Show Notes for Episode 425: Vauban Fortifications in France

Category: French History

Discussed in this Episode

  • Feux croisés
  • Boulets creux
  • Tir à ricochets
  • Cavaliers de tranchée
  • La dîme Royale
  • Oisivetées
  • La basterne
  • Scale models of Vauban fortifications at Les Invalides

VAUBAN : MILITARY GENIUS, ENGINEER, and HUMANIST

Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban, known by his last name, Vauban, was born in 1633 and died in 1707 at the ripe old age of 73.

During his life he was a soldier, an engineer, an architect specializing in military defense, a mathematician, a member of the Academy of Science, Commissaire General of Fortifications, Maréchal of France, and writer.

“A city built by Vauban is a city that is saved, a city that is attacked by Vauban is a lost city” (famous saying created during his lifetime.

His life was remarkable in every way and his architectural legacy is visible all over France.

In 2008 12 sites (out of over 150 that he worked on!!) were selected to become part of the World Unesco Heritage sites in France. These 12, which cover almost every part of the country, were chosen specifically because they have kept as much of their original design and structure as possible. These include several citadelles (fortified cities), several sets of ramparts, towers and new designed cities. (The List is at the end of the text)

Besides going to one of the many places that still have all or part of his works, it is possible to see remarkable, detailed scale models of his projects in two places:

  1. The Museum of Models in the Invalides in Paris
  2. The Fine Arts Museum of Lille (a city he helped fortify)

Vauvan’s Life and Work

Youth

Vauban was born into an upper class family, that was not noble or aristocratic but that had made enough money to be given a title by the king and so became what is called the “petite noblesse”. He grew up in the area called the Morvan, a remote part of Burgundy that is now the department of the Nièvre.

He was a lackluster student who discovered that he excelled in mathematics, drawing, and geometry. He began writing a personal journal very early in his life, and was particularly sensitive to the plight of the peasants in the area where he grew up, as he played with the peasant children having had a rather solitary childhood. He wrote about his attachment to the land and to his concern about the well being of the poor he saw all around him.

The middle of the 1600’s was a time of incessant wars and plagues in France, with lots of poverty and instability. Different princes were vying for power and several frondes (plots to dethrone the king) took place.

At the age of 17 Vauban joined the infantry of the army of the Prince of Condé, who created an  army to overthrow the king who was his cousin, claiming he was the rightful heir to the throne. Because Condé was the Prince of Burgundy, Vauban joined him out of loyalty.

For two years he fought with Condé, during which time he was wounded three times. He was quickly promoted to officer, and his bravery and his “bravado” were giving him a reputation that impressed even the king’s men.

At the age of 19, he was captured by Mazarin’s troops (the king Louis XIII’s prime minister and head of his army) and instead of being punished or put in prison, he was convinced by Mazarin to join him in fighting against his former leader. In fact, he was too valuable a leader and soldier to be wasted in prison.

Vauban the Military Strategist

What had happened was that Vauban, who said what he thought to everyone including the princes and generals, was horrified by the huge loss of life he witnessed during many of the battles, and started giving his idea about the strategies to use to attack and also to defend. He became an officer and continued to fight, this time for the king, Louis XIV.

It was in 1657, at the age of 24, after the siege of Montmédy, having been wounded again, that Vauban started to set down on paper his analysis and criticism of the fortifications and the way the army fought. At that time the fortifications were still very old fashioned. And, because he had genuine experience in battle his opinions were listened to.

Vauban’s Ideas

Interestingly, Vauban’s idea and plans were motivated by one essential thing, saving the lives of the soldiers with whom he fought.

His brilliance in math and his ability to analyze the movements of the troops as well as his interest in architecture and designing new fortifications started a new career for him.

He had a scientific vision of the world and decided to apply this vision to combat. He had a revolutionary concept of defensive military construction with three different systems or lines of defense.

He would make a complete analysis of the terrain and adapt his designs to that specific terrain. He created a system designed to inflict a minimum loss of life on his army. When possible he had new fortifications built using a system adapted from the Ottoman way of building. When that was not possible he had old structures changed and reinforced. He created what he called Citadelles: walled cities in urbanized (for that time) areas.

One of the signature elements of his citadelles was the use of a pentagram: a five sided fortified space with walls that are sightly on the oblique and  with no right angles, to make it harder for invading forces to scale the walls. He conceived of three lines of trenches for an attacking army so that they would be protected.

