Valor Friday

| May 21, 2021

Last week I talked about the Lost Battalion in World War I, and the tragic end to the heroic commander of the unit. This is sending me down a rabbit hole of valorous units. I’m planning on making this a bit of a series since there are so many to choose from.

First up will be a group of Imperial Russian soldiers during the First World War. I’m sure many of you are like me and know less than we’d like about the Eastern Front, during both World Wars. Russia (Imperial and later Soviet) were our allies during both conflicts, so let’s explore some of their heroes.

***Fair warning, this one will be very graphic. It’s not for the faint of heart.***

Thirteen months into the Great War, on the Eastern Front in what is now Poland, a Russian garrison was posted at the Osowiec (pronounced roughly “ah-so-vee-ets”) Fortress. The fortress was built from 1882-1892 and was made for the purposes of defending Russia from the Germans. It lies about 50km from the German province East Prussian border.

1915 Osowiec Garrison

From the fortress’ construction until the start of the war, the fortifications were upgraded with the rapid advances being made in warfighting at the time. When the war began, the strategically important fort became a target for the Germans.

There were three battles for Osowiec during the war. The first happened just a couple of months into the war. In September 1914, the Germans fought to within artillery range of the fortification. After shelling, the Germans launched a frontal infantry assault but we repelled by the Russian artillery. The Germans were then outflanked by Russian counter-attacks causing them to withdraw.

The second Battle of Osowiec Fortress was in February 1915. The Germans attacked with overwhelmingly superior numbers. After nearly a week of fighting, the Russians fell back from their first line trenches into the second line. This brought the German artillery into range.

German heavy artillery, from 100mm in size to 420mm, fired in salvos of 360 guns every four minutes. During the week-long siege 250,000 rounds were fired at Osowiec from the heavy guns and one million from the smaller artillery pieces.

Despite suffering heavy losses over the month-long siege from the German guns and some significant damage to buildings within the fortress, the Russians held.

Finally, in July 1915, the Germans were to launch a final, devastating assault against Osowiec. Led by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg (yes, the same guy who made Hitler Chancellor of Germany 18 years later), the assault force included 14 infantry battalions, one battalion of sappers (combat engineers), more than two dozen siege guns, and 30 batteries of chemical weapons-equipped artillery.

Instead of softening the fortress through the traditional (and already failed) artillery barrage, Hindenburg decided to use poison gas. With his infantry lined up to attack the Russians on three sides, at 0400 hours 30 gas-balloon batteries let loose chlorine gas on the Russians.

The Russian defenders numbered only 900 men. Of that number, only 500 were professional soldiers and the rest were conscripted militiamen. Their German foe numbered nearly nine times as many. To make matters worse, the Russians had no gas masks or other chemical protection gear.

Chlorine gas was one of the first chemical weapons used in warfare. The Germans first deployed it against French troops at the Second Battle of Ypres earlier in 1915. The promise of the new offensive technology was that it would kill all of your opponent’s men without destroying the structures. Therefore, you could take a hardened structure like the Osowiec Fortress without losing the strategic fortification for your own use.

Chlorine gas release

As the highly toxic gas descended on Osowiec from the balloons in a green mist, the Germans had a wind at their back along their entire front. The perfect conditions to lay down gas, then advance and mop up any defenders who weathered the fumes.

After the gas attack, the Germans commenced an artillery bombardment. The green cloud of chlorine is thought to have been as large as 20km downwind, 3km wide, and 12 meters in height, more than enough to kill every plant, animal, and man within the fortress.

The Russian artillery within the fortress was overcome by the gas and unable to return effective fire. With no defenses against the poison gas, the men within the fort suffered greatly. Immediately three companies were totally and completely out of action. In the central redoubt, about 40 men were left standing as well as about 60 militia.

To say the men left standing were “standing” is a bit of a stretch. What happens with chlorine gas, and one of the reasons it is such an effective weapon, is that it combines with water to create hydrochloric acid.

