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After thousands of years the mightiest of magic uses have finally cracked the code to revive the dead... Kind of. The resurrection spell, while restoring the body to a basic capacity, leaves them a mindless shambling husk, constantly rotting and never truly fixed, with the poor soul mindlessly attacking anything it sees unless controlled by the necromancer that revived it.

Now, ignoring all the moral boundaries this breaks, most of the empires in my setting have decided to, beside other things, weaponize these zombies and (unlike every other story about zombies) this actually works, and just in time for my setting's equivalent of WW1.

Some basic characteristics of these zombies include:

  • Not needing to eat or sleep
  • Are able to run surprisingly quickly for a short amount of time
  • Most basic injuries from when they were killed being healed but no super regenerative powers after that
  • Completely obedient to their necromancer but lack any higher thinking (no using guns)
  • Necromancers are able to effectively control 100 zombies but are only able to give out basic commands beyond that
  • Can be controlled within a half mile radius
  • Necromancers can resurrect bodies from a distance (though seeing the corpse helps)
  • Tend to avoid attacking fellow zombies unless controlled to do so
  • Necromancers make up five out of every thousand regular solider
  • Are noticeably weaker
  • Older zombies have the appearance and smell of constantly rotting
  • Can be taken out by a headshot

With all that said, how might zombies/necromancers affect WW1-styled trench warfare?

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    $\begingroup$ How many necromancers are there - either absolute numbers or per thousand troops? How can zombies be destroyed? How good are zombies at negotiating shell craters, barbed wire etc? How precise is a necromancer's control - once they are told to "attack", are they as likely to attack each other as their designated enemy? How far away can a necromancer control their zombies from? Need much more information $\endgroup$ Mar 5, 2023 at 22:40
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    $\begingroup$ Further questions - how do the necromancers create zombies? Do they need to be able to touch the body or can they look through a telescope and animate a body lying in the open a few metres away from the enemy trenches? (Noting that lots of bodies were left in no-mans-land due to the danger of retrieving them.) Even if zombies can't operate firearms, can they operate a simple device (ie pull a handle to trigger a suicide vest full of explosives)? $\endgroup$ Mar 5, 2023 at 23:02
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    $\begingroup$ are these 'contagious zombies', or the only way to make new zombies is by necromancer resurrecting a corpse? $\endgroup$
    – Anentropic
    Mar 6, 2023 at 10:27
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    $\begingroup$ How can zombies be 'killed' in your setting? It works differently in different fictional worlds. Does the 'shoot them in the head' trope apply? Or can you use the same things that kill regular people (e.g. bullets) but just more of them? In which case, how much more? Or do they have to be exploded or dismembered to be stopped? $\endgroup$ Mar 6, 2023 at 12:51
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    $\begingroup$ Many of the WWI combatants were effectively zombies already because of the prevalence of drugs like "marching powder" $\endgroup$
    – roblogic
    Mar 6, 2023 at 16:56

12 Answers 12

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As described, zombies would not make a significant difference to most combat.

Firstly, they are not available in large enough numbers to send overwhelming hordes across no mans land. Taking the British Army as an example (for no better reason than their casualty figures came up first in Google...) the British mobilized 8.375 million men in total. Of those, something over 702,000 were killed. However, many of those bodies were unrecoverable, and still more would, presumably, not have been suitable for reanimation due to excessive damage at the time of death. Our number of zomibifiable bodies will have to be a bit of a guess, but based on the rule of thumb that about one third of a combat unit will become casualties, one third of the casualties will die, we could extend the rule of thumb to say one third of fatalities cannot be reanimated. That will leave us with around 468,000 zombie troops - throughout the entire War. If over 8 million wasn't enough to sweep resistance aside, another half a million probably isn't going to change things all that much.

Plus ALL sides in your war have this capability, therefore one side does not gain an advantage the other lacks by doing this.

Zombies simply aren't all that useful as infantry. They can't operate firearms, so all they can do is advance across no mans land were they will be mown down by the enemies artillery. Humans will at least crouch and try and use what cover they can to advance. As described it seems that the zombies will do is walk slowly towards the opposing trench line making them extremely susceptible to shell fire. I would also imaging small arms fire hitting the legs would probably immobilise a zombie in the muddy environment of many WWI battlefields.

The best I can see is that after a successful attack the attacker takes some time to regroup and can now make a second push, but this time about one in three of the advancing troops is a zombie that can at least soak up a bullet that might have hit a still living soldier. However, you have now diluted your capability for fire superiority, so even that might not be an advantage.

