Military History Books
by Harold A. Skaarup   
Siegecraft - No Fortress Impregnable (Book)


It has been said that the taking of a fortress depends primarily on the making of a good plan to take it, and the proper implementation and application of the resources to make the plan work. Long before a fortress has been besieged and conquered, it has to have been outthought before it can be outfought. This book outlines some of the more successfully thought out sieges, and demonstrates why it is that no fortress is impregnable.

A siege can be described as an assault on an opposing force attempting to defend itself from behind a position of some strength. Whenever the pendulum of technology swings against the "status quo," the defenders of a fortification have usually been compelled to surrender. We must stay ahead of the pendulum, and not be out-thought long before we are out-fought, for, as it will be shown in this book, "no fortress is impregnable."

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Siegecraft – No Fortress Impregnable

Honorary Lieutenant-Colonel Harold Aage Skaarup


            “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”[1]

“The great struggles of the 20th century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom – and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.  In the 21st century, only nations that share a commitment to protecting basic human rights and guaranteeing political and economic freedom will be able to unleash the potential of their people and assure their future prosperity.  People everywhere want to be able to speak freely; choose who will govern them; worship as they please; educate their children - male and female; own property; and enjoy the benefits of their labor.  These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society - and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages.”[2]


It has been said that the taking of a fortress depends primarily on a good plan and the proper implementation of the resources to making the plan work.  In effect, long before a fortress has been besieged and conquered, it has been outthought before it has been outfought.  This book will outline some of the more successfully thought out sieges, and demonstrate why it is that no fortress is impregnable.


Since the beginning of time, man has sought to defend himself and his family by finding a shelter or building a strong fortification.  In equal measure and determination there have been those who have sought to overcome these defenses, which generally consisted of three different methods of protective works.  The earliest and most simple field fortifications often consisted of stakes, stones, ditches, abatis and other common obstacles constructed just before a battle began and which were primarily only intended for temporary or immediate use during a battle.  The techniques used often mirrored the basic techniques used by early hunters, who built obstacles whose design and implementation were derived from simple but effective pits and traps which had been used to catch animals.  As attack methods grew in sophistication, more ingenious ideas and methods of defense came to be employed.  Sharpened stakes joined together to form a palisade came into increasing use.  Improvements in the use of metallurgy contributed to the tools available to the defender, including such devices as the caltrop (shown above), a metal device which was formed from four iron spikes joined together in the form of a tetrahedron shape.  Many of these devices would be thrown on the ground forward of a defensive position with the object of causing the attacker’s horse to stumble or fall, so unhorsing the rider or knight and rendering them more vulnerable in their cumbersome armor on the ground.


Abatis arrangment.

The use of stakes led in turn to the construction of more complex fortifications made of wood, as well as the idea of making them portable.  William the Conqueror’s Norman troops, for example, brought pre-fabricated wooden castles with them when they landed in England in 1066, and the first thing they did on arrival was to erect one of them on the beach.  The aim of these fortifications, and the reason they were initially effective, was to divide an attacker’s attention between trying to overcome them while simultaneously trying to keep his own forces protected.

Table of fortifications.

Fortifications, both temporary and long-term, have helped to decide the outcome in a number of very famous battles, including those at Crécy in 1346, Poitiers in 1356, and Agincourt in 1415.[3]  In each of these specific battles, English archers fired their arrows from behind a protective shield of sharpened wooden stakes angled to face the assaulting French knights.  Since the idea was effective, it remained little changed for centuries, and in fact variations on wooden stakes were used in Vietnamese defense works in the 1960s and 70s.

German "Dragon's teeth" concrete tanks traps from the Second World War on the Siegefried Line, near Aachen, Germany.

Early fortifications could be by-passed and “picketed” - a term we use in present day service when a commander directs his mechanized formation of tanks and armoured vehicles to surround and guard a defended enemy position while the rest of the military formation presses on to its objective.  In ancient times, the way to prevent a fortress from being outflanked was to build a continuous wall, such as the 400-mile long Limes Germanicus constructed by the Romans across southern Germany in the 2nd century; the Byzantine Wall erected to protect Constantinople; or the more than 5000-mile long Great Wall of China; and the complicated concrete defenses of France’s Maginot Line.[4] 

Great Wall of China, Jinshanling.  (Giorgio Photo)

The drawbacks to these extended lines of defensive walls were many, including the labor, time and expense required to build them, and more so, the troops required to man them to maintain the defenses which is reason for their construction in the first place.  Constant patrolling was required as well as regular rotations of the personnel manning the signal towers and garrisons stationed at intervals along these walls.  Eventually, siege techniques were designed to overcome even the most elaborate walls and complexes of fortifications.  For practical purposes, early defensive strongpoints evolved to a form of closed ring or “enceinte” to use the French term.

Enceintes protected fortresses, citadels, castles and in some cases entire cities and came to serve as a point of refuge for the population in the surrounding area.  The earliest indication of this practice is the stone fortifications which encircled the city of Jericho, which date to about 7000 BC.[5]  The Sumerian cities of Ur and Lagash in Mesopotamia have foundations which braced impressive structures dating back to 3500 BC.  These buildings rose high above the irrigated flood-plain of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.  The Egyptians may have built similar fortifications in the era of the Old Kingdom (2500-1500 BC).[6] 

Sargon of Akkad (2371-2316 BC) destroyed the city of Kazalla and made a specific point of wrecking the walls of cities he captured.  His warriors rushed the cities gates or they built a sloping rampart of earth as high as the city wall and swarmed over them taking the cities by storm.[7]  Assyrian reliefs depicting siege warfare indicate it was in use at least as early as 850 BC, and by that time the basic principles of fortress construction such as making use of loopholes for shooting arrows, curtain walls, crenellation, parapets, reinforced gates and towers projecting from walls were well understood.

Chateau de Vincennes donjon, France.

Echafaud donjon, Coucy, France.

Although many medieval fortresses consisted of castles rather than of town walls (many of which were built over foundations and stonework dating back to Roman times), there were very few new elements added.  Medieval castles were generally centered on massive stone towers, keeps or donjons.  These were often surrounded by multiple layers of curtain walls that had covered galleries, buttresses, parapets, crenellation, machicolations, flanking towers, sally ports, and protected gates incorporated into their design and construction.  The designs evolved continuously over the lifetime of each fortress or castle, with ditches and moats being added where possible, particularly in Northwestern Europe because of the abundance of water.  The primary difference in medieval castles over their primitive predecessors was their function.  A castle was used to dominate the countryside it surveyed, which meant many were sited on strategically chosen spurs of hills overlooking all approaches, which gave additional warning and protection.  To overcome them, an attacker had to be inventive and utilize increasingly sophisticated methods of siegecraft and siege engines.

Siege of Holschnitt, Germany, 1502.

Siege of Magdeburg, Germany 1630-1631.

Siege warfare may have been practiced in Sumer as early as the third millennium BC.  Based on ancient reliefs, the Assyrian army that destroyed the Biblical Kingdom of Israel and nearly did the same to Judea, already possessed a considerable array of apparently effective siege engines.  They made use of ropes which had been attached to hooks, crowbars, scaling ladders, rams, and siege towers.  They constructed mantelets which were basically wagons mounted with armor in front and which could be pushed close to the walls while providing cover for the archers.  They also undermined the Hebrew defenses with tunnels and mines.

Ramses and his Egyptian Army engaged in a siege.

The Egyptians of the New Kingdom which began in 1567 BC engaged in sieges using two new weapon’s systems adapted from their temporary conquerors, the Hyksos.  The first was a double-convex composite bow made of wood, horn and sinew which was bound or glued together so that when it was unstrung or “at rest,” it appeared to be bent in the reverse direction from which it was designed to fire.  When it was strung, drawn and fired, it had a range of 400 yards.  Their second development was the single-axle chariot with spoked wheels which provided mobility for their archers and spearmen.  When the Egyptians assaulted a fortified city, they hacked at the gates with axes and stormed the walls using scaling ladders.  To protect themselves as they did so, they slung their rectangular shields over their backs, which left their hands free for climbing and fighting.  Using this method, they successfully stormed and captured the Canaanite city of Megiddo in 1468 BC.[8]

Subterfuge was also used.  Thutmose III’s General Thot  pretended to be abandoning a long siege at Jaffa in Palestine, by offering the defenders 200 baskets or sacks of supplies and tribute.  Once they had been brought inside the walls, a soldier emerged from each container.  These men then formed up and captured the gates, which allowed the Egyptian army waiting outside to gain access and to seize the rest of the city.[9]

The battering ram was one of the earliest inventions to overcome fortifications, and its use dates from at least 2500 BC.  By 2000 BC, it was a normal implement of warfare.  The ability to fasten large spear blades to the front end of long wooden beams allowed engineers to pry stones loose from the walls until a breach was achieved.  The Hittites used the technique of building an earthen ramp to a low spot in the wall on which they then rolled large, covered battering rams into place to attack the wall at its thinnest points.  The Assyrians built wooden siege towers taller than the defender’s walls and then used archers to provide covering fire for the battering ram crews working below.  The Assyrians also perfected the use of the scaling ladder by using short ladders to mount soldiers with axes and levers who dislodged the stones in the wall at midpoint.  Longer ladders were used to bring combat forces over the higher walls.[10]

Most of the early siege engines were made of wood, often in combination with leather and on occasion wickerwork to provide protective coverings for the attackers.  In later years, iron plates were attached to them in order to provide additional armor for the sides of towers and covered siege devices exposed to a defender’s fire.  Iron was relatively scarce in medieval times and was used mainly for the heads of battering rams and of course for the nails, rivets, axles, and hinges between moving parts that a good number of these devices required.  Virtually all of the medieval siege engines were powered by man or beast.

