Maréchal Vauban

Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707), is considered one the of the greatest military engineers of all time. In his life he was responsible for the fortification of over 160 places in France, however his major contribution to warfare was his methods of attack, which revolutionised siege warfare.

Vauban was born in 1633 at Saint-Léger-de-Foucherets, France (now Saint-Léger-Vauban) into a family of the petty nobility. The natural career for him was the army, and he enlisted as a Cadet in the army of the Prince Condé, who was at the time a rebel fighting against France. He quickly distinguished himself in several siege actions (both in defence and in attack), but was captured by royal troops in 1653.

Vauban was induced to change sides, and in 1655 he joined the newly-formed engineer corps in the army of Louis XIV. Seeing much action during this period of his career, he rapidly climbed the promotion ladder - he was chief engineer at the siege of Gravelines, 1658 (just 5 years after having joined the King's army).

After the rebellion Vauban undertook his first fortification work, being involved in the fortification of various places in Alcase-Lorraine (near the German border). In Nancy, he was involved in the demolition of fortifications, and saw new fortifications constructed at Alt-Breisach, on the Rhine.

When war broke out again, this time with the Spanish in the Netherlands, Vauban found himself on the front lines once more. Playing an important part in the capture of the strong cities of Tournai, Douai and Lille, he was rewarded with a pension, a position (of Lieutenant) in the Royal Guards (a prestigious regiment) and the governorship of the citadel of Lille (which he had constructed). These rewards show that Vauban was not only very effective in his work, but was also gaining favour with the king himself.

He assumed the duties of the Commisary General of Fortifications, although the title remained with Vauban's predecessor until his death, at which time it passed to Vauban. After the war in the Spanish Netherlands, his new duties led him all over France, inspecting existing fortifications and identifying new sites to be fortified. He became a trusted advisor of the king and worked closely with Louvois, Louis XIV's war minister. In this time of peace Vauban visited Roussillon to work on the fortifications there, but was also asked to advise the Duke of Savoy, an ally of France, on fortifying his territory. This was unfortunate for France, which later went to war with the Duke of Savoy.

Louis XIV went to war with the Dutch between 1672 and 1679. This period saw Vauban go from success to success, being in charge at many sieges, capturing Maastricht using a special new tactic called parallel trenches, which was adopted throughout Europe and was still in use over a century later. In 1676 he was promoted to Maréchal-de-camp.

After the Dutch War, Vauban again set to work fortifying the new conquests and securing France's frontiers. He advised Louis XIV to use some fortresses captured from the enemy as bargaining counters and to make the frontier run in an advantageous way, in contrast to the popular "grab as much land as possible" policy of the time. Vauban designed several fortresses during this time including Strasbourg, Luxembourg and Landau.

With the War of the Grand Alliance, Vauban gained the rank of Lieutenant-General and directed the siege of Philippsburg in 1688. During this siege he used a new technique know as ricochet fire. He also invented the bayonet at this time, which could be slotted over the muzzel of a musket - a fitting still used today in some lightbulbs. After seeing much action during the war, he set about designing his last fortification work, the impressive Neuf-Brisach. This was a fortress town that was designed from scratch by Vauban, the inhabitants coming from the nearby town of Alt-Breisach, which had to be destroyed as a result of a treaty.

By 1701, Vauban's health was beginning to fail as he neared the end of his life. In 1703 he was made a Maréchal of France, but was recalled from service later that year. In his retirement he wrote a treatise on fortification and siege warfare, which was reproduced in many different european languages and used for many years to come. In 1707 he published a controversial paper condemning the French government's unfair tax system and proposed a better system. His reforms were rejected by the king, and Vauban died shortly afterwards, in 1707.

In his life Vauban had revolutionised the way sieges were fought, and he had fortified over 160 places for France. His deepest concern was always for the lives of the soldiers he commanded, and he was courageous, being wounded several times. Vauban wrote a series of papers entitled "Les Oisivetés" or "Leisures". These were on a diverse range of subjects including privateering, agriculture, canals and geography. He was a skilled mathematician and a great engineer, but the last words should go to Vauban himself:

When I have a good look at myself I find I am still only half an engineer, after forty years of hard work, with the greatest experience. - Vauban

Vauban's tomb, Les Invalides.
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