Germans Capture Fort Vaux

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...

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Everything That’s Leaving Netflix in April
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If you’ve been desperately trying to plan a Batman movie marathon with your friends, you’d better make it happen quickly. As of April 1, Netflix will no longer be streaming Tim Burton’s stylish 1989 reimagining of the Caped Crusader. (They’ll be eliminating Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and Batman & Robin, too—though you may not care as much about those latter two efforts.) In order to make room for the dozens of new movies, TV series, and specials making their way to Netflix in April, here’s everything that’s leaving the streaming giant’s library.


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Begin Again

12 Outrageous The Office Fan Theories

Mind-bending shows like Lost and Westworld bring out the conspiracy theorist in all of us. But even less cerebral shows have a way of inspiring some absolutely bonkers ideas. The Office was a sitcom that ran on NBC for eight years. But the way some of its fans talk on Reddit, you’d think it was a piece of science fiction. Here are 12 of the wildest theories about Andy’s “alcohorse,” radon poisoning, the Loch Ness Monster, and beyond.


One of the most enduring fan theories is that Michael Scott, noted idiot and jerk, is actually a brilliant businessman. A lot of people have suggested that Michael is putting on an act the whole time, making clients and bosses underestimate him so that he can manipulate them into giving him what he wants. Reddit points to the season two episode “The Client” as one example; this is the episode where Jan Levinson and Michael have a very important meeting, which Michael moves from the Radisson to Chili’s. He’s completely blowing it from Jan’s perspective, coming off as an unprofessional clown to their VIP client (Tim Meadows), but Michael’s approach loosens the guy up, allowing him to swiftly close the deal. There are a few other examples of Michael’s possible genius. Or he could just be a lucky dummy.


From season one, fans were rooting for Jim Halpert to win over Pam Beesly and get out of the paper business. But one fan theory suggests Dunder Mifflin’s slacker salesman manipulated us all. Reddit user Yahnster thinks Jim actually wrote the show, which is why he comes off as the hero and the coworkers he doesn’t like (i.e. Dwight Schrute) seem so annoying. Meanwhile his boss Michael, who never punishes Jim for his pranks or for being plain lazy, is written as a buffoon.


Kevin Malone isn’t the sharpest employee at Dunder Mifflin. He shreds his own credit cards by accident and can’t transfer a call to save his life. In one especially mean prank, Dwight convinces new HR exec Holly Flax that Kevin is mentally challenged. Like the Michael Scott theory, some fans believe Kevin was just pretending to be dumb—in this case, so that no one would notice he was embezzling money from the company. It would explain how he was able to buy a bar, and why he makes a weird comment about insider trading. (“I had Martin explain to me three times what he got arrested for, because it sounds an awful lot like what I do here every day.”) Check out the video above for even more evidence.


Anyone who has watched all nine seasons of The Office has probably noticed that the characters get a little bit stranger as the series goes along. There’s a theory that explains this—and it’s kind of dark! There’s a running joke on the show that the office is due for radon testing. But because Toby Flenderson is always the one bringing it up, it’s dismissed. According to one theory, Toby was right—and the entire staff has slowly been developing brain cancer. Eventually, the illness begins to alter their personalities, causing them to act in demented and strange ways. It’s also why Michael is way more mature in the series finale. Moving to Colorado with Holly did wonders for his radon-poisoned brain. Once he was out of the toxic office, he could finally grow up.


Reddit has piggybacked off the radon theory to explain Andy Bernard’s behavior, which is probably the most exaggerated of the bunch. While Andy could be suffering from radon poisoning, one theory suggests his brain damage is more directly the result of a fateful drink. In the season seven episode “Viewing Party,” Andy is having a hard time dealing with his ex Erin Hannon’s new relationship with Gabe Lewis. He’s processing all this while he’s in Gabe’s room, where he finds a mysterious container. Temp Ryan Howard tells him it’s full of powdered seahorse, which gives people superhuman strength. Andy dumps it in his wine and downs it all. The combination of alcohol and, uh, seahorse messes Andy up permanently. If this theory weren’t crazy enough, it also comes with a ridiculous name: “alcohorse.”