In the Bible in the book of 2 Chronicles, King Uziah of Judea made use of stone throwing engines to protect Jerusalem:

“Uzziah built towers in Jerusalem at the corner gate, and at the valley gate, and at the turning of the wall, and fortified them.  Also he built towers in the desert…(and) had a host of fighting men, that went out to war by bands under the hand of Hananiah, one of the king’s captains…2,600 chiefs (with) 307,500 that made war…And Uziah prepared for them throughout all the host shields, and spears, and helmets, and habergeons, and bows, and slings to cast stones.  And he made in Jerusalem engines, invented by cunning men, to be on the towers and upon the bulwarks, to shoot arrows and great stones withal.”[11]

More details on the use of mechanical siege engines will be found in a later chapter.  The storage of energy and the use of technology to launch missiles against a determined defender changed the face of war.  A new kind of warrior was required in the form of engineers with technical expertise and professionalism.  Mathematical calculations in the use of mechanical siege devices became the norm from about 200 BC until the dark ages, when they appear to have been forgotten for a period of time until they re-emerged in the middle ages.[12] 

About 1050 AD, both the Christian and Muslim world began to reintroduce siege machines into warfare, and by the time of the Crusades these weapons sometimes numbered in their hundreds.  Onagers, mangonels, petriers, arbalasts, ballistae and catapults such as trébuchets led to fundamental changes in the nature of siege warfare until the age of gunpowder ushered in the next stage in the level of fire with effect.[13]

No one side has a monopoly on the employment of useful ideas and weapons for attack and defense, and so it is that the development of enceintes and the siege engines to break them appears to have moved along at the same pace.  Out-thinking the opposing side became a major problem for the commander.  The capture of a well-designed and constructed castle or fortress from the 14th century onwards, for example proved to be an extremely difficult task as will be shown in detail later in these records.  Finding a weak spot would prove to be the key, and this was rarely simple.  Reconnaissance and good intelligence gathering would prove to be that essential key, permitting the successful commander to find and exploit the weakness in his opponent’s position.  The result would basically depend on a well-coordinated plan based on a sound assessment of the best method of attack.  A good commander who is supported by an excellent staff and the right resources is often in a better position to outthink his opponent, leading him to outfight and defeat him. 

This book contains examples of sieges, both successful and unsuccessful, demonstrating that no matter how securely a fortress or defensive position is constructed and defended, eventually a good plan and a determined besieger can overcome it.  One way or another, time, willpower and determined effort will be brought together in sufficient quantity and quality to bring a siege or a defence to a successful conclusion.  It will be argued through the examples presented in this book that ultimately, “no fortress is impregnable.”


Siegecraft – the word brings to mind great hosts of crusaders smashing the walls of medieval castles using catapults flinging great stones against them, while flaming arrows flash through the air against attackers and defenders in peril.   One can hear the sounds of horns coming to relieve the defenders, or see the walls crumbling as the besieged look on in horror when their defenses fall against the hammering war machines driven by a powerful and unrelenting foe.  Stories, visions and history such as these of so-called impregnable fortresses being battered into submission, led me to examine the ruins and remains of several hundred medieval and modern castles and battlefields over the course of my military career, particularly during a number of tours of duty overseas.  The information you will find here will be used to capture a number of the most famous as well as a few of the more obscure battles where effective Siegecraft – or the lack of it, decided the outcome for those who believed their fortresses were impregnable.

Château Gaillard

The strange scallop-shaped walls of the inner defenses of Richard Coeur-de-Lion’s fortress at Château Gaillard, for example, continue to exist (albeit it ruins) to this day along the historic Loire River West of the city of Paris, and are well worth a visit by both historians and general tourists alike.  Much further to the east of the city of lights you will find the remains of the French fortresses of Verdun.  There, one may view a giant ossuary which holds the bones of many of the dead soldiers (German and French) which continue to surface more than 87 years after the combatants were buried beneath the surface in the incessant shelling that took place there in 1915.  Some 750,000 soldiers never went home from that battle alone. 

Plan view of the star fortifications in Nicosia, Cyprus.

I have walked the grounds of Normandy and Waterloo, Vimy Ridge and the Great War battlegrounds of the Vosges, stood on the Horns of Hattin where Saladin defeated the Crusaders before the Second Crusade, and guarded the line with the UN in Cyprus and in Sarajevo with the NATO-led peace stabilization force in Sarajevo.  My observations of these events of the past, and the battles of the Gulf Wars and the terrorist attacks on America in recent times, is that no fortress is impregnable.  I have specifically included the siege at Dien Bien Phu because of the use of paratroopers in the operation.  When the embattled defenders ran short of manpower, they called on their headquarters staffs to send in reinforcements.  Hundreds of rear-area staffs volunteered to go in, and most of them found themselves making their first parachute jumps as they did so.

In our present time, there are often politically short-sighted reasons that a number of countries feel their military forces and defence networks do not need to be maintained.  There is no quicker way to increase the vulnerability of your “fortress,” than to let your military arm be depleted to the point where it will be ineffective when you need it.  Those who do so, will clearly find their homelands unsafe and insecure, and highly vulnerable to attack – and there will always be some group or other who hopes to gain power over the weak.  Paratroops are only one of many links in an army’s necessary suit of chain-mail.  It is the spirit, élan and professionalism of these kinds of dedicated soldiers that will ensure a successful outcome to a defense or attack.  To let such people be lost to the exigencies of political expedience is to diminish the chances of survival for the nations who make such decisions.

To understand how such men and women can be employed when conducting a modern operation, I would like to mention a typical exercise carried out by members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment during a training mission long before the regiment was disbanded.  I would imagine that a number of similar preparations and plans have been made for operations ongoing even now around the world.

Canadian Airborne Regiment Training Operation

A typical airborne operation begins with the Commander’s O-group.  The Hercules aircrews, the Company/Commando Commanders and all support staffs are briefed on where, when, and how the operation will take place.  The objectives are defined, the drop points selected for the first group of pathfinders who will go in to mark the drop zone and a plan presented on how it will be defended etc.  Men and equipment are “cross-loaded.”  The loading is planned and mounted to ensure that not all the personnel from any one unit are placed on the same aircraft.  This is to ensure that if an aircraft breaks down or crashes, there will be enough troops spread out among the other aircraft to enable the survivors to continue the mission.  For example, the mortar platoon is split into two fighting elements; the tube-launched, optically-tracked wire-guided anti-tank (TOW) platoon is split in two fighting teams; even the Intelligence platoon with four people went on three different aircraft; the regiment’s commander is on one aircraft and his deputy (the DCO) is on another etc.[14] 

As members of the Headquarters and Signals Squadron Intelligence platoon, we built terrain models and assembled maps and briefings to cover the objectives.  In preparation, the Company Commanders would gather their Commandos (about 250 to a Company, about 650 to a Battalion, close to 2000 for a Regiment) together for a collective briefing on the operation to come.  Each unit Commander would brief his individual Commando/Company with all 250 men seated in front of the terrain model.

Every man is required to know every detail of the plan, because if some of them don’t make it to the drop-zone or the objective, others will have to fill in the gaps or carry out alternate plans.  Some will have the task of covering the drop zone with heavy weapons, some will be designated to take out guard towers, sentries, control and access points, while others cover the entrances and exit or extraction points.  Some will destroy buildings, aircraft, fuel and supply dumps and power sources, others may be designated to take prisoners, release hostages, carry out medical evacuations (Medevac) etc.  If it is to be a combat extraction, the operation on the ground will last no more than two hours.  Every man participating in the briefing is expected to understand the plan, and if only a few get through, the plan still goes ahead.

For a night drop, the Battalion turns up at the “nose dock” (a hangar big enough for the entire front end of a Hercules except for the tail), early in the evening, with their small-arms (rifles, Karl Gustav and M-72 anti-tank weapons etc.), rucksacks and equipment ready to go.  The order to get dressed is given, and the buddy system is applied as each paratrooper dons his parachutes and mounts his rucksack and any special equipment he may have to carry (extra mortar rounds, fuel, water, extra ammunition, radios and so on).  Each jumper is then checked by a rigger, who examines the paratrooper's main and reserve parachutes, rigs his static-line and after his inspection is complete, declares him ready to go (usually with a solid slap on the butt of the jumper’s parachute harness and container).  When all are dressed, the senior jumpmaster (JM) or his deputy will then order, “Listen up for the JM briefing.”  He will then brief the sticks of men who have been prepared for their specific “chalk” load on the jump procedures appropriate to the type of aircraft they are using, such as the Hercules or Buffalo transports or Griffon helicopters, and one where, when and how the drop will take place, at what altitude, the likely wind conditions and potential hazards they may encounter on the drop zone, and a reminder of emergency procedures in the event of a hang-up (being towed behind the aircraft if the static-line doesn’t separate etc.)  The JM will then complete his orders by stating, “You have now been manifested and will jump in accordance with these orders and instructions,” at which point all will shout “HuaaH!” in response.

For a 12-plane drop, we have used fourteen Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft standing by with the props churning (two are back-up aircraft in case any break down or otherwise become unserviceable).  The order to embark is given, and you may imagine the picture of long lines of double rows of men marching out across the tarmac runway to board twelve separate aircraft.  (Actually, waddling would be a better description than marching, as they are heavily weighed down with parachute equipment and their rucksacks mounted in front).  The Pathfinder reconnaissance team will have flown out earlier, as they will be jumping in freefall from a higher altitude (about 10,000’ to 12,000’), and their rucksacks are mounted behind them.  Their primary job is to mark the drop zone and to secure it with their weapons.

Once onboard the aircraft, all put their seatbelts on, white lights are extinguished and the interior aircraft red lights are turned on to preserve night vision.  The aircraft all taxi out in a long convoy-like line, and take off in “trail” formation.  To prevent one long line of continuous targets presenting itself over the drop zone, the entire flight of Hercules transports is split into four separate flights of three, which will approach the dropzone from different directions each flying in a finger-three formation.

