The defense as raison d’être of Neuf-Brisach

Sebastien le Prestre Marquis de Vauban is certainly the most famous French military architect in the world. Born in Bazoches, France, in 1633 in a poor family, Vauban became soon very respected. When he was young, Vauban showed his big courage and his ingeniousness.

In 1697, with the treaty of Rijswijk, the king of France Louis XIV lose the city of Breisach, on the east side of the Rhine. To protect the French border in this area, the king told to Vauban to design a fortified city. This city was called Neuf-Brisach, which means “new Breisach”.

Neuf-Brisach is a fortified city built ex-nihilo from 1698 to 1706. In this period, the war technology made a big step forward with the invention of the black powder, which allowed at the time to use rifles and cannons and changed radically the offensive strategy.

Regarding to its position, Neuf-Brisach was built close enough to Breisach to defend the Rhine border in optimal conditions, but also far enough to don’t be under cannons fire.

This city is the unique representation of the third system by Vauban. This system, at the time the most efficient in whole Europe, gave Neuf-Brisach all its importance.

To understand in an easy and intuitive way how the defense was organized in this fortification, let’s imagine the way that a soldier had to take during an attack on Neuf-Brisach.

One time arrived on the French side of the Rhine and reached the boundary of Neuf-Brisach, the soldier has to run, with heavy uniform and rifle, through the Glacis, a no man’s land 37 meters wide which encircles Neuf-Brisach. Of course under the fire of the French cannons, and not even a tree as precarious protection.

The bridges, simple wood constructions, which allow the passage of the inhabitants in and out the city, are removed in a very short time as the first enemy soldier is saw. The roads are in zigzag, to avoid strong attacks against the four doors of the city, the most fragile points of the fortification.

Without to know it, on the nine last meters of the Glacis, the enemy soldiers are running on the Chemin Couvert, a covered passage which protects the French defense.

If they are still alive, the soldiers arrive now in front of a ditch three meters high and can look at the Demi-lune, or at the Contre-garde if they arrive on a side and not on a tip, behind an enclosure of 22 meters. They don’t have choice; under the French fire they have to jump these 3 meters, where they are anyway under the same fire: from the Demi-lune and the from Contre-garde, but also from the Chemin Couvert, behind them.

To get to the city walls, the last protection of Neuf-Brisach, the soldiers have to run around the Demi-lune.

At this point there are in front of the city walls, composed by Contre-garde and tenailles. Also there, the soldiers are under French fire. At each tip of the walls there is a bastion tower, and between two bastion towers, the bastions and the Courtines, both 9 meters high.

These walls, 9 meters high and almost verticals, are the unique but also elusive output for the soldiers.

The ingeniousness of Vauban is especially in the fact that every part of the fortification is protected by at least two armed positions.

The labyrinth created with the different defensive elements and the atypic dimensions demoralize very quickly the attackers.

Only in 1870, 164 years after its establishment, Neuf-Brisach knows his first war, with a weapon that Vauban did not foresee: the aerial bomb. The city were also destroyed during the first world war, but is today in a very good state.

All the city of Neuf-Brisach was built with the idea of a military strategic point; all the walls were finished before the streets, and the first inhabitants were soldiers with their families.

Today, the wars are over, there are no more soldiers in the reserves, and Neuf-Brisach seems to have soul only in witnesses of the past.

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by Jean-Baptiste Hurstel

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