After the German-French War (1870-1871) had ended, many European countries feared new, unpredictable military conflicts. Therefore the Dutch Government and its Defence Department revealed plans to construct the “Stelling of Amsterdam”. A new, 135 kilometres long water defence line in a radius of 10 to 15 kilometres around Amsterdam to protect our capital city against enemy attacks. In those days it was more or less a rule of war that when you conquered the capital city, you had captured the entire country.
Lock complexes could easily be opened and pump stations and windmills used to accomplish, that the water level would be up to a wide canal of give or take 50 centimetres deep within a day. Too shallow for submarines or warships, too high for heavy military equipment (cannons) to pull through. To strengthen this new waterline, 42 forts were constructed on strategically locations. On their observation platforms the lookouts had a splendid view over the flat countryside, early detecting any approaching enemy. It also gave them the opportunity to communicate among each other as these forts were built within sight distance.
On July 13 2017 we visited the best known of these 42 strongholds, Fort Island Pampus, right in front of Amsterdam. We joined a guided tour of about 12 visitors. Our very experienced and self-assured guide introduce himself: “My name is Koos! A warm welcome to all of you on the island of Pampus and its completely useless fort! I mean every word of that, it is completely useless, always has been. Anyway, our tour will be all over as well as inside the fort and it will take about 30 minutes. Of course you are allowed to ask any question, which I will be more than happy to answer right away or later on, when the answer will be found during our discovery journey. I can honestly say, that there will be no discussion, because I am always right. And once again, welcome on Pampus, a completely useless fort island!”
This is Koos’ story, I could never have told it any better:
First of all over 4.000 cubic meters of sand had to be shipped to heighten the sandbank, for many ages known as Pampus. The fort was build on about 3.500 wooden poles and has walls and three floors of bricks and concrete. Around the island a gently sloping seabed of basalt blocks was constructed, intending that enemy ships would easily ground. The walls of this ovate fort have a special construction. Not too thick in the direction of nearby Amsterdam, but all over the island towards and closer to the Zuiderzee side (the only side from which an enemy could be expected) they were built gradually up to 13 metres thick to protect against grenades. It took almost 10 years to build it.
The dome and its 2 armoured gun turrets was one tough tool construction. Koos told us that the job was done by a German company, which was a true but odd conclusion, as Germany was one of our (to be) enemies in the twentieth century; The idea behind it all was, that cannonballs and bullets would rebound on the more or less ovate roof and end in the sea on the other side of the island.
In times of threat of war, the windows were replaced by iron rods and embrasures were opened.
Just in case the enemy would successfully climb over the rampart, they would end up in the almost 10 metres wide “dry ditch” around the building, immediately bringing down an artillery barrage from the Dutch troops inside the main building of the fort.
“surrounded by an almost 10 metres wide “dry ditch”.
Koos guided us inside the main building now, but not before he had made us aware of the crumbly floors and walls. “And mind you”, he added, “some corridors will not only be very narrow, but not higher than 1,86 meters. So those of you, who are kind of claustrophobic, should think twice before joining our party…”
It was not too bad after all, but I felt more comfortable, when Koos showed us the barracks for officers and lower ranks, the dormitory with its bunk beds and the washing areas (“I think the part with the blue wall tiles was for the soldiers and the area with red tiles for the officers. Or just the other way around.”).
“The kitchen used to have three steam ovens. We have one replica here to show you.” There was an opening in the wall: “On the other side you will find the troop’s dining room. In winter time the used steam would be re-cycled into the dining room to make it more comfortable.
Internal communication was done through a pipe system, running along all quarters. Should headquarters need someone in the kitchen, all they had to do was to blow in it and a whistle would sound in the kitchen. In there the cook of the day would pull out the kitchen plug and you were ready to talk to each other.
We visited the powder magazine, which used to have a steel door ( demolished) and 4 thick walls . Koos told us that the soldiers employed here (to compose cannon balls, grenades, bullets for front loaders, rifles and machineguns) had to be dressed in white uniforms. Thus they could brush the grey powder off of each other’s clothes. If not, just imagine -still a bit of powder on their collar- them lightning a pipe or a cigarette in the soldiers’ barracks…
The fort had 6 private toilets in a row, on the outside of the building in open air, carefully cleaned in a natural way by the salt floodwaters, flushing underneath them every 6 hours. Koos said that he was sure that the 4 inside toilets had never been cleaned nor used, as they were only to be opened in case of civil commotion.
During the Great War (1914-1919) the fort was manned by 210 soldiers. It must have been a very boring period full of endless days and nights between the morning roll call and curfew in the evening. Eating beans, bread and left-overs, cleaning arms, playing cards and or just doing nothing, being its high lights. “Yes”, Koos concluded again, “once more it was all useless and in vain, as we have never entered this war”.
After the Great War had ended and military aircraft kept on growing, the Dutch defenders finally left the island. It definitely lost its strategic position, when the Afsluitdijk completely sealed of the Zuiderzee in 1932. In 1933 the caretaker’s couple lost their job and the island was closed down, an iron fence around it all. It was too expensive to have it dismantled. In world War II the Germans used it for military exercises before robbing all iron and steel away, while in the 1944 Starvation Winter its wood, tiles and whatever could be used for warming their homes, was taken by Amsterdam’s citizens, simply walking over the ice of the bay. Koos: “So its wall- and floor tiles can still be found in many kitchens and bathrooms in Amsterdam”.
The city of Amsterdam decided to re-open the island and to pimp up the old fort. It is UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996. Nowadays it has over 60,000 visitors a year. Nevertheless we came to the conclusion, just as Koos already told us in his introduction speech: Fort Island Pampus is totally useless indeed, as it has never been used for its original purpose. This also goes -even more specifically- for its four indoor toilets.
 Part I: “In preparation.”