Each separate flight of Hercules will proceed to fly cross-country at a very low level until just before the run-in for the drop, and then ramp-up to the pre-determined jump altitude (1000 feet to 1,200 feet in training, 650 feet to 700 feet over hostile terrain).

About ten minutes before the drop takes the jumpmaster (JM) on board each separate aircraft will issue the first of a sequence of commands, beginning with the attention-getting words, “Look this way!”  Each paratrooper is anticipating this command and is particularly “focused” at this point, and on all succeeding commands given by the JM, which are shouted back, word for word, to ensure no one has missed hearing them.  The next command shouted out by the JM  is, “Seat belts off!”  Every paratrooper reacts and complies in a coordinated and concerted action, and when ready, turns in his seat to face the JM again. 

The next command is, “Stand Up!” at which point each jumper stands up and then removes his static line snap from where it had been stowed by the Rigger in an elastic band on his reserve takes one step towards the heavy steel static line cable strung overhead and holds the snap up to the cable and prepares to hook on.  On the command, “Hook Up!” – the jumper snaps his static line onto the overhead cable which runs the length of the aircraft’s interior, and slides it to the rear for the person behind him to double check, at which point the JM shouts “Check Static Line!”  Each jumper examines the snap and static line of the person in front of him to see that it is secure, then he traces a path with his hand down the yellow nylon cord to the back of the parachute on the man in front and tightens up the slack in the elastic bands holding the remaining static line stows in place.  The second last and last men in the line make a half turn so they can check each other. 

The next command is, “Check your equipment!”  This is when a jumper takes the opportunity to move his testicles and other private parts out from underneath the leg straps and double checks every snap and strap from helmet to equipment that he is wearing.  The JM then double checks the snaps and kit of every single man in the line, then returns to his position near the exit door and shouts, “Sound off for equipment check!”  Starting with the last man, each man shouts out in succession, “1 OK, 2 OK” and so on, with the last man standing closest to the exit door pointing to the JM and shouting, “All OK,” when all have sounded off.  About this time the red warning light over the jump door comes on.  The JM and his deputy slide the doors up on each side of the Hercules, and stamp on the jump steps to ensure they are secure for “double-door exit.”  In some cases the rear ramp may be lowered instead.

By now the three Hercules in each formation are in the process of moving from a line astern or “trail” formation into the finger-three formation.   It is a spectacular sight if your are number one on the ramp of the lead Hercules watching the other two aircraft lined up behind you as they slide over to the left and right wings parallel with your aircraft.

The JM shouts, “Stand By!” and all jumpers step forward, sliding their static lines with them.  When the green light flashes on, the JM shouts, “GO!”  At this moment each and every paratrooper immediately steps forward in a one-two movement (known as the mambo step), and as he reaches the door or the end of the ramp, he throws his static line forward, stamps down hard on the jump step to get a good “launch,” and exits smartly out the door, head down, feet together, hands on each side of his reserve, ready for the worst, hoping for the best, sounding out the count, “1,000, 2,000, 3,000, 4,000, 5,000, check canopy!” 

Canadian Forces parachitist.  Rapid Trident 2011.  (US Army Photo)

The heat and the prop wash from four churning propellers hits the jumper just as he drops below the aircraft and the big round green T-10 parachute seems to explode off his back (many times harder than the gentle openings one experiences from a helicopter jump).  The tightened harness straps keep him from being squeezed the wrong way, and after his count he will immediately look up to check for a properly open canopy.  It is extremely rare that it does not open properly, primarily due to the Canadian invention of netting that runs around the skirt of the canopy which prevents partial malfunctions.  The jumper then quickly grabs his rear risers and begins looking sharply around him all directions to watch for other jumpers and to avoid a canopy collision.  If necessary, he will slip in the opposite direction by pulling down on the pair of suspension risers in the direction he needs to steer.  If it is as dark as the inside of a monkey’s nether end, he will look, listen and feel for the wind on his face to get an idea of which way it is taking him.  If it is a moonlit night, he will watch for the wind blowing along the grass or snow which looks like waves of fur fluttering along the back of a woolly bear, to get an idea of where to land and what obstacles to avoid. 

About 300 above the ground, each jumper lowers his rucksack by pulling a special release tab, which lets it drop to hang about 15 feet below him.  It will swing somewhat, but if it is really dark, he will feel it thump first and have some warning of when he needs to prepare to make contact with the ground.  He keeps his feet and knees together and his elbows in tight as he prepares to hit and roll, arcing his body in the direction he is swinging and hopefully not landing too hard or on anything sharp. 

Once the jumper has completed his “parachute landing fall” (PLF) on the ground he has to quickly deflate his chute to keep from being dragged by pulling on of the risers towards himself, then quickly undo his reserve, punch his quick release system to get out of the harness, and very quickly extricate his weapon.  If it is his rifle, he may have to remove it from his snowshoes, and if it is a Sterling Sub-machinegun (SMG), from under his reserve.  To reduce his outline as a potential target, the paratrooper keeps low to the ground as he gathers the chute and stuffs it into the built-in bag it comes with, then dons his rucksack and he prepares to move off the Drop Zone to meet the rest of his section at a pre-determined rendezvous (RV) point.  At all times he must keep a watchful eye out for other jumpers and their equipment as they descend above him from the following waves so they don’t land on him, particularly if they are dropping a platform with one of the Regiment’s Airborne Artillery Battery guns, or an M113 A & R Lynx armoured reconnaissance vehicles, M113 armoured personnel carriers (APC), or a tube-launched optically-tracked anti-tank missile system (TOW) mounted on a jeep, or ambulance etc.

Each Commando team is watching for the pathfinder’s markers.  A soldier may have to wave a small blue, green or red light on a pole for a few seconds every few minutes to guide each group into their RV point if it is really dark.  If there is moonlight, the jumper can use his compass to get to an observable RV.  As soon the majority of each assault team is in place, they move on to the objective.  Time is of the essence, and it is very hard to recover when it has been lost.  In a hostage-freeing scenario, the terrorists are hit according to the plan.  Sometimes changes have to be made on the spot, and paratroopers have a ready instinct for an alternate but workable plan when necessary.  In this exercise, the enemy force was taken out or neutralized, the hostages were freed and collected along with the wounded, and all injured were brought to a pre-planned collection point.

If it is a long-range operation, the paratroopers walk out.  If it is a combat extraction operation, all assemble at pre-determined points on a designated runway.  Each aircraft will roar in to land, and taxi to the end of the runway lowering its ramp as it reaches the turn-around point to prepare for take-off.  In the few seconds the non-stop turn around takes place, each stick will re-board an incoming aircraft.  When the Hercules has turned 180° and is facing the opposite end of the runway, the ramp is raised whether all are on board or not, and the aircraft takes off. 

Each empty aircraft will take a turn coming in until all on the ground have been collected.  It gets trickier loading the wounded with all due care and assistance, and no dead are left behind, so the body bags have to be carried on board as well as the extra people including hostages and prisoners.  On this exercise, which took place at CFB Borden, Ontario, more than 200 additional people were flown back, while a number on the ground made their way to vehicles hidden off-site.  In spite of the hasty activity, no one wants to be left behind to hike 25 kilometres north to an alternate ground collection point, and in this last mission, everyone and everything except those role-playing the enemy force was onboard the tenth aircraft to land, leaving the last two pilots severely annoyed because they still had to practice their rapid extraction skills minus live bodies on the ground to load. 

While airborne on the flight back, medics were very busy working to plant IV s, treat the wounded and manage triage.  Everyone helped out.  Within an hour or two, all were back on the ramp at CFB Petawawa, and very shortly afterwards slid into a debriefing room to go over what has been collected and what took place during the operation.  We will have gotten in, done the job and gotten out, as close to schedule and plan as possible.  We will also have proven once again, the Airborne gets the job done. 

Ex Coelis!


“And it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city...and they burnt it.”[15]

The trumpets blew, and in 1400 BC the walls of Jericho that had been built over 9000 years before our present time, came tumbling down.  In the intervening years since Joshua besieged Jericho, little has changed in the apparent fact that whenever one group of people sets up a position from which they can defend themselves, another group will soon set to the task of defeating it.  Necessity being the mother of invention, as one chieftain, king or pharaoh developed a practicable plan of defense or assault; another would in turn attempt to devise a better one to overcome it. 

As the means and methods to wage war developed and became more sophisticated, so too did the ideas and technology that had to be developed in order for civilizations to survive.  The technological battle continues to this day in a constant seesaw of change.  This change can perhaps best be described as a form of pendulum that swings on an erratic and often rapid centre-pin of new ideas.

Inventive ideas are something no one has a monopoly on, even though the results of these ideas have come to affect millions of lives touched by them.  It has also been observed that no matter how good an idea is, one cannot safely rely on it as a sole means of defense for too long, because a determined enemy willing to pay the price will quickly bring a better idea into play against it.  This book will examine the pendulum effect that ultimately renders the newest defensive or offensive idea obsolete in the shortest possible time.

To discuss the issues and events encompassed in this book, the evolution of fortifications and the weapons and methods of sieges used to conquer them will be examined concurrently.  Examples of particularly noteworthy sieges both successful and unsuccessful will be discussed in order to demonstrate the premise that, ultimately, no fortress can be considered impregnable.

