David Flintham - Military Historian
Sébastien Le Prestre, Seigneur de Vauban
Sébastien Le Prestre, Seigneur de Vauban
Sébastien Le Prestre, Seigneur de Vauban (1633-1707) was just one of a number of remarkable men who dominated the "Century of Louis XIV". Vauban and Louis XIV, the Sun King, are intrinsically linked – Vauban, the great military engineer, was one of a number of loyal servants who served Louis throughout his 72-year reign enabling France to end the 17th century as the dominate European power.
Despite the brilliance of Louis XIV’s generals, Turenne, Condé and Luxembourg, France’s predominance was at least equally due to the way that France was organised for war and in particular the administrative talents of the Marquis de Louvois and Jean-Baptiste Colbert. Vauban was somewhere in between the field commanders and the administrators and was a great organiser with a particular talent in choosing good staff, staff he was constantly able to get the best out of.
He was a loyal servant to his King, but his loyalty was not blind. He was also something of a contradiction - he was a man-at-arms who did not like violence and frequently gave his opinion on subjects outside his own fields of competence. His criticism of royal policy (including, in 1685, his condemnation the repeal of the Edict of Nantes) brought him into conflict with his royal master.
Vauban was made a Marshall of France, an unusual honour for a ‘mere’ military engineer, rather later in his life. But, as well deserved as it was, its award was probably delayed by his tendency to speak out on matters other than military tactics or methods of fortifications. Indeed, his writings included subjects outside his immediate sphere which ultimately cooled his relationship with Louis XIV. That Vauban, a man from such comparatively humble beginnings, should rise to the rank of Marshall is a near-incredible achievement, especially considering that he started his military career as a rebellious Frondeur.
Whilst he is most famed as a military engineer, on at least one occasion, Vauban commanded troops in the field, famously repulsing an English landing at Camaret-sur-Mer, near Brest, on 18th June 1694. In addition, he is credited with the invention, in 1689, of the socket bayonet and also dabbled in civil engineering, and was involved with the planned aqueduct for Versailles as well as the canal to link the Atlantic with the Mediterranean (the Canal du Midi or Canal des Deux Mers). He was also tasked with the building of Louis XIV’s collection of toy soldiers.
Examples of Vauban’s work can still be seen across France and such is Vauban’s reputation, that even in places where their fortifications were not touched by Vauban’s hand (such as the Point de Merville battery in Normandy) fortifications are still associated with him. Indeed, probably only De Gaulle, Foch and Napoleon have more streets named in their honour. And not only streets, but, such as in Maubeuge, also homes, cafes and (perhaps most importantly) bars are named after the ‘grand old man’. Raymond Blanc, who is from Besançon (left - photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons), referred to Vauban as 'the great master'.
Vauban's tomb (right) in Les Invalides. During the French Revolution Vauban's remains were scattered, but in 1808 his heart was found and, by order of Napoléon, interred in the church of Les Invalides. Close to Vauban's tomb is that of Marshall Henri de la Tour d'Auvergne, Vicomte de Turenne (1611–1675), one of the greatest military leaders of the 17th century.
Lille (left) was fortified on the orders of Louis XIV following its capture from the Spanish in August 1667.
Louis Nicolas de Clerville and Vauban both proposed plans, and it was Vauban’s plans which were chosen by the King. Construction of the citadel (bottom left of the plan and picture below), took three years, from 1667 to 1670, to build. The five bastion design was dubbed "Queen of the citadels" (Reine des citadelles) by Vauban.
- ‘Ypres’, Casemate, 92, (Fortress Study Group, 2011)
- ‘No Atlantic Wall - Vauban and the Defence of the Normandy Coast’, Fort, 41, (Fortress Study Group, 2013)
- ‘17th Century Siege-Master’, Military History Monthly, 45, (2014)