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Sébastien de Vauban

Sébastien de VaubanAKA Sébastien Le Prestre, Seigneur de Vauban

Born: 15-May-1633
Birthplace: Saint-Léger-de-Foucherest, France
Died: 30-Mar-1707
Location of death: Paris, France
Cause of death: Respiratory failure
Remains: Buried, Les Invalides, Paris, France

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Engineer

Nationality: France
Executive summary: Mastermind of the siege

Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, marshal of France, the most celebrated of military engineers, was born at Saint-Léger-Vauban (Yonne). At the age of ten he was left an orphan in very poor circumstances, and his boyhood and youth were spent among the peasantry of his native place. A fortunate event brought him under the care of the Carmelite prior of Sémur, 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 Mazarin converted the young engineer into a devoted servant of the king. He was employed in the siege of St. Ménéhould (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 defenses, among 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. At 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 in the possession of new fortresses, which Vauban now improved or rebuilt. Hitherto the characteristic features of his method 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 defense of fortresses by another hand, was published at Leiden in 1740). On the renewal of war Vauban again conducted the most important sieges (Rheinbergen and Nijmwegen 1672, Maastricht and Trier in 1673, Besançon in 1674). In the latter year he also supervised the only defense in which he ever took part, that of Oudenarde. This was followed by the reduction of Dinant, Huy and Limburg. At this time he wrote for the commandants of Verdun and Le Quesnoy, valuable Instructions pour la défense. 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 parallels (said to have been suggested by the practice of the Turks at Candia in 1668) dates from the siege of Maastricht, and for over two centuries remained the standard method of attacking a fortress. The peace of Nijmwegen gave more territory to France, and more fortresses had to be adapted. Vauban was named commissaire-général des fortifications on the death of De 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 Strassburg (1681), involved him in unceasing work. At Saarlouis for the first time appeared Vauban's "first system" of fortification, which remained the accepted standard for a very long time. 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-general, he took the field once more, and captured Courtrai in 1683, and Luxemburg 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 year. 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 fire for the first time as the principal means of breaking down the defense. He had indeed already used it with effect at Philipsburg in 1688 and at Namur, but the jealousy of the artillery at 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 New Breisach, fortified on his "third system" which was in fact a modification of the second and was called by Vauban himself système de Landau perfectionné. His last siege was that of Old Breisach in 1703, when he reduced the place in a fortnight. On the 14th of January of that year Vauban had been made a marshal of 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 disfavor, for it was not realized that the greatness of his services was rather in the attack than in the defense. In the darkness of defeat he turned his attention to the defense; but his work De la défense des places is of far less worth than the Attaque, and his far-seeing ideas on entrenched camps (Traité des fortifications de campagne) were coldly received, though therein may be found the elements of the "detached forts" system later universal in Europe. The close of his life, saddened by the consciousness of waning influence and by failing health, he devoted largely to the arrangement of the voluminous manuscripts (Mes oisivetés) which contained his reflections on war, administration, finance, agriculture and the like. In 1689 he had had the courage to make a representation to the king in favor of the republication of the Edict of Nantes, and in 1698 he wrote his Projet d'une dixme royale, a remarkable work foreshadowing the principles of the French Revolution. Vauban was deeply impressed with the deplorable condition of the peasantry, whose labor he regarded as the main foundation of all wealth, and protested in particular against the unequal incidence of taxation and the exemptions and privileges of the upper classes. His dixme-royale, a tax to be impartially applied to all classes, was a tenth of all agricultural produce payable in kind, and a tenth of money chargeable on manufacturers and merchants. This work was published in 1707, and instantly suppressed by order of the king. The marshal died heart-broken at the failure of his efforts a few days after the publication of the order (March 30, 1707). At the Revolution his remains were scattered, but in 1808 his heart was found and deposited by order of Napoleon in the church of the Invalides.

Vauban's attention was closely engaged, not only in general military matters, but in political and financial reform and the inland navigation of France. He carried out the rearmament of the French infantry with flintlock muskets and the socket bayonet. The order of St. Louis was suggested by him, and lastly may be mentioned the fortress-models which he constructed, most of which are in the Invalides at Paris, and some in the Berlin Zeughaus. The actual total of his work as an engineer is worth recording. He conducted forty sieges and took part in more than three hundred combats, while his skill and experience were employed on the construction or rebuilding of more than 160 fortresses of all kinds. Mes oisivetés long remained unpublished, and of the twelve volumes of manuscript seven are lost. The remainder were published in Paris, 1841-45, in an abridged form, and of the five manuscript volumes three are in public hands, and two belong to the families of two famous engineers, Augoyat and Haxo. At the Hague (1737-42) appeared, dedicated to Frederick of Prussia, De Hondt's edition of De l'attaque et défense, etc., and of this work an improved edition appeared subsequently. But the first satisfactory editions are those of Augoyat and Valaz.

Wife: Jeanne d'Aulnay (his cousin)

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