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Marshal Vauban and the Defence of Louis XIV's France, James Falkner

Marshal Vauban and the Defence of Louis XIV's France, James Falkner


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Marshal Vauban and the Defence of Louis XIV's France, James Falkner

Marshal Vauban and the Defence of Louis XIV's France, James Falkner

Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban, Marshal of France, is undoubtedly the most famous military engineer in history, and was responsible for the construction of vast numbers of fortifications all around France. He was also a very successful besieger of fortifications (including many places that he had built himself).

This biography follows Vauban from his upbringing as a minor provincial nobleman through his rise to prominence and to his eventual appointment as a marshal of France. His life overlapped with the reign of Louis XIV, and also with a period of near constant warfare. As a result Vauban's skills as both a builder and besieger of fortifications were in near constant demand, and he left his mark all across France.

I would have liked some more detail on the complex system of fortification in use during this period, explaining what the various elements of the system actually were and what function each was expected to perform, although there is an appendix with definitions of the main terms.

I didn't realise that Vauban spent much of his career attacking fortifications, or that his most innovative ideas came in this activity. He introduced the idea of digging a series of parallel assault trenches into western warfare, in an attempt to hide the exact point to be attacked. He also developed a timetable for the successful siege that became a template throughout the eighteenth century.

This is both an interesting biography of an important figure and a useful account of the main military events of the reign of Louis XIV.

Chapters
1 - Fence of Iron
2 - Siege Warfare
3 - A Typical Country Squire
4 - The War of Devolution
5 - War with the Dutch
6 - An End to Glory
7 - Nine Years War
8 - The Long Campaign
9 - The Greatest of His Services
10 - Engraved on the Soil

Appendix I: Vauban's Siege Operations
Appendix II: Vauban's Fortresses
Appendix III: Vauban's Idle Thoughts
Appendix IV: Glossary of Siege Terms

Author: James Falkner
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 226
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2011



Marshal Vauban and the Defence of Louis XIV's France, James Falkner - History

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Sebastien Le Prestre, Marshal Vauban, was one of the greatest military engineers of all time. His complex, highly sophisticated fortress designs, his advanced theories for the defence and attack of fortified places, and his prolific work as a writer and radical thinker on military and social affairs, mark him out as one of the most influential military minds of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Yet no recent study of this extraordinary man has been published in English.

James Falkner, in this perceptive and lively new account of Vauban's life and work, follows his career as a soldier from a dashing and brave young cavalry officer to his emergence as a masterful military engineer. And he shows that Vauban was much more than simply a superlative builder of fortresses, for as a leading military commander serving Louis XIV, he perfected a method for attacking fortifications in the most effective way, which became standard practice until the present day.

James Falkner's new study will add significantly to the understanding of Vauban's achievements and the impact his work has had on the history of warfare.

"This book offers excellent insight into the period, siege craft, and the man. Enjoyed it"

Read the full review here

The Historical Miniatures Gaming Society

“The emphasis and focus of the book, understandably given the background of both author and publisher (and likely readership), is very clearly the wars and campaigns which were the background to Vauban’s activity, and the fortification and sieges which made up the latter.”
“This is a very enjoyable read for those looking for a good, basic account of Vauban’s career and his role in the wars of Louis XIV and of fortification more generally. Its usefulness is enhanced by various maps and reproductions of portraits of key characters and of contemporary plans of fortresses.”

War In History, Christopher Storrs

Falkner's book should appeal to all enthusiasts of military history.

Thomas Zacharis

James Falkner's biography of Marshal Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban traces his life from student to the master of the craft of military engineering and at the same time details the conquests of Louis XIV. Vauban's skills were critical to France and its ability to defend its borders in a tumutuous period of Europe's history. The author is a well-respected Malborough historian and as a result, John Churchill does appear more often than is probably necessary (he is indeed indexed more than Conde, Louvois, Luxembourg, Turenne or Villars). As a result, there is a War of the Spanish Succession bias. The quality of the illustrations is very good (it is nice to see Blomfield's c1936 sketches reproduced) though more plates would have been welcome. The maps and plans are useful though a location map of the Vauban sites is a notable omission. I would recommend IGN's La France de Vauban map here. Unsurprisingly, most of the contemporary plans date form the War of the Spanish Succession. Falkner claims more than once that a cheif reason for the decline in the quality of French infantry during the period was due to their use as labourers and pioneers, implying that this was exceptional - yet labouring was the lot of the infantryman from Roman times to the 21st century. Falkner's discussion of the development of ricochet artillery fire is excellent - a development that typified Vauban's hallmarks of efficiency and effectiveness.

The map demonstrating France's vulnerability to attack is admirable (a good illustration of De Gaulle's Fatal Avenue). The map of the Pre Carre, (which Falkner describes as Vauban's Fence of Iron, a term associated with Sere de Rivieres who coined the phrase Barriere de Fer in the 19th century), would be a useful addition if it was not too small and somewhat misleading - for instance it included Boulogne, even though the town does not include any Vauban defences. I would agree that the Vauban works in such places as Gravelines and Lille are 'in a fine state' the same cannot be said of Calais, and on this point the text contradicts the map. Probably the best chapter in the book looks at how Vauban's Pre Carre resisted Allied advances during the War of the Spanish Succession and so saved France. The following chapter considers how Vauban's defences performed in later wars, particularly the Revolutionary and Napoleonic, the Franco-Prussian and both World Wars and is equally good.

