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Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Reading list

Tuesday, 31st July.

On Sunday I was thinking about this blog and about the French strategic decisions taken after WW1 and why they built the Maginot Line. I remembered Alistair Horne's "To Lose a Battle, France 1940". So yesterday I took it down from the shelves and, with a cup of tea and Mahler's Third Symphony on CD, I read chapter 2 entitled "Thank God for the French Army" (a quote from WS Churchill). This was 20 pages of very succinct reasoning which I heartily recommend to you. The rest of the book is very good as well.

At the moment, my main reading is an old copy of "Military Architecture" by Quentin Hughes. I bought the book in 1974 as part of a first encounter with artillery fortifications. When I decided to write this blog, this seemed to be the obvious place to start my researches. More of a refresher than a teacher, but very welcome all the same. a good way to remind me of the basics. I am about to start chapter 4, "The Baroque World: Defence in Depth".

In addition to these and on the back burner, is Anthony Clayton's "Three Marshals of France", about the three World War Two Marshals, Leclerc, Juin and de Lattre de Tassigny. I will get back to it, my only problem with it - I bought the book on E-Bay and a previous owner was a smoker so the book reeks of cigarette smoke, most decidedly unpleasant.

Three other books recently read that have got me thinking:

James Falkner's new biography of Marshal Vauban. Very enjoyable, very well written, very easy to read, I shall be using this as part of the planning for my future visits to the UNESCO Vauban sites.

William Mortimer Moore's new biography of Marshal Leclerc, "Free France's Lion". Lots of info I did not know about or had not fully appreciated, such as the campaigns in French Africa in 1940 - 42, or his relationship with French officers who had served in Vichy France's army. Another area of future research.

Ian Sumner's new history, "They Shall Not Pass ; The French Army on the Western Front 1914 - 1918". I had intended to reread Anthony Clayton book on the French Army of 14-18 "Paths of Glory" when Amazon flagged up Ian Sumner's book and I am very glad they did. Another book, another subject I had not appreciated, that of French Railways, SNCF. They had to move not only the freight for the seven million Frenchmen under arms, but also the freight for four million Brits and Commonwealth troops and a million Americans and keep the French war economy going. Wow, I really want to know more about that.

Not much fiction there. The only fiction I have read this year, on holiday in Sicily, "The Fort" by Bernard Cornwell, so I don't move far from my history.

Enough. Time for tea and some reading. Tom Waits has just reminded me "When you walk through the garden you got to watch your back....."


Sunday, 29 July 2012

Reffye Mitrailleuse, Dresden Museum

We visited the Militar Historiches Museum in Dresden on 4th July. The building has been redeveloped in recent years, most obviously with a large addition by the architect Libeskind. The result is striking, I cannot decide whether I like it.



For me, the major piece in there was a French Army (Reffye) Mitrailleuse Model 1866. Captain Reffye served in the artillery and this affected how the mitrailleuse was used, not as anti-infantry but on counter-battery deployment which reduced considerably its effectiveness. It was mounted on an artillery carriage which made it sturdy but heavy.

Captured by Saxon troops in 1870/71

Not sure about the colour, I think it may have been repainted

25 barrels, in five tiers of five, firing 130 shots/minute, range 1200metres

Also of interest was an original officer's coat of the Seven Years War period. The young Saxon was wounded in the left arm, hence the damage to the left sleeve.



Conclusion. A very enjoyable visit. I only had time for the main ground floor exhibition areas, there were more upstairs. Everything was well laid out and lit with good explanations in both German and English. A painting of the Battle of Blenheim raised some eyebrows as this showed proper artillery fortifications around the village was the only fault we could find.



Lost Olympic Sport

Henri-Auguste le Poilu, a distant ancestor, competing in the Mountain Artillery 4 X 100m relay race.



(Thanks to GBM 101)

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

How did UNESCO decide?

