Condé sur l'Escaut

Situated in the midst of otherwise flat and uneventful terrain, the confluence of the Haine and Escaut rivers was what gave the town of Condé sur l'Escaut its strategic importance.

The Romans recognised this importance and successive owners of the town left their mark in terms of defences. By the end of the middle ages Condé was protected by a stone wall with numerous towers, fronted by a flooded ditch'and a strong castle on the south side of the town.

The first artillery fortifications came relatively late, probably because it was not as important as some of the other places in the region such as Valenciennes, Cambrai or Arras. Nevertheless, in the face of growing French aggression, the Spanish decided to fortify Condé in 1654.

This decision was made too late, since French troops under Turenne'took the town in 1655. When it was returned to Spain by the Treaty of the Pyrenees'in 1659, the Spanish carried out their plans to make Condé into a strong fortress.

A bastioned'trace was built around the town, initially as an earthwork. The new ramparts were built outside the medieval walls and ditch, which were left as an inner line of defence. There was also a small square redoubt'to the south of the town.

By the time Louis XIV'arrived at Condé at the head of a French army in 1676, the town was well-fortified. On its most vulnerable side to the west, where there was plenty of dry ground, there were four bastions, three demi-lunes'and a covered way.

To the east the land was extremely wet (the map above even shows boats there), so the defences took the form of an irregular on that side. In the south a hornwork'was built in front of the castle.

Since the ground was low-lying, all the ditches in front of the ramparts could be flooded easily by diverting the water from the rivers. From 1666, the fortifications in the west were revetted in stone in readiness to face an expected attack from France.

This work was mostly finished by the time the French laid siege to Condé in April. The siege works were directed by Vauban, although this was not the first time he had been there - he had been present at the siege of 1655 as a young engineer.

After France was accorded Condé sur l'Escaut by the Treaty of Nijmegen'in 1678, Vauban was sent to improve the fortifications. His most major modification was to the trace on the east side of the town, a front which lacked cohesion and adequate flanking.

In place of the old earthwork zig-zag trace, he constructed two demi-bastions'either side of the point where the Haine entered the town, and a bastion at the south end of the line. All this work was revetted in stone.

Vauban had a number of sluice gates built to give the garrison the ability to control the water levels in the ditches and to create inundations'to the east of the town. These sluices were valable because the flooding could significantly delay an attacker.

To strengthen the western front, where an attack was most likely, Vauban added stone cavaliers'to the four bastions there, increasing the firepower and range of these bastions.

He built an unusual curved false bray'between the Bastion de Solre and the Bastion de la Teste and an assymetric false bray between the Bastion de la Teste and the Bastion de Tournai. Such irregularities are not the norm with Vauban's work.

There must have been a reason for this departure from his conventional practice of using a tenaille'in the ditch in front of a rampart. One possible explanation is that the arrangement was designed to facilitate the flow of river water around the defences.

In the south, the hornwork was revetted in stone and strengthened by the construction of a demi-lune and a covered way in front of it. In advance of the town's defences, a number of small square redoubts were built to supplement the single redoubt that existed under the Spanish.

Overall there were five redoubts of varying sizes placed around the outside of the fortified town. There was one to the south (which had been built by the Spanish), two to the west, one to the north and one to the east.

Their purpose was to create difficulty for an enemy who was still at a distance from the town, forcing them to capture one or more of the redoubts before being able to attack the town. This would prolong siege operations and allow the garrison to hold out for longer.

The medieval castle was transformed into an arsenal for storing the artillery and other equipment used by the garrison. Vauban's work at Condé can be described as a consolidation of the Spanish defences, closing up gaps and reinforcing weak points.

In 1707, the Porte Vautourneux (Vautourneux Gate) was completed, replacing the medieval Porte Rombault, which had been destroyed during the siege of 1676. Condé was left at peace for the remainder of Louis XIV's wars, since the Allies made their attacks farther to the west (via Lille and Douai) bypassing the town. In the 1770s, the fortifications were given some attention by the engineer Pierre du Buat, who specialised in hydraulics.

His work was limited to some minor alterations, including blending the curved false bray into the bastions either side of it and constructing a counterscarp gallery. During this time the redoubt to the north of the town was strengthened and became known as the Fort de Macou. It was revetted in stone and barracks were erected inside.

Condé's fortifications proved their worth during the French Revolutionary Wars when the French garrison held out for 3 months against their Austrian attackers. During their 2-year occupation, the Austrians dug countermines'to strengthen the defences in the west.

The fortifications of Condé sur l'Escaut were declassified in 1901 and some demolition work was carried out on the eastern side of the town.

Visiting Condé sur l'Escaut

Despite the demolition work, a large section of the fortifications of Condé sur l'Escaut have survived to the present day. This includes the bastions in the west, the Fort de Macou and several demi-lunes. A section of the medieval walls behind the bastioned front is also preserved.

A bastioned trace fronting old medieval ramparts was common in the 17th century but Condé is one of the few examples that have survived (usually the medieval ramparts were demolished to make space within the fortified town).

Also of note are the sluice gates at the north end of the surviving fortifications, which have been restored recently. Condé is largely forgotten by the tourists, and although there is no train station there, it is a short bus journey from Valenciennes.

The ramparts are crumbling and in need of repair, but they still make an interesting visit. This would fit in well with a visit to other well-preserved fortresses such as Maubeuge and Le Quesnoy.

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