The German troops who swarmed over two key French fortresses protecting Verdun anticipated a tough fight. They were only half right.
When the German army attacked Verdun, France, on Feb. 21, 1916, it ran up against a ring of 18 large forts and 23 smaller strongpoints the French called ouvrages. During the 10-month campaign, two of the major forts—Douaumont and Vaux—fell, yet the battles for each could not have been more different. Fort Douaumont, the largest and strongest fortification of the system, was taken without a shot being fired, virtually single-handedly by a German sergeant. Fort Vaux, the smallest of the Verdun forts, was commanded by a partially disabled officer who had refused medical retirement. But before Vaux fell, its commander and garrison put up a fight that cost the Germans almost 3,000 casualties in only seven days of fighting.
Contemporary military experts considered massive Fort Douaumont the world’s strongest fortification. Built in 1885, it was part of the Séré de Rivières system of border defenses France established following its 1871 defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Continually strengthened and modernized through 1913, Douaumont comprised an elongated pentagon more than 500 yards across at its widest point. Its outer defenses started with two concentric, 30-foot-deep belts of barbed wire. Backing the wire was a line of 8-foot sharpened stakes. A dry moat 24 feet deep and 35 feet wide surrounded the fort proper. Machine guns in inward-facing counterscarp galleries on the moat’s outer corners covered every inch of the ditch with enfilading fire. The gun embrasures were 12 feet above the moat’s floor, and the galleries were accessible only from inside the fort.
Douaumont’s two levels could accommodate a garrison of nearly 1,000 troops within 8-foot-thick walls of steel-reinforced concrete. The roof was 12 feet thick and covered with several additional feet of earth. Atop the fort were four hardened-steel observation turrets, two machine-gun turrets, a turret with a pair of 75mm guns and a primary turret with a 155mm howitzer. Both rapid-fire artillery turrets were fully automated. Covering the left rear of the fort was a flanking battery mounting a 75mm field gun on a special fortress carriage. If that weren’t enough, the batteries at Fort Vaux, two miles to the southeast, could cover the entire top of Fort Douaumont.
Although Douaumont should have been impregnable, the French had severely weakened it well before the battle. In 1915 French commander in chief General Joseph Joffre had decided that field guns in the flanking batteries and most of the troops manning the Verdun forts were needed elsewhere. By the time the Germans advanced on Fort Douaumont on February 25, only the two 75mm guns and single 155mm remained. Although the Germans didn’t know it, the garrison had been reduced to just 57 reserve artillerymen, who kept up a half-hearted fire in the direction of the enemy lines as the Germans hammered the fort for several days with their 420mm “Big Bertha” howitzers.
The German 12th Grenadier Regiment was to storm Douaumont, supported by the 24th Brandenburg Infantry Regiment. But during the approach march, the two units lost contact in a blinding snowstorm, and the 12th Grenadiers veered off course in the Chauffour Woods. At about 1630 hours, a 24th Brandenburg pioneer squad under Feldwebel Felix Kunze found itself just 50 yards from the apex of the fort. Kunze’s orders had been to clear obstacles in front of the advancing infantry.
Douaumont’s remaining guns were eerily silent as Kunze and his men crept around the outer edge of the moat, probing for a way in. As they neared one of the counterscarp galleries, a German artillery shell blew down part of the wall, knocking Kunze into the moat. A shaken Kunze quickly recovered and ordered his reluctant squad to descend into the breach created by the blast. His men then formed a human pyramid against the counterscarp face, enabling Kunze and two others to scramble up into one of the gun embrasures 12 feet up the wall.
The trio followed a tunnel to the center of the fort. Leaving his two men to secure what seemed a key fork in the dimly lit passage, Kunze followed the sound of the 155mm gun, which had resumed firing. Taking the four surprised French artillerymen captive, Kunze then tried to work his way back to his own men. He got lost in the labyrinth, however, and his captives bolted. As Kunze chased them through the dark, damp corridors, he happened upon a large room in which a French NCO was conducting a training class for about 20 troops. Kunze rushed in, pointing his rifle and yelling, “Hände hoch!” (“Hands high!”). Just then a large shell hit the fort, knocking out the lights.
Realizing the French would rush him in the dark, Kunze jumped from the room and bolted the door. When the lights came back on, he left the trapped Frenchmen and soon captured another one in the corridor. Kunze demanded to be taken to the fort’s commander, not realizing that a sergeant major was the senior French soldier on hand. As the German and his prisoner wandered the corridors, they passed a mess hall, its tables still laden with food. Famished because he had not eaten all day, Kunze, like any good soldier, took the opportunity to grab some chow.
Meanwhile, a platoon of 24th Brandenburgers under Lieutenant Eugen Radtke arrived at Douaumont. Radtke and his 20 men entered the moat by the same route Kunze had taken, but then followed a path to the top of the main fort, which remained under German artillery fire. There, Radtke found an unguarded entrance that shellfire had breached. Working their way through the corridors, Radtke and his squad linked up with Kunze, assumed overall command and rounded up the remaining Frenchmen. German ground troops had captured Douaumont without firing a shot.
