortress back in September 1914 and again in February 1915, where the second attack had severely damaged much of the fortress defences through heavy bombing, but the main defensive ring had nonetheless held long enough for the Russian counterattacks to force the attackers to break off. By summer of 1915, the Kaiser’s army was determined to try again.
That summer, August von Mackensen’s Gorlice-Tarnow offensive had thrown much of the Russian forces on the Eastern Front off balance, and German and Austro-Hungarian forces advanced on a wide front, eastwards. Seeing their chance, German High Command wanted to also take Poland in a frontal attack, and ordered Generalfeldmarschall Paul von Hindenburg on the offensive. Osowiec Fortress was an important prize taken from the weakened Russian army, so 12 German infantry battalions, accompanied by up to 30 heavy artillery pieces, set their sights on Osowiec.
The core of the Russian defenders under General Lieutenant Brzhozovsky’s command was made up of around 500 men from the 226th Infantry Regiment Zemlyansky, supported by several hundred militia. They dug in in several lines of defences and redoubts, trying to give the German artillery as small a target as possible. But once the assault commenced, much of the fortress walls, barracks and towers began to crack under the heavy German siege artillery – but artillery alone wouldn’t take the fortress. They would still need the infantry for that job and the Russians had enough machine guns and defensive works to make that very difficult and very costly.
A brutal weapon
The Germans, though, brought in an extremely dangerous weapon – Gas.
Gas warfare was fairly new. In 1914 the French had used tear gas, and in early 1915 the Germans had first used poison gas at Bolimov, though that failed. Since then, however, it had had a devastating effect on the totally unprepared and ill-equipped Russian soldiers, who died horrible deaths in the deadly clouds of gas. Without gas masks to protect themselves, the defenders of Osowiec were expected to suffer the same fate.
In the early morning of August 6, as the winds were finally favourable and the German gas batteries opened up, a dark green smog descended upon the battered defensive works. The wave of gas crept over the Russian lines, creating a death zone. The Gas used was made out of a mixture of Chlorine and Bromine. While the Bromine acted as a respiratory irritant, the Chlorine attacked the lungs, chemically burning them. The Chlorine attached itself to moisture in the air, turning it to Hydrochloric Acid, which then bit into the membranes and flesh of the lungs, aggressively dissolving the soft tissue. The Russian soldiers were literally choking on their own blood, as every breath they took destroyed their lungs. Unable to breath, they died in agony, coughing out bloody lumps of their own lungs. But it was not only the lungs that suffered, as the acid attacked the soft tissues of the eyes and nose, burning them chemically as well. The soldiers burned from the inside out, many died within the first few minutes.
Those further away from the initial attack tried binding wet rags and urine-soaked shirts around their faces in a desperate attempt to protect themselves, but that often helped little. Everything the wave of gas came into contact with began to die. The leaves and grass turned yellow and black, and it killed the insects and animals in the woods. There was no escaping as the gas crept into every ditch and every hole, even attaching itself to the brass of guns and shells.
The defenders suffered heavy losses and whole companies in the foremost trenches were simply wiped out. Only around 100 men in the defensive lines further back survived, still terribly burned. As the gas dissipated, the German infantry battalions formed up. While other units went to secure the railway line, it was up to the 7,000 men of the German 76th Landwehr Division to storm the main defensive lines in front of the fortress. Confident that most of the defenders had been wiped out and that the few left would be overcome with ease, the German infantry moved onwards. The first lines were indeed littered with only the dead, who were grotesquely deformed in their last moments of inevitable death.
The living dead
As the German troops moved onwards over the shelled-out ground, they suddenly came under heavy fire. The fortress artillery opened up on them, and machine gun fire tore holes in their ranks. Further out on the flanks, the last Russian reserve companies coming up from the rear, formed to counterattack the German infantry. Seeing those friendly reinforcements rush in with their bayonets attached, the 100 odd survivors in the trenches also emerged. Bayonets fixed, they stumbled like zombies out of their dugouts, crawling and limping into the open.
Complete shock stopped the German attackers dead in their tracks. Like dead men returning to life, the Russian survivors came on, heavily breathing, gasping for air through destroyed lungs. Their faces scarred by chemical burns, half hidden by bloody rags, they marched on, thirsting for revenge for the terrible fate thrust upon them. Their tears were bloody, their eyes burned red, they spat blood and parts of their lungs as they advanced, croaking and coughing like the living dead. This horrible sight, as well as the unexpected counterattack, halted the Germans and a deep panic set in. They hastily withdrew, soon running away in terror as the panic spread through their ranks, pushing their comrades aside, trampling over each other, stumbling over barbed wire, as Russian artillery shells fell in between them.
The “Attack of the Dead Men” came on, accompanied by a bayonet charge of the reserves, and recaptured the lost trenches. By 11:00, a few hours after the deadly gas attack, the defensive lines were back in Russian control. The Germans had withdrawn back to their own starting positions.
