The Canal du Rhône au Rhin: Belfort

Belfort’s pleasant central square, viewed from its fortifications.

Based in Montbéliard for the best part of a week we decided to visit Belfort, one of the more interesting communes in the area. For a while we thought we might be able to take Wanderlust to Belfort via the embranchement de Belfort. But it turned that this segment of waterway has effectively been closed to regular boat traffic. Our best option to get to Belfort was the local train from Montbéliard. Thus Becky, Gigi, and I walked over to Montbéliard’s central station, bought three tickets (Gigi’s canine fare was half of ours), and took the 30-minute train ride to Belfort.

Belfort is an attractive commune with the distinctive characteristics of the region. It was until relatively recently a part of the Alsace. Hints of the distinctive Germanic Alsatian flair remain. But if I had to pick I’d say the town’s style looks more like it belongs with the rest of Franche-Comté rather than with more Germanic Alsace. The architecture is more French than German.

This area of France has been recognized as being of significant strategic importance going back to Roman times. Belfort sits on the easiest to travel crossing between the Rhine and Rhône River valleys in a natural passage, the “Belfort” gap, between the Vosges and the Jura Mountains. The strategic importance of Belfort’s location is emphasized by the nearness of the borders between France, Germany, and Switzerland.

Over the centuries control of this area of modern France has been passed back and forth between the neighboring powers. Consequentially Belfort has been fortified. The most impressive of the fortifications is the Citadelle de Belfort, another massive installation created in partby the famous French military architect Vauban. Belfort’s citadelle sits on a hill overlooking the town, commanding the high ground. It can easily be visited.

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Belfort’s strategic location is the reason behind a curiosity of French geography. The commune of Belfort is the capital of the smallest non-Parisian department in metropolitan France, the Territoire de Belfort.

Why is this unusual? The boundaries of France’s “départements were set after the Revolution so that every settlement in the country was within a day’s ride of its departmental capital. This was intended as security measure to keep the people in the entire national territory under close control. As a consequence most of France’s continental departments are of very similar size. The exception, outside of the densely populated departments near Paris, is the Territoire of Belfort. For a size comparison the neighboring Doubs department is just over 2,000 square miles in size; Territoire de Belfort is tiny, covering a mere 235 square miles.

The small size of the Territoire de Belfort relates to its strategic position. France’s decisive defeat during the Franco-Prussian War resulted in the separation of the lands around Belfort from the Alsace as part of the 1871 Treaty of Frankfurt. As a consequence of the agreement France ceded lands in the Alsace and Lorraine to Germany. A bit oddly, France was allowed to regain the territory around the commune of Belfort. Germany agreed to let Belfort go back to France in part because the Prussian military believed that leaving it as French territory would give Germany a more defensible border. And thus this area of France, once part of the Alsatian Haut-Rhin, was carved off as an independent administrative zone. Eventually in 1922 the Territoire de Belfort was designated as France’s 90th département.

Before the capture of the commune the Siege of Belfort during the Franco-Prussian War heavily damaged the citadelle. Below the fort the town was left in ruins. Today 150 years after the fighting, the town has been rebuilt. The citadelle still stands though it shows its battle scars.

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At the beginning of World War I Belfort France was at high risk just a short distance from the border with Germany. But unlike many places in northern France, the fighting bypassed this area and Belfort avoided heavy damage. At the end of the Great War, the Alsace and Lorraine were returned to France. Belfort was no longer on the front lines with Germany.

Before World War II France extended and improved the area’s defenses as part of the Maginot Line. But in an era of modern warfare fixed fortifications were far easier to evade than to destroy. Thus the Nazi’s invaded France via lightly fortified Belgium rather than risking a prolonged battle to break through the Maginot Line. In the end Belfort was turned over to the Germans without a significant battle when the Armistice of 22 June 1940 was signed in Compiegne. Along with the rest of northern France Belfort remained under Nazi control until liberated by the Allies near the end of World War II.

During a warm summer day when we visited it is hard to imagine Belfort on the front lines. It’s a peaceful and quiet commune now. Belfort’s history on the front lines seems a distant memory.

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