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Three assaults and "attack of the dead": the truth and myths about the defense of the Russian fortress Osovets in the First world war.
105 years ago, On August 6, 1915,, an event occurred that later went down in history as the "attack of the dead". German troops attacking the Russian fortress of Osovets used chemical weapons against its garrison. The Germans hoped to occupy the fortress without a fight, since they thought that practically no one survived the use of chlorine. However, the few defenders of Osovets who remained in the ranks, with the support of artillery, went into the bayonet at the enemy and put him to flight. Historians call this counterattack of the Russian military a manifestation of collective heroism and emphasize the high professionalism of the garrison command, which was able to quickly make the necessary decisions and stop the enemy in an extremely difficult situation for the defenders of the fortress.
Defense of Osovets
In the second half of the 19th century, it became obvious to the Russian authorities that a major war in the west was almost inevitable. In this regard, the construction of fortifications has intensified in the border regions. One of such complexes of fortifications was the Osovets fortress, erected to cover the crossing of the Beaver River. The only convenient road from East Prussia to the center of Russia passed here.
At the beginning of World War I, the fortress was located in the rear of the Russian army, but the unsuccessful course of hostilities soon changed the situation. Russian troops retreated, and one of the sections of the front line passed in the area of the Bobr River.
In September 1914, German forces reached the Osovets fortress. Its garrison was not numerous: there were not enough soldiers even to close all the firing positions.
At the end of September, the Germans subjected Osovets to powerful artillery fire and forced the Russian troops to leave the Sosnenskaya position (a part of the fortification system advanced forward). However, thanks to the courage of the defenders, the fortress held out, and soon the 1st and 10th Russian armies drove the Germans back.
“The Osovets fortress, shelled by numerous large-caliber artillery, put up a courageous rebuff to the advancing enemy, who was driven back by the joint actions of the field troops and the fortress garrison,” said the congratulatory order of the commander of the 10th Army, General Vasily Flug.
In February 1915, the Germans again approached Osovets. On the 25th, they began the second assault on the fortress. According to historians, about 40 German battalions attacked Osovets, 17 Russian battalions held the defense. According to some estimates, about 200 thousand shells were fired at the fortress. However, Osovets held out again, and the Germans switched to positional combat in this sector of the front.
"Attack of the Dead"
In the summer of 1915, the German army launched a new offensive. During this period, the military importance of Osovets increased, since the fortress covered the road leading to the rear of the Russian troops. It was extremely important for the Germans to break through the Russian defenses in this place.
The German command decided to act for sure. Cylinders with poisonous gases were delivered to the position of the German troops in the Osovets area. The Germans were only waiting for the wind direction they needed.
On August 6, 1915, the wind blew in the direction of the fortress. The Germans fired toxic substances towards Osovets and began shelling the Russian positions.
According to the recollections of eyewitnesses, the gas wave passed into the depth of the location of the Russian units for about 20 km. On its way, it poisoned all living things: people, animals, plants. A significant part of the Russian soldiers who defended Osovets were killed, especially at the front lines. More than 1600 soldiers of the fortress garrison were immediately out of action, and almost everyone received a dose of toxic substances. Several companys died completely.
The German 18th Landwehr Regiment moved to attack the Russian positions. The German military was confident that after the gas attack, practically none of the Russians, who had no means of protection against gas, survived, and they hoped to take the enemy's positions without a fight.
However, several companies from among the defenders of Osovets, despite severe poisoning and significant losses, were able to resist the advancing Germans.
Podporuchik (second lieutenant) V.K. Kotlinsky
The 13th company of the 226th infantry Zemlyansky regiment showed the greatest courage in repelling the German attack. She met the Germans in the direction of the main attack of their assault groups - in the area of the railway. Despite the fact that only about 60 people from the company were on their feet, it launched a bayonet attack on the enemy. Actually, this event is most often called the "attack of the dead".
The 13th company in the battle on August 6 was commanded by a military topographer, second lieutenant Vladimir Kotlinsky. After he was mortally wounded, the company was headed by second lieutenant-sapper Vladislav Strzheminsky. Under his command, the company drove the Germans out of the positions they had captured. The servicemen of the neighboring 14th company also distinguished themselves in battle.
“Later, this battle was overgrown in the literature and the media with many artistic details, such as“ pieces of lungs spat out by soldiers ”, running advances and shouts of “hurray ”. This is, of course, an exaggeration. It is unlikely that people who survived the cruel poisoning were before solemn exclamations. But even without such dramatic details, it was a huge feat”, said historian Andrei Koshkin.
Ruined casemates of Osovets. German photo, August-September 1915.
About two weeks after the "attack of the dead", the Russian troops had to leave the Osovets fortress due to the displacement of the front line. Nevertheless, the events of August 6 made it possible at a difficult moment of hostilities to hold positions and prevent the enemy from breaking through to the rear of the Russian troops.
Historians are still arguing about what allowed the German troops to flee.
“The attack was repelled, but not only as a result of the counterattack of the “dead ”. Firstly, the gas dissipated rather quickly, and secondly, the Russian artillery was actively working, which provided support to those two companies that launched a counterattack", said Konstantin Pakhalyuk, an expert from the scientific department of the Russian Military Historical Society.
In turn, Andrei Koshkin notes that the psychological effect of the appearance of Russian soldiers in front of the Germans, whom they already considered dead, cannot be written off.
“The very name “attack of the dead” did not appear out of nowhere. In general, this story, unfortunately, has not yet been fully investigated. We, for example, do not really know what the German archives say about this. I hope that the data concerning these events survived the Second World War. There is room for new generations of historians", the expert said.
Andrey Koshkin believes that the history of the defense of Osovets in general and the "attack of the dead" in particular is one of the heroic pages of Russian military history.
“The events in the Osovets area on August 6, 1915 are an act of courage, a heroic feat of Russian soldiers, worthy of being remembered for centuries", the expert summed up.
And as an illustration to the described events, I propose to watch the video for the song of the Swedish band “Sabaton” dedicated to this event: