- Vauban under Siege: Engineering Efficiency and Martial Vigor in the War of the Spanish Succession
2007 is the tercentenary of Vauban's death and is being marked all over France and beyond by exhibitions and conferences. Vauban (1633–1707) was on active service almost continuously from the age of eighteen. By 1703 when he was created Marshal of France (and then sidelined) he had worked on at least 160 fortresses, directed more than forty sieges, and been wounded five times. Many places have reason to mark his anniversary. Amidst all the celebration, Jamel Ostwald's book is very welcome because, [End Page 1232] without taking away from Vauban's achievements, it directs a critical spotlight on the reality and legacy of his approach to siege warfare. Ostwald questions how deeply his advocacy of engineering efficiency—what Blomfield called "grande finesse"—had penetrated the consciousness of French commanders, and how much it influenced the conduct of subsequent Early Modern sieges.
Vauban aimed to conduct sieges which delivered timely victory at minimum cost in blood and money; demonstrated spectacularly at the "perfect siege" of Ath (1697) when after fourteen days of open trenches a fortress designed by Vauban himself was taken with only 300 casualties and half the anticipated expenditure of ammunition. Techniques such as the parallels (which protected saps from sorties), ricochet fire (which lobbed low velocity shot into the enemy's advanced works far more accurately than mortars, and saved powder) and trench cavaliers (which overlooked enemy works) were merely tools which allowed a skilled engineer to deliver a quick result and the campaign to move on. Many had been pioneered by others but were managed better by Vauban. While Vauban had the ear of Louis XIV (who was often physically present at the sieges of his middle years) the cult of engineering efficiency made progress. Without Vauban and his royal backing, French generals (and, in fairness, their Dutch and English opponents) quickly abandoned finesse for firepower, and pressed their assaults vigorously with scant regard for casualties. Brute force often bought a few extra days of campaigning, partly offset by delays in replacing losses of troops, pioneers, engineers and gunners (the last two suffering disproportionately in the casualty lists and, as specialists, difficult to replace). Not surprisingly, impatient generals blamed the engineers for timidity, delays, and over-optimism. If sieges were actually shortened during the early years of the eighteenth century, as Ostwald's figures suggest, it came at a price. Ostwald exposes a cultural divide which, he argues, survives in the value still accorded to aggressive leadership and an offensive mentality.
Ostwald bases his findings on a dataset which is presented in appendices analysing the duration, phases, and artillery types deployed in the sieges and campaigns of 1702–14, meticulously listing key sources, and discussing the differences between his results and those of David Chandler and John Lynn. Much ink has been spilt here (and the related issue of army strengths) in the Military Revolution Debate. This well-researched book will certainly not be the last word on the subject, but it does add some very useful findings to fuel the debate, and is strongly to be recommended.
Liverpool, United Kingdom