In 1554 the French invaded the province of Namur and captured the Spanish fortress of Mariembourg. This left a gap in the frontier defences, so to guard against further attacks Charles V'ordered the construction of two new fortresses. Both were built on land that had been purchased from the Bishopric of Liège.
The first was the fortified town of Philippeville, to the north of Mariembourg, and the second was the fortress of Charlemont, to the east. Charlemont was built on a steep-sided hill on the left bank of the river Meuse above the village of Givet.
This hill dominated the surrounding land and was an ideal location for a fortress. The only approach where the ground does not slope away steeply is on the west side.
The original fortifications of Charlemont, which was roughly triangular in shape, consisted of four large arrow-headed bastions'and two small ones at the narrow eastern end. There was a ditch'in front of the walls, but initially there were no outworks.
Charlemont and Philippeville were constructed as quickly as possible because of fears of a French attack. These fears were justified in July 1555 when a French force arrived at Charlemont while it was still under construction.
In an attempt to stop the construction work, they attacked from a small hill just to the north of the fortress. However, after skirmishing with Spanish troops backed by guns that had been hastily installed in the incomplete fortifications, the French withdrew.
Construction was also hampered by a mutiny among the troops, who had been without pay and rations for some time, but the work was nevertheless finished relatively quickly. The completed fortress of Charlemont presented a serious obstacle to any advance down the Meuse towards Namur, with its high walls and ditches carved out of the rock.
There were three entrances to Charlemont, including the Porte de Rome, which was on the side of the Meuse, where a road was made up the steep cliff from the river bank to the fort. The other entrances were in the west and the north, where the ground was less steep.
The 17th century saw various fortifications constructed at Givet, although it is unclear exactly when and how they came about. In the first half of the century, France emerged from internal conflict to threaten the Spanish Netherlands again. It seems that at this time, or in the late 16th century, the Spanish carried out some improvements at Charlemont.
At the east end of the fortress, the two demi-bastions'built in 1555 were judged to be too tall and exposed, so another set of walls was built below and in front of them, to hide the base of the upper walls and provide an extra layer of defence in this direction.
Counterguards'were built in front of the bastions on the northern front, probably in an attempt to offset the disadvantage caused by the shallow salient angles of these bastions. A demi-lune'was built to protect the entrance at the north-eastern point of the fortress.
A bastioned'trace was built to protect the town of Grand Givet, on the left bank of the Meuse just below Charlemont. Strangely, instead of joining up with the upper fortress, the fortifications of Grand Givet completely surrounded the town, with the west front facing towards Charlemont.
Petit Givet, on the right (south) bank, was left without fortifications. A French force under Maréchal de La Meilleraye laid siege to Charlemont in May 1640, but was forced to retreat. In 1675 another force under Maréchal de Crequi also failed. Finally in 1678, the Treaty of Nijmegen'transferred Givet to France. King Louis XIV'came to visit his newly acquired fortress in 1680 and charged his military engineer Vauban'with strengthening it.
Vauban added a covered way'to the defences of Charlemont and at the western end, the most vulnerable approach, a large crownwork, although it is possible that the latter was built by the Spanish prior to 1678.
In addition, he ammended the trace around Grand Givet so that it joined on to the east end of Charlemont, recognising that it was pointless to have two fortifications facing each other, especially since Charlemont dominated the whole town.
Since Charlemont only had enough accommodation for 2 battalions of infantry (it was still a town in its own right), Vauban had a large barrack building built below the fortress on the river bank. When completed, this building was 430 metres long, the longest barracks in France.
The river bank defences, which hitherto had consisted of a single bastion built in 1555, were also revamped and linked to Charlemont at the western end. Since Givet was an important river crossing, a redoubt'was built at either end of the bridge to control the traffic across the Meuse.
However, these reinforcements were relatively minor because the French were already building a strong fortress at Dinant, a short distance to the north. In the 1680s and early 1690s Givet was used as a magazine, a place where troops and supplies could be gathered.
But this activity attracted the attention of the Allies. In early 1696, after the Allies had recaptured Namur, the French had stored a large amount of supplies at Givet in preparation for the campaigning season.
The Allies decided to strike at the French and destroy their provisions to prevent them from undertaking a major siege that year. In a well-orchestrated raid, Coehoorn'took 30 battalions south from Namur and, leaving a force to surround Dinant, advanced on Givet. Keeping to the right bank of the Meuse to avoid Charlemont, the Allied troops entered the undefended Petit Givet (the part of the town on the south bank) and set fire to the barracks and storehouses there.