Much of the battle remains shrouded in legends and mystery, and that is likely to remain so. The casualty numbers on either side are unknown, as are the German records of this battle, though it was certainly a well-deserved tactical victory of a small Russian force over a much larger German force. Strategically, it did little to preserve the Russian hold on Poland, and Osowiec Fortress had to be given up weeks later, as it was too damaged and the whole front had to pull back.
If you’re interested in a more visual interpretation of the above story, watch our Sabaton History episode, The Attack of the Dead Men – Gas Warfare on the Eastern Front:
The history of deadly gas
Roughly five months before the deadly gas attack on Osowiec Fortress, German meteorologists began studying the winds in front of the Ypres-salient on the Western Front. Behind their lines, more than 160 tons of pressurised liquid Chlorine was being stockpiled to be unleashed in one devastating attack. Then, in the early morning hours of April 22, 1915, in concert with an artillery bombardment, the cylinders were opened. At first, the bombardment did not cause much alarm to the Allied soldiers on “Hill 60”, but aside from the usual smoke and sound of the shelling, there was something different this time. A wall of greenish-yellow fog, up to two-metres high, was slowly creeping towards them. It was driven by the wind and had a sweetish-chloric smell.
From the back of the lines, the officers around French General Henri Mordacq could see sudden unrest and confusion in the forward positions. Soldiers of the 45th Algerian Division were suddenly standing up, crawling over the parapets, waving their arms. Men were then simply abandoning their trenches and streaming back to the rear in a hurry, coughing, spitting and retching. Most were clutching their throats, eyes red with pain. Oblivious to the shells falling around them, the soldiers stumbled back or collapsed on the ground gasping for air.
“We all thought we were lost.”
“As we looked to our left, we saw a thick, yellowish-green cloud veiling the sky, like a cloud of vapour. We were already affected by the asphyxiating fumes. I had the impression that I was looking through green glasses. At the same time, I felt the gas upon my respiratory system; it burned in my throat, caused pains in my chest and made breathing all but impossible. I spat blood and suffered from dizziness. We all thought we were lost.” – General Henri Mordacq
Then the British and Canadian lines beside them were hit as well. Those struck by the cloud fell unconscious and died with twisted limbs and blackened faces. The Chlorine gas filled the trenches, leaving them “full of men choking and gasping for breath, some foaming at the mouth, in every degree of agony and distress, incapable of offering any resistance to the advancing enemy.”
The Germans on the other side had watched, at first hesitant about what to do. Once the gas began to dissipate though, they charged into the wide-open gap. It was thanks to the defiance of the survivors of the British 15th Brigade, who held their ground in this chaos, that a large break through was prevented. Of the 1st Dorsetshire, 46 men had been killed by the gas and more than 150 more were affected, blinded or vomiting on the ground. But still, the gas-stricken men held their trench. Through determination and sheer iron will, they manned the machine-guns long enough to fight off the rushing Germans until reinforcements could be brought in.
“Of those who are still living, very few are expected to recover. We found our dead everywhere where they had crawled to get out of the way. Hill 60, quite apart from our losses is a terrible sight. Hundreds of bodies all over the place, terribly mutilated, a large number of our own men and a large number of Hun. Stench is awful as they cannot be buried, never quiet enough to do that. So they as they fell, silent spectators of modern warfare.” – CSM Sheppard, 1./Dorset
Pushing the gates of gas warfare open
News of the gas attack circulated immediately. The Allied press accused the Germans of committing a terrible war crime. The use of poison gas was seen as horrific, diabolical and stood against all civilized warfare. It simply broke the rules.
Yes, the Germans had pushed the gates of gas warfare wide open, but the concept of chemical warfare wasn’t new by any means. Since ancient times, soldiers had poisoned their blades and arrowheads with toxins. Back in 80 BC, we know that the Romans used clouds of caustic lime powder to flush out a tribe that was hiding in a cave. But the age of enlightenment sought to put limits on suffering during wartime. The first agreement about the prohibition of such chemical weapons dates back to 1675, when the Holy Roman Empire and France both agreed to not use poisoned bullets anymore. The Hague Conference of 1899 expanded on this agreement, by prohibiting shells solely filled with asphyxiating or debilitating gases.
The only dissenting vote at the time came from the American representative, the Naval Captain Alfred T. Mahan. He argued that asphyxiation from gas wasn’t that much different than condemning sailors to drown in the sea after their ship was hit by a torpedo. He was also backed by his government, who did not want the US to restrict itself from using a potentially war-winning weapon. Circumventing the treaty, France continued to experiment with weaponising non-lethal gases, and were in fact the first to use gas during The Great War. Lachrymatory gas-grenades were tested against fortresses, to see if they could suppress small arms fire from within. They named them “cartouches suffocates”, – suffocating cartridges. Such gas was indeed sporadically used by the French with 26mm rifle-grenades in the opening month of the Great War, but the effect in the field proved inadequate.