Shortly after Radtke secured the fort, his company commander, Captain Hans-Joachim Haupt, reached Douaumont with more troops and entered the same way. The Germans now had about 90 men inside the fort, and Haupt assumed command. At about 1730 still another detachment of 24th Brandenburgers under Lieutenant Cordt von Brandis entered the fort and helped repel a weak French patrol that tried to retake Douaumont.
An hour later, Haupt sent von Brandis back to German lines with orders to bring up the rest of the 24th Brandenburgers’ 2nd Battalion. The battalion commander accurately reported Douaumont’s capture up the chain of command, but by the time the transmission reached Fifth Army headquarters under German Crown Prince Wilhelm, the garbled news was hailing latecomer von Brandis as the hero of Fort Douaumont. He was awarded the Pour le Mérite (the coveted “Blue Max”), as was Haupt several days later.
The loss of Douaumont was a particular blow, as the fort dominated the high ground in that sector. Historians estimate the French took more than 100,000 casualties before finally recapturing it eight months later. For years Kunze and Radtke received no recognition for their roles in the capture. Von Brandis, on the other hand, wrote a postwar memoir and made a career for himself as the “Hero of Verdun,” speaking to schoolchildren and veterans’ groups throughout Germany. It was only in the 1930s that historians at the Reichsarchiv finally unraveled and reported the true story. The House of Hohenzollern had long since gone into exile, but Wilhelm did condescend to send Radtke a signed photo of himself. Kunze, by then a rural policeman, was promoted. He had kept his silence all those years for fear of being disciplined for stopping to eat rather than continuing to round up Frenchmen.
The Germans launched their initial attack at Verdun only on the right bank of the Meuse, a serious tactical error. Three days after capturing Douaumont, they extended the attack to the left bank, and the battle raged back and forth over the following months. On May 8, an unattended cooking fire inside Douaumont set off a chain reaction that ignited stored flamethrower fuel and, ultimately, a full magazine of 155mm ammunition. The resulting blast killed some 650 troops, including the 12th Grenadiers’ entire regimental staff. Ironically, the Germans lost far more troops at Douaumont in that one accident than they ever did to French fire. In the aftermath, the Germans simply walled off the blast-damaged corridor, turning it into a giant tomb. It remains today an official German military cemetery.
On May 22, the French 129th Infantry Regiment tried to retake Douaumont. The poilus made it to the top of the fort, only to be swept away by German artillery fire. Nine days later, the Germans launched Operation May Cup, the strongest push so far on the right bank. By June 1, they had taken all the outer defenses around Vaux and were hitting the small fort with between 1,500 and 2,000 artillery rounds per hour.
Roughly square, Vaux was only one-quarter Douaumont’s size. By the time the German 50th Division threw two battalions against Vaux in the early morning of June 2, artillery had already destroyed its single 75mm turret. Failing to learn the lessons of the Douaumont debacle, the French had not reinstalled the 75mm field guns in Vaux’s two flanking batteries. The fort was thus armed with nothing heavier than machine guns. Its wire communications system had been knocked out, leaving the defenders only signal lamps and carrier pigeons. Even worse, 600 French troops were jammed into living space designed for a garrison of 250.
Unlike their counterparts at Douaumont, however, the troops inside Vaux had no shortage of tenacity and raw courage. The fort’s commander was Commandant (Major) Sylvain-Eugene Raynal, an up-through-the-ranks officer who only days earlier had volunteered to command the fort. Raynal was 49 years old and had already been wounded three times. He had no business being in combat, much less at the front, hobbling about on his cane. Yet, in days to come, he would give the Germans a far stiffer fight than they’d anticipated.
At the outset of the battle, German combat engineers stormed into Vaux’s defensive ditch under withering fire from the counterscarp galleries. The pioneers tried to knock out the galleries by suspending and then detonating clusters of hand grenades in front of the firing embrasures. At about 0500, the single French machine gun in the northeast gallery froze up, enabling the Germans to cross the ditch. Led by Lieutenant Kurt Rackow, some 30 troops of the 158th Paderborn Infantry Regiment scrambled onto Vaux’s roof. But French crossfire soon pinned them down.
Rackow and his men hung on tenaciously for several hours, eventually finding a partially repaired hole in the fort’s roof. Working their way into the tunnel beneath, they captured Vaux’s northwest counterscarp gallery from the rear. The French now had lost two of three outer strongpoints, and the Germans had a solid foothold inside the fort. Raynal’s men threw up sandbag barriers in the tunnels to restrict the Germans’ movement and establish firing positions. The fighting raged in the dark, wet corridors, with muzzle flashes and grenade bursts providing the only illumination.
The fighting continued through June 3, with Rackow directing the German assault force. Grenade explosions reverberated in the concrete-encased spaces. Machine-gun and small-arms fire ricocheted off the walls, the tumbling bullets causing horrific wounds when they hit flesh. Troops on either side found it almost impossible to breathe the air thick with cordite fumes and concrete dust. With no place to take the fallen, the stench of decaying bodies added to the misery, as the bitter enemies slugged it out in the dark.
