Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban : biography
Sébastien Le Prestre, Seigneur de Vauban and later Marquis de Vauban (15 May 1633 – 30 March 1707), commonly referred to as Vauban, was a Marshal of France and the foremost military engineer of his age, famed for his skill in both designing fortifications and breaking through them. He also advised Louis XIV on how to consolidate France’s borders, to make them more defensible. Vauban made a radical suggestion of giving up some land that was indefensible to allow for a stronger, less porous border with France’s neighbours.
Life and doctrines
Vauban was born in Saint-Léger-de-Foucheret (renamed Saint-Léger-Vauban in his honour in 1867), in the département of Yonne, in Burgundy, France, into a family of minor nobility. At the age of ten he was left an orphan in very poor circumstances, and his boyhood and youth were spent amongst the peasantry of his native place. A fortunate event brought him under the care of the Carmelite prior of Semur, who undertook his education, and the grounding in mathematics, science and geometry which he thus received was of the highest value in his subsequent career.
At the age of seventeen Vauban joined the regiment of Condé in the war of the Fronde. His gallant conduct won him within a year the offer of a commission, which he declined on account of poverty. Condé then employed him to assist in the fortification of Clermont-en-Argonne. Soon afterwards he was taken prisoner by the royal troops; but though a rebel he was well-treated, and the kindness of Cardinal Mazarin converted the young engineer into a devoted servant of the king.
He was employed in the siege of Sainte-Menehould (which he had helped to storm as a Frondeur) and won a lieutenancy in the regiment of Burgundy, and at Stenay he was twice wounded. Soon afterwards he besieged and took his own first fortress, Clermont; and in May 1655 he received his commission as an ingénieur du roi, 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 several times wounded, 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.
After the peace, Vauban was put in charge of the construction of several important defences, amongst other places at Dunkirk, where his work continued until the year before his death. On the renewal of war in 1662 he conducted, under the eyes of the king, the sieges of Douai, Tournai and Lille. During the siege of Lille he so distinguished himself that he received a lieutenancy in the guard (ranking as a colonelcy).
The peace of Aix-la-Chapelle confirmed France’s possession of new fortresses, which Vauban now improved or rebuilt. Hitherto the characteristic features of his methods of fortification had not been developed, and the systems of preceding engineers were faithfully followed. Colbert and Louvois were profoundly interested in the work, and it was at the request of the latter that the engineer drew up in 1669 his Mémoire pour servir à l’instruction dans la conduite des sièges (this, with a memorandum on the defence of fortresses by another hand, was published at Leiden in 1740).
On the renewal of war 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 for the commandants of Verdun and Le Quesnoy, valuable Instructions pour la défense. In 1675 Vauban bought the Château de Bazoches. 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. It was at this time that Vauban synthesized the methods of attacking strong places, on which his claim to renown as an engineer rests far more than on his systems of fortification. The introduction of a systematic approach by parallel series of trenches (said to have been suggested by the practice of the Turks at Candia in 1668) dates from the siege of Maastricht, and in principle remained until the 20th century the standard method of attacking a fortress. The Peace of Nijmegen gave more territory to France, and more fortresses had to be adapted.