from the memoirs of commandant Raynal
'The Defence of Fort Vaux'
by Commandant Raynal


an outside view of fort Vaux several days before the surrender


Fort Vaux lay east-north-east of Verdun, the next fort south of Fort Douaumont. It stood on the crest of a hill and was visible from the ridge behind, on which stood Fort Souville. Vaux had been dismantled but formed a strong point in the French line at the end of May. In this month French G.H.Q. asked for volunteers among officers who had been incapacitated, to take command of such positions. Commandant Raynal, 49 years of age, now recovering from his third wound, volunteered and was accepted. Hobbling along on his stick, he took over the command of the fort on the night 30/31 May. The garrison consisted chiefly of men of the 142th Infanterie, with machine-gunners and other details, including 4 carrier pigeons and a cocker spaniel. The fort was victualled with preserved food, and there was a cistern of water. Unhappily the latter proved to contain far less than had been reported. On 31st May, after a 24-hour bombardment, the Germans assaulted, carried the outworks and made a lodgement on the roof. Thereafter for seven days, the French garrison made a heroic defence against all attacks, fighting in darkness in the passages. The attempts from outside to reinforce the defence failed, and Raynal received no messages, except a few brought by gallant men who ran the gauntlet of the enemy. At last, on 7th June, after 48 hours without water, he surrendered. The Germans recognised the gallantry of the defence, the Crown Prince personally returning Raynal his sword. The French also decorated him with the Legion of Honour. The following passages are from his own account of the last days, 4th-7th June.

So we came to 4th June, a day still more terrible. About 8.30 a.m., the Boches carried out two attacks in combination; one against the barricade of the observation- post, the other on the barricade of the left arches. Through the loopholes, they poured flame and gas, which gave oft* an intolerable smell and gripped our throats. Shouts of "gas-masks" came from both ends of the fort. In the left arches, the garrison, driven back by flame and smoke, fell back towards the central gallery. Here was posted brave Lieut. Girard. He dashed forward into the smoke to the machine- guns which his men had been forced to abandon. He had the luck to get there before the Boches, and at once opened fire on the sheet of gas which was pouring through the right-hand barricade. Inspired by his example, his men came back, stood to their guns and fired for an hour without stopping. After clearing the ground between the machine-guns and the barricade, Girard led forward the bombers who reoccupied their position and definitely drove the Boche off. In this bitter engagement, fought out in the midst of smoke and complete darkness (for the gas had put out all the lamps), Girard received several bits of bomb in his face and hands, fortunately slight wounds. He did not go back to the casemate of Bourges-Left until the position had been completely re-established. But on reaching it, he was seized with violent sickness from the gas he had swallowed, and fainted. Under the care that was taken of him, he revived and at once took over his sector.

At the same time in the right arches this attack was duplicated. Driven by flames and stifling smoke, our men fell back behind the rubble barricade.

While these fights were in progress and the danger of being swept away by sheer weight was doubled by the peril of being stifled, I took every disposition to avoid both and to thwart the enemy's calculations. The fans which carry the air into the bottom of the ditch, were first started. All the windows of the large casemate were emptied of sand-bags and a huge current of air was thus created. The manoeuvre was successful; in about three-quarters of an hour, the air was once more possible to breathe. Many of my men had been overcome and had fainted. I went down to the aid-post, and while M. Conte was giving me his report, I heard a wounded man, lying on a stretcher on the ground, exclaim in a rough voice: " You'll see a lot more, comrades. The Boche will show you some dirtier tricks still." Who was the man with this rough masculine way of encouraging his hearers? I looked and recognized Sous-Lieutenant de Roquette, very dangerously wounded in the thigh, and with one eye blinded by a bomb fragment. He was in very great pain, but his spirit did not waver, and he was to preserve this gallant attitude, in the midst of all trials, to the last moment.

It was in the course of that afternoon that the sapper sergeant in charge 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 to-day.

I sent off my two last carrier pigeons, making my reports more urgent. Yet I did not say to what extremity I was reduced as regards water. This method of communication is far from certain, and one of my carriers might fall into enemy hands. The precaution was not unavailing, for one of my messengers reached the loft at Verdun wounded and the message lost. Now that all my pigeons had been flown, how was I to communicate with the outer world?

I had in the fort a small signal equipment, and when the engineers reported, they had told me that a similar equipment had been sent to Fort Souville to establish visual communication with Fort Vaux. Now, all the signals we had made to Souville yesterday and the day before had remained unanswered. I began once more and asked my questions not only to Souville, but also to all the points of the skyline. The sky-line remained silent. I asked myself the reason. It was because to receive my messages, a post must be put in the open, on "the billiard-table" as the poilus say. And on the "billiard-table" was falling a thick murderous Boche barrage.


two aerial views of fort Vaux - in March and in October 1916


(At this point, Raynal managed to slip two sappers out of the fort, and later again, aspirant-officer Buffet, to get into touch with the people behind. Thus he was able to send messages to Souville, but he received few in return, since Souville's messages would be picked up by the enemy. He did however receive certain information as to proposed counter-attacks through his very gallant messengers.)

Leaning over my instrument, by the loophole from which I could discern, or rather guess, the black mass of Souville, I called! I called!

Nothing. No answer flickered in the night. The two men I had sacrificed were perhaps by now lying on the road, and in the depth of my heart, I wept for these two heroes.

Before leaving the loophole, I made one last attempt; I sent one final call which would no doubt like the others be lost.

"Ah!" In spite of myself a cry leapt to my lips. Over there, at Souville, a light sprang up which seemed to answer me. I tapped out: "Is that you?" The light answered: "Souville!"

I had my messages sent off; they were answered by the arranged signals. My first visual message was gone. I ended by asking again that something should be done to relieve us.

