Battle at the St Jacques fort near Bertigny, 13 November 1847.
Battle at the St Jacques fort near Bertigny, 13 November 1847. Staatsarchiv Freiburg / photographies 2051 C

The thunder of cannon at Fribourg’s gates

Today allotment gardens bloom and flourish there, but in November 1847 the thunder of cannonfire filled the air. The story of an almost forgotten theatre of war on Fribourg’s doorstep.

Adrian Baschung

Adrian Baschung

Adrian Baschung is historian and director of the Museum Altes Zeughaus in Solothurn.

Between the Fribourg city boundary and the municipality of Villars sur Glâne, opposite the Fribourg Cantonal Hospital on the “Plateau de Bertigny”, there is a large allotment garden complex. Well-tended garden plots, flowerbeds and vegetable patches, and tiny summerhouses with pitched red roofs, are set out in neat rows according to a clear plot plan, a picture of the urban gardening culture that can be found throughout Switzerland. In all likelihood, few of the garden owners who come here in search of tranquility and a break away from everyday life are aware that 175 years ago cannon and musket balls hissed through the air, orders were bellowed and regiments marched to the steady beat of drums on this very spot. Where now beans are cultivated and raspberries grow, dead and wounded soldiers littered the ground. On 13 November 1847, the only skirmish between Swiss and Fribourg troops during the Sonderbund War, a now largely forgotten battle, was fought on the site of today’s allotment gardens: the battle at the St Jacques field fortification at Bertigny.
Today, the site is part of the conurbation of Fribourg.
Today, the site is part of the conurbation of Fribourg. swisstopo
The canton of Fribourg, surrounded by the cantons of Bern and Vaud, was cut off from its allies. When the Sonderbund War broke out, the connection to Valais and central Switzerland was extremely difficult to maintain, and it wasn’t possible to bring in supplies and move troops without crossing the territory of Bern or Vaud. The supreme commander of the Fribourg troops, Colonel Philippe de Maillardoz (1783-1853), had to defend the canton using his available troops, without outside support. According to his own statements, he had 5,115 militiamen and around 7,000 Landsturm men at his disposal. While the regular militias were properly equipped and trained, the Landsturm was an “ad hoc unit” formed in the event of an invasion from all male residents of the canton between the ages of 17 and 65 who were not part of the canton’s military forces, disreputable, or sick. These Landsturm soldiers had to provide their own armaments, and as a result simple, often home-made weapons were used. There were no uniforms either; the Fribourg Landsturm units marched out in their everyday clothes. Only a black and white armband identified them as canton combatants.
Graphic representation of the Sonderbund War in Switzerland 1847.
Graphic representation of the Sonderbund War in Switzerland 1847. Wikimedia
With his limited resources, the Fribourg commander opted to take a defensive position. While the various Landsturm units were to engage the Tagsatzung troops approaching from Bern and Vaud in a kind of guerrilla warfare, de Maillardoz concentrated the regular troops around the city of Fribourg, which was provided with a belt of field fortifications, trenches and barricades on both sides of the Saane.
Formal portrait of Philippe de Maillardoz, 1821.
Formal portrait of Philippe de Maillardoz, 1821. Swiss National Museum
West of the Saane, this belt was dominated by the field fortifications (redoubts) Torry, Quintzet and St Jacques at Bertigny, which were intended to defend the canton roads to the city of Fribourg. However, in order to prevent the enemy from flanking across the fields south of Bertigny, around 200 militiamen and Landstürmer were positioned in a small woodland called Les Daillettes. Maillardoz considered this area to be a weak point in the defensive ring, and it had to be held at all costs.
Graphic reproduction: Swiss Confederate troops at the gates of Fribourg.
Graphic reproduction: Swiss Confederate troops at the gates of Fribourg. Swiss National Museum
General Dufour, meanwhile, planned to attack the canton of Fribourg from several sides with around 25,000 men. While a division from the Bern side was to carry out a feigned attack in the German-speaking region of the canton of Fribourg, another division advanced covertly at Laupen and Gümmenen across the Saane to Murten, and from there to Fribourg. The main attack on Fribourg, however, fell to the army divisions of Colonel Louis Rilliet-de Constant (1794-1856) (contingents from Vaud, Neuchâtel and Geneva) and Peter Ludwig von Donatz (1782-1849) (contingents from Solothurn and both Basel cantons), who were to attack the city from the west. Dufour’s plan was simple: Fribourg was to be encircled with as many troops as possible and forced to surrender.
Briefing by General Dufour (centre) with his staff. Also present are Louis Rilliet-de Constant (fourth from left) and Peter Ludwig von Donatz (sixth from left).
Briefing by General Dufour (centre) with his staff. Also present are Louis Rilliet-de Constant (fourth from left) and Peter Ludwig von Donatz (sixth from left). Wikimedia
