In the shadow of genius – living ‘underneath’ Vauban

On June 13th 1672, Captain-Lieutenant Charles de Batz de Castelmore, later immortalised by Alexandre Dumas as d’Artagnan, the most famous of his Four Musketeers, began the assault on the Dutch city of Maarstricht. Less than a fortnight later he was dead, whilst the man who had planned the attack had spent those same two weeks making a non-literary name for himself that would last for centuries. That man has become known simply as Vauban and his legacy has recently been acknowledged by UNESCO.

Since its establishment in 1945 to ‘contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education, science and culture’ UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) has listed a total of 911 properties on its famous World Heritage List. To make the list a site must be considered to be of outstanding universal value and fall into at least one of several categories – the Fortifications of Vauban, actually 12 groups of fortified buildings and sites along the borders of France come under the heading of ‘cultural importance’.

Vauban, the genius who 'built' France

Of the several Vauban ‘creations’ that collectively this year were placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, one literally now towers above my new abode. The French Alpine high mountain fort of Briançon dominates the entrance to the Serre Chevalier valley and the mountain pass to Italy only a short drive from where I am working this winter.

It is hardly surprising then that the views of incredible, crumbling structures perched on improbable mountain peaks which greet me each morning have prompted this look into the history of old Briançon and the amazing man who built it.

Born in 1633 into minor nobility in Burgundy, Sebastian Le Preste de Vauban, to give him his full name was a genius. France was on the eve of embarking headfirst into an all out expansionist campaign aimed at extending its national borders. The time was rife for Vauban’s particular skills. In fact not only was he to alter France’s capabilities for such expansion, but at the same time help define these new borders perhaps more than any man before or since. The characteristic hexagon-shape that defines the country today was Vauban’s idea.  Vauban built France.

A mere decade after Vauban came into this world Louis XIV, ‘Le Roi Soleil’ began what at 72 years was to become the longest documented reign of any European monarch. From this reign of The Sun King such French historical icons as Cardinal Mazarin, Molière, Mansart (of roof fame) and Colbert have come down to us. The Palace of Versailles was begun on the orders of Louis XIV. However there was a darker side to this ‘sunny reign’. With French fighting forces reorganised into stricter hierarchies in order to avoid a repeat of the Fronde civil war which so scarred a young Louis XIV and nearly cost him his throne, he began a series of wars aimed at French expansion. A sort of French ‘lebensraum’ Louis XIV believed he could lay siege to border towns and slowly grow France.

Plans of a typical Vauban Fort

The operative word here was ‘slowly’. Siege warfare in the 17th century was a slow, expensive and haphazard process at best. The previous century had witnessed the construction of powerful fortresses within many European cities. These were often capable of holding upwards of 10.000 men, ready to mobilise at a moment’s notice.  As a result no marching army could afford to by-pass towns in their pursuit of glory but were forced to stop and lay siege instead. Laying siege to virtually every town was a lengthy drawn-out process and often resulted in stalemates across the conflict lines of Europe. Therefore when the town of Maastricht fell on June 26th 1673 only 13 days after the order was given to attack, the military minds of Europe sat up and took notice of the name Vauban, who had been charged with ending the siege.

In typical Vauban manner he had planned for the siege to end two days earlier so that his King might might celebrate the feast day of Saint John the Baptist in the city’s cathedral, but nonetheless the speed and ruthlessness with which once proud Maastricht had been reduced to its knees was remarkable. It was a not to prove a flash in the pan. Over the coming decades as Chief Military Engineer to Louis XIV, Vauban almost singlehandedly turned the art of siege warfare into a science, adapting a hitherto unknown methodical approach capable of overcoming even the most impressive fortifications. In his pursuit of military perfection he is credited with inventing the bayonet and applying geometry and maths to the study of war as had never been done before. Ironically he himself was often outspoken against the expansionist policies of his King, urging restraint and peace. He is said to have outlined plans for the ideal shape of France to be the hexagonal form we are now so familiar with. Vauban felt these borders were defensible, extending beyond them, not so.

View of Briançon old town with characteristic Vauban defences

Truly a versatile man, he wrote treatises on subjects as diverse as animal husbandry, mining techniques, tax reforms and bizarrely enough plotting out the future course of Canada, predicting its population to reach around 30 million by the year 2000 (the 2009 census gives a figure of 33.3 million). However it is without doubt for his skills as a defensive military engineer that he is now best known and for which he has received the ultimate UNESCO honour this year. Between 1667 and 1707 Vauban up-graded and improved the fortifications of more than 300 French towns. These include such diverse projects as coastal forts, citadels, towns built from scratch and mountain fortifications such as Briançon where I now live.

To visit a Vauban site is to experience the genius of the man. As I have breakfast every morning from my window I can see no fewer than three incredible constructions high up in the mountains above. Nothing was left to chance, every detail planned and the sheer effort in terms of time, men, raw materials and organisation that must have gone into the construction of just these three is remarkable. And Vauban designed more than 300! Wherever your next visit in France, you will inevitably find yourself not far from one of these very tangible memory to this man’s legacy- I strongly urge you go to see for yourself. As for me living ‘underneath’ Vauban can be humbling, but never sore on the eye.

If you want to see some more pictures of these forts click here for my photos from a recent snowy walk

~ by 2ndcupoftea on December 15, 2010.

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