Fort van Beieren

In 1701 England, the United Provinces (the Netherlands) and the Austrian Empire concluded an alliance to challenge the French king Louis XIV, who supported the Bourbon claim to the Spanish throne. Fearing that having Bourbons on the thrones of France and Spain would upset the balance of power in Europe, the Allies geared up for war.

On the pretext of protecting Spanish territory, Louis occupied the Spanish Netherlands and his forces prepared to meet the Allied attack. Part of this preparation included the construction of fortified lines protecting Brabant, running from Antwerp to Namur.

The lines extended in a lesser form westwards from Antwerp along the border with the United Provinces to the sea. The War of the Spanish Succession'began in 1702 and Vauban'was sent to Bruges to inspect the fortifications on the frontier.

It is likely that it was on his recommendation that the fortified camp at Coolkerke, next to the canal between Bruges and Damme, was replaced by a small earthwork fort, although he probably would not have been responsible for designing the fort itself.

It was built on the site of an old manor house, the Kasteel Stockhove, which was torn down first. The fort had four bastions'and a demi-lune'protecting the entrance. The ramparts were fronted by a flooded ditch, beyond which was a covered way.

There was also an outer ditch beyond the glacis, as was commonly seen in Dutch-style earthwork fortifications. The completed fort became known as the Fort de Bavière, or the Fort van Beieren in Dutch/Flemish (both mean Fort Bavaria).

It was named for Maximilian II Emanuel, the Elector of Bavaria, who was the governor of the Spanish Netherlands and an ally of France. Although the construction of the fort was undertaken by the French army, the actual digging was done by numerous local peasants, who were drafted in for the task.

The strategic value of the fort proved to be short-lived. The Allied attack came in the east and in 1705 the Duke of Marlborough'crossed the Lines of Brabant and defeated the French in battle near Zoutleeuw. The Allies then destroyed a large section of the lines, rendering them useless.

In 1706 the French defeat Battle of Ramillies changed the scene in the Spanish Netherlands. The French retreated southwards, abandoning much of Flanders and Brabant, including the Fort van Beieren.

The front lines then moved much farther south and the fort was not threatened for the remainder of the war. In 1715 Austria came into possession of the Spanish Netherlands and the fort was garrisoned by their forces until 1748, the soldiers being quartered in wooden huts and tents.

Visiting the Fort van Beieren

In 1748 the fort was abandoned by the Austrian army and it has been left to nature ever since. Today the fort forms a public park that can be visited for free. The earthwork ramparts have sagged and some parts of the ditches have become filled in, but its basic form remains.

The Fort van Beieren is located about halfway between Bruges and Damme. It is within walking distance of both, but probably the best way to reach it is by cycling along the Damse Vaart canal. There is a bed and breakfast and restaurant called "Fort van Beieren" next to the fort.

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