The Attack of the Dead
One of the most celebrated pieces of Eastern European military lore of the 20th Century came from the tiny fortress of Osowiec (also spelled/spoken variously as Osovets, Ossovetz, Osovetz, Ossowicz, and Ossovets depending on who and when it was mentioned) in what is now Poland.
Back in the late 19th Century, Imperial Russian military thinking was to leave rural Western Poland open to invasion more or less and then let potential Napoleons crash their armies upon a series of fortresses strung across Eastern Poland/Belorussia while the Tsar’s millions of faithful foot soldiers were mobilized behind it to protect the Motherland.
One of these masonry and concrete forts was Osowiec, facing the marshland of German East Prussia.
The thing is, most of these forts were designed to withstand the 1870s era artillery and, by the 1900s, were thoroughly obsolete. It was joked that the outposts were so outdated that their stables held unicorns and the Grand Duke Nicholas, commander of the Russian Army at the beginning of World War I, often referred to the great fortress at Kovno (Kaunas) as “Govno” which is Russian for “shit.”
The better minds on the General Staff advocated abandoning the forts, especially after what the Germans did to Liege in 1914. However, it was not to be, and entrenched Russian military leaders, still stuck on fighting Napoleon, fed men, shells and resources that were desperately needed elsewhere into the old forts, which fell to the Germans and Austrians wholesale.
The massive 10-fort complex at Kaunas, where Lt. Gen. Vladimir Grigoriev had 90,000 men and 1,300 pieces of artillery, fell in just 11-days after it was cut off by four German divisions and a battery of 42-centimeter (17 in) Gamma-Gerät Mörsers pulverized the fortress.
Outside of Warsaw, another 90,000 Russians, including some crack Siberian units, under Lt. Gen. Nikolay Bobyr, manned Fortress Novogeorgievsk. Bobyr had 1,600 cannon, an airplane squadron to help spot for them, and a million shells to feed them. Hemmed up by the Germans and churned to gruel by six 16-inch (400mm) and nine 12-inch (300mm) howitzers, the fort was toast in just 10 days.
One of the smartest moves the Russians made was to abandon the fortifications at Ivangorod and Brest-Litovsk Fortress evac-ing what they could and blowing up what they couldn’t.
Surprisingly, one of the smallest of the Russian fortress cities, Osowiec, with but four forts including one modern polygonal one and staffed by just a few thousand reservists from the Voronezh region and some local Polish opolchenie (militia), held out a staggering 190 days against the might of the Kaiser. Russian Maj. Gen. Nikolai Brzhozovsky somehow defied the odds and, ordered to hold the Germans for two days to allow civilians to evacuate, did so from January through August 1915.
A big part of the reason why the fort endured was that Hindenburg was short of troops to assault it. This led the complex to be sieged by 14 battalions of 40 ~-year-old Landwehr sent in from nearby Prussia while heavy artillery was sent for to blow the whole thing down.
Some reports hold that the Germans plastered the fort with over a million shells ranging from 77mm field guns to 420mm Morsers. Between 27 Feb – 3 March alone was a hurricane of over 250,000 shells.
The worst of the assault came at 4 a.m. 6 August 1915, when the Germans released 30 gas cylinder batteries equipped with chlorine and bromide that created a cloud reportedly eight miles wide that drifted and lingered over Osowiec for hours. Leaves on trees were reported to have fallen off. The grass turned yellow and died. Food and water supplies were spoiled. The poison crept into every casemate and magazine, fighting position and artillery position. The defenders, without gas masks, suffered, and died–and that was just the lucky ones.
Then, as the Germans were prepping to sweep over the cursed fortification around lunchtime, some 60 battered and weary survivors of the 13th company, 226th Zemlyansky Infantry Regiment, emerged from their shelter and rushed out to engage the Prussian Landwehr facing them. Wearing improvised gas masks made from undershirts coated with urine, the men hacked blood as they moved, literally coughing up lung tissue into their shirts.
All of the other officers dead, the company commander at the time was Junior Lt. Vladimir Karpovich Kotlinsky, who perished in the bayonet charge.
The sight led the German line to break and aborted a larger overall attack on the fort.
The end in sight, Brzhozovsky pulled back, spiking his remaining guns, and blowing the magazine from a distance.
When the Germans finally moved in, they found nothing but bodies and ruins, abandoning their prize within weeks.
Today what is left is a military museum in Poland.
Kotlinsky for his part was awarded the St. George’s Cross, posthumously.
Still, the charge that day of the 226th, remembered as the Attack of the Dead, will remain in the annuals of martial lore forever.
The tale was metal enough for Swedish power band Sabaton to cover it in The Attack of the Dead Men.
The lyrics include the chorus:
“Osowiec then and again
Attack of the dead, hundred men
Facing the lead once again