Fort de la Prée

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

Fort de la Prée is situated on Ile de Ré the near a small port that was the crossing point to La Rochelle since the middle ages. At this point the crossing is only 5 kilometres.

In order to control the Protestant population of the Ile de Ré in the early 17th century to make sure they wouldn’t collaborate with the English enemy, and at the same time to protect the island against this same enemy, it had to be fortified.

The Ile de Ré was strategic because it could be used by the enemy as a base from which to mount an attack on La Rochelle and to a lesser extent on Rochefort.

The feelings of the island's inhabitants were taken into consideration and it was decided to build a fort at la Prée before fortifying St Martin de Ré. Building a fort at Saint Martin straight away could have made them feel threatened and driven them into the arms of the English, who were ready to support Protestant rebels. At the same time, the main access point of the island was secured, giving the crown a firm grip on the island and providing it with an important means of access.

The first plans date from 1625. They show a small star shaped fort surrounded by a ditch, on the landside fronted by an revetted outer envelope with a ditch in front of it. This ditch is preceded by a covered way. The fort had a small harbour, covered by the outer envelope.

The fort had a chance to prove its value as early as 1627, when the English laid siege to Saint Martin, which was still not fully fortified and Fort de la Pree formed a safe harbour from which the French launched their counter attack. The English were forced to give up their siege and retreat.

In the following years the seafront of the fort was reinforced and the covered way on the landward side was doubled, making the fort a lot bigger. In 1684 Vauban'ordered the destruction of the covered ways and the outer envelope of the fort.

The defences round the harbour were strengthened, barracks were built along the straight seafront (of which the foundations are still visible today) and a new covered way was made. These changes gave the fort the appearance it has more or less retained until the present day.

An interesting thing about Fort de la Prée is the way it was seen by the engineers who worked on it. Most of them complain about its size, claiming that it is too small, rather than about the fact that the semi circular curtain walls didn't flank the bastions adequately and that there is not enough drinking water. Still they all wanted to preserve the fort and they themselves reduced its size.

Looking at the original plans, it can be seen that the star-shaped fort functions more as a donjon (central tower), with the outer envelope and the covered way forming the first layers of defence. Seen this way the form of the fort appears more logical.

In the 1930s the fort lost its military importance and over the centuries it hasn’t changed much; bombproof shelters were added and some of the buildings inside the fort were altered (e.g. the powder magazine) during the 19th century. Later, in the Second World War, the Nazis built a bunker inside the fort.

Visiting Fort de la Prée

Although it may not be the most logical way to build a curtain wall, the semi-circular shapes are something very characteristic of the fort, by which you’ll always remember it. I think it’s a very beautiful feature of this fort.

Apart from that the compactness of the fort makes it easy to see its defence as a whole, the sea front together with the landward side and the harbour. These things make Fort de la Prée a very nice fort to visit and it is easily combined with a visit to St Martin. it is possible to visit the fort for a small fee. Opening hours vary throughout the year, you can find them on the website.

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

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