In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia gave France possession of Breisach, on the right bank of the river Rhine. This town was fortified by Vauban on the order of Louis XIV and it gave France an important bridgehead on the right bank of the Rhine. Breisach flourished, and so many people came to the town that it spread onto an island in the river, named Ville Neuve (new town). A fort was also built on this island. However in 1697 the Treaty of Rijswijk stated that Breisach be given to Austria, and the town of Ville Neuve be destroyed and its fortifications razed. Deprived of his strongold on the Rhine, Louis XIV sent Vauban to strengthen French defences on the left bank of the river.
Vauban, seeing that Breisach (which was built on a hill next to the river) formed a prime position for the Austrians to bombard the left bank, decided to build fortifications some way back from the river. He considered fortifying Biesheim and Colmar before settling on a new plan - building an entirely new town and fortifications. The inhabitants of the recently destroyed Ville Neuve could be persuaded to move to the new town, named Neuf-Brisach (or Neu Breisach in German, meaning new Breisach), by allowing them special priveleges.
Vauban designed the entire town from scratch. It was to be a regular octagon, making use of his 'third system' with tower bastions and detached bastions. The streets were laid out on a grid plan, with a large square in the centre, around which the most important civic buildings were built. This layout also allowed the troops of the garrison to move around the fortress quickly, using the wide, regular streets.
Vauban designed the town's fortifications to a plan that is known as his 'third system', where tower bastions are used at each corner and returning angles are placed half way along each wall, which give extra flanking fire along the wall. In front of the main wall is a line of false brays and detached bastions. The detached bastions are placed in front of each tower bastion, and the false brays in front of each section of wall, so there are 8 tower bastions, 8 detached bastions and 8 false brays. This effectively created a double layer of fortifications around the town. Beyond each false bray is a demi-lune, and beyond that is the covered way. The four demi-lunes that carry entrance roads are divided into two - a smaller reduced demi-lune and a form of counterguard protecting it. The large number of outworks meant that an attacker would be forced to take four or five outworks before being in a position to assault the main walls.
Situated on flat ground, the defences have the same strength at every point (because of their symmetry), so Neuf Brisach is an example of the so-called 'perfect fortress'. It was Vauban's last major fortification project, with work continuing beyond his death. In 1870 the French garrison made an impressive stand against the Prussian army, which eventually bombarded the town into submission. The town itself flourished and is well populated even today, in contrast with other scratch-built fortified towns, such as Mont Dauphin, which never attracted more than a handful of inhabitants.
Visiting Neuf Brisach
The fortifications of Neuf-Brisach are in very good condition, despite the Prussian siege and a defence of the town by the Nazis in 1945. Two of the gates have been removed to allow access to heavy traffic, and the Nazis built a railway right through part of the defences during the Second World War, but these are only minor disfigurements. The town was seriously damaged in the siege of 1870, but the destroyed buildings were all rebuilt according to the original plans, so in many ways it seems as though nothing has changed since Vauban's time. There is an excellent Vauban museum housed in the Porte de Belfort, which has a relief map, complete with a sound and light display explaining the fortifications (available in French or German). There is no railway station at Neuf-Brisach, but the SNCF do operate buses from Colmar station (the bus to Volgelsheim).