Marshal Vauban’s Last Combats (1700-1707)

A new defensive organization of the border (to a certain extent prefiguring the 1930s Maginot Line) was called “Pré Carré” and would be, from then on, Vauban’s main task and principal mission until the end of his life. During Louis XIV’s reign, these regions without natural barriers were heavily fortified with numerous fortresses termed Pré Carré (literally “square meadow,” but Vauban of course meant “defended state”). Vauban’s “Pré Carré” was designed in the years 1672-1674 and occupied him most of his career.

War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1714)

After the Treaty of Ryswick, the coalition of Augsburg was disbanded, but a new period of tension opened. This time the issue was the Spanish succession. King Charles II of Spain had died without a male heir. Austria and France had candidates for the throne. The patrimony was enormous. It consisted of the Spanish Empire, then comprising not only the kingdom of Spain itself, but also Spanish Netherlands (modern Belgium), a great part of Italy (Milan, Tuscany, Naples, Sicily and Sardinia), the Spanish Main (part of the West Indies, Mexico, and Latin America, except Brazil, which belonged to Portugal) and the Canary and Philippines islands, in all a handsome portion of the inhabited globe. Before his death, Charles II had refused to make a compromise or a partition and had designated as his successor the duke of Anjou, Louis XIV’s grandson, who became Philippe V, king of Spain. The possibility of Franco-Spanish power broke the precarious European political stability. This led to a renewed coalition including England, the German Empire, Brandenburg, Sweden, Savoy, Portugal and the Dutch United-Provinces. The new dynastic European war began in 1702. With the inevitability of sunset, it marked the twilight of Louis XIV’s reign.

The conflict started with initial Franco-Spanish victories at Friedlingen and Hochstadt in 1703, but soon things went badly wrong. The war proved long and terrible. For France, it was marked by serious reverses. Landau in Germany and Gibraltar in southern Spain were taken. In the Cévennes in mountainous central France, French Huguenots (known as Camisards) entered into armed rebellion and held back several royal armies. The close collaboration between Prince Eugen of Savoy-Carignan and John Churchill, duke of Marlborough, was one of the chief reasons for the allied victories, notably the battle of Blenheim (1704), obliging French troops to evacuate Germany. The new king of Spain, Philippe V, was temporarily driven from Madrid by an Anglo-Austrian offensive. French armies lost Belgian territories after the defeat of Ramillies (1706). After the lost battle of Turin, the French were forced to retreat in the Alps. Louis XIV’s armies pulled themselves together, won the battle of Malplaquet (1709) and succeeded in avoiding an invasion of France by holding fast in Vauban’s Pré Carré and by winning the battle of Denain (July 1712). This ultimate victory avoided the invasion of France just in time and allowed Louis XIV to sue for an honorable peace. The anti-French coalition, tired of this endless and exhausting war, agreed to make peace. Negotiations between the belligerents led to different treaties signed in 1713 and 1714. The Peace of Utrecht was particularly profitable to England, which became the first maritime and commercial power. Philippe V was confirmed as king of Spain and kept the South American colonies, but all possessions in Italy and Belgium were lost and passed under Austrian domination. Louis XIV had to forget his dreams of domination. France had to yield a part of its North American colonies to England, notably Terre-Neuve (Newfoundland), Hudson Bay and Acadia in Canada. He was also forced to restore several Belgian towns, bringing the northern frontier back to what it was in 1697. The Treaty of Utrecht was an important moment at the beginning of the eighteenth century in the distribution of European political power. It brought a new and better balance among the three great states. Neither France nor England nor Austria could impose its hegemony on the continent. The United-Provinces lost a part of their economic power. Spain entered a period of lasting and profound economic and political decay. The duke of Savoy became king of Sicily. Prussia was founded as a kingdom and occupied ever since a preponderant place in Germany. Russia began to open herself politically and economically to the West.

Vauban, when approaching the age of seventy, was still a busy man, traveling on inspection tours and designing fortress projects. However from 1700 on, his health deteriorated and he resided often in Paris in a house which he had hired near the Tuileries palace. Gathering his experiences and reflections, he wrote a lot, not only on military matters, but also on subjects such as peace, forest exploitation, agriculture and taxes. At the outbreak of the Spanish Succession War, he went back to service in the field and organized the defenses of the northern frontier. In January 1703, Louis XIV rewarded his old and loyal servant by elevating him to the post of marshal of France. But this distinctive promotion came very late, and it was purely honorific; Vauban was no longer in active service. The king then asked him to write studies about military architecture, army-organization and siege warfare. Nevertheless Vauban came back to work for Louis XIV and led his last victorious siege: the fortified city of Vieux-Brisach was taken by the elderly Vauban in September 1703. The following year Vauban was decorated in the Saint-Esprit chivalric order, but ill and exhausted, he was dismissed and put aside. The marshal plunged into mourning after his wife’s death and was feeling old, useless and worried about the bad turn of the war. After the disaster of Ramillies in May 1706, the duke of Marlborough took possession of Louvain, Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, Brugge and Audenarde, and he besieged Ostende and marched into northern France with the objective of taking Dunkirk. In the middle of the debacle, Louis XIV called again upon Vauban’s service. The old and sick marshal succeeded in stopping the panic of fleeing troops, regrouped the army, and organized a vast entrenched camp around Calais, Dunkirk, Gravelines, Bergues and Furnes which stopped Marlborough’s offensive. After this ultimate military campaign, Vauban was very ill and obtained leave. By that time he was snubbed and ignored by a new generation of ministers. His influence at court had sharply declined, not only because he was old and ill, but also because of his growing interest in social reform and equitable taxation. Indeed, at the end of 1706 he came back to Paris, put his writings in order, what he called his Oisivetés (“idle thoughts,”) and decided to publish a book about taxes called Projet de Dixme Royale. The book was condemned and banned, the author was watched, and suspected of political subversion by the royal police. Very ill, half-disgraced, bitter and disappointed, Vauban was dying. Having heard of the marshal’s desperate situation, Louis XIV, in a last gesture of gratitude, sent his best doctors, but it was too late. Marshal of France Sébastien Le Prestre Marquis de Vauban, died on March 30, 1707, at 10 a. m. in his residence in Rue Saint-Vincent (today Rue Saint Roch) near the Tuileries in Paris.

The disgraced Vauban died in the middle of the War of Spanish Succession, at a moment when the enemies of France were threatening to invade the kingdom. His body was hastily transported to his native Morvan, and buried on April 16 in the Saint-Sebastian chapel in the church of Bazoches without any official ceremony. The Academy of Sciences protested against such ingratitude and organized a solemn celebration, where the talented writer Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle pronounced a famous, historic funeral oration: “C’était un Romain qu’il sembloit que notre siecle eut dérobé aux plus heureux temps de la République” (he was a Roman, which our era, it seems, had taken from the happiest time of the Republic). According to the fashion of the time and on the order of Napoléon I, Vauban’s heart was cut out in May 1804 and rests now in an urn at Turenne’s side in the Invalides Church in Paris. By imperial decree of December 7, 1867, by Napoléon III, the marshal’s birthplace, the village of Saint-Léger-de-Fourcheret, has been renamed Saint- Léger-Vauban.