Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban

Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban

(1633-1707)

Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban was born at St. Legerde-Fougeret in the province of Burgundy, France. Educated by the Carmelite order of nuns, he became a cadet in the regi¬ ment of Louis II de Bourbon, the Great Conde (see no. 53). De Vauban fought with the Conde against the troops of King Louis XTV for two years. After he was captured in 1653, and was well-treated by his captors, de Vauban switched sides in the Fronde of the Princes, a rebellion of the French nobles. He joined King Louis XIV’s army, where he would spend most of the rest of his life.

De Vauban’s entire generation was appalled by the high casualties suffered during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Seeking an enlightened alternative to field warfare, de Vauban became the foremost proponent of siege warfare, the building and taking of large-scale fortresses. He became a royal engi¬ neer (1655), then commissary general of forti¬ fications (1667), and in 1672, he persuaded the king to create a special engineering branch of the French royal army.

The French-Dutch War began in that same year. De Vauban captured the Dutch fortress of Maastricht in 1673 by laying out a com¬ plete set of siege parallels, earthworks that approached the fort by angles and turns. After the war ended, he built the fortress that guarded Strasbourg (1684) and directed the siege of Luxembourg (1684).

Already the acknowledged master of his art, de Vauban went on to introduce the use of ricochet gunfire in 1688; these were can¬ nonballs that bounced over parapets and hit several parts of the enemy’s defenses. He advocated the use of the socket bayonet, which could remain on the barrel of the mus¬ ket while the gun was fired.

The War of the League of Augsburg brought de Vauban fully into his element. He captured Mons (1691) and Namur (1692) in the Netherlands and was wounded at the Siege of Ath (1697). His construction of for¬ tifications enabled France to fight the com¬ bined powers of England, the Netherlands and Austria to a draw.

The start of the War of Spanish Succession in 1702 found France in a weaker position. De Vauban asked for, and received, promotion to marshal of France (1703). He directed the Siege of Alt-Breisach in 1703 and organized an entrenched camp at Dunkerque (1706). Other than that, his serv¬ ices were not called upon in a war that strayed from the principles of enlightened combat. Casualties in the war were shockingly high because of the change from the matchlock to flintlock musket.De Vauban was an indefatigable worker.

He wrote On Siege and Fortification, which was published many years after his death. He also wrote the controversial Projectfor a Royal Tythe, or General Tax (1707). During his 54 years in the service of the king, he had erected or designed 160 fortresses and participated in the sieges of 50 others.