Vauban - The Sun's Architect
Petit Gentilhomme de Bourgogne
Sebastien Le Prestre, Seigneur de Vauban and later Marquis de Vauban, Marshal of France and the most important military architect and city besieger during the reign of King Louis XIV, was the second son of Urbain Le Prestre, signeur de Vauban and Edmee de Cormignolle, minor Burgundy aristocrats, born on the 15th of May 1633 in Saint-Leger du Foucheret (Saint-Léger-Vauban), close to the town Vezelay, now in the department of Yonne.
A good student he excels in mathematics and technical drawing in the college affiliated to the convent of Carmelites de Semur where was admitted by chance by one of the monks. At the age of just 18 in 1651 he enrolls in the army of Prince de Conde, the governor of his native Burgundy, that was fighting for the royal army, a conflict known as “La Fronde”. In 1652 the young Vauban is taken prisoner by the royal forces and meets Mazarin himself who persuades him to abandon Conde’s cause. At just 22 years Vauban becomes the king’s engineer under the leadership of chevalier de Clerville, another great military architect of the time. Later, at Clerville’s death in 1678, Vauban becomes the General Commissioner of the Fortifications.
The life of Vauban is an extraordinary series of battles, city sieges and fortress building brought in by the confluence of his genius with the three conditions of the times he lived in: the bellicose nature of the king he served, Louis XIV, the fact that the King decided , on the advice of Vauban , to create a fortified belt on the kingdom’s borders - including a complex system called "pré carre" that is represented by a double line of fortified at the frontiers - and the progress in armament and tactics that made the old medieval fortresses vulnerable to attacks from a 17th century army.
During his lifetime, he died on the 30th of March 1707 in Paris, Vauban participates in 48 sieges - as he writes at the end of his life in "Etats de Services" - the most famous being the taking of the cities of Tournai, Douai, Lille, Maastricht, Mons, Besancon, Namur, Luxembourg (the last one was at Brisach when he is 70!), is injured 8 times, becomes at only 35 the "de facto" General Commissioner of Fortification of the kingdom, builds 33 new forts and fortified towns and fortifies 300 others all around France, revolutionizes the methods of attacking fortified places, is voted on the 18th of February 1699 a honorary member of the French Academy of Sciences (three days later, on the 21st of February, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz become foreign associates of the Academy!) writes numerous works on subjects as diverse as forestry, colonization and the fiscal system and becomes Marshal of France in 1703. Vauban’s eminence transcends centuries. Even during the tumultuous year of 1789 when the old order and things were demolished he was acclaimed in the French Academy as France’s "best citizen". In 1808 on the order of Emperor Napoleon the heart of Vauban was brought to Dome Church in the "Les Invalides" complex in Paris where it rests to this day.
"The art of fortifying is not only in rules and system but also in common sense and experience" Sebastien Le Prestre, Seigneur de Vauban
Three hundred years after his death, Vauban’s architectural legacy still stands proud in all the edges of France. Now, the once military bastions are a major tourist attraction and since 2008, 12 of Vauban fortifications are listed in the UNESCO’s World heritage list.
Sebastien Le Prestre’s fort building, attacking and defending experience was achieved first hand from his direct participation in the wars his epoch was shook by.
Indeed the times he lived in were not peaceful ones.
There was the Fronde that started in 1648 and lasted until 1652. The name of "La Fronde" is given to the French internal fights that take place during the minority of king Louis XIV while his mother Anne of Austria was regent and Cardinal Mazarin her closest counselor. These fights oppose representatives of all classes of the society rallied under the command of Louis de Bourbon, also known as “The Great Condé” to the royal authority incarnated by the powerful Mazarin.
The Fronde takes place on the background of another one: the Franco-Spanish war of 1635-1569.
The war against Spain started 3 years before the birth of Louis XIV on the 19 of May 1635 when France’s then Prime Minister, Cardinal Richelieu declared war on Spain.
Since the beginning of the 16th century Spain and the Holy Roman Empire were ruled by the House of Habsburg - due to the "unfortunate" circumstances of the death of almost all the heirs of the famous Catholic Kings: Ferdinand and Isabela, and France was surrounded by Habsburg territories. The mighty Spanish empire stood in all directions in the way of France’s desire for territorial aggrandizement.
Starting in 1653 Vauban takes part in the Franco-Spanish war during which is injured 6 times. In 1658 at just 25 he leads the attacks at Gravelines, Ypres and Audermade where he is taken prisoner and later exchanged
The Franco-Spanish war ended with the Treaty of the Pyrenees signed on the 5th November 1659. France gained the southern region of Roussillon and territories along its border with the Spanish Netherlands, having gained previously at the Treaty of Westphalia, treaty that ended in 1648 the Thirty Year War, some parts of the province of Alsace.
Peace however is not long lasting but it gives Vauban the time to return to his native region of Morvan where he weds his cousin Jeanne d’Osnay.
The war starts again in 1667 this time with Flanders.
Vauban participates in the most important city besieges like Tournai, Douai - where he is again blesses - and Lille that falls to French army on the 27th of August 1667. In 1668 Vauban is charged with the construction of the Citadelle de Lille whose governor he becomes.
