Editor’s note: TheBlaze occasionally runs stories on significant historical events. Today: the battle of Fort Vaux during the Battle of Verdun in 1916.
Beginning on June 1, 1916, a garrison of fewer than 200 French soldiers, cut off from their own line, without a single large gun, and dying of thirst, withstood an incredible artillery barrage from superior German forces and a frontal assault of tens of thousands of German troops for over a week until they found themselves literally dying of thirst and were forced to surrender. This is their story.
The haunted grounds of Verdun
Modern man can scarcely imagine, let alone believe, the carnage that befell the French fortress at Verdun just a short century ago during World War I. In a single battle lasting about 10 months, more than 700,000 combined soldiers died along a few short miles of a front in which almost no actual movement occurred.
By way of reference, the best estimates for the Battle of the Bulge show fewer than 100,000 killed in about a month and a half. Modern warfare is positively sanitized by comparison: In over 15 years of combat in Afghanistan, fewer than 3,000 American soldiers have been killed in action.
Within the abattoir of Verdun, one battle symbolized the full horror of the Western front: the German assault on the poorly garrisoned and equipped Fort Vaux, which was supposed to at long last break the French line and pave the Germans’ route to Paris.
The performance of the French military has been oft-maligned of late, and after consecutive debacles in World War II, Algeria, and Vietnam, that reputation might be deserved. But the battle at Fort Vaux, fought from June 1-8, 1916, was emblematic of the bravery and outright heroism (even in the face of command incompetence) displayed by French troops throughout the course of World War I.
And at Fort Vaux, both that bravery and command incompetence were on full display. Due to the bravery of the soldiers garrisoned there, the fort stood far longer than it should have. However, if not for a series of blunders by French commanders, it might well have stood forever — or not been assaulted at all.
Maj. Sylvain Eugene Raynal
During the fateful June battle, Vaux was under the command of one of the most remarkable French soldiers in history, Maj. Sylvain Eugene Raynal. Raynal took a bullet in the shoulder at the onset of hostilities in September 1914, but returned to action shortly thereafter. He was gravely wounded three months later when a shell detonated near his command post, nearly killing him and hospitalizing him for more than 10 months. Upon his release from the hospital, he immediately returned to the front in October 2015, where he was again almost immediately gravely wounded by shrapnel, which nearly crippled him and would require him to walk with a cane for the rest of his life.
The French army attempted to medically discharge him due to his repeated injuries, but when the army was forced to allow disabled officers to volunteer for fort defense (so that able-bodied officers would be freed up for field service), Raynal immediately volunteered and was assigned to the defense of Fort Vaux.
An impossible defense
When Raynal arrived at the fort on May 24, 1916, he found the fort in appalling condition. The much larger fortress of Douaumont had been taken by the Germans with barely a shot fired during a surprise raid that caught French command with their pants completely down. Almost all of the fort’s fixed guns had been stripped for use along other parts of the front. The fort’s lone turret, a 75 mm gun, had been disabled during a German bombardment. Adjacent portions of the French line had been hastily abandoned in the face of the German offensive named Operation Gericht. This meant that the fortress was cut off from the rest of the French line — and worse, completely unable to prevent or even slow German artillery from moving into place for bombardment.
The state of the fortress’s defenses was, if possible, even worse. The fort had been bombarded almost constantly since February, and wide cracks were present everywhere in reinforced concrete. Even some ceilings of the interior tunnels had been cracked and hastily repaired with sandbags.
The actual living conditions in the fort were unimaginable. According to historian William Buckingham, one soldier described the conditions before the onslaught commenced as completely intolerable:
We lived at Fort Vaux for 15 days, from May 2 to 17 … Eight thousand shells fell every day on the fort and its surroundings on a calm day. We lived in filth, 15 day beard, covered with lice, amid a pungent smell of blood coming from the infirmary, a simple bunker where they piled the wounded and where the dead waited until we could cast them into a pit at night … everywhere, in the hallways, men were crammed, lying pell mell in the most diverse positions. The degree of fatigue of all was such that it was enough to sit or lie for just seconds to sleep, sleep like never sleep more.
