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John Gilinsky
Posted (edited)

During the German push to capture Warsaw in the summer of 1915 they had to confront or at least seriously consider what to do with the various Russian pre-1914 forts or fortresses.  One of these was Osovets or in Polish Osowiec.  In large part due to the WW1 Centenary as well as the opening up and accessibility to Pre-Russian Revolutionary era archives via research finding aids both pre-1991 and post-1991 Russian historians became fascinated by the German chemical warfare attack at Osovets (Osowiec in Polish) fortress situated in north-eastern Poland and originally built 1882 - 1892 and modified thereafter to hopefully keep up with increased artillery power.  The pre-war Russian strategic plan was to base defending Russian Poland overall on a series of major forts or fortresses with most of the Russian heavy artillery going to arm such fortifications.  The objective was to hold and pin down large numbers of anticipated German assaults whilst the Russians full mobilized or if necessary regrouped etc....  On November 11 2018 a short but well researched and made factually based drama of the German 11th Landwehr Division's attack utilizing most if not all of this division's battalions supported by engineering and artillery units on the Russian 226th. Zemlyansky Infantry Regiment's few weakened companies (500 officers and men) during the early morning hours of August 6, 1915 and 400 Russian militia (perhaps 900 Russian defenders in total) was released in Russia.  Due to the relative short film's length namely 23 minutes this film was probably made as an historical docudrama for educational rather than entertainment purposes BUT the overall film production quality is quite high.  Controversies over the nature of the German chemical attack (chemicals used and how delivered) do not cloud over (pun intended) the considerable bravery of the Russian infantry.  Here is the film now on YouTube, viz.:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U518G8fUk6o  

Clear large font English language sub-titles appear to be accurate.

 

Here is the Wikipedia article in English that covers the historical background and WW1 battles,viz.:  

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osowiec_Fortress

 

Here is the Internet Movie Database entry for the film:  

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9296330/

 

Here is the Google Earth satellite photo (detail) of modern day surviving Osowiec Fortress, viz.:  

https://www.google.com/maps/place/53%C2%B028'20.0%22N+22%C2%B039'06.0%22E/@53.472222,22.651667,2522m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x0:0x0!8m2!3d53.472222!4d22.651667?hl=en

 

The film shows a German ambulance being used to transport gas masks AND chemical warfare supplies.  Whilst the former was lawful the latter certainly was not.  When one of these breaks during unloading and the good doctor witnesses this the doctor gets angry and protests.  However he stays silent when a German field officer says better that Russians die than Germans.   

 

NOTE:  When the German major responds to the doctor (Herr Hauser also an incorrect salutation as the Germans would certainly especially officers use the title doctor when addressing Hauser) who protests against the orders to use chemical weapons he refers to the doctor as Swiss.  At this stage of the war in this theater of operations this would have been extremely unlikely.   Still it is correct that neutral foreign medical personnel did volunteer for most of the belligerent parties including Swedish, Danish, American and the Netherlands for not only German, Austro-Hungarian but also Russian forces in the field.  The Red Cross doctor (by the way I do not recall seeing him with any Red Cross emblems/insignia including in particular any Red Cross marked arm band) was almost certainly a German.  The major's request to have the doctor succour wounded is historically correct as Red Cross societies of the belligerent states emphasized casualty evacuations as a clear priority in their societal works.  

 

NOTE: Thursday, June 13, 2019 here is an earlier modern video made from regional or local WW1 reenactors (credited at the end of the film) and of course with a very very limited budget and which also gives some very useful additional factual information such as the Russian Lt's full name and the sapper who took over after the Lt was mortally wounded on August 6/15:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_4BECmHJZ4  

 

As a related note:  During my research into military medicine on the Eastern front WWI as part of my overall research into the history of war trauma I came across some pretty horrific chemical attacks that the Germans launched also during August 1915 in Russian Poland.  Two Siberian Rifle Regiments of the same division appear to have been practically wiped out with thousands of fatal casualties.  I presume that launching the attacks in early morning hours when most of the soldiers were sleeping in typically very shallow or even inefficiently constructed trenches combined with concentrated chemicals and German intelligence which presumably configured the chemical attack on lower lying flatter open type ground all contributed to such deadly attacks effectiveness.    

