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Vauban: de la Gloire du Roi au Service de l'Etat Review


Vauban is one of the most famous military engineers and builders in history, whose great fortifications protected and defined the French borders with a ring of iron, stone, and earth. His talents went just beyond the defense, as Sébastien de Vauban also was the preeminent expert on siege warfare during his day, who captured fortress and fortress and defined an intensely rational, logical, scientific way of war, representative of the rationalism of the Grand Siècle of French history and the beginning of the Enlightenment. but Vauban was more than just a military man, and he was also a civic engineer, reformer, military strategist, economist, and statesman. These roles are the subject of the French biography of Vauban - "Vauban: De la gloire du roi au service de l'Etat" (Vauban: Glory to the King in the Service of the State), which focuses firmly on Vauban's public life, writing, and proposals. It neglects however, Vauban's personal life and it misses a real opportunity to connect his thinking and the zeitgeist of the era, the development of France, mentalities, and ideas. It makes for a curiously disconnected work, removed from both a personal, narrative story of the great French marshal, and from the broader currents of the century, and this lets down its real talents in showing Vauban's intellectual works.

A portrait of Vauban

A portrait of Vauban

The book is split up into different facets of Vauban, after an initial introduction gives the basic contours of his life and his activities, ranging from siege engineer to a travelling inspector for the King, and an exploration of some of his written sources such as Oisivetés (perhaps best translated as Musings), his lengthy writings on his ideas and reforms.

For the first part, Vauban is presented in his role as an engineer, builder, and man of science, presenting his work on construction, fortifications, and infrastructure. Vauban was heavily involved in constructing a belt of iron around France, his fortifications, using a highly developed knowledge of mathematics. He would also construct internal projects like hydraulic works for Versailles and promoted machines: machines, and the body, were critical metaphors for him.

Assault trenches during a siege: Vauban might not have been the first to use triple trenches, but he brought the art to its highest state of perfection

Assault trenches during a siege: Vauban might not have been the first to use triple trenches, but he brought the art to its highest state of perfection

Part two moves onto the offensive nature of Vauban, in his role as a siege warfare expert. Vauban's style of siege warfare was characterized by extensive planning, careful usage of terrain and engineering capacity, economization of men's lives, and a scientific and rational construction of trenches to force the besieged to surrender. Much of the chapter concerns Vauban's writings and his treaties on attacking fortifications. This part of the book also continues with putting Vauban's defensive interests in building fortifications into greater light by looking at his preferred strategy, that of a defensive France protected by its fortifications, and his consequent opposition to Louis XIV's offensive wars of expansion. He was particularly concerned about the defense of Paris, which is where his metaphor to a human body comes into play - viewing France as a body, and Paris as either its heart or its head. It also had its economic component, for Vauban insisted that building fortifications at Paris would not be an economic burden to the kingdom, as the money spent would return to the French economy through the wages paid, and the money would not leave France. A final element of the chapter is his insistence on other elements of war strategy, such as a guerre de course (commerce war) against the Dutch and English.

Part three relates Vauban as an administrator, discussing his travels around the kingdom but most particularly his intense efforts at rationalizing and regularizing payments, administration, wages, and information-gathering, as the state expanded its control over public information to gain more knowledge about the kingdom, its demographics, and resources. Vauban also was a reformer for the army, aiming to slim down its ostentatiousness and increase its homogeneity and combat effectiveness. Some of his most intensive work however, was reserved for his proposed wage reforms, to provide for equal pay for equal work for all workers, rather than the complexities of the existing pay scales.

An essentially universal theme of all of these works is the centrality of mathematics to them, which is further expounded upon in part four, on Vauban as a mathematician. Vauban applied his mathematics to practical solutions, such as the potential for pig farming to lead to a rapid population increase of the pigs and to solve the problems of rural famine, the population of Paris (determined on the basis of its food consumption), or the potential carrying capacity of France - as well as for more hypothetical problems, such as the rebirth of human population after the Flood, or potential population growth in Spanish Latin America to demonstrate his opinion of poor Spanish governance in their empire. These ideas lined up with his economic principles, as a populationist theory of governance stressed both the importance of a large population for a nation's prosperity and power, and also represented this large population as being a sign of good governance. This was furthermore vital for the relatively closed and self-contained economy which Vauban dreamed of, and which he attempted to apply mathematics to for things such as the efficiency of canals to link France together.

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The final part, Vauban the statesman, focuses on his own professional achievements, honors, and nobility. Vauban had strong opinions about a relative degree of meritocracy and a dislike for simple status by birth, opposing the giving of command and authority to the "Princes du sang," those male descendants of the Royal Family without being directly in the succession line. For Vauban, nobility was above all else service, and that being military service, and high and good service in war would be a just reason for ennoblement. Other interests of Vauban include the development of his own region, the Election de Vézelay, agrarian improvement, his involvement in intellectual circles and the Académie française, his wide reading tastes (including probably many forbidden books), his preference of tolerance for the French Huguenots out of the interest of national strength and prosperity, opting for a defensive rather than offensive military-diplomatic strategy, and his interest in financial reform, most prominently in his great proposed tax reform, the Dîme royale.

