The Kaunas Fortress - overview Print E-mail

The fortress site of Kaunas City and the old town at the confluence of the Nemunas and Neris rivers has long had inhabitants. One of the main first settlements that grew up to become the present day Kaunas old town, was first mentioned by the chroniclers in 1361. Toward the end of the 14th century, in order to defend Kaunas from Crusader's attacks, a brick castle was built and installed itself as an integral part of the town's defence. In 1408, Vytautas the Great granted the Magderburg rights to the town and after this Kaunas began to grow at a fairly rapid pace, especially its importance as a centre and main port for trade with Western Europe.


In 1441, with the signing of the Hansa agreement, the merchants of Hansa town opened an office in Kaunas, which remained active until 1532. By the end of the 16th century, the town of Kaunas had its first school, public hospital, and chemist shop and was fast becoming one of the most developed towns in the Kingdom of Lithuania.


However, by the 17th and 18th centuries, Kaunas was to travel through a long period of hardship and hostility. The reasons were due to several major historical events not least of all attacks by the Russian army in 1655; the Swedish march to Russia in 1701 - during which the Lithuanian land was devastated; a plague in 1657 and 1708; and colossal fires in 1731 and 1732.


After the third partition of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the end of the 18th century, the Russian Empire began to make a lodgement in the occupied territory. The project of developing fortification for Kaunas on the Ąžuolų Hill, which commenced as early as in 1796 by de Witte, remained unfinished. At that time Russia had fortresses in its western lands, in Riga and Kiev, and was erecting fortresses in Daugavpils and Bobruisk.


Being perturbed by the outcome of the Franco-Prussian War, Russia resumed the construction of fortresses at its western borders. Chains of fortresses on the western borders of the Empire were mapped out for defence against a potential invasion from the Germans in the West. On the 7th of July 1879 the Russian Emperor Alexander II approved a proposal from the Russian military leadership to build the fortress in Kaunas.


The initial general layout of the Fortress was prepared by Obruchev, the adjutant-general of main headquarters, together with generals Zverev and Volberg. The layout configured the city's encirclement with a ring of seven forts and nine interjacent gun batteries, equipping the central fortification, laying of roads, erection of a military railway station on the left bank of the Nemunas river (in Freda), workshops, food warehouses, ammunition magazines etc.

The Forts and gun batteries of the Fortress extended in a circle at the approaches to the city at more or less even distances (every 2 - 2.5 km.), almost in a regular oval shape. The fortress was divided into four defensive sections.


The first section included three forts and four interjacent gun batteries, positioned along the Nemunas towards the Jiesia rivulet in the south-eastern corner of the Fortress.

Behind the Jiesia rivulet and to the Nemunas and Kaunas Lake, there are fortifications of the second defence division: two forts and two gun batteries.

In the third defensive section there are two Forts and three gun batteries. The sixth Fort is close to Petrašiūnai, and the seventh - close to Eiguliai.


The Fourth defensive section is located between the right bank of the Neris river, and the Nemunas. Here, for the reinforcement of north-west side of the Fortress, the eighth Fort was erected according to the original project of Glinka-Yanchevski in 1887 - 1889. It was the first concrete fort in the entire area.

During the period 1902-1911 the ninth Fort was built, this time according to a new typical scheme of "Velichka" concrete fort. Immediately after finishing the construction work, decisions were made for significant improvements to the Fortress, by partially reconstructing previously built forts and fortifications.

New plan for the development and rebuilding of the Fortress was prepared in 1911 and approved in 1912. The plan scheduled 12 more new forts, 9 redoubts, new fortification ramparts, warehouses, shelters. New defence ring had to encircle the entire city together with old defensive fortifications. At the end of the 19th century Kaunas fortress occupied a territory of more than 25 km2, and by 1914 its area expanded to 65 km2. The number of forts grew from 8 in the first ring of forts to 21 in both rings. When the frontline approached during the First World War, the expansion and strengthening work of the Fortress were interrupted.


The German Army attack of Kaunas Fortress selected the strip between the Nemunas and the Jiesia rivulet for the strike, as it contained the first three outdated brick forts. The Kaiser's army brought powerful howitzers for the Fortress attack - 42 cm siege "Berthas".

During the War, the Kaunas Fortress garrison consisted of about 90,000 men, comprehensively provided with artillery and military paraphernalia. Separate Fortress units persistently struggled against German Army, but after the attack that lasted 11 days, the fortification ring was broken. General Grigoryev, commander of the Fortress defence, hastily retreated.

On August 18, 1915 the Kaiser's Army crossed the Nemunas and entered Kaunas, capturing at the same time the 6th and 7th forts in the north-east part of the city. The Tsarist Army persevered a bit longer in the 8th and 9th forts. During the Fortress attack over 4,000 defenders and 4,343 German troops were killed. 20,000 Tsarist soldiers were taken captive, together with 1,358 different pieces of artillery and much other stock earmarked for a long-term Fortress defence in the campaign.


After the war forts were deserted, even though until 1924 the Kaunas Fortress was kept by the Lithuanian Army unit, which was later liquidated as obsolete. Part of the fort constructions and fences were disassembled, but most of them were utilized for military and municipal needs. Later, in some forts they arranged flats for the poor, a military prison in the 6th Fort, Central Archive in the 7th, workshops in the 5th, and prison divisions of hard labour were located in the 1st and 9th forts.

During the Second World War the Kaunas Fortress was not used for defensive purposes. 6th, 7th and 9th forts were converted into concentration camps. Thousands of war prisoners and civilians were imprisoned and killed in them. After the war a monument for the Holocaust victims was erected at the 9th Fort.



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