besieged adj : surrounded by hostile forces; "the besieged town"
A siege is a military blockade of a city or fortress with the intent of conquering by attrition and/or assault. The term derives from the Latin word for "seat" or "sitting." A siege occurs when an attacker encounters a city or fortress that cannot be easily taken by a frontal assault and refuses to surrender. Sieges involve surrounding the target and blocking the reinforcement or escape of troops or provision of supplies (a tactic known as "investment"), typically coupled with attempts to reduce the fortifications by means of siege engines, artillery bombardment, mining (also known as sapping), or the use of deception or treachery to bypass defenses. Failing a military outcome, sieges can often be decided by starvation, thirst or disease, which can afflict both the attacker or defender.
Sieges probably predate the development of cities as large population centers. Ancient cities in the Middle East show archaeological evidence of having had fortified city walls. During the Warring States era of ancient China, there is both textual and archaeological evidence of prolonged sieges and siege machinery used against the defenders of city walls. Siege machinery was also a tradition of the ancient Greco-Roman world. During the Renaissance and the Early Modern period, siege warfare dominated the conduct of war in Europe. Leonardo da Vinci gained as much of his renown from the design of fortifications as from his artwork.
Medieval campaigns were generally designed around a succession of sieges. In the Napoleonic era, increasing use of ever more powerful cannon reduced the value of fortifications. In modern times, trenches replaced walls, and bunkers replaced castles. In the 20th century, the significance of the classical siege declined. With the advent of mobile warfare, one single fortified stronghold is no longer as decisive as it once was. While sieges do still occur, they are not as common as they once were due to changes in modes of battle, principally the ease by which huge volumes of destructive power can be directed onto a static target. Sieges in present day are more commonly either smaller hostage, militant, or extreme resisting-arrest situations such as the Waco Siege.
Generally speaking, siege warfare is a form of low-intensity warfare (until an assault takes place) characterized in that at least one party holds a strong defense position, it is highly static situation, the element of attrition is typically strong and there are plenty of opportunities for negotiations.
Ancient siege warfare
The essential of city wallsThe Assyrians deployed large labour forces to build new palaces, temples and defensive walls.
Some settlements in the Indus Valley Civilization were also fortified. By about 3500 B.C., hundreds of small farming villages dotted the Indus floodplain. Many of these settlements had fortifications and planned streets. The stone and mud brick houses of Kot Diji were clustered behind massive stone flood dikes and defensive walls, for neighboring communities quarreled constantly about the control of prime agricultural land. Mundigak (c. 2500 B.C.) in present day south-east Afghanistan has defensive walls and square bastions of sun dried bricks.
City walls and fortifications were essential for the defense of the first cities in the ancient Near East. The walls were built by mud bricks, stone, wood or a combination of these materials depending on local availability. City walls may also have served the dual purpose of showing presumptive enemies the might of the Kingdom. The great walls surrounding the Sumerian city of Uruk gained such a wide-spread reputation. The walls were 9.5 km / 6 miles in length, and raised up to 12 metres / 40 feet in height. Later the walls of Babylon, reinforced by towers and moats, gained a similar reputation. In Anatolia, the Hittites built massive stone walls around their cities, taking advantage of the hillsides. In Shang Dynasty China, at the site of Ao, large walls were erected in the 15th century BC that had dimensions of 20 meters / 65 feet in width at the base and enclosed an area of some squared. In similar dimensions, the ancient Chinese capital for the State of Zhao, Handan (founded in 386 BC), had walls that were again 20 meters / 65 feet wide at the base, a height of 15 meters / 50 feet tall, with two separate sides of its rectangular enclosure measured at a length of .
Tactics in siege warfare
The most common practice of siege warfare was however to lay siege and wait for the surrender of the enemies inside. The Egyptian siege of Megiddo in the 15th century BC lasted for 7 months before its inhabitants surrendered. The Hittite siege of a rebellious Anatolian vassal in the 14th century BC ended when the queen mother came out of the city and begged for mercy on behalf of her people. If the main objective of a campaign was not the conquest of a particular city, it could simply be passed by. The Hittite campaign against the kingdom of Mitanni in the 14th century BC bypassed the fortified city of Carchemish. When the main objective of the campaign had been fulfilled, the Hittite army returned to Carchemish and the city fell after an eight-day-siege. The well-known Assyrian Siege of Jerusalem in the 8th century BC came to an end when the Israelites bought them off with gifts and tribute, according to the Assyrian account, or when the Assyrian camp was struck by mass death, according to the Biblical account. Due to the problem of logistics, long lasting sieges involving but a minor force could seldom be maintained.
During the Warring States (481–221 BC) era of China, warfare lost its honorable, gentlemen's duty that was found in the previous era of China (Spring and Autumn period), and became more practical, competitive, cut-throat, and efficient for gaining victory. The Chinese invention of the hand-held, trigger-mechanism crossbow during this period revolutionized warfare, giving greater emphasis to infantry and cavalry and less to traditional chariot Chinese warfare. The philosophically-pacifist Mohists (followers of the philosopher Mozi) of the 5th century BC believed in aiding the defensive warfare of smaller Chinese states against the hostile offensive warfare of larger domineering states. The Mohists were renowned in the smaller states (and the enemies of the larger states) for the inventions of siege machinery to scale or destroy walls. This included traction trebuchet catapults, eight foot high ballistas, a wheeled siege ramp with grappling hooks known as the Cloud Bridge (the protractable, folded ramp slinging forward by means of a counterweight with rope and pulley), and wheeled 'hook-carts' used to latch large iron hooks onto the tops of walls to pull and tear them down. When enemies attempted to dig tunnels under walls for mining or entry into the city, the defenders used large bellows (the type the Chinese commonly used in heating up the blast furnace for smelting cast iron) to pump smoke into the tunnels in order to suffocate the intruders.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD), the Chinese were very concerned with city planning in regards to gunpowder warfare. The site for constructing the walls and the thickness of the walls in Beijing's Forbidden City were favored by the Chinese Yongle Emperor (r. 1402–1424), because they were in pristine position to resist cannon volley and were built thick enough to withstand attacks from cannon fire.
For more see Technology of the Song Dynasty.
Sieges in the age of gunpowderThe introduction of gunpowder and the use of cannons brought about a new age in siege warfare. Cannons were first used in Song Dynasty China during the early 13th century, but did not become significant weapons for another 150 years or so. By the 16th century, they were an essential and regularized part of any campaigning army, or castle's defenses.
The greatest advantage of cannons over other siege weapons was the ability to fire a heavier projectile, further, faster and more often than previous weapons. They could also fire projectiles in a straight line, so that they could destroy the bases of high walls. Thus, 'old fashioned' walls—that is high and, relatively, thin—were excellent targets and, over time, easily demolished. In 1453, the great walls of Constantinople were broken through in just six weeks by the 62 cannon of Mehmet II's army.
However, new fortifications, designed to withstand gunpowder weapons, were soon constructed throughout Europe. During the Renaissance and the Early Modern period, siege warfare continued to dominate the conduct of war in Europe.
Once siege guns were developed the techniques for assaulting a town or a fortress became well known and ritualized. The attacking army would surround a town. Then the town would be asked to surrender. If they did not comply the besieging army would surround the town with temporary fortifications to stop sallies from the stronghold or relief getting in. The attackers would then build a length of trenches parallel to the defences and just out of range of the defending artillery. They would then dig a trench towards the town in a zigzag pattern so that it could not be enfiladed by defending fire. Once within artillery range another parallel trench would be dug with gun emplacements. If necessary using the first artillery fire for cover this process would be repeated until guns were close enough to be laid accurately to make a breach in the fortifications. In order to allow the forlorn hope and support troops to get close enough to exploit the breach, more zigzag trenches could be dug even closer to the walls with more parallel trenches to protect and conceal the attacking troops. After each step in the process the besiegers would ask the besieged to surrender. If the forlorn hope stormed the breach successfully the defenders could expect no mercy.
Emerging theories on improving fortificationsThe castles that in earlier years had been formidable obstacles were easily breached by the new weapons. For example, in Spain, the newly equipped army of Ferdinand and Isabella was able to conquer Moorish strongholds in Granada in 1482–92 that had held out for centuries before the invention of cannons.
In the early 15th century, Italian architect Leon Battista Alberti wrote a treatise entitled De Re aedificatoria which theorized methods of building fortifications capable of withstanding the new guns. He proposed that walls be "built in uneven lines, like the teeth of a saw." He proposed star-shaped fortresses with low thick walls.