Castle under siege.  P. Newark.[16]

Early Defences

The first military engineer was probably the cave-dweller who was faced with the problem of defending his lair against both wild beasts and his fellow-men.  He may have solved this by improving on an already existing natural obstacle, barricading the entrance or keeping it just high enough to be able to see over the top and yet still be able to throw missiles through a carefully sighted gap.  Other primitive societies would have built their houses in trees, or on piles surrounded by water, all of them either creating an obstacle or improving on a natural one.  Early defenders also quickly discovered the advantages of sighting their defensive positions on high ground, finding it easier to throw stones and debris downward upon an attacker, rather than upward.  Being in a high place also conferred an advantage of early-warning through observation of approaching intruders.[17]

As technology and invention progressed, advances in methods of siege and defence were also made.  A simple wall of earth, wood or stone could often adequately provide protection against the primitive weapons in use in ancient times.  Basic walls worked well until the invention of practical artillery beginning with catapults and leading into the age of gunpowder.  The Greek fortresses of Mycenae and Tiryns were in existence as far back as 1500 BC.  Their designs incorporated tortuous approaches and successive turns which forced an attacker to expose his unshielded right side.  Both the attacker and the defenders needed large numbers of trained soldiers to ensure a successful outcome, and thus the maintenance of large standing armies became the rule.  Over the years however, necessity demanded that the various forms of fixed defence works continue to be expanded and improved upon throughout the world.  In time the successful defence of a town, village, city fortification or fortress would often become crucial to the survival of an army or a nation.  The construction of walled defenses and fortifications became a science necessary to the preservation of the way of life for many of the earliest civilizations.  Fortification can therefore be defined as the deliberate erection of physical structures intended to provide a military advantage to a defender and to impede, or otherwise disadvantage, an attacker.[18]

By the Bronze Age there was unambiguous evidence of fortifications built exclusively for military purposes.  The first undisputed example of a fortified city was Urak in Mesopotamia dating from 2700 BC.  It enclosed a population of 3,000 to 5,000.   The fortress of Buhen built in the Sudan around 2200 BC was 180 yards square, surrounded by a mud-brick wall 15 feet thick and 30 feet high. The wall had firing bastions every 30 feet.  A moat surrounded the outer wall and was 26 feet across and 18 feet deep, with yet another steep glacis on the inner slope.  The gate complex was 45 feet high and stretched from the inner wall across the moat, allowing archers to control fire along parallel approaches. As impressive as this fortress was, it was dwarfed in size and complexity by fortifications of the Iron Age.  The Israelite fortress at Hazor, for example, had walls that ran 3,000 feet by 21,000 feet.  The city of Qatna had walls 4 miles long, and the Hittite capital of Boghazkoy had walls that ran for 6 miles.  The entire wall of Boghazkoy and its supporting strong points were made of solid rock and brick.  So important were fortifications to the ancient armies that the need to secure adequate wood and stone supplies led both Egypt and Assyria to occupy Lebanon for centuries.[19]

Siegecraft is arguably one of the oldest and most successful military tactics in continuous use in warfare, extending back perhaps beyond recorded time.  For example, in the period from 400 BC to 200 BC the Greeks made great progress in the use of the principles of tension and torsion, which they applied to the design and implementation of siege artillery.  Some of these ancient siege engines had a range of more than 500 yards and were extremely well constructed.  Archimedes designed a number of them and it has been documented that he took part in the defence of Syracuse in 212 BC.[20] 

The Greeks also developed the idea of a “flanking tower,” which became an important element in the design of later fortifications.  Flanking walls permitted defenders to fire down on their attackers from more than one angle.  Sieges therefore began to be drawn out affairs as defensive installations became more difficult to overcome.[21]  Whole campaigns came to revolve around some of the most famous sieges, and this in turn caused many of them to be considered more important than battles.[22]

By its very nature, a siege involves an assault on an opposing force attempting to defend itself from behind a position of some strength.  For the purposes of this book then, when an attacking force conducts an assault against a place with a view to capturing it or compelling the occupants to surrender, then a state of siege can be said to exist.[23] 

The basic methods of attacking a fortification remained essentially the same over the centuries, and include one or a combination of the following: scaling or climbing the obstacle; breaching the obstacle by battering or undermining its gates or walls; setting it on fire; starving out the garrison; making use of treachery, bribery and various methods of deception or trickery.

No fortress could be considered impregnable in view of the available means to defeat them, but from the beginning, fortresses have been designed as places of refuge with the expectation that adequate preparations will be made for defence against a possible siege.  An exception to this rule is the Roman villa, which was the castle’s predecessor.  It was unfortified because it depended entirely on Roman law and the Roman legions for its security and defence.[24]

Not all fortresses are made of walls and stone.  In the late 1990’s a proposal was made to assemble a so-called protective umbrella of an anti-missile Star Wars system known as SDI.  Although it was never implemented, due to the fall of the Soviet Union, Star Wars may be considered an example of modern thinking that still leans towards reliance on an all-encompassing defensive system.  At one point there were military and civilian planners who thought Star Wars would be “the last fortress,” needed for the defense of North America.[25] 

As of 11 September 2001, Osama bin Laden and the terrorists of Al Qaeda have changed that perception by demonstrating that no matter how powerful a state may be, a new or unexpected method may be found to attack it.[26]  Technological change is bound to render any existing defensive system obsolete one day, so even Star Wars programs could not have been considered an ultimate safeguard.

Strong Walls 

Sieges, although a very old concept and idea, are still a topic of current concern.  On 5 February 1994 during the 22 month long siege of Sarajevo, a series of mortar rounds were dropped in the city marketplace, killing 69 people and wounding 170 more.  I passed by the site of this attack in the fall of 1997, and the shell craters are filled in  but marked with red paint or wax to leave a continuing reminder of the siege.[27]  The attacks by terrorists on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001 (now universally known as “9/11”) re-ignited Western thinking on how to create a “Fortress America.”  The concept has gone into high-gear actuality with the inception of United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) which officially stood up at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on 1 October 2002.  USNORTHCOM currently works in close concert with North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) which operates from Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station (CMAFS), also in Colorado Springs.  Cheyenne Mountain itself was once considered an impregnable “fortress,” and it would appear that it may have had its usefulness extended well beyond the nuclear age through the age of counter-terrorism.  In the end, however it too will one day be overcome by time and technology.

The successful taking of a fortress or systems of defense-works was often due to its defenders being “outthought” long before they were “outfought.”  As noted, bribery, treachery, deception and assorted trickery was often brought into play when assaults failed.  There were instances of armed men being smuggled into a castle hidden in fodder carts before actual hostilities had begun.  Once through the gate, they would leap out and overpower the guard and so let in their comrades.  Forgery was also tried.  The Krak des Chevaliers, the largest of the Crusader castles, was besieged twelve times without success by the Saracens and continued to hold out when all the other castles had been taken.[28]  In 1271 however, the surviving Hospitaller Knights were shown a letter purporting to have come from the Grand Master of his Order, commanding him to surrender, as he could not be relieved.  The Castellan accepted this, and surrendered to Sultan Baibar, only to find out later that the letter was a fake.[29]

Crusader fortress Krak des Chevaliers, Northwest Syria.

Bribery was also often successful.  In 1097, the Crusaders besieged Antioch for six months without success.  Bohemond, who was one of their leaders, however, managed to persuade the Muslim commander on one of the towers of the city to admit a troop of his men.  They were let in at night, and made themselves masters of the wall, whereby the city capitulated.[30]

In the days following the age of the caveman, defenders often had to rely on natural obstacles such as thorn hedges.  Eventually, stronger defenses were required, such as ditches and banks of earth.  The first really solid obstacle designed to keep invaders out was undoubtedly the “wall.”  The basic problem faced by besieging forces for all the centuries between ancient civilizations and the Middle Ages and onwards then, was to get over, under or through the protective walls held by a determined defender.[31]

Small numbers of professional soldiers and mercenaries fighting from behind the parapet of a high wall could and often did hold off larger numbers of assailants indefinitely.  As long as both sides in a siege relied upon conventional weapons, the advantage generally lay with the defenders if they had a good wall in front of them.  There were many ways for attackers to deal with a wall.  They could go over it, using scaling ladders and tall towers; they could go through it using battering rams; or they could go under it by tunneling or mining.[32]

In the early stages of a siege against a castle, the attackers would surround and assault the walls with scaling ladders, and the moat could be filled in.  Catapults and battering rams would be brought forward and used to open a breach in the wall, which would give the attacker access to the first enclave.  All attempts would be made to make a breach sufficiently wide to permit the maximum number of combatants to gain access to the fortress.  During a longer siege, trenches and tunnels would undermine the base of the walls and towers, while the defenders would dig counter-saps or attempt to plug the gaps with stockades and abbatis of wood.  In response, the attackers would fill the tunnels with piles of burning firewood, which in turn weakened the walls causing them to collapse.  If all these efforts to reduce the defense systems of the castle failed, then the option of starving the garrison out was employed.  Castles could never hold sufficient provisions to keep large numbers of villagers from the surrounding area supplied, and rationing would have been required, leaving the defenders unable to hold out for long periods.[33]

Starvation as a siege method often required a considerable length of time, something medieval siege armies rarely had available to them.  If the Castellan of the besieged castle had done his job well, he would have ensured adequate water and provisions had been stored for all the defenders and livestock present.  The attacker in turn had to ensure he had sufficient men to completely cordon off and blockade the defending garrison.  He also had to have enough funds to pay his men and sufficient resources to provision them well.  If he did not, he could find himself in the position of being forced to raise a siege because of the starvation of his attacking force.  In dangerous country, it was difficult to keep an army together, as the larger the force, the farther out foraging parties had to scavenge to gather supplies, which in turn meant there were fewer men to work in the blockading forces.  In many instances, the besieging army simply melted away long before the defending forces could be forced to capitulate.[34]