With no chemical protective gear, the defenders wrapped themselves in wet rags to protect their skin. Some of them are said to have used urine to soak their rags. The moist rags and the moisture in the early morning air combined to create the acid, which began to burn and melt the soldiers’ exposed skin. As the Russian soldiers inhaled the caustic compound, it reacted with water there and began to break down and melt their lungs too.

One survivor of the attack said, “Any living person [standing] outside on the bridgehead of the fortress was poisoned to death…the grass turned black, there were flower petals scattered everywhere…meat, butter, lard, vegetables were poisoned and deemed unsuitable for consumption.”

That soldier, Sergey Khmelkov, said, “The fortress was not prepared at all to withstand a gas attack. There were no plans in place, no resources to collectively and individually protect the garrison and the gas masks sent to them were of little use.”

The Germans, confident that their massive gas attack and subsequent bombardment had eliminated all resistance, moved in a frontal assault on the fortress. About 7,000 troops were engaged in the ground attack. They moved across the devastated ground, all the vegetation wilted and dead, the eerie green cloud leaving a ghastly green patina on any exposed copper.

The Germans made it past the first line of defenses and past the bulwark of the fortress. Once inside, they started to advance on the last remaining defenders in Osowiec, the 100 men in the central redoubt. What the Germans encountered would be one of the most legendary counterattacks you’ve likely never heard of. It came to be known as “The Attack of the Dead Men.”

Second Lieutenant Vladimir Kotlinsky

The Germans were confronted with roughly 100 pissed off Russians in a bayonet charge. Like cornered, wounded animals, they lashed out at the enemy with a ferocity reserved for your most hated foes. Second Lieutenant Vladimir Kotlinsky, just a couple weeks past his 21st birthday, was the officer in charge of the counter assault.

That Kotlinsky led his men in a final charge against an enemy that outnumbered him 70-to-1 is impressive enough. That he and his men did so while fatally wounded by gas is even more incredible.

The Russian soldiers, wrapped in loose, bloody rags, with their faces literally melting off their skulls, and bloodshot, chemically burned eyes, attacked into the German infantry. As the Russians pressed their attack they were coughing up blood and chunks of their own lungs. If ever there was a time that someone would think they have seen the reanimated corpses of the dead, this was it.

The horrifying appearance of the Russians combined with the sheer determination of hatred with which they confronted their enemy forced the Germans to scatter in abject terror. Nothing stopped the Russians in their charge.

The Russians were so bitterly angry and their berserker rage was so strong that death itself would have to wait. They would have their vengeance before making the trip to Valhalla. They were simply too mad to die.

“I can’t describe the anger and fury that gripped our soldiers as they headed towards their poisoners, the Germans. Heavy rifles, machine guns, heavy shrapnel could not stop the onslaught of frenzied soldiers,” an unidentified survivor wrote in the newspaper “Pskov Life” in 1915. He continued, “Although exhausted and poisoned, they advanced with the sole purpose of crushing the Germans.

The Germans fled the “dead” Russians attacking them so fast that they left behind their machine guns and got caught up in their own concertina wire traps and minefields.

The sparse group of zombie-like Russian soldiers pushed the German assault of 7,000 out of the fortress and were even able to bring their artillery back in action.

Kotlinsky was wounded in action and died after the initial bayonet charge, passing command to Second Lieutenant Strzeminski, who brought Kotlinsky’s charge to a triumphant conclusion. After regaining the first and second trench lines from the Germans, all that remained was to recapture the forward-most defensive structure, Leonov’s Courtyard.

Lieutenant Strzeminski soon was also taken out of action, leaving the companies in the command of their warrant officers. Warrant Officer Radke took Leonov’s Courtyard by another bayonet and rifle charge, after the garrison’s artillery shelled the position. Warrant Officer Tidebel led the other extant company to retake flanking positions and re-establish telephone contact with friendly units.

In the unit’s diary of the event, they log the capture of at least 40 Germans, as well as many rifles and other equipment.

