Arras

Arras, the capital of Artois, was first fortified in the 13th century, when a large encircling wall of many towers was constructed. In the 14th century, another set of walls were built enclosing the abbey, which lay just outside the town's walls to the west of the town. This resulted in Arras' unusual figure-of-eight shape, similar to that of Bergues.

In the 16th century these fortifications were improved by the Spanish rulers Emperor Charles V and Philippe II. These modifications consisted of building several arrow headed bastions protruding from the medieval wall.

In the early 17th century, Spanish engineers constructed a number of demi-lunes and a strong covered way. There was a crownwork at the south-west corner of the defences, and the ditch was flooded in places. The two seperate sets of walls for the town and the abbey were retained throughout this period, although the section of town walls that faced the abbey were not strengthened.

In 1640, the French laid siege to Arras and captured it, thwarting a Spanish attempt to retake it in 1654. In 1655 the governor hired an Italian engineer to maintain the fortifications, apart from this nothing was done to strengthen the town and the earthen outworks fell into disrepair.

Arras, which seemed to be no more use as a frontier fortress when the frontier moved on, was given a new lease of life in 1668 when Vauban drew up a project for strengthening the town, which was to be in the second line of his Pré Carré.

Vauban's plans included the building of a large pentagonal citadel, similar to the one he designed at Lille. The citadel's main purpose was to keep the inhabitants of the town in order, and this is reflected in the way there is a false bray present only on the townward front.

The citadel differed from that at Lille in a number of other ways. It had counterguards protecting the bastions and the ditch was only partially flooded due to the relief of the ground. Strangely, the internal buildings were arranged in a rectangle rather than following the pentagon formed by the walls.

The citadel was built on a hill just outside the abbey's walls, so the defences were altered here so that the defences from the abbey and the town came up to meet the citadel. This created a large esplanade without the need to demolish any houses, as was necessary at Lille.

Elsewhere in the defences, Vauban restored the old Spanish outworks and built new counterguards and lunettes. Unusually for 17th military engineering, many of the outworks were unrevetted outworks, which would require constant maintainance to prevent them from eroding.

Vauban also improved the system of sluices, allowing more sections of the ditch to be flooded. He built a hornwork one in the east, protecting a medieval circular tower (which he had lowered to reduce its vulnerability to artillery). Another hornwork was later built to the south of the first.

Because only some sections of the defences could have their ditches flooded, Vauban devised a system of countermines to protect the higher fronts. These provided the garrison with a system of tunnels from which to counter any mines dug by the attackers. The countermines were linked to each other so that defenders in one tunnel could retreat into the tunnels either side if theirs was taken by the enemy.

Arras' fortifications experienced minor improvements in the 18th century, mainly the construction of extra lunettes and demi-lunes. The fortifications were never tested by fire and were demolished between 1891 and 1896 with the exception of the citadel.

Visiting Arras

The demolition of the fortifications of the town left only a small section intact - the arrow headed bastion des chouettes, its adjacent walls and part of the flank of the bastion to its south. These defences date from the 16th century Spanish period of construction.

The sizeable bastion des chouettes appears to have been one of the smaller bastions and must have originally been dwarfed by its neighbours, but it now dominates a small park on the western side of the town.

The citadel is still occupied by the French army, who have altered it slightly, filled in the ditch between the inner citadel and one of the demi-lunes in order to build more barrack buildings. When I visited in 2006 yet more building work was going on, as well as some restoration of the fortifications.

Access to the citadel is quite restricted. The eastern front (townward side) can be viewed from the road, and the south-eastern front forms a small park. Another small section of the fortifications on the western side can be reached by going round the north side of the citadel.

The bastion and counterscarp here form a memorial to 218 members of the French Resistance who were arrested and shot in the citadel ditches by the nazis during the Second World War. Plaques record each of their names, ages, professions and home towns.

Guided tours of the citadel costing €4.60 are available on Sunday afternoons. More information on guided tours is available from the tourist information office.

The relief map of Arras made in 1716 is on display at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. Only the sections of the relief map showing the town and part of the abbey is on display, possibly because the rest is being restored. Entrance to the museum is free on the first Wednesday of every month.

Arras has a main-line station and is within easy reach of Lille and other nearby fortified places. The Musée des Beaux-Arts, the bastion des couettes and the citadel are all within walking distance of each other and the station.

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