Josefov Fortress is an outstanding example of an 18th century ‘star’ fort. The town retains much of its original splendour and a film crew was at work as we arrived. The story was obviously set in World War II as German trucks and swastika- emblazoned ammunition boxes lined the street.
Just as the 1930 Czech defences mirrored those of the Maginot line, so this much earlier fort was very similar to the French cities fortified by Marshal Vauban. It bears a striking resemblance to fortified towns such as Arras, Lille or Gravelines. This is not surprising as it was designed by a French architect (Claude Benoit Chevalier de St. Luis Duhamel de Querlonde) and built between 1780 and 1787. The walls and moat protect around 266 hectares so it was far more than a military garrison. Its structure includes an amazing 45 kilometres of underground shooting galleries, passages and countermine galleries and in total the construction took an astonishing 400 million bricks.
The aim of the fort was to protect the northern boundary of the Austrian Empire against the ambitions of the Prussian Empire. It was never besieged but the defences would certainly have made a formidable obstacle to breach. We entered the fortress through the site of one of the now-demolished four gates between two of the immense bastions. We were on a guided tour with a group of Czech tourists – an arrangement that probably irritated both groups in equal measure.
Our underground trip began with a shooting gallery, with good line of fire into the dry moat. We then ventured into one of the three levels of countermine gallery, where listeners would have located enemy miners and extended the galleries to lay explosives. There were 762 different countermine galleries – a complicated network for the defenders to navigate by candlelight. We had free rein to explore some of these passages that got smaller and smaller until the only way back was to crawl backwards. We were given candle lights but most opted to use torches – helpful for examination and photography but arguably destroying some of the atmosphere. We could, however read the English handout more easily.
To make navigation for the soldiers easier, most of the passages are numbered. If necessary, the defenders could navigate in the dark and these numbers are raised so that they can be read by touch – an early predecessor to Braille. We were encouraged to walk the final part of our tour in the dark – an interesting exercise. The guide indicated that she was too afraid to join us for this section but obviously had a short cut as she was ready to welcome us back at the end of our twisting transit.