German chemists began with similar experiments during the great shell shortage of autumn 1914. Many deadly chemicals were bi-products of shell-production anyways, and they thought to supplement their arsenal with them. Chemist Walter Nernst was one of the first who invented such “weapons of mass-effect”, by developing the Ni-Shell, a mix of traditional shrapnel balls and 500g of non-toxic Lachrymatory gas. The effects were also underwhelming.
It was to be Nernst’s colleague, the brilliant and future Nobel Prize winning chemist Fritz Haber, who would go on to change the playing field. He was already critically acclaimed in the military for co-inventing an artificial nitrogen fixation process. Now, he would make an even bigger impact on the war itself.
While the Allies denounced his invention as a war crime, the German press tried to elevate Haber to a national hero. One who could finally break the stalemate. But there were many German generals and scientists who condemned the use of poison gas as inhumane and dishonourable. Haber’s own wife, a chemist herself, called it a “perversion of science”. Out of shame for her husband’s invention, she committed suicide shortly after the attack on Hill 60 became public. Haber, however, felt no remorse. Just one day after her death, he left for the Eastern Front to instruct German officers on how to use his new wonder-weapon.
From May 1915, during the days of the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive, Haber personally oversaw the release of the lethal gas attacks. At the river Rawka on May 31, more than 260 tons of Chlorine gas from 12,000 cylinders were released against the unprotected Russian lines. This first massive cylinder attack killed approximately 6,000 soldiers in a single afternoon. Like the British and French at Ypres, the Russians were totally exposed to the lethal gas, as they lacked any kind of protective equipment. A month later at Bzura, two Siberian regiments lost 90% of their strength to a single gas attack.
Historical research on the amount of German gas attacks on the Eastern Front is sadly lacking, but most scholars agree that the Russians suffered more than any other nations under the effects of gas-attacks. It is estimated that 500,000 soldiers were affected by the gas, of which around 66,000 were killed. Prolonged exposure to chlorine without protection was fatal. In just a few minutes of exposure, soldiers would lose consciousness in excruciating spasms of pain, as the chemicals attacked the tissues of lungs, eyes and throat. Even the inhalation of a lower dose could still kill after 30 minutes, some afflicted died days later. Like the defenders of Osowiec, the Russian soldiers usually had no experience of gas warfare and were simply doomed until they could come up with adequate protection.
In the wake of the gas attacks, Russian General Nikolai Yanushkevich urged Tsarist Command to supply the army with protective gear and more importantly, chemical weapons of their own. The major problem in both regards was that Russia did not really have a domestic chemical industry. Most of their chemical plants had belonged to the Germans, and they had closed up shop since the outbreak of the war. But what Russia did possess were brilliant scientists. By 1916, a specialised War-Chemical Committee was formed, chaired by leading Russian chemists like Vladimir Ipatieff and Alexey Favorsky, who continued to pressure their government to fund adequate countermeasures. Before then, they were able to get their own chemical production running and the first tons of liquid Chlorine were being produced. But still, each large-scale German gas attack caused thousands of casualties.
The first modern gas mask
Chemist Nikolay Zelinsky made a major breakthrough, experimenting in Petrograd’s Triangle rubber factory. He outfitted a rubber helmet with Prokofiev-goggles – a pair of hermetically sealed glasses. Zelinsky had also figured out that the use of carbon adsorbent would intercept the deadly chemicals, and added a respirator canister filled with charcoal to the mask. Altogether he presented the first modern gas mask design of the war. However, what Russia lacked was not the expertise of its scientists, but modern production and distribution capabilities. Delays in outfitting their massive armies with new equipment were common, and each retreat or shake up in the command structure pushed things further back. The notorious corruption and incompetence in Tsarist bureaucracy didn’t help much either.
On the battlefield, they had been firing back at the Germans with gas-shells since autumn 1915, but it was a disadvantage they could hardly break. Each time they got somewhere close to drawing equal, the Germans came up with some new form of highly toxic chemical, and the Russians chemists went back to work. When Phosgene was the new killer on the eastern front, it was Russian scientists who discovered that the use of Phenate-Hexamine was an effective blocking agent. This information saved thousands of their Western Allies. But while those allies could comparatively easily mass produce such countermeasures, the Russians could not. It was not until early 1917 that there were sufficient gas masks available in the Russian army to withstand the German gas attacks. But by then, they had different problems.
In the end, not even the strongest and most protective gas mask could prevent the soldier from being affected in some way by gas, perhaps just by fear or panic. Each time the alarm would ring, when a lookout would loudly clang pots together, yelling “Gas! Gas!”, it became a race against time. Sometimes it was mere seconds that stood between life and death. No soldier could duck away from it, nor could they hope to simply withstand its effects, no matter how healthy and fit they were. And when they smelled it, it might have been already too late. They were already dead men.
Watch our second Sabaton History episode on the history of poison gas, The Attack of the Dead Men Pt.2 – Gas! Gas! Gas!, below: