Vincennes, place militaire

26th Battalion chasseurs à pied
Corps 1
Vincennes, military base
Corps 2


Although the history of the Chateau de Vincennes as a royal residence is well-known, that of the military base is less so. The abandonment of the site by the Crown and its gradual shift to military control are however factors that explain the presence there today of the Department of Defence History. From the 18th century onwards, the Chateau became a centre for technical innovation. Starting in 1740, two types of manufacturing set up there, alternating - depending on the success or failure of the businessmen concerned - between the production of porcelain, subject to much industrial espionage, and weapons, where innovation was essential. The Gribeauval armaments factory (1785-1791) was the first to introduce standardised production. At the time of the Revolution, between four and five hundred people lived in the Chateau, including a small garrison. The police occupied the keep, which almost suffered the same fate as the Bastille after it was converted by decree into a prison. Having been saved by La Fayette and his company, it became an internment centre for "women of ill-repute". The location's military calling was reaffirmed with the creation of the Vincennes arsenal by the Directoire in 1796. Reacting to a royalist conspiracy, Napoleon decided to make an example: on 15th March 1804, he had the Duc d'Enghien seized from Germany where he was living. Brought to the Chateau de Vincennes, and following a parody of a trial in the Tour du Bois, the Prince of Condé's grandson was executed during the night of 20th March 1804. The execution had repercussions throughout Europe. In 1817, Louis XVIII erected a monument to his memory in the Sainte-Chapelle and a column on the site of his execution.

After a tour of the arsenal in 1808, Napoleon decided that it should be readied for military action. Towers were levelled, hovels built along the fortifications destroyed, the royal residences readied to house troops and the Sainte-Chapelle converted to a weapons store. As a supplier of munitions and artillery required by the army, the arsenal supported a major working population, mostly women.

Appointed Governor in 1812 by the man whose life he had saved at Arcole, General Daumesnil worked to turn Vincennes into an element of the Paris defences. Twice - in 1814 and 1815 - he refused to surrender it to the enemy. The architectural transformation continued under the Restoration. The site changed from an arsenal to a fort forming part of the Paris defences. Its role as a centre for experimentation continued with the creation of a training polygon in 1816 and an artillery school in 1826. As a young officer in the 5th Regiment of Royal Guards, Alfred de Vigny tells, in his book "Servitude et grandeur militaire, La veillée de Vincennes," of the accidental explosion of a powder magazine at the foot of the Queen's Tower on 17th August 1819.

Between 1808 and 1820, seven towers were levelled off in order to accommodate canons. Only the Village Tower still retains its original height today. The completion of the enclosure, started in 1832, continued until1843. Deconsecrated in 1830, the Sainte-Chapelle was once again converted to an artillery magazine in 1842 before being left to the Department of Fine Arts in 1853. The resolution of the debate between supporters of continuous fortification and those of separate forts in favour of the latter led to the construction of the Fort-Neuf ("New Fort", 1841-1844) on the eastern flank of the Chateau, henceforth known as the Vieux-Fort "Old Fort". Two sons of King Louis-Philippe - the Duc d'Orléans and the Duc de Montpensier - went on to take command of one of the Fort-Neuf artillery units and the Chasseurs de Vincennes respectively (see articles "Daumesnil, the retorts that made a legend" and "The Chasseurs de Vincennes").

During the Second Empire, Vincennes was used as terrain for manoeuvres and firing practice between Fort-Neuf and the Marne, earning the town the nickname "Canonville". A number of military establishments sprang up around the Chateau: the Joinville Military Gymnastics School (1852), the Bégin Military Hospital (1858), the Imperial Convalescent Home at Saint-Maurice (1857) and the Saint-Maur Camp (1859). In 1860, the Woods were given to the City of Paris to be turned into a public promenade, apart from the military establishments. The polygon was used for testing the so-called Vincennes and Chassepot rifles, used in the war of 1870. During the uprising of 18th March 1871, the garrison sided with the Federates. The final red flag of the Commune was raised over the keep. On 29th May, the Versailles Army retook the Chateau and executed nine prisoners.

The School of Military Administration took over the King's Residence in 1875. More and more military establishments appeared in the woods, especially in the Carnot cavalry district, where a brigade of Dragoons was stationed in 1892. Squadron Commander Alfred Dreyfus was seconded to the Vincennes Artillery staff on 13th July 1906, following his rehabilitation. As the 20th century dawned, the polygon was used as a theatre for staging military reviews attended by foreign heads of state and a base for military aviation, which developed from 1910 at the Vincennes Artillery base. A succession of flying records, air displays and aviation days continued until 1937, contributing to Vincennes' reputation as a centre for aviation.

From September 1939, the Chateau housed the headquarters of the Army General Staff in an underground Command Post. Occupied on 14th June 1940, it was used as a barracks, a munitions store and a prison. On 23rd December 1940, Jacques Bonsergent, the first man from Paris to be executed, was shot at Fort-Neuf. The German presence was reinforced by the arrival of the Waffen-SS retreating from the Normandy front and Oradour-sur-Glane, and who killed 26 prisoners on 26th August 1944. Four days later they set fire to various parts of the chateau before pulling out. The King's residence was in ruins and the Queen's almost totally destroyed.

Following the destruction of the Contemporary Library of International Documentation in the 1944 fire, the Department of Army History was installed there in 1948. The Air Force equivalent followed in 1968 and that of the Navy in 1974. In 2005 the Service historique de la Défense (SHD) was created (Department of Defence History). Working in partnership for the imminent reopening of the keep, as part of the joint ministerial commission of the Chateau de Vincennes, the Centre for National Monuments and the SHD have undertaken a programme to develop the site, which will include a museum.

Assigned to the Ministries for Culture and Defence, the Chateau performs a twin role as a historical monument and a centre for archives and military history.