|Artist 's impression of a French
The Battle for Fort Vaux
When the battle for Verdun stagnates
in the beginning of March, the German army Command concludes that first
the French artillery fire from the left riverbank has to be eliminated,
before a successful march to Verdun becomes possible along the right
riverbank. The Battle for the Flanks is about to begin. The attack on the
left riverbank is executed by the VIth German Reserve army
corps. At the left riverbank the battle starts on Monday 6 March.
|Map of the the right bank of the Meuse
right riverbank the battle starts on Wednesday 8 March; the target is Fort
Vaux. The attack has been postponed for two days because the Germans have
great trouble bringing their artillery into position due to the terrible
condition of the terrain. In the meantime the French have reoccupied the
remaining forts and reinforced their lines of defence. The lines at Fort Vaux are the strongest frontal positions at this moment.
(Note: From German side the idea has been mentioned to deploy
sectional mountain guns. This idea is dismissed: for the transportation of
12 pieces, 1200 men were needed and more than 900 horses. Such a caravan
would be extremely fragile under severe circumstances.)
Wednesday - 8 March The attack at the right riverbank begins as
usual: first there is a drumfire of the artillery where gas grenades are
used, after that a mass infantry attack follows. The Vth Reserve army corps has to execute the attack under the command of General
Von Guretzky and the IIId army corps under General Von Lochow.
Fort Vaux appears to be for the taking but between Hardoumont and Fort
Vaux runs a 100 metres deep gorge. At the bottom of this gorge the village
of Vaux is situated which is transacted by a small river that ends in a
large pond in the West. The attack immediately stagnates because of the
fierce fire of the French, which comes from the higher situated defence of
Fort Vaux. Yet the Vth reserve army corps receives the order to
attack again. This nightly German attack has an unexpected success; the
French were not expecting another attack and were taken by surprise. The
village of Vaux is now in German hands and the troops have reached the
defence lines halfway on the slopes of the fort. The attack ends, however,
in chaos on German side. In the inky darkness of the night the companies
lose their way, officers disappear and there is no communication
whatsoever. The German troops are forced to dig themselves in because of
the brutal fire coming from the French lines.
|German attack on the village of
Thursday - 9 March In the morning the German 64th
Regiment is ordered to occupy the Bois Fumin, situated next to the fort,
because Fort Vaux had supposedly already fallen into German hands. Soon
after, rumours are heard through the grapevine. There is even speculation
of German infantrymen on top of the fort. Furthermore, an alleged red and
yellow German flag is seen blowing on top of the fort. That same morning
the following announcement can be heard: 'have reached Fort Vaux with
three companies'. This message is interpreted as 'have conquered Fort Vaux'.
This message is spread to the world and General Von Guretzky is awarded
the highest German decoration, the 'Pour le Mérite'. When it is
discovered that the message is incorrect this bestowing of honour has to
be reversed the next day.
The IIId army corps headed by General
Von Lochow has to erase this painful memory and is immediately ordered to
finally conquer Fort Vaux entirely.
But the unthinkable happens: two
regimental commanders disobey this order as they feel that: 'it is useless
to attack without artillery support of the flank'. The reserve forces of
General Von Guretzky are then appointed to attack the fort without
artillery support. This useless and bloody attack is withstood
successfully by the French.
Saturday - 11 March The troops of the
XVIIIth German army corps are finally relieved of their duties.
The men are completely exhausted.
German eye-witness: ...The losses are registered as
follows: they are dead, wounded, missing, nervous wrecks, ill and
exhausted. 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
The first German attack on the right bank of the Meuse has failed.
Sunday - 19 March From this day on the German army on the right
bank is reorganised. The three Army Forces are joined together into one
Eastern Army Force [Angriffsgruppe Ost] commanded by General Von Mudra (a
fortress specialist). The Battle of Fort Vaux continues. The Germans
achieve small successes but the losses are enormous. In the front lines
nobody is willing to attack any more. General Von Bahrfeldt
reports to headquarters: 'an attack by the Xth division is out
of the question. My men are totally apathetic and completely exhausted'.
