Episode 72: Verdun Pt. 10

1916 Episodes Verdun

This week we move forward to May and the attacks launched by both sides during the month. In the end May would be catastrophically deadly for all involved. After covering the events of May we will then cover one of the most harrowing events of the entire campaign, the fall of Fort Vaux which occurred in June. It is an important event for sure, but it is more than that because of the events that occurred and the resistance of the French soldiers inside the fort well beyond the normal limits of resistance. There was an endless mountain of suffering at Verdun, but even in that mountain Vaux still stands out as an extreme case.


The History of the Great war is also available on Stitcher

Sources

The First World War by John Keegan
A World Undone by G.J. Meyer
Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I by Alexander Watson
Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 by Alistair Horne
German Strategy and the Path to Verdun by Robert T. Foley
Verdun: The Lost History of the Most Important Battle of World War I by John Mosier
Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War by Paul Jankowski
Pyrrhic Victory by Robert Doughty
The long‐term effects of explosive munitions on the WWI battlefield surface of Verdun, France by Joseph P. Hupy
French, David. 1988. “The Meaning of Attrition, 1914-1916”. The English Historical Review 103 (407). Oxford University Press: 385–405. http://www.jstor.org/stable/571187.

Transcript

Last week we discussed the large April attack that the Germans launched against the French positions all along the front with most of the gains occurring on the West Bank where finally, finally, they captured Le Mort Homme. This week we move forward to May and the attacks launched by both sides during the month. In the end May would be catastrophically deadly for all involved. After covering the events of May we will then cover one of the most harrowing events of the entire campaign, the fall of Fort Vaux which occurred in June. It is an important event for sure, but it is more than that because of the events that occurred and the resistance of the French soldiers inside the fort well beyond the normal limits of resistance. There was an endless mountain of suffering at Verdun, but even in that mountain Vaux still stands out as an extreme case.

In late April a new commander came onto the scene at Verdun, General Max von Gallwitz. Von Gallwitz had made a name for himself as an artillery commander during the conquest of Serbia and he was now given command of the German troops on the West Bank. We he arrived he took a few days to evaluate the situation and came to roughly the same conclusion as everybody else, Cote 304 had to be captured, and it had to be captured soon. To accomplish this goal he was going to concentrate artillery to a point not seen before on the Verdun front. This involved more than 500 heavy guns being positioned on a single mile of front with a plethora of light guns to back them up. On this tiny piece of front this would be an even higher concentration than on February 21st, and on May 3rd they opened fire. For all of the first day they continued to fire, then into the night, then into the next day. For over 2 days the firing continued and it was a living hell for the French soldiers in the trenches. No food or water, or any other supplies or any reinforcements could get through to the French defenders and they were stuck in their trenches as shell after shell crashed into their positions. These positions were already not the best along the front, there had been heavy fighting and shelling on this part of the front for the better part of 3 months, they were already a bit run down before the bombardment started and by the end of it they practically did not exist. To their great credit the French soldiers did not break, and they did not run, they weathered the storm as best they could and when the German infantry moved forward they actually encountered some French resistance. Instead of an easy cakewalk it instead took days and days of fighting before the Germans could finally claim that Cote 304 was in their hands. On May 8th it was in their hands, and it represented a practical and a symbolic victory for two reasons. The first was simply that around 10,000 Frenchmen died on that hill, trying to keep it out of German hands. The second was that it was the first position on Petain's last line of defense, that he had established when he arrived, that was taken by the Germans. The Germans may not have known it, but it was a blow to the French simply because Petain had placed such importance to it. It had, however, come at a huge cost to the Germans, far more than they had hoped, but it was theirs and now the staff of the Fifth Army met to consider launching an attack on the East Bank to capitalize on the momentum gained on the West Bank. The situation had become more difficult for the Germans on the East Bank with weather playing a part and also the French becoming far more bold in their counterattacking. General Nivelle was in command now, and under him was General Mangin, both known for their constant attacking, as opposed to the more cautious Petain who was no longer on the scene. The Crown Prince was against any more attacking, he was finished with the entire ordeal and was advocating for a halt to the offensive to both Falkenhayn and Knobelsdorf, but they were having none of that. In fact they wanted the pace of the attacks to increase. By early May it was clear that the British were going to launch a huge offensive along the Somme at some point during the summer, and if the Germans were going to capture Verdun they had to do it right now, there would not be another chance. Knobelsdorf became more and more bold in the attacks that he ordered, with Falkenhayn pushing him along, the Crown Prince was forced to admit that "if main headquarters order it, I must not disobey, but I will not do it on my own responsibility." As so the attacked continued to push forward until the end of May on the West Bank. However on the East bank it would take a little while longer for them to get started, because a disaster had befallen the German troops there on May 8th inside Douaumont.

