Verdun

The medieval Tour des Minimes (Minims' Tower) was built in the 14th century.

The town of Verdun (in Roman times called Virodunum - dunum meaning fortress) lies at an important crossing point of the river Meuse. In 843 the Treaty of Verdun was signed, splitting the Frankish Empire between his descendants Charles the Bold, Louis the German and Lothar.

In 1374 Verdun became a Free Imperial City in the Holy Roman Empire, which meant that it was only answerable directly to the Emperor. The town straddled the river and was built on a series of islands.

In the middle ages the defences consisted of stone walls flanked by round towers, which multiplied as the town expanded. A circuit of walls surrounded the rocky outcrop on which the Abbey of Saint Vanne was situated and extended eastwards around the oldest part of the town.

The medieval Porte Chausée, dating from 1380, was the eastern entrance into the town.

Another circuit of walls was built extending south and east from the river and onto the heights of Saint Victor, denying the enemy that high ground above the town.

Map of the fortifications of Verdun in the 17th century, showing the citadel and the medieval walls of the town.

In 1552 Henry II of France occupied Verdun, although the town did not officially belong French until 1648. During Thirty Years' War'the threat of attack increased and the medieval defences (which had become obselete in the face of powerful artillery) were strengthened.

Construction of a large bastioned'citadel'on the site of the Abbey was started in 1624. Its form followed a roughly pentagonal trace of arrow-headed bastions'with demi-lunes'protecting the curtain walls. The citadel dominated the town below it and its entrance was on the eastern side, facing the town.

The bridge across the river in front of the Porte Chausée was fortified with a demi-lune at its eastern end and various other demi-lunes were built in front of the medieval walls. These improvements to the fortifications were planned by the then governor, Louis de Marillac, who was inspired by Errard.

The demi-lune in front of the Porte Chausée, built during the Thirty Years War.

Marillac was promoted to Lieutenant General of Italy in 1630, but work on the fortifications continued in his absence and the citadel was finally finished in 1636.

Map showing Vauban's plans for the fortifications of Verdun in 1695. Not all of this work was carried out.

In 1670 Vauban'visited Verdun and drew up plans to improve the fortifications and turn the town into strong fortress (see map left). He planned a regular bastioned trace for the northern front, between the citadel and the river, demolishing the medieval walls that blocked the citadel's fields of fire.

He also planned a tapered hornwork'to protect this front, but this was never built. The demi-lune protecting the Porte Chausée was reinforced with a covered way'and a guard house was built in the demi-lune itself.

Vauban originally planned a bastion halfway along the stretch of ramparts protecting the Ville Basse (lower town) between the Porte Chausée and the Heights of Saint Victor, but this design was changed in favour of the simpler solution of leaving the medieval wall in place and constructing demi-lunes in front of the towers.

The inside of the fortified sluice-bridge that linked the medieval rampart to the Demi-Lune des Minimes.

An interesting feature of this part of the fortifications is the fortified sluice-bridge that linked the Demi-Lune des Minimes to the medieval wall (see picture above). These sluices allowed the water in the ditch'to be regulated, ensuring that the correct water level was maintained in this section of the defences.

The Porte Saint Victor at the top of the Tête Saint Victor, on the south-eastern side of the town.

To protect the Heights of Saint Victor, which were key to the defence of the town, Vauban designed the Tête Saint Victor. This took the form of a hornwork with two full-blown arrow-headed bastions instead of demi-bastions, giving all round protection to the high ground.

At the top of the Tête Saint Victor, the ramparts were pierced by the Porte Saint Victor (St Victor Gate), where the Nancy road left the town. The village of Saint Victor, although enclosed by the ramparts of Verdun, retained its character as a separate entity, having its own community with a church, an abbey and a convent.

On the other side of the Tête Saint Victor, the fortifications of the Ville Basse consisted of a front of two bastions, terminating in the Pont-écluse Saint-Nicolas, a fortified sluice-bridge across the river. The bridge linked the Ville Basse and the Ile Saint-Nicolas (St Nicholas Island).

The overgrown fortifications of the Ville Basse to the west of the Tête Saint Victor.

On the the Ile Saint-Nicolas there were no medieval fortifications as the town had only recently spread onto the island, so Vauban had no previous defences to work with. The rampart he created had one demi-bastion that flanked the end of the Ville Basse on the other side of the river. There was a flooded ditch, but the only approach to this section of the defences was over a marsh dominated by the citadel, so an attack here was unlikely.

The defences on south side of the citadel, which overlook the river. Looking towards the Bastion de Mortiers.

