Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban

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Sébastien le Prestre, Marquis de Vauban
Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban.png
Vauban, French School painting of the 18th century
Born(1633-05-01)1 May 1633
Died30 March 1707(1707-03-30) (aged 73)
Cause of deathPulmonary embolism
Resting placeBazoches. Heart at Les Invalides.
Known forContributions to military engineering and fortifications
TitleMaréchal de France

Commissaire général des fortifications (1678–1703)

Governor of Lille (from 1668)
AwardsOrdre de Saint-Louis
Vauban signature mg 8007.jpg

Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, Seigneur de Vauban and later Marquis de Vauban (1 May 1633 – 30 March 1707),[1] commonly referred to as Vauban (French: [vobɑ̃]), was a French military engineer who rose in the service to the king and was commissioned as a Marshal of France. Considered the foremost engineer of his time, Vauban is known for his skills both in designing fortifications and breaking through them; his concepts, inspired by Pagan's "Les Fortifications", were the dominant model of fortification and siegecraft for nearly 100 years.

He also advised Louis XIV on how to consolidate France's borders in order to make them more defensible. Vauban made the radical suggestion of France giving up some land that was indefensible in order to create a stronger, less porous border with its neighbours.

Life and doctrines[edit]

Arms of the Lords of Vauban
Model of typical Vauban's star-shaped citadel (Citadel of Lille)
Cross-cut view of Vauban's fortifications
Vauban's system to attack citadels:
Three parallel trenches interconnected by zigzagging communication trenches to avoid direct shots. Each trench brings the infantry across the whole width of the leading edge; the first is out of range of the defenders and can withstand an assault from the rear; the third is at the foot of the glacis. Redoubts protect the ends of each trench.
Vauban's fortifications in Camaret-sur-Mer.
Vauban's mausoleum in Les Invalides, Paris

Vauban was born in Saint-Léger-de-Foucheret (renamed Saint-Léger-Vauban in his honour in 1867), in Burgundy France, into a family of minor nobility. At the age of ten, he was orphaned and left in very poor circumstances. He lived his boyhood and youth amongst the peasantry of his native place. After some time, he was put under the care of the Carmelite prior of Semur, who undertook his education. He gained a grounding in mathematics, science and geometry which was integral to his adult career.[2]

At the age of seventeen Vauban joined the regiment of Condé in the war of the Fronde. He received the offer of a commission within a year, which he declined on account of poverty. (Officers were required to outfit their units.) Condé employed him to assist in the fortification of Clermont-en-Argonne. Soon afterward Vauban was taken prisoner by the royal troops; although a rebel, he was well-treated. The kindness of Cardinal Mazarin converted the young engineer into a devoted servant of the king.[2]

Vauban took part in the siege of Sainte-Menehould (which he had helped to storm as a Frondeur) and won a lieutenancy in the regiment of Burgundy. At Stenay he was wounded twice. Soon afterward he besieged and took Clermont, the first fortress he helped design and build. In May 1655 he received his commission as an ingénieur du roi (royal engineer), having served his apprenticeship under the Chevalier de Clerville, one of the foremost engineers of the time. Between that year and the peace of 1659, he had taken part in or directed ten sieges with distinction, had been wounded several times, and was rewarded by the king with the free gift of a company in the famous Picardy regiment. About this time he married a cousin, Jeanne d'Aulnay.[3]

After the peace, Vauban was put in charge of the construction of several important defences, including at Dunkirk, where his work continued until the year before his death. On the renewal of war in 1662, he conducted, while the king was present, the sieges of Douai, Tournai and Lille. During the siege of Lille, he so distinguished himself that he received a lieutenancy in the royal guard (ranking as a colonelcy).[4]

The peace of Aix-la-Chapelle confirmed France's possession of new fortresses, which Vauban proceeded to improve or rebuild. He was still following the systems of preceding engineers. Colbert and Louvois were profoundly interested in the work. At Louvois' request, Vauban wrote his Mémoire pour servir à l'instruction dans la conduite des sièges (1669) (this, together with a memorandum on the defence of fortresses by another hand, was published at Leiden in 1740).[4]

On the renewal of war with the Netherlands, Vauban again conducted the most important sieges, (Rheinberg and Nijmegen 1672, Maastricht and Trier 1673, Besançon 1674). In the latter year he also supervised the only defence in which he ever took part, that of Oudenaarde. This was followed by the reduction of Dinant, Huy and Limbourg. At this time he wrote valuable Instructions pour la défense for the commandants of Verdun and Le Quesnoy.[4]