Then there is the morale issue - imagine the horror of seeing your best mate get killed, only to find yourself standing next to him again. Of course, you could mitigate this by only raising the enemies dead and give them the problem of shooting at their former friends.

So zombies don't appear to be much use as assault infantry. Are there other military tasks they can perform to free up other soldiers? Again, almost any task worth doing requires at least some intelligence and self direction. They might be able to assist with casualty evacuation - a stretcher bearer that doesn't mind getting shot too much is definitely useful! Anything that increases the survival rates of wounded soldiers is good (although again this is only a force multiplier if you can do it and your opponent can't).

Zombies could potentially replace horses as draught animals where speed isn't an issue, and shortage of horses was a real problem, but that is still not going to win the war.

Zombies might have use as a terror weapon - send a small unit into the enemy's rear, massacre a bunch of civilians, reanimate them and then set them loose. The enemy has to divert resources to clearing up the infestation.

Collecting bodies to turn into zombies would be a good task for zombies to do - particularly since you could never know if the pile of bodies were really dead, or were actually zombies waiting to attack who ever came along to clear them away. (Escape and Evasion is left as an exercise for the necromancer in this case...)

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    $\begingroup$ "all they can do is advance across no mans land" - Just that, with all the shell craters, the barbed/razor wire, the mud, it would be a tall order for "mindless shambling husks", without even being shot at or shelled. $\endgroup$ Mar 8, 2023 at 14:22
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    $\begingroup$ Historian Bret Deveraux has a post about trench warfare at acoup.blog/2021/09/17/… that points out that attacks into opposing trench systems were often successful and inflicted higher casualties on the defenders, but that lack of communication and logistics meant that successful attacks usually failed to be breakouts. Also, defenders pushed back into their own systems had an easier time bringing up reinforcements and taking back lost territory. $\endgroup$ Mar 8, 2023 at 17:29
  • $\begingroup$ Could be useful for clearing minefields. $\endgroup$ Mar 8, 2023 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ "As described, zombies would not make a significant difference to most combat." -- But they would form an interesting cinematic experience. Suddenly I have an urge to see a movie/play a game set in WW1 with necromancy and zombies. $\endgroup$
    – Colombo
    Mar 9, 2023 at 2:57
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Raising the enemy in their camp

The necromancer rides aboard a low-flying fighter aircraft above the enemy camp. In the enemy camp there are hundreds of dead and wounded lying in trenches and hospital tents. As he passes overhead, the necromancer breathes new life into these enemy corpses, who rise to tear at their former comrades.

Sneak attacks through water

The undead don't eat which I take to mean they have no metabolism and don't need to breathe either. The necromancer uses a submarine to guide his undead to walk along the sea floor at night, emerging on the beach to strike the enemy where he least expects.

Undead are also unbothered by poison gas.

Undead Paratroopers

A cargo plane is loaded with corpses and a necromancer, and flown over the enemy target. The corpses are dropped to earth, a violent process as there's no need for a parachute. The necromancer raises them after they fall, healing both the injury that killed them and any injuries from falling out of the airplane.

Burning and destroying corpses

When your side doesn't have a necromancer in the area, you have to burn your corpses or thoroughly destroy their heads, so that an enemy necromancer doesn't raise them in your camp.

Many soldiers carry a "suicide charge" which is a small explosive under their hat that they can detonate in a dire situation, so the enemy can't raise them as undead. They will often do this against the orders of their officers - because they have a deathly fear of being raised as undead for their own side too.

Demolitions

Zombies might not be able to aim guns effectively, but they can be loaded with explosives and told to approach an enemy ground target such as a bridge support. The zombie just has to push a button when it gets to the target. The zombie has become a guidance system for a bomb, similar to how pigeons were experimented with in WW2 as bomb guidance systems.

Carrying supplies

You don't need as many freight trains when you have a thousand undead to shamble along with rations and ammunition for the men. Logistics are simplified.

Little value in open combat

The undead are ill-suited to open combat as they do not use guns and the enemy has machine guns. One machine gun could mow down thousands of dumb zombies in the open. And it's not like you're aiming the machine gun, you're just spraying bullets across the whole area. So the zombies wouldn't even provide much cover for the normal infantry among them.

Undead would still be used in open combat, but their true value would be sneak attacks and logistics.

