In 1554, Henri II, successor to François I, sent in his troops against the Spanish Netherlands. They laid waste to everything they encountered and in particular the castles of Binche and Mariemont, residences of Maria of Hungary, sister of the emperor Charles V. Mariembourg fell on 26 June 1554 after four days of siege, Agimont castle was captured, and Givet and its region were devastated. As these conquests compromised the security of the Ardenne borders, Charles V resolved to protect them by building new strongholds, that of Charlemont at Givet and that of Philippeville at Echerennes. At that time, Givet point was not yet part of the kingdom of France, unlike the Rocroi site opposite it, which was born under the reigns of François I and Henri II.
Maria of Hungary purchased the Givet lands from Louis de Stolberg, thus allowing the Emperor to hold the course of the Meuse and close off the Netherlands. Charles V, who abdicated shortly afterwards, was to lend his name to the Charlemont fort.
From May 1555, building of the fort began under the supervision of Donato Buoni Pellizuoli, an Italian engineer. 20000 infantrymen, 3000 cavaliers and numerous labourers were put to work. The fortress was established around an old, unfinished 15th-century castle, located on the heights of the Eastern point.
In July 1555, the Charlemont building site suffered a French attack, the battle of Gimnée. The Duke of Nevers, at the head of 16000 men, marched towards Givet. The Fort’s garrison ambushed the French, who, drawn onto Charlemont, found themselves under fire by a light, but well-organised artillery on the site of the future Condé Fort. This battle was a failure and was at the origin of extension works towards the west. Despite the threat of the French cannons, revolt by poorly paid and poorly fed troops, and the devastating consequences of epidemics, the foundations of the first wall were completed in 1559, and the cladding of the enclosing wall was completed in 1564.
This extension of the fort towards the west, which was necessary to control the Foische plateau, was entrusted to the engineers Sébastien and Jacques Van Noyen, who were also in charge of building Philippeville.
At the end of the 1630s, a first half-moon was added to reinforce the Western front, and a second reinforced access at the gate on the Northern front. In 1640, the French troops of marshal la Meilleraie laid siege to Charlemont without success. The hard rock and rainy weather would have made the French earthworks and entrenchments difficult, and in addition, the French lost their ammunitions when Aubrives church, turned into a magazine for the occasion, exploded.
In March 1675, Louis XIV, who was preparing the Dinant siege, sent Maréchal de Créquy to lay waste to the castles on the two Givet points. Maréchal de Créquy’s response was clear: the two castles were in “no mind to be easily insulted”. He led an initial operation in May, then in July the Comte de Montal came “to finish off the rest of the castles which had escaped the fire laid two months or so previously by the Maréchal de Creky”. These events did not undermine the morale of the Charlemont garrison, who remained a threat for the French. In 1678, the treaty of Nimègue was signed after 3 years of negotiations in an attempt to put an end to the Holland war. Charlemont surrendered to Louis XIV at the same time as other places in Flanders.
This decision did not come into effect until February 1680. The site became a fortress turned against the powers opposed to Louis XIV. Vauban was immediately sent to Givet, where he drew up a precise situational analysis of the site described in general instructions. He proposed a project, which was approved almost in its entirety by Louvois and Louis XIV, who was also on site. The King demanded that the works be started as soon as possible, from spring 1681: 100 000 ecus, that is three hundred thousand Tours pounds, were set aside for reinforcement of the defences of Charlemont and Givet St Hilaire. While the two Givets were entirely razed, Vauban declared that Charlemont was not in good repair but did not necessitate extensive overhauls of its exceptional “outdoor” defences.
On 16 March 1696, the artillery of the Comte d’Athlone and general Coehorn bombarded Givet, from its heights. The fire raged and bombs were used to complete the job. Givet was devastated, but the essential part of the targeted logistics (fodder, ammunition, etc.) was brought to safety by the Charlemont garrison.
Following the bombardments, Vauban proposed a grand project for completing and improving the site. He draw up plans to unite the two castles as one entirely fortified town and acknowledged the need to fortify the heights, including Mont d’Haurs and the Givet Notre-Dame support point, which was to be equipped with a full enclosing wall (two high sites protecting two low sites). Givet St Hilaire remained under the protection of Charlemont.
In the 18th century, the Givet-Charlemont site was subjected to numerous projects. While some were not finished, like the entrenched camp on the Mont d’Haurs, others, like the Charlement cisterns, were renowned in the kingdom. Charlemont would take on its definitive structure in around 1740, following the construction of the Asfeld crown to the west, and the horn-shaped enclosure to the east.
In 1815, following the Waterloo disaster, Charleville, Rocroi, Maubeuge, Philippeville, Paris had fallen but Givet Charlemont, commanded by general Bourke, was still holding out. Indeed, the Prussians laid siege to Givet for 6 months, without success. By order of King Louis XVIII, general Bourke and his garrison finally surrendered to the commissioners of Wellington, who were followed by Russian occupation troops. All in all, after some difficult starts, it seemed that the population would prefer the Russian occupier to the Prussian occupier, who were deemed, without exception, to be arrogant and brutal. The Russian colonel saved the town from famine twice, by requisitioning grain in Dinant. In return, the municipality awarded him with a sword of honour. The Russians left Givet on 23 December 1818 after three years of occupation…
In the 1830s, a number of reinforcement works were carried out on Charlemont and the emperor’s bastion. Givet was not attacked by the Prussians in 1870, but the defeat of the French prompted the Fort’s rearmament and refurbishment. Heavily bombarded in 1914, the fort was abandoned for a while. A number of interval casemates of the Maginot line were built in the 1930s. In May 1940, the German air force dropped bombs without success and the armoured troops avoided Charlemont, passing via the Aviette road (they were stopped for a moment). Nevertheless, the garrison held Charlemont until ammunitions were exhausted. In December 1944, during the Battle of the Ardennes, Charlemont was an allied HQ: thousands of men transited via the Fort and the cellars of the Grand Quartier. The large casemates of 1870 served as a command post. The sector around Fort Condé was transformed into training grounds. The Fort was abandoned at the end of the war.
In 1962, on the decision of General Massu, the army returned to open a commando centre to battle-harden trainees. Enormous clearing and site-preservation work was begun. Only some of the unstable remnants of the interior structures that underwent the bombardments of 1914 and 1940 were knocked down. In 2009, following changes to the military map, the training centre closed its doors.