Here is the piece I wrote for commemoration of the WWI centenary.
“The attack of the dead men” by Ekaterina Crawford
As we laid my great grandfather to rest, I couldn’t stop thinking about his last words.
“Dead man, dead man walking… they’ve come for me… dead man…” he kept mumbling until his final breath.
At first, I thought it was just the old dying man’ nonsense, but then it came to me. I remembered the story he told me once. He said he didn’t speak of it to anyone else, that deep was the impact of what he’d seen all those many years ago on the 6th of August 1915.
“For over 190 days our special corpus was stationed by the Osowiec Fortress, a 19th-century fortress located on the outskirts of the Russian Empire. It was not a grand settlement nor was it a first-class defence fortress, as many others scattered across the Empire’s borders, the strength of Osowiec was in its location. Built on a high river bank, among the vast, deadly and impassable swamps, it was one of the last fort posts that stood on the way of our, German army, as we tried to force our way deeper into the Russian territory. There was no way around it, the fortress had to fall.
After the reinforcements arrived, on the 13th of February 1915, we began a new offensive. Our heavy cannons fired every four minutes, in groups of 360, but Russian forces gave no ground. Over the weeks of siege that lasted from February into March, hundreds of thousands of shots were fired by our heavy guns and perhaps over a million rounds by the light artillery, yet Russians didn’t give up their positions. Day in, day out, week after week, the fortress withheld our offensives for another six months.
Days dragged as we waited for orders from our commanding officers. Then the orders finally came on the first days of August 1915, we were ordered to advance, to break through the defence positions and to take the fortress at whatever cost. But who could estimate the costs the order had spoken about? The siege had already lasted for almost a year. Many men, on both sides, had already died.
On the following day, one of our officers, using the cover of the white flag and the rule of parley, approached the fortress and tried to negotiate with the Russians. We were later told they were offered a half of a million Imperial Marks to surrender their positions. Can you image that much money for just one fortress? The argument was simple, our army would’ve needed to spend half a million Imperial Marks worth of heavy and light artillery shots and shells to force our way into their positions. Our commanders were prepared to pay this ransom to avoid the unnecessary manslaughter and a waste of ammunition.
Although the money wasn’t offered as a bribe, the Russians still refused. They were given a 48 hours ultimatum either to surrender or… Russian Chief of Defence Staff of the fortress said they’ll fight till the last drop of blood. A mad man. A fool? A dead man for sure! We had two armies in waiting, they, after all the offensives we’d carried out over the past six months, were merely a few hundred men at the very most.
Young and unexperienced soldiers that we were, we did not know what to do but wait. Surely a few hundred men and several lines of trenches wouldn’t be able to withstand our advance, to hold us back, yet somehow, they’d managed to do it since February. As it turned out, our commanding officers had a plan and for the next few days that followed the failed negotiations, we waited for the right wind conditions.
I think I will never forget that. Even now, when so many years had passed since, it’s still so vivid in my memory as if the 6th of August 1915 happened just yesterday.
At 4a.m., when usual heavy artillery bombardment would’ve begun on any other day, the gas batteries were brought in range, and under the cover of our heavy cannons, the dark green smoke of chlorine and bromide was released towards Russian positions.
What did we know about the chemical weapons back then? In the middle of the summer, the grass turned black and the leaves turned yellow. No one, in the range of several miles, could’ve survived the attack of the poisonous gas. Russian infantry was positioned too close to the gas batteries and didn’t have gas masks, we knew that for sure.
A few hours later, as the green gas had cleared, we started our advance – fourteen battalions we were, at least 7,000 men. I was among the first lines of infantry. Although, we knew there could’ve been no survivors, we made our progress slowly and carefully.
When we reached the first lines of defence, the shocking picture that appeared before us, was nothing compared to what we could’ve imagined even in our darkest nightmares. Nothing in our short army training could’ve prepared us for what we’d seen.
In the light of the morning sun, through the green mist that still hung above the ground, we saw Russian soldiers, who somehow managed to survive the gas attack, advance towards us. Their bloodied faces bore marks of chemical burns, their skin was peeling. Their faces and bodies were wrapped in dirty rags that only distantly resembled their military uniforms. They walked towards us, as if in slow motion, but walked with all their might. The most terrifying sight. Half-dead, they coughed as they walked, spitting blood and pieces of their lungs. They had but minutes to live, but they were determined to give their last fight all that they’ve got left.
The panic had begun among our troops. Everyone was screaming – me and my mates of fear, the Russians of pain. Their bodies decayed slowly as they walked towards us, but they kept shooting, they kept walking. Dead men walking. With each passing moment, they pushed us further and further, back into our positions.
Terrified, ignoring the orders of the commanding officers, we dropped our weapons and ran back to our positions, jumping on over our fallen comrades, dying on our own barbed wire defences. Despite our army had exceeded in their numbers, we, not them, have been called coward for many years after that day. We’d lost the offensive and retreated. We ran for our dear lives like dogs with our tails between our legs.
The sight of the brave men we slaughtered has never left me. Even today, I see their bloodied faces and half-decayed bodies as if it happened only yesterday.”
Driving home from the funeral service, I turn this story inside my head, over and over again. I now understand who the dead men my great grandfather was speaking about in the last minutes of his life were. I know what needs to be done.
As soon as I’m home, I check the flights from Munich to Warsaw, and then consult google-map for the directions to my final destination. From Warsaw there’s about three and a half hours’ drive to Osowiec-Twierdza. According to Google, the fortress now is a tourist attraction.
A war is always a tragedy. It brings death and suffering, destruction and devastation. Yet at the same time, it’s a testament and a celebration of the greatest bravery, courage and will.
I book my tickets. I don’t need to pack. I’m flying tomorrow morning and will rent a car at the airport. I will pay my respects to the memory of those brave Russian soldiers. Perhaps, their spirits will stop tormenting my great grandfather’s soul and he’d, finally, find his peace.