Belfort

Article and pictures by Michel Plancon, all rights reserved.

Belfort lies just the north of the Jura Mountains and the south-east of the Vosges Mountains, controlling the “Gateway of Burgundy”, a natural route between Alsace and Franche-Comte. The old fortified city lies between the River Savoureuse and the bottom of a cliff at whose summit lies the chateau.

Map of Vauban's fortifications at Belfort.

Belfort belonged to the Austrian Habsburgs from 1360 to 1636 when the city was taken over by Gaspard de Champagne, Count de la Suze, on behalf of Louis XIII, king of France. Gaspard de Champagne repaired the old city walls and improved the chateau.

Between 1637 and 1648, he added a crownwork with one demi-lune to modernise the chateau's defences. The city was confirmed as a French possession under the authority of the king of France by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

After the Treaty of Nijmegen in 1678 confirming French ownership of the Franche-Comte, Louis XIV ordered Vauban to transform Belfort into a strong fortified place and military supply depot as well in order to guard the “Gateway of Burgundy”.

The Porte de Brisach.

Vauban came to Belfort in 1687. He designed and built a new pentagonal bastioned trace surrounding the city, doubling its size, according to a new technique devised for the specific problem of Besançon, known as “second system”, with tower bastions covered by detached bastions called counterguards.

1698 improvements that were never carried out (proposed work is in yellow).

The lower town is protected by curtains connected to three tower bastions, their counterguards and four demi-lunes and a covered way. Two monumental gates give access to the city: the Porte de France in the west and the Porte de Brisach in the north.

In order to perfect the protection against the heights of “la Miotte”, a hill overlooking the city to the north, the massive hornwork “de l’Espèrance” was built. On the eastern side, the chateau was modernised and protected by an additional hornwork known as “du Chateau” in front the existing crownwork. The construction work lasted until 1700, by which time the city was equipped with barracks, military hospital, market, parade ground and church.

Some were drawn up in 1698 (and throughout the eighteenth century) to improve the fortifications such as building false brays between the counterguards in front of the curtains and an additional hornwork in the north-east in order to protect the city from the dangerous “Gibet” heights.

A tower bastion at Belfort, with its counterguard in the foreground.

The addition of false brays would have completed Belfort's fortifications in line with the theoretical Vauban “second system” which was only ever fully applied in Landau in Alsace. These projects were never carried out due to lack of funding.

Left: Counterguard, right: Tower Bastion.

The city successfully withstood three important sieges in 1813, 1815 and 1870-1871, which lead to key improvements in fortification techniques. The destruction of Huningue after the Napoleonic wars and the 1815 treaties placed Belfort in the front line facing the river Rhine.

The siege of 1815 saw General Lecourbe building redoubts on the heights of “la Miotte”, “la Justice” (previously known as “le Gibet”), “les Perches” and along the roads converging on city pushed the fight and the siege batteries far away from the city walls, demonstrating the advantages of the “entrenched camp” concept, devised in the 18th century.

It was General Haxo who put the plan into operation between 1818 and 1840 by building in 1825 the “fort de la Justice”, in 1830 the “ fort de la Miotte”and in 1831 the “front du Vallon”. All these works were linked together and connected to the Chateau and the hornwork of “de l’Espèrance” enclosing the “entrenched camp” (see right).

The 'entrenched camp' built in the early 19th century to protect the high ground to the north of the city.

In addition, Haxo drastically improved the chateau fortifications by digging two ditches, building two additional lines of fortifications and installing into the “cavalier” a casemated battery of his invention, known as a Haxo Battery.

A demi-lune in the chateau's defences.

The Haxo Battery was widely used in the nineteenth century French fortifications (one Haxo Battery in a good shape can be seen topping the Fort du Randouillet at Briançon). Additionally, three redoubts were built on the hills of “Hautes et Basses Perches” and “Bellevue”.

It was these new fortifications which allowed Colonel Denfert-Rochereau to withstand the 1870-1871 siege, when the city and fortification took more than 400000 shells and bombs, proving the power of the “detached forts” concept which would be applied by General Séré de Rivières after the end of war.

Visiting Belfort

The fortifications of Belfort are in very good condition indeed despite the destruction of the front of the “Porte de France” removed in 1891 not by the bombs and the shells but by the picks and shovels for unclear reasons. The north to south east side of the fortification are almost intact with the beautifully renovated front of the “Porte Brisach” with the tower bastions and their counterguards, two gates in the demi-lune and the curtain, all the works being built in pink sandstone from the Vosges Mountains.

The suggested routes are very well signposted and documented with explanation panels and schematics written in French, English and German in front of the key fortification elements. There are three 'suggested routes' for exploring the fortifications of Belfort.

The Brisach gate and adjacent fortifications.

The first one allows you to discover the fortifications of the inner town, the second one circles the Chateau glacis and ditches and the third one (the longest) follows the limits of the ‘entrenched camp' starting from the chateau and going to the hornwork “de l’Espèrance” by passing by the “fort de la Justice”, the “front du Vallon” and the “fort de la Miotte”.

Gate in the Brisach demi-lune.

Access to the Chateau is easy and free with the exception of the historical museums. Worth visiting is a museum exhibiting, amongst other things, a relief map of Belfort for a modest fee of three euros. From the Chateau terraces and the upper Haxo battery, there is a good view of the city and its fortifications.

The way down from Chateau to the city passes by the “Lion de Belfort”, a huge sandstone statue commemorating the 1870-1871 heroic defense of Belfort.

The complete visit deserves at least two days or even more if you want to go and see the surrounding Séré De Rivières forts. Belfort is easily accessible by TGV from Paris via Besançon or by car along the A36 motorway.

The chateau seen from the glacis.
Article and pictures by Michel Plancon, all rights reserved.
Condition Access to fortifications Size of fortress Accessability of town Museum/Info Overall score
9 9 7 7 5 8
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