Since they had captured the fort the Germans had used it as sort of a super Stollen, basing troops out of it when they were out of the front lines and using it as a huge supply depot close to the front lines. From the fort they could move out and support other areas in the line or act as a counter attack force. But on the 8th of May there was suddenly a giant explosion from inside the fort. Almost the entire garrison was killed instantly, those who were not literally blown to pieces were hit by a blast wave that would explode lungs. It is uncertain what exactly caused the explosion, it was most likely caused by carelessness in the handling of ammunition although other sources have claimed it was an accident while German soldiers were brewing coffee. It does not matter, really at all, why it happened because it happened and many Germans were killed. Oddly enough it did not completely destroy the fort as a structure, it was just too strong, although it did greatly reduce its usefulness for the Germans. Seeing a possible opening the French decided to try and recapture the fort a few weeks later on May the 22nd. This was an attack ordered by General Mangin, sometimes call The Butcher. And I am not joking, his nickname really was The Butcher. For five days before the attack the French guns pounded the fort. By this point the fort had been under some form of artillery fire for over 3 months and it was finally starting to show. Back when discussing Douaumont I mentioned that artillery would, theoretically, slowly jackhammer through the concrete defenses of the fort but that it would take a monstrous amount of artillery and a very long time. Well, a monstrous amount of artillery had been dropped on the fort and the concrete was just slowly being worked through. Even after the explosion, and while under the bombardment the German defenders still put up one hell of a fight. When the French attackers went forward they actually managed to capture one side of the front and get a few men inside but then the German counter attack hit them like a ton of bricks and they were pushed back. The attack had cost 5,500 troops as casualties and another 1,000 taken prisoner. Combined, this represented more than half of the 12,000 men who had went forward in the attack. Such a disaster caused Mangin to be relieved of his command, but don't worry though, a man called The Butcher did not get that nickname from a single attack and he will return to our story very shortly. In Ring of Steal Alexander Watson quotes a French staff officer who would later write of the French attack “Even the wounded refuse to abandon the struggle,” a French staff officer would recall. “As though possessed by devils, they fight on until they fall senseless from loss of blood. A surgeon in a front-line post told me that, in a redoubt at the south part of the fort, of 200 French dead, fully half had more than two wounds. Those he was able to treat seemed utterly insane. They kept shouting war cries and their eyes blazed, and, strangest of all, they appeared indifferent to pain. At one moment anesthetics ran out owing to the impossibility of bringing forward fresh supplies through the bombardment. Arms, even legs, were amputated without a groan, and even afterward the men seemed not to have felt the shock. They asked for a cigarette or inquired how the battle was going." While part of this is probably an exaggeration, you can see how, with such flowery language the myth of Verdun would start to take hold in the minds of the French. With the attack on Douaumont, and May, now over on the East Bank in the 3 months of fighting since March the front had not shifted 1,000 yards in either direction. The attacks and defense of May had cost the French around 50,000 casualties, bringing their total up to over 180,000, and the Germans were only slightly behind.