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    $\begingroup$ While zombies may be ill suited to fair combat as soon as you add mustard gas which they take like a champ they are mano-a-mano beasts. They can also dig trenches day and night. They can be used as decoy squadrons as they do not fear death or injury. $\endgroup$ Mar 7, 2023 at 13:29
  • $\begingroup$ I see no gamechanger Sneak attack through waters? No front was close to the beach, UBoot were a scarce resource I'd use them for attacking enemy logistics. Undead Paratroopers? instead of a 80 kg zombie I'd carry a 80 kg bomb Burning and destroying corpses? Field handbook no corpses in camp Demolitions? 1 dedicated saboteur would do better than 100 zombies => would know where to explode, would need less explosives $\endgroup$
    – SigiN
    Mar 8, 2023 at 10:00
  • $\begingroup$ Supply? For long haul to slow. At the front, railways,vehicles and animals were a thing, which can transport your stuff (and soldiers) faster . maybe a small addition to this,. 1 car of a railway could carry 10t so you need ~500 zombies to replace one. $\endgroup$
    – SigiN
    Mar 8, 2023 at 10:00
  • $\begingroup$ RE:paratroopers, I'd expect that you can't resurrect a pancake or thin sludge of rotting corpse. RE:guidance, the pigeons had to be trained, and the question doesn't give me the impression zombies can be trained. $\endgroup$ Mar 8, 2023 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ @SigiN 1. What do you mean no front was close to the beach? OP didn't say it's literally WW1, it's a world with WW1-like technology. Besides, even if it was literally WW1, there was Gallipoli. And the zombies would be ideally striking an undefended beach, not a front. 2. 80kg zombies may be cheaper/more numerous than 80kg bombs. Plus you could strap bombs to the paratrooper zombies for demo. 3. It's war, there will be corpses no matter what the "field handbook" says. $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Mar 8, 2023 at 17:26
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Barbed Wire

This was used a lot on WW1 - but with a mindless horde - you'd see a lot more usage to entangle a zombie horde and make easy pickings.

Snipers

Again, lots of precedent in WW1 here - however the role would change to be purely about taking out enemy necromancers. In order to give orders, they would have to see or otherwise be able to know what was happening on the battlefield - making the spotting and sniping of them a top priority.

Switch to intermediate cartridges before WW2

If zombies are much weaker, then there is the potential to move from the standard infantry round(s) of the day (8mm Mauser, .303, 30-06, 7mm French etc.) to a smaller round, potentially even as small as a .22 - not needing to do as much 'damage' to take out a zombie would mean that having a small cartridge makes sense - greater ammo carrying capacity, less recoil, potential for full-auto infantry portable weapons, etc.

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    $\begingroup$ Counter-snipers: dress a single zombie as a necromancer and have him peek visibly. Once a shot rips through the zombie your countersnipers return the favor. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Mar 6, 2023 at 11:42
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    $\begingroup$ Why would a necromancer dress differently? $\endgroup$
    – Nelson
    Mar 7, 2023 at 8:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Nelson - everyone knows that Necromancers need elaborate robes in order to do Necromancy... :D $\endgroup$ Mar 7, 2023 at 9:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Demigan You'd expect the snipers to just duck after taking their shot, and to have their own countercountersniper buddies. $\endgroup$ Mar 8, 2023 at 14:57
  • $\begingroup$ @AmiralPatate yes, but we know countersniping is a tool of war and effective enough to be useful. Even if it takes a few tries a success means you take out a valuable target. The cost to you? A few zombies and necromancer dresses. You get the first chance to countersnipe, which is always better than being the one wasting a shot on a zombie and then being able to countersnipe people taking shots at your sniper. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Mar 9, 2023 at 9:13
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Wouldn't change that much.
Your implicit assumptions is that the Zombies could run over the trenches as opposed to humans as they are not afraid to die.
But getting to the first enemy trench through no-mans-land was not the main problem in WWI. You see trenches had several lines. The main problem was getting to the second or third line. In a usual attack, your artillery fires at the first trench, your enemy hides or gets stalled by this fire and your infantry runs and takes the first trench. But now your artillery cannot fire at the second trench as it cannot reach it (enemy also has his defenses(artillery) in place.
Your infantry sits without heavy gear in the first trench and enemy with its heavy gear in second trench, which it can resupply from backup lines, while you need to resupply through no-mans-land (which is now under fire and reachable by enemy artillery). Sooner or later you pull back. I don't see may leeway how zombies could help that much here. It may deplet the enemies amunition faster, but the logistical challenge was more on artillery shells than on small weapon/MG ammo.

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Something I haven't seen anyone mention so far is infection. Depending on how your magic works, this may not be an issue, but if the rotting appearance is accompanied by actual pathogens, then you risk severely increasing the rate of infection in wounded troops by having them share trenches with zombies. And I'm not talking about zombie contagion here, just normal infection. I'm assuming since these are magical revenants, that zombie contagion is not an issue.

