Fort Barraux

Article and pictures by Jeroen van der Werf, all rights reserved.

In 1597 the duke of Savoy ordered the construction of a fort near Pontcharra on French territory, perhaps to provoke France. The French kept a close watch but let the building activities proceed. In 1598, when it was almost finished, a force under the Duc de Lesdiguières captured the fort. Following this, some improvements were made to the fortifications by the French engineer Jean de Beins and others.

The reasons behind the decision to built the fort are somewhat puzzling. The Savoyards already had an important stronghold in the region; Montmélian, located about 20km to the north. This fortress controlled one of the important routes across the Alps, traffic over the river Isère and traffic between the cities of Grenoble and Chambéry. In addition, it formed an excellent base for an invasion or an attack on Grenoble. Fort Barraux did not give Savoy any additional advantage and Montmélian was already known to be one of the strongest forts in Europe. By building the fort on French territory the Savoyards took the risk of loosing it to the French and giving them an advanced defence post for Grenoble and a counterbalance to Montmelian. In 1587 this is exactly what happened.

When Vauban'visited Fort Barraux on his inspection of 1692 he made plans for a major reconstruction of the fort and the surroundings. He made plans for a bridge with two fortified bridgeheads over the Isère, connecting Pontcharra and Barraux. The purpose of this bridge was to enable the garrison of the fort to block the way in case an enemy tried to advance along the other side of the river. When he returned in 1700 his plans for the bridge had not been carried out so he once more requested the building of the bridge and added plans for an advanced post in the direction of Savoy. None of these plans were carried out.

The execution of his plans for the fort itself was more successful. In the period between the taking of the fort and Vauban's first visit several parts of the fort had been altered. The bastions'had been enlarged and the trace of the fort's walls had been modified in order to improve the flanking, but things were still not up to Vauban's standards. Vauban proposed to alter the trace of the walls and the bastions again to improve flanking and he added ravelins'to the east side of the fort. The entrance was moved from the north side to the west side. The entrance gate was defended by a new ravelin and this ravelin was defended by another small ravelin on its north side, so that the entrance was over three bridges. The south side of the fort, the Grenoble front, was totally remodelled. This front was judged too small so two layers of defence were created here to increase fire power.

The inside of the fort was also remodelled. The "terre plein" (level ground) on the inside of the fort was levelled. Almost all of the existing buildings, scattered across it, were demolished and replaced by new, more spacious buildings, neatly ordered on the levelled plain. A church, a new well and two powder magazines'were built as well. In the mean time the French took Montmelian in 1705 and had the fortifications demolished, leaving the Savoyards empty handed in the region.

It took until about 1740 for all of Vauban's plans for Fort Barraux to be carried out. In the early 19th century the weak Grenoble front was altered; a casemated'cavalier'was added. In addition, the arches under the bridge were filled in with masonry and turned into casemates for infantry. Similar casemates were made in the counterscarp of the ditch. During both world wars the fort served as a prison. It was sold to the community of Barraux in 1988.

Visiting Fort Barraux

One interesting aspect Fort Barraux to me is the fact that most of Vauban's plans have been carried out. On his inspections in 1692 and 1700 Vauban made extensive plans for many forts and fortified towns but only a small portion of these plans were carried out. Here the plans are considerable, most of the inside of the fort is new and the and the outside was remodelled on a large scale, and all of them have been carried out. This might be explained by the important strategic position of the fort.

During the summer Fort Barraux can be visited in the late afternoon. It is important to check that there are no special activities when you want to visit. When we went a costumed tour, with re-enacting of historical events, took place. As a consequence most of the fort was closed to regular visitors, like us. It is a very beautiful fort, very well worth the visit, I hope more of it is open to visitors during the regular openings.

Article and pictures by Jeroen van der Werf, all rights reserved.

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