History Defense of the Osovets Fortress - do not surrender or die
In any ancient historical name there is usually a certain mystic, a divine finger pointing to the past or future great events. Osovets Fortress is a clear confirmation of this. It received its name on a purely geographical basis - on behalf of the huge, high island, lost in the marshes between the rivers Narev and Beaver, on which it was decided to build. However, in the Western Ukrainian dialect, this word means “wasp nest” - an old, perennial, overgrown, as if glued from tissue paper. And in the terrible year for the Russian army 1915, this old small fortress became for the German command a genuine “waspling nest” - the wreck of German hopes for the triumphal Drang nach Osten (Trekking to the East).
In Russian military history, the defense of Osovets remained forever not only as a brilliant, but also as a very rare page, proving that, with an adequate level of command, Russians are able to fight not only with numbers, “throwing the enemy with corpses”, but also with skill.
Osovets strategic position
The Osovets fortress was at the same time very old - by the time of its foundation (1795 year), and new - by the state of fortifications, which were constantly built and completed at the slow pace that was usual for the Russian military department. The defenders of the fortress during the Great War laid down a touching song about their citadel. There are such artless but sincere lines in it:
Where the world ends,
It is a fortress Osovets,
There are terrible swamps, -
Germans reluctant to climb into them.
Osovets was really built on a high, dry island among the marshes that stretched wide sleeves for many tens of kilometers to the north and south of the fortress. Fortifications began to be built in the 1795 year, after the so-called Third Division of Poland. Under the 1873 master plan, the fortress was significantly expanded so that it could control all the crossings over the Beaver River and ensure reliable protection of the transport hub of the city of Bialystok against a possible strike from the north - from East Prussia.
The construction of powerful fortifications to defend against the Germans was led by the German - the Courland nobleman Eduard Johann (in the Russian service who became just Eduard Ivanovich) von Totleben - a talented military engineer who headed for a long time the entire military engineering department of the Russian Empire. The famous Belgian military theorist, builder of the powerful fortress of Antwerp, Henri Brialmon, called General Totleben in his writings "the most remarkable engineer of the nineteenth century."
Count Edward Totleben. Photo: RIA News
Totleben knew where to build and how to build. It was almost impossible to bypass the Osovets from the flanks - the flank fortifications of the fortress broke off into deserted marsh swamps. “There are almost no roads in this area, very few villages, some farmsteads communicate with each other by rivers, canals and narrow paths. The enemy will not find here any roads, housing or artillery positions, ”this was the description of the area around Osovets for the 1939 period of the year in a geographic summary of the western theater of military operations prepared by the USSR People's Commissariat of Defense.
Osovets fortress was of great strategic importance: it blocked the main directions of St. Petersburg-Berlin and St. Petersburg-Vienna. Without first mastering this stronghold it was impossible to capture Bialystok, the capture of which immediately opened the shortest paths to Vilna (Vilnius), Grodno, Brest-Litovsk and Minsk.
3 class fortress, who fought first class
According to the engineering fortification ranking of the Russian Empire, Osovets belonged to the 3 class fortifications (for comparison, the most powerful strongholds of Kovn and Novogeorgiyevsk, which ingloriously capitulated after the 10 days of the German assault, belonged to the 1 class fortresses).
In Osovetskoy fortress there was only 4 fort (in Novogeorgievsk - 33). The stronghold of the citadel was the 27 infantry battalion with a total number of bayonets less than 40 thousand (in Novogeorgievsk - 64 battalion or more 90 thousand bayonets). In terms of super heavy and heavy artillery, Osovets could not bear any comparison with Novogeorgievsk: there were no super heavy artillery (305-mm and 420-mm caliber) in the fortress, and heavy artillery (107-mm, 122-mm and 150-mm) had no heavy artillery (72-mm, 203-mm and 59-mm) heavy artillery (152-mm, 359-mm and XNUMX-mm) had no heavy artillery (caliber XNUMX-mm, XNUMX-mm and XNUMX-mm) in the fortress, and heavy artillery (XNUMX-mm, XNUMX-mm and XNUMX-mm) had no artillery pieces, and heavy artillery (XNUMX-mm, XNUMX-mm and XNUMX-mm caliber) had no artillery pieces. XNUMX trunk. On this background, the potential of Novogeorgievsk looked like artillery Armageddon: only XNUMX-mm guns there were XNUMX guns, and there were also XNUMX-mm guns - XNUMX guns.
