Ile d'AixArticle and pictures by Jeroen van der Werf, all rights reserved.
The Ile d'Aix (Aix island) lies in a strategic position at the mouth of the Charente estuary. Whether seen from the Fouras peninsular on the mainland or from the Ile d’Oléron to the west of the island the strategic value of the island is obvious. A fort on the Ile d'Aix would control all access to the Charente.
The waters on the south-east side of the island are sheltered by its shape and would form a good harbour. Although the strategic significance of the Ile d'Aix had been appreciated for many centuries its protection was not considered a priority, and for a long time no fortifications were built.
In 1667 the first plans for the fortification of the island were drawn up, the purpose of the fort being two-fold. Firstly, a fort on the southern point of would control access to the Charente and hence Rochefort in conjunction with a battery on the Boyard sandbank. Secondly, this fort would also be used as an arsenal to complete ships of the line'that were built in Rochefort.
Fully armed ships had too much draught (because they were too heavy) to sail down the Charente from the naval yard at Rochefort, so they had to leave Rochefort unfinished. The new ships would then stop at the Ile d'Aix to be armed, provided with an anchor, etc.
The history of the fortification of the Ile d'Aix demonstrates a number of the problems that dogged fortification projects throughout region; lack of funds, competition between engineers, developments in artillery that made forts obselete as soon as they were finished (or even before) and lack of a cohesive defence plan for the region.
Fort Boyard is a dramatic illustration of these problems. The first plans date from 1667 (see above mentioned battery on the Boyard sandbank) but construction only began in 1804 and by the time it was finished in 1859 it was made obselete by modern artillery.
In contrast the construction of a coherent system of forts to defend St Malo took about 10 to 12 years and the defences of the Brest harbour were built over a similar period. Although the construction process of the Fort de la Rade was not as slow as Boyard’s there are many similarities.
Until 1690 the French navy refused to allow the construction of a fort on the island that would be controlled by the army. When the army and the navy came under the command of one man this problem was overcome and the construction of the fort could finally begin.
This situation, in which Ferry presented a design that was turned down by Vauban, resulting in a different design has occurred on other occasions in this region. For example at Fort Chapus and Fort Lupin Ferry's expansive designs were scaled down by Vauban.
Whether this was a good or a bad thing in these cases is a matter of opinion, but it shows some of the competitive climate between engineers. The tower designed by Vauban collapsed because it was built too quickly, was too high and was built in bad weather conditions. The tower was rebuilt in 1699 to a more modest height.
By 1703 the fort was mostly complete and work on the fortifications was terminated. Over the years further work was carried out to strengthen or repair the fort when the region was threatened with attack (eg: during the War of the Spanish Succession'and the Seven Years War). In 1757 a British fleet attacked the Ile d'Aix. The firepower of cannon had increased since the 17th century and the fort was heavily damaged after an hour's bombardment.
The British landed on the island, plundered and burned the village and slighted the fortifications. This incident demonstrated the need for change in fortification methods to resist more powerful artillery.
The fort was rebuilt to a slightly different plan after the raid. During the second half of the 18th century Montalembert started questioning bastioned'fortification and proposes a new form of fortification on which he writes several books.
He proposed circular forts with several layers of firepower, similar to those of contemporary battleships, with guns placed in casemated'shelters (the design of Fort Boyard is reminiscent of his theories).
In 1778 Montalembert was asked to design a new fort for the island, but the design he produces is too expensive. Instead in 1779 he builds a wooden fort according to his new theories on fortification. The fort is ridiculed by other engineers but when it was tested in 1781 it turned out to be surprisingly strong.
Napoleon visited the Ile d'Aix in 1808 and ordered the construction of Fort Liédot in the north part of the island. He returned to the island in 1815 just before going into exile. The village was finally fortified with a bastioned trace in 1857, long after bastioned fortification had become obselete.
Visiting Ile d'Aix
The fort that survives today is based on the designs of Vauban and dates from 18th century restorations and work carried out in the 19th century. The tower and the two demi-bastions'he designed have totally disappeared. Its sea front is a wide semi-circular battery.
The whole fort, including the sea front, is surrounded by a ditch'which could be flooded by using the sluices towards the sea. Although the fort has a unique design, its overall appearance is not very beautiful or spectacular. The fact that most of the existing fort doesn’t really originate from the Vauban era doesn’t do much good either.
I think the history of the fort is more interesting than the fort itself. If you were just going to the Ile d'Aix to visit this fort I would recommend you not to go. The island itself is described as a giant croissant of earth and rocks in the leaflet you get with your ferry ticket.
It is very beautiful and is a perfect place to spent a sunny day on, Fort de la Rade forming a nice addition to the visit. In the middle of the island the Fort Liédot, a very well preserved 19th century fort, is situated. The village also has a Napoleonic museum because this was the last place in France he visited before being shipped to Sainte Magdaline island.
From the Pointe de la Fumée it takes only 20 minutes to reach the island by ferry, which goes regularly depending on the tide. The village is still surrounded by the ramparts built in 1857, but virtually nothing of Montalembert's work survives today.Article and pictures by Jeroen van der Werf, all rights reserved.