 

Praporshhik i podporuchik Kotlinskij 3.jpg

Edited by John Gilinsky
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phil andrade

Many thanks for this , John.

 

Apart from the depiction of a specific episode, the link gives us an insight into how Russian people perceive the Great War, a part of their history which has been so susceptible to being distorted or overlooked.

 

There is a series out on Netflix at the moment called The Road to Calvary, which gives a dramatic account of the revolutionary era through the eyes of some young women.

 

It features a vignette of combat in which Russian soldiers face the horror of German flamethrowers : is this another example of present day Russians contending the resolve and valour of their Great War forefathers who faced the ordeal of a technologically superior foe ?

 

Phil

Just now, phil andrade said:

Many thanks for this , John.

 

Apart from the depiction of a specific episode, the link gives us an insight into how Russian people perceive the Great War, a part of their history which has been so susceptible to being distorted or overlooked.

 

There is a series out on Netflix at the moment called The Road to Calvary, which gives a dramatic account of the revolutionary era through the eyes of some young women.

 

It features a vignette of combat in which Russian soldiers face the horror of German flamethrowers : is this another example of present day Russians contemplating  the resolve and valour of their Great War forefathers who faced the ordeal of a technologically superior foe ?

 

Phil

 

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phil andrade

Sorry about that double post...I edited to change a word 

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phil andrade

There have been some fantastic figures bandied about for Russian gas casualties in the Great War.

 

What does become apparent, though, is that the proportion of fatalities among the Russians who were gassed was several times higher than that among their counterparts on the Western Front, which bears out the rudimentary or non existent protection as depicted in the drama.

 

Phil

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Michael Haselgrove

John,

Many thanks for your very interesting post above;  your time and effort put into it is much appreciated.

In case it is of interest to you I attach a couple of photographs of a shell fragment in my collection.  This fragment is from, I think, a German 42cm shell and measures approximately 25cm wide and 5cm thick.  Although there is no way to be certain I am led to believe it was brought/sent home by Major General Alfred Knox who is the author of "With the Russian Army 1914 -1917" (1921).

Again, many thanks for your post.

Regards,

Michael. 

DSC04682.JPG

DSC04689.JPG

DSC04685.JPG

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phil andrade

Let me suggest taking a look at the Document/Repository section of the forum, and follow the thread that Ibis opened in the video link dealing with some superb lectures on the Great War.

 

Post number 30 features a lecture by Karen Petrine and deals with how contemporary Russians are resurrecting the narrative of the Great War, and endowing it with nationalistic pride.

 

I have only dipped into it and seen a few minutes here and there ; but I wanted to report back here immediately, because it chimes so well with the theme that John has pitched to us.

 

Phil

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John Gilinsky

Thanks so much Michael and Phil for your thoughtful and considerate comments, additional information and contributions to this thread.  I have also today added an additional earlier (undated so far) video shorter than the original post and clearly made from reenactors with a very limited budget of course on the same subject.  There is also fairly good English subtitles and English voice over interjected.  This earlier video adds some very useful factual information such as the date that the Russian command ordered the evacuation of Osovets (i.e. August 18 1915) and the names of the Lt and the Sapper who finished the attack on August 6/15.  

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phil andrade

Let me reiterate our thanks to you, John.

 

This story combines the Canadian epic at Ypres in April 1915 with the French stand at Fort Vaux at Verdun in June 1916 : the gas unleashed by a fiendish foe ; the desperate stand of a forlorn group contending against awful odds ; the fortress and all attendant symbolism.  Michael’s allusion to the 42 cm shell reminds us that the Germans were throwing everything they had.

 

Above all, John, you remind us of how easy it is to overlook the magnitude and intensity of the war on the Eastern Front 1914-17....something the Russian people themselves are now countenancing.

