Sebastien Vauban (1633-1707) served as France's foremost military engineer under Louis the XIV. A man of humble birth, Vauban's acumen in planning military fortifications and his direction of sieges against France's enemies helped the regime achieve dominance over much of western Europe during the latter part of the seventeenth century.
Sebastien LePrestre de Vauban was born in 1633 in Saint-Leger-de-Foucherest, in France's Morvan region. He was the son of Urbain Vauban and Edmee Corvignolle, and his grandfather, a notary a century before, had been able to buy a partial fief, which ennobled him and his heirs. Unfortunately, the family was too large to amass any real wealth from their title. Vauban was given the name Sebastien after his godfather, who was the local priest; and also educated Vauban, though he reportedly taught himself math and was fascinated by a chance discovery of a book on military fortifications.
In 1651 a famed French royal and officer, Louis II de Bourbon, also known as the Prince de Conde, passed through Saint-Leger-de-Foucherest and Vauban left to join his regiment. The prince was leading an insurrection against the regime of Louis XIV, France's underage king. Through an influential cardinal who held power jointly with the king, many of the princes' rights had been curtailed. Conde waged an all-out war, even allying with France's sworn foe, Spain, and during these battles across France Vauban made a name for himself as a young cadet. He held towns in the Argonne, and more famously helped take Sainte-Menehould by swimming across its river under fire.
In 1653 Vauban was captured by royal forces and taken as a prisoner of war. He then switched sides, as Conde would later do, and helped the crown retake Sainte-Menehould. Vauban served in several capacities, but proved himself most proficient as an engineer in a special officer corps for defense fortifications. Though it was almost separate from regular military duty, Vauban's post placed him in the middle of fire and he was wounded several times. The princes' rebellion was quelled in 1658, and the years until 1667 marked a relatively peaceful time in French politics. Vauban, now a lead engineer, busied himself with demolishing outmoded fortifications and constructing new ones. He married a woman from his hometown in 1663, but spent little time there. That same year he was rewarded with his own company in the Picardy regiment.
One of Vauban's most noteworthy achievements was his fortification of Dunkirk, a French port on the North Sea that Louis XIV purchased from England in 1662. It was a sandy area with almost no natural geographic defenses. Vauban studied the sea tides, and constructed a series of dams and canals. When a war against the Spanish Netherlands was launched in 1667, Vauban returned to combat and was handsomely rewarded for his successes in taking a number of towns. Louis XIV bestowed upon him a royal pension and made him a lieutenant in the Royal Guards. He also achieved the title as France's Commissary General of Fortifications, and worked closely with the king in determining France's military strategies. There were volumes of correspondence written between the pair, who, wrote Francois Bluche in Louis XIV, "urged each other on, oscillating between pragmatism and less objective stances. The result was the corridor running around the realm which is known as the 'military iron curtain."' Vauban's fortifications of the entire northern border of France were mapped out in extensive blueprints that after his death were part of European military curriculum for the next hundred years; at one point he even suggested to Louis XIV that Paris become a walled enclave.
Peace again reigned in France under Louis XIV from 1668 to 1672, but the Third Dutch War with Holland again, for the next six years, called Vauban's skills into action. Often, the king was alongside his top defense engineer during crucial sieges. For the town of Maastricht Vauban designed a system of zig-zag trenches which ran parallel to the perimeter of defenses and saved French soldiers from enemy artillery fire. Such trenches became quite well-known when used by troops during World War I. Because of the French victory at Maastricht, Vauban was financially compensated with a large sum of money by the king, and with it bought a chateau near where he was born, at Bazoches. He was also elevated to the rank of marechal de camp, equivalent to a brigadier general.
Though officially not at war, Louis XIV and his troops-considered Europe's most formidable military presence of the day-seized a number of important cities. In 1681 the German border city of Strasbourg became the most notable of these, and that same year Vauban began constructing a massive fortress there. He argued in favor of its rather ornate gates, an expenditure for which the king balked-Vauban asserted that they issued the necessary statement of French opulence and might to Strasbourg's German-French populace.