In 1675 Vauban bought the Château de Bazoches for his use. In 1676 he was made Maréchal de camp. He took Condé, Bouchain and other places in that year, Valenciennes and Cambrai in 1677, Ghent and Ypres in 1678.[4]

Vauban devised the methods of attacking fortifications, on which his claim to renown as an engineer rests far more than on his systems of fortification. He introduced a systematic approach by constructing a parallel series of trenches at the siege of Maastricht. (This was said to have been suggested by the practice of the Turks at Candia in 1668.) In principle, this became the standard method of attacking a fortress into the early 20th century. By the Peace of Nijmegen, France acquired more territory and fortresses, which Vauban adapted to his designs.[4]

Vauban was named Commissaire-général des fortifications on the death of Clerville. In 1679 he wrote a memorandum on the places of the new frontier. According to that, from Dunkirk to Dinant, France controlled fifteen fortresses and forts, with thirteen more in second line. Most of these had been rebuilt by Vauban. Further acquisitions, notably Strasbourg (1681), required him to undertake unceasing work. The Barrage Vauban and other forts can still be seen today. Vauban designed his "first system" of fortification beginning at Saarlouis, which remained the accepted standard until comparatively recent times. He retained what was valuable from his predecessors and he is believed to have surpassed them in his practice rather than in theory.[4]

In 1682 he began to use his "second system", which introduced modifications designed to prolong the resistance of the fortress. At about the same time he wrote a practical manual entitled Le Directeur-Général des fortifications (The Hague, 1683–85). Having attained the rank of Lieutenant Général, he took the field again, capturing Kortrijk in 1683, and Luxembourg in the following year. The French found there was unexpected strength of certain towers designed by the French engineer Jean Charles de Landas, count of Louvigny [es] (fl. 1673) at Luxembourg. These suggested the tower-bastions of Vauban's second system, which were executed at Belfort about the same time.[4]

In 1687 he chose Landau as the chief place of arms of Lower Alsace, and fortified it with all his skills. He also developed his tactics of attack. He instituted a company of miners, and carried out experiments to test his methods. He published a work with the necessary formulae for military mining (Traité des mines, Paris, 1740 and 1799; Hague, 1744). He took part in more sieges, including at Namur in 1692 (defended by the great Dutch engineer Coehoorn).[4]

At the siege of Ath in 1697, Vauban used ricochet firing for the first time as the principal means to break down the defence. He had already used it successfully at Philippsburg in 1688 and at Namur, but the artillery had resisted outside interference and not previously made full use of this remarkable invention. Together with Vauban's other improvements, it heightened the chances of the success of an attack.[4]

After the peace of Ryswick, Vauban rebuilt or improved other fortresses. Neuf-Brisach was fortified according to his "third system", a modification of his second. Vauban called it the système de Landau perfectionné (perfected Landau system). His last siege was of Old Breisach in 1703, when he reduced the place in a fortnight. On 14 January of that year, Vauban had been made a Maréchal de France, a rank too exalted for the technical direction of sieges. His active military career ended with that promotion. Soon afterward he published his Traité de l'attaque des places, a revised and amplified edition of the older 1669 memoir. It contains the elements of the fully developed Vauban attack: the parallel trenches, ricochet fire, and attack of the defending personnel by vertical fire.[4]

But in warfare Louis XIV was thrown on the defensive. During the war of the Spanish Succession Vauban's influence gradually waned as his fortresses were taken and retaken by the enemy. The various captures of Landau, his chef-d'oeuvre, caused him to be regarded with disfavour. People did not realize that he had been greater in developing attacks than in defence. In the darkness of defeat, he turned his attention to the defence. His work De la defense des places (ed. by General Valaze, Paris, 1829) is considered less valuable than the Attaque. At the time, his far-seeing ideas on entrenched camps (Traits des fortifications de campagne) were coldly received. But Vauban had described the elements of the "detached forts" system that became universal in Europe by the 20th century.[4]

Although indispensable to Louis XIV, Vauban boldly stretched his goodwill on several occasions. In 1685, Vauban condemned the repeal of the edict of Nantes, which had provided religious freedom to Protestants. His opposition appeared to be based mostly on economic grounds. In the 1690s, he conducted a comprehensive census of Flanders and other areas of France, which earned him his nickname as the "French Petty". A prolific writer on many subjects, including forestry, selective breeding of domestic pigs, monetary policy, and colonisation, Vauban was made an honorary member of the French Academy of Sciences.[citation needed]