The appendices are useful though one lists just the fortresses (including Boulogne) with no indication of their locality and no map to accompany the list. The bibliography is very thorough and very useful however. It is a sold enough biography and a good introduction to Vauban, but unfortunately one that ultimately did not live up to my expectations.

Casemate: The Fortress Study Group

As one who has studied European fortifications for over 30 years, and, as such, has come to [yes, let me use the term, worship] the great works of Marshal Vauban, it was with a very skeptical and defensive eye that I began to read through James Falkner's newest account of, arguably, the greatest military engineer of all time. After my attempts to find error or fault in the first 50 pages (for which I was unsuccessful), I finally settled in and began to thoroughly enjoy his vivid and well written account of the life of the man who built some of the most magnificent military structures known to man.

Being accustomed to reading historical accounts that tend to drone on ad nauseum about minutiae that causes the reader to beg the author to please move on to the good stuff, I found it refreshing, and a relief, that Falkner digs right in to what we want to hear the most about the Marshal, that is, what he did on the battlefields of Louis XIV's late seventeenth century France. Certainly he describes the early life and experiences of Vauban, including his schooling and his family, but this is all the background one needs to know if the reader is interested in what Vauban produced, rather than his life as a boy on the family estate.

The book is laid out in chronological order detailing the conquests of Louis XIV from the 1660s to the early 1700s. We follow the life of Vauban from observer to master of a craft associated with very few men a craft that was critical to the ability of a nation to defend its borders in the tumultuous period of Europe's history where societies were defined and shaped by war and negotiation. Vauban's genius was not with the sword or the musket, it lay in his ability to view a brick and stone fortress and the fields that extended out from its bastions from a different perspective. His mind was that of an engineer who could spot flaws in the angles and proportions of the works in front of him, or from upon which he viewed an enemy siege. Vauban appears as a major player in each campaign, thus demonstrating the large footprint he left across France and his decisive impact on the expansion of French territory. The book also describes very well the toll this ceaseless schedule took on him, as he was ushered from one place to another, rebuilding a fortress here, laying siege to another there.

My sole (and very minor) criticism of the book is that there are not enough visuals to support the descriptions of the many places accounted of in the book, and for this I only give it 4.99 stars [!]. During the Dutch War it would be helpful to have a map showing the campaign and all of the places discussed in it. To be fair, however, this is not a coffee table book, and the author does an excellent job of bringing the fields of battle to life in the imagination. His descriptions of man and place are vivid and interesting, and it is rare to be able to follow a battle or campaign in one's mind without sketching one's own diagrams and lists of characters.

Marshal Vauban and the Defence of Louis XIV's France, by James Falkner, is a book of military history. However, it is also a socio-political and biographical sketch of Marshal Vauban's France, perpetually at war, and the French court under Louis XIV. However, and the reason it will remain to me a valuable piece of my fortress engineering collection is that it is also a good book about fortresses. Or rather, it is a "treatise" on fortifications and the art of the siege.

Clayton Donnell "Fortress Archaeologist"

Vauban was undoubtedly one of greatest military engineers in history and left a legacy that influenced fortifications and siege warfare for centuries. As Falkner rightly said, “Vauban had died, and his like would not be seen again.” In the service of France, he created in three decades a system known as the “Fence of Iron” to secure the northern frontier. His work eventually extended to all the frontiers of France and its coastal ports. He laid down the groundwork for defence system of France from the North Sea to the Rhine that lasted well into the twentieth century. In addition to building fortifications, Vauban developed siege methods and established guidelines for them. The word “impregnable” was anathema to him even though he created the most impressive forts and fortresses of the era. He was fully conscious of the fact that any of them could be taken.

In his day, it was almost unheard that a man such a modest family background could rise to the status of Marshall of France. In the 1650s, the young Vauban joined Condé’s army in the Fronde—a civil war—fighting against the young King Louis XIV. After he was captured, he joined the royal army and became a loyal servant of the king for the remainder of his life. The king was impressed with Vauban’s skills in siege warfare, but cautioned him not to expose himself to danger in the siege lines, which did not keep him from continuing to take risks. He received numerous rewards from the king who appointed him Marshall of France in 1703. Today, when asked to name a Marshall of France, many can only name a couple who served under Napoleon and about the same number from the World Wars, but almost everyone knows of the great Vauban.

Falkner’s book follows the life of Vauban and covers the many wars of Louis XIV centering on the role of this great military engineer in building fortresses, capturing them, and even reconstructing those he breached. Falkner introduces the reader to the basics of fortress design and Vauban’s guide to siege warfare in which he established the methods and time required to conduct a successful siege. Vauban was involved with work on over 180 fortresses and participated in over 30 sieges. The seventeenth and even much of the eighteen century was dominated by positional warfare in which armies usually maneuvered to engage in a few decisive battles. This period saw the development of a code of conduct more humane than the medieval code of chivalry. A defeated enemy could receive the honors of war and be allowed to march away with weapons in hand and flags flying. If a fortress commander withstood the enemy assault according to Vauban’s guidelines, he was allowed to surrender honorably.

Often to the dismay of his king, Vauban also wrote about other topics such as a fair system of taxation or ways to improve the quality of infantry. He treated his subordinates well, and was not concerned with wealth. All this, and more, is covered by the author. Falkner’s excellent work is a must for anyone with an interest in military history.

J.E Kaufman SITEO Newsletter

This is both an interesting biography of an important figure and a useful account of the main military events of the reign of Louis XIV.

