Martin van Meytens. Portrét Marie Terezie

Martin van Meytens. Portrét Marie Terezie

The brief history of fortress city Josefov

The festive moment when the foundation stone of the fortress town of Josefov was laid and the beginning of the reign of Maria Theresa (1740) are separated by a forty-year period. But it was the circumstances under which Maria Theresa was taking over the reign after the death of her father, Emperor Charles VI that, besides other things, initiated construction of three new fortresses, one of which grew in the vicinity of the town of Jaroměř. 

Circumstances Leading Towards Foundation

Emperor Charles VI deceased not leaving any male heir. However, he had ensured the hereditary titles of his daughter four years before she was born with the Pragmatic Sanction (1713). This document was to ensure both, the indivisibility of the Habsburg Empire and, in case of the extinction of male heirs, succession of the distaff side.

Before 1733, the Pragmatic Sanction was acknowledged by most European states including Prussia. But Prussia had a great interest in wealthy and strategically important Silesia. Possession of Silesia was a fundamental condition for further Prussian expansion. That is why, very soon after Charles´s death, Prussia together with Bavaria, France and Saxony disputed the claims of Maria Theresa to the emptied throne.

Even though Maria Theresa managed to defend her rights against Prussia in the Silesian Wars (1740-1742), it was at the cost of losing the County of Klodzko and almost all Silesia including its fortresses which initiated not only the necessity of vast changes within the Habsburg Empire but also the necessity of protection of the new borders.

In fact, the Austrian army lagged behind the better organized, armed and trained Prussian army. The monarchy deprived of the incomes from Silesia was not able to fund and supply its army satisfyingly and the administration, compared to the Prussian one, was neither effective enough in collecting taxes nor in the Habsburg Empire management.

Regarding the network of the fortress towns, from economic reasons, first, the existing fortress of Olomouc was considerably modernized. Later, the fortress of Hradec Králové was built. But the experience from the Seven Years´ War (1757-1763) and the “Potato War” for the Bavarian heritage (1778-1779) proved that the new fortress of Hradec Králové was too inland to prevent Prussia and its allies from developing military operations and that the north of Bohemia was not protected  at all. So it was necessary to build two new fortresses closer to the key mountain saddles, the passes of Nakléřovské sedlo and Branka at Náchod. The first fortress was founded at Litoměřice at the confluence of rivers Labe (the Elbe) and Ohře, the second one was constructed at the place where the river Metuje flows into Labe.

Josef Hickel. Portrét Josefa II.

Josef Hickel. Portrét Josefa II.

Frenchman´s Masterpiece

In 1780, the Imperial Chamber bought, from the Earl Jan Václav of Paar, the estate of Smiřice together with the village situated at a strategically suitable hillock above the river Metuje. Inhabitants of the village were ordered to move out. A fortress called Ples, according to the design of a French engineer Claude Benoît Duhamel de Querlonde, was supposed to be constructed there. In 1793, Emperor Francis II renamed the fortress to honour his uncle Joseph II and the fortress was given the name of Josefov.

The foundation stone of the fortress was laid on 3 October 1780. The design of the fortress exploited fully the most modern knowledge of the contemporary French military engineering. Also it was fitted with an unusually vast system of underground passages, the predecessor of today´s mine fields.

Zdenek Hrobský. Josefov

Zdenek Hrobský. Josefov

Construction of Fortress of Ples

It took seven years before the fortress, built according to the Querlonde´s plan, could serve its purpose. The construction meant not only to dig moats and mound up earthen banks but also to displace two riverbeds. The courses of the Labe and Metuje were regulated, dammed and their confluence shifted seven meters down the flow. Meanwhile, the space created between the two rivers a kilometre before the confluence was interrupted with a channel to give a birth to an artificial island.

The fortress construction required 250 million bricks from brick kilns in Jaroměř, sandstone from quarries in Dubenec and Choustníkovo Hradiště and wood from the forests of the area of Hradec Králové, Most and Náchod. Also the amount of workers corresponded with the scope of works and volume of used material. There worked about 20,000 of workers, 11,000 of whom were soldiers.

Thanks to them the complex of the fortress was battle-capable already in 1787 when Joseph II handed it ceremonially over to the army.  But still, the finishing works on the underground passages, Brdce Redoubt, Main Guardhouse, Gunpowder Magazine and all forty-seven wells took three more years. Still, construction works in Josefov did not stop even after 1791.  For example the Church of the Ascension of Christ was built between 1805 and 1811. And the town had to wait for the new town hall until 1884.