However, few rulers paid any attention to his theories. A few towns in Italy began building in the new style late in the 1480s, but it was only with the French invasion of the Italian peninsula in 1494–95 that the new fortifications were built on a large scale. Charles VIII invaded Italy with an army of 18,000 men and a horse-drawn siege-train. As a result he could defeat virtually any city or state, no matter how well defended. In a panic, military strategy was completely rethought throughout the Italian states of the time, with a strong emphasis on the new fortifications that could withstand a modern siege.
New styles of fortresses employedThe most effective way to protect walls against cannon fire proved to be depth (increasing the width of the defenses) and angles (ensuring that attackers could only fire on walls at an oblique angle, not square on). Initially walls were lowered and backed, in front and behind, with earth. Towers were reformed into triangular bastions.
This design matured into the trace italienne. Star-shaped fortresses surrounding towns and even cities with outlying defenses proved very difficult to capture, even for a well equipped army. Fortresses built in this style throughout the 16th century did not become fully obsolete until the 19th century, and were still in use throughout World War I (though modified for 20th century warfare).
However, the cost of building such vast modern fortifications was incredibly high, and was often too much for individual cities to undertake. Many were bankrupted in the process of building them; others, such as Siena, spent so much money on fortifications that they were unable to maintain their armies properly, and so lost their wars anyway. Nonetheless, innumerable large and impressive fortresses were built throughout northern Italy in the first decades of the 16th century to resist repeated French invasions that became known as the Italian Wars. Many stand to this day.
In the 1530s and 1540s, the new style of fortification began to spread out of Italy into the rest of Europe, particularly to France, the Netherlands, and Spain. Italian engineers were in enormous demand throughout Europe, especially in war-torn areas such as the Netherlands, which became dotted by towns encircled in modern fortifications. For many years, defensive and offensive tactics were well balanced leading to protracted and costly wars such as Europe had never known, involving more and more planning and government involvement.
The new fortresses ensured that war rarely extended beyond a series of sieges. Because the new fortresses could easily hold 10,000 men, an attacking army could not ignore a powerfully fortified position without serious risk of counterattack. As a result, virtually all towns had to be taken, and that was usually a long, drawn-out affair, potentially lasting from several months to years, while the members of the town were starved to death. Most battles in this period were between besieging armies and relief columns sent to rescue the besieged.
At the end of the 17th century, Marshal Vauban, a French military engineer, developed modern fortification to its pinnacle, refining siege warfare without fundamentally altering it: ditches would be dug; walls would be protected by glacis; and bastions would enfilade an attacker. He was also a master of planning sieges himself. Before Vauban, sieges had been somewhat slapdash operations. Vauban refined besieging to a science with a methodical process that, if uninterrupted, would break even the strongest fortifications.
Examples of Vauban-style fortresses in North America include Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, Fort Ticonderoga in New York State, and La Citadelle in Quebec City.
Planning and maintaining a siege is just as difficult as fending one off. A besieging army must be prepared to repel both sorties from the besieged area and also any attack that may try to relieve the defenders. It was thus usual to construct lines of trenches and defenses facing in both directions. The outermost lines, known as the lines of contravallation, would surround the entire besieging army and protect it from attackers. This would be the first construction effort of a besieging army, built soon after a fortress or city had been invested. A line of circumvallation would also be constructed, facing in towards the besieged area, to protect against sorties by the defenders and to prevent the besieged from escaping.
The next line, which Vauban usually placed at about 600 meters from the target, would contain the main batteries of heavy cannons so that they could hit the target without being vulnerable themselves. Once this line was established, work crews would move forward creating another line at 250 meters. This line contained smaller guns. The final line would be constructed only 30 to 60 meters from the fortress. This line would contain the mortars and would act as a staging area for attack parties once the walls were breached. It would also be from there that miners working to undermine the fortress would operate.
The trenches connecting the various lines of the besiegers could not be built perpendicular to the walls of the fortress, as the defenders would have a clear line of fire along the whole trench. Thus, these lines (known as saps) needed to be sharply jagged.
Another element of a fortress was the citadel. Usually a citadel was a "mini fortress" within the larger fortress, sometimes designed as a last bastion of defense, but more often as a means of protecting the garrison from potential revolt in the city. The citadel was used in wartime and peacetime to keep the residents of the city in line.