On the scale of the forts at Verdun Fort Vaux was nothing, it was 1/4 the size of Doaumont and was one of the smallest fortresses in the entirety of the Verdun complex. It only had a single 75mm turret, and it had been destroyed long before the action reached the fort in June, in fact it had been disabled before the end of February. Because of this there was nothing bigger than a machine gun within the fort when it came under attack. The defense of the fort was under the command of Major Sylvain-Eugene Raynal. When he arrived to take command near the end of May he found the fort full to the bursting point "in such numbers that it is extremely difficult to move, and I took a very long time to reach my command post…If an attack materialized all the occupants would be captured before they could defend themselves." There were around 600 troops in the fort when the siege would begin, instead of the typical garrison of 250. Most of the men were just random stragglers who had lost contact with their normal units, or small groups of runners, stretcher bearers, or signaling all sheltering in the fort. You might be thinking that before a siege having more men is a good thing, I made one yell of a deal of Douaumont not having enough that is for sure, but having more men than expected was a serious downside in this case. The water supply was iffy at best for the fort, and the approaches had not been improved to the point where they were considered protected which meant that it was hard to get men and more important supplies in and out of the fort. The topic of water would be the most critical, in the summer head of Verdun there was just a single cistern within the fort to supply the water for the garrison. Even with all of these downsides and its small size the fort was still important, what the Germans had found was that the French structures, even the oldest of the forts, were difficult to deal with because they could stand up to bombardments for long periods of time and they were easily capable of handily driving off any nearby German attacks. If the Germans were going to push forward in the area they first had to push through Vaux. Because of the importance of the area the last of the Fifth Army's reserves would go into the attack. The two main actors of this action were not Petain and the Crown Prince but Nivelle and Knobelsdorf. The attack would be the largest on the East Bank since February 21st and it was supposed to seep over Vaux quickly and move onto Fort Souville, which was just a few miles from the city of Verdun. The German guns would not focus on these two forts though, but instead mostly on Moulainville, which was a fort a bit smaller than Verdun which could provide covering fire for the other two forts that were being assaulted. Souville was the main prize, Vaux was just in the way, Souville at this point was the nerve center of the entire East Bank defenses, if it could be taken by the Germans it was likely that a large chunk of the East Bank, maybe most of it, maybe all of it, would have had to have been given over to the Germans. Fortunately for the French that was not in the cards.

There were of course many reasons that this was not in the cards, there always is, and it started with the bombardment. When the bombardment got started for the attack it was less effective than previous artillery preparations before attacks for a few reasons. The First, of course, was that the French had just gotten used to these types of preparations and all of their troops were more prepared for it. This included the troops inside the forts who had found that the sound was often the worst part of the bombardment and that other than from some vibrations the troops inside the forts were in little real danger. They had never been in much danger, but now they knew it and they trusted the concrete over their heads. Another factor was that some of the larger German guns were starting to show some serious wear and tear. Unlike the smaller guns the larger 420 and 380 mm guns could not be easily replaced and had already fired far more than they were factory rated for.. This meant that their shots were erratic at best, and it reduced their ability to hit targets at the end of their range. They also were now experiencing French counter battery fire which was taking a toll on the stationary guns. Even with these problems on June 1st the troops of the 1st and 7th German division moved forward, and they found some quick initial success. They swept aside the French troops in front of them and on both sides of Fort Vaux The plan was never to straight up attack the fort on the first day, but instead to capture all of the approaches and partially surround it and then attack into the fort the next day. Since the attack was already so successful for the Germans the General on the spot decided to move his troops forward in a rare night attack to fully envelop the fort, and so on the night of June the 1st the siege began.