He used higher mathematics to calculate the angles for shooting and for arches. Battles took place in Lille, Tournai and Douai, ancient cities that were poorly defended. And since he had seen these battles, he began his “new” ideas by working on these places.

His definitive work which he put into writing is called, ‘A Treatise on Sieges and Attacks” and it was considered to be modern and revolutionary.

At the age of 27 in 1660, he was rewarded by the king with a huge sum of money, he went back home, got married to a distant cousin, and bought his château. In 1678 he was named Commissioner of Fortifications, in 1688 he was made Lieutenant General, and finally, at the age of 70 in 1703 he was made Maréchal or Head General.

In his lifetime he worked on creating or modernizing over 150 sites: forts, cities and newly created urban spaces.

Vauban: The Man

During his lifetime, Vauban traveled an average of 300 days out of each year, whether by horseback or by carriage. He surveyed and examined every inch of the kingdom of France and the northern countries as well. It is said that out of a 37 year marriage, he spent approximately 3 and a half years at home, usually about a month or so each year at harvest time. He had three children, his two daughters survived and had good mariages and lives. But he also had several children with women he met in his travels around the country, and apparently was so much a man of “honor” that he took care of all of these children even when it wasn’t certain they were his!!!!

Interestingly, Vauban had a second passion and that was to improve the plight of the peasantry of the country. He was appalled by the systems of taxation that allowed the rich to not pay taxes (shades of today!) while the poor and the peasants were often taxed to death and were left with nothing.

He used his mathematical mind to work out systems of taxation that would alleviate the poor and equalize the social order. For years and years the king Louis XIV admired him and listened to his ideas. Vauban had a reputation as being one of the few people to talk ‘straight’ to the king and get away with it.

The Last Work

But finally, in his last years, his ultimate major work got him banished from the Court and his honors were taken away from him! He wrote a work called The Dime Royal (dime is a tax) which he distributed in secret and which he wanted to have published. In this volume he criticized the way the king taxed his countrymen, and he described a new taxation system that would be a sliding scale, where the rich paid more than the poor and where the poor  were helped to rise up.

This sounds very revolutionary, and it was!! And this was 89 years before the Revolution happened. The king was furious when a copy was leaked to him, because it overtly criticized the king’s politics and severely judged the rich and the nobles who lived off the poor. In spite of his long association with Louis XIV, this caused his banishment and “dishonor” at the end of a long, productive and intellectually rich life.

He returned home to his château in the Morvan, and spent the last three years there, dying of a chronic pulmonary infection in 1707 at the age of 73.

Vauban’s Heritage

Vauban was a genius, a brilliant thinker, and a humanist whose greatest concern, after years of being a soldier, was the well being of others!

Everywhere you go in France you can still see examples, or remnants of the structures that Vauban designed and had built. Cities like Lille, La Rochelle, or Besançon still have the walls that were built by him. Imagine that he worked on over 150 different projects! He even improved on the Canal du Midi just after it opened, to make it more efficient.

In 2008 12 of those projects were selected, out of the many that still exist, to represent his work for posterity by Unesco. These 12 are now World Unesco Heritage sites. They were chosen because, according to Unesco, they  “ are the most representative and most coherent examples of his ideas.

Everything he did is evidence of just how great a man he was and how remarkable his life was too.

Vauban’s Works on the Unesco List

Listed in Alphabetical Order, they are:

Arras- a beautiful, walled city (citadelle) in the Pas de Calais

Besançon – a citadelle and its ramparts, plus a fort, in the Doubs

Blaye-Cussac-Fort Médoc – in the Gironde: the citadelle of Blaye, the walls, the fort

Briançon in the Hautes-Alpes: the walls, two forts and the bridge Asfeld

Camaret-sur-Mer in the Finistère: the tower

Longwy in the Meurthe and Moselle: the “new” city competely designed by Vauban

Mont-Dauphin in the Hautes -Alpes: the fortified square

Mont-Louis in the Pyrenees Orietales: the citadelle and the walls

Neuf-Brisach in the Haut-Rhin: the “new” city

Saint Martin de Ré in the Charente –Maritime: the citadelle and the walls

Saint -Vaast –le- Hougue in the Manche: the observation towers

Villefranche de Confluent in the Pyrenees Orientales: the walls, the Liberai fort and the grotto Cova Bastera

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Category: French History