Fans might like the Michael theory, but they love the idea that HR’s milquetoast Toby is the Scranton Strangler. Seriously, there are entire videos laying out the claims (see one above). Could Toby actually be the notorious criminal who dominates the local news in later seasons? Fans have built up quite the case. For starters, he wasn’t at work when everyone watched the police chase and apprehend the Scranton Strangler. He didn’t even show up for the Glee party later that day! Then he makes it onto the jury, where he can help put the other guy behind bars. He’s pretty eager to share insider info from the courtroom with his coworkers—eager because of the attention, or because he’s getting away with murder? Later on, after the Strangler is found guilty, he tells everyone he’s not so sure they convicted the right guy. Did his guilty conscience overwhelm him? Or is Toby just a normal dude who takes jury duty seriously? You decide.


No really, hear this one out: A bunch of people sincerely believe that the Scranton office is hell—but that it didn’t become a hellscape until after one key episode. “Stress Relief” is a two-parter from season five. In the first part, Stanley has a heart attack in the middle of a safety drill. He survives, and soon returns to work. But what if Stanley really died that day? The theory goes that Stanley’s heart attack kills him and he’s sent straight to hell. (He did have all those affairs, after all.) Stanley hated his work more than anyone, so for him, hell is the office. But because this is hell, all his coworkers are exaggerated versions of themselves: more annoying and more cartoonish.


It’s impossible to forgot where Bob Vance works, because he repeats the name of his business (Vance Refrigeration) every time he introduces himself. But is Bob an awkward hype man, or a savvier businessman than we all suspected? One popular theory says that Bob isn’t selling his services to the people he meets onscreen, but to the people watching the documentary. It’s his way of scoring free ads, even if he does seem a little strange to Phyllis’s coworkers.


Rainn Wilson in 'The Office'

Dwight Schrute frequently struggles to separate fiction from reality. Here’s a quick list of examples, as documented by TimmestTim: He thinks he can raise and lower his cholesterol at will; he thinks Jim might be turning into a vampire and that his neighbor’s dog is a werewolf; he can’t tell the difference between a hero and a superhero or a Benjamin Franklin impersonator and the actual Benjamin Franklin. TimmestTim posits that Dwight has this disconnect because he wasn't allowed to watch movies growing up. Once he got older, and got very into fantasy and sci-fi (i.e. Battlestar Galactica), his brain couldn’t quite separate what he saw on the screen from real life. Since he had no exposure during his formative years, the distinction was harder, which is why he has no problem believing Jim is a creature of the night.


Dunder Mifflin is never the most financially stable company. Even before Sabre buys it out, Michael’s bosses are constantly warning him about layoffs or branch shutdowns—and begging him to stop spending large amounts of money on holiday parties. Based on the wider company problems and Michael’s frequent mistakes, the Scranton branch should’ve been shuttered during the first episode. So how does it survive for so long? One Reddit user theorizes that the camera crew kept them in business. Sensing that the office antics would make for great television, the crew bought up Dunder Mifflin paper so they could keep filming, and eventually make their money back on a TV show deal. Considering the damage Michael does to the warehouse alone, it must have been a lot of paper.


There’s a pretty convincing case that The Office is happening at the same time as Parks and Recreation and Dexter, and it all comes down to office supplies. In season six, a printer company called Sabre buys out Dunder Mifflin. A few Sabre employees became recurring characters, like Jo Bennet (Kathy Bates) and Gabe Lewis (Zach Woods), and the Scranton office suddenly has to drink out of metal water bottles, as per company policy. Otherwise, not much changes. But Sabre is important, because its products have appeared on other shows. Eagle-eyed viewers have spotted Sabre printers on Parks and Recreation and even Dexter. But some people think the connections run deeper. (Here’s a lengthier case for crossover involving Creed and a Parks and Rec cult.)


Creed, the strangest man at Dunder Mifflin, is the subject of many theories. But by far the best one is that he’s trying to catch Nessie. In “The Seminar,” Creed gives a speech about the Loch Ness Monster (which you can watch above), where he describes the creature and mentions the totally fake reward for its capture: all the riches in Scotland. So he’s clearly fixated on this folklore, but LaxBro316 pieced it together with another Creed non sequitur to explain his ultimate goal. “If I can’t scuba, then what’s this all been about?” he asks. “What am I working toward?” It’s unclear if Creed ever found Nessie, but we hope he’s enjoying all the riches of Scotland.


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