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Flamethrowers

Flamethrowers would become a lot more prevalent, and that dry, rotting flesh will catch like pitch. You would most likely see defensive flame-nests along the trenched. There would also be the added bonus of people now laying incendiary mines. If your people develop tanks, then those could be used to squish zombies while the onboard machine guns try and hit the necromancer.

Explosives

Also, landmines, handgrenades, and artillery could become quite effective at shredding enemy zombies beyond reanimation.

Side note: you could slash fallen enemies Achilles tendons, to prevent them from being mobile/walking

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    $\begingroup$ Not saying you're wrong that flamethrowers would be useful - but one word that is never used to describe conditions in WWI is "dry". $\endgroup$ Mar 6, 2023 at 10:18
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    $\begingroup$ @GrimmTheOpiner The ottomans in Africa/middle east might disagree with you. $\endgroup$ Mar 6, 2023 at 13:18
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    $\begingroup$ Also, this would presumably damage the bodies sufficiently that they cannot just be re-raised to fight again, while mere bullets might not be destructive enough to make them go down and stay down. I'd add explosives (grenades or mines) to the list of weapons that would sufficiently obliterate zombies to prevent their reuse. $\endgroup$ Mar 6, 2023 at 15:00
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Guerrilla warfare

Your necromancers aren't especially useful in open trench warfare, but they can cause absolute havok behind enemy lines. Can they raise dead from graveyards? Every small town has a graveyard. Issue instructions to the zombies to "hide for three days, then march north and kill everyone in the small village over there". Move on to next town.

Troops and weapondary have to be diverted from the front. Zombies can be commanded to pull up train tracks (WWI ran on rail transport to the front) or simply run onto the line in huge numbers. Resurrect some cows for this.

If it's only control that is lost when they get more than a few miles out, slaughter some cattle, sheep, goats, etc. Command small groups to "run in that direction. Kill any humans you meet except me". Repeat for random directions. Dealing with a furious zombie bull and its angry sheep sidekicks is going to take serious weaponry.

You'll wreck morale, collapse food production, cause villagers to wall themselves in rather than working the fields, and force the army to hunt a bunch of zombies issued instructions designed to make them time consuming to hunt down. Soldiers will begin worrying that their families may be killed by zombies. Some may desert to go defend the family farm.

If it's hot and dry, zombies could be given incendiary grenades. They may not be able to think, but instructions like "run for 10 days then pull this pin" might be understandable. Again, more chaos and terror for troops at the front, less food and resources for the country.

Cities are harder, but not impossible. Can your necromancer resurrect rats? lots of them in cities. Cities will be easy to defend with a small number of troops, but a crafty necromancer may be able to, say, blow up armament factories with zombie rats and timed explosives.

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Some things that came to mind when reading this:

Life Savers

The first was the enormous potential to prevent the death of (living) soldiers by sending zombies to perform high-risk tasks. In war, the enemy's defense structure is constantly tested by sending forces to discover vulnerabilities. If a vulnerability is found, a larger attack is organized that involves more troops and equipment. This task could easily be replaced by a battalion of zombies observed from a distance by a necromancer (or more). Once vulnerabilities are found, an even larger zombie attack could follow, breaking the cohesion of the enemy line. At the end, the live soldiers could properly occupy that territory.

Cost Savers

The second thing is the enormous cost savings this would generate on the front, as these are soldiers who don't need to eat, don't need clothes, don't need rest, and who can even walk until complete exhaustion (assuming they can even exhaust themselves) without complaining about their situation. All of this would lead to savings in transportation and supplies, and in some cases even able to battle with completely cut supply lines, as consumption is so low.

Problems

However, there may be some negative points that could arise. One of them is that a zombie-only attack would need to be massive in scale. The Battle of Isandlwana between the British and the Zulu kingdom had a ratio of about 10 Zulus to 1 British soldier. A zombie force would need an even greater ratio, since they are unable to carry weapons and are even more difficult to maneuver in the midst of a battle. Additionally, we are dealing with a conflict against a more modern military force. The problem here is that large concentrations of troops present a massive target for artillery and make it easy for enemy scouts to identify and locate them.

The Real Use IMO

In this scenario, it seems that zombies would be better utilized as slaves to transport materials from one point to another or to conduct guerrilla attacks behind enemy lines, even carrying out terrorist attacks in large cities, imagine the suburbs of Paris having 10 people under your command who won't question your orders and have an intrinsic desire to kill.