The mobilization of the Osovetsky fortress, carried out in 1912, revealed significant gaps in artillery weapons: a shortage of serf type guns (heavy, anti-storm, caponier), a shortage of projectiles, a lack of communication equipment and optical instruments for firing. In the report on the exercises, it was noted that the location and equipment of the batteries did not meet even the minimum modern requirements: only four of the long-range batteries from 18 were professionally covered and well applied to the terrain, the remaining 14 batteries could be easily detected by the brilliance of shots.
Before the outbreak of hostilities, some flaws in the artillery armament of the citadel were corrected: six new concrete batteries were built, one armored battery, armored observation posts were built on the vectors of the enemy’s possible offensive, ammunition was significantly replenished. However, the main armament of the fortress was neither replaced nor even substantially replenished: the basis of the Osovets fighting power was still the old 150-mm guns of the 1877 model of the year.
True, in the period 1912-1914. northeast of the main fort №1, on the so-called Skobelevsky hill was built a new, equipped at the modern level artillery position. At the top of the hill, an armored artillery cannon, the only one at the beginning of the Great War in Russia, was built. It was equipped with an 152 mm caliber gun, which covered an armored turret manufactured by the French firm Schneider-Creusot. Below on the hill was a battery of field artillery and rifle positions with powerful reinforced concrete shelters.
Outdated artillery weapons, not the most powerful casemates and caponiers, not too numerous garrisons did not prevent the command of Osovets to organize initiative and strong-willed defense. Throughout 6 and a half months - from February 12 to August 22 1915 - the glory of the brave heroes of Osovets supported the morale of the retreating Russian army.
Lieutenant-General Karl-Augustus Schulman
The Germans made their first attempt at assault on the Osovetsky fortress in September 1914 - the advance units of the 8 German army approached its walls, about 40 infantry battalions in total. From the Prussian Königsberg, 203-mm guns (around 60 guns) were rushed. Art preparation began on October 9 and lasted two days. October 11 German infantry went to the assault, but was rejected by a powerful machine-gun and cannon fire.
During this period, a brilliant military officer, Lieutenant General Karl-Augustus Schulman, commanded the Osovets garrison. He did not, like the commander of Novogeorgievsk N.P. Bobyrov or commandant Kovny VN Grigoriev, passively wait for the next assault. Deep in the night, carefully withdrawing troops from the fortress, General Shulman threw the soldiers into two swift flanking counterattacks. The German assault position was squeezed on both sides, the threat of losing all the heavy artillery at once appeared. Only thanks to the resilience of the German soldiers, who occupied the all-round defense, the assault 203-mm guns were saved. However, the siege of Osovtsa had to be lifted - it was not in the habit of experienced German generals to risk the most valuable heavy weapons.
Karl-Augustus Schulman. Photo: wikipedia.org
The Germans decided to create a new assault position, pushing it to 8-10 km further from the outer bypass of the citadel, in order to eliminate the possibility of unexpected flank attacks and counter-battery fire from the fortress. However, it was not possible to gain a foothold on the new frontier: the offensive of the Russian troops in late autumn 1914 of the year marked the possibility of the invasion of the “wild Cossack hordes” into German Silesia.
By decree of Nicholas II of September 27, General Karl-Augustus Schulman was awarded the Order of St. George 4 degree. Thin, thrilling, far from monumental health, General Schulman cultivated his style of command in Osovets. His main idea was a daring militant initiative - a style of defense, demonstrating complete contempt for the enemy's potential. To spend two regiments of soldiers at night through swampy swamps, so that with the first ray of the sun a decisive attack to try to capture the assault artillery of the whole army group, such a fantastic idea could not even arise in the restless, craven consciousness of the commandants of Kovna and Novogeorgievsk.
Major General Nikolai Brzhozovsky
At the beginning of 1915, General Shulman handed over the command of the citadel to the Chief of the Osovetsky fortress artillery, Major General Nikolai Aleksandrovich Brzhozovsky, who was descended from the Russianized Polish nobles. The new commandant fully shared the ideology of the former commander. In the last days of January, 1915, using the forces of the 16 Infantry Division that had retreated to Osovets, General Brzhozovsky created a number of fortified positions on the 25-top of the fortress — from the Graevo railway station to the fortress No. 2 (Zarechny). Thus, the defense system of the fortress received the necessary amplification in depth.