This message also reaches up to Commander-in-chief Von Knobelsdorf. He
eventually has to give in to the pressure of his officers: the attack of Fort
Vaux is postponed until fresh troops can be stationed at the front. (Note: General Von Bahrfeldt is of course quickly replaced.)
|The battlefield - Fort Vaux in the
Friday - 14 April The 50th Infantry division arrives
to strengthen the Vth Reserve Army Corps at Fort Vaux. At the
end of April all preparations for continuing the battle are made. In the
meantime General Von Mudra has been replaced by General Von Lochow as
Commander of the Angriffsgruppe Ost. Thus far he had been Commander of the
IIId (Brandenburger) Army Corps, the conquerors of Fort Douaumont. Von Mudra warns him not to take rash military decisions that
will inevitably lead to more unnecessary losses. The next large attack is
set for Sunday 7 May, birthday of the Crown Prince. The code name is 'May
The German and French relieve system
The German army Command begins to seriously worry about the decreasing
quality of the front troops. The Germans were used to sending their troops
to the front and let these troops remain there for months. The losses were
compensated for with young soldiers, often not above 18 years of age and
without any frontline experience whatsoever. The infantry battalion
commanders begged their officers to send experienced soldiers. These
inexperienced children did not stand a chance there.
The French, commanded by Pétain, used a totally different system.
Their divisions were stationed at the front and after a short while
completely replaced with fresh divisions. This so-called Noria-system
provided the French with less exhausted troops than the Germans were left
with. Consequently the French troops felt much more involved with the
Battle of Verdun than the Germans did. Approximately 70 percent of the
French troops were sacrificed to the 'mincer' of Verdun.
Pétain replaced by Nivelle
At the side of the French a crisis situation occurred in the army Command.
Joffre blamed Pétain a too careful and too defensive attitude.
Furthermore, when Pétain demanded a longer period of rest for his
divisions, Joffre concluded that the planned offensive of the Somme would
be in danger. Pétain was kicked upstairs and received the function of
Commander-in-chief of the Central Army Group, to which division Verdun
belonged as well. His replacement from Monday 1 May was General Robert
Nivelle, who was known for being a ruthless fighter that favoured the
frontal attack [l’ attaque à outrance]. One of his subordinates, his
right hand man, is General Charles Mangin. This is a rock-hard front
General, who had already been in command at Verdun, of the Vth Division, and who was nicknamed the 'slaughterer' because of his ruthless
attacks. Mangin made it his aim to recapture Fort Douaumont.
Monday - 1 May The attack of Fort Vaux is begun. The army
command wants to clear the French lines in the Bois de la Caillette first
before the fort is actually attacked. The position of these French lines
is a severe obstacle for the attacker when storming the fort. However,
German Headquarters decides differently: fort Vaux has to be attacked
first. On Sunday 7 May it becomes clear that the German attack has failed
again. The French artillery fire, lead by observation balloons and aircraft is
too severe. The Germans are forced back. The attack of the Thiaumont-
fortification, which was started on the same day, fails as well, due to
the severe French artillery fire. There is no German air-raid protection
that day. The German planes had not taken off, in order to throw of the
French, and not give away the surprise attack.
|French defenders in a trench in the
village of Vaux
In the meantime Fort Douaumont has become the
basis for all German activities in the frontline, against the Bois de la
Caillette, the Thiaumont-line and later against Fleury. The munitions
depots are situated here, wounded can receive medical attention and the
provisioning of all front troops are initiated from Fort Douaumont. The
fort is attacked by the French, night and day. All German activities take
place at night in order for the movement of troops not to be visible from
barrage balloons and aircraft. The French artillery keeps firing at the
supply routes and the Germans move in between attacks.
On Monday - 8 May 4:00 a.m. there is an hughe explosion in the
fort. There is a large number of deaths.
