Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, March 16, 2020

Behind the Lines: Belfort and Its Lion at War

The View of Belfort from Atop the Citadel

The Citadel of Belfort, France, and the surrounding system of forts, formed the first line of defense in the Séré de Rivières system of fortifications in the Belfort Gap. Located in northeastern France between Épinal and Besançon, the primary line was built in the late 19th century to deal with advances in artillery that had made older defensive systems obsolete. 

The Lion of Belfort is a monumental statue by Auguste Bartholdi, sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, that is situated against the cliff underneath the castle of Belfort. Completed in 1880, it symbolizes the heroic resistance of the French army besieged in Belfort during the French-Prussian War (1870–71). Prussian forces assailed the city of Belfort for 103 days. The invading force numbered around 40,000 strong against the mere 17,000 French forces, but the Prussian siege was defeated. The defenders were eventually ordered by French authorities to cease their defensive efforts. All of France, nevertheless, considered the defense  a lone victory in an otherwise disastrous war. 

The Lion of Belfort

The statue is made entirely of red sandstone from the Vosges and evokes the sphinxes from ancient Egypt. The lion is 70 feet long, 37 feet high, and watches over the old town with a combative look on its face. It was initially planned to face toward Germany until the sculpture was finally set westward after German protests in the 1870s.

Because of its heroic status, and possibly because of the fame of the statue, Belfort was considered an option to Verdun as the site of an attritional battle that the French nation and army could never abandon.

The Lion Up Close

Smaller copies in bronze stands in the center of Place Denfert-Rochereau in Paris and in Dorchester Square, Montreal, Quebec.

Belfort was the anchor for Joffre's opening diversionary attack as part of Plan XVII, known as the Battle of Mulhouse.  Afterward, despite the setback, Belfort remained in French hands for the entire war. In 1918 American intelligence officers, assisted by the French, planted disinformation documents in a Belfort hotel indicating U.S. forces were planning to attack through the Belfort Gap to capture Mulhouse, rather than against the St. Mihiel Salient as was actually the impending offensive. The effort was later called the "Belfort Ruse." Long after the Armistice, it was discovered the ruse had been successful and had allowed Pershing's First Army to achieve tactical success in the opening of the St. Mihiel Offensive on 12 September 1918.

Sources: France's Monuments, Atlas Obscura, and Wiki Commons


  1. Good backstory about this town, which keeps popping up.

  2. Interesting note on the American-French "Belfort Ruse". Any further info or references on that or similar US efforts?