We depart at the Lion de Souville to follow the D 112 northward.
Along the road, at the edge of the Bois de Chapitre,
stands the Memorial for the 407th Infantry Regiment.
TO OUR COMRADES, DISAPPEARED IN THE SOIL OF VAUX-CHAPITRE DURING THE COMBATS OF JUNE 1916. TO THOSE, WHO REST HERE. 23 JUNE 1916.
FROM THIS QUARRY, COMMAND POST OF THE 407ME R.I., THE COLONEL ALLAIN HAS LAUNCHED THE ULTIMATE COUNTER ATTACK, THAT BROKE THE ADVANCE OF THE ENEMY AT SOUVILLE”
For a long time these woods along the road,
of La Caillette, Chapitre, and Fumin,
formed the French side of the frontline.
We continue northward with some period pictures of the area.
We arrive at the Etang de Vaux (The Pond of Vaux).
Nowadays the natural landscape of the Pond of Vaux is beautiful.
We walk northward along the pond to pass this Memorial,
dedicated to the aviator, Sergeant-pilote, Guy Dussumier Latour,
who crashed and died of his injuries near this pond
on 2 June 1916.
View westward from the modest memorial,
which reminds us of the hundreds of air combats,
which took place in the skies above Verdun.
On the northern edge of the pond ...
... stands the Memorial for the 1st Battalion of Chasseurs à Pied.
“IN MEMORY OF THE THREE OFFICERS, ELEVEN NON COMMISSIONED OFFICERS, TWO HUNDRED CORPORALS AND CHASSEURS OF THE FIRST BATALLION OF CHASSEURS A PIED, KILLED ON THIS POSITION, STOPPING THE GERMAN ATTACK OF 21 MARCH 1916.”
In the woods around the pond there are still
traces of shellholes and trenches.
We continue eastward to visit for a short moment
the memorials of
the Destroyed Village of Vaux devant Damloup.
Now the former village is overgrown with dense vegetation.
A memorial reminds us of the location of the destroyed village.
“PASSER-BY, GO ON AND TELL OTHER PEOPLES, THAT THIS VILLAGE HAS DIED TO SAVE VERDUN AND WITH VERDUN IT SAVED THE WORLD. VAUX 10 AUGUST 1924.
At the edge of the modern village stands this memorial tower.
We return back to the junction of the Lion de Souville, ...
... to pass it southward along the D 913,
next turn left at the Batterie du Tunnel, ...
... and northward to the D 913 a.
At the end of the road we arrive at the Fort de Vaux.
To familiarize ourselves with the site of Fort de Vaux,
we start our visit with some satellite photo's, some maps,
and a ground plan of the fortress.
We start our visit at the south-east corner of the Fortress.
One of the entrances to the fortress.
The south-eastern "Casemate de Bourges".
View through the gate of the exit on the left:
The concrete bunker contains above ground two rooms
with 75 mm artillery guns on a platform with rails.
In the basement there are munitions and powder storage rooms and resting places for the crew.
Two 75mm artillery guns are directed eastward.
We walk some metres back to climb the superstructure
of the fortress.
View from the flagpole on the roof north-eastward, from left ....
... to right.
The German "Operation Maiköpfchen”.
From 6 March 1916 General von Falkenhayn released "Operation Maiköpfchen” (Maycup). In the sector of Douaumont and Vaux the General deployed 5 divisions of the 10th and the 5th Reserve Corps, and in the east the 15th Corps. Main targets were Thiaumont, Côte de Fleury, Fort de Souville, and Fort de Vaux.
After 27 May the German Artillery intensified their bombardments on the area around and on Fort de Vaux itself from the aera around Spincourt, Billy, and Spincourt in the nort-east.
On 1 June 1916 General von Falkenhayn choose the sector of Damloup, the trenches around the fortress, and the fortress itself, as his second main target.
After a huge bombardment the General deployed 7 divisions to attack Thiaumont, Fort de Souville, and Fort de Vaux.
Before I tell you later on this page more about the 7 days Siege of Fort de Vaux, we continue our walk on the top construction of the fortress.
Dutch Readers, read my more detailed reconstruction of the events of the Siege of Fort de Vaux in my Dutch article: "Het Beleg van Fort de Vaux".
We explore first the east side of the superstructure.
Although the grass has not been mowed,
the shell holes are still to be seen.
A steel, bell-shaped observation cupola.
