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  • Wars are packed with action, drama, and strange  tales. Often, the fog of war produces anecdotes  

  • that to the outside world would seem absolutely  impossible. There are countless examples  

  • throughout history of soldiers in combat who did  or saw extraordinary things. The Angel of Mons  

  • was one such supernatural event when an angel  supposedly appeared over the battlefield and  

  • helped win a tremendous victory for the BritishThe eerie mist that hung over Fredericksburg's  

  • battle in the Civil War right before Christmas  was supposedly God weeping over the suffering.  

  • These tales are often shrouded in mystery  and though real, can be attributed to much  

  • more earthly explanations. Another such  story, perhaps even harder to explain,  

  • comes from the same conflict the Angel of  Mons derives from: the First World War.

  • Here, the story surrounds an equally  supernatural and unbelievable story:  

  • at attack by the living dead! While the men  in this scenario may not have been afflicted  

  • by a brain-eating super virus that causes  them to feast on the flesh of the undead,  

  • it was fairly close to that. To understand  how such a feat could be possible,  

  • it is important to place the battle into its  proper context and the effects of poison gas.

  • In 1915, the Germans and their Austro-Hungarian  allies began a massive offensive known in history  

  • as the Great Retreat. During this time, the  ill-equipped and poorly led Russian army  

  • was completely routed by the Germans  who were wielding superior firepower.  

  • While there is a litany of other  reasons why the Russian lines broke,  

  • the general rule is that they were  smashed across the entire front.  

  • A general withdrawal was ordered to save what  remained of the Russian arms and manpower.

  • Thus, as the Russian army retreated, they needed  what was called a rearguard to hold off German  

  • attacks long enough to allow the bulk of the  friendly forces to escape. These rearguard  

  • actions were often suicide missions resulting  in heavy losses if not the total annihilation  

  • of units tasked with this duty. One of the best  ways to fight these rearguard actions while  

  • maximizing enemy casualties was using any one of  the series of forts in place all over the front.

  • Before the war broke out, it was believed  that building near-impenetrable fortresses  

  • with large guns that could be manned withsmall garrison would revolutionize warfare.  

  • Placing these fortresses by major  roads, railway hubs, and waterways  

  • would ensure these vital lanes of communication  and transport could be easily defended.  

  • Pre-World War One strategists did not envision  that armies could simply bypass these forts  

  • and continue advancing, leaving the defenders  trapped in their own concrete coffin.

  • While bypassing these forts was an option  a lot of the time, military necessity and  

  • a bit of pride amongst commanders occasionally  necessitated their capture. Even if a fort could  

  • be bypassed and a military objective capturedhaving a bristling deathtrap that could rain  

  • down fire on any forces that neared the structure  was not a good idea to keep stable rear areas.

  • Not to mention, the defenders inside the  fortress would themselves be unwilling or  

  • unlikely to surrender, knowing that if they did  their job properly, they might fall in battle,  

  • and if they did nothing at all would probably  perish in an atrocious prisoner of war camp.  

  • Thus, the stage was set for an  epic battle among one of the  

  • dozens of such fortresses that dotted  Poland's landscape through Ukraine.

  • If it were not for the famous actions that took  place during this battle, this fortress would  

  • probably be simply another name among many of the  battles won by Germany during 1915. Yet, that was  

  • not to be so. The battle itself took place in  northeastern Poland at the Osowiec Fortress,  

  • located in the Osowiec-Twierdza  area in the former Russian Empire.  

  • The time was early August of 1915, and  the Russian army was in full retreat.

  • The two opposing forces were German  and Russian. The German forces were  

  • under the command of their famous tactician, Paul  von-Hindenburg, while Vladimir Karpovich Kolinsky,  

  • a junior officer who happened to be the most  senior soldier alive at the time of the attack,  

  • led the Russians. Their forces were largely  mismatched. The German army fielded fourteen  

  • battalions of infantry, composing between  seven to eight thousand men. On the other hand,  

  • the Russian army had 900 men only, out of  which 400 were locally recruited militia.

  • The initial probing attacks began a year earlier  in September of 1914, and the fort itself proved  

  • impenetrable to all kinds of fire that the Germans  could throw at it. Artillery, mortars, and even  

  • rudimentary air attacks could not punch through  the walls of the fortress. By the time the Germans  

  • had advanced to the same area almost a year  later, they were more prepared this time. While  

  • preparatory attacks began in July, these were  only meant to rattle and throw off the defenders  

  • about when the real attack might come. For you  see, due to their experiences a year before,  

  • the Germans intended the entire time to employ  deadly chlorine gas to snuff out the defenders.

  • Chlorine gas was first discovered in the 1770s  and is still used today for disinfecting water  

  • in wastewater treatment facilities. It ishighly soluble vapor, meaning that it is absorbed  

  • easily when it comes into contact with waterConsidering that humans are made up of 90% water,  

  • this makes it quite easy for the gas to  absorb into the body if it gets on the  

  • skin or is inhaled. Once in contact with the  body, the gas will immediately cause severe  

  • skin and eye irritation. In large doses, the  gas will cause an excess build up in the lungs  

  • that can cause violent, bloody coughing  fits and severe difficulty breathing.

