In a heavily contested area of what is now France, the town of Besancon and Franche Compte has variously belonged to the Burgundians, Spain, and France.  Situated in a meander of the River Doubs, the town required relatively light defenses along the river, but the town was dominated by a narrow neck of high ground.  It was here that Vauban started building a citadel after the capture of the place in the late 1660s.  Returned to Spain during the peace, construction continued.  France regained the town for good in the 1670s, and Vauban finished the work of fortifying the town and building the citadel.  The town itself paid most of the expenses involved.

Now used as to house various museums and a zoo, the citadel is open to the public.

With cliffs on each side descending to the river, the citadel's defenses were primarily designed to defend an attack from either from the south or from the town itself.  Two "fronts" faced town.

We will tour the citadel beginning from the town side.

10 - Magazine
5 - Barracks
6, 7, and 8 - Arsenal

Front Saint Etienne

Because Franche Compte was only recntly integrated into France, there were many people in Besancon who would have prefered the old regime.  This partly explains the two strong defensive lines facing town.  Terrain also effected the choice as the ground drops more steeply in front of these defenses.

The Front Saint Etienne, essentially a hornwork, was built by Vauban where the Saint Etienne cathedral had stood before its destruction in 1674 when the French besieged the citadel.

The first of the two panoramas above is from the front of the demi-lune, a rare early morning view without cars.  The second panorama is from behind the demi-lune, showing the demi-lune's massive stone and brick traverse.  The demi-lune features two levels, the lower one with vaulted niches for artillery and an upper level for infantry.  Brick traverses are also visible atop the curtain wall near the two demi-bastions, which have recessed flanks.  The curve of a demi-bastion is called an orillon.  

The covered way, for the infantry to fight from, would have had two traverses also, in the modern parking lot on the extreme left of the panorama.

The vertical slits atop the gate were once used to raise and lower a drawbridge, since replaced.   During the French Revolution, a royal coat of arms as part of the decoration above the gate was chiseled off.  Before we walk through the gate, first we will walk along the covered way to the right.


The modern road and the grassy area in front of the left demi-bastion is the covered way, where the infantry would fight from.  A sentry post, or echauguette, atop the ramparts gave men on watch protection from the weather.  The wall angling off from the demi-bastion at the sentry post provided protection from enfilade fire down the covered way and ditch.  

Next we will walk through the gate and along the road toward the next line of defense, which is more complex.



Before reacing the second line of defenses we are greeted by a statue of Vauban.

The open area between the two defense lines serves as a glacis, or clear field of fire.  We are ready to follow the road and pass through an opening in the demi-lune of the second line.

Front Royal

We have passed through the demi-lune, which is visible on either end of this 360 degree view, and are over the ditch.  Passing over a drawbridge, the gateway passes through the curtain wall, which is straight despite appearing curved here due to distortion.  Demi-bastions project forward from the curtain on either side of the gate.  Walls on either side of the ditch protect it and the covered way from enfilade fire from the heights on either side - across the river in both cases.  In front of the curtain wall and between the demi-bastions, the tenaille adds an additional layer of defense with its own bastions.

Now we will pass over what used to be a drawbridge and through the gate to see the defenses from inside.

From the left demi-bastion there is a good view of the ditch and the tenaille.

From King's Tower

Here on the right side of the Front Royal, along the wall that provides enfilade protection, Vauban had a gatehouse built, named for the king.  You can easliy see its counterpart on the other side, the Queen's Tower.  Additional protection against enfilade fire was provided by the brick traverses on the demi-bastions.  Brick was used because when hit its splinters are less harmful than splinters from stone.  The demi-lune also features a hefty traverse.  Note that access to the covered way, where the infantry would fight from, is only available through the demi-lune.  The ditch is unusually deep, making for an impressive obstacle.  Escalade would be virtually impossible without battering the wall down.

