Siege of Ypres, 1678

By the beginning of 1678 Louis XIV's'war against the Dutch had dragged on for 5 years and he was seeking peace. The previous year the French had captured a number of towns in the north including Cambrai, Valenciennes and Saint-Omer, and the French king wanted a favourable peace by which France could retain these gains.

Louis first deceived the Spanish into thinking that his target was Luxembourg or Namur, then again by advancing on Ypres causing the Spanish to take troops from the Ghent garrison and send them to reinforce Ypres. When the French suddenley turned on Ghent, the depleted garrison was only able to resist Vauban's' attack for 9 days, the citadel'surrendering on March 12th.

View of the siege of Ypres, with the citadel on the left. This image is clearer when enlarged - the French attack on the citadel can be seen on the extreme left and the trenches approaching the town on the extreme right.

The French then advanced south to take Ypres. The town was invested on March 18th and Vauban directed the siegeworks as at Ghent. Ypres had been fortified since the middle ages and the fortifications had recently been strengthened in anticipation of a French attack.

These included a number of demi-lunes'and a strong pentagonal citadel, which had been built recently in anticipation of a French attack. The ground around Ypres was very low-lying and wet, especially to the south, not an ideal situation for approach trenches. Vauban therefore chose to make his attack from east where the ground was slightly higher and drier, but where the defences were augmented by the strong citadel.

The initial attack was aimed at the citadel. Zig-zag trenches were dug forward and batteries placed to batter the defences. Morale among the French troops was high because of the recent victory and the presence of the king, so the work progressed quickly.

Another view of the siege. This picture erroneously shows the main French attack (centre) occurring on the east front to the south of the citadel (right). This is very unlikely, since ground there was very wet and partly inundated. It is more likely that the attack on the town was on the north side, as shown on the view above.

The garrison, which as we have seen had been recently reinforced to a total strength of 2,500, made a determined resistance by bombarding the French trenches. As one story has it Nikolaas Hoedt, a gunner in the citadel, fired a shot that felled 18 men of the Royal Guard and struck the inn where Louis XIV was staying. After the siege the king sent for the man, asking him to join the French army, but he refused.

After waiting a few days and having seen the tenacious defence put up the citadel's garrison, Vauban opened another attack, this time against the town's fortifications from the north. The ground there was wet and there was no room for the system of parallels'conventionally used by Vauban, so the trenches zig-zagged forward along two narrow strips of slightly higher and dryer ground either side of the canal.

View of the assault on the citadel on the night of the 24th. The fire from the citadel's defenders and from the attackers is shown as lighting up the night.

Meanwhile, the attack against the citadel was pressed. On the night of March 24th, after just a week of sapping, the French assaulted the counterscarp. The reaction from the defenders was devastating. A deafening fusillade of musketry and cannon-fire poured down onto the attackers from the ramparts of the citadel.

However, the attackers were able to take possession of the covered way'and dug in. The following morning (the 25th), seeing that their position was hopeless, the garrison capitulated. They were accorded the full honours of war and marched out, leaving Louis XIV the master of yet another Flanders town.

Peace talks began the following month, resulting in the signing of the Treaty of Nijmegen'in August. Ypres, along with many other towns in the north, was accorded to France by this treaty, and Vauban was to return shortly with a view to strengthening the fortifications. One of his first actions was to demolish the citadel, which was so poorly sited as to be detrimental to the town's defence - instead of being integrated into the town's defences, the citadel was sited outside the town's fortifications, so guns in the nearby demi-lunes and on the ramparts could be used to fire at the citadel.

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