Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707), who served Louis XIV, was perhaps the greatest of European military engineers. Between 1667 and his death he was responsible for major improvements to the fortifications of 300 towns and constructed 37 fortresses of which the citadel at Besançon is one of the most spectacular. He became the king’s Commissaire-général des fortifications from 1667, and was appointed a Marshal of France.
Besançon, capital of Franche-Comté was besieged by a French army under Vauban’s direction in 1674, and after Franche-Comté passed under the control of Louis IV by the Treaty of Nijmegen of 1678 he ordered Vauban to improve its fortifications. The town is situated on a promontory within a horseshoe bend on the River Doubs. Vauban’s citadel enabled defenders to see an oncoming attack from whichever direction it came, and to bring heavy fire to bear on the attackers. The citadel extends over 11 ha, and includes six gun towers commanding the river, the buildings of a school for military cadets established in 1682, an arsenal with extensive facilities for the maintenance of artillery pieces, a powder magazine and a well, 132 m deep, dug in 1692 and worked by a one-man treadmill crane. It produced brackish water and the citadel relied on rain water collected in cisterns. Vauban’s works and the story of the citadel in later times are fully interpreted and visitors can take tours of the whole of the city’s fortifications on foot, by bicycle or on roller blades. The citadel was untouched by fighting in the First World War but in the Second World War it was used by the Vichy regime as a prison, and more than 100 resistance fighters were executed there. It was captured by the US Army in 1944. The citadel houses the Museum of Resistance and Deportation whose 20 rooms show what life was like under the Vichy regime and German occupation. There is a section on the deportation of Jews from France, and a resource centre that enables visitors to trace ancestors who were deported or involved in the resistance.
Besançon is also the headquarters of the Réseau des sites majeurs Vauban (Network of major Vauban sites), an association of 12 towns or fortresses where substantial works by the great engineer remain. It was formed in 2005, and the 12 sites were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. The 12 sites, Arras, Besançon, Blaye/Cussac-Fort-Médoc, Cameret-sur-Mer, Longwy, Mont Daufin, Mont Louis, Neuf-Brisach, Saint-Martin-de-Ré, Saint Vaast-la-Houge and Villefranche-de-Conflent, are in all parts of France and include fortresses in mountainous regions and overlooking harbours, as well as urban fortifications.