Mont Dauphin

    Threat of invasion from the direction of Savoy-Piedmont prompted the French to add additional depth to their system of Alpine border fortification in the late 17th century.  When the work was complete, for an invader to reach the new fortress of Mont Dauphin he either had to first capture Chateau Queyras, then negotiate difficult mountainous terrain including gorges - or approach from the north after pacifying Briancon, which by the mid 18th century boasted an array of forts.  If the attacker successfully captured Mont Dauphin, he would face the fortifications at Embrun.  Perhaps because of this impressive array of defenses, and the waning threat from Savoy-Piedmont, Mont Dauphin never faced an attack, excepting an air strike during the Second World War.

    For the great new fortress, Vauban had selected high ground near the confluence of the Durance and Guil Rivers on the advice of Marshal Catinat, and he named it "Mont Dauphin" after the king's son.  With steep slopes on three sides, it was ideal defensive terrain.  Construction began in 1693, but when Vauban visited the site as it neared completion in 1700, he was unhappy with the construction.  Life was difficult in the mountains, and famine was one of the problems hindering construction.  The town within the fortress was never appealing enough to attract a vibrant community - partly due to high winds - and the fortress remains largely empty to this day.  The fortress was modified through the Napoleonic period and into the late 19th century, with its most interesting addition being an innovative lunette in the 1790s.  

Gorge Between Chateau Queyras and Mont Dauphin


Southern Face

Terrain protects the southern, eastern, and western sides of Mont Dauphin.  Although a road enters the southern side, a relatively simple defense was built on this approach.   The demi-lune in front of the southern Porte d'Embrun is unusually small.  See below.  


Porte  d'Embrun

Demi-lune From Rochambeau Caserne

Caserne Rochambeau

The panorama above is the view from just inside the southern gate, Porte d'Embrun.

Caserne Binot is a barracks perfectly adapted to the steep terrain on which it was built.  In front of Caserne Binot is a cistern that could hold 1,840 cubic meters of water.  In peacetime, water was collected in the mountains and piped into the fort, but this supply of water would have been cut during a siege.  As a result it was necessary to store water in cisterns.  The second, much larger cistern, the one here, was completed in 1730 and could hold two months worth of water. The oldest cistern is located near the powder magazine, and it could provide water to flood the magazine.   

At left is the "Plantation".  It was created to provide shade and wood to the population and to the army.  It included ash and lime trees, more resistant varieties.

At right is the Caserne Rochambeau.  Built from 1766 to 1783, the Caserne Rochambeau is a barracks built along the inside of the southern ramparts.   It is a unique design inspired by a great architect of the 16th century, Philibert Delorme, who envisioned a system of assembling smaller parts.  The building's wooden frame can be disassembled, and one man is able to handle each individual piece.  With deforestation rampant, using small pieces was cheaper since long timber had become scarce and expensive. The design allowed for a large space that could be used for storage of materials or the training of troops.  Also note the staircase to an upper floor atop a flying buttress.  

Rochambeau Caserne

The inside is unique and spectacular - but like the other interiors accessible only on a group tour.

Western Face

Little was needed to improve upon the natural defenses of this step slope.  Only the fort's northern face required a strong, layered defense.

North Face

The north face featured three bastions, the eastern one with a counterguard to its front.  Two demi-lunes were in front of the curtain wall between the bastions.  To add greater depth, the eastern demi-lune was fronted by an advance bastion in the 19th century and the western demi-lune and bastion were also fronted by a more complex advance work.  With improvements in artillery, there was reason for even greater depth for the defense, so a lunette, named after its builder, d'Arcon, was constructed in front of the middle bastion.  Plans for further lunettes were never carried out.

Now we will see the defenses from west to east.


Advance Work

The above panorama is of the front of the advance work, an unusually shaped fortification that defies easy categorization.  Vauban was a believer that a geometrical 'cookie cutter' solution was wrong in many cases, that the designer must adapt his design to the terrain.  The advance work is unusually shaped and includes terracing.  It does not easily fit into a category.  Sadly this portion of the fortress was closed off during my visit, preventing a more thorough investigation.

Note: The two panoramas of the western face were made from beneath the western edge of the advance work.

From Western Bastion

The fortress's bastions are shaped in the old style with recessed flanks.  This may not be clear with the Bastion de Bourgogne, but Bastion Royal may make this more clear.  The pas-de-souris, or mousetrap, leads into the complex advance work, a 19th century addition.  This 'mousetrap' feature makes ladders necessary to enter the advance work.  Another more expedient method would be to stick bayonets between the masonry.   

Porte de Briancon

At left is the view from atop the Briancon gate.

The left photo is from just inside the gate, which comes through the building at right, the Pavillon de L'Horloge.  This building housed a clock and also includes the guard room and was where the fort commander lived.  The building at left, the Pavillon des Officiers, completed in 1700, was home to unmarried lieutenants and captains.

Demi-lune d'Anjou

A guardhouse greets visitor entering town from the north.  Atop the Demi-lune d'Anjou can be seen the advance work, but little sense can be made of it.  Several hundred yards in advance is the Lunette d'Arcon.

This is the view from just in front of the Demi-lune d'Anjou.  Wickerwork gabions are visible here.  These were used like sandbags by a besieger as they advanced their trenches toward a fortress.  In this case they and nearby trenches were dug in 2007 to try to study siege techniques.

View from Bastion Royal

From the tip of Bastion Royal, the center of the three bastions, you can see most of the northern defenses.from the other two bastions at either flank, both demi-lunes, the advance work in front of the western bastion, and the bastion du front which is forward of the eastern demi-lune.  The earthwork inside the Bastion Royal has to be a cavalier, designed so that the bastion can be defensible even if the wall is breached.