  • Victims of Chlorine gas poisoning could perhaps  be said to look more dead than alive in their  

  • wretched state, wheezing in raspy breaths as  their destroyed lungs struggled for oxygen,  

  • flesh irritated and covered in terrible  chemical burns. It was this sorry state of  

  • the fort's defenders that would explain what  the Germans would report about the battle.

  • By the time the preparatory attacks had  been completed, the Russian defenders  

  • were in no way prepared for what came nextAccording to one of the survivors' testimony,  

  • only rudimentary gas masks had been issued to  them. These were of little to no use in preventing  

  • the effects of deadly poison gases. Additionallythe bunkers, trenches, and dugouts were not fitted  

  • with artificial ventilation, nor was a plan  promulgated by the commanding officer for how  

  • troops should respond during a poison gas attackCombine all of these factors together, and it  

  • is no wonder that the Germans thought they would  simply brush the defenders by this time with ease.

  • The attack on the fortress itself began in the  early morning hours of August 6th at four in  

  • the morning. The reason for this early attack was  not only would most of the defenders be sleeping,  

  • but the winds would be favorable to  keep the gas hovering over the fortress.  

  • Preventing blowback onto your own forces was  a major concern for employing chemical weapons  

  • and was a major factor in planning any such  attack. While the defenders were mostly asleep,  

  • the Germans began their bombardment. Few  Russians bothered to give it any attention  

  • as this attack seemed like one of the dozens  launched before where the ineffective artillery  

  • shells merely bounced off the fort's  walls. Only this time, they were wrong.

  • According to one of the survivors, the gas  had an immediate and devastating effect.  

  • The leaves of the trees and the grass turned  black. Birds, bugs, and butterflies dropped dead.  

  • Their food provisions even changed color  and became inedible from the gas. The most  

  • devastating effect was on the men itself howeveras the gas asphyxiated men by the hundreds.

  • Because the Russians had not prepared for this  attack, three of the four regular army companies  

  • were entirely wiped out. Only one company  remained, the 13th Company of the 226th Infantry  

  • Regiment. The surviving defenders, gasping for air  and struggling to get ready to repel the Germans,  

  • used whatever they could to stop  the gas from getting inside them.  

  • Rags, undershirts, and cloths were  either soaked in water or urine  

  • then wrapped around their faces. While these  rudimentary masks did little to stop the gas,  

  • they did collect all the blood and body fluids  the men coughed up as they prepared for battle.

  • As the Germans advanced over the parapetsthey saw the devastation their gas had wrought  

  • as they walked on mountains of dead Russians. As  they continued towards the fort's inner defenses,  

  • the surviving soldiers, under the command of  Vladimir Karpovich Kolinsky, led a ferocious  

  • counterattack. The men, angered by the loss of  their comrades and desiring to hold the fort  

  • at all costs to save the men still retreatingthrew themselves into the attacking Germans.

  • While estimates on the number of survivors during  

  • this counter-charge range from 60  to 100 men against several thousand,  

  • their tenacity and fighting spirit coupled with  their otherworldly appearance were too much for  

  • the Germans to bear. Whether they believed  the men themselves were dead men walking  

  • or were taken aback at the ferocity of their  attack, the Germans were forced to fall back.

  • After the men pushed the Germans back, they took  control of their artillery pieces lost in the  

  • initial assault and began firing on the retreating  enemy as they made their way back to their lines.  

  • With the enemy defeated, the Russians stayed  inside their fort and waited for reinforcements.  

  • Sadly, Lieutenant Kolinsky died of wounds  received in the battle later that evening.

  • While the Russians had won the day and  forced the Germans back to their own lines,  

  • the fort's fate would eventually be decided by  the Russians as they continued their retreat.  

  • Having served its purpose of protecting  the flank of retreating Russian formations,  

  • the fort was abandoned and destroyed by the  Russians two weeks later on the 22nd of August.

  • While the battle itself in the greater scheme  of the war might have been relatively minor,  

  • it was a great microcosm of the war's  greater themes. Small numbers of men  

  • versus a larger foe and superior weapons  sacrificed themselves for the greater good.

  • Perhaps because this battle retains most of  these themes, it has become such a rallying  

  • cry and memorial for people worldwide. The attack  itself has surpassed its military utility and, in  

  • of itself, has become a military legend in Russia  and popular culture phenomena across the globe.  

  • For instance, the Swedish heavy metal band Sabaton  released their latest album titled the Great War  

  • in July of 2019. In it was a song calledThe  Attack of the Dead Mendedicated to the soldiers.  

  • Additionally, the Russian metal band Aria has  released a song of the same name in Russian  

  • relating to the events that day. Curiosity for  this issue has spread beyond Europe and into Asia  

  • as well. A 2018 film produced by an Asian company  titledThe Attack of the Dead Men: Osiwiec.”

  • While these various songs and films commemorating  the acts of the men that day abound and sometimes  

  • border on the realm of fiction, they  are all true. A small group of men,  

  • poorly provisioned but properly led, against all  odds and superior firepower prevailed against an  

  • exponentially larger force. There should have  been no chance these men should have survived,  

  • much less won the day. Whether it was because of  how they looked or how they were portrayed later,  

  • it cemented their place in popular history.

Wars are packed with action, drama, and strange  tales. Often, the fog of war produces anecdotes  

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Attack of the Dead Men

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    林宜悉 posted on 2020/11/22
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