Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Vauban: Greatest Siege Engineer

Sebastien de Vauban
France is a great power in the world. During the 17th century, France dominated the whole continent. Culturally, economically, and militarily, it was one of the advance countries in Europe. At its peak, King Louis XIV, the Sun King, presided over the period of great military conquest, cultural development, and economic rise and depression. During his reign, France played a major role in many wars. Many generals, soldiers, and also, engineers were decorated. Among the most renowned engineer and general was a Sebastien Vauban.

Sebastien Vauban (1633 – 1707) was a well renowned military engineer of his time. Most would say that he was greatest military engineer in history. He was credited for designing the fortification of many cities and towns. He was also responsible for the designs of new fortifications of cities and towns near the borders. He was also served or lead in many sieges that gave France leverage in the negotiation table.

Sebastien Vauban beginnings were modest. He was born on May 1633 into a low ranking noble family in Saint-Leger-de-Foucheret in Burgundy. As he grew up, a period of chaos reigned upon France. King Louis XIV was still a minor. Most the state affairs fell in the hands of regents, among them was Cardinal Mazarin. Many wanted to keep and increase their control over their lands. The Fronde then raged throughout the Kingdom.  In 1650, when Vauban was just a teenager, he joined in the army of the Prince of Conde, one of the factions that fought the royal power.

A man regarded as one of the builders of Louis XIV‘s France was once fought against the monarchy that he would serve. For three year he fought for the Prince de Conde and against King Louis XIV and his regent’s army. During the war, he was able to gain knowledge of the art of war. He gained insights into the latest weapons. He learned the weakness and strength of a fortified city. From his time in the field, he learned knowledge that he would use for the future.
He fought for the enemies of the King, but then, he would experience something that would make him to change side. In 1653, he captured by the King’s army. On contrary of the usual treatment of prisoners, which was mired by neglect, Vauban’s time of captivity was rather well. Cardinal Mazarin and the King’s soldiers showed kindness towards him and his fellow captives. The treatment he received made a profound effect to him. In 1655, he turned and joined the King Louis XIV’s army.

Vauban’s change of side was in good timing. The King and his Generals just formed a new Engineering Corp. The corps was placed under the command of Chevalier Louis Nicholas de Clerville. It was under this regiment that the name of Vauban would be known.

During his time in the Corp, he participated in numerous siege campaigns. His first siege under the side of the King of France was in St. Menehould. Later on, he proved to be efficient and competent enough to be given a siege on his own command. He displayed his brilliance in besieging cities in Clemont. In 1658, he was promoted to the position of Chief Engineer and displayed his credentials for the position in the siege of Gravelines. In 1659, when the Peace of Pyrenees was signed, the Prince of Conde finally stopped any resistance against the King.

At the aftermath of the Fronde and the rebellion of the Prince of Conde, France began to rebuild itself and move towards development. Vauban and the engineering corps were then given the task to help on the reconstruction of many town defenses and fortifications. He was given the task in designing the defenses in Alsace-Lorraine, such as the one in town of Nancy and Alt-Breisach, as well as the town of Dunkirk.

When the war of Devolution erupted between the Spanish Netherlands and France in 1667, Vauban was once again back to besieging cities. During the war, he was engaged in capturing the cities of Tournai, Douai, and Lille. In the midst of the war, he received promotions and rewards. He was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in the Royal Guards. He was also given huge monetary incentives for his work for the King.

After the war of Devolution in 1668, Vauban worked again for the reconstruction towns and cities in France. He was appointed by the King to head the Commissary general of Fortifications. He also worked with War Minister Marquis de Louvois and also the renowned finance minister of Louis XIV, Jean-Baptiste Colbert. During also in the time of peace, he wrote his Mémoire pour servir à l'instruction dans la conduite des sieges or his memoirs in besieging cities under the request of Louvois and Colbert.

In 1672, a new Dutch War began. Louis XIV’s army was once again marching towards the Northeast of the Kingdom. Vauban was also sent back to work in besieging several towns and cities. In 1672, he directed the capture of the cities of Rheinbegen and Nijmegen.  In the following year, he subdued Trier and Maastricht.