5th June, the fifth day of Hell. Dawn broke, but in the arches and in the main gallery, deep darkness still hung. In the main gallery, I had to pay continual heed to keeping the lamps alight that passage should not be interrupted.

About 5 in the morning, the barricade of the covered way near the casemate Bourges-Left, went up in a terrific explosion which tumbled down part of the masonry, and in the breach thus made, the enemy appeared advancing behind flammenwerfer. Luckily, the huge draught which was created, prevented and turned to nothing the rush of the flames by blowing them back towards the nozzles of the apparatus. After a momentary surprise, our machine-gunners and bombers, led by Bazy and Girard, rushed back and counter-attacked with bombs. The enemy faltered. We re-established our barricade and picked up our dead and wounded, for this latest attack cost us further heavy losses. My two brave lieutenants, Bazy and Girard, were once more wounded, though not seriously, by bomb splinters.

This 5th June, on which the Boches secured no more than a slight success in the right arches, a success for which they paid dearly, was for us a day of intense physical suffering. The short but violent fights of the morning had necessitated the employment of the whole garrison, and our men's strength had been drained away. I saw them gasping in the dust and the smoke. Yesterday I had already noted that they had scarcely touched their rations because of the lack of water. The preserved meat was salted, and could scarcely be forced down our dry throats. For my own part, I had eaten nothing yesterday, and to-day I felt little hunger—only thirst.

I could see my men broken with fatigue, silent and gloomy. If I had to call on them for still another effort, they would be incapable of carrying it out. So I decided to serve out the last drops of the corpse-smelling water which remained in the cistern. It represented scarcely a quart per man; it was nauseous, it was muddy, and yet we drank this horrible liquid with avidity. But there was too little and our thirst continued.

(Shortly after this, Buffet succeeded in slipping back into the fort, bringing news that after a bombardment during this day and the next night, an attempt would be made to save the fort by a counter-attack from the west on the following morning. Raynal intended to co-operate, and Buffet again volunteered to make the dangerous journey to inform the troops behind of Raynal's intentions.)

The night passed in a fever of expectation of the great action which should deliver us. From 1.30 a.m. the sortie party was in position on the stairs which led to the doorway on to the ditch. Observers placed in the casemates of Bourges-Left and Right and at the windows of the main casemate, were to warn me of any movement they picked up.

At 2 a.m. our artillery lengthened range.

"Keep a sharp look-out, my lads."

No news came to me. Dawn began to break. On every side, we questioned the sky- line; invariably not a sign. About 3 a.m. there was still nothing, neither from the south, nor from the right. But from the casemate, Bourges-Left, they warned me that a small body of about the strength of a platoon were sheltering in shell-holes not far from the fort. And almost at once the same observers informed me that under a terrible fire, which had decimated them, this little body had thrown down its weapons and was being led off prisoners by the Germans. That was all that we saw of the counterattack of 6th June.

During this day, 6th June, the Boche became more active against our barricades. It was as if he guessed the drama which was being played out within, and in actual fact the sufferings of my men, above all of the wounded, increased terribly. Thirst, that horrible thirst raged.

I was in my command post with Sous-Lieutenant Roy, and my devoted sapper could find in his resourceful spirit no further remedy. Sounds of groans reached us. Mingled with the groans another noise struck our ear, that of a hesitant footstep and of hands rustling against the wall.

The door suddenly opened. There stood a terrifying apparition.

It was a wounded man, his naked chest swathed in bloody bandages. He leant with one hand against the door frame, and thrusting out a leg, went down on one knee. He held out to me his other hand in a supplicating gesture, and in a whisper, muttered: "Mon commandant, something to drink."

I went over to him and raised him up. "I have no water, my brave fellow. Do as I do— hope. They are coming to our rescue."

Still groaning, my wounded man dragged himself back to the aid-post. I looked at Roy. Like my own, his eyes were clouded.

It was the end. Unless a miracle happened, this would be the last night of our resistance. My men, who drank no more, ate no more, slept no longer, only held themselves upright by a prodigy of will.

I summoned my officers to my command post. Every one of these brave men now despaired. They saw no salvation for their men, who must be preserved for the sake of the country, except by immediate surrender. But suddenly the guns outside began to bark, and the barking grew to a tempest. They were French guns. The fort was not being touched, but the vicinity was being violently barraged. The flame of hope once more sprang up.

"Listen, comrades. That is the French artillery. It has never fired so strongly. It is the preparation for an attack. Go to your positions. To-morrow morning, if we have not been delivered, I promise to submit to cruel necessity."

Warmed by my words, the officers returned to their posts. About II p.m. our gun-fire abruptly ceased, and the night passed away in complete calm, more nerve-racking for me than the storm of battle. Not a sound, not a hint of movement. I thought of the promise I had made. Had I the right to prolong resistance beyond human strength and to compromise uselessly the life of these brave men who had done their duty so heroically? I took a turn in the corridors. What I saw was frightening. Men were overcome with vomiting due to urine in the stomach, for so wretched were they that they had reached the point of drinking their own urine. Some lost consciousness. In the main gallery, a man was licking a little wet streak on the wall.

7th June! Day broke, and we scarcely noticed it. For us it was still night, a night in which all hope was extinguished. Aid from outside, if it came, would come too late. I sent off my last message, the last salute of the fort and its defenders to their country. Then I turned to my men:

"It is all over, my friends. You have done your duty, the whole of your duty. Thank you."

They understood, and together in one shout we repeated the last message which my instrument had just sent off: "Vive la France!"

In the minutes which followed a silence as of death fell upon the fort.

Commandant Raynal

a photo of commandant Raynal taken in 1919


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