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
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
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
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
It 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.
For added precaution, a backup plan is advisable in case the
walls of the fortress are breached. Include a bombproof
underground bunker beneath the fortification 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.
In 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,
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.