1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Belfort (town)

BELFORT, a town of eastern France, capital of the Territory of Belfort, 275 m. E.S.E. of Paris, on the main line of the Eastern railway. Pop. (1906), town, 27,805; commune, 34,649. It is situated among wooded hills on the Savoureuse at the intersection of the roads and railway lines from Paris to Basel and from Lyons to Mülhausen and Strassburg, by which it maintains considerable trade with Germany and Switzerland. The town is divided by the Savoureuse into a new quarter, in which is the railway station on the right bank, and the old fortified quarter, with the castle, the public buildings and monuments, on the left bank. The church of St Denis, a building in the classical style, erected from 1727 to 1750, and the hôtel de ville (1721–1724) both stand in the Place d’Armes opposite the castle. The two chief monuments commemorate the defence of Belfort in the war of 1870–1871. “The Lion of Belfort,” a colossal figure 78 ft. long and 52 ft. high, the work of F. A. Bartholdi, stands in front of the castle; and in the Place d’Armes is the bronze group “Quand Même” by Antonin Mercié, in memory of Thiers and of Colonel Pierre Marie Aristide Denfert-Rochereau (1823–1878), commandant of the place during the siege. Other objects of interest are the Tour de la Miotte, of unknown origin and date, which stands on the hill of La Miotte to the N.E. of Belfort, and the Port de Brisach, a gateway built by Vauban in 1687. Belfort is the seat of a prefect; its public institutions include tribunals of first instance and of commerce, a chamber of commerce, a lycée, a training-college and a branch of the Bank of France. The construction of locomotives and machinery, carried on by the Société Alsacienne, wire-drawing, and the spinning and weaving of cotton are included among its industries, which together with the population increased greatly owing to the Alsacian immigration after 1871. Its trade is in the wines of Alsace, brandy and cereals. The town derives its chief importance from its value as a military position.

After the war of 1870–1871, Belfort, which after a diplomatic struggle remained in French hands, became a frontier fortress of the greatest value, and the old works which underwent the siege of 1870–1871 (see below) were promptly increased and re-modelled. In front of the Perches redoubts, the Bosmont, whence the Prussian engineers began their attack, is now heavily fortified with continuous lines called the Organisation défensive de Bosmont. The old Bellevue redoubt (now Fort Denfert-Rochereau) is covered by a new work situated likewise on the ground occupied by the siege trenches in the war. Pérouse, hastily entrenched in 1870, now possesses a permanent fort. The old entrenched camp enclosed by the castle, Fort La Miotte, and Fort Justice, is still maintained, and part even of the enceinte built by Vauban is used for defensive purposes. Outside this improved inner line, which includes the whole area of the attack and defence of 1870, lies a complete circle of detached forts and batteries of modern construction. To the north, Forts Salbert and Roppe form the salients of a long defensive line on high ground, at the centre of which, where the Savoureuse river divides it, a new work was added later. Two works near Giromagny, about 8 m. from Belfort itself, connect the fortress with the right of the defensive line of the Moselle (Fort Ballon d’Alsace). In the eastern sector of the defences (from Roppe to the Savoureuse below Belfort) the forts are about 3 m. from the centre, the works near the Belfort-Mülhausen railway being somewhat more advanced, and in the western (from Salbert to Fort Bois d’Oyé on the lower Savoureuse) they are advanced to about the same distance. The fort of Mont Vaudois, the westernmost, overlooks Héricourt and the battlefield of the Lisaine: farther to the south Montbéliard is also fortified. The perimeter of the Belfort defences is nearly 25 m.

History.—Gallo-Roman remains have been discovered in the vicinity of Belfort, but the place is first heard of in the early part of the 13th century, when it was in the possession of the counts of Montbéliard. From them it passed by marriage to the counts of Ferrette and afterwards to the archdukes of Austria. By the treaty of Westphalia (1648) the town was ceded to Louis XIV. who gave it to Cardinal Mazarin.

In the Thirty Years’ War Belfort was twice besieged, 1633 and 1634, and in 1635 there was a battle here between the duke of Lorraine and the allied French and Swedes under Marshal de la Force. The fortifications of Vauban were begun in 1686. Belfort was besieged in 1814 by the troops of the allies and in 1815 by the Austrians.

The most famous episode of the town’s history is its gallant and successful defence in the war of 1870–1871.

The events which led up to the siege are described under Franco-German War. Even before the investment Belfort was cut off from the interior of France, and the German corps of von Werder was, throughout the siege, between the fortress and the forces which might attempt its relief. The siege corps was commanded by General von Tresckow and numbered at first 10,000 men with twenty-four field guns—a force which appeared adequate for the reduction of the antiquated works of Vaubau. Colonel Denfert-Rochereau was, however, a scientific engineer of advanced ideas as well as a veteran soldier of the Crimea and Algeria, and he had been stationed at Belfort for six years. He was therefore eminently fitted for the command of the fortress. He had as a nucleus but few regular troops, but the energy of the military and civil authorities enabled his force to be augmented by national guards, &c., to 17,600 men. The artillery was very numerous, but skilled gunners were not available in any great strength and ammunition was scarce. Perhaps the most favourable circumstance from a technical point of view was the bomb-proof accommodation of the enceinte.

