Belle Ile

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

Vauban'visited Belle Ile for inspection three times, in 1683, 1685 and 1689. The large scale plans he made for the island during those inspections underline its strategic importance. His plans not only involved the citadel'and the town of Le Palais, he also made a plan for an overall defence of the entire coast, protecting every possible landing place with batteries, entrenched lines and redoubts, turning the whole island into a fortress.

This strategic importance was due to the fact that Belle Ile had a large natural harbour, Le Palais, and held large quantities of drinking water. This made the island a perfect base for resupplying ships, all the more so because it was located about halfway between Brest and Rochefort and close to Lorient, three important 17th century harbours. Access to the south of Brittany was controlled by Belle Ile and its smaller neighbours Houat and Hoedic. Because of its landward facing harbour, Belle Ile could easily be reached by troops and goods. For an enemy, taking Belle Ile meant taking possession of a rich island, perfectly suited as a base to raid the coastlines and passing ships.

When Vauban visited the citadel for the first time in 1683 he saw the fruit of centuries of fortress building. The first defences were built by Benedictine monks in the early 14th century and the last defences were built for Nicolas Foucquet, who is probably the islands most illustrious owner. Nicolas Foucquet was the Surintendant des Finances for Louis XIV. He accumulated a vast fortune and bought the island in 1658 from the bankrupt Gondi family. Foucquet fell from grace in 1661 and died as a prisoner of the state in the Alpine fort of Pignerol. The citadel of Le Palais became state property. The unique circular powder magazine'is one of Fouquet's surviving constructions.

Vauban's judgment of the citadel was severe. The overall design of the fort was ridiculous, the layers of firepower were structured the wrong way, the walls were too low, the space inside the fort was too cramped to allow movement and the fort is dominated by its surroundings. It was weak and easy to take. However, it would have been a waste to built an entirely new fortress so Vauban decided to make the best of the available conditions and proposed a large scale renovation.

Due to the deep ditch, carved out of the rock, the trace of the main body of the citadel was a given fact. First of all Vauban decided to heighten this main body. Before Vauban's work this part of the fort consisted of two tiers; a fausse braie'following the trace of today's citadel and a higher wall a few metres behind it dominating the surroundings. Vauban decided to build an entirely new wall upon the fausse braie swallowing the whole ancient structure. The three bastions of this new wall were equipped with cavaliers. The cavaliers and the new wall dominated the envelope and the covered way, while in the old design the fausse braie had been dominated by the envelope. The envelope was remodelled, traverses were added and several parts were heightened as well. The covered way was entirely new.

As a result the landward side of the citadel consists of 5 layers of firepower (covered way, outworks, envelope, bastions and cavaliers) making the defence on this side more effective. However the main flaw of the citadel was not solved; it was still dominated by the surrounding land. The only way to solve this was to surround the town of Le Palais by an extensive city wall. This wall would neutralize all profit an enemy could take from the surrounding landscape. The heights dominating the citadel within canon range to the west and south would fall within the walls just like the valleys crossing these heights. These valleys, that could not be overseen from the citadel, allowed an enemy to come close (within pistol range) to the fort unseen. Apart from that the city wall would also protect the harbour because once the town was taken the harbour would be as well, thus cutting the citadel of from its connection with the mainland. The wall proposed by Vauban was so extensive that it would take a huge army to surround all of the fortifications to make a successful siege. This huge enceinte could give refuge to the whole population of the island, similar to the situation of St Martin de Re. Due to lack of funds this plan was not carried out.

On his second inspection, in 1685, when it was clear that the proposed city walls would not be built, Vauban demanded the demolition of the hamlet of Haute Boulogne to give the citadel a proper glacis. The inhabitants were given new homes on the other side of the harbour. All these works left no funds to remodel the inside of the fortress.

In 1761, during the Seven Years War, an British fleet attacked Belle Ile and an invasion force was able to land on the island. The French troops retreat to the town of Le Palais which was defended by several earth redoubts. When these redoubts fell the defenders were forced to retreat to the citadel and were cut of from all reinforcements because with the town the harbour was given up as well. For several weeks the citadel was bombarded from the surrounding heights and the garrison had to surrender. Belle Ile remained in British hands for two years before being restored to France by the treaty of Paris in 1763. The great damage caused by the British bombardments gave the French army the opportunity to restructure the arrangement of the buildings inside the fortress, giving the troops more space to move.

Although the British attack showed the necessity of a city wall as proposed by Vauban it was not until the 19th century that the walls were actually built. By the time they were finished the progress in artillery made them useless. As a consequence Le Palais still has some of the best preserved 19th century defence systems. They make a great visit.

Visiting Belle Ile

As for the fortifications along the coast, whenever there was the threat of an invasion some of the plans were carried out. This has resulted in some spectacular and unique fortifications, like the bastioned trace protecting the Plage des Grand Sables and the redoubt protecting the beach of Bordardoue for example. The Aiguade Vauban, a water basin along the coast allegedly built on Vaubans orders, is worth a special mention. Its basin is still filled by the source it is connected to and was used well into the 20th century.

There is a lot more to write about the island and the citadel but it is beyond the scope of this article. The history of Belle Ile is very well documented in lots of books that are easily available. Still the best way to learn more about it is to go there yourself, something I would highly recommend to everyone. If you have the opportunity go for more than one day, the island is a true museum of coastal defences with fortifications dating from the 1680s until the 1940s. Boats go to Le Palais and Sauzon daily from Quiberon on the mainland, during the high season you can make the crossing from other cities as well. On the island there are plenty of campsites and hotels. If you are in a luxurious mood, sleep in the hotel inside the citadel. We did, it was perfect.

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

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