A slow siege that could be sustained by an attacker could force a garrison to surrender to keep its occupants from starving to death.  For this reason, castles that were most at risk of being besieged were usually well stocked with food.  Food storage was a serious problem, however, as most provisions had only a short shelf-life and had to be frequently renewed.  This gave the attacker the incentive to allow sufficient time for the slow process of starvation to compel the surrender of the castle.  The besieged, however, could often count on the timely arrival of a relieving force, provided messengers could be sent to them before the castle was completely cut off by the attacker.  For this reason, a set of “rules” was worked out and was generally adhered to.  The outcome of a siege under these rules became somewhat of a gamble for both sides, with the “game” being governed by these strict rules.  In the siege of Dolforwyn, in England, the garrison “gave eight hostages, the best after the constable, as a guarantee that they will surrender the castle on the Thursday after the close of Easter unless they are relieved by Llywelyn, and if relieved, the hostages are to be returned to them.”  The choice of date by which the castle should be relieved or surrendered was crucial and represented the gamble in the negotiation.  Whenever a castle was yielded the garrison was usually allowed to march away.  Only when it was taken by assault do we find evidence of wholesale slaughter.[35]

Early field fortifications were often simple obstacles erected shortly before a battle for temporary use while the battle was being fought.  Industrious and frightened defenders eventually began to refine their simple pits or ditches by adding sharpened stakes and complicated gateways.  The prehistoric earthworks found in England for example, at such places as Maiden Castle in Sussex, and Old Sarum, near Salisbury dating back to 3600 BC, show ingenious arrangements of obstacles in which an attacker could be trapped and exterminated.[36]

When Rome was captured by the Gauls in 390 BC, a wall was built around it, known as the “Wall of Servius Tullius.”  Constantine the Great who reigned from 288-337 AD, built the fortress of Deutz 307 AD, and a bridgehead over the Rhine at Cologne.  (Constantine is said to have seen the symbol of the cross in the sky just before a battle, and the words, “In this sign, conquer,” in  312 AD). In 330 AD Constantine founded the new city of Constantinople, giving it his own name.  Constantinople was itself developed on the site of the old Hellenistic town of Byzantium.  The fortifications built by the emperor made Constantinople impregnable for many years.

Temporary wooden fortifications were also developed at an early date.  When William the Conqueror’s Norman soldiers landed in England in 1066, they brought with them prefabricated defense towers which they immediately erected on the beach.[37]

From such early fortifications eventually evolved the concept of constructing long defensive lines consisting of ditches backed by earthen walls.  These required great managerial and organizational skills and resources, and the ability to put thousands of men to work in a coordinated fashion.  The Chinese, Sumerian, Hellenic and Roman Empires all invested heavily in the erection of continuous barriers.  Even the most powerful of these systems however, were far from impenetrable.[38]

Roman castle of Iciniacum near Theilenhofen in Bavaria Germany.  (Mediatus Photo)

The Romans tried to solve their frontier problems by constructing linear defenses consisting of individual forts connected by continuous stretches of ditch and rampart.  The Limes Germanicus for example, ran from the Rhine near Koblenz to the Danube near Regensburg, a distance of some 300 miles, and consisted of isolated forts connected by walls, only part of which were stone.  The greatest lengths of the Limes, however, consisted of earthen ramparts surmounted by wooden palisades and fronted by a ditch.

Hadrian’s Roman Wall in England dates from the earlier period of 120 AD and runs for 73 miles, mostly following high ground that slopes steeply away in front.  Sixteen main forts held the Roman garrisons, and every mile there was a smaller work in the form of a rectangular tower.  The weakness in this type of defense is that the attacker can choose the time and place of his attack, which means that the whole length of the line has to be permanently and equally strongly garrisoned.  Once an attack has begun, the threatened sector has to be swiftly reinforced with reserves, thereby leaving another area unprotected.  The Romans either did not take this factor into account, or chose not to build strongpoints behind their lines.  Once an invader had broken through, he could easily devastate the countryside behind the wall.  This also applied if the attacker was able to outflank the wall, which is what happened in 1940 to France’s Maginot Line, when the Germans found a way around it through the Ardennes forest.[39]

Maginot Line Casemate, south of Strasbourg, France.

The Great Wall of China, built and expanded on between the 3rd century BC and the 15th century, was primarily put up as a means of protection for the rich interior of China against the attacks of the numerous invaders who sought its riches.  It is also an astonishing achievement for human labor, measuring over 6000 km in length and crossing 21 points of longitude.[40]

The taking of Jericho.  (Tissot)

The first town to encircle itself with a complete belt of permanent stone fortifications is thought to have been Jericho, about 7000 BC.[41]  The Sumerian cities of Mesopotamia, like Ur and Lagash, whose foundations date back to 3500 BC, were impressive structures with crenellated walls and imposing towered gateways rising high above the irrigated flood plain of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates.[42]  A Sumerian wall was built covering some 50 miles between these two rivers about this same time, and enough of it still stood more than 3000 years later, to pose difficulties for Alexander the Great (336-323 BC).  The Greek fortresses of Mycenae and Tiryns date back to 1500 BC, but the earliest detailed references about them occur in the period 1300-1200 BC.[43]

The absolute masters of rapid siege assault were the Assyrian armies of the 8th century BC.  Their technique was to co-ordinate several different types of assault on the walls at the same time but in different places.  Battering rams supported by siege towers were brought into position at several points along the wall.  At the same time scaling ladders with lever crews were deployed at other points.  Sappers and tunnelers worked to gain entry from beneath by weakening and collapsing a section of the foundation.  At the appropriate time, scaling ladders were used to mount attacks over the wall at several points in an effort to force the defender to disperse his forces.  The idea was to quickly mass more soldiers at the point of entry than the defender could bring to bear.  As a rule of thumb, a city could mount about 25 percent of its population to defend against attack.  Thus, a city of 30,000 could muster fewer than 8,000 men to defend against an attacking force that typically exceeded 30,000 to 40,000 soldiers.  The advantage almost always rested with the besieging army.[44]

A wheeled siege engine is depicted in this 9th century BC bas-relief of an Assyrian attack, found in the palace of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC), at Nimrud.

Strong walls and a good defensive position built high on a rocky hill were in use up through the Middle Ages.  Living rock is very hard for an enemy to mine, and placing the fortification on high ground gives the defender the gravitational advantage of being able to throw rocks, heavy stones and spears down on the attackers putting them at a severe disadvantage.[45] 

As recorded at Jericho however, high walls alone were rarely sufficient to keep out an attacker.  Bribery and trickery were often extremely useful tools in a besieger’s method-book.  Bold men willing to risk all on a slim chance abound in medieval stories and songs.  There are many instances of armed men being smuggled into a castle hidden in fodder carts, often well before hostilities began.  Once through the gates, they would leap out and overpower the guards, open the doors and let in their comrades.[46]

It is at the siege of Troy (1194-1184 BC) that the idea of deception is first recorded as having been a successful means of overcoming an impregnable fortress.


From the beginning of the Trojan War, the Greek army failed to take into account that the most elementary rules of siegecraft required the use of siege engines and sapping techniques to break into the walled fortress of Troy, sited on a hill in present day Northwest Turkey.[47]

The battle therefore took on a curious pattern whereby the Trojans, supposedly under siege, staged numerous attacks against the besieger’s lines.  On one occasion they even reached the Greek ships, setting many of them on fire before successfully withdrawing to their apparently impregnable fortress.  According to Homer’s Iliad, it took ten years of war for the Greeks to fight their way up to the walls of Troy.  The problem remained of how to get inside.

Mykonos vase depicting the Trojan Horse.

A man named Odysseus worked out an ingenious scheme of building a huge wooden horse and equipping it with a small commando force hidden inside.  When the horse had been constructed and manned, the main Greek force carried out a successful deception plan by sailing away from Troy.  The Trojans believed that their enemies had abandoned the siege and were going back to their own country.  The Greeks however, had only sailed just beyond the nearest headland, and were in fact anchored nearby.  They had left behind a man named Sinon, who must have been quite an actor, because he was able to convince the Trojans that he was a deserter.  More importantly, he also convinced them to tow the wooden horse into Troy.

Under the cover of darkness, the task force emerged from the horse and opened a gate in the wall.  The rest of the Greek army had meanwhile stealthily returned and had taken up a position just outside the city walls.  Achieving complete surprise, the Greeks stormed into Troy and after fierce house-to-house fighting, burning and looting as they advanced, they forced the Trojans to surrender.  The victorious Greeks captured Helen, the woman who started it all by eloping with the Trojan prince, Paris.  The Greeks then sacked Troy, killed its king, enslaved its women, and then sailed home with their prisoners.[48]

Later defensive works would require more direct methods of overcoming a defenders wall than a wooden horse.  Philip II of Macedon used siege engines and the services of Greek engineers to great effect in his assaults on the cities of Perinthus and Byzantium, and his son, Alexander the Great was also reputedly a master of siegecraft.[49]  He demonstrated his skill in this area at the siege of Tyre.[50]


French Air Force photo of Tyre, 1934.

Island fortifications pose a number of logistical siege difficulties for an attacker.  In 332 BC, Alexander the Great chose to conduct an attack against the important island of Tyre, sited roughly half a mile off shore.[51]  This island was protected by high, two-mile long wall constructed of heavy stone, which ran around it, and also protected by a strong navy.

Tyre was of strategic importance to Alexander the Great.[52]  He initially attempted to seize it by subterfuge, claiming he wished to enter Tyre in order to sacrifice to Heracles.  At that time, Alexander was convinced that once Tyre was his, all the Phoenician ships would desert the Persian king and come over to his side.  Confident in the fortifications of their island city, the Tyrians objected.  Alexander prepared a plan of siege that involved joining the island fortress to the mainland by an artificial isthmus, thus turning Tyre into a peninsula over which he could bring his powerful siege engines up to the city’s walls. [53]

During the 7-month long siege which followed, Alexander had his engineers construct a causeway to the island.  A strait of four “stadia” separated the island city from the mainland and it was exposed to southwest winds.  Alexander ordered large stones and tree trunks from the mountains of Lebanon to be brought down to the coast and cast into the sea.  As long as the building of the mole went on near the mainland, the work went on smoothly, but as his men went into deeper water and came closer to the city, they came under a volley of arrows shot by archers positioned on the walls.  At the same time, the Tyrian sent warships which sailed up on either side of the workers, mocking and harassing them.  This causeway was destroyed several times before Alexander finally succeeded.  In order to do so, Alexander eventually came to understand that the island couldn’t be taken unless he had ships to counter the Tyrian navy and enable him to control the sea.