The Swiss troops deployed against Fribourg from 10 to 13 November 1847. On the afternoon of 13 November the Division Rilliet had advanced as far as the village of Villars, and its foremost units were within sight of the St Jacques redoubt at Bertigny. A truce, which was to be held until 7 am on 14 November, had already been negotiated at official level between the Confederate General Staff and the Fribourg government, and so a ceasefire was also agreed between the Swiss and Fribourg officers in and around the St Jacques fortification. So Fribourg fighters and troops from Geneva, Vaud and Neuchâtel faced each other a few hundred metres apart and waited to see whether the Fribourg government would decide to fight, or to surrender. To this day it’s still not clear which side, as evening crept in, began hostilities and thus initiated the battle of the St Jacques fort. While liberal-radical commentators and historiography later claimed that the ceasefire was broken by gunfire from the Fribourg fortress, the Fribourg side gives a different version of the course of events. At around 4 pm, the soldiers manning the fort at Bertigny were suddenly startled by an exchange of fire. From their elevated position, they could see that three companies of marksman of the Swiss troops had converged on the Les Daillettes woodland and were engaging the Fribourg fighters there in a firefight. To support their troops stationed to the south, the garrison occupying the St Jacques fort opened fire on the forward troops from their cannon and muskets.
Portrait of Colonel Louis Rilliet-de Constant, 1848.
Portrait of Colonel Louis Rilliet-de Constant, 1848. Wikimedia
A cannon battery from the canton of Vaud was quickly brought into position by the Swiss side in order to shell the cannon of the St Jacques fort into silence. However, due to poor visibility because of mist, this unit fired over the redoubt, while the Fribourg cannon now fired more accurately on the Confederate artillery positions. A Swiss artillery corporal lost his life, while a cannoneer’s arm was ripped off. Finally the battery had to vacate its position. Meanwhile, Swiss marksmen positioned themselves on the Plateau de Bertigny and fired on the garrison of the fortress. But the fort responded with cannon and musket fire. Brigade commanding officer Colonel Frédéric Veillon (1804-1872) of the Division Rilliet decided to storm the St Jacques fort, drew his sword and placed himself at the head of a Vaud battalion. The drummers beat the charge and the battalion marched at a fast pace, guns at the ready, across the plateau towards the redoubt. Under incessant fire from the Fribourg troops, the Vaud troops reached the redoubt earthworks and began to open fire. Since night was already falling, the soldiers hesitated to cross the trench and scale the ramparts. Suddenly there was a commotion among the attacking soldiers. There were shouts of: “Mines! They must have mined everything!” and “I don't want to be blown up!” Some turned to flee and swept other soldiers along with them. The officers tried in vain to turn the fleeing men to the offensive once again, and the drums beat the retreat. This assault cost the Vaud troops a high price in blood: 7 dead and 50 wounded.
View inside the St Jacques fort on 13 November 1847.
View inside the St Jacques fort on 13 November 1847. Musée d’art et d’histoire de Fribourg
Despite the short and fierce battle, both sides remained calm through the night of 14 November, and on the following morning the Fribourg government officially capitulated and ordered its army to lay down their arms. The idea of the Fribourg military to christen the fort at Bertigny “Redoute de St Jacques” was no coincidence. At the time when the field fortifications were being built to defend against the Swiss troops, there was a wayside cross made of stone on the road to Fribourg, about 300 metres south-west of the fort. The cross was erected in 1771 on the site originally occupied by a chapel dedicated to Saint James. This Cross of Saint James played an important role during the battle of 13 November 1847. It served the fortress garrison and the Swiss battery as a landmark to aim their cannon accordingly, as it was virtually in the middle of the line of fire and mist was coming down at the time of the battle. The cross was later moved several times. Today it stands further west from its original location on the edge of a forest and instead of cannonballs, it’s cars that whoosh past it on the nearby road.
Odd fact about the Sonderbund War: A cross helped the Fribourg cannoneers to aim their cannon more accurately...
Odd fact about the Sonderbund War: A cross helped the Fribourg cannoneers to aim their cannon more accurately... Photo: Adrian Baschung
Another contemporary witness of the battle is now held in the collection of the Swiss National Museum. It’s a weapon of the “Eigenbau” (do-it-yourself) brand, self-made by a Fribourg Landsturmer, a sabre fashioned from a scythe. To do this, the blade was straightened, a curved strip of iron was used as a fist protector and a round of wood was attached as a handle. This type of “emergency weapon”, fashioned out of a piece of agricultural equipment, was typical of the armaments of the Landsturm, who had no access to proper military equipment. What’s strange here, however, is that the scythe wasn’t mounted on a long pole to convert it into a type of halberd or glaive, as was often the custom, but was intended to imitate an infantry sabre of the time. The Vaud soldier who probably collected this “scythe sabre” in the Les Daillettes woodland as a war trophy affixed a label to the weapon identifying it as follows: Guerre du Sonderbund 1847 Faux prise à un Landsturm tué sous mes yeux à nos avant-postes devant Fribourg 13 9bre
War scythe from the Sonderbund War of 1847.
War scythe from the Sonderbund War of 1847. Swiss National Museum

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