As in ages past, most sieges were decided with very little fighting between the opposing armies. An attacker's army was poorly served incurring the high casualties that a direct assault on a fortress would entail. Usually they would wait until supplies inside the fortifications were exhausted or disease had weakened the defenders to the point that they were willing to surrender. At the same time, diseases, especially typhus were a constant danger to the encamped armies outside the fortress, and often forced a premature retreat. Sieges were often won by the army that lasted the longest.
An important element of strategy for the besieging army was whether or not to allow the encamped city to surrender. Usually it was preferable to graciously allow a surrender, both to save on casualties, and to set an example for future defending cities. A city that was allowed to surrender with minimal loss of life was much better off than a city that held out for a long time and was brutally butchered at the end. Moreover, if an attacking army had a reputation of killing and pillaging regardless of a surrender, then other cities' defensive efforts would be redoubled.
Advent of mobile warfareSiege warfare dominated in Western Europe for most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. An entire campaign, or longer, could be used in a single siege (for example, Ostend in 1601–04; La Rochelle in 1627–28). This resulted in extremely prolonged conflicts. The balance was that while siege warfare was extremely expensive and very slow, it was very successful—or, at least, more so than encounters in the field. Battles arose through clashes between besiegers and relieving armies, but the principle was a slow grinding victory by the greater economic power. The relatively rare attempts at forcing pitched battles (Gustavus Adolphus in 1630; the French against the Dutch in 1672 or 1688) were almost always expensive failures.
The exception to this rule were the English. During the English Civil War anything which tended to prolong the struggle, or seemed like want of energy and avoidance of a decision, was bitterly resented by the men of both sides. In France and Germany, the prolongation of a war meant continued employment for the soldiers, but in England:
- "we never encamped or entrenched... or lay fenced with rivers or defiles. Here were no leaguers in the field, as at the story of Nuremberg, 'neither had our soldiers any tents, or what they call heavy baggage.' Twas the general maxim of the war: Where is the enemy? Let us go and fight them. Or... if the enemy was coming... Why, what should be done! Draw out into the fields and fight them."
This passage from the Memoirs of a Cavalier, ascribed to Daniel Defoe, though not contemporary evidence, is an admirable summary of the character of the Civil War. Even when in the end a regular professional army developed, the original decision-compelling spirit permeated the whole organisation as was seen when pitched against regular professional continental troops the Battle of the Dunes during the Interregnum.
Sixty year later during the War of the Spanish Succession the Duke of Marlborough preferred to engage the enemy in pitched battles rather than engage in siege warfare, although he was very proficient in both types of warfare.
In the early nineteenth century, two factors changed this method of warfare.
Strategic conceptsIn the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, new techniques stressed the division of armies into all-arms corps that would march separately and only come together on the battlefield. The less concentrated army could now live off the country and move more rapidly over a larger number of roads. Fortresses commanding lines of communication could be bypassed and would no longer stop an invasion. Since armies could not live off the land indefinitely, Napoleon Bonaparte always sought a quick end to any conflict by pitched battle. This military revolution was described and codified by Clausewitz.
The development of the armoured tank and improved infantry tactics at the end of World War I swung the pendulum back in favour of maneuver, and with the advent of Blitzkrieg in 1939, the end of siege warfare was near its end. The Maginot Line would be the prime example of the failure of immobile fortifications post World War One. Although sieges would continue, it would be in a totally different style and on a reduced scale.
The Blitzkrieg of the Second World War truly showed that fixed fortifications are easily defeated by maneuver instead of frontal assault or long sieges. The great Maginot Line was bypassed and battles that would have taken weeks of siege could now be avoided with the careful application of air power (such as the German paratrooper capture of Fort Eben-Emael, Belgium, early in World War II). The most important siege was the Siege of Leningrad, that lasted over 29 months, about half of the duration of the entire Second World War. Along with the Battle of Stalingrad, the Siege of Leningrad on the Eastern Front was the deadliest siege of a city in history. In the west apart from the Battle of the Atlantic the sieges were not on the same scale as those on the European Eastern front; however, there were several notable or critical sieges: the island of Malta for which the population won the George Cross, Tobruk and Monte Cassino. In the South-East Asian Theatre there was the siege of Singapore and in the Burma Campaign sieges of Myitkyina, the Admin Box and the Battle of the Tennis Court which was the high water mark for the Japanese advance into India.
The air supply methods which were developed and used extensively in the Burma Campaign for supplying the Chindits and other units, including those in sieges such as Imphal, as well as flying the Hump into China, allowed the western powers to develop air lift expertise which would prove vital during the Cold War Berlin Blockade.
