Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 239th installment in the series.
June 8, 1916: Germans Capture Fort Vaux
The French failure to recapture Fort Douaumont in May 1916 was accompanied by more devastating losses, as the Germans finally wrested control of Cote 304 and Mort Homme, two key hills on the west bank of the Meuse, amid indescribable bloodshed. Possession of these two hills gave German artillery the drop on French forts around the citadel of Verdun, clearing the way for a new offensive on the eastern bank.
On June 1 the Germans unleashed “Operation May Cup,” an all-out offensive along a relatively narrow three-mile-long front, targeting the final French defenses standing between the Germans and the côtes de Meuse, or “hills above the Meuse” – their original objective in attacking Verdun. From this strategic position overlooking the town their heavy artillery would threaten the bridges over the Meuse and the citadel of Verdun itself, which in turn would either force the French to throw away their remaining reserves in futile counterattacks or abandon the symbolic fortress. Either way, if the German Fifth Army succeeded in capturing the line running approximately from Fort Tavannes to the small “ouvrage” or defensive works at Froideterre, directly north of Verdun, victory would be theirs (see map below).
The first main obstacle was Fort Vaux, a small but formidable French redoubt which had managed to hold off repeated attacks over the first three months of the battle (below, an aerial view). Shaped like a trapezoid and just a quarter the size of its counterpart Fort Douaumont, Fort Vaux had been stripped of most of its artillery before the battle began, leaving the sole 75-millimeter turret to be destroyed by an enormous 420-millimeter German shell which set off demolition charges (foolishly left in place after a plan to abandon the fort was canceled). As a result Vaux was protected only by machine guns and it garrison of infantry, swollen to 650 men including wounded being treated in the infirmary. Although still basically intact, the structure had also suffered heavily from German shelling over the course of the battle, including seven breaches in various places, all plugged with sandbags.
Operation May Cup met with surprising success from the beginning, as the Germans blasted away two out of three entrenched positions protecting the approaches to the fort and arrived beneath its walls on the evening of June 1, fully three days ahead of schedule (top and below, German soldiers outside Fort Vaux). An anonymous French officer manning one of the entrenched positions recalled the initial bombardment:
We had scarcely arrived at the right of Fort de Vaux, on the slope of the ravine, when there came an unprecedented bombardment of twelve hours. Alone, in a sort of dugout without walls, I pass twelve hours of agony, believing that it is the end. The soil is torn up, covered with fresh earth by enormous explosions. In front of us are not less than 1,200 guns of 240, 305, 380, and 420 calibre, which spit ceaselessly and all together, in these days of preparation for attack. These explosions stupefy the brain; you feel as if your entrails were being torn out, your heart twisted and wrenched; the shock seems to dismember your whole body. And then the wounded, the corpses! Never had I seen such horror, such hell. I felt that I would give everything if only this would stop long enough to clear my brain. Twelve hours alone, motionless, exposed, and no chance to risk a leap to another place, so closely did the fragments of shell and rock fall in hail all day long.
As the Germans swiftly overwhelmed the first two entrenched positions, Captain Delvert, commander of the beleaguered force holding the third and last entrenched position, recalled conditions there as the isolated defenders fought on in desperation:
Everywhere the stones have been splashed with red drops. In places, great pools of violet-coloured, viscous blood have been formed, and cease to spread. Half-way along the communication trench, in the bright sunshine, corpses are lying, stiff and stark under their blood-stained canvas. Everywhere there are piles of debris of all kinds: empty tins of canned food, disemboweled knapsacks, helmets riddled with holes, rifles shattered and splashed with blood… An intolerable stench poisons the air… And the heavy hammer-blows of the shells never cease from echoing all around us.
Delvert’s troops hung on heroically throughout the battle, but were unable to stop the German onslaught following the loss of the other two entrenched positions. Over the seven following days, from June 2-8, French and German troops fought for control of Fort Vaux in even more nightmarish conditions, as combat eventually extended into the narrow, claustrophobic subterranean passageways of the fort itself.
The attack on the fort itself began with a thundering bombardment in the early morning of June 2, with German guns dropping around 2,000 shells an hour on the fort’s thick soil superstructure, dry moat, and protective external galleries, whose inward-facing gun slits allowed defenders to mow down any attackers who tried to cross the moat. Just before dawn, battalions from the German 50th Division staged their first attacks on the galleries, scaling the tops of these structures and improvising various methods to expel the hard-to-reach defenders, including lowering clusters of hand grenades in front of the gun slits and fitting flamethrowers with long, curved tubes to direct the flames inward.
The Germans suffered enormous casualties during these audacious attacks, with one French officer describing the scene:
… the German chiefs must be hangmen to hurl their troops to death that way in masses and in broad daylight. All afternoon, a maximum bombardment; a wood is razed, a hill ravaged with shell-holes. It is maddening; continuous salvos of “big chariots”; one sees the 380’s and 420’s falling; a continuous cloud of smoke everywhere. Trees leap into air like wisps of straw; it is an unheard-of spectacle.