You can also look down along the wall connecting the Front Royal to the Front St Etienne.  The bright white outwork, a redan, can only be reached by ladder.  A tunnel connected the first and second defense lines and also lead to underground casemated guns that dominated the Doubs valley below.

You can walk along the wall atop the cliffs overlooking the river to reach the citadel's defenses facing away from town.  This wall is 5 to 6 meters wide and 15-20 meters tall.

Steep terrain here makes only a simple wall necessary.  With advances in artillery, it was eventually necessary to fortify the height across the river.

Front de Secours - Left Side

Facing the south, the Front de Secours replaced a medieval wall with defenses capable of mounting 53 cannon.  While the two defense lines facing town are fairly conventional, the Front de Secours is somewhat difficult to understand because it is not symmetrical but also partly because a zoo now occupies the area.  There are two demi-bastions, which is ordinary enough, but counterguards are to their front.  The left counterguard is shaped like a demi-bastion.  Between it and the demi-lune, and to their front, is a lunette.

Next, we will walk to the flank of the demi-bastion, at the closer of the two traverses in the photo at right.

Here, at the flank of the left demi-bastion, there is a large buttressed traverse.  Just to the left of the traverse are stairs leading from the eastern wall.  This is where the previous panorama was taken.


Now we walk through the gate and inspect the flank of the right demi-bastion, with casemated gun positions.  Above the casemated gun position, and just behind the demi-bastion's rampart, is a traverse.

Walking a little further we get the panoramic view below.  A false bray in front of the curtain wall, higher than the ditch, provided a fighting platform for infantry.

Walking back through the gate and to the flank of the right demi-bastion you can look back to the left demi-bastion.  The stone traverse there has a counterpart on this side of the front - the overgrown stonework at the right of the photo.

Walking further along the demi-bastion you have a good view of the demi-lune.  Now we will climb up to the western facing wall.

Front de Secours - Right Side
On the left of the panorama, the western wall facing the river intersects the right demi-bastion of the Front de Secours.  The left demi-bastion is visible in the distance with a demi-lune between them to the front.  An additional outwork, a bastion of the front, can be seen to the right of the demi-lune.  (See zoomed view at right.)

Extending to the right from the demi-lune are two works parallel to the demi-bastion, the first of which is a counterguard.  The second is a covered way with a bastion (Sainte-Barbe) on its right side.  Three levels, therefore, can fire on the enemy.

Here the west facing wall intersects with another wall leading to the entry lodge.  This wall marks the boundary between the right demi-bastion and the interior of the citadel.  Let's walk to the left to the sentry post.


Walking along the western wall we come to this excellent example of a sentry post.


You can look down and see the town defenses along the river.  Vauban used casemated bastions here.

From another sentry post you get a great view of the western wall.

We just walked from the sentry post at right.  From here we can see the buildings in this portion of the citadel - the arsenal complex.  Next, let's see more of the buildings inside the citadel.

The well is at left followed by the church and then by the barracks.  The church is named Saint Etienne after the church destroyed where Front Saint Etienne now stands.  The barracks, which joined the Front Royal and the Front de Secours, stretched along the whole length of the citadel.  It was also home to the Royal Cadets school.


The water supply was important enough that the well was protected by a casemate.  One hundred thirty two meters deep, water was raised using a 4 meter wide wheel.  The water was brackish however, containing salt, so elsewhere within the citadel, rainwater was diverted from rooves to cisterns to provide the garrison with drinking water.   (The region has interesting saltworks that are well worth a tourist's visit - Salins les Bains and Arc et Salins.)


Used to store gunpowder, the magazine was heavily built and given further protection by a wall that surrounds it.  Another magazine existed in the opposite corner of the citadel.

After Besancon's re-working by Vauban, the citadel was besieged in 1814 and 1870.  Like many fortresses, the Besanson citadel has been used as a prison, including by the Nazis, who executed roughly 100 members of the Resistance there.  The citadel was liberated in September 1944 by the US Army and the Resistance.

Copyright 2011 by John Hamill

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