History of War Website

James Falkner is a leading writer on seventeenth and eighteenth-century warfare and he has made a special study of the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1713) and the military exploits of the Duke of Marlborough. His book, Great and Glorious Days: Marlborough's Battles 1704-1709, is one of the outstanding studies of the subject. A former British army infantry officer, he has frequently led tours of the major eighteenth-century battlefields. His most recent books include battlefield guides to Blenheim 1704 and Ramillies 1706, Marlborough Goes to War: Eyewitness Accounts 1702-1713, Marlborough's Sieges, Marlborough's Battlefields, and Fire Over the Rock: The Great Siege of Gibraltar 1779-1783.


Book Review: Marshal Vauban and the Defence of Louis XIV’s France, by James Falkner

The name Vauban is virtually synonymous with military engineering, but Falkner, a leading writer on 17th and 18th century warfare, follows step by step the life and career of Sébastien le Prestre, seigneur de Vauban, in context with the campaigns of his royal patron.

Europe’s first centralized state was a vulnerable one when Louis XIV came to the throne. Its capital, Paris, is only 120 miles from the border of present-day Belgium, which, along with some parts of modern France, was under Spanish Hapsburg rule in the 17th century. Louis thought it vital to reunite those counties with France and secure them against future attack behind an “iron fence.” Vauban, the man who fortified northern France’s defenses, started his military career in the civil war between crown and nobility known as the Second Fronde, in the army of Louis II, prince de Condé, distinguishing himself in the 1652 Siege of Sainte-Menehould. Vauban was captured the next year, but Louis’ minister, Cardinal Jules Mazarin, was so impressed with the 20-year-old’s conduct and knowledge that he offered Vauban a place in the royal army. Vauban’s first task as a royalist was to retake Sainte-Menehould from Condé, and young Louis XIV was present to witness his energy and courage. After two more successful sieges Vauban became the king’s chief engineer.

Vauban began by modifying the then-common Italian fortification system, using horn bastions to permit cross-flanking fire and ricochet fire. To take enemy fortresses he expanded on the Ottoman use of parallel trenches, creating a system of first, second and third parallels, each dug progressively closer to the objective, a method used first in the 1673 Siege of Maastricht.

Was Vauban’s “iron fence” worth its high cost? Falkner thinks so. During the War of the Spanish Succession, even when allied commanders such as Prince Eugene of Savoy and John Churchill, duke of Marlborough, won battlefield victories, the fortresses designed and rebuilt under Vauban’s supervision invariably slowed their progress. Even in the 20th century the Vauban-designed citadel of Lille defied German attacks both on land and from the air from May 28 to June 1, 1940.

Vauban made the engineer corps an arm of equal importance to any in modern armies. In 2008 UNESCO declared 12 of his fortresses World Heritage Sites, calling his work “a major contribution to universal military architecture.” Shedding light on the personality behind the military genius, whose attention to detail saw importance even in the amount of tobacco supplied to a fortress’ garrison, Falkner’s book should appeal to all enthusiasts of military history.


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When a book's title starts with the name of a person, you get a bit surprised, when you don't realy start to hear about him before page 46. The first two chapters about the Fence of Iron and Siege Warfare are quite technical, and a bit hard to get hrough. They are somewhat necessary to understand the technical terms used in the rest of the book, but they could easily have been shorter and/or incorporated in the life of Vauban.

The rest of the book is better, but some sections are a bit too detailed for my taste, and I miss more illustrations. In some parts you go from siege to siege without being able to understand what comes in between and what the implications were. I don't agree with the other review that the book has too much emphasis on the War of the Spanish succession. This chapter is 19 pages whereas the chapter about the Nine Years War is 36 pages. On the other hand the description of the War of Devolution and the Dutch War, which are often described very briefly in similar books, is very good.

The book contains numerous quotes from contempory correspondence, which is very interesting, but all references are to other books and not to original sources, so you don't really know the authentisity.


Marshal Vauban

'[A] vivid and well written account of the life of the man who built some of the most magnificent military structures known to man.'Clayton Donnell, 'Fortress Archaeologist' Sebastien Le Prestre, Marshal Vauban, was one of the greatest military engineers of all time. His complex, highly sophisticated fortress designs, his advanced theories for the defense and attack of fortified places, and his prolific work as a writer and radical thinker on military and social affairs, mark him out as one of the most influential military minds of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Yet no recent study of this extraordinary man has been published in English. James Falkner, in this perceptive and lively new account of Vauban's life and work, follows his career as a soldier from a dashing and brave young cavalry officer to his emergence as a masterful military engineer. And he shows that Vauban was much more than simply a superlative builder of fortresses, for as a leading military commander serving Louis XIV, he perfected a method for attacking fortifications in the most effective way, which became standard practice until the present day. Falkner's new study will add significantly to the understanding of Vauban's achievements and the impact his work has had on the history of warfare. 'A very enjoyable read for those looking for a good, basic account of Vauban's career and his role in the wars of Louis XIV and of fortification more generally. Its usefulness is enhanced by various maps and reproductions of portraits of key characters and of contemporary plans of fortresses.'War in History


“[A] vivid and well written account of the life of the man who built some of the most magnificent military structures known to man.”—Clayton Donnell, “Fortress Archaeologist”

Sebastien Le Prestre, Marshal Vauban, was one of the greatest military engineers of all time. His complex, highly sophisticated fortress designs, his advanced theories for the defense and attack of fortified places, and his prolific work as a writer and radical thinker on military and social affairs, mark him out as one of the most influential military minds of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Yet no recent study of this extraordinary man has been published in English.