Houses of burgesses form a special part of the fortress. These buildings were built between 1789 and 1888 to serve various craftsmen, small traders and their families that settled in Josefov. It was in compliance with the Patent of Settlement issued by Joseph II on 9 December 1782. This document ensured the mostly civilian inhabitants of the fortress steady ea

Martin Pleyer. Palba rakouských granátníků. Z rekonstrukce boje o pevnost.

Martin Pleyer. Palba rakouských granátníků. Z rekonstrukce boje o pevnost.

rnings, financial advantages and tax reliefs in exchange to different services provided for the very multi-national fortress garrison.

As the result of the fortress management persistence in observing the fortress planning scheme, the houses of burgesse still keep their typical uniform appearance. The management did not tolerate any construction amendments that would obstruct view or decreased resistance of the buildings against cannonade. It is to be mentioned that the rules regulating construction development in Josefov and Terezín became the foundations of town and country planning as it is known today.

Richard Knötel. Srážka kavalérie v bitvě u Náchoda

Richard Knötel. Srážka kavalérie v bitvě u Náchoda

Enemy Too Far Away

In 1793, when Josefov was given its today´s name, the contemporaries could hardly assume that almost over was the time when star fortresses meant an axis around which the modern times warfare was revolving. The Great French Revolution had already been threatening the old feudal order for four years. Therefore, Prussia and Austria put aside their mutual hostility and united against France. But the fights with its Republican Army took place outside the Czech lands which the armies only went through. Not even during the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815), Josefov, despite being repeatedly made battle-ready, played a more important role than that of a prison for captive Napoleon soldiers. As the “Dungeon of Nations” the fortress served also in the following years. For example, Italian revolutionists (1820 – 1830) and Turkish soldiers (1878-1879 and 1912) were kept prisoners there.

When the Prussian and Austrian armies clashed again, it was the year of 1866. At that time the fortification of Josefov lagged behind the development of military tactics and techniques and also road infrastructure. But the Prussian army did not waste time seizing the siege-ready fortress. They went round the fortress and clashed with the Austrian army at Hradec Králové.

Martin Pleyer. Dělostřelecké ležení

Martin Pleyer. Dělostřelecké ležení

Fortress Town Significance

Nevertheless, Josefov remained a garrison town for more than a hundred years after it had been deprived of its fortress status (1888) which very strictly limited any construction works within the fortress and its surroundings.

At the turn of the 19th century the burgesses of Josefov hoped that, following the destruction of the glacis surrounding the town, Josefov would experience the same turbulent industrial and trade boom as the nearby town of Hradec Králové. But most of the fortification elements remained untouched despite vast demolition works and were preserved for future generations. Thanks to the initiative of the local branch of the Czech Tourist Club that started in 1923, the value of this unique fortified town complex was realized and awareness of necessity to preserve it understood.

The cosmopolitan character of the town was strengthen during the World War I when a large POW camp for Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Russian and Serbian captives was established – first in Josefov itself and later in its neighbourhood. A monument from 1916 illustrating the past, present times and future of Russia raised to the memory of Russian captives reminds of that time. The monument is a work of sculptors Nikolaj Alexandrovič Suškin and Leonard Dobrowolski.

Zdenek Hrobský. Rekonstrukce bitvy

Zdenek Hrobský. Rekonstrukce bitvy

Modern Times

Later Josefov served as the POW only after the World War II, during which it was used mainly as a training ground of the Protectorate government forces and Wehrmacht. But it was the Soviet Army occupation (1968 – 1991) that changed the face of the fortress town more than the World War II. Nevertheless, it was neither occupations by enemy armies nor the demolition of protection walls but the final withdrawal of military forces that meant the far greatest impact on the life within the old star fortress from its birth so closely connected with armies.

Fortunately, a new use was found for Josefov. Besides local clubs building on the military past of the town and returning the fortress its original appearance, also others, sometimes rather surprisingly, found Josefov a suitable place for their activities. It is not only film crews, organizers of an international metal music festival but also avant-garde artists or environmentalists.  It is possible to assume that the future of Josefov will proceed these directions in the near future.