We move to the centre of the top construction.
The central observation post.
The observation post was located
near the former 75 mm gun turret.
View northeast from this observation post.
Below the observation bell, ...
... lie relics of parts of the 75 mm gun turret.
2 June 1916. Rackow's men conquer the superstructure.
At dawn of 2 June suddenly the heavy bombardment stops. Two battalions of General Weber - Pasja's 50th Division approach the fortress at 150 meters. They know to penetrate the dry moats of the fortress.
Major Raynal's machine gun turrets keep the attackers from the wings with flanking fire. Despite of attempts of "Pioniere" to enter with explosives the defenders know to cause still heavy losses to the the Germans. Another attempt by "Pioniere" to penetrate into the north-east corridor failed. Some pioneers injure themselves, if they try to let down bags, filled with hand grenades, in ventilation shafts.
The entrance to the north-west corridor though is rapidly in German hands, despite the heroic resistance of Captain Tabourot, who remained throwing grenades until he killed himself, injured by a German grenade. Thirty-two French soldiers and one officer surrender at this gate.
At the north-western counterscarp gallery, the 19-year old Poilu, Cahuzac, takes up the defence from his post from an armoured post along the inner slope of the dry moat, since all his officers in that sector of the fort were killed.
German flamethrower attack - Fort de Vaux.
Pioneers connect their flamethrowers to long tubes through openings in the fortress to set it on fire, or at least at smoking. Surprised by this action the French machine gun stops firing.
Using this short break thirty soldiers of Second Lieutenant Kurt Rackow's Paderborner 158th Infantry Regiment were climbing from the dry moat and they reached, just after 5 AM, as the first Germans, the superstructure of the fortress. The French machine guns resumed their murderous work again.
By the artillery barrage back and forth for hours, Rackow's men on the roof get even more isolated.
At the end of the morning the Germans discover a breach near the north-west corridor in the top construction, sealed with sand bags. They remove the sand bags and throw grenades inside.
Commandant Raynal, commander of the garrison, orders immediately to evacuate this corridor. At 4 o'clock in the afternoon Raynal has lost its main defensive positions of the north of the fortress. Through the observation holes the French see, that the German soldiers on the superstructure are at ease enough to smoke a pipe. The superstructure of the fort was finally in the hands of the Germans.
With these events in our mind we continue our exploration.
On 26 February 1916 the 75 mm-gun turret on top of the fort ...
... was destroyed by an impact of a German 420 mm-grenade.
In some way or another, this period picture of
Hanotaux's "Histoire Illustrée de la Guerre de 1914"
must have been imprinted forever in my memory, ...
... for sure during the moment, when I shot this photo below.
Under the observation post one of the firing holes.
With a last view of the superstructure,
we descend to inspect the dry moat around the fortress.
A view of the northeast corner of the dry moat.
These fortified inner gates,
which the French call a "coffre de contre-escarpe",
or counterscarp gallery, controlled with machine guns
the dry moat against invaders.
View to the northern corner of the dry moat.
The coffres de contre-escarpe were connected to the fortress ...
... with tunnels, running beneath the moat.
From the moat we reach the west corner and the exterior
of the south-western Casemate de Bourges.
Although mirrored, the western casemate is
almost similar in structure to the eastern casemate.
Later on this page, we will visit the interior of
the south-western Casemate de Bourges.
We approach the fort from the front side.
These renovations were made after 1916.
We pass a memorial plaque
with the list of the defending units of the garrison,
and the official text of Raynal's letter of capitulation.
Later on I will name these units in more detail.
"TO THE DEFENDERS OF FORT DE VAUX"
IN THIS RUINED FORT 250 MEN RESISTED DURING 7 DAYS (1-7 JUNE 1916) THE FURIUOUS ASSAULTS OF THE GERMANS. TO ATTACKS WITH GAS AND FLAMABALE LIQUIDS, TO TORTURE AND THIRST.”
(Next the garrison list.)
Official Text of the capitulation of the fort:
"To the Commander of the German forces, who attack Fort de Vaux,
Under the following conditions: with the honours of war, respectful treatment, the choice of officers respected to keep their personal care-takers, and personal objects left with their proprietors, I surrender the premises and parts of the stronghold, still under my command in Fort de Vaux, to the German troops.
Fort de Vaux June 7, 1916. Commander of the battalion, Commander of the fort, Raynal."