UNESCO has put twelve of the best Vauban sites together to form a World Heritage Site. These are:-


  1. Arras
  2. Longwy
  3. Neuf Brisach
  4. Besancon
  5. Briancon
  6. Mont Dauphin
  7. Villfranche de Conflent
  8. Mont Louis
  9. Blaye, Cussac Fort Medoc
  10. Saint Martin de Re
  11. Camaret sur Mer
  12. Saint Vaast la Hougue


The twelve sites, copied from Wikipedia

How did UNESCO decide on these twelve? They had three criteria:-

Criterion 1. The work is the peak of classic bastioned fortification

Criterion 2. "Vauban played a major role in the history of fortification". He was widely copied and credited by his contemporaries and later generations, his books were translated into languages such as Russian which reflects his influence.

Criterion 3. "Vauban's work illustrates a significant period of human history." His work covers a wide breadth of human interaction, including civil engineering, military strategy, economics and society.

(The above two quotes are from the UNESCO website)

This does not tell me why these twelve and not, for example Lille or Gravelines. I know Lille is still a working  site used by French Army so did that figure in the decision? Yet Gravelines is an open site, I was there in 2009 and wondered all over it. I don't understand how UNESCO decided on those twelve sites. More questions than answers.

Attached to the criteria is a "Historical Description" in French, which includes 14 sites, the extra two being Vauban's chateau at Bazoches and Le Palais. The last I do not know. So I have some translating to do and some more research.

I'll get back to you.


Meanwhile - England were beaten very convincingly at the Oval - thrashed from a very great height, beaten by a much better South Africa. So come on lads - off to Headingley - you'd better play much better - I am going I've got tickets for Saturday.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Fortress Visit Report No. 1, Konigstein

Fortress Visit Report No.1

KONIGSTEIN, Saxony, Germany.


4th July 2012.


The visit to this fortress was included as part of a Holt's Tours battlefield tour, "Great Captains & the Art of War". I am including it on this blog as a visit of interest and not directly linked to the main subject of the blog.

I did not know of the fortress until the tour. On returning home, I checked my books and I cannot find any reference to it, the guide book says that during the 300 years of military use, the fortress was never put under siege.

The fortress was built on a table mountain in the Elbsandsteingebirge. It commands a bend in the River Elbe, being 247metres above the river and 361 metres above sea level. It is situated about 20miles/30kilometres upriver from Dresden. On clear days, there are great views of Saxony, Bohemia and Switzerland. The coach park is located at the base.



These are two postcards purchased in the souvenir shop. The first is of Konigstein from the west, showing the gatehouse and the main admin and barracks areas. The second is from the east and shows what became the main artillery sites now overgrown with trees. The fortress parapet runs along the top of the edge.



I took these two photos to try to give some perspective on the height of the fortress. The first is of our group walking east to use the panoramic lift, the second is from the parapet looking east.

For the modern day tourist, there are two lifts to get from the coach park to the ramparts, the panoramic glass sided lift and a much larger goods lift. Originally, there was a crane lift for goods, built in 1590, using a treadmill. The main entrance was through the gatehouse at the western end of the fortress.

The guide book gives a few details of the castle on the site, first written mention was in 1233. However, in the late 16th century the decision was made to turn the site into an artillery fortress. Work began in 1589 to build the gatehouse below.




The gatehouse has drawbridge and portcullis, gates, murder holes. Up a 50 degree incline past more defences including a caponier, turn right and up a second incline into the light and onto the plateau. The fourth photo shows the exit and the rear of the gatehouse and the New Armoury.


Georg Bastion was added to the north side of the gatehouse in 1669 - 79.


A tenaille and casemated guardhouse were added in 1729 - 36.
A ravelin and another casemated guarhouse were added at the same time as the tenaille.

Outworks were built in the second half of the 18th century, including this fleche with its own magazine.



The plateau has a number of buildings, barracks, armouries, a church, stables and a parade ground. Around the whole site on the edge is a parapet, a fairly simple construction of wall and walkway, using the plateau edge to great advantage; this was built during the 17th century.