The Flanders war ends in May 1668 but the peace lasts again for only 4 years. 1672 marks the onset of the Holland War. This war starts as a "blitzkrieg" and in 22 days 40 towns are falling to French troops. Only the flooding of the country ordered by its ruler stops the French advancement. The Holland war is a time when Vauban takes part in numerous cites’ sieges. Two of the sieges brought fame to the King Sun and established Vauban reputation as in "A city besieged by Vauban is a city captured" - as was the saying of the times. The first one was the siege of Maastricht. It takes place in 1672 and lasts a mere 13 days. At Maastricht Vauban employs for the first time the new war technique called "les parallèles". The second famous siege was at Valenciennes in 1677. There the king follows Vauban’s advice of attacking the city during the daylight against the counsel of his 4 marshals that the attacks should take place during the night. The city falls in 17 days! Besides taking part in the actual war this is a time when Vauban travels all over the kingdom, inspects cities and writes numerous works related to the subject of fortification. The Holland War ends in August 1678 with the peace of Nimègue and with France holding on to the Franche-Comté territory.
The peace time that follows is for the Marquis a period of intense travel at the all terrestrial and maritime borders of France. In a letter sent to Vauban, Colbert, the Minister of Finance, writes "You have to reinforce the power of the King on the sea as much as you have done on the land". The major reinforcement of the south-western maritime frontier dates from this epoch: the fortification of the Ile de Re in 1681, the citadel de Blaye between 1686 and 1689, Fort Socoa in 1681 and the reinforcement of Bayonne in 1680.
In 1688, the year when Vauban becomes Lieutenant-General, yet another war breaks out. It is the Nine Years War that pits Louis XIV against England, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and the United Provinces – a group called The Grand Alliance – a war started by the ambition of the King Sun, who unsatisfied with his gains from previous wars, sets about expanding his territories. This time the war is fought not only in Europe but also in the "New World" between French and English settlers and their respective Native American allies.
During the war Vauban continues his military engineer work of fortifying the kingdom but also participates in different city besieges and defends the coast of Brittany from English invasion.
The Nine Years War ends with the Treaty of Ryswick that provides for the France to keep Alsace but also to be granted Saint-Domingue (later to become Haiti). With Alsace secured under French rule Vauban is charged with its reinforcement. He creates at Neuf-Brisach - a commune situated in what is now the department of Haut-Rhin - a new and improved system of fortification, his third and best type.
"Sire, I would rather save your majesty one hundred soldiers then destroy three thousands of the enemy" Vauban to King Louis XIV
In his works about fortification building, defending and attacking Vauban was driven by his concern about saving human lives. Having witnessed the human carnages in his earlier battles, his motto becomes as he writes in his "Traite de l’attaque des places": never to expose one’s men inappropriately and without a very good reason.
In regards to the actual techniques of fort attacking Vauban adds three innovations:
The first one was experimented with success at Maastricht – the fort surrenders in just 13 days - in 1673 and is called "les parallèles". It consists of a trench dug parallel to the front of the fort that was attacked, out of the reach of the enemy’s cannons and that can serve as gun storage. From this first trench zigzag trenches were dug forward, closer to the fortifications. Then, uniting them, another parallel thrench was dug and batteries placed, and so on until a third parallel was dug. This allowed the attackers to gradually move closer to the fortifications in relative safety, and organize the placement of cannons.
The second innovation was experimented in the siege of Luxemburg in 1684. It consisted into building soil hills, called "chevaliers de tranchées" , that allow the attackers to dominate the tir positions of the besieged and to drive them back by the use of grenades. The story of the innovation says that Vauban himself went on a reconnaissance mission and was surprised to see that from a naturally formed hill he climbed, was able to start the attack and recognize the most vulnerable place of the fortification.
The third innovation was practiced with at the siege of Philipsburg in 1688 and improved during a decade until the siege of Ath in 1697. It involved the ricochet shots that can smash the summit of the enemy ramparts and then bounce over the obstacles to strike the men behind them. In the same time this innovation permitted Vauban to place traversal protections on the fortresses he built, protections whose role was to prevent the effects of the indirect shots.
But the most important work of Vauban rests probably his conceptualization of the fort attack action. Under the influence of Descartes - major figure in 17th-century rationalism and the father of analytical geometry - Vauban treats the action of fortress attacking as a rational series of 12 phases that should last no longer then 48 days at the end of which the fortress has no other choice but to surrender (on the other hand the building of a stronghold was considered by Vauban as being mainly driven by the relief the construction was on).
The testimonies of Vauban genius are the many forts and fortified cities he built or restored but also the multitude of texts he wrote on diverse subjects including of course war strategies: "Memoire pour server d’Instruction dans la Conduite des Sieges" written between 1669 and 1672, his first written study, "Traite de la defense des places"," De l'attaque et de la defense des places"etc., colonization: "Moyen d'Etablir nos Colonies d'Amérique", religion: "Mémoire sur l'Intérêt Présent des États de la Chrétienté", reforestation: "Traité de la Culture des Forêts", taxation: "Projet d'une Dîme Royale". The « Royal Dime » in which the author pleads for a tax system based on revenues and that does not exclude the nobility and the clergy, wrote in 1698 but published only in 1706 brings about the king’s vexation and the semi-disgrace of Vauban at the end of his life.
During 3 years starting in 1703 Vauban assembles 29 texts of his written work in a 12 volume (more then 3600 pages) manuscript that he modestly entitles: "Les Oisivetés" meanning "Idleness".
The man who arguably made the most lasting impression on the French landscape, the indefatigable military builder, the prolific writer and brave fighter has now a planet named in his honor. Indeed a retired astronomer from Belgium, great admirer of the Marquis, gave the name Vauban to a little planet that orbits Mars. A beaufiful parallel for somebody that revolutionized the art of war!
To understand better the fortifications architecture some words "translation" is useful:
"Demi-lune" or Half-Moon is an outwork that protects the portion of the wall between two bastions.
A bastion is a pentagonal work that extends outward at the corner of two fortification walls.
Covered way is the first line of defense in front of the fortification.
Glacis is a slope with a low grade inclined towards the top of the wall.