Before we continue our exploration of this site,
first some concise background information about
the Siege of Fort de Vaux.
The Siege of Fort de Vaux.
When Raynal assumes his post in the Fort de Vaux on 24 May, he is Commander of a garrison, consisting of the 6th Company and part of the 7th Company of the 142nd Infantry Regiment of the Second Army, from 2 machine gun Companies of the 142nd regiment, a unit of gunners of the 5me Régiment d'Artillerie the Position (R.A.P.) and the 6me R.A., a sapper unit of the 2me Regiment de Génie and of the 9me, and stretcher bearers of the 101me R.I.; together around 250 men.
The Major finds a desolate state in the fortress. The fort is overpopulated. Above the normal occupancy of 250 people, even hundreds of men, like soldiers of the 101st and 142nd regiments and members of the 53rd machine gun company, during the fighting detached from their units, are also packing the tunnels and rooms. They looked for refuge in the fort. Raynal tries, still unsuccessfully, to evacuate these refugees from the fort. But in the chaos of fighting and artillery shelling, there are only more refugees turning in, so that the occupation of the fort is in fact at about 600 men! Besides these 600 men there are still 4 pigeons in the fort and a Cocker Spaniel dog, owned by a sapper, who listens to the name "Quiqui.
The Commander notes that the defence is almost zero, so he orders immediately to strengthen the fort. Raynal lets his soldiers fill the recently impacted breaches with sand bags. In the corridors he orders to build "chicane"-shaped barriers of sand bags up of 1 meter thick, with holes for the grenadiers behind it to throw grenades, and sometimes he leaves behind these barricades also some machine guns. The tank of 5,000 litres of water seems, for now, sufficient.
The next days the garrison fought a tough battle for every inch in the dark,
underground corridors against repetitive German attacks with flame throwers, grenades, and poison gasses.
All communication lines to Fort de Souville have been cut off. The light signal system has been destroyed. A few carrier pigeons are the only means of communication for Commandant Raynal. On 4 June Raynal sends his last pigeon.
"Nous tenons toujours, mais nous subissons une attaque par le gaz et les fumées très dangereuses.
Il y a urgence à nous dégager - Fait nous donner de directe communication optique par Souville,
que ne repond pas à mes appels.
C'est mon dernier pigeon. Raynal"
(The image of the letter is in the original size.)
"We still hold, but we will suffer an attack by gas and very dangerous fumes. It is urgent that we withdraw - do give us direct optical communication to Souville, that does not answer my calls.
This is my last pigeon. Raynal "
The pigeon arrives successfully at the Citadel of Verdun, but it drops dead immediately.
In the afternoon Raynal receives the news that the water tank is leaking and that there is an acute shortage of water.
On 5 June the Germans explode a mine near the south-west Casemate de Bourges. In the afternoon the Germans succeed to conquer the last latrines along the eastern corridor. Raynal’s soldiers are receiving only 125 mm. water a day, and they are forced by thirst to lick the moist of the walls. The loss of the latrines and the lack of water breaks the morale of the defenders. Raynal realises that he is not able to continue his resistance.
On 6 June the French units of the 238me R.I. and the 321me R.I. organize a counterattack to liberate the fortress. With an improvised light signal system Raynal sends Fort de Souville a message, that the counterattack is a complete failure. Ten minutes later Raynal sends another desperate message.
"I have no water anymore, despite the rationing of the last days. I should withdraw and I have to be supplied immediately with water. I believe that I have used the utmost of my forces. Under these conditions the troops, men and officers, have all done their duty to the utmost."
The telegram continues with mentioning the names of men nominated for a medal award, the names of the dead men, and the wounded, and then to end with:
"I hope that you will intervene with renewed vigor before the total exhaustion."
Around nine o’clock the Grand Quartier Géneral decides that Raynal is to be honoured with the award of Commander of the Legion of Honour, a message Raynal will not read, because it is impossible to reach Fort de Vaux.
On 7 June Raynal and his garrison have to surrender. What is left of the garrison is too dried out of thirst to be able to fight on. When the Germans capture Raynal, he is treated as a real war hero.
The Germans have such an admiration for the perseverance of Raynal, that he may pose for the photo along with Second Lieutenant Kurt Rackow, on the same day awarded with the high honour of "Pour le Mérite".