By placing artillery on the high ground of the Mont d'Haurs, opposite Charlemont, Coehoorn was also able to cause significant damage on the north bank of the river, before marching back to Namur unopposed.
This raid demonstrated a deficiency in the fortifications of Givet. The lack of defences on the south bank had resulted in the destruction of the supplies stored there and the Mont d'Haurs had provided a platform from which to bombard Grand Givet.
Vauban was sent to rectify these problems in 1696, shortly after the raid. Now that the French had lost Namur, Givet was no longer a magazine at the rear, but a frontier fortress that had to be secured against attack.
Vauban's new plans for Givet included fortifications for both Petit Givet and the Mont d'Haurs, as well as reinforcing the works on the north bank. Petit Givet was fortified with a trace of four bastions and a flooded ditch on the south and east sides, but there was no covered way.
There were two advanced redoubts guarding the high ground on the eastern approach. Petit Givet is dominated by the cliff of Mont d'Haurs to the west, which Vauban also fortified.
Mont d'Haurs was an empty plateau with no houses and the way Vauban dealt with it shows a change in strategic thinking. Instead of building a fort to protect the heights, he built a bastioned trace around the edge of the plateau, enclosing it.
This formed a camp retranché (fortified camp), where up to 20,000 troops could be accommodated in a protected area. Since there were no barracks on the plateau, the men would live in tents as in the field.
The idea was that a force could encamp at Givet in time of need and be able to respond to any threat between Bouillon and Maubeuge. In the 18th and early 19th centuries fortified camps were widely used, but the one made by Vauban at Givet was one of the first to be built.
To the north of the river, Vauban put in place more outworks to strengthen Charlemont, including a large lunette'called Fort Condé, built to protect the high ground from which the French made their attack against the incomplete fortress in 1555.
To the east end of Charlemont Vauban added a third layer of defences, to take the walls up to the brink of a steep slope. This took the form of an angled wall with a redan'at the mid point. On top of the wall artillery was sited, overlooking the river and Grand Givet. Beneath the guns were casemated'galleries with loopholes'to allow muskateers to fire down the slope towards the town. This extra layer made Charlemont unquestionably dominant over the town.
In addition, the part of Grand Givet's fortifications that faced Charlemont were demolished. They were of little value, being completely overlooked by the guns of Charlemont.
The fortifications of Grand Givet were also improved. The ditch was widened and the covered way was improved. A demi-lune was constructed on the north front and the demi-lune in the east, which was rather small, was redoubled with an outer envelope.
These improvements to the fortifications at Givet became even more important with the signing of the Treaty of Rijswijk'in 1697, which required the demolition of the fortifications of Dinant and its return to Liège.
However, the fortifications of Givet did not see action until the Napoleonic Wars. In 1815 the Prussians laid siege to the fortress. After taking the town itself with relatively little difficulty, they decided that Charlemont was too formidable to assault, so it held out until the end of the war. In 1862 the gate below Charlemont, the Porte de France, was modified to span the railway which entered Givet via a tunnel leading underneath the fortress.
The fortifications were declassified in 1892 and demolition work was carried out. The walls around the two Givets were mostly demolished and high quality revetment stone of the Mont d'Haurs ramparts was removed. Charlemont's fortifications were not declassified.
Charlemont was bombarded in 1914 and the houses there were not rebuilt after the First World War. Instead, the army took over the fortress and is still there. The fortifications are intact and well-maintained, but mostly closed off by the army.
The east end of Charlemont is the only part normally open to visitors, but in the summer there are usually guided tours of the whole fortress. There are rumours that the army is leaving in the summer of 2009, so time will tell what will become of Charlemont.
There is very little left of the fortifications of the town, but the Mont d'Haurs still has its ramparts, although the revetment stone was removed in 1892. They are accessible, but quite overgrown in places, so it can be difficult to understand where you are.
In Grand Givet the Tour Victoire is a remnant of the medieval walls and in Petit Givet stands the Tour Grégoire, an old customs tower. Fort Condé has also survived, but it appears to private property and cannot be visited.
Givet is linked to Charleville (in France) by rail. There are no rail links north into Belgium, but there is a bus service between Givet and Dinant, from where there are trains to Namur. Charlemont is a good example of an early use of bastions (the core dates from 1555).
The Mont d'Haurs is significant in being one of the first entrenched camps, although the walls are rather decayed. All in all, Givet is well worth a visit, especially as this can be combined with visits to other fortresses nearby.