On June 4, the French 124th Infantry Division launched six successive attack waves to relieve Fort Vaux. They almost reached the west side of the fort before German artillery fire and reinforcements beat them back. German pioneers, meanwhile, managed to hoist six flamethrowers inside the fort and began advancing down an access tunnel from a counterscarp gallery. Donning gas masks, the French slowly withdrew toward the fort’s central gallery.
A step ahead of the Germans, one of Raynal’s officers, a Lieutenant Girard, rushed back down a corridor to an abandoned machine-gun position. Once Girard had the gun operational, his men followed him back into the 3-foot-wide access tunnel. After more than an hour of hard fighting, the Germans started to fall back, and Girard led a team armed with hand grenades up the tunnel after them. By the time the fighting ended, Girard lay unconscious, overcome by the smoke and fumes, his face and hands covered with shrapnel wounds.
Girard’s men carried him back to the main gallery. But as soon as he regained consciousness, the lieutenant went right back to his position and reassumed command of his sector. The French had beaten back one more attack, but their position was deteriorating. Raynal set loose his last carrier pigeon, begging for reinforcements. Later that afternoon the French got more bad news, as one of Raynal’s pioneer sergeants told him, “Mon Commandant, there is practically no water left in the cistern.”
Raynal assumed sabotage, but that was not the case. Workmen had incorrectly installed the cistern’s depth gauge, thus the garrison had unknowingly been short of water from the start. Raynal ordered strict water rationing. By that point Raynal also had more than 100 wounded soldiers on his hands. Given the lack of water, his own wounded were almost as serious a threat to his position as were the Germans. Raynal had to get them out if he could.
Early on June 5, Raynal sent 19- year-old Aspirant (officer candidate) Leon Buffet to find some route by which to evacuate the wounded. Although Vaux was completely surrounded, Buffet managed to smuggle out casualties a few at a time in small groups. Though many were captured or killed, a fair number got through. Treated like the hero he was when he reached French lines, Buffet received a good meal and a medal and then was ordered to sneak back in to Vaux to tell Raynal of a pending French counterattack.
Raynal, meanwhile, was down to just eight officers—four wounded, one seriously, and another with a bad fever. The commander himself was suffering from malaria. The Germans inside the fort mounted another flamethrower attack, and once again Girard led a successful counterattack and was wounded. The garrison marked a full 24 hours without water and soon found it impossible to get salted pork rations down their parched throats. Raynal finally dispensed the remaining water, which came to less than a pint per man. It was muddy and smelled of corpses, but the desperate defenders gulped it down.
The French relief force attacked at 0300 on June 6 but was quickly crushed by the Germans; a handful of survivors from what had been an entire battalion limped back to French lines under the command of a sergeant. Raynal’s men were reduced to drinking their own urine and licking slime off the corridor walls for moisture. Germans inside the fort, sensing the end was near, eased the pressure and waited.
Inside Fort Vaux, the redoubtable Raynal was out of options. At 0330 on June 7, he sent his last signal message to Fort Souville, two miles to the southwest. Most of the message was garbled. The only fragment deciphered was “…ne quittez pas…” (…don’t give up…). Shortly thereafter Raynal sent an officer and two NCOs outside under a white flag with a message addressed TO THE COMMANDER OF THE GERMAN FORCES ATTACKING FORT VAUX. When a German party entered the fort to accept the surrender, it found the surviving members of the garrison in perfect formation, at rigid attention. In a ceremony steeped in the chivalry of a previous century, Raynal signed a document of surrender he had drawn up himself, then turned over his sword and the key to the fort’s main entrance.
The Germans rushed Raynal to German Fifth Army headquarters, where he assumed he would face execution. Instead, the crown prince gave him a hero’s welcome and returned the major’s sword. Wilhelm informed Raynal that according to an intercepted radio message, the French commander had earned the Legion d’honneur. This time, too, Germany managed to treat its own heroes of the Vaux fight better than it did its Douaumont heroes; Rackow was awarded the Pour le Mérite the day Vaux surrendered.
Even after the fall of Vaux, the carnage of Verdun dragged on for six long months as the French repeatedly attempted to retake the two forts, firing millions of rounds of artillery and losing thousands of men. They finally recaptured Fort Douaumont on Oct. 24, 1916, and reoccupied Vaux on November 2 in the wake of a German withdrawal along the line.
Douaumont and Vaux would endure another war. In the interwar years the French partially refurbished and garrisoned each fort and kept their gun turrets in working order. Nonetheless, the Germans captured both strongholds again on June 15, 1940. This time neither fort fired a shot. The Wehrmacht battalion commander who accepted Douaumont’s surrender had served in the fort 24 years earlier as a young officer.
World War II was very different from World War I, but an entire generation of French and German senior officers had learned the hard realities of their professions on the battlefields of Verdun in 1916.
For additional reading, David T. Zabecki recommends The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, by Alistair Horne, and Verdun 1916: “They Shall Not Pass,” by Ian Drury and Howard Gerrard.
Originally published in the January 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.