Some other questions to think about

  1. Would leaders execute prisoners, civilians or even they own soldiers in order to avoid costs and obtain full control of them?
  2. How the necromancers would act living as civilians? They are practically a one man army
  3. What would be the new ways of treating a body?
  4. How religions around the globe view and react about the undead?

Hope they have some strong coffins in this world.

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Trench warfare would change faster and secondary tasks

Trenches were captured by throwing men at the trench. It was a wasteful way of just throwing men at a problem and hoping enough survived to capture it. Especially with the introduction of machine guns this was a costly endeavour. The trenches led to stalemates. Even taking a trench or two would just mean you've moved the front just a bit further. The next trenches are near certainly already dug, waiting with new cannon fodder.

It feels to me a swarm of zombies are too easily foiled due to their lack of intelligence and coordination. A small ditch just before a trench might be enough to have them fall over. Even if you add a healthy dose of explosives to them for a suicide mission I doubt they will reach the enemy trench, even if you throw an absurd anount against them. It would be a help by reanimating the soldiers you lose when you throw men at them, but motivating your troops will be more difficult. If they run at the enemy they might not just die. They might return as an unholy abomination. I think fewer will be inclined to march over a field.

Faster exchange of trenches

I do feel trenches would exchange quicker. Because people die all the time, even without masses of men thrown at the problem. Best is to pair the necromancers with sharpshooters as a spotter. The moment an enemy dies, they resurrect them. An immediate ally within the enemy line. This also prevents backlash from your own troops getting reanimated. Hopefully with direct control they can still pull pins of grenades or set to frenzy normally. The moment the enemy trench is distracted you can throw men at the problem as you wish, but if the zombie can kill some extra for more zombies you're golden.

This would make trenches more vulnerable from zombies. Though trenches will exchange hands more often, it is hard to understate what kind of horrible meat grinders they were. Adding zombies will just accelerate death and destruction, but will probably not change WWI much.

Secondary tasks

The zombies cannot use guns. However, they can probably do much more simple tasks. They might be used for something as simple as bringing supplies to the front. Give them a box and a direction. Depending on the complexity allowed, they might dig trenches or move messages. It might not be directly apparent when they are useful, but many menial tasks might be done by them, assisting a front better than any blind rush over no man's land can do.

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The main questions I would have is whether the zombies were capable of doing tasks like clearing obstacles or digging trenches and can zombies be resurrected more than once?

Over all though this would render every side more like the Russians in WII with all sides just throwing more and more zombies against each other hoping the other guy will run out of bullets and artillery shells. There would also be a greater emphasis on spies, snipers, and commandos to neutralize the other sides Necromancers.

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Since we are talking about necromancy and dead body, let's trash all semblance of morale and modify those bodies to carry plagues, radioactive weird stuff whatever that should not be viable due to the hazard nature to the host of the tool. Send those zombies infested with maggots and flies, and let them trying to kill those stuff, spreading toxic flesh and cadaver all over the place.

if they figure it out make dem zombie dig a tunnel underneath and give them bombs, walking toxic minefield.

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Its a matter of just how many zombies, and if both sides have them.

Dumb, cheap and fearless is great for human wave attacks.

A few things I'd do is, since they don't need 'great' vision, would be to throw on helmets to prevent headshots. Throw on explosive backpacks and just march them into the enemies lines in massive numbers.

If the enemy has barbed wire, just make them walk into it and snarl it up.

Most importantly they have no morale issues and won't break. This renders 'traditional' infantry in large numbers less useless. You can only shoot and otherwise attack so many shambling undead before it takes a toll.

They'd also basically 'deplete' ammunition reserves shooting at these so you'd likely have different tactics to deal with them.

Since 'effective' tank warfare needs infantry support, and tanks debuted in WW1, unless the necromancers NEEDED to be on the ground, I'd sit them in a tank or AFV (since they'd be a high value target), not very different from a regular or command tank.

If they are unarmed, you'd likely also see combat use of things like mineflails and unusual physical other weapons to deal with them.

This also means you'd minimise 'regular' infantry with fewer, more specialised units. Your dead could be used to replenish enemy ranks. You'd probably behead burn or otherwise render your dead unusable for use as undead fodder if you can't recover them.

Depending on the rules of war, its also possible that forces might massacre enemy civilians and revive them as weapons, so getting people out of the conflict zones is more important.

Also to risk stealing an idea, if you didn't need the resurrected to be human, you could probably use an undead armoured elephant or bear as a fairly terrifying weapon.

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