Watching a recent episode of Indy Neidell’s superb ‘The Great War’ on YouTube, I came across an interesting story regarding an incident in the First World War apparently known to Russians (today, at least) as the ‘attack of the dead men’. An unreferenced version is to be found on Wikipedia, and a documentary version by Russia Today is on YouTube (skip to 15:30 for the relevant portion). But in short, on August 6th 1915, Russian defenders of the fortress of Osowiec (in present-day Poland), suffering the effects of a German poison gas attack, unexpectedly counterattacked. Covered with gore from their own damaged lungs, these 60 (or less than 100 according to RT) ‘walking dead’ soldiers fought off far superior numbers (3 divisions, says RT) and saved the fortress.
Perhaps inevitably, comparisons were drawn in the video and in the comments with George Romero-style zombies; it’s a compelling image. A forum version here uses the phrase ‘the living dead’. Having researched this far, to quote Deadpool, my common sense was tingling…
I found few web sources already in English, mostly from the last five years or so (some of them badly translated), which I presumed meant that it simply that it hasn’t been as celebrated in English as it has in Russian.
A much more sober, Russian language account is to be found here, (Буняковский В. Краткий очерк обороны крепости Осовца в 1915 г.’ or ‘Brief Defence of the Fortress of Osovca in 1915’ by B. Bunyakovsky, as the index page reveals), from a book published in 1924. This makes clear that it was actually an entire company supported by a reserve company (so 300-400 men) that counterattacked, supported by the fortress’s artillery batteries. Pretty impressive, but hardly the zombie Rorke’s Drift now being claimed online. There’s no mention of anything like the ‘attack of the dead men’ to describe this fighting retreat. I say ‘fighting retreat’, because as RT admits, after the counterattack the Russians were forced to raze the fortress and evacuate.
The event doesn’t seem to crop up in English history books; the one I did find is less sensational but does reference the blood-stained uniforms. Frustratingly the preview doesn’t allow me to see the footnoted source. However, I did manage to find a period English language source for the story (‘The War of the Nations’ by Le Queux & Wallace, vol.5, p.203 – you can access it for free via the Bodleian Library), and even better, it’s a contemporary one free of patriotic hyperbole or later embellishments. It’s based on a ‘brief report’ made by the Commandant of Osowiec fortress, Major General B.R.J. Osovsky. This makes no mention of the numbers involved, but equally, there’s certainly no claim that only 60 were still combat effective after the initial attack:
‘There was a lull which lasted until August 7th, when the enemy began his assault by sending into the fortress 600 balloons of asphyxiating gas.
The Russian troops were taken by surprise, and nearly all in the first and second lines of the defence were poisoned. They fell back, but encouraged by their officers, they made a superhuman effort and drove back the enemy at the point of the bayonet.’
The incident clearly happened, but was not so desperate, nor so horrific to behold, as some would have us believe. Many similar sieges took place during the war, though this one does seem to have significance in Russia equivalent to Verdun for the French. It seems likely (and has been suggested on the Wiki talk page) that the story was embellished by the Soviets in the Second World War for propaganda purposes, but I have no evidence of that. All countries are liable to exaggerate such achievements as time passes, particularly to justify having to retreat in the face of superior forces.
What intrigues me is the burgeoning ‘zombie’ connection being made. This reminds me of the instant reaction to the ‘Miami Zombie’ a couple of years back. A man eating another man’s face? Must be a real-life zombie! This fantasising of real life events seems to be irresistible to us, at least in the ‘west’. In contrast, Russian sources don’t seem to imply any paranormal connection; that seems to be a western addition that’s gained currency in recent years. Of course, zombies as we know them today didn’t exist. We had Haitian mindless slave zombies of course, but although these were thought to be ‘dead’, they weren’t depicted as bloody or corrupted in any way. That form of fictional ‘horror’ zombie came later; much later than 1915. Of course, there were other gore-smeared ‘undead’ creatures in (non)existence by that time, such as vampires or other revenant corpses. But western European soldiers are highly unlikely to believe in such things. In addition, though poison gas was relatively new to warfare, its effects would have been well known (and feared) by the Germans who, after all, were the ones deploying it! So I seriously doubt that the Germans thought they were fighting dead men. If the attack really was known as the ‘attack of the dead’ at the time, I think it’s just a turn of phrase; and likely originated with Russians rather than Germans. Despite this, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this WW1 zombie meme grow legs in the coming years.