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Canada's Architecture of Defence: How to Build the Ultimate Fort

Canada is a relatively young country, but there is a long tradition of warfare among the people who have occupied and settled the land extending back many centuries.  From the Maritimes to the West Coast, to the frozen tundra of the North, and places in between, military heritage is part of our landscape.  Many former military strongholds are now national historic sites and bear witness to the early struggles of our forefathers to defend themselves, their territory and valuable resources.  This year Parks Canada, steward of many nationally significant historic military sites, celebrates its centennial and honours Canada's military legacy.

War is a facet of every society since the dawn of human history.  In response to the improvements of weapons, structures were developed and refined to defend against them.  Once symbols of power and authority, today Canadians can still find fortifications in a range of sizes, shapes, and materials across the country. 

Thinking about creating your own fort?  Perhaps the kind made with pillows or in trees in the woods? What are some ideas to keep your fort safe that you can see in Canadian fortifications?  Using examples of Canada's military architecture as a reference guide, here are some practical tips and advice for building the ultimate fortification to defend against almost any aggressor whether a pirate, an American, or British or French soldier, a First Nations warrior, Fenian Raider, or enemy u-boat.

First, we need to consider several issues before proceeding with the construction of your unparalleled, unconquerable, unrivalled military complex:  

  1. Assess the landscape of the area to be defended in order to use the topographic features to your advantage.  Elevated sites, such as bluffs and hills, offer supreme views over the surrounding territory. 
  2. Make sure any obstacles, natural or otherwise, that could obstruct this view are cleared away so that attackers are spotted as early as possible and will not have the opportunity to take cover behind any of these objects. 
  3. Take into account logistics, such as the number of civilians and soldiers which will be occupying the fortress.  Make sure to store enough arms and provisions to sustain them during a lengthy siege so that you are not forced to surrender. 
  4. Also, bear in mind the resources, both human and financial, that are at your disposal as these will determine the scale and size of your fortification. Artist's conception of Battle Hill Village, Parks Canada / Conception artistique de la colline Battle Hill des Gitwangaks, Parcs Canada

The best way of defending your stronghold is to ensure an assailant cannot approach the perimeter.  One example to follow is the fortified village of Gitwangak Battle Hill, British Columbia.  Located on top of a steep mound, it was used as a base from which the Gitwangak launched raids on other coastal villages.  To keep would-be attackers at bay, try doing what the warrior Nekt did at this fort: according to oral tradition, he secured large spiked logs (identified by the yellow arrows) horizontally atop the palisade with rope that could, in the event of attack, be cut sending the logs barrelling toward the assailant.

Carleton Martello Tower / Tour Martello de CarletonIt is crucial to have auxiliary support for your main complex.  The British realized the value of this system when they reinforced the harbour of Kingston, Ontario in the 1830s and '40s with a series of forts and Martello towers - round armed masonry towers of several storeys in height.  One or more Martello towers in the vicinity of your military complex is an excellent and cost-effective way of strengthening a sizeable area, such as a port, with the added advantage of being virtually bombproof because of their round profile and reinforced arched ceiling (see the accompanying plan).  One of many British-built Canadian examples is the Carleton Martello Tower, constructed in 1813 to defend Saint John, New Brunswick from potential American invasion during the War of 1812.  Heavily armed with rooftop artillery that could act jointly with other nearby military infrastructure, these structures were self-sufficient with barracks for a garrison and a powder magazine for stores needed during a siege. 

Keep in mind certain key features typical of colonial forts built in Canada.  By way of example, let us examine a cross-section of Fort Wellington, a British nineteenth century fort in Prescott, Ontario.  A ditch (1) can be dug around the perimeter of the fort while the excavated soil used to build up the ramparts (2), the earth able to absorb the shock of artillery fire and protect the casemates (3) within, bombproof structures to house supplies.  A revetment (4), or retaining wall, can increase the angle of the ramparts making them nearly impossible to scale.  On top of the ramparts, a parapet (5) provides troops and artillery with cover from enemy fire and observation.  Troops are generally housed in barracks (6) while military officials are provided with more lavishly furnished officers' quarters.  A supply of fresh water, such as a well (7), is equally a vital feature to incorporate within the fort should a lengthy siege occur.

Fort Wellington, LAC NMC-23132 / Fort Wellington, BAC NMC-23132

For added precaution, a backup plan is advisable in case the walls of the fortress are breached.  Include a bombproof underground bunker beneath the fortificationDiefenbunker, Google Maps / Diefenbunker, « Google Maps » as a place of refuge.  An excellent example is the Diefenbunker in Carp, Ontario not far from the nation's capital.  Built in 1959-61 as a hub of defence and communication for government officials to retreat to in the event of a nuclear blast, the structure, able to accommodate up to 535 people, could be completely self-sufficient for 30 days with generators, a fresh water supply and radio capabilities to communicate with the outside world.  The accompanying illustration demonstrates that, apart from a few service features integrated into the landscape, like the helicopter pad and two entrances to the blast tunnel, little evidence exists of a subterranean, four-storey structure.

DEW Line showing FOX-M main station, Wikipedia / Le réseau d'alerte avancé montrant la station principale FOX-M, WikipediaIn the twentieth century, as new types of warfare demanded different forms of security other than traditional fort designs, diverse approaches were developed to prevent surprise assaults.  Naval vessels, like HMCS Haida, a Tribal Class destroyer from the Second World War, were used to patrol coastal regions and reduced the threat of a maritime attack by engaging with the opponent before they approached land-based fortifications.  To detect an airborne strike, the Canadian and American governments installed the Distant Early Warning Line (DEW Line) across the Canadian Arctic in the late 1950s to detect incoming Soviet bombers.  Pre-fabricated communication posts were assembled across the DEW Line.  Module Train A at FOX-M main station, Hall Beach, Nunavut, and its radar dish are representative of this vast network that once stretched across the Arctic.

Being better prepared for any type of assault puts the odds of success in your favour.   As renowned eighteenth century French military engineer Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban reminds us: "The art of fortifying lies not in rules and systems, but is only to be found in common-sense and experience."  In Canada we are fortunate to have several centuries of practical experience in the art of defence and this knowledge pertains to stone forts, fur trade posts, concrete bunkers, pre-fabricated radar stations, etc.

With these tips in mind, try designing and even building your own ultimate fortification to withstand any assault.  Remember to be sure and give your fortification a name, one that communicates strength and power (of course, another option is to christen it after yourself to ensure your name lives on in the pages of history).  Also, do not forget to create a flag, or "regimental colours," for your troops to identify and rally behind.  This can be flown proudly at your fort, a tradition that many forts across the country still do today!  Who knows, perhaps Parks Canada will be celebrating your defensive structure during its tercentenary as a marvel of Canadian engineering.

Parks Canada resources specific to forts:  Educational resources created for primary and secondary students to enhance their knowledge of Canada's national historic sites. 

Canadian Military History Gateway: Provides information about Canada's military history through access to archival, museum, and library collections from across the country.