In 1668, French King Louis XIV overran Spanish Netherlands (today’s Belgium) and Franche-Comté (Burgundy) in the War of Devolution but was shamefully forced to cede his conquests when the Triple Alliance of England, the Dutch Republic, and Sweden came to Spain’s aid. Louis XIV never forgave them and in 1672 invaded the Dutch Republic to chastise the merchant republic for interfering in the business of their betters. The Royal French Army, personally led by the king, reinvaded the Spanish Netherlands and on 13 June 1673, invested the fortress city of Maastricht. Maastricht was on the road from Liege to Cologne and critical to prevent disruption of his supply lines stretching back to France. Though Louis held overall command the architect of the siege was the 40 year old 17th century engineering genius, Sebastian Vauban.
By 40, Vauban had already had a long and glorious military career. The orphaned son of penniless minor nobility, Vauban was raised by his own peasants and fought with distinction against the king during the Fronde. Eventually captured, Vauban’s competence in military matters won him a commission and the eye of Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV chief advisor. Due to Mazarin’s benevolence, Vauban became a devoted soldier of the king. He rose through the ranks and his solid early childhood education in mathematics and geometry propelled him into the world of the royal engineers. Vauban had an uncanny knack for building fortifications, and even more so for bringing them down. Maastricht was his first command of a siege of a major city. It would not be his last.
Vauban’s mathematically precise and rational approach to sieges revolutionized siege warfare and its implementation for the next 200 years. “More gunpowder, less blood”, and dare I say, “more digging”, was his mantra. Once Vauban began, the reduction of the fortress was inevitable, unless of course they based on Vauban’s own designs. Maastricht was not so. Vauban ordered a series of parallel trenches dug connected by zig zagging communications trenches that prevented defenders from having a clear shot at the attackers. Once the trenches were close enough, mines could be dug and heavy mortars brought forward to reduce the city. In Maastricht’s case, this happened on 25 June 1673, and the assault on the Maastricht’s Tongere Gate was set for the next day.
The French assault was led by another of Mazarin’s protégés, Charles de Batz de Castelmore, the comte d’Artagnan. D’Artagnan was also a penniless minor noble. He arrived in Paris in 1630 to make a name for himself. Mazarin, who had a gift for talent management, took the young Gascon under his wing. D’Artagnan received a commission in the French Guards regiment, following quickly by a command in the king’s personal bodyguard, the King’s Musketeers. During and after the Fronde, d’Artagnan undertook many daring and successful covert and clandestine missions for the teenage Louis XIV, and the king never forgot. D’Artagnan was Louis’ most dedicated and loyal soldier. He rose to command the Musketeers and was easily identified across Paris by his burgundy, white and black livery, distinct from the blue and black of his men. D’Artagnan became one of Louis most trusted tactical commanders and assigned the most difficult missions. He rose to the rank of brigadier in command of several of the king’s most prestigious regiments. As the military governor of Lille, d’Artagnan longed to return to his men. The night Vauban announced that his trenches were complete, the 63ish year old veteran d’Artagnan volunteered to lead the assault.
The offer wasn’t vainglorious. Louis’ own Musketeers were to vanguard the assault. He trained those men and every one was like a brother or son. D’Artagnan wanted the assault to be the final crowning achievement of his career in the service of Louis XIV. It was.
On 25 June 1673, Charles de Batz de Castelmore, the comte d’Artagnan was shot through the throat leading the assault on Maastricht’s fortifications. He died later in the day. Louis XIV, deeply affected by the loss, arranged for a funeral mass to be held in his private chapel. The renowned French poet Saint-Blaize wrote a poem in honor of the old musketeer, the last lines of which were “d’Artagnan and glory share the same coffin.”
In less than a week, Maastricht surrendered to Louis XIV. On the battle he commented, “I lost d’Artagnan whom I trusted most completely and who was good to everyone.”
A few years later d’Artagnan’s life was fictionalized in Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras’ novel “Les mémoires de M. d’Artagnan”. 150 years later in the 19th century, that novel was read by a young French author, Alexandre Dumas. Dumas would further fictionalize d’Artagnan’s life in a newspaper serial. That serial was compiled and eventually became the novel, “The Three Musketeers”.