While Raynal's fort occupation counts 50 deaths and 87 wounded, the German losses though were much heavier after 6 days. For a week Raynal and his men have kept busy 4 German battalions, which together have lost 2.678 soldiers and 64 officers.
Dutch Readers, read my more detailed reconstruction of the events of the Siege of Fort de Vaux in my Dutch article: "Het Beleg van Fort de Vaux".
The frontline of 20 June, after the German conquests of the Forts de Douaumont and Vaux. The front lines of the later German attacks of June 1916 on Thiaumont, Ouvrage de Froideterre, Côte de Fleury, Fort de Souville, Bois de la Laufée, and Fort de Tavannes.
After this historic intermezzo we continue our visit.
There is another plague on the wall,
dedicated to the carrier pigeon.
“TO THE PIGEON-FANCIERS WHO DIED FOR FRANCE. TO THE PIGEON OF VERDUN.
ON 4 JUNE, DURING THE BATTLE OF VERDUN, FROM THIS FORT, THE LAST CARRIER PIGEON OF MAJOR RAYNAL (NO. 787-15) DEPARTED, CARRYING THE MESSAGE:
"We still hold, but we will suffer an attack by gas and very dangerous fumes. It is urgent that we withdraw - do give us direct optical communication to Souville, that does not answer my calls. This is my last pigeon. Raynal "
THE PIGEON SUCCEEDED IN HIS MISSION AND HAS BEEN AWARDED WITH THE CITATION: ...."
Followed by the text of the citation, which belonged to the posthumous award for the pigeon of Knight of the Legion of Honour!
Fort de Vaux, the Interior.
A part of the interior of Fort de Vaux is open to the public. Photographing is allowed. We make a tour along some interesting sites in the fortress, important for the story of the Siege: the main corridor, the water tank, the barracks, the office of Raynal, the first aid post, the east corridor, the "lost" latrines, and backwards to the west, to the memorial chapel at corridor D, and the interior of the western Casemate de Bourges.
The main corridor.
The water tank.
"GLORY TO THE HEROIC DEFENDERS",
followed by the list of units,
defending the fortress during the siege.
Down the entrance to the 75 mm gun turret tunnel
still lies the symbolic grave of a French soldier.
On the southern side of the main corridor are the barracks.
Next to the barracks:
the rather small office of the Commanders of the fortress.
Behind the glass:
window figures representing Raynal giving orders to a Poilu.
We continue to the First Aid Post or Lazaret.
There is only place for 6 men!
At 6 June the garrison had yet 76 wounded men!
They were packed in the corridor, leading to the lazaret.
On the door of the Commander's dormitory
a list of 1916 Commanders of the fortress.
Notice the name of the German Commander, Major von Enchen.
The small dormitory of the Fort Commander.
Opposite the bed a stool with a modest desk.
The communication centre, which would be of no use after 1 June.
Adjacent to the communication room,
is the cage for the 4 carrier pigeons,
of whom one played such an important role in this story.
We continue through the northeast corridor.
Notice the chicane-shaped walls,
which were fortified with sandbags, ...
... and with square holes
to throw handgrenades or fire machine guns at the intruders.
The German conquest of the latrines broke
definitely the morale of the thirsty troops of Raynal.
We return to the main corridor, and go westward.
At the western dead end corridor D
is now located a small memorial chapel.
Behind the wall still rest the corpses of soldiers.
We continue to visit two rooms
of the western Casemate de Bourges, ...
... with it's 75mm artillery guns on rails.
We leave the fortress with a last view,
again at the exterior of the western Casemate de Bourges.
We continue along the road southward.
On 24 October the French start an operation to retake Fort de Vaux. It will them take nine days, before they succeed to reconquer the fort on 3 November 1916.
Units of General Andlauer's 63rd Infantry Division occupied the fortress in the night of 2 and 3 November 1916.
On our return from the fortress,
along the west side of the dead end road,
stands this memorial, ...
... dedicated to Jacques David of the
50me Bataillon Chasseurs à Pied,
"KILLED BY THE ENEMY ON 24 OCTOBER 1916".
To end our voyage in time around Vaux we make
a jump of 1.300 m. southward to the Bois de la Laufée.
In the wood there are many traces of trenches.
We detect an improvised grave or a memorial,
covered with a piece of "horizon bleu", corrugated board.
It is dedicated to two "Comrades of the 171e R.I.".
The names are not readable.