The conclusion stresses Vauban as a good Frenchman, interested in the wellbeing of his country, and his attachment to logic, reason, and mathematics provided him the field needed for reform and improvement of France. A representative of the height of the Grand siècle of the French 17th century, he also was a precursor of the coming of the Enlightenment. Vauban was in the end much more than just a military general - he was a builder, constructor, mathematician, writer, thinker, economist, and statesman, who left an enduring legacy in France.

Vauban's citadel of Saint-Martin-de-Ré

Vauban's citadel of Saint-Martin-de-Ré

There has been, in the Anglo-Saxon world at least, reference to the cultural dimension of war, engineering, and construction, during the 17th and 18th century. Geometric lines, star forts, mathematic and precise dispositions - the rigidly linear, highly defined, scientific 17th and 18th century battles, as well as the incredibly regimented and scripted siege battles, speak of an era of great formality in military engagements and an intensely rationalistic and ordered spirit. The Cartesian lines of Versailles were matched by the cartesian lines of the battlefield, and society and warfare were shaped by a state project to regiment and order existence, ostensibly rationalist and logical. Unfortunately, this only gets occasional mention by Virol, who at times references Vauban as being in line with the sentiments of the Grand siècle, the 17th century, but he hardly expounds on connection between Vauban and his time, on his role and the currents of thought that Vauban operated in, beyond citing a few philosophers. This is ironic since the book does proceed on a very careful and elaborate investigation of certain meanings, definitions, and words, but it does not expand these to give a broader perspective of how Vauban related to his age.

The same can be said of Vauban's influence. Certainly, it is a bibliography, but it is one focused on Vauban's public figure. Given this, why is there so little about how Vauban's fortifications impacted the fate of France, and French strategy? Were France's fortifications vital for the defense of the country during the darkest days of the War of Spanish Succession, when foreign armies threatened to penetrate deep into France itself? Although the nature of Vauban's fortifications, construction, the elements of cost, the design, the terrain, all receive their time in the sun, the strategic and operational impact, despite the occasional references to Vauban's preference for a defensive strategy, are not discussed.

Other areas call out for having the same issue of not linking Vauban's ideas together into a coherent whole, except through the contrivance of the reader. There is one great exception, economics, where the book repeatedly drives home the theme of Vauban's mercantilism, his belief that France's prosperity was dependent upon a development of its internal commerce, manufactures, internal circulation of money, and the creation of a homogenous, united entity, likened to a body, guarded by fortifications and supported by colonial trade. A simplistic, falsely rationalistic, and unbounded perspective of economic development, relying on exponential expansion and abstract principle undergirded this, shown in his belief that pig production could rapidly be started to reach to near infinite levels after just a few generations, or the potential population growth of Spanish America. It shows a faith in logic, reason, and above all else math to reveal the truth, with little regard for natural limits.

Perhaps the book assumes that the well educated French reader would already be familiar with the contours of some of the policy decisions and proposals of Vauban, but it seems that the minutiae of Vauban's project of the Dîme royale - the royal tithe - and its impacts on France's finances would be hardly well known. Conjecture and speculation about what the effect would have been if indeed it was undertaken would have been welcome. This is a sad shortcoming of the book: Vauban is presented as being a reformer, who challenged the conventional orthodoxy of the court and the king's policy, wishing for a more rational and scientific development of France and her resources - and yet what might have happened if Vauban's ideas were put into effect is not discussed.

This is linked to the context of Vauban's opinions not being fully related. For example, there is a brief section about Vauban advocating a ruthless guerre de course - an anti-trade, commercial, raiding war - against the maritime nations, the heavily trade-based Dutch and England. This was a rational and reasonable proposal - but the book fails to mention that Vauban was no disinterested spectator, and that he himself actively subscribed to stocks in fitting out raiding groups. Vauban's proposals stood to benefit him personally, and reflect the conflation of personal, and public, gain in 17th century France.

If these negative elements prevent the book from excelling, its positive aspects should be clearly understood. It has some excellent features about some of Vauban's rationalistic ideas, such as his attempts to explore proper compensation for workers, economics is very well explored, the construction and nature of Vauban's fortresses receives a good intellectual look (although some of the elements are almost tautological - of course expenses were a key factor!), his infrastructure construction ideas, parts of siege warfare, ideas on meritocracy and nobility, foreign policies, and human population growth and agrarianism. The book manages to provide a rich mass of details: it is just unfortunate that it fails to better combine these, put them into context, and express a more consequential history of Sébastien de Vauban.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Ryan C Thomas

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