The battle was a pyrrhic victory for the Russians. Most of the soldiers who participated in the Attack of the Dead Men would die during the fight or succumb to their wounds shortly after the battle died later that evening. One would hope that the knowledge they avenged the deaths of their comrades and won the battle would provide them comfort in their final horrifically excruciating hours.

I can’t find an account of how many of the “Dead Men” survived and recovered, but it’s safe to say it was very few.

For his wartime service, Lieutenant Kotlinsky received;

Order of St Stanislaus 3rd Class with Swords

  • The Order of Saint Stanislaus, 3rd Class – The most junior award to military officers whose service had been honorable and blameless.

    Medal of The Order of St Anna, 3rd Class with Swords

  • The Order of Saint Anna, 4th Class and 3rd Class – As with many orders of chivalry in Europe, or the German Iron Cross you might be more familiar with, this was a progressive award. One first received the 4th Class, at Kotlinsky’s level it would have been for valor in combat or distinguished service. Further acts of combat bravery resulted in him receiving the next level, the 3rd Class.
  • The Order of Saint George, 4th Class – This is the second highest Russian order of chivalry, behind only the Order of Saint Andrew (reserved for emperors, princes, and other highly ranked figures), that was awarded for distinction in combat. The Order of Saint George was, at the time, the highest level award for military officers. The Order of Saint George was to honor those whose conduct of military operations in protection of the Fatherland from attack by an external enemy resulted in the complete defeat of the enemy. The classes denoted the scale at which the successful operation occurred. The classes were awarded in sequence such that the 1st Class would be awarded to a king or a great general who won a war, the 2nd Class to the winner of a campaign, and so forth. To put things into perspective, in 1915, Tsar Nicholas II, the Emperor of Russia, also received The Order of Saint George, 4th Class.

Of these awards, I can only find record of the Order of Saint George, 4th Class being a posthumous award directly related to the battle.

Lieutenant Wladyslaw Strzeminski (a native of Poland) appears to have survived the battle and war. He was wounded by a grenade exploding in his trench in May 1916, which crippled him. He lost an eye, an arm, and a leg. As a result he used crutches to walk for the rest of his life. Marrying shortly after the war, he became a painter, designer, and art theorist. He died in Poland in 1952.

Strzeminskii developed the avant-garde, modern art theory of “Unism.” Try as I might, I can’t understand what it is, but I have that problem with a lot of modern art. Here’s a description if you want to give it a try. 

It looks like Sergey Khmelkov also survived the war. There’s a Sergey Khmelkov who served in the Red Army all the way through World War II, rising to the rank of Lieutenant-General of Engineers before dying in early 1945.

After the battle, the scattered Germans returned to their lines telling stories of the undead Russians, impervious to poison gas and rifle fire. This caused the Germans, who still had overwhelming numerical superiority, to pause and hold on attempting to take the fortress a fourth time.

Despite the victory, the cost to the Russians to hold the fortification was too much. Later in August, not even three weeks after the success of the 226th Infantry Regiment in their final stand, the Russians left the fort in an orderly fashion and destroyed the bulwarks. The last stand of the Russians held the defensive structure long enough to permanently deny it to the Germans.

Category: Historical, Real Soldiers, Russia, War Stories, We Remember

Comments (4)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neanderthal B Woodman Domestic Violent Extremist SuperStraight says:

    I will NEVER complain about the Onion Fairy ever again.

    “That such men lived….”
    Honorable foe.

  2. KoB says:

    DAAA’UUMM! Talk about head butting the hangman! Makes Chamberlain’s 20th Maine Bayonet Charge look like a Parade Ground Drill. Never give up! There’s always one more thing you can do. And as Patrick Cleburne said at Franklin, “…if we are to die today, then let us die as men.”

    Great story Mason! Thanks for the lesson.

  3. Hatchet says:

    Thanks for posting this, Mason. An utterly jaw-dropping chapter of history that perfectly underscores ‘nothing-left-to-loose’ determination. Wow…

  4. Sparks says:

    Thank you Mason. I have b=never heard this story, being more of an American history buff. I cannot imagine the agony of fighting for my life under the pain and agony of being gassed.

    True heroes all.