Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (hereafter Vauban) was the pre-eminent military engineer of his age. He was born in 1633 in Burgundy and worked not only on a series of large-scale defences throughout France but was also an expert in attacking such defences. His early career was in the army and during the French civil war in the 1650s he was commissioned as an Engineer and took part in ten sieges. During periods of relative peace he constructed or rebuilt many fortresses and wrote papers on both the conducting and the defence of sieges. The fortresses were generally constructed in a star formation and Vauban was an expert in both mining and counter-mining.
Arras was first fortified in the 13th century with city walls. These defences were improved in the 16th century by the Spanish rulers of the time but the French took the city in 1640. The citadel was commissioned by Louis XIV in 1667 and constructed by Vauban between 1668 and 1672. Like the citadel at Lille, it is constructed as a pentagonal star and was intended to protect France from attack by the (then) Spanish Netherlands. It was constructed close to the river Crinchon which could both act as a water source for the garrison and help fill the defensive moat. A feature of the Vauban fortresses is that they were all modelled at 1:600 scale and the (top secret) models were kept up to date for use in training and planning. Large numbers of these models still exist and can be viewed at the Invalides Museum in Paris and the Palais des Beaux Arts in Lille.
Changing politics meant that Arras’s role as a strategic site diminished and the citadel became known as ‘La Belle inutile’ – loosely translated as ‘pretty (but) useless’. In World War I Arras was occupied by the Allies and the (by now dry) moat was used to park tanks before the 1917 Battle of Arras. In May 1940 a further Battle of Arras took place when the British launched a largely unsuccessful counter-attack against the advancing Germans. The moat of the citadel now holds a memorial to 218 Patriots who were shot by firing squad there between 1941 and 1944.
The Citadel was still used by the military until 2010, the final occupants being the Headquarters of the 601st Circulation Regiment (601e Régiment de Circulation Routière). This unit was responsible for the movement of motorised troops and moved to Arras from its previous base in Germany which closed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Like all of Vauban’s forts, there are many underground galleries and chambers, some of which were used as a prison in the 18th century.
In 2007, to commemorate the tercentenary of the death of Vauban, the French submitted twelve (out of around 300 built) of his defensive sites for admission to the World Heritage list. The sites were admitted to the register in 2008 and include the Citadel(le) of Arras. Now the military have left, the site is accessible to the public and the buildings have found a number of re-uses, including housing and recreation.