After finally clearing the galleries of their defenders, the Germans occupied the roof of the fort (once covered in grass, now a mass of soil churned up by thousands of shells) and looked for ways into the main structure. Knowing the Germans would find their way in eventually the French commander, Major Sylvain-Eugene Raynal, began preparing the fort’s last-ditch defenses, ordering his troops to construct a series of sandbag barriers along the fort’s main underground corridors, behind which French machine gun crews could shelter (below, one of the interior passages of Fort Vaux).
On June 3, as the German attackers fought their way in to the fort’s central structure, both sides descended into hell, or something like it, with the ferocious combat inside the fort’s reinforced concrete passageways. The conditions were beyond imagination, even by the horrifying standards of the First World War: in addition to machine guns and rifles, both sides made liberal use of grenades in the narrow corridors, blowing out men’s eardrums and often killing them through shockwaves alone, and the Germans employed flamethrowers to send fire down vents and through doorways, burning French (and occasionally by accident German soldiers) alive and filling enclosed spaces with toxic smoke. The fort was filled with dead bodies that quickly began to decompose in the summer heat, and the French were now shelling the Germans occupying the roof relentlessly. Capping it all off, Raynal discovered that the French garrison, now trapped in the fort, was running out of water: it turned out the gauge on the fort’s cistern, showing a full water supply, was broken.
Still the Germans pressed on, accepting massive casualties in return for advances measured in single-digit meters, as the French machine gunners fought tooth and nail for every sandbag emplacement in the corridors. Aware that Raynal’s troops were in desperate straits, French commander Robert Nivelle ordered a relief effort to lift the siege, but the 124th Division failed to break through the German units protecting the besieging forces. On June 4, Raynal dispatched his last carrier pigeon to French headquarters, calling for another immediate relief effort; the pigeon flew home, despite being gassed in a German attack, and died after delivering its message (it later became the only bird decorated with the Legion of Honor).
Now the water situation was becoming critical. By June 5, there was approximately a half-pint of dirty water left per man, which Raynal duly dispensed to his troops, followed by a message sent by heliograph (a mirror used to reflect the sun) to neighboring Fort Souville that their fight was reaching an end. On June 6, another French relief effort failed miserably, throwing the defenders of Fort Vaux into despondency. Finally, on June 7 Raynal decided the jig was up and sent two officers under a white flag to negotiate the fort’s surrender; Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, commander of the German Fifth Army, was so impressed with the French resistance at Fort Vaux that he presented Raynal (who’d lost his sword during the battle) with another officer’s sword, in a great show of respect. On June 8, the last French attempt to retake Fort Vaux ended in complete, ignominious failure, as colonial troops from Morocco were wiped out by German artillery before they even go to their starting positions in the French trenches.
The fall of Fort Vaux brought the Germans one big step closer to the citadel of Verdun, and the following days would be some of the most dangerous for the French since the battle began. The Germans would make their final push to victory in late June, with the fate of France hanging in the balance.
Meanwhile ordinary soldiers on both sides at Verdun continued to endure conditions which defy easy description. By now literally tens of thousands of dead bodies carpeted the ground across the battlefield, and continual shelling made it almost impossible to bury many of them; others were hastily interred in shell holes or the sides of the trenches, where they decayed in full view of their surviving compatriots.
In June 1916 one French soldier near the village of Thiaumont wrote in a letter home: “...I stayed ten days next to a man who was chopped in two; there was no way to move him; he had one leg on the parapet and the rest of this body in the trench. It stank and I had to chew tobacco the whole time in order to endure this torment...” And on June 19 the French officer Henri Desagneaux wrote in his diary:
We try to make ourselves as comfortable as possible but the more we dig, the more bodies we find. We give up and go elsewhere, but we just give up one graveyard for another. At dawn we have to stop as the German planes are up above spying on us. They signal and the guns start up again, more furiously than before. No sleep, no water, impossible to move out of one’s hole, to even show your head above one’s trench.
Enemy shelling meant that supply disruptions were now the rule, rather than the exception, leaving soldiers without food or water for days at a time. According to one German soldier, desperately thirsty men drank rainwater from shell holes tainted by rotting corpses, with predictable results – most notably dysentery, which could be fatal:
Nearly all suffer from dysentery. Because of the failing provisioning the men are forced to use up their emergency rations of salty meats. They quenched their thirst with water from the shellholes. They are stationed in the village of Ville where every form of care seems to be missing. They have to build their own accommodation and are given a little cacao to stop the diarrhoea. The latrines, wooden beams hanging over open holes, are occupied day and night – the holes are filled with slime and blood...
As always, some of the worst effects were inward, as men subjected to nonstop shelling began to lose their nerves, if not their minds. A French officer tried to sum up the experience of enduring shell after shell for weeks, even months at a time, until the victim lapses into numb indifference:
When you hear the whistling in the distance your entire body preventively crunches together to prepare for the enormous explosions. Every new explosion is a new attack, a new fatigue, a new affliction. Even nerves of the hardest of steel, are not capable of dealing with this kind of pressure. The moment comes when the blood rushes to your head, the fever burns inside your body and the nerves, numbed with tiredness, are not capable of reacting to anything anymore. It is as if you are tied to a pole and threatened by a man with a hammer. First the hammer is swung backwards in order to hit hard, then it is swung forwards, only missing your skull by an inch, into the splintering pole. In the end you just surrender. Even the strength to guard yourself from splinters now fails you. There is even hardly enough strength left to pray to God...