Alexander ordered two towers to be built on the mole and had them equipped with siege engines.  The towers were covered with hides and skins so they could withstand fire darts launched by the Tyrians.  In response, the Tyrians filled a large horse-carrying transport ship with dry boughs and other combustible materials.  They fixed two masts on the ship’s prow, each with a projecting arm from which was suspended a cauldron filled with bitumen, sulphur and other highly inflammable materials.  The stern of the vessel was loaded with stone and sand, which in turn elevated the bow so that it could be easily driven over the mole to reach Alexander’s towers.  The Tyrians then waited for a favorable wind to blow towards the mole, and when it came, they towed the ship towards their target from astern with triremes.  After running the “fire-ship” at full speed upon the mole, they then set the combustible materials on fire with torches. The ship was dashed violently against the mole and the cauldrons scattered the fiery mass in all directions, while the crew of the burning ship swim away to safety.

On hearing that their cities had fallen into Alexander’s hands, the kings of Aradus and Byblos, deserted the Persian cause and sailed their fleets to Tyre.  When they arrived at the site of the siege with their armed contingents and Sidonian triremes, the offered to join with Alexander.  When the kings of Cyprus learned that their enemy Darius has been defeated at Issus by Alexander, they also decided to join him and sailed to Sidon with 120 ships.  Additional Triremes arrived from Rhodes, Soli, Mallos, and Lycia along with a fifty-oar ship from Macedon.  The chronicler Arrian (2.20.3) records the following: “To all these Alexander let bygones be bygones supposing that it was rather from necessity than choice that they had joined naval forces with the Persians.”

While this impressive fleet was being prepared for battle with the Tyrians and his siege engines were being fitted to make the final assault, Alexander took a detachment of archers and heavy cavalry (the “hypasists”) and marched into Sidon, where he launched a ground attack which conquered part of the country and caused others to readily surrender.  He also managed to seized or collect 120 triremes.  When Alexander’s fleet hove into view off the coast of the island under siege, the Tyrians refused to fight, permitting the Macedonians to attack the wall without seaward interference.

Realizing Alexander now had his back protected, and the seaward approaches were almost fully in his hands, the Tyrians decided to go on the offensive before Alexander attacked.  Their plan was to sink the enemy fleet, including the ships of their sister-cities.  This would be difficult to put into effect, because the ships from Cyprus blocked the mouth of the Tyrian “Sidonian” port, so-called because it faced north towards Sidon.  In order to conceal their plans and preparations, the Tyrians spread out sails in front of the entrance to the harbor.  Waiting until midday when they had determined the Cypriot sailors were not on their guard, the Tyrians set sail with their most effective sea fighting men and attacked the surprised enemy, sinking several ships.

Alexander was infuriated by this setback, and ordered his ships to immediately blockade the Tyrian harbor before the raiders escaped.  The Tyrian defenders manning the fortresses walls vainly shouted and gestured to the raiders to turn back.  Wheeling their ships about, the Tyrians attempted to sail back to the protection of their harbor.  Only a few manage to get to safety but Alexander’s naval forces put most of the rest out of action.  A handful of the Tyrian crews succeeded in jumping overboard and swimming to land.  The end result of this abortive naval sally was a victory for Alexander, which allowed him to bring his Macedonian closer to Tyre’s city walls. 

Shortly after this naval engagement, Alexander had his battering rams brought forward and pressed up against the fortresses north walls.  As the war machines drew closer to walls, the attackers discovered the fortifications on the mole were too high for the Macedonians to scale.  This forced Alexander to turn south to the “Egyptian” port, so-called because it faced Egypt, while testing the strength of the Tyrian walls along the way.  Here he discovered a part of the city’s fortifications had broken down.  He immediately threw a series of siege bridges over the walls, but the Tyrian defenders repulsed the attack.

Alexander reportedly had a dream that Tyre would fall to him, and as a result, he launched his final assault on the fortress.  He ordered his triremes to sail against both the “Sidonian” and “Egyptian” ports simultaneously, with object being to force an entrance.  They succeeded in gaining access to both harbors and captured the Tyrian ships.  Alexander’s ships then closed in on the city from all sides and when they were close enough, siege bridges were thrown over the walls from his vessels.  Macedonian soldiers quickly ran across the siege bridges, and advanced through breaches in the walls where they engaged and quickly dispatched or fought off the Tyrian defenders.

During the siege, as the Macedonians attacked the wall, the Tyrians poured hot liquids and sand onto the attackers causing severe burns.  A large number of Tyrians deserted the walls and barricaded themselves in the Shrine of Agenor.  The people of Tyre particularly revered this monument for, in legendary tradition, Agenor was their king, the father of Cadmus and Europa.  According to the chronicler Arrian (2.24.2), Alexander’s bodyguards found and attacked them here killing them all in a bloody massacre.  The Macedonians had been infuriated by the Tyrian treatment of their captured companions.  When Alexander’s men had sailed from Sidon to engage the Tyrians in the earlier sea-battles, the Tyrians had captured a number. These men were dragged up on the fortress walls and executed in full view of Alexander’s forces.  Their bodies were then flung into the sea.  Seeing themselves at last masters of the city, Alexander’s bodyguard were determined to avenge the death of their companions, and gave no mercy to the Tyrians they held responsible for the murders.  It is recorded that a total of 8,000 Tyrians died, with only 400 Macedonians lost in the siege.[54]

The historian Quintus Curtius (4.2.10-12) records that at this time a Carthaginian delegation was in Tyre to celebrate the annual festival of Melkart-Heracles.  The king of Tyre, Azemilcus, the chief magistrates and the Carthaginian embassy took refuge in the temple of Heracles.  Alexander granted them a full pardon but he severely punished the people of Tyre.  Some 30,000 were sold into slavery.   According to Quintus Curtius (4.4.17), 2,000 Tyrians were nailed to crosses along a great stretch of the shore.

Alexander offered a sacrifice to Heracles and held a procession of his armed forces in the city.  He also ensured that a naval review was held in the god’s honor.  The Tyrians had chained a statue of their deity Apollo to keep him from deserting them.  Alexander therefore solemnly supervised the removal of these golden chains and fetters from Apollo and ordered that henceforth the god be called Apollo “Philalexander.”  He rewarded those of his men who had distinguished themselves and gave a lavish funeral for his dead.  Having completed the successful siege of Tyre, Alexander moved on, and with the fall of Gaza to the south, he headed on to Egypt.[55]


The use of siegecraft and machines to defeat fortresses and defensive positions predates recorded time.  They were known to the men of the Old Testament, such as King Uzziah of Judah who “made in Jerusalem engines, invented by cunning men, to be on the towers and upon the bulwarks, to shoot arrows and great stones withal.”[56]

Over the years many ingenious siege devices would be invented.  Archimedes is known to have designed and manufactured a giant missile-launcher that could throw an 1800-lb boulder for the defense of Syracuse in 215 BC.[57]  Other machines were used to fling Greek fire, balls of lead, quick-lime, red-hot sand, boiling water, iron-tipped poles, and huge lumps of baked clay that disintegrated on contact and could not be fired back by the enemy.[58]

Because of their nature and size, solid foundations were needed to support siege engines.  The vibration of a torsion device could do as much damage to walls and towers as all the efforts of an attacker combined.  Three basic forms of siege artillery came into early use.  They were collectively known as “petrarri”, or “stone-throwers.”  The mangonel was an early form of mortar, which used torsion as a source of launching power.  Two stout posts were mounted on a firm chassis, and joined together with skeins of rope.  A beam with a hollowed-out spoon-shaped depression at the throwing end would be placed in-between the two posts.  The missile, usually a stone or in some cases a fire-pot would be inserted in the scoop; the rope would be twisted by a windlass to create torsion, and the ammunition would be released on command.  This would cause the beam to snap forward sharply, propelling its load in a high-arcing trajectory towards the intended target.  Dead animals, the heads of prisoners and other items could also be launched.  These weapons were not very accurate, but could be effective when bombarding the interior structures of a castle, spreading alarm and confusion.[59]


The second type of siege engine used tension as the propelling power for its missiles.  These were known as “ballista,” and they were similar to a large crossbow, working on the same principle.  Like the mangonel, the ballista originated with the Greeks, and it was in use at the siege of Rome in 537 AD.  Procopius described them in use as “machines, which have the general shape of a bow, but in the middle is a hollow piece of horn fixed loosely to the bow, and lying over a straight stock.[60]  When intending to fire at the enemy, you pull back the short strong cord that joins the arms of the bow, and place in the horn a bolt, four times as thick as the ordinary arrow, but furnished with wooden projections exactly reproducing the shape of the feathers.  Men standing on either side of the weapon draw back the cord with winches.  When they let it go, the horn rushes forward and discharges the bolt.”  Procopius later wrote that he saw a mailed Goth impaled against a tree by a bolt from a ballista.  In another case a monk named Abbo described a ballista’’ in use at the siege of Paris in 885-886 AD.[61]  He saw a bolt go through three Danes all at once, leaving them like a “chicken on a spit.” Abbot Ebolus, a skilled member of the church militant who had fired the bolt, called down to his comrades and told them they should pick the Danes up and take them to the kitchen.  The ballista had a flat trajectory and was reasonably accurate, as it could be aimed by traversing its carriage.  Its primary use was as an anti-personnel weapon, although a few versions were used to throw stones.[62]