During the siege of Maastricht, Vauban incorporated one of his signature tactics – the parallel trenches. The idea of parallel trenches was to encircle the city walls with trenches. Artillery would be placed in the trenches. A zigzag trench going forward would then be dug. The zigzag trench was meant to avoid the artillery fire for troops digging and crossing from previous trench to the next. Between the enemy walls and the first encircling trench, a second parallel trench would be dug to encircle the opposite walls. The two trenches was connected by the zigzag trench. With the second parallel trench, artillery could move forward and wreak havoc to the enemy. Sometimes, a third parallel trench was dug to even maximize the power of the cannons.

Vauban continued his capturing of city after city. In 1674, he captured the city of Besançon. In 1676, he captured the cities of Conde and Bouchain. As the war came to an end in 1678, Vauban received great rewards from King Louis XIV. He was promoted to the position of Marechal-de-Camp. He was also placed in the position of Le Directeur General des Fortifications, which was in charge of designing of fortifications throughout the Kingdom.

In 1683, the War of Reunions began between Spain and France. Vauban was once again sent to the front to capture cities. In 1683, he captured the city of Courtai and in the following year, Luxembourg fell to Vauban.

After the Truce of Ratisbon was signed in 1684, Vauban once again began to design fortifications. He designed the fortresses of Strasbourg, Luxembourg, and in 1687, Landau.

The design of Vauban’s fortification had several elements. First, all of his designs involved bastions in the corner and between of walls of the city. He also developed a three line wall or defense system which allowed the enemy to have a difficulty of taking it down. It also had the element also of low towers where defenders could have vantage points.

Four year after the last war, Louis XIV once again entered into another war – The War of the Grand Alliance. When Vauban was appointed as Lieutenant General, he was sent to direct the siege of Philippsburg. Philippsburg added new trick of his sleeves. He started to ricochet fire that extended the damages to enemy troops, as well as walls. He also began to make his troops to use bayonets in the end of their guns. This allowed troops to launched charges and hit the lines of enemy quickly. In 169, he besieged Namur.

The war ended in 1697 with the signing of the Treaty of Ryswick. And for Vauban, it was also the end of major engagement in war. He continued to design fortification such as that of Neuf-Brisach. In 1701, his health began to fail. In 1703, he was given the position of Marechal. During the war of Spanish Succession he was sent to advice on the siege of Old Breisach siege. However, because of poor health, he was sent home to rest. From that point, Vauban began to lose favor. During the Spanish Succession War, many of Vauban’s fortification, including Landau, fell to the hands of Spain and its allies. This made Vauban to lose favor with the King. Fort after fort, many of Vauban’s fortification failed.

Vauban had no choice but to retire, especially when his weakness began worsen further. He focused then his energy in writing. He made a revision of his 1669 treatise, Mémoire pour servir à l'instruction dans la conduite des sieges, which was published only after his death. Besides military affairs, he also placed attention to others, such as finance. He criticized the tax system of the government for taking more to the poor and less to the aristocrats. He proposed his own tax system – Dixme Royale – which according to him, was more efficient. The King saw it as dangerous and banned its publication and Vauban totally lost the King's favor.

In 1707, his long-time asthma took toil on him and at the age of 73. By the time of his death, he had designed more than 30 new fortification and redesigned more than 3,000. He took part to some 50 sieges, most of which were successful. His legacy remained his tactics in besieging rather than designing fortifications. His bayonet, parallel trenches, and ricochet fire were used by many generals and military engineers. With this ideas, Vauban was recognized as one, if not, the greatest military engineer of all time.

Gilbert, A. (ed.). Encyclopedia of Warfare: From the Earliest Time to the Present Day. Illinois: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2000. 

Sandler, S. (ed.). Ground Warfare: An International Encyclopedia. California: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2002. 

“Marechal Vauban.” Fortified Places. Accessed April 9, 2014. 

“Sebastien de Vauban.” NNDB. Accessed April 9, 2014.

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