Photo of Vauban's tomb in les Invalides

Sébastien Le Prestre maréchal de Vauban

1 May 1633 - 30 March 1707

Background and early career of Vauban

Vauban's childhood

Vauban was borne in Saint Léger de Foucherets (now Saint-Léger-Vauban) on 1 May 16331. His parents were Urbaine le Prestre and Aimée de Carmignol and belonged to the petty nobility of Bourgogne. Vauban's father died in the military and his mother died soon afterwards. The fact that he became an orphan at a very young age and that his lands were seized due to debts made that Vauban was educated by M. de Fontaines Prieur of the church of St. Jean in Semur. From him he learned to read and write and learned the basics of geometry.

Vauban joins the Fronde

When he was hardly 17 years old Vauban left Semur and walked to the Spanish army which had entered France to support the Fronde. Here Vauban entered the regiment of the Grand Condé and soon started to work in engineering. His first job was to work at the fortification of Clermont, but then he was called to the siege of Sainte Menehould. Here he signaled himself during the assault in November 1652. Later Vauban was captured by a royalist raiding party, and so his career in the Fronde army ended.

He becomes and engineer

After he was captured Vauban was offered a lieutenancy in the Bourgogne regiment by Mazarin. Here he again worked in engineering and his first action on the royalist side meant participating in a siege to recapture Sainte Menehould in November 1653. In the next year Vauban participated in the siege of Stenay and was wounded in July. Later he participated in the siege of Clermont en Argonne in November 1654. In 1655 Vauban was appointed as engineer on 3 May 1655. Sieges were always directed by a chief engineer who was assisted by a number of ordinary engineers so Vauban still had to work somewhat more to be eligible to lead a siege.

Beginnings as an engineer

In his first year as an engineer Vauban started under chief engineer Clerville in the siege of Landrecies which was taken in July 1655. That same year he also worked at the sieges of Condé and Saint Ghislain. The Maréchal de la Ferté offered Vauban a company in his regiment. In 1656 Vauban worked at the successful conquest of Valenciennes. In 1657 Vauban directed his first siege, which was that of Montmédy2. The next year was a highlight of his career because he conquered Gravelines, Ypres and Oudenaarde.

Vauban's first serious fortifications

In 1662 England sold Dunkirk to France and soon Vauban was charged with fortifying the place. Vauban designed the fortifications in such a way that the French commercial and naval ambitions profited. He was also charged with fortifying Cherbourg, but here his plans were thwarted and later on the French navy paid the price after La Hogue.

Vauban in the War of Devolution (1667-1668)

In 1667 the War of Devolution started against a much weakened Spanish Empire. Vauban directed the siege of some very famous towns such as Douai (23-26 July 1667), Lille (20-27 July 1667) and Tournai (21-23 June 1667). These cities were neither well fortified nor well manned and could not hope for their siege to be lifted. Therefore Vauban's achievement lay not in the fact that he took them, but in the speed with which he did it. At the siege of Douai Vauban was wounded and got the scar that's visible on his portraits3.

Further work on the fortifications

With the war over Vauban was appointed governor of Lille in 1668. Lille was to be the cornerstone of the defense of northern France and so Vauban had a large budget to spend. All this enabled Vauban to construct his masterpiece: the citadel of Lille, which was finished in 1671 and still stands today. While working on the fortification of Lille a scale model of the fortifications was ordered. This formed the first piece of the collection of scale models that is now on display at the Invalides.

Vauban in the Dutch war

In 1672 France started a war against the Dutch. The first year of the war consisted of overrunning a lot of ill-prepared Dutch positions, but 1673 would see more serious action. The court of France traveled and lots of others traveled to Maastricht to witness the siege of this well-garrisoned city. The spectacle proved to be a short one for Vauban took Maastricht in 13 days. With this siege his reputation was firmly established.

In other actions Vauban directed the fortifications of the Ile de Ré and besieged the principal towns of Franche-Comté. Amongst these was Besançon which he took on 22 May 1674 and where he would build another famous citadel from 1674 till 1688. After taking Besançon Vauban continued to take Dole in June 1674. That same year Vauban became a Brigadier General.

