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Brest (Municipality, Finistère, France)

Last modified: 2023-08-26 by olivier touzeau
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Flag of Brest - Image by Olivier Touzeau, 7 December 2021

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Presentation of Brest

The municipality of Brest (139,386 inhabitants in 2013; 4,051 ha) is located on the northern shore of the Brest Harbour, a deep inland sea (150 sq. km) linked to Atlantic Ocean only by a narrow bottleneck (goulet de Brest)

The fortress of Brest was mentioned for the first time in the 11th century. In 1395, King of France Charles VI forced the King of England return Brest to the (then independent) Duchy of Brittany.
The military port of Brest was created for the Royal Navy in 1631 by Richelieu (1585-1642), Louis XIII's main minister. Under Colbert (1619-1683), who was appointed State Secretary of Navy by King Louis XIV in 1669, Brest became the most important French military port. Colbert created in Brest the Register of Sailors (Inscription maritime, still in use), and schools of naval guards, gunners, hydrographers and marine engineers. The vessels of Colbert's era could reach 5,000 tons and be armed with 120 big cannons. Bows and sterns of these vessels were decorated by local craftsmen but also by official artists such as the sculptor Coysevox (1640-1720, one of Louis XIV's official portraitists). Admiral Duquesne (1610-1688) improved the walls of the town of Brest and fortified the bottleneck. In 1683, the defence system of Brest was completed by Vauban (1633-1707), appointed in 1678 General Commissionner for Fortifications. In 1694, the last attempt of Anglo-Dutch invasion was stopped on the Camaret peninsula by Vauban. Between 1740 and 1790, Choquet de Lindu built the arsenal. From 1777 onwards, Brest was the main port from which vessels and troops were sent to North America to fight in the American Revoltionary War.

In June 1940, both commercial and military ports of Brest were abandoned by the Allied forces, who destroyed the bridges and other facilities that could have been used by the Germans. A reinforced concrete shelter for submarines was constructed in Lanilon by the Germans, who used it as their main basis for the attack of Allied convoys in the Atlantic Ocean. Repeated air raids failed to destroy the shelter, which is still used by the French Navy. In September 1944, the American troops eventually seized the town after a 43 day siege. Totally ruined, Brest was soon rebuilt according to a grid plan centered around Rue de Siam, the most important street of the old town. The street got its name from the embassy sent to Louis XIV by the King of Siam, which was welcomed in Brest.
Most of the French Atlantic Fleet is now stationed in Brest, including the nuclear-powered carrier Charles-de-Gaulle, achieved in 1999 in Brest shipyard. The French Naval School (École Navale), located in Brest from 1830 to 1940, was relocated in 1961 to Lanvéoc-Poulmic, on the southern shore of the Brest Harbour. Close to the Naval School, the nuclear-powered submarines have been based in Île-Longue since 1968. The Maritime Prefecture (Admiralty) of Brest is housed in the castle, which is one of the single remains of the ancient town.

Brest organizes every four year an international meeting of old sailing ships (vieux gréements). The first meeting took place in 1996, and the next one, Brest 2000, attracted more than 1.5 million of visitors. The marina of Brest (port du Moulin-Blanc) is the base of famous yachtmen/women such as Olivier de Kersauzon and Florence Arthaud.
A scientific campus was established in the north of the town (University of Western Brittany, 1968; Technôpole Brest-Iroise). Oceanopolis, a scientific and cultural center dedicated to sea and oceans was opened in 1990 close to the marine. However, economical activity of Brest is mostly linked to miltary activity (naval and aeronautical industry). The attempt to develop in Brest an oil port resulted in limited success.

The shady atmosphere of the port of Brest has been highlighted in several artistic works.
Tonnerre de Brest (Brest thunder), one of the prefered Captain Haddock's swearword, refers to the cannon shot that signalled in the past the escape of a prisoner from the Brest fortress. A cannon shot is nowadays used to give the start of a regatta.
Querelle de Brest, a novel by the nefarious French writer Jean Genet (1910-1986), with film adaptation by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1982), takes place in Recouvrance, the seamen's neighborhood of Brest.
The movie Remorques (Towropes) by Jean Grémillon, starring Jean Gabin, was shot in Brest (1939).

The destruction of Brest during the Second World War was magnified by the French writer Jacques Prévert (1900-1977) in the poem Barbara (Paroles, 1946). After the war, the poet remembers a woman he had caught a glimpse of under the rain in Rue de Siam before the war. The only thing he knows about her is her name and he wonders, under the rain in the ruins of Brest, what might have happened to her.
Brest is the birth town of the writer Henri Queffélec (1910-1992), one of the best French maritime writers. His novels depict the harsh life of Bretons on the coasts or on the islands (Sein, Molène and Ushant). His son Yann (b. 1949) is also a novelist and her daughter Anne (b. 1948) is a pianist of international renown.

The crown-shaped cake called paris-brest, a classic of French pastry, got its name from a cyclist race between Paris and Brest. In 1891, a pastrycook created this cake whose shape reminds a bicycle tyre. The name and the place of residence of the pastrycook remain controversial. However, the cake became so famous that a patent application for the name and recipe of paris-brest was rejected in 1930.

