History of the port

Ecluse de la Citadelle en 1853

The early 20th century

At the end of the 19th century, with the railway firmly established, Dunkirk developed its role as an entrepôt port and became the third-ranking port in France, handling 2.5 MT. An oil factory was opened, boosting imports of oilseed crops, and then a mechanical sawmill. However, the major supplier of work was the jute industry which employed as many as 5,000 workers in 1914. In 1898 the ACF shipyard (Ateliers et Chantiers de France) was founded in Dunkirk. Other new businesses were set up, strengthening the local industrial fabric and promoting port traffic: the Borax factory in 1900, the Lesieur factory in 1908, and the Dunes factory in 1912. The port's activity was then strongly oriented to imports of the raw materials necessary for industry: Argentinean wool for the textile industry of Roubaix and Tourcoing, Russian linen for Armentières and Lille, and ore for the metallurgical industry of the Valenciennes and Maubeuge coalfields. Grain imports also made Dunkirk an important marketplace.

In the 20th century Vauban's fortifications no longer provided an effective defence. In the autumn of 1914 the Germans were stopped by French and British troops and the Battle of the Yser began. From 1915 onwards long-range canons bombarded the city, and by 1918, the toll was heavy: 1,500 soldiers and officers of Dunkirk killed in action, 410 buildings destroyed, and 2,370 homes damaged. The city had suffered very heavy losses and the Port was only saved by General Foch who intervened forcefully with the English authorities, to stop their plan to destroy the port facilities out of fear of a German offensive.

From 1929 onward the port undertook new works, with the construction of a new outer harbour, the Watier lock, a terminal for the passenger ferry between Dunkirk and Dover, the acquisition of a floating dock, and the construction of a grain silo.

During the second world war Dunkirk was occupied for longer than any other city inn France. After a siege of five years, 90% of the city was razed to the ground and the port became a silted-up marine lagoon, subject to the tides. The occupiers had sunk many machines and ships in the locks and docks.

Of the three locks only the smallest, the Guillain lock, could be repaired, temporarily. More than 15,000 hectares was flooded with seawater.

In August 1945 the cost of rebuilding the port was estimated at 1 billion 200 million francs. The Guillain lock was repaired after the wrecks had been cleared from the port. The quays, docks and locks were restored to service little by little.