 

Three quarters of all the German soldiers who were killed in the Great War were casualties of the Western Front ; but there were some months  when their losses against the Russians exceeded those they suffered in France and Flanders.....and August 1915 was one of them.

 

Phil

 

 

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phil andrade

The film was pretty effective : rather good acting, backed up by a spectacular aerial view of the gas attack.  I wondered about the frequent footage of birds flying across the skies, and the soaring eagle at the end. Do Russians attach much symbolic importance to this ?  The dead birds falling to the ground made an emotional as well as a physical impact.

 

There had to be a degree of sensationalism in order to hold the interest of the layman : the hand to hand combat depicted in the opening sequences was more redolent of medieval warfare than something our grandfathers might have witnessed, and the massed formation of the advancing Germans was better suited to a re-enactment of Waterloo than combat that was to occur  under the firepower used one hundred years later.

 

The caricature of the Russian soldiery intrigued me : the adoring,  illiterate peasants under the command of the paternalistic officer, and the way they inter acted.  The stoic  fatalism that Russians have displayed in wars, that has confounded invaders from the West from Napoleon to Hitler.  A message from Putin’s cohort here, I think !

 

The most striking caricature of all was that of the German Major.  A fiendish, spectral embodiment of Prussian ruthlessness, about to unleash a chemical horror on the martyrs.

 

I couldn’t help reflecting on the similarity of the name Osowiec with that of Oswiecim - the Polish name for Auschwitz - and the common denominator of gas.

 

Phil

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John Gilinsky
Posted (edited)

Tx Phil for your further response and your comments.

 

Par 2 above:  mass compacted assaults due to German intelligence and tactical topographical comprehension along with over-confidence based on use of their chemical weapon (remember they thought that almost all or indeed all the Russians would be dead or dying and unable to offer resistance - hence the famous title of this battle "Dead Men Attack") meant that the opening phase of intense hand to hand combat is NOT exaggerated at all.  A book's title published and commented on elsewhere in the GWF several years ago "Bayonets Before Bullets" is highly appropriate here for both Russian/German general trench jump-off assaults.  The earliest real German chunked-up i.e. storm troop tactics though experimented with on the Western Front at the end of 1915 did not really get administratively and tactically implemented until 1916.  

 

Par 3 above: again there is no caricature here - do you think that especially as the war dragged on and even at the start when the Russian field armies were overall both insufficient in numbers and in quality of officers that the far too few officers would simply have stayed in their dugouts peered out using their optical equipment and taken notes and written messages or orders only?  Hardly - no matter what their political social and cultural views of the masses of the peasants such officers knew that they counted on all the soldiers to fight together and the sheer conditions of trench living meant that mundane and everyday social conversations would definitely have taken place.  "Stoic fatalism" is not a message from Putin's cohort but wise film producers who appeal to Russian nationalism and yes chauvinsm to sell tickets or least attract audience ratings or "clicks."  

 

Par 4 above: caricature of the German major - don't agree with the fire-breathing, evil incarnate "beast of Berlin" caricature that you perceive in this character in the film.  Rather I perceive his cold-hearted calculating rationale for using chemical weapons better that Russians die that we Germans to be delivered in a calm monotone voice to be very realistic (perhaps you have mounted on your wall that famous PUNCH cartoon (from 1915 I think also) "A Prussian family having their morning session of hate.") 

 

I will try to later post something on the really approximately concurrent to August 6/15 Dead Men Attack ( circa August 1915) hugely deadly chemical attack(s) on the Siberian Rifle regiments (Russian sources)

 

John 

Edited by John Gilinsky

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phil andrade
Posted (edited)

John,

 

The German Major reminded me of Count Orlok in that early 1920s Nosferatu film.

 

The experience of 2nd Ypres must  have made the Germans aware that even men without proper gas masks were able to put up some resistance.  That was more than three months before this episode.

 

Phil

Edited by phil andrade

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