The Middle Ages saw the innovation of the third type of siege engine, known as the trébuchet.  The trébuchet was a giant sling, which was worked by dropping a counter weight on the end of a throwing beam.  It would classed as a howitzer in present-day artillery terms, but its accuracy was greater than the mangonel, as its range could be adjusted by moving the weight along the arm.[63]


The trebuchet is the only major siege engine that was invented during the Middle Ages.  It relied on a counterpoise and was simpler in design and construction than most others. Prince Louis of France is credited with bringing it to England in 1216.  Various engines were constructed in the king’s North Wales castles of Deganwy and Dyserth, where four “switches” were built for catapults and mangonels.  It was usual to drag these machines around the country as need arose.[64]

Siege Towers

Siege towers came into use early in the wars, enabling attackers to fight on the same level as their opponents.  Many of the larger ones were equipped with one of the missile throwing devices described in the preceding paragraphs, and most of them had drawbridges so that the soldiers manning them would have easy access to the ramparts and battlements.  Some of them were mounted on great wheels of solid oak, consisted of several stories, and rose to a height of 150.’  The largest siege tower recorded was one Richard I had constructed tall enough to overlook the walls of Acre in 1191.[65]

In 440 BC, Artemon used siege towers in the siege of Samos, but failed to take the city.  In 424 BC the Boetians may have used a primitive flame-thrower which consisted of a hollow wooden tube that held a cauldron of burning sulphur, charcoal, and pitch at one end, against the wooden walls of Delium.  In 397 BC, Dionysisus successfully used siege towers and rudimentary catapults in the attack on Motya.[66]

Most siege engines were capable of throwing a stone of 300-lbs or more a distance of at least 500’.  Stones of this weight have been excavated at Kenilworth Castle, England, where they were probably used in the siege of 1266.  Siege engines were heavy and clumsy.   The historian Kendall claimed that the seven trébuchets used at Berkhamsted in England, called for fifty-six long-carts for their transport.  Generally, it the majority of large siege engines were constructed at the site, as they were when the Welsh attacked the castles of Mold and Dyserth.  Wooden towers were sometimes pushed close to the walls, which were then assaulted by foot soldiers gathered on their upper levels.  The Justice of Chester was in 1244 ordered to have four good strong wooden towers built in the forest of the Wirral and to have two such towers made as close as possible to the border to carry wherever the king may wish in Wales.[67]

As assault methods developed in sophistication, it was found that the wall-walk of a fortress or castle could be gained with the use of a device called a “belfry.”  This was a massive wheeled tower, generally higher than the wall being attacked.  The moat or ditch would be filled in with rubble and the belfry would then be pushed across it and pressed up against the curtain wall.  The belfry’s had a wooden framework construction with ladders inside which led up to the fighting level.  It could be rigged with a drawbridge or a ramp equipped with hooks, which could be dropped onto the castle’s parapet when the assault was ready to be launched.  The belfry could have a crenellated roof built above the ramp occupied by archers who kept up a steady covering fire on the defenders to keep them from dislodging the ramp.  The whole structure would be covered with wet hides to make it as fireproof as possible.  The belfry could also house a battering ram at its base level, which could simultaneously work away at dislodging masonry.

The siege tower was not necessarily used to conduct a direct assault on the walls.  In some cased they were built close to the castle under siege as a form of counter-castle.  In this case, they were used to guard the attacking force’s camp or to sweep a field of fire with the use of crossbows from the roof.  Some of these structures were built strong enough to mount stone-throwing engines from the top deck.  These counter-castles were sometimes referred to as “malvoisins,” meaning “bad neighbours.”

Belfries suffered from the disadvantage of weight, and they were vulnerable to fire.  They had to be built on site by competent workmen, who also had to ensure that the ditch was filled with adequate materials solid enough to bear the weight of the siege engine as it was rolled forward.  There are many reports of the use of belfries.  In 1096, Anna Comnena recorded the building of a belfry by Raymond of Saint-Gilles for the siege of Nicaea, describing it as, “a wooden tower, circular in shape” covered inside and out “with leather hides and filled in the center with intertwined wickerwork.[68]

During the siege of Dyrrachium in 1108, Bohemond built a four-sided tower on a wooden base that was high enough to dominate the towers of the city.  It was pushed forward on rollers by soldiers who levered it up, in effect making it self-propelled.  The many stories of the belfry had coverings with embrasures and openings all around from which volleys of arrows could be fired.[69]

As the towers were being assembled, battering rams were also being constructed and moved into place.  Early versions used a hefty tree trunk with a metal head mounted on its end.  Variations included a bore, wherein the tree was tipped with a metal spike.  To protect the crew operating the battering ram, a covering penthouse or cat was constructed.  The cat was essentially a long shed mounted on rollers or wheels and equipped with heavy roof timers from which the ram could be slung on chains.  The team of ram-operators could consist of up to 100 men swinging the ram against the targeted wall or gate. The penthouse had a sharply pitched roof designed to deflect projectiles, and had to be fireproofed with wet hides or metal plates.  It had similar requirements to the belfry, in that the cat had to be used on a firm base such as a well-filled ditch.  In some cases, the wheels were removed to give the ram a more solid foundation for the swinging movement.[70]

The process of sapping in the 17th century.


Penthouses and cats were also used to shelter miners and sappers.  Joinville describes similar structures built by the engineers of St. Louis to shelter troops who were making a causeway across the Nile River in 1249.  They were protected at each end by wooden towers, which served as gatehouses.  Siege buildings could also be floated into place if the water routes provided adequate access.  In 1218, as the warriors in the Fifth Crusade were besieging Damietta at the mouth of the Nile, they were held up by a tower in the middle of the river.  A Crusader priest named Oliver Paderborn designed a floating belfry, which was mounted on boats and floated down onto the tower, which it succeeded in overcoming.[71]

Defenders could make use of a counter-ram, a device which was dropped on a battering ram as it was about to hit so as to avoid repetitive impact at the same point.  They could retaliate with their own catapults, throwing rocks down on the attackers from their towers and walls.  Arrows and fire could also be thrown against the assaulting moving towers and battering rams.  When the attackers dug tunnels the besieged defenders dug counter tunnels through which they tried to penetrate the first tunnel to repel the attacking diggers known as “sappers.”[72]

Ram and Counter-ram in use. 

Roman Siege Tactics

A professional army with regular soldiers is the mainstay of most modern armies.  Between 405 and 396 BC, Rome began regular payments to its troops inaugurating the concept of a regular career service.  The Roman legion owed much of its success to its effective use of missile throwing machines such as the ballista, mounted on a carriage drawn by mules and served by ten men from the century to which the weapon belonged.[73]  They were used not only to defend the entrenchments of camps, but were placed in the field in the rear of the heavy armed infantry.  Each legion had 55 of these engines, as well as 10 onagri, one for each cohort.  The onagri were drawn on ready-armed carriages by oxen and were primarily used to defend the camp works by throwing stones with a sling-like device, while the ballista threw darts.[74]

The Romans conducted attacks under the cover of their shields in an assault formation known as a “tortoise.” From a woodcut in the 1585 edition of Vegetius’ book “De Re Militari,” published in Antwerp.

Roman advances in the design, mobility, and firepower of artillery produced the largest, longest-ranged, and most rapid-firing artillery pieces of the ancient world.  Roman catapults were much larger than the old Greek models and were powered by torsion devices and springs made of sinew kept supple when stored in special canisters of oil.  As Josephus recorded in his account of the siege of Jerusalem, the largest of these artillery pieces, the onager, (called the “wild ass” because of its kick), could hurl a 100 pound stone over 400 yards.  Vegetius noted that each legion had 10 onagri, one per cohort, organic to its organization.  Smaller versions of these machines, such as the scorpion and ballista were compact enough to be transported by horse or mule.  These machines could fire a 7-10-lb stone over 300 yards.  Caesar required that each legion carry 30 of these small machines, giving the legion a mobile, organic artillery capability. Smaller machines fired iron-tipped bolts.  Designed much like the later crossbow but mounted on small platforms or legs, these machines, which required a two-man crew, could be used as rapid-fire field guns against enemy formations.  They fired a 26-inch bolt over a range of almost 300 yards.  Larger versions mounted on a wheeled frame were called carroballistae and required a 10-man crew.  These machines could fire perhaps three to four bolts a minute and they were used to lay down a barrage of fire against enemy troop concentrations.  They were the world’s first rapid-fire field artillery guns.

Siege and destruction of Jerusalem.  (Roberts)

The emergence of siegecraft as a basic requirement of Iron Age armies represented a major innovation in warfare.  Without the ability rapidly to reduce cities and fortified strong points, no army on the march in hostile territory could hope to force a strategic decision with any rapidity.  The very idea of empire would have been militarily unthinkable in much the same way as it was for the classical Greek armies which had no siegecraft capability.  The search for more efficient ways to destroy fortifications produced, perhaps somewhat by accident, the new combat arm of artillery.  While Alexander was the first to use it, the Romans gave birth to the idea of using artillery as antipersonnel weapons.  Both siege engines and artillery represent the birth of a major new idea in the technology of war, an idea that came to further fruition with introduction of gunpowder a thousand years later.[75]

In 156 BC the Romans had decreed that the inhabitants of the city of Carthage were to move to a site 10 miles from the sea, a condition equivalent to a death sentence.  The Carthaginians made their living from the sea, and if they moved inland they would be left defenceless against attacks from the Numidians.  If they abandoned Carthage, they would die either way.  The Romans delayed out of a belief that they could capture Carthage at will.  This underestimation of one’s enemy would prove to be a recurrent theme in most of the battles discussed in this book.

