Siege of Maastricht, 1673

In 1672 King Louis XIV'of France, frustrated by the Dutch, who were threatening his designs against the Spanish Netherlands, declared war. He led his 150,000-strong army through the Bishopric of Liège and into Gelderland, bypassing the strong fortress of Maastricht. However, Louis could not leave it to his rear, so he returned in 1673 to lay siege to it.

Maastricht's defences had been constantly upgraded by the Spanish and later the Dutch since the 16th century. By 1673 they presented a formidable obstacle to any besieging force, comprising 5 hornworks, a flooded ditch'and many demi-lunes. The garrison consisted of 6000 men. The French engineer Vauban'was to command the siegeworks, this being the first major siege of many he was to lead.

Plan of the siege of Maastricht, showing the French lines around the city.

45,000 French troops arrived before Maastricht on June 11th. They pressed 7,000 local peasants into service and set them to work digging the lines of circumvallation and contravallation encircling the town, which were completed on June 14th.

Vauban decided to drive his attack towards a hornwork in the south-west section of the defences, slightly to the south of where the Dutch made their two approaches in the siege of 1632. The trenches were opened on the night of 17th-18th June.

Vauban used a new system of his own divising for the first time at Maastricht - the system of parallels. First a trench was dug parallel to the defences at maximum cannon-range and batteries emplaced there, then zig-zag trenches were dug forward from this first trench closer to the fortifications. Here another parallel was dug and batteries placed, and so on. This allowed the attackers to gradually move closer to the fortifications in relative safety, and regularised the placement of batteries (see the siege warfare page for more details).

Louis XIV was eager to be in possession of the town by June 24th (the festival of John the Baptist), so that he could attend mass in Maastricht's cathedral. For this reason he impatiently ordered an early assault on a triangular outwork which was to become the scene of heavy fighting. A force led by the famous muskateer d'Artagnan launched a night assault against the work, but met with fierce opposition.

Plan showing the trenches and batteries dug by the French during the siege.

The attack was initially successful but a counterattack drove most of the French out of the work, with the exception of 30 men who held out until morning. The garrison was then able to recapture it without much difficulty. A small English contingent commanded by the Duke of Monmouth was present with Louis' forces and it displayed much bravery in attempt to take a section of the covered way, but was forced back with the loss of 300 men. Monmouth rallied his troops for a second assault, but this also failed, costing the life of d'Artagnan, who was shot in throat.

View of the siege.

Vauban was also in the thick of the action during this fight, prompting Louvois'to write to Vauban's superior with the pointed comment "You will be aware of His Majesty's displeasure of should anything untoward happen to the Sieur de Vauban...".

After these bloody and ineffectual assaults, Louis yielded to Vauban's maxim "the more powder we burn, the less blood we lose" and allowed the batteries to continue their work. The garrison capitulated less than a week later on June 30th. The siege of Maastricht had been a triumph for both Louis XIV and Vauban. The French king had dismissed his great commanders before the siege, so that the glory fell on him personally, strengthening his position at home. Vauban's system of parallels became widely accepted as the standard method for attacking a fortified place and was used right up until the early 19th century. Maastricht was returned to the Dutch by the Treaty of Nijmegen'in 1678, but France gained other important concessions for its return.

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