Read more about
the explosion in Fort Douaumont
Because of the severe French resistance at Fort Vaux, Bois de la Caillette
and the Thiaumont-fortification, combined with the catastrophe in Fort Douaumont,
the German operation "May bowl" is a failure right from the start.
Saturday - 13 May The German army command call a staff meeting.
It is concluded that both divisions of the IIId Army corps have
enough strength left to make a minor attack possible. There is a delay
however, as reinforcements have to arrive first, along with a stock of a
new type of poisonous gas grenades. The attack of the right bank of the
Meuse is therefore temporarily deferred. The attack is now solely
concentrated on the left bank.
At this staff meeting the Crown Prince pleads in favour of entirely
ceasing the attack of Verdun. Von Knobelsdorf, however, wants to pursue.
The Crown Prince reacts: 'I will not give that order. When headquarters
orders it, I must obey, but I will not be held responsible'. Ultimately on
Wednesday 17 May Commander-in-chief Falkenhayn decides that the attack
has to be transferred from the right to the left bank. Before this,
however, the Thiaumont-fortification has to be taken because from that position
everything at the German front is 'shot to pieces'. Furthermore, Fort Vaux
has to be taken in one sweep.
The French counter attack of Fort Douaumont
Before the Germans begin their attack, they are surprised by the French,
who start a counter attack of Fort Douaumont. Between Tuesday 16 May and
Sunday 22 May the fort is under heavy gunfire. Large-bore weapons and
poisonous gas grenades are used. On Monday 22 May two regiments commanded
by General Mangin attack the fort. The French manage to occupy the top of
the fort and even enter it in some places. The French artillery moves the
frontline right up to the fort so that the Germans are cut off from
reinforcements. The Germans do exactly the same behind the fort, so the
French are equally cut off from reinforcements.
The German attack is so severe that of the 200 men in a French attacking
company, only 40 manage to reach the fort. Two days of bitter fight ensue.
At a certain point the French are outnumbered, as Germans reinforcements
were able to reach their troops after all. The French are also using up
their ammunition and when the Germans have a huge mine-thrower attack the
fort, the battle is decided in a terrible hand-to-hand fight. Only a few
French soldiers return to Verdun.
|Dead bodies after the battle
This French counter attack is commanded by General Mangin, who halfway
through the battle announces to the world that the fort has fallen into
the hands of the French; a message that has to be recalled later. This
rash attack has not been well prepared for. Mangin moved his entire
regiments forward into a very narrow frontline and put all of his reserves
into action as well. During an attack this causes a 500-metre gap in the
French line, which weakens the front considerably. The French troops are
clobbered. Over 1,000 French are imprisoned and not a single reserve
company is left. Mangin is relieved of his duties by his superior
Commander Pétain. (Note: Mangin supposedly offered to serve as a
common soldier again.) The failed attack has a demoralising effect on the
French troops; several cases of insubordination are reported at the side
of the French.
contemporary feels: …that they, within the framework of this
World War, are involved in some affair, that will still be
considered horrible and appalling in a hundred years time. It is
this Hell of Verdun. Since a hundred days – day and night –
the sons of two European people fight stubbornly and bitterly over
every inch of land. It is the most appalling mass murder of our
The collapse of Fort Vaux
Thursday - 1 June Following a lengthy bombing and with the use
of a large number of flame-throwers, the Germans finally regain command of
the Bois de la Caillette. The Bois Fumin, situated just behind the village
of Vaux, is taken for the greater part as well, but at a high price.
…One of the trenches is so filled with wounded and dead bodies
the attackers have to use the parapet in order to be able to move
The major gain of this particular conquest is that the German troops in
front of Fort Vaux are no longer controlled by the flanking French fire
from the Bois de la Caillette and the Bois Fumin. After this the German
attack focuses on Fort Vaux. This is a medium sized fort generally
accounting for a garrison of 250 men, but now accommodating some 600 men.
The Commander is Major Sylvain Raynal. He suspects the big attack to take
place soon: in the morning the fort is caught in a rain of grenades.