When Raynal arrived, he likewise remarked on the horrid overcrowding of the fort, which was designed to garrison 150 men. Raynal estimated that there may have been over 500 men present, the vast majority of which were gravely wounded and unfit for fighting. Their presence made moving about in the fort almost impossible.
Worse still, although French commander Philippe Petain had issued orders that all forts should have tunnels dug into their wartime entrances in order to protect troops in the event of a retreat, Raynal found that in the case of Fort Vaux, such tunnels had not even been started, which meant that in the event of an attack, his men would be completely unable to retreat.
And, in the worst news of all (although Raynal might not have understood it at the time), a faulty gauge on the fort’s 5,000-liter water reservoir meant that Raynal was likely not aware of how drastic the water situation was about to become for his troops.
As the German attack commenced, the Germans threw tens of thousands of men at Fort Vaux (two full infantry divisions), completely oblivious to their own loss of life. Raynal soon found himself almost completely surrounded in a compromised fort that had no turrets, artillery, or clean water.
The attack commences
As the Germans began their attack on June 1, the French defenses around the fort quickly wilted due to a massive German artillery bombardment. Undaunted, the soldiers within Fort Vaux set up machine guns along the perimeter, with which they bravely harassed artillery crews despite completely inadequate shelter from bombardment, thus slowing the German advance all along the line. They suffered casualties they could not afford in the process, such that by the next day, there were 71 men in fighting shape within the fort.
This may have been just as well, because on June 2, the fort exhausted the last of its supply of water, a paltry eight gallons of foul-smelling sludge that had likely been poisoned by decomposing corpses. It would nonetheless be the last water anyone in the fort would have to drink until June 5, when men were able to catch some rainwater in groundsheets, which they greedily drank off the ground. The French army attempted to send a company to relieve the men in the fort on the evening of June 5, but due to heavy German bombardment, only 37 relief solders would reach the fort alive.
On the morning of June 6, Raynal’s entreaties for more ammunition and water had gone unanswered, and his reinforcements had almost all perished attempting to reach the fort. His flank defenses had been completely obliterated, and Raynal could see the Germans preparing for a direct frontal assault on the fort itself.
He and his paltry garrison began a fevered preparation for the onslaught. They filled no less than nine separate breaches in the concrete with sandbags. Raynal foresaw that eventually, the Germans would breach the outer defenses of the fort, so he set about turning the fort’s inner tunnels into a labyrinth of death, erecting a confusing series of barriers with sandbags that had loopholes for weapons and grenades. A large stockpile of weapons was moved to the fort’s innermost room in preparation for a final stand.
All the while, according to Raynal, shells were falling upon the fort at a rate of 1,500 to 2,000 shells an hour. The shelling itself was bad enough; but every shell that landed kicked up dust, which was murder on men who had existed on mere sips of foul water for four days and were literally dying of thirst.
Finally, the shells stopped falling, and the French soldiers inside tensed, because they knew this meant that the assault was about to commence.
Storming the fort
The German infantry began charging up the slope on the eastern corner of the moat, surrounding the fort and spilling into the concrete ditches erected for the fort’s defense. The hasty perimeter machine guns Raynal had erected took a murderous toll on the German infantry, but still they charged on, climbing relentlessly over an ever-mounting stack of the dead bodies of their comrades. The Germans first breached the perimeter of the fort when one of the French machine guns on the perimeter jammed. German troops rushed the position and crammed several hand grenades through the gun’s opening in the wall. The explosion killed the entire crew and gave the Germans their first access to the fort.
The French soldiers then began an almost incredible retreat through the labyrinth of the fort’s external eastern moat, erecting hasty sandbag defenses, holding those defenses for as long as possible, then retreating a few yards down the corridor to a backup defensive position, and repeating the exercise again. The few remaining French soldiers in the eastern moat finally surrendered around 5 the next morning.
The second German front of attack, focused on the northern moats, was even more costly for the Germans. French soldiers successfully held out until 2 p.m. the following afternoon, and might have held out longer had German soldiers not discovered that some of the sandbags placed by Raynal were attempting to hide a breach in the roof of a key strategic tunnel. Germans removed the sandbags and began simply dropping grenades through the roof until all the men inside either surrendered or were killed.
