It’s a chilly night in the spring of 1696. The Nine Years’ War rages on, with no end in sight. It’s now in its eighth year. A foot soldier called Georg Hein is staring down into the darkness from his watch tower– or chartaque. If he catches sight of even the tiniest movement outside the system of ditches and ramparts, he’ll immediately raise the alarm. Would the French dare to carry on terrorising the town and the countryside, murdering and pillaging?
But everything stays calm – not just on that night, but for years to come. So what had happened?
In 1685, the “sun king” Louis the Fourteenth of France staked a claim to the Electoral Palatinate. He wanted to weaken the states bordering France – no matter the cost. And he had a general who, from 1688 onwards, ruthlessly carried out the order to “Burn down the Palatinate!” That general was the Comte de Mélac.
Mannheim was in flames. Worms, Speyer and Heidelberg had been devastated, many other towns and villages suffered complete destruction. There was no end in sight to the Mélac terror.
At that point, Emperor Leopold the First dispatched Margrave Ludwig Wilhelm of Baden to the Electoral Palatinate, with the order to “see that he calm things down over there!”
The margrave, nicknamed “Türkenlouis” – Turkish Louis – developed a system of ramparts and ditches in the region. Originally, it extended from the Odenwald to the Black Forest – the main gateway for invading enemy troops.
The margrave ordered farmers and soldiers, working without pay, to dig a deep ditch and then build a rampart from the material they’d removed. In front of the ditch, the workers felled parts of Eppingen Forest to a width of 30 metres or roughly a hundred feet. The trunks were left where they’d fallen, to form a field fortification known as an “abatis” – a defensive obstacle.
Roads built behind this system ensured that the margrave’s own troops enjoyed maximum freedom of movement. The bulwark was reinforced with guard and signal towers known as “chartaques”, as well as with rectangular or star-shaped outworks called redoubts, equipped with artillery pieces. Wickerwork field fortifications called gabions, and booby traps called wolf pits completed the defensive works.
This system proved so hard to overcome that France attempted no further invasion of the region after 1695. The Peace of Ryswick, signed on the 30th of October 1697, brought an end to the Nine Years’ War. The Comte de Mélac had been defeated -- though the German language retains two insults in his memory, “Lackel” and “Melack”. Both mean “oaf” – if not something even ruder.
The ditch and rampart system is still visible. If you’re a walker, you might like to sample the Eppingen Lines Way from Eppingen to Mühlacker. It’s been judged one of the very best – adventure hiking at its finest. There’s something for young and old, with fascinating stops and even a reconstructed chartaque. Do consider taking time to walk it.
If you do, you may be able to sympathise with the way our foot soldier, Georg Hein, must have felt, right there on his chartaque during that cold spring night in 1696.