Raynal counts 1,500 to 2,000 hits an hour.
|In the moat of Fort Vaux
Friday - 2 June The Germans are able to surround the fort
almost completely. A few hallways are taken as well. The French men inside
the fort stubbornly defend themselves and from the French frontline
counter attacks are undertaken to regain control of the fort. The French
artillery draws up a barrage that compels the German attackers to remain
Sunday - 4 June To smoke out the French German flame-throwers
are used. This attempt fails as draught forces the smoke out of the fort
and obstructs the attackers in their actions. The French again undertake a
few counter attacks but are awaited by German reinforcements who force the
attackers back in a man-to-man fight. The Germans are again hindered in
their movement by the French bombardment.
Monday - 5 June Inch by inch the Germans force their way into the fort
where the French, behind a barricade of sandbags, keep up a firm front.
Major Raynal organises the defence in a heroic manner. His chief concern
is the limited amount of drinking water available within the fort. The
water tank contains less water than the gauge glass indicates. Therefore
the rations of 1 litre a day per person are reduced to 1/8 litre. Wounded
receive double this amount.
(Note: The Germans are also suffering from a lack of drinking
water. The month of June starts off with high temperatures and drinking
water is scarce on the battlefield; every drop has to be brought in from
elsewhere. Another factor is that the explosives contain the chemical
substance lydite, which produces heavy thirst as well. There are stories
circulating of Germans on the battlefield of Verdun trading cigarettes
with the French for bottles of drinking water.)
|First Aid post inside Fort Vaux
during the attack
Commander Raynal sends carrier pigeons carrying messages begging for
reinforcements. Sometimes a company manages to reach the fort. In one such
a case only 26 men are left of the original 170. German attempts to blow
up the fort fail due to French artillery fire from the nearby-situated Fort
Tuesday - 6 June The situation in the fort is terrible. The
ambience is totally ruined by oil damp and dust; it is pitch dark.
Regularly panic attacks start when a gas attack is suspected. The men are
going mad with thirst. They lick condense water of the walls and some
drink their own urine. The stench is unbearable because the latrines are
out of reach; there are excreta in every corner. Finally, Raynal decides
Wednesday - 7 June A white flag appears on top of the fort and
a French orderly delivers Lieutenant Rackow, the German Commander, a
letter. Major Raynal requests an honorary surrender of his garrison. This
is granted and the garrison surrenders in a military correct fashion; arms
presented. The French are treated with respect: souvenirs are exchanged
and photographs taken. The Crown Prince receives Raynal with full honour,
expresses his admiration for the heroic opposition and presents Raynal
with his own sword as a mark of honour.
(Note: Raynal is, next to
Pétain and Driant, the most famous hero of Verdun. When Raynal died in
1939 he received a state funeral.)
|Major Raynal after his
capture together with his aide-de-camp
(left: Lieutenant Rackow, the German
Thursday - 8 June Immediately the French start their counter
attacks to reconquer Fort Vaux. On the completely damaged grounds
surrounding the fort severe man-to-man fights take place. The French
artillery barrages the fort thus heavily after every attack, that the
Germans have to withdraw into the fort.
The fights continue day and night.
After ten attacks the battle is ceased and the French withdraw. The scene
of battle is strewn with dead French soldiers. Pétain is furious because
of this useless attack and forbids Nivelle any further attempts to conquer
As soon as possible Fort Vaux is equipped as a German base of operations,
complete with munitions depot and a first aid post. Provisioning is very
difficult, as everything has to be hauled up by the men, while
continuously under heavy attack by the French.
….the latrines cause major problems. They are completely blocked
up and smell terribly. This stench is fought with chlorinated lime
and this smell mixes with the battlefield smell of decomposition.
Men even wear their gas masks when using the latrines…
(Note: During periods of battle the soldiers receive special
bags in which they can relieve themselves without having to leave their
post. Source: Werth, p. 257.)