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Marshal Vauban and the Defence of Louis XIV’s France, by James Falkner, Pen and Sword Books, Barnsley, United Kingdom, 2011, $50

The name Vauban is virtually synonymous with military engineering, but Falkner, a leading writer on 17th and 18th century warfare, follows step by step the life and career of Sébastien le Prestre, seigneur de Vauban, in context with the campaigns of his royal patron.

Europe’s first centralized state was a vulnerable one when Louis XIV came to the throne. Its capital, Paris, is only 120 miles from the border of present-day Belgium, which, along with some parts of modern France, was under Spanish Hapsburg rule in the 17th century. Louis thought it vital to reunite those counties with France and secure them against future attack behind an “iron fence.” Vauban, the man who fortified northern France’s defenses, started his military career in the civil war between crown and nobility known as the Second Fronde, in the army of Louis II, prince de Condé, distinguishing himself in the 1652 Siege of Sainte-Menehould. Vauban was captured the next year, but Louis’ minister, Cardinal Jules Mazarin, was so impressed with the 20-year-old’s conduct and knowledge that he offered Vauban a place in the royal army. Vauban’s first task as a royalist was to retake Sainte-Menehould from Condé, and young Louis XIV was present to witness his energy and courage. After two more successful sieges Vauban became the king’s chief engineer.

Vauban began by modifying the then-common Italian fortification system, using horn bastions to permit cross-flanking fire and ricochet fire. To take enemy fortresses he expanded on the Ottoman use of parallel trenches, creating a system of first, second and third parallels, each dug progressively closer to the objective, a method used first in the 1673 Siege of Maastricht.

Was Vauban’s “iron fence” worth its high cost? Falkner thinks so. During the War of the Spanish Succession, even when allied commanders such as Prince Eugene of Savoy and John Churchill, duke of Marlborough, won battlefield victories, the fortresses designed and rebuilt under Vauban’s supervision invariably slowed their progress. Even in the 20th century the Vauban-designed citadel of Lille defied German attacks both on land and from the air from May 28 to June 1, 1940.

Vauban made the engineer corps an arm of equal importance to any in modern armies. In 2008 UNESCO declared 12 of his fortresses World Heritage Sites, calling his work “a major contribution to universal military architecture.” Shedding light on the personality behind the military genius, whose attention to detail saw importance even in the amount of tobacco supplied to a fortress’ garrison, Falkner’s book should appeal to all enthusiasts of military history.

—Thomas Zacharis