James Falkner, in this perceptive and lively new account of Vauban’s life and work, follows his career as a soldier from a dashing and brave young cavalry officer to his emergence as a masterful military engineer. And he shows that Vauban was much more than simply a superlative builder of fortresses, for as a leading military commander serving Louis XIV, he perfected a method for attacking fortifications in the most effective way, which became standard practice until the present day. Falkner’s new study will add significantly to the understanding of Vauban’s achievements and the impact his work has had on the history of warfare.

“A very enjoyable read for those looking for a good, basic account of Vauban’s career and his role in the wars of Louis XIV and of fortification more generally. Its usefulness is enhanced by various maps and reproductions of portraits of key characters and of contemporary plans of fortresses.”—War in History


Additional Information

James Falkner, in this perceptive and lively new account of Vauban's life and work, follows his career as a soldier from a dashing and brave young cavalry officer to his emergence as a masterful military engineer. And he shows that Vauban was much more than simply a superlative builder of fortresses, for as a leading military commander serving Louis XIV, he perfected a method for attacking fortifications in the most effective way, which became standard practice until the present day.


Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban: Father of the Fortress

Sébastien Le Prestre, who would earn renown as seigneur de Vauban and a marshal of France, was born in 1633 in a small village in Burgundy. Vauban (as he is generally known) was of minor provincial nobility with few influential family connections. He spent his early military career in the service of Louis de Bourbon, prince of Condé, during the civil war known as the Second Fronde (1650–53), as a rebel fighting against young King Louis XIV. Though royalists captured Vauban early on, the reputation the young soldier had already established stood him in good stead, for rather than being hanged as a rebel, he was interviewed by Cardinal Jules Mazarin, the king’s Italian-born adviser. Mazarin was sufficiently impressed to offer Vauban a place in Louis’ army, and the young man prudently changed sides.

Gifted with an inquiring and open mind, prodigious energy and a capacity for long hours and hard work, Vauban soon established a reputation as a gifted military engineer. He was a student of such eminent predecessors as Blaise-François, comte de Pagan (1604– 65), and blessed with a good measure of practical common sense, he developed a particular interest in both the design and construction of fortresses to modern pattern, and in the most effective ways to capture those same places at the least cost.

By the late 17th century, fortress design was based on the simple plan of the trace italienne, or star fort. The high stone walls of medieval castles had given way to low, sharply sloped, artillery-resistant embankments. This system employed geometric patterns superimposed one on another, enabling fortresses largely to withstand the devastating effects of modern gunpowder artillery and mining. The design also met the timeless demands of effective defense—establishing clear lines of fire and ensuring concealment, depth and protection. Of course, topographical variations and complexities in any location meant that a successful fortress designer had to bring his ingenuity and imagination to the basic plan, and in that regard Vauban proved a master of his craft. Any force seeking to capture one of his fortresses would pay a significant price in time, effort and blood. With his complementary keen interest in the best way to seize fortresses, Vauban also drew up a model timetable for a besieging commander, setting out in detail how his force might employ the suggested 48 days to good effect.

With the civil wars settled, Louis XIV embarked on a series of aggressive campaigns against his neighbors. In May 1667 French armies under the command of such remarkable soldiers as Marshals Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne, vicomte de Turenne, and François-Henri de Montmorency, duc de Luxembourg, marched into the Spanish Netherlands (present-day Belgium and Luxembourg) and soon placed large parts of Artois, Picardy and Flanders under French control. Having pushed his northern border outward, Louis XIV naturally wanted to strengthen the existing obsolete defenses there. His chief engineer, Louis Nicolas de Clerville, was unwell, so the king gave young Vauban the task of redesigning and strength ening the defenses of Lille, an undoubted honor for a man still junior in rank.

The remodeling and rebuilding of Lille was an enormous undertaking, the massive new citadel alone requiring some 60 million bricks. Laborers completed the work in 1674, and this set the pattern for future years, as Vauban continually hurried across France on instructions from Louis XIV and his minister for war, François-Michel le Tellier, marquis de Louvois, to survey existing defenses, devise and recommend improvements, and oversee the construction of strong new fortifications. The king could for the time being foot the vast expense, and between 1668 and 1698 Vauban designed a strong double belt of modern fortresses to shield France’s northern border, where no really strong natural obstacles existed. This system of defense was known as the pré carré (“square field”), or Fence of Iron. Among its key attributes was mutual support Vauban’s declared intention was that no French fortress on the northern border should be out of hearing of cannon-shot from another fortress.

Renewed war, whether in search of glory or as a defensive measure against encroaching neighbors, was a regular theme of Louis XIV’s reign. The Netherlands, Spain, Austria, England (Great Britain from 1707 onward) and the German princely states all felt the power of French armies between 1672, when Louis and allies attacked the Dutch Republic, and the close of the Nine Years’ War (War of the League of Augsburg) in 1697. Armies had maneuvered, fought battles, and besieged, bombarded and stormed fortresses, but none of the warring parties had achieved anything of real value, other than Louis’ success at securing territorial gains, while firmly establishing the suspicions and enmity of his neighbors.

With the nations of Western Europe exhausted by war, fresh conflict was unwelcome. But when childless King Charles II died in Madrid in November 1700, he left the throne of Spain to Philip, duc d’Anjou, the youngest grandson of Louis XIV. If refused, the throne would immediately be offered to Archduke Charles, the second son of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I of Austria—thus setting the stage for the War of the Spanish Succession.

