The Attack of the Dead Men

During World War 1, German Command received a message that their offensive had failed and been routed by a charge of zombies.

Content Warning: World War I, descriptions of gas weapons

World War I is often regarded as the first industrial war; the first time the tools and weapons of war were put to work in the new world where countries could marshal forces of millions of people, and where single long battles could take place over days, over hundreds of days, where casualties could be measured in the thousands. It was a totally new time, too; there was a conception that war had transformed impossibly, and the sheer destructive potential of industrial weapons would lead to nations having single, decisive battles followed by complete capitulation.

This is not how it went.

The build-up to World War I was therefore full of all sorts of military and technological development that wasn’t really tested, not field tested, and there was still an era of secrets and myths. Armies knew that they had this stuff, but what things would do at scale, and the effect it’d have on actual soldiers, was not quite known, not quite certain. It was also a period of long-term global PTSD, where soldiers en masse were traumatised in ways they didn’t expect and put into terrible conditions to live and die in a never ending unsleeping hell with no hope or end in sight.

It was a pressure cooker for ghost stories, a time and place when people were almost being tuned to construct fantastic, impossible nonsense while brains frayed to pieces tried and struggled to cope. There are dozens of ghost stories and tales of things that we can see, fairly, as being dissociation and depression.

It’s reasonable, then, when an unknown situation comes up, it’ll get filtered through stress and tension and fear, such as what happened on August 6, 1915, at Osowiec Fortress.

Osowiec Fortress was a defended site in the northeastern part of Poland. Built by the Russian empire, the fortress saw heavy fighting through its life – and it’s still around, and still being used today as part of an air force base. The fortress was constructed to be a thing to fight over and around – much like all the build-up before World War 1, everyone could tell the paths people had to take to move these vast armies, and so they built accordingly. Belgium had a ring of fortresses along the coastline, the German border with France was built up for defensive barriers well before the war ever broke out.

Osowiec was a place made to be important, it was made to be fought over.

In August 1915, it was being held by the Russians, with a presence of 500 soldiers, and 400 militia. The Germans launched an offensive against Osowiec under the command of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg (yeah, that Hindenburg). The forces attacking included 14 battallions of infantry, one battalion of sappers – and a battalion is a thousand soldiers – something north of twenty-five heavy siege guns, and thirty batteries of artillery. Again: This was to attack a fortress that was at this time defended by about 900 people.

The nature of war in World War I is one where while yes, the Germans were bringing a enormous amount of force to bear, a force of 900 could hypothetically hold out a lot more than the force nearly sixteen times their size represented. After all, with other sieges, some places held out for fantastically long times waiting for supplies and reinforcement.

Except the Germans brought chlorine gas with them.

Gassed, by John Singer Sargent

The German assault against Osowiec waited until the early hours of the morning, for the wind to change. Chlorine gas is fantastically toxic stuff, and soldiers offered accounts of how it reacted, how it crept across the ground, like a spreading thing, a foul and corrosive ghost that rolled down into trenches. It reacts with water, too, poisoning everything it touches. Chlorine gas is terrifying, and the Germans didn’t want to risk it hitting them, and they were combining it with gassing the area with hydrochloric acid.

The wind changed at around four AM. The gas was launched, as the soldiers mobilised, and the Germans marched on Osoweic. The Russians were not equipped with gas masks, or they were equipped with bad gas masks, or they were equipped with nothing, or they only had impromptu gas masks made by soaking their clothes in water or urine, it depends on who you ask.

However they protected themselves, though, the gas tore through the Russian forces like a deadly wind. The defensive force that once numbered nine hundred was cut down. After the shelling and gassing, the Germans sent twelve battalions to go clean up the ruins and claim the fortress, sending over seven thousand soldiersexpecting to find a building full of nothing but dead men’s last screams.

Then, the Germans stopped.

They stopped, because they were being counterattacked.

The German forces reached Osowiec and found a shambling – literally – force of Russian soldiers, with their skin ‘peeling and black,’ ‘coughing up blood and lungs’ as they charged the invading Germans. The condition of these Russian soldiers was so completely terrifying, with chunks of flesh and skin lost as they charged, the Germans routed, running back through their own traps and defenses, fleeing so far that they got into range of the Russian’s own artillery, which opened fire on them, further scattering them and driving the Germans back.

Lieutenant Vladimir Karpovich Kotlinsky

It wasn’t that the dead actually reared from their graves. But rather, a hundred or so remaining defenders of Osowiec, decided that since they were dead men already, that they had no alternative but to charge. They were stained and maimed and dying – they weren’t going to live, but they weren’t dead yet.

The highest ranking soldier to survive this initial onslaught was one Lieutenant Vladimir Karpovich Kotlinsky, who ostensibly led the charge. Kotlinsky died that same night, after the Germans had retreated, and the Russians withdrew from defending Osowiec less than two weeks later, demolishing parts of Osowiec on the way out. That is, there were still forces holding the fortress for two more weeks after this ‘zombie attack.’

The entire incident is now known as The Attack of the Dead Men.