Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Bitche Citadel

No matter how funny the town's name looks to Americans, Bitche holds meaning for the French as a wrenching yet noble part of their history. On its long sandstone ridge, the Citadel of Bitche stands above the town, both the emblem and the actual place of a remarkable story of French survival in the face of the Prussian army.

A castle stood on the ridge as early as the 12th Century, but Vauban gave the citadel its present form in the 1620s. And even though much of the fortress was destroyed in 1698 when the area was restored to Lorraine, the fortress was rebuilt from 1741-54 to Vauban's original design. Here's how the fortress looked in 1794, when this scale model was built. (The history of the model is itself an interesting story, even involving Metz, but would be something of a detour for this post.)

Since then, the city of Bitche grew around the base of the citadel. The entrance still impresses. Imagine trying to force your way up that ramp to the gate, while being attacked from the walls above and behind you.

The design of the fortress shows Vauban's ingenuity. There are bastions at the east and west ends of the citadel, separated from the main fort by deep moats. This bridge crosses from the main part of the fortress to the "small head" bastion at the east end of the ridge.

The gate to the bridge is closed, but here's what it would be like if you wanted to cross.

The citadel is complex. Here's a diagram of the fortress's layout.

Indeed, the Bitche citadel, conceived by Vauban and built twice to his design, suffered through multiple attacks and sieges but never broke. The most celebrated and heroic defense came in 1870-71, when the French garrison, swelled by troops staggering to the citadel from horrific battle losses to the Prussians, and by townspeople fearing the Prussians' attack, successfully defended the citadel during a 230-day siege, attacks from the 7000 Prussian soldiers massed against it, and three periods of intense shelling.

While the citadel's ramparts, moats and underground spaces are intact, all the buildings on the top of the fortress, save the chapel, were destroyed in the Franco-Prussian War and World War II. The citadel's underground passage, tunneled into solid rock, now house a remarkable multimedia experience--a sort of feature film that takes you from room to room--that makes the siege and its defenders real.

This "cinematic tour" is brilliant. You start out in something of a traditional movie theater for the first eight minutes, then move to subsequent spaces for succeeding segments, with the screens integrated into the rooms in a number of ingenious ways. You hear the audio on the same wireless headphones that you use for visiting the whole citadel, with commentary in your own language. The movie is graphic, personal, and simply incredibly well done. It's the best introduction to the history, and best use of, a historic monument that I have ever seen. When you walk back up to the surface of the fort you feel like the fighting is still going on around you.

The movie handles transitions between rooms cleverly, too. In the first segment, at the end, the characters in the film are watching the film in the very room you're in, and when they--on screen--get up to move to another room you get the idea quickly. The movie, produced in 2005 and installed in 2006, involved nearly 700 extras, 100 technicians, and 40 principal actors. The movie includes imagined newsreel footage of historical figures such as Napoleon III and Kaiser Wilhelm that concisely explains the political and military events leading to the siege and its aftermath.

The underground part of the citadel stored a huge amount of supplies, especially flour and gunpowder. Water from rainfall ran into cisterns, and a human-powered machine drew water from a deep well. Two soldiers would walk inside the machine, something like a giant hamster wheel, causing the a full bucket to rise while an empty bucket descended.

Faced with the Prussian attack, Commander Louis-Casimir Teyssier, who had been sent to Bitche as a backwater assignment, and his soldiers rose to the occasion. Indeed, Teyssier refused to give up the fight even after France's defeat and the subsequent armistice until he received official orders. The garrison marched out of the citadel, undefeated, after the final peace treaty. Teyssier earned the Legion of Honor, among many other honors. Bitche's high school is named for him. Commander Tessier lived until 1916.

The city of Bitche also expressed its appreciate to a later group of soldiers. This plaque, placed on the walls of the citadel by the city and the U.S. 100th Infantry Division remembers the nearly 3,000 soldiers of the Division who were killed, wounded, missing or captured in the three-month battle for the Bitche region in 1944-45.

Today, the base of the Bitche citadel shelters a Garden of Peace. The citadel's looks over a city and surrounding mountains free of battle and bombardment. The ramparts still stand, and grass grows over the roofs and the slopes.

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