On The Nature Of Siege Warfare

I begin a series of articles that will concentrate on the history of the greatest sieges of all time. There are a number of things I want to point out before I start this journey. First and foremost, the list of sieges I have chosen does not have the ambition to be authoritative or final. These dramatic moments in military history however had deep impact on their respective conflict and history itself. Many of these sieges are legendary, symbolic and they pose a milestone in one nation’s common memory, especially the ones of more recent times.

Apart from the present, introductory essay on the nature of siege warfare, each article will follow a similar model. First – a short introduction of the forces that meet on the battlefield. Second – an analysis of the reasons and the development of the given military conflict. Third – an analysis of the siege itself – its stages, siege machinery, logistics, situation of the entrapped civil population and so on. Fourth – an analysis of the aftermath and the importance of the siege.

I am aware the topic is exhaustive and a simple introduction to the nature of siege warfare is impossible. So I beg all the readers of this article to excuse the adherent shortcomings that are only natural.

Still, I find the topic more than interesting and deserving far greater attention than it gets from regular military historians. Sieges are often overlooked when a list of great battles comes out as an academic research, and when they are included, the authors often forget that this was the history of living human beings, of people with their fears and hopes, people who were starving and had problems with running water and supplies, who were stuck in a crowded city or citadel, always exposed to endemic diseases. People who were at any moment terrified that the enemy would breach the walls and a bloody carnage would emerge. In my opinion any significant siege is much more dramatic or tragic than even the greatest battles of the scale of Cannae, the Catalonian fields, Crecy or Kursk.

But sieges have been a part of human life since the very dawn of civilization. Many of them are now forgotten under endless layers of time, others have turned into legend.

How did it all begin?

I must admit I have been greatly influenced by Gwynne Dyer and his book War[1], especially when it comes to the logics and reason of the earliest human conflicts. Of course our knowledge of the earliest human societies, the small city-states of the Fertile Crescent some six or even seven thousand years ago is very limited. At best we have to build the structure of the everyday life, society and politics of these people from circumstantial evidence. Still, there is an outlook that seems repetitive in Asia Minor, Mesopotamia and Upper Egypt.

The people who lived in the river valleys very soon found out that they did not need to spend all their life in perennial movement. One of the greatest revolutions in human history – the beginning of agriculture took place. Soon families grouped in larger and larger communities, until the first real cities like Jericho and Catal Huyuk emerged.

There was however another way of development, or we should rather say – carrying on. This was the way of the nomads, the herdsmen of the hills and the mountains who continued their travels. The life of the nomads was more challenging – they had to deal with wild animals and more difficult climate conditions, their movement required greater discipline. Their diet was also better than that of the valley and plain people – more mwalls-of-jerichoeat and milk, therefore more proteins than carbohydrates. The nomads were far better prepared to be soldiers than the people who lived in the agricultural villages and small towns, as well as the developing trading centres. So when they felt like pillaging these towns, there was nothing to stop them. The standing armies of the states were still far in the future. So the city people, this peaceful civilian population came up with the next best thing – city walls.

It was as simple as it was genius. Soon the cities were encircled with large stone walls that still surprise the archaeologists with their size. Jericho is the best example of this period. Its walls were almost four meters high and almost two meters thick at the base, with powerful ramparts along the length for archers and spearmen. These walls were almost impregnable and they stood intact for more than five thousand years.

The herdsman from the hills must have been utterly shocked by this evolution. They neither had the time, nor the skill or the will to put the walled cities under siege. They were also more and more outnumbered. The people from the river valleys had won this round of the struggle.

The Next Stage

It took thousands of years until the mountains hit back. The city of Jericho that I mentioned was encircled with walls ca. 6500 B.C. Other great cities that emerged like Damascus, Sidon, Ur and Memphis in Egypt were also defended in this way. It took the nomads at least three thousand years to come up with a solution to the problem. But when they did, it was with a devastating effect.

At the beginning of the third millennium B.C., the great civilizations in the Middle East were already taking shape. Egypt was already unified, and in Mesopotamia about ten, twelve city-states played a power game without a certain winner. Agriculture and trade had greatly improved, the stratification of power and society was already too great as was the distribution of wealth. The city-states already had standing armies, but they were no match for the tidal wave that was about to sweep their world.

