The town of Le Quesnoy in the marshy regions north of Cambrai was fortified in medieval times, when a strong castle was built on the northern side of the town. The first artillery fortifications were constructed under the Emperor Charles V in 1536. These consisted of an irregular italianate trace of arrow-headed bastions with a number of demi-lunes. The defences made good use of the low-lying ground by having wide flooded ditches in front of the walls.
The town was taken by the French under Marshal Turenne in 1654, after a siege of several weeks. It was confirmed as a French possession in the Treaty of the Pyrenees, and it was decided that the old fortifications should be strengthened. A talented young engineer officer called Vauban was sent to Le Quesnoy to revamp the fortifications. This was Vauban's first major independant fortification project. He remodelled the south-western corner of the walls (which previously had too much dead ground) with two well-designed bastions and a false bray between them. The bastions were not arrow headed, as with most of Vauban's early work, but had straight flanks.
Elsewhere, Vauban left the remaining four arrow headed bastions in place, but designed a large extra bastion projecting from the middle of the north-east curtain, which was deemed overly long. This bastion was made especially strong by having two tiers of guns in its flanks. It had a cavalier in its centre and to strengthen it yet further, the old wall behind it was left in place so that the defenders could keep fighting even if the enemy captured it. The two demi-lunes that were protecting the wall were remodelled to protect the new bastion. The reason for Vauban's concern over this part of the fortifications is that they protect a higher and dryer approach to the town than the marshlands to the south.
Vauban built a counterguard in front of the bastion to the north of his large bastion, and added a number of lunettes to the western defences, one of which is connected to the demi-lune behind it by a raised (because the ditch was flooded here) caponnière. In front of the old castle he built a strange four-sided work which effectively eliminates dead ground without being a full five-sided bastion. Vauban's reason for not building a full bastion here is probably that the ground here was so marshy that an attack on this sector was unlikely.
In 1712 the Austrians and the Dutch laid siege to Le Quesnoy and captured it, using the dry strip of land in front of the Porte Fauroeulx to make one of their attacks. Later in the 18th century this weakness was acknowledged by the construction of a hornwork to protect this ground. The hornwork was long and narrow, being constricted by the lakes either side of it. To offset the weakness of its length, the hornwork has indentations down its sides, to allow guns to fire along its flanks.
Although Le Quesnoy was by no means perfectly fortified after Vauban's modifications, it was a good deal stronger than it had been. He had eradicated dangerously long curtains, strengthened the vulnerable approach in the north-east and perfected the trace in the west. The young Vauban who strengthened Le Quesnoy had shown that he was capable, finding a good solution to all the problems presented by the task. He would go on to fortify more than 160 places for France, attaining the rank of Marshal, becoming one of the most famous military engineers of all time.
Unlike some other fortresses of the Pré Carré, Le Quesnoy was retained and upgraded throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The fortifications were finally declassified in 1901, but they were to see action again in 1918, when New Zealand troops took the town by escalade.
Visiting Le Quesnoy
The fortifications of Le Quesnoy are among the most complete in the whole region. The walls are crumbling in many places but a long-term restoration project is ongoing. The finished sections have been excellently restored. The fortifications are almost as they were in Vauban's time, although the castle has been demolished and the covered way is eroded or non existant in many places.
The hornwork is rather overgrown and hard to access, but is mostly intact. For anyone interested in marsh wildlife, Le Quesnoy would be a good place to visit - the wetlands around the town are home to many rare birds. The town is easily reached by rail, and the Porte de la Flamengrie is a few streets south of the station.