Dismayed by the inefficiency of the French fiscal system, and deeply impressed with the deplorable condition of the peasantry whose labor he regarded as the main foundation of all wealth, Vauban's 1707 tract, Projet d'une dixme. royale, protested against the unequal incidence of taxation and the exemptions and privileges of the upper classes.[4] He called for the repeal of all taxes and the imposition of a single 10% tax (dixme. royale) on all agricultural output (payable in kind) and on income from trade and manufactures, with no exemptions. He backed up his argument with a mass of statistics. His book was condemned by the royal government because it had been published without royal permission. Vauban spent the last weeks of his life trying to collect every copy that he had disseminated privately to friends and acquaintances. His ideas inspired later Enlightenment economists, such as Forbonnais, Mirabeau and the Physiocrats.[citation needed]

Vauban died in Paris, of an inflammation of the lungs. During the French Revolution, his grave was opened and his remains scattered. In 1808 his heart was found and Napoléon ordered it deposited in the church of Les Invalides.[4]


Map of the 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites related to Vauban

Between 1667 and 1707, Vauban upgraded the fortifications of around 300 cities, including Antibes (Fort Carré), Arras, Auxonne, Barraux, Bayonne, Belfort, Bergues, Citadel of Besançon, Bitche, Blaye, Briançon, Bouillon, Calais, Cambrai, Colmars-les-Alpes, Collioure, Douai, Entrevaux, Givet, Gravelines, Hendaye, Huningue, Joux, Kehl, Landau, Le Palais (Belle-Île), La Rochelle, Le Quesnoy, Lille, Lusignan, Le Perthus (Fort de Bellegarde), Luxembourg, Maastricht, Maubeuge, Metz, Mont-Dauphin, Mont-Louis, Montmédy, Namur, Neuf-Brisach, Perpignan, Plouezoc'h (in French) (Château du Taureau) (in French), Rocroi, Saarlouis, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, Saint-Omer, Sedan, Strasbourg, Toul, Valenciennes, Verdun, Villefranche-de-Conflent (town and Fort Liberia), and Ypres.

He directed the building of 37 new fortresses, and fortified military harbours, including Ambleteuse, Brest, Dunkerque, Freiburg im Breisgau, Lille (Citadel of Lille), Rochefort, Saint-Jean-de-Luz (Fort Socoa), Saint-Martin-de-Ré, Toulon, Wimereux, Le Portel, and Cézembre.

As part of the fortification of Strasbourg, Vauban was also responsible for the building, in 1682, of the Canal de la Bruche, a 20-kilometre (12 mi) canal intended to improved the supply of building materials to the fortification works.[5]

The UNESCO lists 12 fortifications of Vauban as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Vauban and the French Military Under Louis XIV: An Illustrated History of Fortifications and Strategies. McFarland. 2009. p. 7. by Jean-Denis G.G. Lepage
  2. ^ a b Chisholm 1911, p. 951.
  3. ^ Chisholm 1911, pp. 951-952.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Chisholm 1911, p. 952.
  5. ^ "La gestion du Canal de la Bruche" [The management of the Canal Bruche] (in French). Conseil Départemental du Bas-Rhin. Archived from the original on 16 September 2015. Retrieved 16 September 2015.


Further reading[edit]

  • Blomfield, Sir Reginald. Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban, 1663–1707. (1938), the fullest biography in English.
  • Duffy, Christopher (1985). The Fortress in the Age of Vauban and Frederick the Great, 1660–1789. Siege Warfare, Volume II. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. p. 318. ISBN 0-7100-9648-8.
  • Griffith, Paddy; Dennis, Peter. The Vauban fortifications of France. Oxford: Osprey, 2006 (paperback, ISBN 1-84176-875-8).
  • Halévy, Daniel (1924). Vauban. Builder of Fortresses. London: Geoffrey Bles. p. 256.
  • Hebbert, F.J. Soldier of France: Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban, 1633–1707. New York: P. Lang, 1990 (hardcover, ISBN 0-8204-0890-5).
  • Langins, Jānis. Conserving the enlightenment: French military engineering from Vauban to the revolution (MIT Press, 2004).
  • Lynn, John A. Giant of the grand siècle: the French Army, 1610–1715 (Cambridge University Press, 2006).
  • Ostwald, Jamel. Vauban under Siege: Engineering Efficiency and Martial Vigor in the War of the Spanish Succession (History of Warfare; 41). Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2007 (hardcover, ISBN 90-04-15489-2).
  • Tellier, Luc-Normand, Face aux Colbert : les Le Tellier, Vauban, Turgot ... et l'avènement du libéralisme, Presses de l'Université du Québec, 1987, 816 pages.Etext

External links[edit]

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