Situated at the confluence of the Rhine and the Lippe rivers, the town of Wesel thrived on trade. It became part of the Duchy of Cleves (Kleve) in the 12th century and joined the Hanseatic League in the 15th century. The town outgrew its original medieval walls and by the 16th century there were three new surburbs (to the north, east and south) that were also protected by defensive walls.

As artillery became more powerful, European towns began to adapt their fortifications. At Wesel, several rounded artillery platforms were constructed, followed by arrow-headed bastions, one of which was designed by the Italian engineer Giovanni Pasqualini.

These defences were put to the test when the Spanish attacked and captured the town in an epic four-year siege (from 1586 to 1590). Although Wesel lay outside the Spanish Netherlands, it changed hands between the Dutch and Spanish several times in the Eighty Years' War. During this period the fortifications were strengthened significantly.

A more regular trace of earthwork bastions'was constructed to protect the north and west sides of the town. A small outlying fort was built at the river confluence (the Lippe Fort) and another to the south-west of the town (the Groote Schans).

A suburb to the north of the old town was later fortified and several hornworks'were added. The new fortifications saw action at various stages of their development. In 1614, during the Jülich-Kleve succession crisis, Wesel was taken by the Spanish again after a 3-day siege. A Spanish garrison remained in the town even when the crisis had passed.

In 1629 the Dutch were besieging Bois-le-Duc ('s-Hertogenbosch) when a Spanish army invaded the Netherlands from the east. At Wesel a stone tower in the walls had been torn down to make way for a new bastion, leaving a gap in the defences.

When this was revealed to the Dutch by spies, they marched on Wesel and took the town by surprise, forcing the Spanish army to retreat. This secured the eastern flank of the Netherlands and ended Spanish control of the lower Rhine. The Dutch then fortified the town of Büderich, on the opposite bank of the Rhine, with a trace of six earthwork bastions.

Wesel remained in Dutch hands until 1672, when a French force under Prince Condé'captured it at the start of Louis XIV's'invasion of the Netherlands. By this stage the fortifications were in disrepair and had not been updated for many years.

The French razed the fortifications of Büderich after they captured the town. After the Treaty of Nijmegen'in 1678, Brandenburg-Prussia finally took control of Wesel. Recognising its strategic importance for the control of the lower Rhine, the Prussians decided to transform the town into a more modern fortress.

Work on the new fortress began in 1688 and was initially directed by the French engineer Jean de Corbin. Corbin was one of a number of French Huguenot engineers who went to serve other states after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

The new fortress had a large pentagonal citadel'reminiscent of Vauban's'citadels at Lille and Arras, reflecting the French influence. Dutch influence can also be seen in the design, and it is probably no coincidence that a French translation of Coehoorn's'treatise on fortifications first appeared in Wesel in 1705. The citadel was built to the south, dominating both the town and the river confluence.

It had arrow-headed bastions revetted in brick. In front of each curtain wall (except on the south-west side, facing the river) was a Vauban-style tenaille. There were several layers of outworks; demi-lunes, counterguards'and lunettes.

The engineers had problems when it came to joining the citadel to the town's defences on the north-east side. There was a gap between the citadel and the existing bastion at the south-east corner of the town. This gap was initially filled by a hornwork projecting from the citadel towards this bastion. However this was felt to be inadequate, so a second hornwork was proposed.

There is an intriguing plan (shown left) that reveals something of the thought processes of the engineers involved. The plan represents a hypothetical siege of Wesel, where the attacker uses the hornworks to attack the citadel without first taking the town.

It is unclear whether the second hornwork was ever built, but in the end this section of the defences was remodelled and the hornwork idea was dropped. In 1702 another French engineer, Jean de Bott (who had trained under Vauban), came to Wesel to take charge of the work on the fortifications, starting a second phase of construction.