Ivan Sache, 13 January 2002

Flag of Brest

The flag of Brest is a banner of the municipal arms, "Per pale France and Brittany". Dated 1696, the arms were "borrowed" from theneighbouring city of Lesneven.
[P. Rault, Les drapeaux bretons de 1188 à nos jours [rau98]]

Ivan Sache, 13 January 2002

Historical flags of Brest

[FirFlag]         [Flag]         [Flag]         [Flag]

Historical flags of Brest - Images by Ivan Sache, 13 January 2002

The oldest known flag connected with Brest is a white flag with a black cross, in porportions 3:4. Gustave Desjardins, who noticed the flag on an old portolano, reported it as an old flag of Brest. However, this flag is more probably the Breton Kroazh-Du (Black Cross), which was placed on the portolano to represent the whole Brittany.
In the 15th century, the flag of Brest was the black cross flag with a red vertical stripe placed along the fly (letter of G. Pasch to P. Rault, 1 July 1978). The meaning of the red stripe is unknown.
In the 16th century, an ermine spot was added in each quarter of the flag (anonymous portolano, French National Library).
In the 18th century, the red stripe was suppressed and the black cross was voided througout, a white cross being placed over the black one.
[P. Rault, Les drapeaux bretons de 1188 à nos jours [rau98]]

Ivan Sache, 13 January 2002

Pennant of La Belle Cordelière


Pennant of La Belle Cordelière - Image by Ivan Sache, 13 January 2002

On 10 August 1513 (St. Lawrence's Day), a Breton fleet led by the flagship La Belle Cordelière rushed out from Brest to repell an English fleet. Newly offered by Duchess Ann of Brittany, the vessel was inaugurated by 300 distinguished guests who were dancing on board. When La Belle Cordelière was about to be lost, her commander, Hervé de Primauguet, exhorted the crew and guests to have a bel morir telling them: "We shall celebrate St. Lawrence, who perished by fire". La Belle Cordelière and her English opponent, The Regent, blew up together.
The masthead pennant flown by La Belle Cordelière was a narrow, forked white pennant with the Breton black cross.
[P. Rault, Les drapeaux bretons de 1188 à nos jours [rau98]]

Ivan Sache, 13 January 2002

National Navy Museum


Flag of the National Navy Museum - Image by Corentin Chamboredon, 12 November 2015

The flag of the Musée national de la marine is hoisted on a small mast in a recess at the feet of the Paradis Tower of the castle. The flag is light blue, with the emblem of the museum. The emblem is a stylized hollow compass rose delimited by white squares, one of them being replaced by a white letter "M".

Corentin Chamboredon, 12 November 2015

Sports clubs

Stade Brestois (football club)


Stade Brestois supporters' flag - Image by Ivan Sache, 28 February 2004

The colours of Stade Brestois are red and white. The supporters of Stade Brestois used in 2004 a white and red version of the Gwen-ha-Du flag, with red stripes and ermine spots).

Ivan Sache, 28 February 2004

Club de Voile de l'École Navale - Ailée (yacht club)

Club de la Voile de l'École Navale - Ailée is the yacht club of the Naval School in Brest. Ailée means winged.
The burgee of the yacht club is vertically divided blue-red with a white oval in the middle charged with a blue sailing ship from the Royal Navy; the ship has have prominent, exaggerated yards, which might be kinds of "wings". The burgee is also divided by a white horizontal stripe with ECOLE and NAVALE in blue flanking the oval.

Ivan Sache, 25 December 2004

Société des Régates de Brest (yacht club)


Flag of SRB - Image by Ivan Sache, 19 August 2002

Société des Régates de Brest, founded on 17 May 1847 by a former Mayor of Brest, Pierre le Grandais, is one of the world's oldest yacht clubs still active. Patroned by the Prince of Joinville, the son of King Louis-Philippe, the SRB organized its first sailing and rowing regattas on 30 July 1847. Suppressed after the 1848 Revolution, the yacht club was reconstituted in 1865 as the Société des Régates Brestoises. Suppressed again in 1870 because of the Franco-Prussian War, the club was refounded once again in 1876, restoring its original name. The same year, the club organized for the first time a nautic festival in the Port of Commerce, which was the first step towards the modern festivals organized every four years (from "Brest (19)92" to "Brest 2008").
In 1882, the club, presided by Rear Admiral Réveillère (1829-1908, also known as an autarchist philosoph and regionalist writer), was reorganized by the municipality of Brest and the the Brest Horse-Racing Society. The merging in 1902 with the Société Nautique Brestoise increased membership of the SRB, which organized very famous regattas during the interbellum.

In 1946, the SRB reemerged from the ruins of Brest. On 2 August 1958, the club organized the first French regatta for training sailboats. The same year, some members left the club and founded Yacht Club de la Rade de Brest.
In 1970, the SRB moved to the Moulin Blanc marina, created in 1961 by the municipality of Brest; the club organized there in 1973 the prestigious Finn Gold Cup, won by the Olympic gold medalist (1972) Serge Maury.
The SRB members have won several medals in national and international competitions; the SRB was 3rd in 2001 and 1st in 2003 in the French clubs' ranking. In 1988, club members Jean-Yves Le Déroff and Nicolas Hénard won the gold medal in the "Tornado" series in the Seoul Olympic Games. Carole Reitzer won in 1991 the World Championship in the "Europe" series. In 1999, Benît Petit and Jean-François Cuzon won the World Championship in both the "470" and "Fireball" series.

D. Kervella and M. Bodlore-Penlaez (Guide des drapeaux bretons et celtes) show the flag of the SRB as white with a blue saltire cantonned by four black ermine spots.

Ivan Sache, 17 October 2010

Yacht Club de la Rade de Brest (yacht club)


Burgee of YCRB - Image by Ivan Sache, 19 August 2002

The burgee of YCRB is horizontally divided blue-red with a white triangle charged with a black ermine spot placed along the hoist.

Ivan Sache, 23 July 2006