Damme

In 1134 a storm surge created a new channel in the Flanders landscape; the Zwin. This new channel reconnected the important trade centre of Bruges with the sea after its channels to the coast had silted up in the 11th century.

Map of Damme in the early 16th century.

In order to secure their new trade routes, the inhabitants of Bruges had a dam constructed at the end of the navigable section of the Zwin and dug a canal from the dam to allow shipping to the city. The settlement that grew up near the dam become known, appropriately, as Damme.

Damme effectively became the seaport for Bruges, where goods were unloaded from seagoing ships and loaded onto smaller vessels to be taken along the canal into the city and visa versa. In 1213 the English attacked and destroyed a French fleet anchored at the town in the Battle of Damme.

In 1262 a canal called the Lieve was dug from Ghent to Damme and walls were built around the town in 1297. Soon afterwards the Zwin began to silt up and Damme lost its role as the seaport of Brugge to Sluis, which was farther north. The town's prosperity waned and many people moved away.

The fortifications of Damme in the mid-17th century.

In 1604 Damme was unexpectedly thrust onto the front lines in the 80 Years War'when the States General (the free Dutch) under Prince Maurice captured the fortified towns of Sluis and Aardenburg to the north.

The left flank of a bastion, with the rampart on the right.

In 1609 a twelve-year truce was signed between the States and Spain, during which time both sides strengthened their positions along the frontier. Damme was in a strategic position on the waterway between Sluis and Bruges, so the Spanish decided to turn it into a fortress.

Guillaume Flamen, a Flemish engineer who served under the Spanish, was given the task of designing fortifications for Damme. He planned a bastioned'trace in the form of a regular heptagon (seven sides) surrounding the town (see map above).

The fortifications were similar to those prescribed by the Old Dutch School of Fortification; the ramparts were earthworks fronted by a flooded ditch'and there was a continuous false bray'at the foot of the main wall. On the far side of the ditch there was a strong covered way'.

The inner flooded ditch. The remains of the covered way are on the left and the main rampart is to the right.

The covered way linked the demi-lunes'that were placed in front of each curtain and the counterguard'that protected each bastion, creating a strong outer line of defences. In front of this outer line was a second flooded ditch.

Back-left: bastion, centre: ditch.

The two bastions either side of the canal on the north-eastern side of the town (the side closest to Sluis and the likely direction of an attack) were strengthened by the construction of three small cavaliers'on each bastion. These gave the defenders some higher positions for their artillery.

There were five entrances to the town. Two were by road - the Anthoniuspoort and the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwepoort - both these had masonry gatehouses. The other three were by canal. The main canal between Bruges and Sluis went right through the middle of the fortress, but it was too wide to have an archway in the wall, so there was simply a cut through the rampart where it entered and left.

The Lieve canal on the other hand was smaller and it left through an arched masonry gate, the Waterpoort. Flamen's decision to apply a regular heptagonal form over the small town of Damme left large spaces of unused ground within the fortifications.

Looking along the ditch, a bastion is on the right.

It would have been possible to fortify the place with a shorter length of rampart using a less regular form. This would not have required such a large garrison as the heptagonal trace as well, but many engineers would try to impose a "perfect" regular polygon to any location, and it seems that this was what Flamens did here. However, since his solution resulted in a strong fortress that adequately guarded the town and the canal junction, we should probably not judge his work too harshly.

The rampart of one of the bastions north of the canal.

Construction of the fortifications started at the beginning of 1618 and the work progressed quickly, due to the fact that erecting earthworks was a simple task that did not require skilled labour or materials, and was finished by about 1620.

In the event, when war between Spain and the Sates resumed after the twelve-year truce, Damme didn't experience an attack from the north. In some respects this shows the success of the fortress. It had played a part in securing this section of the frontier - a section which would see no encroachement from the north as long as the war lasted.

In 1701 the War of the Spanish Succession'broke out and France occupied the Spanish Netherlands. The French engineer Vauban'was sent to review the defences in the region. By this time the fortifications of Damme, particularly the covered way and outworks, had fallen into disrepair.

A plan of Damme under the French in the early 18th century.

After Vauban's survey a small earthwork fort, the Fort van Beieren, was constructed to the south, between Bruges and Damme. The outworks of Damme were repaired, but this time they were not linked by a covered way, but it seems that a new covered way was built beyond the outer ditch.

The bastion that is undergoing restoration.

The French were unable to carry out all their improvements since the course of the war forced them to retreat southwards in 1706, and Damme was occupied by the Allies. The fortress was garrisoned until the mid-18th century and the fortifications were sold off in 1786.

Visiting Damme

The fortifications were declassified and purchased by the locals towards the end of the 18th century. They were mainly used for agriculture but time and the elements have taken their toll on them. In 1812 Napoleon had the canal from Bruges to Sluis widened, which resulted in the destruction of some of the old buildings in the town and a small part of the ramparts. Today, most of the fortifications are privately owned and used for grazing, so the visitor is not free to wander around the circuit.

Plaque showing the restoration projects for a section of the ramparts at Damme.

There is a path leading along the foot of the remains of the ramparts next to the ditch for a section in the south from the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwepoort to the canal. Other parts of the fortifications, including the Waterpoort, can be seen from the roads that pass by them, but it is irritating that it is not possible to simply walk around the circuit.

The counterguard that is being restored.

A section of the fortifications next to the canal is currently being restored using EU funding, which when complete will enable the visitor to understand the fortress much better. This section will include half a bastion and part of the second line of defence.

Damme is within walking (or even better, cycling) distance of Bruges and the Fort van Beieren lies halfway between the two. The walk or ride along the canal (the Damse Vaart) is very pleasant. Alternatively, regular buses run between Bruges and Damme. The tourist information in Damme, located in the centre, is very helpful.

Condition Access to fortifications Size of fortress Accessability of town Museum/Info Overall score
2 4 7 7 7 5.4
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