Accordingly, Louis XIV allowed his grandson to accept the Spanish throne. Diplomacy failed, conflict could not be avoided, and in the spring of 1702 a Grand Alliance of Austria, England and the Dutch Republic declared war on France and Spain. John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, took field command of the Anglo-Dutch army, and two years later he took his army to Bavaria, where, with Austrian commander Prince Eugene of Savoy, he defeated the French and Bavarian armies at the Battle of Blenheim.

This defeat seriously weakened Louis XIV’s war-making capacity. Just 18 months later, on May 23, 1706, Marlborough’s utter destruction of Marshal François de Neufville de Villeroi’s French army at Ramillies laid bare the whole of the Spanish Netherlands. In the space of few short weeks such important places as Brussels, Leuven, Antwerp, Ostend, Dendermonde and Ath had fallen to Marlborough. The victorious allied army stood at the borders of northern France, and only the Fence of Iron, the fortress belt constructed under Vauban’s direction over the previous 35 years, remained to support the threadbare forces left to defend France from invasion.

At this time of peril 73-year-old Vauban, now a marshal of France and addressed by Louis XIV as mon cousin (“my cousin”), was unwell and in semiretirement. The king nonetheless summoned him to active service and gave him command of the troops that could be spared to defend the English Channel coastline from Gravelines to Dunkirk. This was a sideshow but not unimportant, and Vauban found time to construct a stout fortified camp at Dunkirk that proved so good in its simple layout that French troops put it to use 80 years later during the French Revolution. The Grand Alliance failed to follow up on the victory at Ramillies, and French field commander Louis Joseph, duc de Vendôme, was able to stabilize the situation along the northern border and maneuvered around Vauban’s fortresses to foil Marlborough. This changed in July 1708, when Marlborough forced a sudden battle on Vendôme beside the Scheldt River at Oudenarde and inflicted a severe defeat on the French army.

Vauban knew nothing of it, for he had died at his Paris home in March 1707. The passing of this great man, a giant of his age who would prove the model for all military engineers from then onward, went almost unnoticed, with just a simple family funeral at his home. France was embroiled in a war it could neither afford nor win, so official minds were busily engaged elsewhere. Also, Vauban was in royal disfavor for publishing without authority a treatise on ways to rationalize French taxation. Still, this official neglect was astonishing, for the greatest result of Vauban’s efforts, the construction of a formal defense system for France, was in place, and Louis XIV would find that his deceased engineer now engaged in absentia with France’s opponents in a prolonged passage of arms. French field armies were in tatters, the treasury empty, the wealth of the nation squandered in almost continuous warfare, but if Vauban’s Fence of Iron, his life’s handiwork, held firm, then so too would France.

In the aftermath of the victory at Oudenarde, Marlborough and Prince Eugene laid siege to Lille, the cherished prize of Louis XIV’s early wars. The massive new citadel was a tough obstacle, but the French had to submit in December 1708. Louis XIV regretted the loss of the fortress, but he had gained breathing room, and the prolonged defense had halted the allied campaign. The classic role of the fortress—to tie down an opponent, force him to fight on ground of the defender’s own choosing and eat away at valuable and irreplaceable campaign time—had clearly been realized.

The following September saw Marlborough’s capture of the Vauban-designed fortress of Tournai. Once again the task was formidable, as the citadel was of particularly powerful design and construction. Within a week of that capitulation the allies battled to a Pyrrhic victory in the murderous clash in the woods at Malplaquet, then seized the fortress of Mons. Louis XIV’s commanders would no longer face Marlborough and Eugene in open battle, and campaigning in 1710 saw sieges at Douai, Béthune, Saint-Venant and Aire-surla-Lys, all fortresses that had received Vauban’s attention. Each one fell to Marlborough and his generals, but at a slowly measured pace, the allies’ heavy casualties gradually blunting their effectiveness as a fighting machine.

Meanwhile, Marlborough’s influence in London, established and sustained by success in open battle, was fading. The year 1711 saw the fall of Vauban’s fortress of Bouchain, an achievement calling for great skill and judgment on Marlborough’s part, but it was not enough to save the duke, whom Queen Anne dismissed from service at year’s end. Following renewed French successes in 1712, Louis XIV’s representatives negotiated a generally advantageous peace settlement for their king at the April 1713 Treaty of Utrecht: Philip V remained on the throne in Madrid, but other provisions divided the huge Spanish empire and significantly restricted French power and influence for generations to come.

Between 1708 and 1711, were it not for Vauban’s Fence of Iron, Marlborough and Eugene would have sacked much of France. The War of the Spanish Succession had amply demonstrated the latent power of well-planned fortifications, even when only supported by weakened field armies. But it was not the last time those fortifications would serve France so well.

Maneuver warfare, which frees commanders from the need to shield and protect fixed fortresses, was commonplace in the 18th century. Armies certainly waged desperate battles at such places such as Fontenoy, in 1745, when an allied army challenged the French siege of Tournai, but these tended to be the exception. Still, were it not for the valiant defense of such Vauban fortresses as Tournai, Valenciennes and Cambrai, the French armies of the 1790s and the revolution itself would have failed. Fortress construction proceeded on a lesser scale than before, partly due to the forbidding cost of these structures. But a glance at the defensive plans of such places as Fort Ticonderoga and Fort William Henry in New York, Fort Monroe in Virginia and the citadel of Hue in Vietnam will show that the influence of classic military engineers educated in the Vauban tradition lasted long, and went deep and wide.