In later times the term "caponier" became a covered passage through the ditch - or a covered fighting position in the ditch - both with overhead protection.  Mont Dauphin has an earlier version of a caponier - earthworks providing protection from flanking fire for men moving to and from the Demi-lune de Berry.

Now we have gone back outside the fortress and looked in.  The traverse is designed to protect infantry on the covered way from enfilade fire.  It is also designed to be used as a fighting platform, and men can move around it with ease through a chicane.  Next we will walk around the Bastion du Front Avance.

The Bastion du Front, a 19th century addition, comes to the edge of the bluff overlooking the Guil.  Next, we will walk along the path to the left of the bastion to the Demi-lune de Berry behind it.

Vauban's outworks in this area include not only the Demi-lune de Berry between the Bastion Royal and the Bastion Dauphin but also a counterguard in front of the Bastion Dauphin.

Bastion Dauphin

Much of the fortress is visible from the eastern bastion, which is protected by a counterguard.  A sentry post, or echauguette, overlooks it and across the Guil gorge to the Guillestre Plateau.  Improvements in artillery technology made enemy occupation of this plateau a danger to the fort.  Vauban designed defenses for this plateau, but they were never built.  (See map at right.)  Not clearly distinguishable here, the Bastion du Front Avance is forward of the Demi-lune de Berry.  Inside the fortress several barracks can be seen, with the Caserne de Rochambeau along the fortress's southern rampart.  The Caserne Campana was built in 1695 to partially house some of the troops building the fort.
The waterfall is not natural.  It is the discharge from a waterway diverted for irrigation.

Eastern Face

Not entirely obvious from the top, the fortress's eastern face is a cliff.

Lunette d'Arcon

An outwork originally built here between 1728 and 1731 was a demi-lune designed to eliminate dead ground not visible from the main fort.  In 1791 it was transformed and improved by General d'Arcon, becoming the Lunette d'Arcon.  Two other planned lunettes were not built.  Named after its inventor, a veteran of the Seven Years War, the lunette was innovative in its time and influenced fort design elsewhere.  Linked to the fortress by an underground passage, the lunette has firing ports to its rear in a multi-story circular structure designed as living quarters.  A traverse running down the center of the lunette served as a magazine, separating the parapet into two sides and protecting men on each side from fire from their rear.  Beyond the traverse, the underground passage from the main fortress continues forward to a casemate inside the lunette's counterscarp - allowing defenders to fire along both sides the ditch.  Additional tunnels - countermines - extended in three directions from the lunette to protect against enemy tunneling.


Tunnel to Lunette d'Arcon

Lunette d'Arcon - Redoubt Lower Level

The tunnel leads to this chamber, which is the lower level of the redoubt at the rear of the lunette.  Ahead, and gated off, the passage continues.  Although you can't see it, a ladder swings down for access to the traverse.  The tunnel extends beyond this to the galleries covering the ditch, and countermine passages extend even beyond this.  Another countermine began behind the group of people in the panorama above and extended diagonally for some distance.  When enemy trenches reached these countermines, gunpowder charges could be blown, destroying the enemy earthworks.

As none of these passages are accessible, we continue up the stairway at left.

Lunette d'Arcon - Redoubt Upper Level

Lunette d'Arcon - Redoubt Upper Level

Firing slits face all directions - both inside the lunette and to its rear.  Note the iron projections from the walls.  These could support boards so that infantry can use the upper firing slits.  

The fortress included a church, but it was never completed.  Begun in 1697, there was a lack of money and never a large enough population.  Incomplete, it is oddly shaped as a result - too high for its length, too short for its height.

The powder magazine is nearly obscured behind the arsenal.  It could be flooded with water from the cistern.

The arsenal served as both a warehouse and as a maintenance and repair facility for armaments.  The arsenal of Mont-Dauphin was built here in the most difficult place for enemy fire to reach.  The first wing, parallel to the Durance, was finished soon after 1700.  In the mid 1700s a second perpendicular wing was built. Only the second building remains as the oldest building was bombed by the Italian air force in 1940.  


Arsenal - Lower and Upper Floors

On the ground floor were artillery carriages, wheels, chassis, and  replacement artillery platforms ​​for the ramparts.  Note the construction of the vaulted ceiling of the lower floor.  Fusils, muskets, swords and ammunition were kept on the upper floor, which now includes an exhibit on fortification and two models.    


Powder Magazine

We entered through the red door above.  The bridge leads to the magazine's upper floor, and the stairs on either side descend to the lower level where we are.  This area was once open to the sky but was covered over in the late 19th century.

Built between 1693 and 1695, the Poudriere was designed by Vauban, and it is one of the oldest buildings in the fort.  It could store more than one hundred tons of powder on two levels.  The magazine was designed so it could be instantaneously flooded in case the fortress was captured, rendering the powder unusable - at least until it was re-ground, a time consuming process.  Water passed through a passage from the cistern, visible in one of the above panoramas.  Thick masonry walls with buttresses were designed so that any explosion would be up and not out.  Because of advances in artillery, the powder magazine was buried under a hill of earth in 1881.


Powder Magazine - Lower Level

Here you can see the original buttresses.  The walls surrounding the magazine have been arched over to meet the roof of magazine so that the whole facility could be covered with earth.  On the lower level you can also see the passage from the cistern.


Magazine Upper and Lower Levels

In the upper level, you can see spots for three lamps on the far wall to illuminate the room.  As in all magazines, precautions kept sparks away from the powder.  In the lower level, wooden supports allow for more space to store powder than would be available with a purely stone structure.

From atop a rock pile you can see the buildings that we just talked about.  To the right the mounds of earth are firing positions for guns, built beginning in 1873.  Bunkers inside sheltered the gunners and ammunition.  

Copyright 2011-15 by John Hamill

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