In early February, 1915, trying to preempt the offensive of the 10 and 12 of the Russian armies against East Prussia, commander of the German Eastern Front, field marshal Hindenburg decided to launch a powerful preventive strike against the Russian positions. He had to deprive the Russian army of the strategic initiative and prepare the conditions for the offensive actions of the German armies in the spring-summer period of the 1915 year.
The first to attack the 8 th German army. On February 7, the strike force of this army as part of the 3 infantry divisions began to crowd the Russian 57 th infantry division. Since the general balance of forces was not in favor of the Russians (the 57 Infantry Division had three infantry regiments, four artillery batteries and one Cossack regiment), the command of the North-Western Front decided to withdraw this division to Osovets.
Nikolai Brzhozovsky. Photo: wikipedia.org
From February 12 in the assumption of Osovets, prudently strengthened by commandant Brzhozovsky, furious battles boiled. Up until February 22, i.e. the very 10 days that were enough to force Kovna and Novogeorgievsk to surrender, the Germans continued to fight only for the approaches to the citadel.
In these conditions, the new command Osovets proved to be from the best side. “The troops had to act under extremely unfavorable conditions,” writes the participant of the defense, Osovets S.A. Khmelkov - disgusting weather, swampy terrain, lack of housing, lack of hot food exhausted people’s strengths, and the fortress greatly assisted by regularly sending arrows to the shooters, white bread, warm underwear, and promptly taking the wounded and sick to rear hospitals. ”
The strength of the "toy fortress"
By 22 February 1915, the German troops, at the cost of heavy losses and a complete loss of the offensive pace, finally “chewed” on Osovets's predpole. The German emperor Wilhelm II, who was at the front at that time, had the opportunity to inspect the fortifications of the Russian citadel in optical instruments. Fortifications Osovets not impressed him. In one of the subsequent orders, the Kaiser called Osovets a “toy fortress” and set the task to capture its maximum in 10 days.
Following the Kaiser’s instructions, 22-25 in February, German forces attempted to seize a key part of the outer perimeter of the fortress, the so-called Sosnian position, and at the same time cover the left flank of the fortress in the area of the town of Goncharovskaya Gat. This plan failed. The commandant Osovtsa at the time decided the plans of the Germans and responded to their concentration for the assault with decisive night sorties.
The strongest attack was carried out on the night of February 27 by three infantry battalions in the direction of Soichek-Tsemnoie. The task was to identify the location of the heavy artillery of the Germans and, if possible, destroy the guns. The Big Berthas were not destroyed, but they managed to get valuable information.
By February 25, the Germans installed heavy guns in the basement of the 66 fortress, ranging in caliber from 150-mm to 420-mm, and opened massive fire on Osovets. The main targets for the bombing were the Central Fort, the Zarechny Fort, Skobeleva Mountain and the external structures of the citadel from the side of the alleged assault. According to special studies, about 200 thousands of heavy projectiles were fired all over the fortress.
“The external effect of the bombardment was grandiose,” recalled the participant in the defense of Osovets, military engineer S.А. Khmelkov, - shells raised the highest pillars of earth or water, formed huge craters with a diameter of 8-12 m .; brick buildings were broken into dust, wooden burned, weak concrete gave huge splits in the arches and walls, the wired connection was interrupted, the highway was spoiled by craters; the trenches and all the improvements on the ramparts, such as: visors, machine-gun nests, and light dugouts, were wiped off the face of the earth. "
A participant in the defense of Osovets, later an officer of the Polish army, Major Spalek, described the bombardment of the citadel as follows: “The view of the fortress was terrible, the entire fortress was shrouded in smoke, through which, in one place or another, huge fiery tongues burst from the explosions of shells; pillars of earth, water, and whole trees flew upward; the earth was trembling and it seemed that nothing could withstand such a hurricane of fire. The impression was such that not a single person would come out of this typhoon of fire and iron as a whole. ”
The command of the Russian 12-th army, having received information about the massed German bombardment, on its own initiative sent a radio message to Osovets that required at least 48 hours to survive. Response telegram N.A. Brzhozovsky was struck (especially against the background of the usually panicky telegrams of other commandants) with absolute composure: “There is no reason for concern. Ammunition enough, all in the field. The possibilities of retreat from the fortress by the command are not considered. ”
The destroyed walls of the forts of the Osovets Fortress. Photo: fortification.ru
In the early morning of February 28, the German army tried to storm Osovets. The result was sad: even before approaching the outer contour of the fortress, the assault columns were dispersed by a concentrated machine-gunweapons by fire.
