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‘A town built by Vauban is a town saved, a town attacked by Vauban is a town lost.’ So went a saying about France’s most famous engineer, Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, who died in Paris 300 years ago, on 30 March 1707.
Vauban strengthened the fortifications of more than 300 French towns and built 37 new fortresses on the frontiers and coasts of France. His military talents were first noticed by Cardinal Mazarin, who persuaded him to throw in his lot with the king’s party during the French civil war. Aged only 22, Vauban became the engineer responsible for fortifications. Between 1653 and 1659, he took part in 14 sieges and was wounded several times.
When war resumed between France and Spain in 1667, Vauban besieged the Spanish fortresses of Tournai, Douai and Lille; he quickly found Lille’s weak spots, forcing the city to surrender after only nine days. Vauban strengthened Lille’s defences, using a troop of eager young engineers, whom he called his ‘band of Archimedes’.
In 1673 the French siege of Maastricht gave Vauban, the supreme builder of fortresses, an opportunity to show that he also possessed the technical genius to capture one of the most formidable in Europe. Its elaborate defences were in the shape of a pointed star, providing overlapping arcs of artillery fire from which hitherto there had been no escape. Vauban’s ingenious counter-measures, employed at Maastricht for the very first time, involved digging a main trench parallel to the fortress out of range of its artillery. From these he ran a series of ziz-zag trenches, known as ‘saps’, angled to prevent them being raked by musket or cannon fire as they approached the walls, until he could dig a much closer main trench. The whole sequence could be repeated indefinitely until the engineers, or ‘sappers’, were near enough to dig holes under the walls of Maastricht and lay mines packed with gunpowder to bring them down.
A humanitarian at heart, Vauban had seen at first hand the suffering of soldiers employed in frontal attacks on fortresses, and concentrated on avoiding needless loss of life. Provided the attackers were patient, Vauban’s new system of reducing strongholds was so effective that the defenders suffered four times the number of casualties inflicted on the besiegers – the reverse of what had happened previously.
In 44 years service, Vauban was promoted several times, and became a Marshal of France in 1703. He was never politically astute, however, and twice fell out badly with Louis XIV. In 1689 he wrote a pamphlet advocating an end to the persecution of the Huguenots, whose freedom of worship and trade had been removed in 1684 at great cost to French commerce, as many fled abroad. In 1707 Vauban tactlessly proposed a universal taxation system on all revenues, on a sliding scale between 5% and 10%, from which there would be no exemptions, not even the king.
From our April 2007 newsletter