Emperor Napoléon I stands as the instantly recognizable military figure of the early 19th century. His campaigns, among the most astonishing in history, demonstrated how little siege warfare had changed, although Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, certainly put his subordinates to the test in Spain, Portugal and southern France, at such places as Cuidad Rodrigo, Badajoz and Bayonne. Wellington’s impatience to get on with things, and his tendency to incur heavy casualties as a result, would likely not have impressed the rational Vauban, who disdained needless loss of life. Surprisingly, Paris remained unprotected by formal defenses until the work of Baron François-NicolasBenoît Haxo, a devotee of Vauban and his methods, came to fruition in the 1830s. During the 1870–71 Franco–Prussian War ill-prepared French armies gave way to their more dynamic German opponents, and Paris came under bombardment and siege, eventually having to submit. Still, the defenses of the city played their part, as did those of Vauban design in Péronne, Belfort and Verdun, all of which defied German assaults longer than thought likely when facing modern rifled artillery.

In the wake of that sobering defeat the French employed engineer General Raymond Adolphe Séré de Rivierès to establish a new, more formidable and Vauban-inspired fortified line of defenses for northern France. In 1914 fastmoving German armies pushed through neutral Belgium and outflanked the main French fortifications, though the Belgian army’s defense of Liège and Namur impeded the Germans’ progress and denied them an early victory. The Vauban-designed fortresses of Maubeuge, Longwy and Montmédy also slowed the German advance, allowing the French and British forces to regroup on the river Marne. In November 1918 New Zealanders of General Julian Byng’s British Third Army stormed the Vauban fortress of Le Quesnoy the Kiwis used scaling ladders in the old fashioned way to oust the German garrison.

Wearied by their losses in World War I, in the 1920s and 1930s the French sought to reconstruct Vauban’s Fence of Iron under the direction of Minister of War André Maginot. His resulting line of fortifications did not prove much of an obstacle, however, when the Germans unleashed their blitzkrieg in May 1940. The Vauban citadel of Lille, on the other hand, put up a stubborn defense. Troops of the French First Army held out in the citadel for four days, defying German attempts to dislodge them using artillery, infantry assault and Junkers Ju 87 dive bombers. The delay provided the French and British armies valuable time to prepare both the defense of the Vauban citadel in Calais and the subsequent evacuation at Dunkirk. In the absence of such fortifications, it is likely Dunkirk would have been an outright defeat for the Allies, rather than bittersweet salvation, with incalculable consequences for the course of the World War II and subsequent European history.

Vauban is rightly regarded as a French hero, with more than 180 forts, citadels and fortresses of his design constructed, improved or planned. He also turned his attention to such civil engineering projects as canals and aqueducts. Vauban’s handiwork is apparent throughout modern-day France, sometimes in fine condition, sometimes rather neglected, although some are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Vauban stressed the necessity to conserve soldiers’ lives, whether in defense or attack. He remains one of history’s pre-eminent military engineers, a man who understood that while no fortress could hold out indefinitely, a well-designed one could buy time for others and, therefore, would be worth the cost of its construction. In more recent times, despite the introduction of rifled artillery and offensive airpower, the value of formal defenses as both a deterrent to a potential aggressor and as a means to delay an invader’s progress remains absolute. Above all, France would have been ruined during the desperate years 1708–11 but for the Fence of Iron, and whenever soldiers and historians think of military engineers, it is likely the name of the provincial nobody who became Marshal Vauban first comes to mind.

For further reading James Falkner recommends his own Marshal Vauban and the Defence of Louis XIV’s France, as well as Vauban’s Fortifications in France, by Paddy Griffith and Peter Dennis, and Soldier of France, by John Hebbert and George A. Rothrock.

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.


A Comprehensive View of the Overland Campaign, Part III

Ulysses Grant suffered terrible casualties in the fighting around Spotsylvania Courthouse, and his periphery strategy failed. General Franz Sigel retreated from the Shenandoah Valley, and Benjamin Butler was “bottled up” on the James River peninsula. Only the Army of the Potomac managed to keep advancing further into enemy territory despite high casualties. Grant continued to shift his forces to the North Anna River, looking to get between the Army of Northern Virginia and Richmond. The Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee withdrew from their old lines at Spotsylvania Courthouse. They met the Army of the Potomac near Hanover Junction on May 23, 1864. This position served as a supply junction for the Army of Northern Virginia, and it was an essential target for Grant and his army. [1] Grant’s operational objective remained the same, destroy Lee’s army or negate its offensive capacity.

Lee failed to read Grant’s intention, which had disastrous consequences for his army on May 23 as he sat on the porch of the Fox house drinking buttermilk. Lee remained confident that his opponent was only making a feint near their position. He and his staff sat idle, and Lee had a moment of rest from the misery of dysentery. Nevertheless, Grant gave him no rest. A cannonball flew a couple of feet by him, lodging itself in the brick door frame without notice. Another cannonball flew overhead, destroying the chimney of the Fox House, killing a man next to Edward Porter Alexander. [2] Realizing the imminent danger of his army, he got up and immediately got to work. One of the characteristics of a military genius to Clausewitz is the ability to keep calm in the face of danger. [3] Lee’s coolness in battle was a key characteristic of his battlefield success.