To link the Ile Saint-Nicolas and the northern bank of the river Vauban built another fortified sluice-bridge, the Pont-écluse Saint-Amand. The medieval walls along the riverbank were left in place but Vauban remodelled the defences to the west next to the citadel.

Here the earlier trace had been confused by an oddly-placed arrow-headed bastion. Vauban straightened the trace and constructed a new demi-bastion, the Bastion Vert next to the river.

The Bastion Vert is technically outside the main walls of the citadel but it flanks and is flanked by the citadel's bastions, forming an integral part of its defences. This may seem to be a weakness, but because the Bastion Vert is built on the riverbank it is inaccessible to an enemy.

The Bastion Vert, which flanks the western end of the citadel, seen from the demi-lune.

Vauban also remodelled the rest of the citadel's defences, perfecting the trace on the south side above the river by adding a central bastion, the Bastion de Mortiers. NB: the map above shows an inner line of defences on the western side of the citadel, but this was never carried out, although the overall form of the citadel shown on the map is correct.

Looking towards the left flank of the Bastion de France, showing its false bray. The demi-lune can be seen on the left.

The ground rises sharply away from the riverbank to the hill on which the citadel is built. To take advantage of this increase in height the Bastion de France, which is above the Bastion Vert was given a false bray'in its left flank. This doubled the number of guns flanked the Bastion Vert.

Elsewhere in the citadel, Vauban added tenailles'to protect the curtains and moved the entrance to a more protected location in the Bastion de Mortiers by the river.

Although Vauban's designs envisaged Verdun transformed into a strong fortress with a solid town enceinte and a powerful citadel dominating the town and the surrounding area, many of his plans were not carried out until after the Napoleonic Wars.

The defences of the citadel in the north-west.

Since Verdun was situated some distance behind the frontier, it was shielded by Sedan and Montmédy and to the north and by Metz, Strasbourg, Neuf Brisach to the east. This protection meant that Verdun was not attacked until 1792, when the garrison surrendered to the Prussians, who abandoned the town after the Battle of Valmy a month later.

The left (north-east) flank of the Tête Saint Victor, looking north.

During the Napoleonic Wars the fortified town of Verdun was used to keep British prisoners of war, the idea being thats defences were as good at keeping people in as they were at keeping them out. In the early 19th century the fortifications were upgraded and expanded according to Vauban's designs over 100 years earlier.

In the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 the antiquated fortified town of Verdun, which had remained unchanged since Vauban's day, was the last French fortress to surrender to the Prussians. Following this disaster a number of new forts were built on the outlying hills around the town to keep up with the increased range of artillery.

Verdun formed the left flank of the Meuse Barrier, a line of fortifications created by the engineer Séré de Rivières. A series of tunnels and vaulted galleries were built under the citadel as bomb shelters, which proved invaluable during the First World War when the Germans attacked Verdun. In 1916, in what became known as the Battle of Verdun, the Germans attempted to capture the significant fortress guarding the route to Paris. After 9 months of fighting the attack had failed to capture Verdun and over 250,000 lives had been lost.

Detail of a map of Verdun in 1700, showing the Tête Saint Victor.

Visiting Verdun

A sentry post on the walls of the citadel.

Although the town was heavily shelled in the First World War, Verdun's fortifications have for the most part survived intact. The citadel is in good condition, although it remains in the hands of the army and the interior cannot be visited, but there is a museum about the Battle of Verdun in the tunnels underneath. The town's fortifications to the north-east of the citadel have fallen victim to urbanisation, but there are some remains including a Bastion and the Porte Saint-Paul.

The medieval Porte Chausée survives, as does most of the demi-lune across the bridge, now the site of a war memorial. The medieval wall leading from here up to the Tête Saint Victor is intact, but the demi-lunes in front of it have gone.

Most of the Tête Saint Victor itself has survived, including the bastioned front and demi-lune at the top where the Porte Saint-Victor is. The ramparts on the other side of the Tête Saint Victor still exist, although they are rather overgrown. The Pont-écluse Saint-Nicolas has been replaced by a wier, and the rampart that ran across the Ile Saint-Nicolas is also gone.

Sluice gates and the 14th century Tour des Plaids, near the Porte Chausée.

The Pont-écluse Saint-Amand has survived and the medieval walls along the river next to the citadel are in good condition, as is the Bastion Vert. Verdun is easily reached by road and there are regular trains from Metz - the station is just north of the citadel.

The surviving parts of Verdun's fortifications.

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