Issue 12 The Enemy Fall/Winter 2003

Annals of a Fortress

Jay Worthington

Though often ravaged, this hill has never been abandoned by its inhabitants; the more affronts it has had to sustain, the more its children have become attached to its side, the more they hold to the soil that has been impregnated with the blood of their ancestors, and the more hatred they feel towards those who would attempt to detach them from this ancestral tomb. This is patriotism; and it is the only human passion that can be dignified with the title of holy.
—Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-Le-Duc, Annals of a Fortress, p. 382

In the long history of fortification literature—a history almost as long as that of fortification itself—Viollet-Le-Duc’s Annals of a Fortress: Twenty-Two Centuries of Siege Warfare stands out as a remarkable work. Writing in 1874, in the immediate aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, Viollet-Le-Duc approached his subject by imagining the history of an invented Burgundian hilltop town called La Roche Pont. A military officer and prominent architectural historian in his day (now remembered principally as one of the founders of the 19th-century French Gothic Revival movement), Viollet-Le-Duc took care to be accurate in his narrative of La Roche Pont’s defenses, and the book’s plans and drawings (a selection of which are reproduced on the following pages) provide an excellent capsule history of the evolving state of the art in Western European fortification from 300 BC to 1870 AD. Palisades are dug, walls built, demolished and rebuilt, then expanded and made more intricate in their geometry as siegecraft grows more sophisticated, expanded again with the appearance of gunpowder, and expanded yet again as artillery becomes dominant. Walls may be torn down, or bastions redesigned and replaced, but from the bird’s eye view presented here, La Roche Pont’s architecture appears as an orderly progression of ever more complex defensive responses to the constantly growing threats of increasingly well-armed invaders.

The history that unfolds before La Roche Pont’s walls is less orderly. Over the course of seven sieges and 2,200 years, the town is burnt twice, sacked twice, captured four times, and sees countless thousands of soldiers and citizens die on and before its walls. Even in the midst of this chaos, however, patterns appear. Fear is nowhere to be found in the world of La Roche Pont—or, if present, it never overcomes the combatants. Every assault is pressed to the final extremity and resisted to the last. The town’s defenders do give up from time to time—if the food runs out, or if the breaches in the wall have grown too great to defend and the prevailing military etiquette (such as that of the 15th century) permits honorable surrender—but they are never cowards. In 1814, the town holds out against a far superior Prussian force until Napoleon’s abdication, and in 1870, though its fortifications “could not have held out for forty-eight hours before the German artillery,” the townsfolk steel themselves for a hopeless fight with ancient flintlocks and brass cannon, before the French army surrenders at Sedan. Ultimately, this seems to be the point of Viollet-Le-Duc’s fiction, the imagination of an alternate French history, a martial history in which all the softening effects of centuries of peace are excised with the stroke of a pen. In this France, Sedan would never have happened and Paris never would have been besieged—or, had it been, it could never have fallen to the Prussians. Of course, things didn’t turn out that way in reality, but Viollet-Le-Duc’s imagined walls remain formidable nonetheless.

Jay Worthington is an associate at Paul Hastings and (until moments ago) an editor at Cabinet. He was also a co-founder of Clubbed Thumb in New York City.

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