Before Lee’s position was bombarded, Meade had sent a dispatch to Grant asking if Hancock should press forward across New Bridge after using “mass force” to take Henagan’s Redoubt near New Bridge. The Army of the Potomac used overwhelming numbers to break up the small Confederate defenses near New Bridge. They used the same mass of troops near another position northwest of there at a place called Jericho Mills. Grant’s response was direct, “By all means. I would have Warren cross all his men tonight, and intrench himself strongly.” [4] On May 23, Grant applied a fundamental theory of war from Antoine-Henri Jomini, “Take advantage of every irregularity of the ground to get cover for the troops, and keep them sheltered as long as possible.” [5] It was as if he advanced to besiege the enemy and prevent Robert E. Lee from launching a counter-attack to retake the initiative. The initiative led to a tactical victory on May 23 however, it left Grant in a precarious situation.

His forces were now backed up against the North Anna River like the Russian General Levin Bennigsen before Napoleon bagged his army at the Battle of Friedland in 1807. Clausewitz wrote about crossing rivers, “Whether he meditates bringing on a decisive battle after crossing, or may expect the enemy to attack him, he exposes himself to great danger therefore, without a decided superiority, both in moral and physical force, a general will not place himself in such a position.” [6] At this point, the Army of the Potomac did not possess great numbers of men. Though it may explain why Grant pushed Burnside to take the fortified position of Ox Ford on May 24. [7] It would combine Union forces between Hancock’s Second Corps on the Union left with Warren’s Fifth Corps on the Union right.

The Army of the Potomac was made up of 67,000 men, while the Army of Northern Virginia was reinforced and now had 52,000 effectives under Lee’s command. [8] Grant did put himself at risk, and Lee utilized the river effectively against Grant’s divided forces like Eugène de Beauharnais at the Battle of the Mincio River in 1814. [9] Lee’s ability to adapt to dire situations places him among the great captains of the age. On May 24, he established a new line against Union forces in the shape of an inverted V. The apex sat at the critical position of Ox Ford, driving a wedge between the Union army. After the terrible tactical defeat at Jericho Mills the previous day, Lee scolded A.P. Hill, “Why didn’t you throw your whole force on them and drive them back as Jackson would have done?” [10] The Confederates failed to retake Jericho Mills, but Lee continued to look for an opening in the Union line. Lee sought to strike a blow against II Corps, or is this claim by a subordinate a part of a more prominent myth?

Charles Venable remembered that Lee sought to retake the initiative from Grant by striking against the divided II Corps. [11] However, there are no other sources that corroborate this claim therefore, it is doubtful that Lee did seek to strike the Union forces at this time. Historians that claim Lee wanted to strike at the divided Union force rightfully point out the necessity of the initiative. If any myth of Marse Lee were true, it would be the story of launching an offensive against the Union army because the Federal forces would have to cross the river twice to reinforce Hancock. [12] Mark Grimsley makes a valid claim that such an attack would be risky as Lee had limited reserves and Hancock was already well entrenched. It was rare for an assault to be carried out successfully. Breastworks defined victory during the Overland Campaign as they did during the battle of North Anna. In James Falkner’s work on Marshal Vauban and the Defense of Louis XIVs France, he states the purpose of entrenchments,

Works and redoubts serve for a retreat to the workmen if an enemy should make a sortie upon them for being retreated into the said redoubts, they may resist an enemy, and stop him, till they are seconded [. . .] If the workmen had not a place to retreat into, they would be forced to betake to their heels.’ [13]

The debate of Lee’s strike at North Anna continues among historians. The most significant aspect of this argument is that Lee wanted to prevent Grant from shifting around this flank again. He was right to look for these openings and proved that he possessed the coup d’oeil after establishing the inverted V at North Anna. He protected his forces from almost certain defeat. Grant and Lee had their armies back against rivers, and both put themselves in a disadvantageous position in the course of the battle. Although, Grant was right to order corps commanders to entrench themselves after crossing the North Anna River. His priority remained the destruction of Lee’s army, or at least negate his offensive capacity. The Army of Northern Virginia was the center of gravity for Grant, but when positioned at North Anna, their apex rested on Ox Ford. That position was the key to breaking their army. Clausewitz stated that a concentrated force is necessary to take a position that breaks the center of gravity. It explains why Grant sent expedient orders to Burnside to capture the well-fortified position at Ox Ford. Clausewitz also said that “to act as swiftly as possible therefore, to allow of no delay or detour without sufficient reason.” [14] Ox Ford was the decisive point for both Grant and Lee. All tactical disadvantages were a second priority for Grant.

After the failed Federal effort to take Ox Ford, Grant took into account that any assault upon Lee’s fortified line would be futile without high casualties. He was unwilling to make such a sacrifice therefore, he sought to flank Lee’s left. The VI and V Corps found that it was not possible given Hampton’s deployment on Lee’s left flank. It is in Grant’s orders to Meade 25th would impress Henri-Antoine Jomini,

Direct Generals Warren and Wright to withdraw all their teams and artillery not in position to the north side of the river to-morrow. Send that belonging to General Wright’s corps as far on the road to Hanovertown as it can go without attracting attention to the fact…. Have this place filled up in the line, so if possible, the enemy will not notice their withdrawal. Send the cavalry to-morrow afternoon, or as much of it as you may deem necessary to watch and seize, if they can, Littlepage’s Bridge and Taylor’s Ford, and to remain on one or the other side of the river at those points until the infantry and artillery all pass… I think it would be well to make a heavy cavalry demonstration on the enemy’s left to-morrow afternoon also. [15]

Jomini believed plans consisted of analyzing maps and picking important positions to capture. [16] Grant utilized these measures at the Battle of North Anna and wanted to find a weak point in Lee’s line without the same sacrifice at Spotsylvania Courthouse. Unfortunately, Hampton’s cavalry protected Lee’s left flank, preventing such an adept plan. The armies of Northern Virginia and the Potomac stared across the field at one another in a tactical stalemate. In order to retain the initiative, Grant shifted his forces against Lee’s right once again. The forces would meet next at Bethesda Church and then clash at Cold Harbor.