This wave was again the nomads – from the mountains of present-day Southern Turkey and North Iran. But this time they were far better prepared. They had mastered the horse – a powerful ally in warfare, and now they had the stamina and will to take over the agricultural world. Now, we have to understand one important fact – the peaceful rural people of the valley and the herdsmen from the hills lived separately, but they were perfectly aware of their respective existence. The herdsmen wanted the riches of the great cities, of their markets and their great temples. The rural people wanted to be left alone. The former prevailed.

In a matter of a century, the nomad warriors swept through Mesopotamia and created the first military empire. Sargon the Great was its first enigmatic ruler. The rules had changed. Sargon’s army manipulated with the first siege machines like battering rams and even primitive catapults. But what is more important – they knew they had no alternative at all – they would either prevail or they would die. This way of thinking was a game-changer. The people from the valley had everything to lose. The nomads had nothing to lose. In such cases, the desperate army usually wins.

The Stalemate

From this moment on, for more than four thousand years the rules of the game did not change. Empires rose and fell, just like great cities like Babylon, Nineveh, Tyre, Rome. The sieges of these great ancient metropolises looked pretty much alike for thousands of years. The defenders would mass on and behind the city walls, armoured with arrows and spears, defending the weakest points – usually the city gates. The attackers usedthe-siege-of-tyre battering rams and catapults trying to breach the walls. Significantly, for such a huge period of time, the siege artillery did not improve greatly in quality. The siege of Syracuse in 415-413 B.C., was not greatly different from the siege of Jerusalem in 1099 when we compare the technology of the siege weapons. Siege towers appeared quite early in the catalogue of the ancient generals – Alexander the Great used them in the legendary siege of Tyre (332 B.C.) as did the Arabs in the siege of Constantinople (717-718). As for logistics, both defenders and attackers had to deal with the same problems – running water, food, endemic diseases, hygiene. As a whole, the sieges were lengthy, sometimes longer than a year, many times unsuccessful and the death rate of both defenders and attackers was dreadful. But then technological progress changed the rules once again.

Artillery - The Queen Of The Battlefield

On the 29th of May 1453, after 54 days of relentless fighting the Turks finally breached the walls of Constantinople. It was the end of one of the most memorable sieges of all time.

I will pay attention to the symbolic value of this siege in another article. What was really important though was the fact that for the first time in history, artillery turned the tides of a siege of such scale. It is very important to notice that Constantinople was probably the best fortified city in Europe, if not in the world, at this time. Despite the fact that the Ottoman forces outnumbered the Byzantines at least ten to one, all their attacks were revoked by the defenders. It took two weeks for the monstrous guns to batter the walls. But batter the walls they did.

It turned another page in the siege warfare history – no matter how powerful the ramparts of a castle or a city were, they could be breached. No city was safe now. It also meant that the attacking army could actually conquer a city without great loss of life – it just had to bombard the civil population until its spirit was destroyed. This is what the Turkish did to great effect to the impregnable castle of Kamenets in 1672, or how the Russian took Berlin in 1759, without even attacking the city with infantry.

Of course, defensive engineers soon came up with a solution to the problem. It was obvious that the old walls of stone, brick and mortar was obsolete. They were no match for the fast improving artillery that was becoming increasingly sharp on target and powerful. So a new philosophy of defense emerged. It soon became obvious that missiles and cannon balls were the-battle-of-viennanot particularly effective against natural ramparts – earth, sandbags and so on. It was also a good idea to create angled forts instead of a straight line of defense, so that the artillery could not concentrate its power to a single target. The forts had to be located in a relatively wide circle around a city, so this would make it harder for the artillery to bombard the civil population, thus destroying its spirit. All this was put to great effect in the second siege of Vienna (1683). The siege was in a way reminiscent to the siege of Constantinople – one of the greatest cities of Europe, an imperial capital, was attacked by the Turks. But this time their artillery could not batter the defenses, and help came, after three months of fighting. Artillery was no longer the key player on the siege train. Vienna was one of the last great classic sieges.

A Few Final Words

The 20th century saw a new model of siege, if this kind of battle could be described this way – the urban battle. The best examples happened on the Eastern front of World War II, in Stalingrad, Kharkov and Berlin. It was a hell on earth, where the limits of humanity were erased. The modern weapons of war make the philosophy of the siege out of place. It is a memory of the past.