During the Vietnam War the battles of Dien Bien Phu (1954) and Khe Sanh (1968) possessed siege-like characteristics. In both cases, the Vietminh and NLF were able to cut off the opposing army by capturing the surrounding rugged terrain. At Dien Bien Phu, the French were unable to use air power to overcome the siege and were defeated. However, at Khe Sanh a mere 14 years later, advances in air power allowed the United States to withstand the siege. The resistance of US forces was assisted by the PAVN and PLAF forces' decision to use the Khe Sanh siege as strategic distraction to allow their mobile warfare offensive, the first Tet offensive to unfold securely. The Siege of Khe Sanh displays typical features of modern sieges, as the defender has greater capacity to withstand siege, the attacker's main aim is to bottle operational forces, or create a strategic distraction, rather than take a siege to conclusion.
Police actionsDespite the overwhelming might of the modern state, siege tactics continue to be employed in police conflicts. This has been due to a number of factors, primarily risk to life, whether that of the police, the besieged, bystanders or hostages. Police make use of trained negotiators, psychologists and, if necessary, force, generally being able to rely on the support of their nation's armed forces if required.
One of the complications facing police in a siege involving hostages is the Stockholm syndrome where sometimes hostages can develop a sympathetic rapport with their captors. If this helps keep them safe from harm this is considered to be a good thing, but there have been cases where hostages have tried to shield the captors during an assault or refused to co-operate with the authorities in bringing prosecutions.
The 1993 police siege on the Branch Davidian church in Waco, Texas, lasted 51 days, an atypically long police siege. Unlike traditional military sieges, police sieges tend to last for hours or days rather than weeks, months or years.
In Britain if the siege involves perpetrators who are considered by the British Government to be terrorists, then if an assault is to take place, the civilian authorities hand command and control over to the military. The threat of such an action ended the Balcombe Street Siege in 1975 but the Iranian Embassy Siege in 1980 ended in a military assault and the death of all but one of the hostage takers.
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- Duffy, Christopher. Siege Warfare: Fortress in the Early Modern World, 1494–1660. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1996.
- Duffy, Christopher. Siege Warfare, Volume II: The Fortress in the Age of Vauban and Frederick the Great. Routledge and Kegan Paul: London, 1985.
- Lynn, John A. The Wars of Louis XIV.
- Ebrey, Walthall, Palais (2006). East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
- May, Timothy. "Mongol Arms." Explorations in Empire, Pre-Modern Imperialism Tutorial: the Mongols. University of Wisconsin-Madison. 27 June 2004.
- Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Part 2. Taipei: Caves Books Ltd.
- Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Part 6. Taiepi: Caves Books Ltd.
- Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Part 7. Taipei: Caves Books Ltd.
- Saltini Antonio, L'assedio della Mirandola. Vita, guerra e amore al tempo di Pico e di papa Giulio, Diabasis, Reggio Emilia 2003
- Turnbull, Stephen R. (2002). Siege Weapons of the Far East. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd.
- Native American Siege Warfare.
- Siege Kits
- Scenes of Siege Warfare
- Secrets of Lost Empires: Medieval Siege (PBS) Informative and interactive webpages about medieval siege tactics.
- href="http://nefertiti.iwebland.com/weapons/siege_warfare.htm">http://nefertiti.iwebland.com/weapons/siege_warfare.htm Three ancient Egyptian Sieges: Megiddo, Dapur, Hermopolis (archived version)
- The Siege Of The City Biblical perspectives.
besieged in Bosnian: Opsada
besieged in Czech: Obléhání
besieged in German: Belagerung
besieged in Spanish: Asedio
besieged in Esperanto: Sieĝo
besieged in French: Siège (militaire)
besieged in Korean: 공성전
besieged in Indonesian: Pengepungan
besieged in Italian: Assedio
besieged in Hebrew: מצור
besieged in Dutch: Belegering
besieged in Japanese: 攻城戦
besieged in Norwegian: Beleiring
besieged in Polish: Oblężenie
besieged in Portuguese: Cerco
besieged in Romanian: Asediu
besieged in Russian: Осада
besieged in Sicilian: Assèdiu
besieged in Simple English: Siege
besieged in Serbian: Опсада
besieged in Finnish: Piiritys
besieged in Swedish: Belägring
besieged in Turkish: Kuşatma