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Dunkirk Golf Course: designed for battle

Thoughts of France evoke images of spectacular medieval architecture and its corresponding history.  In true French spirit, the golf course architect, Robert Berthet was inspired by a famous French military engineer from the seventeenth century named Vauban.  Berthet stands by his choice of a military theme in designing the Dunkirk Golf Course in Northern France.  After all, he says, a golfer’s mindset is that of a soldier attacking!

My French Life - Ma Vie Francaise - Dunkirk Golf Course

Is golf still considered ‘elitist’ in France?

Yes, golf is still considered elitist, but the philosophy at the Dunkerque course is to ‘democratize’ the game.  They refer to the sport of golf as a ‘common language.’

According to journalist, John Clarke in The New York Times in 2018:

The French look upon golf with a certain sense of ennui — they can take it or leave it. Mostly, they can leave it.”

When interviewed by Clarke the then 33-year-old Professional French golfer Michael Lorenzo-Vera said: 

If you say to people in France that you play golf, they will say: “No, but really. What’s your real job?” Golf is not a good thing here. It’s for rich people and spoiled kids. That’s the image we have. Actually, we are trying to work on that.”

And it seems to be working.

According to the Explore France website in October 2020:

The French Golf Federation is the 7th biggest sports federation in France. Just behind rugby and, defying all expectations, just ahead of pétanque! It’s really popular, then. And it’s showing no signs of stopping…

  • Golf is expanding in popularity, especially when combined with food and French culture.
  • The number of courses is increasing
  • And they are very highly rated. 

Dunkirk Golf Course: inspired by Vauban military history

Dunkirk, on the northwestern coast of France, is famous for the heroic WWII evacuation of Allied troops in 1940. There are many interesting sites to visit. The Dunkirk Golf Course military theme was inspired by the legendary French soldier and military engineer, Seignior de Vauban during the reign of Louis XIV.  His fortresses remain relevant – and not just for their architecture.

King Louis XIV had been waging war for decades in the 1600s.  He was (understandably) not popular in Europe. This ultimately sparked the War of the Grand Alliance in the early 1700s and an invasion from the North. 

Dunkirk Golf Club - Dunkerque

Vauban, Louis’ Chief Military Engineer, designed nearly 100 fortresses for Louis XIV – and defined the form for the ages.

He recognized the northern region was vulnerable. His fortresses saved France during this time and earned him legendary respect and admiration for centuries. 

Two hundred years later, in 1940, German forces staged the blitzkrieg of World War II, again invading from the North. 

Some of Vauban’s fortifications were easily overcome by the Germans, but not ‘The Vauban Citadelle of Lille’… which put up a stubborn defense.  The delay that was created, gave both the French and British armies time to prepare their defense of Calais and the subsequent evacuation at Dunkirk…

In fact, it is noteworthy, that Dunkirk would have been an outright defeat for the Allies without the Lille Citadelle built by Vauban, more than two centuries earlier.

Berthet design: contemporary views

Robert Berthet, the architect who built the Dunkirk Golf Course was also a historian. He has built many golf courses in France. 

According to an article in Golf Course Architect:

Berthet says that he came up with the concept of a Vauban-inspired golf course back in the 1980s when he was first asked to build in Dunkirk – the town had been the sight of some of Vauban’s most spectacular fortifications…

Berthet took pains to study the famous French fortifications created by Vauban.  As siege warfare evolved in medieval times, the fortress changed to incorporate sharp angles and sloping walls.

Dunkirk

Vauban-style attacks involved meticulous planning…

  • The spade came to symbolize his attacks because his soldiers dug trenches to exact specifications.
  • The spade shape, the sloping walls protecting the greens, the sharp angles, and the trenches are carefully incorporated to resemble Vauban-style fortifications and strategy.

The Golf Course Architect article continues:

At a strategic point, he built an artillery tower and filled the moat, surrounding bastions with water. I think Vauban would have approved of such a design and perhaps even prescribed golf lessons for soldiers’ education! says Berthet. But obviously, the game of golf is strictly respected in the Dunkerque project – it is no gimmick.

“But is it golf as golf should be? Shouldn’t a golf course appear to be a natural landscape, not one that has been imposed on its environment? Berthet, controversially, says no, or at least not necessarily.” the Golf Course Architect site states.

Berthet says Golf is like a Military Battle with many similar terms and that the golfer/soldier must:

  • Fire ‘Big Bertha’ (the modern-day Driver) to propel the ball past trees that look like battalions overlooking the battlefield
  • Explode from the bunkers, and
  • Attack the Greens, defended by bunkers, and finally,
  • Land on the ’target’ close to the flag, reminiscent of banners on fortified castles

The Dunkirk Golf Course and Vauban

Recently another famed golf course architect, this time an American named George Thomas made a similar analogy when he encapsulated the essence of strategic golf saying:  “The strategy of the golf course is the soul of the game…”. Thomas’ description of the game of golf also includes phrases that are reminiscent of war. 

The author of the same article, Mike Clayton, goes on to explain:

The most fascinating courses don’t need to be the most difficult, expensive, or famous — just thought-provoking and enduringly interesting…

In 2008, a network of 12 Vauban fortifications was admitted to the UNESCO World Heritage List.  Quite an achievement considering the competitive process, involved, and a testament to the architect.  The original Vauban Dunkirk fortress is largely gone. 

But an hour’s drive to the West will take you to the Vauban Lille Citadelle.  It would be interesting to visit both of these regional sights.  I wonder if I would agree with Berthet’s interpretation – both of the golf course and of the game, as a battle to be played out on a battlefield.  Either way, his tribute to the great military engineer who saved France, embodied in the Dunkirk Golf Course, is certainly thought-provoking.

Golf de Dunkerque

Next year, it is possible we will be able to travel again after a very long period of confinement due to COVID-19. Perhaps that’s the time to learn more about Vauban and Berthet when you visit Normandy.

Even if you do not play the game of golf, it could be very inspiring to walk the course and decide for yourself if Robert Berthet succeeded in channeling Vauban. 


Will you visit these sights in Northern Normandy soon?  And if you have already been, please tell us what you think in the comments below.


Sources:
1. A French Golfer takes a Hard look at Golf in France via The Times
2. All you need to know about golf in just 5 minutes via us.france.fr
3. Nord Pas-de-Calais – France’s best-kept secret via MyFrenchLife.org
4. Dunkirk aftermath history via Time.com
5. Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban: Father of the Fortress via History.net
6. Golf de Dunkerque via Golfcoursearchitecture.net
7. Rein in the ball or prepare for bludgeon via Golfcoursearchitecture.net
8. Fortifications of Vauban UNESCO World Heritage Sites via Wikipedia

Image Credits:
1. Golf de Dunkerque via Golfcoursearchitecture.net
2. Vauban: Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban via Citadelle Lilles>theculturetrip.com
4. Golf de Dunkerque via Golfnorthernfrance.com
5. Map of Vauban major sites in France via Wikimedia


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