Along more traces of trenches we reach ...
... The Ouvrage de la Laufée.
Some details about the Ouvrage de la Laufée.
In March 1916 the stronghold was garrisoned by units of the 52me R.I. , under command of Captain Chabert; one infantry company, a machine gun section, an artillery unit, and, as always in larger fortifications, a unit of engineers.
The job of commanding the Ouvrage must have been stressful for the officers. On 31 March Captain Waltz of the 10me Regiment de Hussards takes over the command, sustained later by Captain Poirier and Captain Burthe d’ Arbriet, Commander of the 23me Escadron de Dragons. On 18 August 1916 Captain Rex, a Chasseur of the 4me Bataillon de Chasseurs à Pied, takes over the command of these morally and physically stressed officers.
Function of the Ouvrage.
This stronghold contains several underground shelters. During some periods it even served as a Command Post for 2 batallions. There was a shaft to a source, connected to two water tanks. There were two exit caverns. A part of the redoubt served as a dressing station. During the end of October 1916 the French installed also a generator room to feed the stronghold with electricity. Beneath this concrete complex there were 530 tunnels and rooms, and 40 shafts. Much of the system is now filled in, or unstable, and very dangerous.
Daily Bombardments and infantry attacks.
The Ouvrage possessed a powerful 75 mm gun turret, which bombarded together with the guns of Fort de Moulainville and the nearby Batterie de Damloup, the Germans, occupying the Fort de Vaux. Only on one day, on 4 June 1916, it fired 294 grenades at the Germans! At 8 and 9 June however the superstructure of the Ouvrage received more than 400 impacts of German 210 mm and 380 mm shells. In the days before 23 June the German shells count 700 a day.
On 23 June the Germans deploy an infantry attack at the Ouvrage and the Batterie de Damloup, which the garrison of the Ouvrage knows to withstand. In July the bombardments on the Ouvrage continue. On 11 July starts another series of German infantry attacks, with the German 126 I.R., 143 I.R., and the 99 I.R. conquering even the nearby Batterie de Damloup, but not the Ouvrage. The German artillery bombardments would continue until the end of August. From 24 October 1916, during the French counteroffensive, the 75 mm gun turret of the Ouvrage took part in the bombardments of the slopes around Fort de Vaux and the German trenches in Damloup and around the Batterie de Damloup, firing 545 grenades a day.
During December 1916 and January 1917 the Ouvrage suffered many more of these heavy German artillery bombardments.
Later, during the Second World War, the Germans exploded the 75 mm gun turret.
An after war report of an unknown French author: "Monographie de l'Ouvrage de la Laufée".
Nowadays the ruins of the heavily bombarded
Ouvrage de la Laufée is covered by a dense vegetation, ...
... which makes it almost invisible.
Along some fire holes in the eastern wall, ...
... I try to reach the top of the Ouvrage.
Soon I detect this concrete circle on the superstructure.
It is the location of the base of the former 75 mm gun turret.
The dense vegetation camouflages
the circle with a diameter of about 5 m.
I used some extra flash light
just to give you some idea of the depth of about 5m.
Be warned, and don't fall in!
The vegetation hides more of these surprises, smaller,
but still even, nasty surprises.
I descend from the roof to find an entrance to the Ouvrage.
At the end of a trench I succeeded to find an entrance.
In this rather big entrance hall is only recent graffiti to be found.
As I already know that this stronghold is in a dangerous state, ...
... I only enter it for about 50 m.
In the dark these "unexpected" shafts are very dangerous.
These manholes, only seldom equipped with a very rusty ladder,
go straight down for sometimes 20 m. deep or much deeper.
Warning: Only recently, on 12 July 2009, a 25 year old Swiss tourist was not cautious enough, and fell down one of the shafts of Fort de Souville near a Pamart bunker for about 20 m.! It took a special rescue team almost 3 hours to rescue this tourist! (Source: L'Est Républicain, 12-07-2009.)
I continue my exploration to find more of these deep shafts.
They sometimes were ventilation shafts to lower levels,
or formed the direct connection to lower tunnels.
I decide, that it is safer for me to leave the impressive Ouvrage.
With a last view of the Ouvrage de la Laufée we return to our car.
By lack of time we were alas forced to abandon our walk
to the Batterie de Damloup, which we will save for another time.
We continue our virtual tour to the area of Fort de Tavannes.
Continue to the next chapter: