Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban


Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban : biography

15 May 1633 – 30 March 1707

Vauban was named Commissaire-général des fortifications on the death of Clerville, and wrote in 1679 a memorandum on the places of the new frontier, from which it appears that from Dunkirk to Dinant France possessed fifteen fortresses and forts, with thirteen more in second line. Most of these had been rebuilt by Vauban, and further acquisitions, notably Strasbourg (1681), involved him in unceasing work, some of which, such as the Barrage Vauban, can still be seen today. At Saarlouis for the first time appeared Vauban’s "first system" of fortification, which remained the accepted standard until comparatively recent times. He never hesitated to retain what was of advantage in the methods of his predecessors, which he had hitherto followed, and it was in practice rather than in theory that he surpassed them.

In 1682 his "second system", which introduced modifications of the first designed to prolong the resistance of the fortress, began to appear; and about the same time he wrote a practical manual entitled Le Directeur-Général des fortifications (Hague, 1683–85). Having now attained the rank of Lieutenant Général, he took the field once more, and captured Kortrijk in 1683, and Luxembourg in the following year. The unexpected strength of certain towers designed by the Spanish engineer Louvigni (fl. 1673) at Luxemburg suggested the tower-bastions which are the peculiar feature of Vauban’s second system which was put into execution at Belfort in the same.

In 1687 he chose Landau as the chief place of arms of Lower Alsace, and lavished on the place all the resources of his art. But side by side with this development grew up the far more important scheme of attack. He instituted a company of miners, and the elaborate experiments carried out under his supervision resulted in the establishment of all the necessary formulae for military mining (Traité des mines, Paris, 1740 and 1799; Hague, 1744); while at the siege of Ath in 1697, having in the meanwhile taken part in more sieges, notably that of Namur in 1692 (defended by the great Dutch engineer Coehoorn), he employed ricochet firing for the first time as the principal means of breaking down the defence. He had indeed already used it with effect at Philippsburg in 1688 and at Namur, but the jealousy of the artillery of outside interference had hindered the full use of this remarkable invention, which with his other improvements rendered the success of the attack almost certain.

After the peace of Ryswick Vauban rebuilt or improved other fortresses, and finally Neuf-Brisach, fortified on his "third system " which was in fact a modification of the second and was called by Vauban himself système de Landau perfectionné (perfected Landau system). His last siege was that 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, and his active career came to an end with his promotion. Soon afterwards appeared his Traité de l’attaque des places, a revised and amplified edition of the older memoir of 1669, which contains the methods of the fully developed Vauban attack, the main features of which are the parallels, ricochet fire and the attack of the defending personnel by vertical fire.

But Louis XIV was now thrown on the defensive, and the war of the Spanish Succession saw the gradual wane of Vauban’s influence, as his fortresses were taken and retaken. The various captures of Landau, his chef-d’oeuvre, caused him to be regarded with disfavour, for it was not realized that the greatness of his services was rather in the attack than in the defence. In the darkness of defeat he turned his attention to the defence; but his work De la defense des places (ed. by General Valaze, Paris, 1829) is of far less worth than the Attaque, and his far-seeing ideas on entrenched camps (Traits des fortifications de campagne) were coldly received, though therein may be found the elements of the "detached forts" system universal in Europe by the 20th century.