One builder left his mark.

Following German Unification in the mid-19th century, the fortress was integrated into the national defence plan as a barricade fort to protect the river Elbe and the newly built railway line running alongside. Modernisation was begun in 1870, with the construction of eight new batteries and supporting casemates, armouries, barracks and a hospital. Much of this development was on the eastern end of the fortress and has become overgrown or is inaccessible.



Konigstein was used to house French officer POWs in 1870, 1914-18 and 1940-45; Gen. Giraud escaped from here in 1942.

To conclude, a very interesting example of how to fortify a natural site, nothing fancy or innovative, but a solid fort. Most of the work was put into the gatehouse as the weakest point of the site. We had about 2.5 hours on site which was insufficient for me, but my battlefield colleagues were getting restless so we had to go. A worthwhile visit and you should go if you are in the area.

Facts and dates from the Top Spot Guidebook to Konigstein, written by Angelika Taube, purchased in the fortress gift shop.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Travel plans for 2013

Some excitement here in Vauban Towers. Travel plans for 2013 will be made around the Ashes tour, for anyone not a cricket follower, the England v Australia test match series is the major cricket event. Over the last five years, I have taken an annual trip with Holts Tours; mighty fine trips they have been. A couple of days ago I was looking at a rival company's website, Battle Honours, and spotted that for October 2013 the company is planning to a trip to the Vosges in North East France. This is an area I have wanted to visit for some time, since reading "Forgotten Battlefronts" by Martin Marix Evans.

Whilst thinking about cricket, congratulations to Alistair Cook for his 20th Test Match century. This is a great milestone in a player's career. The current highest number is Hammond's twenty seven over a full career. Cook is only 27 years old, so he should create a new record for English cricket.


Thursday, 19 July 2012

Welcome to my first blog

Hello and welcome to my first ever posting.

The blog has three areas to cover:-

1. A discussion of the strategy of fortifying the borders of France, from Vauban to Maginot.

2. My visits to those fortifications, in particular to the UNESCO World Heritage listed sites of Vauban.

3. General observations on French history and politics, England cricket team, film, theatre, opera and classical music, jazz, food, policiers and any other arty-farty topics that come to mind.

Vauban, full name, Sébastien le Prestre, Seigneur de Vauban, Marshall of France, Inspector-General of Fortifications. It was Vauban who formalised French fortresses and their building into a defence strategy, the Pré Carré. Vauban's strategy was the cornerstone of French defence policy, through the levée en masse, the works of Séré de Riviere and into the Maginot Line era. There is no definitive list of Vauban's works but there is a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing of twelve of his best sites.

The Maginot Line (La Ligne Maginot) is named after André Maginot, a decorated World War One hero who became very popular in the twenties after he became Minister for Pensions. In 1929 he was appointed as Minister of War and lobbied very hard to acquire the finances for the work.

This blog has come about following a discussion with my hairdresser, Derek. He has cut my hair since my partner and I moved to York in 1994 and he shares my interest in France and in the 14-18 Western Front.  In June 2011 I took early retirement from the UK Civil Service and we were talking about my plans for all the free time I would have. I told him about my plans to visit the UNESCO Vauban listed sites and some of the late 19th century forts and Maginot Line ouvrages. Derek opined I should write a blog about my travels. So here I go.

In addition, I will try to explain the Vauban system of defences, in a very basic way, how I understand it. Over the next few months, I hope to show how the various fort designers fit together over the three hundred years of 1650 - 1950. My interest in French politics and history, particulary military history, covers that same three hundred years period. I specialise in studying the Third Republic (1870 - 1940).

I would like to hear from anyone with similar interests, I believe there are at least two of us, so please get in touch.

To end, here is a photograph taken in Besancon, in Eastern France, of a householder who has his/her own piece of Vauban fortifications.