The old fortress consisted of the town enceinte, the castle (situated on high ground and fortified by several concentric envelopes), and the entrenched camp, a hollow enclosed by continuous lines, the salients of which were the castle, Fort La Justice and Fort La Miotte. These were planned in the days of short-range guns, and were therefore in 1870 open to an overwhelming bombardment by the rifled cannon of the attack. Denfert-Rochereau, however, understood better than other engineers of the day the power of modern artillery, and his plan was to utilize the old works as a keep and an artillery position. The Perches ridge, whence the town and suburbs could be bombarded, he fortified with all possible speed. On the right bank of the Savoureuse he constructed two new forts, Bellevue in the south-west and Des Barres to the west, and, further, he prepared the suburb on this side for a hand-to-hand defence. His general plan was to maintain as advanced a line as possible, to manœuvre against the investing troops, and to support his own by the long range fire of his rifled guns. With this object he fortified the outlying villages, and when the Germans (chiefly Landwehr) began the investment on the 3rd of November 1870, they encountered everywhere a most strenuous resistance. Throughout the month the garrison made repeated sorties, and the Germans were on several occasions forced by the long range fire of the fortress to evacuate villages which they had taken. Under these circumstances, and also because of their numerical weakness and the rigour of the weather, the Germans advanced but slowly. On the 2nd of December, when at last von Tresckow broke ground for the construction of his batteries, the French still held Danjoutin, Bosmont, Pérouse and the adjacent woods, and, to the northward (on this side the siege was not pressed) La Forge. Thus the first attack of the siege artillery was confined to the western side of the river between Essert and Bavillers. From this position the bombardment opened on the 3rd of December. Some damage was done to the houses of Belfort, but the garrison was not intimidated, and their artillery replied with such spirit that after some days the German commander gave up the bombardment. On this occasion the distant forts La Miotte and La Justice fired with effect at a range of 4700 yds., affording a conspicuous illustration of the changed conditions of siege-craft. The German batteries, as more guns arrived, were extended from left to right, and on the 13th of December the Bosmont was captured, ground being also gained in front of Bellevue. The difficulties under which the siege corps laboured were very great, and it was not until the 7th of January 1871 that the rightmost battery opened fire. The formal siege of the Perches redoubts had now been decided upon, and as an essential preliminary to further operations, Danjoutin, now isolated, was stormed by the Landwehr on the night of the 7th-8th January. In the meanwhile typhus and smallpox had broken out amongst the French, many of the national guards were impatient of control, and the German trenches, in spite of difficulties of ground and weather, made steady progress towards the Perches. A week after the fall of Danjoutin the victory of von Werder and the XIV. army corps at the Lisaine, in which a part of the siege corps bore a share, put an end to the attempt to relieve Belfort, and the siege corps was promptly increased to a strength of 17,600 infantry, 4700 artillery and 1100 engineers, with thirty-four field-guns besides the guns and howitzers of the siege train. The investment was now more strictly maintained even on the north side. On the night of the 20th of January the French lines about Pérouse were carried by assault, and, both flanks being now cleared, the formal siege of the Perches forts was opened, the first parallel extending from Danjoutin to Haut Taillis. In the early morning of the 27th a determined but premature attempt was made to storm the Perches redoubts, which cost the besiegers nearly 500 men. After this failure Tresckow once more resorted to the regular method of siege approaches, and on the 2nd of February the second parallel was thrown up. La Justice was now bombarded by two new batteries near Pérouse, the Perches were of course subjected to an “artillery attack,” and henceforward the besiegers fired 1500 shells a day into the works of the French. But the besiegers were still weak in numbers and their labours were very exhausting. Bellevue and Des Barres became very active in hindering the advance of the siege works, and the German battalions were so far depleted by losses and sickness that they could often muster but 300 men for duty. Still, the guns of the attack were now steadily gaining the upper hand, and at last on the 8th of February the Germans entered the two Perches redoubts. This success, and the arrival of German reinforcements, decided the siege. The Perches ridge was crowned with a parallel and numerous batteries, which in the end mounted ninety-seven guns. The attack on the castle now opened, but operations were soon afterwards suspended by the news that Belfort was now included in the general armistice (February 15th). A little later Denfert-Rochereau received a direct order from his own government to surrender the fortress, and the garrison, being granted free withdrawal, marched out with its arms and trains. “The town had suffered terribly . . . nearly all the buildings were damaged . . . the guns in the upper batteries could only be reached by ladders. The garrison, of its original strength of 17,700 officers and men, had lost 4750, besides 336 citizens. The place was no longer tenable” (Moltke, Franco-German War). Nevertheless, “the defence was by no means at its last stage” at the time of the formal surrender (British Text-Book of Fortification, 1893). The total loss of the besiegers was about 2000 men.

See J. Liblin, Belfort et son territoire (Mülhausen, 1887).