The Germans thus began the inexorable and costly process of taking the fort. At every turn, they encountered reinforced steel doors or sandbag barriers manned by fearless French soldiers who poured murderous fire into their ranks.
French command witnessed the Germans swarming into the fort’s moat on June 2 and assumed that the fort must be in German hands by the end of the day; thus, they did nothing to halt the steady flow of German troops to the interior of the fort for two full days.
Finally, a desperate Raynal attempted to send a carrier pigeon to French command requesting artillery bombardment of the fort’s surface in order to slow the stream of German infantry soldiers, but the pigeon was wounded and its message tube was removed by the time it got to French command. Nonetheless, French command realized that the pigeon might possibly mean that the French still held Fort Vaux, so they dispatched a plane to fly over the fort on June 4, whereupon they learned to their surprise that the fight for the fort was still very much in progress.
French command responded by shelling the surface of the fort and ordering a counterattack (albeit with a paltry force). The German attack was slowed, but not stopped. In the interior of the fort, the tunnels narrowed to such a point that the Germans were forced to mount increasingly suicidal charges against reinforced French positions in single file.
The fighting was unimaginably brutal in conditions that can scarcely be believed. One can only imagine the darkness, punctuated by periodic blinding explosions, the ricocheting gunfire through the tunnels, the screams, and the horror. The stench of gunpowder and decaying bodies must have been nearly unbearable.
After two days, the French had almost completely destroyed two battalions of German troops, so the Germans tried another tactic. The Germans closed off all ventilation to the interior of the fort and began attempting to smoke Raynal and his men out by shooting flamethrowers through cracks in the roof. Raynal and his men, already enclosed in the darkness with the stench of thousands of bodies and dying of thirst, soon found themselves choking on the thick black smoke that the German flammenwerfen spat, powerless to do anything to stop them.
French soldiers initially panicked and fled the main corridor, and German troops began pouring through the crack in the ceiling. A lone, heroic soldier, Lt. Girard, charged back into the corridor with a machine gun and held the Germans at bay, inflicting dozens of casualties and throwing the Germans into disarray despite suffering several bullet wounds himself. He bought Raynal just enough time to reorganize his troops to mount a counterattack and re-establish a defensive position before he passed out from his wounds and the effects of the smoke and was dragged to safety by Raynal and his men.
Pigeon 787-15, the most heroic pigeon of the war
The flamethrower attack forced Raynal to take two actions: First, he ordered French soldiers to remove sandbags at key points in an attempt to ventilate the affected areas. Miraculously, the Germans appear to have not known where Raynal’s troops were stationed, and when the French removed the sandbags, expecting to have German grenades tossed through the resultant holes, they found instead only empty hallways and trenches. Second, Raynal used his last available pigeon to send a desperate plea to French command for help:
We are still holding but under very dangerous attack by gas and fumes. Relief is imperative. Do give us optical communication with [Fort] Souville, which does not respond to our calls. This is our last pigeon.
This pigeon, known as carrier pigeon 787-15, was itself an act of heroism. The pigeon was suffering from the effects of the flamethrower fumes and was initially unable to fly and disoriented. It repeatedly returned to the hole from which it had been released, only to be sent out again. Finally, confused and dying, it reached French command and promptly expired. The pigeon was awarded a posthumous L’egion d’Honneur, the only pigeon ever so recognized. It was preserved by a taxidermist and is on display at Fort Vaux still today.
As a result of the pigeon’s successful flight, Fort Souville re-established communications (command there had likewise assumed Fort Vaux to be lost), and French command ordered a counteroffensive to relieve the troops inside the fort. This counteroffensive succeeded in retaking a trench along the northwest section of the fort and slowing the German advance into the fort. It might have allowed the fort’s garrison to hold out indefinitely, but the faulty water gauge was finally about to make its presence felt.