How should historians analyze Grant’s decisions at North Anna? His focus on the initiative resulted in a tactical victory on May 23 but put himself in a precarious position as the II Corps remained backed up against the river. If entrenchments were not being used in such a manner, then Lee easily could have driven or destroyed a significant portion of the Army of the Potomac. Ox Ford was a decisive point for both Lee and Grant as it was the apex of the inverted V, but for Grant, it was the critical position that would permit his forces to unite across the North Anna. It is no wonder that he would order Burnside to attempt to take a fortified position. The battle’s significance did not occur during the fighting but lay in Grant’s Hard War policy. This policy required the destruction of Confederate resources without the harm of noncombatants. [17] The Army of the Potomac tore up eight miles of the Virginia Central Railroad on May 25 and deprived the Confederates of valuable economic resources. [18] Lee’s generalship is equally remarkable as he once again turned disaster into a stalemate. He failed to read Grant’s intentions on May 23, but his defense at North Anna should impress any military historian. Although, the question remained, “Could Lee retake back the initiative with Grant continuously engaging his army?” Time would tell.

Bibliography

Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Kansas: Digireads, 2018.

Falkner, James. Marshal Vauban and the Defense of Louis XIVs France. Havertown: Pen & Sword Books, 2011.

Grimsley, Mark. And Keep Moving On: The Virginia Campaign, May-June 1864. Nebraska: Nebraska Press, 2005.

Grimsley, Mark. Hard Hand of War. United Kingdom: Cambridge university Press, 2008.

Jomini, Antoine-Henri. The Art of War: Strategy & Tactics from the Age of Horse & Musket. London: Leonaur, 2012.

Mackowski, Chris. Strike Them a Blow: Battle along the North Anna River, May 21-25, 1864. California: Savas Beatie, 2015.

Marszalek, John, David S. Nolen, and Louie P. Gallo. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant: The Complete Annotated Edition. London: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Rhea, Gordon. To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13–25, 1864. Louisiana: LSU Press, 2005.

U.S. War Department. The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington DC: Government Printing Press, 1884.

Venable, Charles. “The Campaign from the Wilderness to Petersburg.” Southern Historical Society Papers, 14 (1876 – 1944).

[1] Chris Mackowski, Strike Them a Blow: Battle along the North Anna River, May 21-25, 1864, (California: Savas Beatie, 2015), 45.

[3] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, (Kansas: Digireads, 2018), 59.

[4] U.S. War Department, The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, (Washington DC: Government Printing Press, 1884), 119.

[5] Antoine-Henri Jomini, The Art of War: Strategy & Tactics from the Age of Horse & Musket, (London: Leonaur, 2012), 212.

[6] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, 491.

[7] U.S. War Department, The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 167.

[8] Mark Grimsley, And Keep Moving On: The Virginia Campaign, May-June 1864, (Nebraska: Nebraska Press, 2005), 138.

[9] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, 492.

[10] Gordon Rhea, To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13–25, 1864, (Louisiana: LSU Press, 2005), 326.

[11] Charles C. Venable, “The Campaign from the Wilderness to Petersburg,” Southern Historical Society Papers, 14 (1876 – 1944), 535.

[12] John F. Marszalek, David S. Nolen, and Louie P. Gallo, The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant: The Complete Annotated Edition, (London: Harvard University Press, 2017), 562.

[13] James Falkner, Marshal Vauban and the Defense of Louis XIVs France, (Havertown: Pen & Sword Books, 2011), 35.

[14] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, 571.

[15] U.S. War Department, The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 183

[16] Antoine-Henri Jomini, The Art of War, 58.

[17] Mark Grimsley, Hard Hand of War, (United Kingdom: Cambridge university Press, 2008), 218.


“[A] vivid and well written account of the life of the man who built some of the most magnificent military structures known to man.”—Clayton Donnell, “Fortress Archaeologist”

Sebastien Le Prestre, Marshal Vauban, was one of the greatest military engineers of all time. His complex, highly sophisticated fortress designs, his advanced theories for the defense and attack of fortified places, and his prolific work as a writer and radical thinker on military and social affairs, mark him out as one of the most influential military minds of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Yet no recent study of this extraordinary man has been published in English.

James Falkner, in this perceptive and lively new account of Vauban’s life and work, follows his career as a soldier from a dashing and brave young cavalry officer to his emergence as a masterful military engineer. And he shows that Vauban was much more than simply a superlative builder of fortresses, for as a leading military commander serving Louis XIV, he perfected a method for attacking fortifications in the most effective way, which became standard practice until the present day. Falkner’s new study will add significantly to the understanding of Vauban’s achievements and the impact his work has had on the history of warfare.

“A very enjoyable read for those looking for a good, basic account of Vauban’s career and his role in the wars of Louis XIV and of fortification more generally. Its usefulness is enhanced by various maps and reproductions of portraits of key characters and of contemporary plans of fortresses.”—War in History


Watch the video: La mort de Louis XIV - Trailer (May 2022).


Comments:

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