“Vauban’s Siege Legacy in the War of the Spanish Succession, 1702-1712”
The Ohio State University, 2002
Throughout the twentieth century, military historians have acknowledged the pivotal role of siegecraft in warfare. The costs associated with waging this expensive form of war, and the burden societies paid as a result, have vacillated according to the balance between the attack and the defense. Historians of 17th century Europe credit one French engineer – Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban – with toppling the 16th century artillery fortress’s domination by creating a “scientific” method of attack that captured fortresses while minimizing a besieger’s casualties, delays and expenses. His offensive legacy, as the literature explains, lasted for a century or more as generations of engineers followed his techniques with almost mechanical efficiency. How thoroughly Vauban’s siege attack was accepted by the end of Louis XIV’s reign in 1715, and the likely role it played in the steady decline of siegecraft in the 18th century, is the focus of this study.
Quantifying siege trends over the 17th century and clarifying the precise nature of his legacy allow us to place Vauban’s offensive revolution in its larger context, illustrating the debt he owed to previous thinkers. Focusing on the Flanders theater of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) as a test case, we find that engineers lacked the authority to implement their plan of attack. Too often the most important elements of Vauban’s siege attack were not only ignored, but actively opposed by the most successful of Allied and French commanders. These commanders – most famous among them John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, Prince Eugene of Savoy, and Claude, duc de Villars – represent a reaction against Vauban’s humanitarian attempts to rationalize warfare. Abandoning the Vaubanian attack and the ideals that it embodied, they captured strong fortresses with brute force rather than finesse; they accepted more casualties in order to save time. The frequent adoption of this substitute for the “scientific” siege highlights the importance of pre-existing military priorities in determining the success of tactical change. The clash between these two outlooks illustrates an early modern discourse over the very nature of warfare itself, a topic still debated today.
Last Edited 10/01/2002