Siege of Gravelines, 1644

Following disastrous defeats on the northern frontier at the hands of the Spanish in the 1630s, Cardinal Richelieu'oversaw the French recovery and subsequent advance northwards, taking the war into the Spanish Netherlands. 1640 saw the French successfully undertake the siege of Arras and in the following years a number of smaller fortresses were taken. Prince Condé'defeated the Spanish in battle at Rocroi in 1643 - the French advance was slow, but seemingly unstoppable.

Map of Gravelines and the surrounding area during the siege. The neighbouring fortresses of Calais and Dunkirk can be seen on the left and right of the map respectively.

When Richelieu died in 1642 his successor, Cardinal Marazin, continued the war and in 1644 it was decided to take the coastal town of Gravelines, a short distance to the east of French-held Calais.

Gravelines formed the northern anchor of a line of fortresses guarding the southern frontier of the Spanish Netherlands. It had been well fortified in the 16th century by Italian engineers serving Charles V'and was strengthened in the 1640s as the threat from France grew. By 1644 the town was protected with a hexagonal trace of arrow-headed bastions'fronted by a flooded ditch. There were several demi-lunes'and a hornwork'facing west, towards Calais.

French troops had made a probing attack on the town before, in 1638, succeeding in destroying the sluices at the mouth of the channel linking Gravelines to the sea during a night attack. As a result the Spanish built a small fort, called Fort Saint-Philippe, at the mouth of the channel in 1640. Gravelines was expected to be a tough nut to crack and the French planned the campaign of 1644 in coordination with their allies the Dutch, who were attacking the Spanish Netherlands from the north. As the French were attacking Gravelines, the Dutch would lay siege to Sas-van-Gent simultaneously, thus putting pressure on the Spanish from two directions. Since Gravelines was a coastal target, a Dutch fleet under Admiral Tromp would assist the French land forces.

In April and May of 1644, the French moved towards Gravelines, taking a number of small forts to clear the way and arriving before the town at the end of May, with the construction of the siegeworks beginning on the 6th of June. Although the army was technically under the Duke of Orléans, during the siege the effective commanders were Maréchal de La Meilleraye and Maréchal de Gassion.

The first task was to construct lines of contravallation around the town to protect the besiegers from a potential Spanish relieving force. This was no mean feat, since the nature of the terrain dictated that the lines must cross numerous watercourses. The Dutch fleet blockaded the town from the sea.

Plan of the siege, showing the extensive lines of contravallation around Gravelines and the position of the Dutch fleet offshore.

On the 9th of June the trenches were opened against Fort Saint-Philippe, which was preventing the complete encirclement of the town. Since the loop of the river rendered the fort difficult to approach from the east, it was decided to attack it from the west.

Detail of a map of the siegeworks, showing the attack on Fort Saint-Philippe along the coast (bottom right) and the subsequent extension of the lines of contravallation (right).

This approach was along a narrow strip of land between the sea to the north and the marshy ground to the south, so there was little room for the trenches, but a large battery was dug in from which the fort could be bombarded. From the map shown on the left, it appears that the channel did not lead all the way to the sea.

This was either because it had not been re-made after the damage caused by the French attack in 1638 or because the besiegers managed to fill it in. Either way, the attackers bypassed the hornwork and sapped towards the main part of Fort Saint-Philippe, taking possession of it on the 13th of June.

Once Fort Saint-Philippe and the outlying redoubts'were in French hands, the attack on the town could begin in earnest. The trenches were opened on the 17th of June, with the aim being to attack the south-east corner of the defences. Two approaches were made, one from the east under the command of Maréchal de La Meilleraye and the other from the south under the command of Maréchal de Gassion.

By the 20th of June, the two approach trenches were drawing close to the outer defences. They were also close to each other, so it was decided to dig a battery between the two, forming a link between the two approaches.

Detail of the attack on the town, showing the two separate approaches.

20 guns were installed in this battery, which began to batter away at the demi-lune and two bastions. Up to this point the besiegers' work had gone relatively smoothly, but progress became much slower when on the 22nd of June they reached the outer ditch, which was flooded and protected by a covered way. Maréchal de Gassion's attack crossed the outer ditch by gradually securing the adjacent sections of the covered way and then throwing a light wooden bridge across it. The attackers then sought to make a lodgement on the far side. However the garrison made a number of determined sorties from the inner covered way and the ensueing struggle lasted for weeks. A second bridge was made across the ditch but the defenders succeeded in burning both bridges twice. Each time they were repaired and reinforced with fascines and earth to make them less vulnerable.

The assaults were made at night, which in theory made it harder for the defenders to see their attackers. In practice, the defenders threw burning material down so as to illuminate their fields of fire. Gassion perceived that night attacks were giving the advantage to the garrison, so he proposed to make daytime attacks, reasoning that by daylight both sides' troops would be equally visible.

A contemporary painting of the siege of Gravelines.

With this new strategy, gradual progress was made until Gassion's approach was so advanced that the attackers were in the position to assault a breach that had been made in the Bastion de France.

On the night of the 26th of July, a floating bridge was thrown into the ditch and after a desperate struggle the attackers secured a lodgement in the bastion. Seeing that all was lost, the garrison capitulated and marched out on the 28th. Throughout the siege Maréchal de La Meilleraye and Maréchal de Gassion were continually bickering. This came to a head at the end of the siege when the two commanders, standing on the ramparts of the town, almost fought a duel over whose troops had the right to enter the town first!

The siege and its preliminary operations took up the entire campaigning season of 1644, but it demonstrated the effectiveness and tenacity of the French army. Although it had yet to become the military machine of Louis XIV's'day, it was a far cry from the force that suffered the disasters of 1635 and 1636.

The Dutch succeeded in capturing Sas-van-Gent, which held out until September, so at the end of 1644 Spain had lost two frontier fortresses in the Netherlands. However Gravelines was not yet securely in French hands. It recaptured by the Spanish in 1652, before being taken again by the French for the final time in 1658.

Back to the "Sieges" page