Key figure in the reign of Louis XIV, Sébastien le Prestre marquis de Vauban was a specialist in siege and fortification techniques. Coming from the gentry, he enjoyed a rich but eventful career in the service of the Sun King, for whom he exercised his talents as a military engineer. But Vauban was more than an expert in poliorcetics, the art of besieging cities. Self-taught, his mathematical and visionary vision of the world indeed prefigures the philosophers of the Enlightenment, just like his virulent criticisms of royal taxation, which earned him a few “years of misery”. He died in 1707, in Paris, respected by the king despite everything.
Sébastien le Prestre marquis de Vauban was born in 1633 in Saint-Léger-de-Foucherets, in the Morvan. He was baptized on May 15, 1633, as "Son of Albin Le Prestre, escuyer, and damoiselle Edmée de Carmignolle, daughter of an escuyer". Orphan, he was entrusted to M. de Fontaines, prior of the college of Saint-Jean Semur-en-Auxois who gave him a solid basic education. At the age of 17, he began his career in the arms, a cadet in the army of the Prince of Condé. We are then in full Fronde, and Vauban is thus at the sides of the enemies of the young Louis XIV.
The young man quickly distinguished himself during the siege of Sainte-Menehould (1652). He was however taken prisoner a little later by the king's troops, and again showed his bravery by refusing to dismount. Cardinal de Mazarin spotted him then, and decided to rally him to the royal cause, as he had already done with other rebels. With the twinkling of an eye of fate, it was once again in Sainte-Menehould that Vauban stood out, this time in the opposing camp, by participating in the reconquest of the city, then in the repairs of its fortifications.
From then on, becoming an ordinary engineer to the king in 1655, Vauban took part in most of the major sieges of the end of the 1650s, where he stood out both for his courage (he was wounded several times) and for his military skill, particularly in poliorcetic. On the other hand, if he gradually rises in rank, his modest background slows down his career for a time compared to his main competitors.
The Peace of the Pyrenees (1659) allowed him to return home and to marry Jeanne d´Osnay. But quickly, he must leave, and will rarely see his wife and little girls. Louis XIV ordered him to dismantle the fortifications of Nancy, then regularly entrusted him with other missions. Throughout his career, Vauban has never stopped riding and being on the pitch. Vauban left in 1662 for Dunkirk which Louis XIV had just taken from the English; there he is responsible for directing work intended to consolidate the main French strategic support points in the North. He obtained the surrender of several places, which he subsequently fortified. Wounded during the siege of Lille, he was appointed lieutenant of the Sun King's guards.
Sieges and fortifications
Having visited the strongholds of Flanders in order to consolidate them, he then established plans for the fortifications of Cherbourg before moving to Franche-Comté and taking the place of governor of Lille, responsible for the defense of the northern territories. . This is how he drew up the relief plan of the citadel which, sent to Louis XIV, is the source of the splendid collection of models of strongholds preserved today at the Invalides. Vauban set out to design strongholds intended not only for the invincibility of the place but also for the healthiness of the living conditions of the soldiers in garrison. At Louvois’s request, he wrote a Memoir to serve as an instruction in the conduct of sieges, certain principles of which are still used today by armies around the world. Vauban traveled to the west coast of France to give very specific instructions for ports vulnerable to attack by the Dutch fleet; in 1674 he received the rank of brigadier general.
Vauban was led, during the siege of Cambrai, in 1677, to oppose the military designs of Louis XIV for the protection of the troops; this act of courage earned him the rank of field marshal. No major siege is now undertaken without Vauban's advice. If his promotions were not as fast as he would like (especially in view of his service record), Vauban was regularly rewarded by King Louis XIV, by governments (citadel of Lille in 1668), or ranks (brigadier in 1677, lieutenant general in 1688). When the friend and master, the Chevalier de Clerville disappeared, he accepted the post of commissioner general of fortifications (1678); in this place, he succeeded in silencing the rivalries between Colbert and Louvois. He then obtained the Grand Cross of Saint-Louis in 1693, and became an honorary member of the Académie des Sciences in 1699. He was finally Marshal in 1703, becoming the first engineer to obtain this distinction.