Vauban continued by taking Valenciennes for a second time in 1677. In the same year he took Saint Ghislain Gent and Ypres. This was also the year that the commissaire général des fortifications chevalier de Clerville died. Vauban had already been executing parts of his work and now Vauban was appointed in this prestigious function.

Vauban starts to fortify France

When peace had returned in 1678 Vauban had time to embark on an integrated plan to fortify the French shores and borders. For this he traveled up and down the kingdom and fortified scores of towns. The main part of these fortifications was formed by the famous double line of fortifications which closed the frontier with Flanders.

In the short 1683-1684 war Vauban took Courtray and Luxembourg. This was also the time he constructed the aquaduct of Maintenon, a failed project to bring more water to Versailles.

Vauban in the Nine years war

In the Nine years war Vauban would continue his successes by taking Mons (1691) and Namur (1692) in the presence of the king. The same went for Charleroi in 1693.

Vauban in the Spanish Succession War

In 1702 Vauban was almost seventy, but still just as eager to serve his country. What the allies feared most was that France would start the campaign with a new siege of Maastricht under the direction of Vauban and this is what Vauban proposed himself. In 1703 Vauban was made a field marshal just before he turned 70. That year he also got the minor job to besiege Alt Breisach which he took in 13 days. It would prove to be his last siege.

He was furthermore employed as an advisor. In this advisory role he wanted to help La Feulliade take Turin, but his offer to help if only as a volunteer was not accepted. Voltaire stating that La Feuillade wrote him he hoped to take Turin "a la Cohorn". His hope of serving again was ended soon afterwards by the dixieme affair.

Vauban's other expertises

In scientific affairs he is of course the prime scientist of siege warfare. He did however also publish on a lot of other subjects, from demography to economy and taxes. On the subject of demography he should be noted for his writings on populating Canada. Writings in which he clearly showed that Canada could be populated without any negative effects for the mother country, showing he had a very clear vision of the real interests of France at the time. On matters of economy he is noted for gathering and using statistics. The tax subject however would become his downfall, as he published a book proposing 'La Dixieme' a tax to be paied by all French, nobility and clergy not excepted. The higher classes vigourously attacked him because of it and he fell from grace, dying a broken man. La Dixieme soon became law however.

Career

  • 1653: Becomes a lieutenant in the royal army
  • 1655: May, officially becomes an engineer
  • 1668: Becomes the de facto commissaire général des Fortifications
  • 1668: Appointed as governor of Lille
  • 1674: Brigadier General
  • 1676: Maréchal de Camp
  • 1677: Officially becomes commissaire général des Fortifications
  • 1688: 24 August Lieutenant Général
  • 1689: Writes a discours pleading to recall the Huguenots
  • 1703: Maréchal de France
  • 1707: Writes a book proposing la Dixieme

Service (a selection)

  • 1652: Signals himself on the side of the Fronde when it takes Sainte Menehould
  • 1653: November present in the royal siege that retook Sainte Menehould
  • 1654: Wounded at the siege of Stenay taken in August
  • 1654: Present in the siege of Clermont en Argonne in November
  • 1655: June-July participates in the successful siege of Landrecies
  • 1655: Employed in the sieges of Condé and Saint Ghislain
  • 1656: Works in the successful siege of Valenciennes
  • 1657: Takes Montmédy
  • 1658: Takes Gravelines, Ypres and Oudenaarde
  • 1662: (or somewhat after) Starts his first major fortification projects at Dunkirk and Cherbourg
  • 1667: June, takes Tournai
  • 1667: July, takes Douai and Lille
  • 1671: Completes the citadel of Lille
  • 1673: Takes Maastricht in 13 days
  • 1674: May, takes Besançon
  • 1674: June, takes Dole
  • 1677: Takes Valenciennes a second time
  • 1677: Takes Saint Ghislain
  • 1684: Takes city of Luxembourg
  • 1688: Takes Philipsbourg
  • 1691: Takes Mons
  • 1692: July, takes Namur (described by Saint Simon)
  • 1693: Takes Charleroi
  • 1703: November takes Alt Breisach
  • 1705/6: Offers to assist in the siege of Turin

Notes

1) Date according to Michaud: Biographie Universelle Ancienne et Moderne Volume 43
2) According to some sources the siege of Montmédy was the first one that Vauban directed. According to Michaud Gravelines was the first siege directed by Vauban.
3) Michaud page 2