Over the next few years Vauban supervised sieges of key locales, such as the 1684 siege of Luxembourg, for which he invented the cavalier, a tower that allowed French troops to look down and fire upon the besieged town. In 1687 he constructed the fortification at Landau in Bavaria, a structure so masterful in planning that military historians cite it as the apex of Vauban's career. In the War of the Grand Alliance, in which Louis XIV's France battled a trio of formidable powers-the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands, and England-Vauban served as a lieutenant general and took the vital town of Phillippsburg on the Rhine. That battle was also notable for Vauban's introduction of ricochet gunfire, in which he ordered cannons to be fired with less gunpowder so they did not immediately sink into the ground but instead hit a number of targets.
In 1693, Vauban was sixty years of age, but was still active in military service as a commanding officer and defense engineer. He led an infantry division in Charleroi that year, traveled to the Atlantic port of Brest to fortify it against the English, and in 1697 was wounded in Ath. Peace came the following year, and his renovation of the Alsace fort at Neuf-Brisach was the last project of his career. His talents were not only restricted to forts and artillery, however. He wrote a number of treatises on matters crucial to France during his day, and undertook important censuses on behalf of Louis XIV from 1678 to 1693.
During Louis XIV's long rule (1643-1715) France grew into a thriving empire and one that reflected the glory of the king and his divine right to the throne. Through a series of measures designed to restrict the power of the nobility and concentrate power in his hands, Louis XIV and his reign virtually epitomized the term "absolute monarchism." As a reflection of his power, he built an impressive new palace at Versailles, and moved his court there in 1682. Art and culture were supposed to reflect the King and his tastes, and his important ministers such as Francois-Michel Louvois (Vauban's immediate superior) and Jean-Baptiste Colbert carried out policies that also reflected the king's firm directives. One of those was to make France as prosperous and self-sufficient as possible, and in some areas, long-standing hostilities that threatened such aims were effectively checked for a time by military victories in which Vauban played a key role.
Not unlike other members of the cadre of advisors close to the King, Vauban saw himself in complete service to the King and was dedicated to the monarch's goals. He was appointed by the king to direct a series of censuses beginning in 1678, and his collected data provided the king with an accurate look at the number of French subjects, their wealth, trade and work, as well as land-use statistics. Vauban authored General and Simple Method for Counting Peoples, published in 1686, and his Projet d'une dixme royale ("Project for a Royal Tythe, or General Tax") caused a stir in 1707. It did not appear under his own name, for Vauban was well aware of the controversy it would bring. In it, he asserted that France's complicated tax code should be abandoned and a flat tax of ten percent on property and trade be put in place. More significantly, in this book Vauban supported his arguments with a wealth of statistical data he had collected, and thus laid the foundation for the use of statistics to corroborate and forecast economic aims. Louis XIV censored its publication, however, and this devastated Vauban, though it appears they remained friends.
During his lifetime Vauban wrote on a variety of other topics, including pig breeding, canal construction, and even "Leisures" in his collection Oisivets. He was considered a kind and personable man, and over his long career was roundly praised for his bravery in battle and regard for the lives of his soldiers. It is said he often passed military accolades due him on to lesser officers. He died March 30, 1707 at the age of 74 and left behind his prolific correspondence with the king, which provided a glimpse into why one of Europe's most influential monarchs relied upon Vauban's wisdom and insight. In a 1673 report back to Louvois and Louis XIV about the haphazardness of France's border with Holland, Vauban, quoted in The Age of Louis XIV, remarked that "it should always be our object, either by treaty or by war, not to square the circle but to give our country a square and regular shape. It is a fine thing when one can hold on to one's possessions with one's two hands." The town where Vauban was born, Saint-Leger-de-Foucherest, was later renamed Saint-Leger-Vauban in his honor.
Bluche, Francois, Louis XIV, translated by Mark Greengrass, Franklin Watts, 1990.
Gaxotte, Pierre, The Age of Louis XIV, translated by Michael Shaw, Macmillan, 1970.