The invention of the French “pré carré”
Traveling the country in all directions, Vauban gradually provided France with a veritable belt of fortifications. In the 1680s, he focused on strengthening a port network and creating new fortresses on the Atlantic coast, because he believed that a solid coastal military establishment would protect France from the powerful Anglo-American fleets. Dutch. Assisted by Catinat, Vauban, during these months, gave France the effective means to win offensive and defensive wars. More or less direct promoter of projects such as the Maintenon aqueduct or the Deux-Mers canal, Vauban is no less passionate about statistics.
His experience and skills, but also his outspokenness, made him listened to by the king's principal ministers, such as Colbert and Louvois, and especially by Louis XIV himself. It was, however, through Louvois, in 1673, that he convinced the Sun King to "To hold its fact with both hands", that is to say to set up at the borders (often moving at the time) a belt of strongholds, which Vauban himself called "The pre-square". This delimited and protected space was to allow the king to fully exercise all his sovereignty there.
Vauban master of poliorcetics
In the service of Louis XIV for more than fifty years, Vauban took part in most of the sieges marking the many wars of the reign, including the famous siege of Maastricht (1673) during the Dutch War. This experience led the king to order from him, for his grandson, a treatise on the attack on the towns. Vauban was carried out in 1704, in a manuscript in which he detailed, with supporting sketches, the twelve phases of the siege. A work that quickly became a reference for the time, beyond French borders. We now speak of “Vauban-style headquarters”. his mastery of the subject will leave to posterity a famous saying: “City besieged by Vauban, city taken; city defended by Vauban, impregnable city ”.
At the end of the 1680s, Vauban was at the peak of his career, which enabled him to buy back the castle of Bazoches, in his native Morvan, to which he remained attached. Nevertheless, the engineer began to be critical of the expensive reign of Louis XIV.
The 1690s are often referred to as "years of misery" in Vauban's life. Indeed, his rides in the four corners of France allow him to realize the growing misery of the people, largely due to the financial pressures caused by repeated wars. Vauban is also opposed to government financiers, and does not behave like a courtier.
Vauban's reflections at the end of the 1680s led him to write memoirs which show that he was much more than a genius engineer. Those are the "Idleness", his major work, twelve volumes between 1689 and 1705. He discusses the situation of the kingdom, its population, and on many other subjects such as botany, the American colonies, forests, and obviously his favorite themes , like the seat ("The attack on the squares", cited above, is the eighth volume of "Idleness").
This freedom of thought attracts him enmities, especially as he does not hesitate to criticize the fiscal policy of the kingdom, and even to propose reforms like the Royal Tithe. He did not hesitate to propose a bold tax reform, the application of which would undoubtedly have greatly modified the history of France in the 18th century: Vauban explained the advantages of a tax that would be levied directly by the royal administration. without any derogation or privilege. The book is seized upon publication and causes the disgrace of its author. He went so far as to oppose the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which made his case worse.
In the early 1700s, the reign of Louis XIV no longer had the luster of 1670-1680. Vauban, even though he becomes Marshal of France, is just as aging, and his critical writings are annoying. In the last years of his life, Vauban nevertheless decided to have his work bound and printed himself, in particular "The Royal Tithe", believing that he must remain useful to the kingdom, despite a context that does not favor reforms.
When Vauban died on March 30, 1707, in Paris, the monarchy did not pay him official honors, thus showing that he was embarrassing at the highest level. He is not, however, a victim of the king, as we often read. Louis XIV would even have spoken of him "With great esteem and friendship", shortly before his death. Vauban nevertheless received the honors of the Académie des Sciences, through Fontenelle. His mortal remains were deposited at the Château de Bazoches and then dispersed during the Revolution of 1789. Only the heart was found, which was placed in the invalids in 1808 by order of Napoleon.
Vauban wrote extensively on the military and civil development of the kingdom. He had participated in about 53 sieges and would have been directly linked to 140 very important military engagements. Curious spirit, precursor of the Enlightenment and endearing personality, we owe him more than 200 fortresses and fortified works, which have left many traces in the urban landscape.
- Vauban, the inventor of modern France, by Dominique Le Brun. Vuibert, 2016.
- M. Barros, N. Salat, T. Sarmant, Vauban, intelligence of the territory, ed. N. Chaudun, 2006.
- Vauban and the invention of the French meadow, by Bernard Crochet. Ouest-France, 2014.