The citadel was probably mostly complete by this stage, so de Bott concentrated on the town fortifications. The town's bastions were revamped and revetted in brick. The curtains were angled near the bastion flanks to avoid the guns in the flank from accidentally firing at the opposite bastion.

Numerous outworks were used to give depth to the defences and to reinforce vulnerable sections. The hornwork(s) were removed from the citadel and the interface with the town defences was achieved using a demi-bastion'reinforced by a large lunette.

The east gate, the Berliner Tor (Berlin Gate), was rebuilt as a monumental gatehouse from 1718 to 1722. The Berliner Tor, made with the aid of French scupltor Hulot, was perhaps designed to rival Lille's triumphal gate, the Porte de Paris.

The fortress of Wesel was a vivid demonstration of Prussian power in the west. Architecturally and militarily it defied foreign powers to exploit the lower Rhine as they had done throughout the previous century. Its construction lasted for almost thirty years (1688-1727) but the result was one of the most formidable fortresses on the Rhine.

The Prussians evacuated Wesel during the Seven Years' War, leaving the French to occupy the fortress uncontested. The defences were briefly put to the test in 1760 when an Allied army arrived to lay siege to the town. The attackers targetted the north-east bastion of the town.

However, the siege had to be abandoned after the French beat the Allies at the battle of Kloster Kamp on the far side of the river. In 1794 the French revolutionary army advanced up the Rhine and captured Büderich, opposite Wesel.

The French bombarded Wesel, but no siege was attempted. Eventually Wesel was ceded to the French in 1805 by the Treaty of Schönbrunn. They decided to fortify the west bank of the Rhine, which was important because France lay in this direction.

The resulting work was a rectangular fort with four bastions called the Citadelle Napoleon, located just to the north of Büderich.

Another work was built on the island in the river between the Citadelle Napoleon and the citadel of Wesel. This work was called Citadelle Bonaparte and it consisted of three lunettes surrounded by a single covered way.

The French built various barrack buildings inside the citadel to accommodate the large garrison that was stationed there. In 1813 Napoleon was on the defensive and the French demolished the town of Büderich because it obstructed the field of fire of the Citadelle Napoleon.

In 1813 the Allies blockaded Wesel but no serious siege was attempted. When the fortress was returned to Prussia, the Citadelle Napoleon was renamed Fort Blücher. The Prussians continued to garrison the fortress of Wesel into the 19th century.

In the 1890s the fortress was finally deemed obselete in the face of powerful modern artillery that was changing the nature of warfare. The fortifications round the town were demolished, but the citadel and the Napoleonic forts were still garrisoned.

Wesel was used as a base for the German army during the First World War. The demolition of the remaining fortifications was part of the demilitarisation of the Ruhr that followed the Treaty of Versailles. The citadel's ramparts were almost completely demolished.

However the north front, which faces the town and includes the citadel's main gate, was saved from destruction. Some of the barrack buildings also survived the demolition and the destruction caused in the Second World War.

Visiting Wesel

Despite the demolition and the destruction of the Second World War, there are some remains of the fortifications of Wesel. Most significant is the northern front of the citadel, which is in good condition. This consists of the main wall and the gatehouse, the tenaille and parts of the bastion flanks.

The parade ground inside the citadel is still an open space, where there is a main road junction today. Several of the citadel's barrack buildings have also survived; the officers' quarters from 1727 being the earliest.

In the town, the Berliner Tor has been preserved and was undergoing renovation when I visited (May 2009). Aside from this, small fragments of the town's fortifications can be seen in various places, but there is not much to look at.

There is a museum dedicated to the history of Prussia (Preußen-Museum Nordrhein-Westfalen), which has a section on the fortress of Wesel, in and above the powder magazine of the north-west bastion of the citadel.

This museum, the remains of the citadel and the Berliner Tor are the most interesting to visit. There is a station in Wesel with regular services from Duisburg and Essen. Wesel is easy to reach by car from the nearby German or Dutch cities.

Back to the "Fortresses" page