The French in the fort had not been idle, since the very start of the German attack they had been preparing to defend Fort Vaux. The enlarged garrison was put to work erecting sandbag barricades at any weak points and preparing for the attack. When the German approached it would not be anything like Douaumont. In the ditch around Vaux they were under a crippling crossfire from the machine guns in the galleries overlooking them. They tried several different strategies to neutralize these galleries. None of these strategies would end up being successful and it was only when the machine guns in one of the galleries jammed that the Germans were able to get up close enough to it to shove grenades on in the gun crews. Thirty two French soldiers would be lost just in that gallery alone. In the other machine gun gallery there were even more neutralization tactics tried, including the lowering of sacks of grenades on ropes and then detonating them, which did not work. During all of this time the Germans were exploring as much of the fort as they could easily explore. They found a hole in the hallway leading to the remaining gallery that had been created by an artillery shell at some point in the past. The French had tried to close the hole with sandbags but they Germans were able to remove them and toss grenades down the hallways. Raynal was forced to order the final gallery abandoned, and with it the last of the forts outer defenses, just so that the men there would not get cut off from the main fort. The French quickly created a barricade behind them and this would set the stage for the rest of the fighting inside the fort. The Germans would find a way past a barricade, and the French would just erect another barricade a few feed later only giving up more ground when required. It was a deadly and horrible way to fight. In one instance the Germans were able to blow open a steel door using hand grenades, but were then unable to attack it quick enough to prevent the French from erecting a barricade and positioning a machine gun to defend it. This prevented the Germans from getting inside the fort, but by the second day of fighting they had it fully surrounded and completely cut off from the rear. The French erected barricade after barricade in the corridors, only to have them destroyed, and only then to ccreate another. Constantly grenades were thrown down these corridors, and machine gun bullets ricocheted off the concrete walled. Oh, and by the way, there were no lights. They were knocked out early in the fighting so all of this was happening in complete darkness. Oh, and by the way, the corridors were just 3 feet wide and 5 feet high, so a good portion of the men could not even fully stand up. On top of the fort the Germans were not exactly enjoying themselves either. They were under constant fire from French artillery, especially the 155mm turret on Moulainville which was fulfilling its job perfectly of protecting the other fort that was under attack. At this point the defenders were still able to communicate with the outside world using carrier pigeons. The first one they sent ccaused a counter attack which almost made it to the fort but was driven back just feet from the Western side by newly arriving Germans. The Germans then brought up flamethrower to try and smoke the French out. They arrived and made a quick impact as the fort quickly filled with smoke and flames. The French opened any available vents to try and clear the smoke and slowly regained their composure. In all of the panic of the flamethrowers all that was lost was about 25 yards of the northwest corridor. It was shortly after this attack that Raynal would use his last pigeon to send the following message "We are still holding. But…relief is imperative. Communicate with us by Morse-blinker from Souville, which does not reply to our calls. This is my last pigeon." The bird only made it into the air after a few attempts, having been almost killed from smoke inhalation. When it arrived in the rear it would die, and later be given the Legion d'Honneur. It now sits in the Paris Museum, a tribute to its bravery. After learning that Vaux did not have any more pigeons the commander of Fort Souville began to utilize his blinker to flash messages to Raynal, most of them encouraging. He spoke of another attack being prepared to relieve the fort. This was all well and good, but it was now that Raynl learned that the garrison was pretty much out of water. The gauge that had been in the cistern was found to be incorrect and had been reporting far more water than what was actually present. This was a problem, but the bigger problem the next day was that the German troops were trying to put a mine under one of the walls, Raynal was able to communicate with Souville, using a blinker, and artillery fire was brought down on them, but this would be the last success for the troops at Vaux. Two important events would happen on the 5th of June. First the blinker and blinker crew was destroyed by a direct hit from a German artillery shell and second the last latrine was lost to the Germans. On the night of the 5th the last of the water was distributed to the men, less than a quarter of a pint per person, that is 1 quarter of a cup, and this to men who had none for over 24 hours of fighting. Raynal was able to setup an ad-hoc blinker to send his last message "Imperative be relieved and receive water tonight. I am reaching the end of my tether…" At 2AM the relief attack started, and the defenders could hear it overhead. At 3AM a small French force was spotted approaching the fort, but it was soon pinned down by the Germans and forced to surrender. For over 3 days of fighting the garrison had received almost no water and early on the morning of June the 7th they were forced to surrender. 3 French soldiers moved out from behind a barricade bearing a white flag and carried the offer to surrender. One German correspondent would describe them as "the living image of desolation." They had suffered 100 casualties, but the Germans had lost almost 3,000 men trying to take the fort. It was a brave defense that would go down as one of the greatest stories of the entire campaign but nonetheless in the end Vaux fell, and now Fort Souville was the only obstacle between the Germans and Verdun.

Neville wanted to counter attack the Germans at Vaux immediately, even though the previous attacks had failed so catastrophically. Most of the Generals on the scene were against this, but Nivelle demanded that it take place. Two regiments of the North African troops were prepared for the attack. They moved up to the front line even though they had just recently been taken off the line to rest and refit. Then right before they attacked they were hit by a massive German barrage that was in preparation for the Germans own attack. This was pretty much the worst possible moment for units to get bombarded since so many troops were overcrowding the front lines. Even with the huge casualties that they suffered from the shelling the French troops still tried to go forward, but they were massacred. Nivelle instantly began preparing for yet another attack, blaming the poor timing of the German artillery as the sole cause for the previous failure but Petain stepped in and gave him a direct order to halt the attacks. With the failure of this attack the saga of Vaux was over. The French would loudly declare that Vaux was not important, that it never had been, but the truth on the ground was different. The Germans now looked to take their last prize Fort Souville, and they began to prepare for another attack….which we will cover next episode.