17th-18th Century Lines

Long, fortified lines were constructed in Europe during this period to connect forts and fortified cities, and enhance defenses for positional warfare. The most important crossed the United Provinces for 100 miles, from the Meuse to the Atlantic, in places connecting pre-existing canals and rivers as natural defenses against the French, supplemented by artificial barriers that included deepened ditches and high earthworks lined with firing steps and gun emplacements. Under Louis XIV the French built several new lines in Flanders. They built more in the Rhineland once Louis went on the defensive during the latter part of the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697). Members of the Grand Alliance erected defensive lines facing the French lines in Flanders and again along the Rhine frontier. The forward lines constructed for Louis were the Lines of Brabant, built to protect older gains and his newly claimed northern frontier as ostensible protector of the Spanish Netherlands from Allied raids and crossings-in-force during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). In 1711 the French completed still more formidable inner defensive lines known as the Ne Plus Ultra.

Like entrenchments of World War I, 18th-century lines were comprised of communications and support trenches as well as the main fighting trenches. They differed in that the armies that manned them seldom possessed enough troops to cover the whole system. This permitted breaching by surprise concentrations and forced marches, supported by good intelligence on where the defenders actually were.

Ne Plus Ultra lines.

An inner set of lines along France’s northern frontier. About 200 miles long, they were begun by maréchal Villars over the winter of 1710-1711 following the bloody fight at Malplaquet (August 31/September 11, 1709). They were made to guard France itself from invasion, following repeated defeats in Flanders in the last years of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). They were more substantial than the Lines of Brabant and reflected the fact that the Allies had already breached that forward line and the double lines of the old pré carré. Construction began after agreement to the London Preliminaries (October 8, 1711). The Lines were dubbed “ne plus ultra” (literally, “no more beyond”) by Villars to suggest that Allied armies would never advance beyond them. They ran from the coast past Arras and Cambrai to the Sambre River, then along it to Namur, incorporating some of the old Lines of Brabant.

Marlborough crossed the Ne Plus Ultra lines in their first year of existence. He bluffed Villars out of Arleux by ordering General William Cadogan to dissemble in his defense of the causeway there, before doubling back to take it a second time. Marlborough used this screen and time gained to march between Arras and Vimy Ridge (of course, unaware of how those names and places would later haunt British military history). Now in front of the surprised Villars, Marlborough broke through the Ne Plus Ultra lines without resistance or casualties, and took Bouchain on September 13/24, 1711. This directly threatened Paris. Marlborough was unable to exploit this achievement, however, as he was removed from command by Queen Anne and the Tories in January 1712, to clear the path to peace.

Lines of Brabant.

The first of a series of French defensive lines covering the northern frontier with the Spanish Netherlands. The lines of Brabant stretched for 130 miles from the Channel, passing in front of Antwerp and ending on the Meuse just below Namur and the junction with the Sambre. The Lines of Brabant presented a series of linked canal and riverine barriers intended to slow if not stop enemy advances. These were linked in continuous line with deep entrenchments, palisades, and strongpoints. However, after 1701 the French did not have enough troops to defend the whole system. The Lines were attacked by the Allies in late 1702. They were attacked again and partially forced by William Cadogan for Marlborough on July 17-18, 1705. That September, Allied military engineers razed a 20-mile section of the Lines around Zoutleeuw. This was not repaired while the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) lasted. Another Allied army razed a smaller section of the Lines near Antwerp. In 1706 Louis sent maréchal Villeroi and a large army to retake the lost ground at Zoutleeuw. That led directly to an even greater disaster for the French at Ramillies (May 12/23, 1706).

Lines of Stollhofen.

Short Allied lines in Germany built in 1703 at the start of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), and greatly strengthened in following years. They were about 10 miles long, running from the Rhine at Stollhofen to an impenetrable wood in the hills east of Bühl. They were heavily entrenched and palisaded, well gunned, and well defended. Replicating a pattern familiar in Flanders, Dutch engineers who worked on them incorporated flooded zones to impede assault. Prince Eugene of Savoy remained in the Lines of Stollhofen while Marlborough marched on the Danube, forcing French troops to cover. Eugene then left the Lines with his cavalry and some infantry, joining Marlborough to fight at Blenheim (August 2/13, 1704). Villars assaulted the Lines of Stollenhofen in May 1707 with an army of 30,000. He drew out defenders by making multiple feints across one flank along the Rhine while his main force crossed on the other. He attacked and crossed at several points at once on the night of May 22-23, while preparing his main blow the next morning at Bühl. When he arrived at Bühl, he found the Lines abandoned. The Lines of Stollhofen thus fell without the French suffering any losses. Villars proceeded to occupy and hold them.

pré carré.

The term meant “dueling field,” but became famous in reference to the open space formed between a double line of regular fortifications, part of an elaborate defense system that Vauban developed along the northern frontier of France after he broached the idea in a 1673 letter to Louis XIV. It imitated the two lines formed by infantry in battle. The pré carré on the frontier with the Spanish Netherlands linked artillery fortresses from Dunkirk through Ypres, Lille, Tournai, Valenciennes, Maubeuge, and Dinant. Among the main fortresses of the second, interior line were Gravelines, St. Omer, Aire, Arras, Douai, Cambrai, Landrecies, Rocroi, and Carleville. Its establishment involved Louis in a long-term strategy that aimed at rationalizing and straightening France’s frontiers, whether by diplomacy or, as Vauban put it, by “a good war.” The outer line was breached by the successful Allied siege of Lille (August 14-December 10, 1708). Taking the inner line was the main aim of Marlborough’ s campaign of 1710. After signing the London Preliminaries, the French began work on a new set of lines, the Ne Plus Ultra. In the last campaign of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), Villars retook the lines of the pré carré, thus helping to ensure the general peace later agreed at Utrecht.

Lines of Lauterbourg.

A set of defensive lines constructed on the Rhine frontier near Strasbourg.

Lines of the Var.

These lines were constructed in 1708 in the Var Valley of Provence to hold back an anticipated Allied invasion of southern France.

IJssel line.

A Dutch set of defensive lines based on the IJssel branch of the Rhine. They were in a state of disrepair when French forces quickly outflanked and subsequently overran them at the start of the Dutch War (1672-1678).