This paper describes the observations and the first data release (DR1) of the ESO public spectroscopic survey VANDELS, a deep VIMOS survey of the CANDELS CDFS and UDS fields. The main targets of VANDELS are star-forming galaxies at redshift 2.4 <
z< 5.5, an epoch when the Universe had not yet reached 20% of its current age, and massive passive galaxies in the range 1 < z< 2.5. By adopting a strategy of ultra-long exposure times, ranging from a minimum of 20 h to a maximum of 80 h per source, VANDELS is specifically designed to be the deepest-ever spectroscopic survey of the high-redshift Universe. Exploiting the red sensitivity of the refurbished VIMOS spectrograph, the survey is obtaining ultra-deep optical spectroscopy covering the wavelength range 480010 000 with a sufficiently high signal-to-noise ratio to investigate the astrophysics of high-redshift galaxy evolution via detailed absorption line studies of well-defined samples of high-redshift galaxies. VANDELS-DR1 is the release of all medium-resolution spectroscopic data obtained during the first season of observations, on a 0.2 square degree area centered around the CANDELS-CDFS ( Chandradeep-field south) and CANDELS-UDS (ultra-deep survey) areas. It includes data for all galaxies for which the total (or half of the total) scheduled integration time was completed. The DR1 contains 879 individual objects, approximately half in each of the two fields, that have a measured redshift, with the highest reliable redshifts reaching zspec ~ 6. In DR1 we include fully wavelength-calibrated and flux-calibrated 1D spectra, the associated error spectrum and sky spectrum, and the associated wavelength-calibrated 2D spectra. We also provide a catalog with the essential galaxy parameters, including spectroscopic redshifts and redshift quality flags measured by the collaboration. We present the survey layout and observations, the data reduction and redshift measurement procedure, and the general properties of the VANDELS-DR1 sample. In particular, we discuss the spectroscopic redshift distribution and the accuracy of the photometricredshifts for each individual target category, and we provide some examples of data products for the various target typesand the different quality flags. All VANDELS-DR1 data are publicly available and can be retrieved from the ESO archive. Two further data releases are foreseen in the next two years, and a final data release is currently scheduled for June 2020, which will include an improved rereduction of the entire spectroscopic data set.