On the same day, the Brzhozovsky soldiers made it clear to the German command that the “toy fortress” could not only defend, but also attack. Of the 150-mm guns specially installed at the position, the gunners of Osovets destroyed two Big Burt's 420-mm howitzers, bred to the firing line near the railway half-tank Podlesok. Together with the guns, more than three hundred 900-kilogram shells to the "Berts" took off, which in itself was a great loss for the Germans.
Thus, neither the bombardment of the citadel, nor the desperate attempts at assault yielded almost any results - Osovets did not surrender, moreover, the fighting spirit of the garrison of the fortress strengthened with each day the enemy siege. Military engineer S.A. Khmelkov later recalled: “The spirit of the Russian soldier was not broken by the bombardment - the garrison soon got used to the roar and explosions of the shells of powerful enemy artillery. “Let them shoot, at least get enough sleep,” said the soldiers, exhausted by the fighting in the front line and defensive work in the fortress.
Attack of the heroic "dead"
Making sure that the capture of Osovets by the method of bombardment and frontal assault did not work, the German command switched to a different tactic. At the end of July 1915, the enemy led his trenches at 150-200 meters to the wire barriers of the Sosnenskaya defensive position. The defenders of Osovets initially did not understand the idea of the Germans, but later it turned out that the Germans were preparing the line closest to the citadel for a gas attack.
Military historians have determined that the Germans put gas batteries at the forefront of 30, several thousand cylinders each. 10 days they waited for a steady wind and, finally, 6 August in the 4 hours of the morning let the gas. At the same time, the German artillery fired the strongest fire in the gas attack sector, after which, approximately 40 minutes later, the infantry launched an offensive.
The poisonous gas led to huge losses among the defenders of Osovets: the 9, 10 and 11 companies of the Zemlyansky regiment were completely killed, only 12 people remained from the regiment's 40 company, there were no three companies that defended the fortress of Bialogronda. more xnumx people. In such conditions, the Germans had the opportunity to quickly seize the advanced position of the Russian defense and immediately rush to the assault of the Zarechny fort. However, the offensive of the enemy eventually choked.
On the right flank of the German breakout, apparently, the wind slightly turned up, and the German 76-th Landwehr regiment fell under its own gases and lost more than 1000 people to the poisoned. On the left flank, the attackers were repulsed with massive Russian artillery fire, which fired from closed positions and on direct fire.
A threatening situation arose in the very center of the breakthrough, at the point of maximum concentration of the gas cloud. The Russian units that held the defense here, lost more than 50% of the composition, were knocked out of their positions and retreated. From minute to minute one could expect the Germans to rush to the assault of the Zarechny fort.
German soldiers release poisonous gas from cylinders. Photo: Henry Guttmann / Getty Images / Fotobank.ru
In this situation, General Brzhozovsky showed amazing self-control and decisiveness. He gave an order to the entire serf artillery of the Sosnensky sector to open fire on the trenches of the first and second frontiers of the Russian Sosnenskaya position, on which German helmets were already sparkling. At the same time, all units of the Zarechny fort, in spite of the poisoning, were ordered to go on the counterattack.
This heroic attack of dying from suffocation, swinging from poisoning, but, nevertheless, Russian soldiers rushing at the enemy in the history of the Great War was called “Attack of the Dead”. With dark-green faces of chlorine oxide, coughing up clots of black blood, hair suddenly turning gray from chemical compounds of bromine, the ranks of the “dead” 8, 13 and 14 mouth of the Zemlyansky Regiment adhered to bayonets. The appearance of these heroes caused a truly mystical horror in the assault columns of the German 18 groundbreaker regiment. The Germans began to retreat under a massive fire of serf artillery and, as a result, left the seemingly foremost border of the Russian defense already captured.
The feat of the soldiers of the 226-th Zemlyansky regiment does not need to be argued. More than 30% of soldiers who participated in the "dead" bayonet attack, subsequently really died from lung gangrene. Combat calculations of serf artillery in the gas cloud sector lost% of personnel poisoned from 80 to 40, however, no gunner left the position, and Russian guns did not stop firing for a minute. The poisoning properties of chlorine-bromine compounds, applied by the German command, did not lose their strength even at a distance of 12 kilometers from the gas production site: in the villages of Sheep, Jodzi, Malaya Kramkovka, 18 people were seriously poisoned.
"Nails would make of these people!"
The famous phrase of the poet Mayakovsky - “We would make nails out of these people — there would be no nails stronger in the world!” - we can safely address the officers of Osovets and, first of all, the commandant of the citadel Nikolay Brzhozovsky. Stressed calm, outwardly even cold, in a consistently fresh, perfectly ironed jacket, General Brzhozovsky was a genuine military genius of Osovets. Soldiers on guard, standing at the farthest bastions at night, were never surprised when a calm, quiet recall of the commandant suddenly sounded from the night mist and his tall, thin shadow appeared.
General Brzhozovsky to match himself picked up and staff officers. There were no cowards, rogues and mediocrity, each staff officer knew his business, had all the necessary powers and clearly represented the whole measure of wartime responsibility that would inevitably follow if the task or order was not fulfilled. Pole Brzhozovsky was not salivating.
The cold calculating mind of the commandant of the Osovetsky fortress was perfectly complemented by the indomitable impertinence of thought and the tendency to act decisively, which showed the senior adjutant of the headquarters Mikhail Stepanovic Sveshnikov (in some sources - Svechnikov). The ethnic Don Cossack from the village of Ust-Medveditskaya, Lieutenant Colonel Sveshnikov never engaged in abstruse reflections, but he was always ready for impudent offensive actions.
Russian soldier who fell on the battlefield. Photo: Imperial War Museums
The revolutionary 1917 disaster of the year scattered General Brzhozovsky and Lieutenant Colonel Sveshnikov on opposite sides of the barricades. Brzhozovsky became an active participant in the White movement and died in the Cossack autonomous region, granted for the resettlement of the Cossack emigrants by the king of Serbia. Mikhail Sveshnikov in October 1917-th secured the Bolsheviks victory, capturing the Winter Palace in the fourth assault with a detachment of former grenadiers. Then he fought 1918-1919. against their former comrades in the Caucasus. Received "thanks" from the Soviet government in 1938 year - was shot in the cellars of Lefortovo for "participation in the military-fascist conspiracy."
But on the bastions of the Osovets fortress, these hard-headed people were still together.
The exodus of Russian troops from the Osovets fortress in August 1915 of the year - after more than a successful 6 month-long defense - was sealed. The “great retreat” of the Russian armies from Poland completely deprived the defense of the “Wasp Nest” of strategic importance. Continuing the defense in complete surroundings meant the destruction of the garrison, the loss of valuable heavy artillery and all property.
The evacuation of the fortress began on August 18 and took place under extremely difficult conditions, since on August 20 the Germans seized the railway line leading to the fortress. However, all the heavy artillery and all valuable property were removed. 20-23 August special detachments of soldiers produced mining of all defensive structures of Osovets with subversive charges of wet pyroxylin weighing 1000-1500 kg.
23 August 1915 already had only military engineers in the fortress, two companies of sappers and a change of artillerymen with four 150-mm guns. These guns fired intensively all day long in order to mislead the enemy and disguise the garrison’s withdrawal. On the same day, on 19.00, the sappers set fire to all the buildings designated for destruction, and with 20.00, planned defenses began. According to legend, General Brzhozovsky personally closed the electrical circuit to produce the first explosion, thereby taking full responsibility for the destruction of the “Wasp Nest”.
Ruined forts of Osovets Fortress. Photo: fortification.ru
Simultaneously with the destruction of the fortifications, four heavy guns remaining in the fortress were blown up, after which the gunners and sappers retreated to the rear and joined their units. In the unanimous opinion of all military experts, the evacuation of the garrison, artillery and material values from the Osovets fortress was carried out just as exemplary as its defense.
The Germans, by the power of the gaps in the fortress, immediately understood the meaning of the events taking place and therefore, perhaps, were in no hurry to occupy the citadel. Only in the morning of August 25, the reconnaissance detachment of the 61 Hannover Infantry Regiment entered the smoking ruins of what was called the impregnable Osovetskaya stronghold two days ago.