The water crisis deepens
Raynal knew he was short on water, and he knew that the water he had was dangerous (at best) to drink, but he believed that with careful rationing he could hold the fort virtually forever — which is why he had not allowed his soldiers any further water after their June 2 rations. At some point on June 4, after dispatching his last, heroic pigeon, one of Raynal’s NCOs approached him with some grim news. According to Raynal’s notes:
It was in the course of the afternoon that the sapper sargeant in course of the stores came and asked to speak to me in private, and said in a hoarse voice, “Mon commandant, there is practically no water left in the cistern.” I started, I made him repeat what he had said, I shook him. “There has been dirty work here.” “No, sir, we have only served out the ration you laid down. It is the marks on the register which have been wrong.” Then our agony began. I gave orders to hold back the little that remained and to make no further allowance today.
Raynal was forced to cut his men’s rations of water brutally short. Additionally, he was forced to make the agonizing decision to evacuate some 300 non-combat personnel and wounded from inside the fort, because he could not spare them any water. Raynal knew that he was likely sending most of these men to their deaths, but he had no choice. They attempted this evacuation in the dead of night, and only through a miracle were about a third of them able to survive and reach the French lines.
Meanwhile, the Germans had, unbeknownst to the French inside the fort, been tunneling under the southwest corner of the fort and preparing to blow that sector open with a mine. The plan was to again pour flamethrower fire through the resultant hole. The Germans successfully detonated the mine and began again pouring the dangerous fire into the fort, but a fortuitous gust of wind caused the fire to rebound on the flamethrower operators, and in the confusion, the indomitable Lt. Girard once again led a charge that dispersed the attackers, and once again resulted in Girard being gravely wounded.
Raynal signaled the nearby Souville, which again bombarded the surface of the fort with artillery, and crushed other Germans who were working on tunneling under other areas of the fort. The Germans responded by shelling Raynal’s signaling station, meaning that he was totally cut off from the outside world. Meanwhile, the German infantry advance through the fort’s corridors continued inexorably onward, finally cutting off the last latrine in the fort, meaning that the French had to add the smell of their own waste to their increasingly poisonous quarters.
Raynal appears to have been ready to surrender on the evening of June 5, but a message dispatched to him through German lines convinced him that French command would attempt a counteroffensive the next day to provide relief. This counteroffensive was a disaster that resulted in total failure and massive loss of French life. By this time, Raynal’s forces had been withdrawn to the fort’s main gallery, which was assumed to be impregnable but which suffered a partial roof collapse, which further sapped troop morale.
Raynal reported that he saw men licking the walls, attempting to gain a little moisture. Others reportedly attempted to drink their own urine. Holed up in this room with 70 or 80 wounded men he could not treat, many of whom were screaming in pain, surrounded on all sides by stench and men who were clearly dying of thirst, Raynal and his four surviving officers decided on that evening that their men had done all that could be reasonably asked of them. At 3 on the morning of June 7, the French garrison detached a messenger bearing a white flag and a message of surrender to the German lines.
The German delegation that entered the fort did so with solemnity and honor for the brave French soldiers therein. When they reached the bedraggled Raynal and his surviving garrison, they snapped off a salute worthy of the Kaiser, and presented Raynal with a surrender document, which he signed. Raynal presented them with an ornate key to the fort, and Raynal was taken behind German lines as a prisoner and escorted to German army headquarters on June 8, thus ending the battle. He was met by the Crown Prince, who honored him for his gallantry by presenting him with a French Officer’s Sword to replace his own that had been lost in the battle — a touching sign of respect in a war that seemingly ground all traces of humanity out of many of its participants.
When all was said and done, the ragtag, poorly equipped French forces inside Fort Vaux had killed or wounded almost 3,000 German soldiers, including numerous officers. The French, meanwhile, suffered only 50 fatalities and perhaps another 80 or 90 wounded. The French would ultimately hold Verdun and their country, but at terrible cost.
The French and Germans would each learn valuable military lessons from the battle of Fort Vaux — lessons that would have tremendous consequences in World War II. Unfortunately, the French learned all the wrong lessons and the Germans learned the right ones. The French believed that Fort Vaux illustrated that the best way to stop a German onslaught was to build an impenetrable series of Fort Vauxs, and thus constructed the Maginot Line. The Germans, meanwhile, learned that it was better to avoid fighting inch by inch for these forts at all, and thus devised a way to go completely around them.
Thus, the heroism of French forces inside the fort perversely served to ultimately advance German war aims, albeit in a completely different war fought by a completely different generation.