Bitche

Article and pictures by Jeroen van der Werf, all rights reserved.

The fortress of Bitche, which in the 17th century Bitche was part of the duchy of Lorraine, overlooks an important crossroads between France, Germany and the river Rhine. Relations between the French king, Louis XIII, and the duke of Lorraine, Charles IV, were not good.

Firstly the Duke came into possession of the duchy in a way deemed illegitimate by the king. Adding insult to injury, he chose to frustrate the French king in any way possible; supporting the Huguenots, harbouring political refugees etc. When he chose to support the emperor during his war against Sweden, Louis XIII decided to invade Lorraine. In 1634 Bitche was taken by the king's troops.

This invasion can also be seen in the light of the French policy to give the country its natural borders, in this case the river Rhine. In the following years the duchy changed hands several times before it was taken by Louis XIV'in 1670. Aware of the strategic importance of the village he ordered Vauban'to fortify the town in 1680 and the work was finished in 1697. That year the Treaty of Rijswijk'was signed and Louis XIV was forced to leave Lorraine.

In order to prevent the enemy from getting their hands on such a strong fortress, Bitche citadel'was demolished in 1698. In the following years the French invaded Lorraine several times but each time were forced to give it up again. In 1735 the unrecognized claimant to the Polish throne, Stanislas Lecsinski, was made duke of Lorraine. Part of this agreement was that his duchy would pass into French hands after his death. Lorraine was finally secured for the kingdom of France.

From 1738 until 1765 the citadel of Bitche was rebuilt, Vaubans plans for the old citadel forming the blueprints for the new one. The current form of the fortress dates from that period. It is not difficult to see why the citadel had a reputation of being impregnable, high on its hill in the middle of a valley.

The citadel takes the shape of the hill upon which it is built; long and narrow. The hill forms the glacis of the citadel and follows the outline of its covered way. Together with the fact that the citadel and the hill are made of the same dark red sandstone, this almost makes it seem as if the citadel was sculptured or grown out of the hill instead of built on it.

The citadel has two long fronts (north and south) which are protected by four bastions'on the corners of the short east and west fronts. Around the whole citadel a ditch'and covered way were made that could be reached by stairs from the high plateau of the citadel.

The east and west fronts are protected by two detached forts of the same height as the citadel; on the west side a hornwork'with two demi-bastion, on the east side a demi-lune'with a round front.

Both can be reached from the main plateau by a bridge and an underground passage. Staircases give access to the lower works. There is one entrance to the citadel, which is protected in several ways. Next to the corps-de-garde (now the ticket office) is the first gate, which used to have a drawbridge (this is at ground level). After this gate a bridge brings you to the main gate, situated several meters higher than the first gate.

Besides from being protected by fire from the walls it is also protected by two casemates'in the bastion next to the first gate. The gate is a slightly oblique (to prevent direct enemy fire from going through the gate) tunnel that leads you to the level of the main plateau.

Visiting Bitche

The outworks cannot be visited today, but the rest of the citadel is open to visitors. Most of the buildings that used to be on the plateau have been wiped out by bombings in the world wars and the war of 1870 but some remain; the chapel, the arsenal, powder magazine'and the bakery. In the hill under the citadel a large network of underground passages and spaces has been carved (most of them in the 18th century). Only a third of them are accessible to the public (there is a well, sleeping barracks, kitchen and a bakery).

As the range of artillery increased it became possible to fire at the citadel from the surrounding hills, making it more vulnerable. To overcome this weakness, a number of outlying forts were constructed on the nearby hills. Looking back to the parking space standing near the gate one of those forts can still be seen on a nearby hill to your left.

The visit to the citadel is quite expensive because in the underground passages a movie is played about the role Bitche had in the war of 1870-1871 against Germany (almost two hours!! I did not have the patience to watch it). I think this is a pity, all the screens prevent you from properly visiting the very interesting underground passages, which form one of the special features of this citadel. In the chapel a relief map from the late 18th century is displayed.

Here you can also find some computer displays about the history of the citadel and its surrounding lands, but I sorely missed written information about the fort that can be taken away.

Article and pictures by Jeroen van der Werf, all rights reserved.

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