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Book Review of Marshal Vauban and the Defence of Louis XIV’s France

Posted by William Young on January 4, 2012

James Falkner. Marshal Vauban and the Defence of Louis XIV’s France. Barnsley, England: Pen and Sword Military, 2011. ISBN 978-1-84415-927-7. Maps. Illustrations. Appendices. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. viii, 226. $50.00.

James Falkner, a former British Army officer, has written a study concerning Sebastien Le Prestre, Marshal Vauban, and his contributions to fortress building and siege warfare during the reign of Louis XIV.  Falkner has previously provided us valuable studies on the Duke of Marlborough’s campaigns, battles, and sieges during the War of the Spanish Succession in Great and Glorious Days: The Duke of Marlborough’s Battles, 1704-1709 (2003), Blenheim 1704: Marlborough’s Greatest Victory (2004), Marlborough’s Wars: Eye Witness Accounts, 1702-1713 (2005), Ramillies 1706: Year of Miracles (2006), Marlborough’s Sieges (2007), and James Falkner’s Guide to Marlborough’s Battlefields (2008).  In this current study, the author examines the military career and role of Vauban in French military efforts in the later years of the Franco-Spanish War (1635-1659), War of Devolution (1667-1668), Dutch War (1672-1678/79), War of Reunions (1683-1684), Nine Years War (1688-1697), and early years of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713/14).

Falkner’s study examines both Vauban’s contribution to attack and defense in siege warfare.  Vauban was noted for his genius in the conduct of calculated offensive siege operations that included lines of circumvallation and contravallation as well as a systematic approach by the use of parallel trenches to capture enemy fortresses.  His system of siege warfare, not always adhered to by impatient French commanders, saved numerous men from the slaughter of massive assaults against well-defended positions.  Vauban’s experience grew from his first siege operation at Sainte-Menehould during the Fronde in 1652 and throughout the Wars of Louis XIV until his last effort at Alt-Breisach during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1703.  Vauban’s system would remain the standard method of attacking a fortress to the twentieth century.

Louis XIV expanded French territory, especially in northeastern France during the War of Devolution, Dutch War, and War of Reunions.  French borders, particularly in this region, were vulnerable to attacks.  As such, the Sun King sought to beef up his defense against enemy threats.  Falkner focuses on Vauban and his engineering efforts to assess and improve, or redesign and rebuild, as far as the French treasury would permit, a credible defense system for France.  As a result, Marshal Vauban built the two-line system of fortresses (from Dunkirk to Givet, and Gravelines to Stenay) to defend France in the northeast.  This system was known as the pré carré (the dueling field), or what our author calls the “Fence of Iron.”  The dual line of fortresses would save France from an allied invasion led by the Duke of Marlborough in the War of the Spanish Succession.  Falkner notes that these fortifications also played an important part in French military history for the next 250 years.

The author blends Vauban’s contributions to fortress building and siege operations with a general depiction of siege warfare in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  This well-written study contains valuable appendices providing a chronological listing of Vauban’s siege operations; a list of more than 180 fortresses, citadels, towns, and forts under French control that the engineer designed, constructed, or improved during the reign of the Louis XIV; and a glossary of siege terms.  This work is highly recommend to anyone interested in Early Modern European Military History.  Falkner’s study is an outstanding addition to the available literature in English on Vauban and siege warfare, including Reginald Blomfield’s Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban, 1633-1707 (1938), Christopher Duffy’s Fortress Warfare in the Age of Vauban and Frederick the Great, 1680-1789 (1985), F.J. Hebbert and George A. Rothrock’s Soldier of France: Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban, 1633-1707 (1989), Paddy Griffith’s The Vauban Fortifications of France (2006), and Jean-Denis G.G. Lepage’s Vauban and the French Military under Louis XIV: An Illustrated History of Fortifications and Strategies (2009).  Vauban’s writings are also available in Rothrock’s translation of A Manual of Siegecraft and Fortification (1968). 

Dr. William Young
University of North Dakota

Vauban’s System of Parallel and Approach Trenches in Offensive Operations against a Fortress or Fortified Town


Le Pré Carré in northeast France (The Fence of Iron)


The Citadel and Fortress City of Lille

Posted in Book Reviews, Early Modern European (1648-1792) | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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