The Roman delay gave the Carthaginian inhabitants the time they needed to reinforce the city walls and defenses, and to manufacture shields, swords and javelins in enormous quantities.  The ladies of Carthage even cut their hair to be twisted into bowstrings.

The Roman siege was long and difficult, and they were only able to make a breach in the Carthaginian walls after suffering heavy losses, and even then were driven off.  Swamp fever added to the attrition of the Roman soldiers.  The Carthaginians fought hard, and when the wind was right they sent fireships into the Roman fleet.  To compound the problem, there were 23 miles of fortifications in place.  The Romans were therefore unable to guard access to all points, and thus the Carthaginians had no difficulties with resupply.

The arrival of a seasoned Roman commander named Scipio changed the face of the costly siege.  He rejuvenated his troops, and then set about building an earthwork barrier to sever the Carthaginian leader Hasdrubal’s link with the interior.  Scipio then had a massive mole constructed to block the outer mouth of the city harbor, thereby completing the encirclement and creating a strong blockade of the city.  Rather than sustain heavy losses that might jeopardize the assault, Scipio had every building that stood between his army and the citadel burned to the ground.  The rubble was then cleared away to allow the free deployment of his forces.

After seven days of fighting, 50,000 Carthaginians surrendered.  Their lives were spared, but the remaining 900 fought to the death.  In spite of the victory, Scipio saw the pendulum in mid swing, and predicted that what had happened to Carthage would one day happen to Rome.[76]

So it would come to pass, but when Rome’s greatest enemy, the Gothic King Alaric invaded Italy he didn’t need a secret weapon to enter the heavily fortified city.   The Romans had treated their slaves so badly that the slaves themselves opened the gates on the night of 23 August 410 AD, allowing the Barbarians to enter.[77]  Treachery could be a very effective siege breaker.

Celts and Gauls

The Romans had a long history of battles with the Celts and Gauls.  The Celts had their origins in the Danube region of Eastern Europe and gradually migrated towards France, Spain, the British Isles and Italy.  In 387 BC they engaged and defeated a large body of Roman soldiers.  Eventually they settled in all the countries of Europe they had overrun, but the greatest concentration of Celtic settlements was in Gaul, which is now modern France.  In this same era, the Romans had gradually occupied and imposed their form of government on the Mediterranean coast of Gaul.  Between 58 BC and 51 BC, Caesar conquered all of Gaul in a series of battles against the Helveti (58 BC), the Belgii (57 BC), in Brittany and Aquitaine (56 BC).  He pursued the Germans and crossed the Rhine and later invaded England (55 BC).  In 52 BC he engaged and defeated Vercingetorix, the leader of the Gauls at Alesia in present day France.[78]

Caesar’s engineers built “siege terraces” consisting of logs piled in layers enclosing a core of earth and rubble, to defeat the armies of Gaul.  Wooden towers several stories high were erected on the terrace, and artillery and snipers placed in them.  Unfortunately for Caesar, the Gauls under the leadership of Vercingetorix were ingenious at making the Roman terraces fall in by undermining, as demonstrated at the siege of Avaricum in 52 BC.  The Gauls were expert at this because of their extensive experience in mining iron, and were thoroughly familiar with the techniques of working underground.  The Gauls were also skilled at constructing their own walls complete with towers, furnished with platforms and protected by hides.  Caesar was forced to out-build them with his own towers and siegeworks in order to win the battle of Avaricum.[79]

In order to defeat the Gauls during the battle at Alesia, Caesar’s Roman legions had to build a line of fortifications ten miles long around it, with outer walls facing both ways to keep out a relieving army.  In effect, to conduct the siege, Caesar had to make a fortress of his own.[80]

After the Romans had captured Gaul, they turned their attention to Germany.  Caesar dealt with a great number of opponents who made use of a great variety of tactics.  Of all their opponents however, the chroniclers from Tacitus onwards describe the fierce bravery of the Germans and their military effectiveness.  The German forces were essentially comprised of men related to one another by ties of blood within a village and organized into a group or tribe known as a “hundred.”  They did not drill or train as the Roman legions did, but their inner cohesion, based on the certainty of being able to rely on those around them, was superior to that shown by the Romans.  When it was defeated, a Roman force usually scattered.  A Germanic force in similar straits usually remained intact because it was an organic body.[81]

Although the Romans considered the Germanic tribes to be little more than a rabble, their fighting methods were very efficient.  Tacitus described the fighting methods used by the Germans as the use of tactical bodies of men which were as deep as they were wide, with the front, rear and both flanks being equally strong, and consisting of 400 men, 20 deep and 20 wide, or 10,000 men, 100 deep and 100 wide.  The most exposed positions of such a formation were the warriors at the flanks of the first line, because they would be threatened by their opponent from the front as well as from the side.  This square was the basic tactical formation of the Germans as the phalanx was the original tactical formation of the Romans.[82]  In the attack, the phalanx had the advantage of bringing more weapons to bear than the square and had greater manoeuvrability for its wings.  The weakness of the Roman Phalanx was the vulnerability of its flanks, particularly when attacked by cavalry, and cavalry was once of the German’s strengths.  To show equal strength in all directions, the Germans preferred deep formations.[83]

The initial attempts to make inroads into Germany by the Roman Commander Drusus ended in failure and he was forced to withdraw.  In his second incursion he used the waterways and built a canal from the Rhine to the Ysel, which gave him access to the North Sea coast via the Zuider Zee.  He also used the Lippe River which was navigable in the spring up to its source.  He moved along the Lippe upwards into Westphalia, and at the point where the river was no longer navigable he built a Castle at Aliso.  When the Romans attempted to use the castle as a base to establish their supremacy, three of their legions and their auxiliary forces under their commander, Governor P. Quinctilius Varius, were annihilated by the Germans in the Teutoberger Forest in 9 AD.[84]

This came about because Publius Quintilius Varus had been directed to hold the frontier in Westphalia area.  Marching between two rivers (Ems and Weser) which limited maneuver and mobility, his troops were picked off by Germans over several days.  By the end all 20,000 were gone and Varus committed suicide to avoid capture.  News of the massacre prompted Rome to decide the Rhine River could be their eastern border instead of the Elbe River.  The Britons continued to put up a spirited defense as well, and in 60 AD, Boudicca burned Roman London.  Under the Roman Governor Paulinus, however, the final outcome was more successful for the Roman Legions.[85]

Siege of Jerusalem

There have been at least nine separate sieges of Jerusalem, making it one of the most contested and fought over cities in the world.[86]  This account concerns the siege that took place in 70 AD, when Rome’s General Titus Caesar marched against Jerusalem.[87]  Flavius Josephus was a Jew who had gone over to the Romans, and the narrative that follows is an adaptation of chronicle he kept as the siege unfolded.  The auxiliaries sent by Rome’s allies led the column followed by engineers to ensure clear roadways and to lay out campsites ahead of the marching army.  These were followed by the commander’s baggage train and then by fully armed soldiers to escort and support them.  Titus came next accompanied by a select bodyguard and then ranks of pikemen.  The trail was completed with all of the horse that belonged to that particular legion.

The next column included all of the siege engines accompanied by the tribunes and the leaders of the cohorts, with their selected aide-de-camps and retainers.[88]  The ensigns and the eagle symbols led by trumpeters followed in succession, and then came the main body of the army in their ranks, every legion being six men deep.  The legion’s baggage accompanied by the servants belonging to each legion came next, with the mercenaries next to last with the rearguard protecting the trail of the column.

Titus led his army well, and marched through Samaria to Gophan, a city that had been previously captured by his father, and which was at that time garrisoned by Roman soldiers.  Here he spent the night, and continued his march in the morning up to a valley the Jews had named the Valley of Thorns.  Here he pitched his camp close to a village called Gabath-Saul (Hill of Saul) not far from Jerusalem.  He selected 600 of his best horsemen and conducted a reconnaissance of the city in order to learn more about the strength of the Jews and to determine if they were prepared to fight or run.  He had been provided with limited intelligence information that assessed the Jews were only acting out of fear under the dominion of seditious renegades and robbers, and they actually wanted peace.

No one appeared from the gates to meet him as he rode along the straight road which led to the wall of the city, but as he veered off the main road that led down towards a tower named Psephinos at the head of his band of horsemen, a great host of Jews combatants suddenly charged at him from a tower gate in the wall known as the Women's Towers, sited near monuments erected for Queen Helena.  The Jewish fighting patrol intercepted Titus’s horsemen and cut them off from the main body of his reconnaissance party, hemming in threatening Titus and many of his staff.  He found it impossible to move forward because the way was obstructed with trenches extending from the main wall that were used to preserve the gardens outside the city.  These gardens were full of smaller walls, which ran at oblique angles to the main wall and prevented his escape.  The route to his rear presented an equally impossible exit because of the multitude of Jewish combatants that lay between him and his main body of horsemen.  Very few of his soldiers were even aware that he had been surrounded, and many withdrew believing Titus was still with them.

Titus could see no other way about but to turn around and charge the Jews, sword in hand, shouting to the crew trapped with him to stay close and to follow him at the gallop into the midst of the sea of soldiers attacking him.  Fortune favors the brave, for although Titus was not wearing his helmet and breast plate (he was only conducting an initial reconnaissance and hadn’t planned on a battle) and great numbers of darts were thrown at him, he succeeded in breaking through the horde of fighting men without being injured.  Any that got close to him were dispatched with deliberate and intensely cutting sword strokes, and others were ridden down under him amidst a great deal of noise.  The angry Jews shouted to their companions to stop him and rushed him in great numbers, all of which he cut to pieces or were boldly ridden down.  His followers stayed close to him, riding with force and fury, although they were being cut and slashed on all sides.  The Roman horsemen were well aware that their only hope of escape lay in assisting Titus in opening a way through the attackers.  Two of Titus’s companions were surrounded, with one being killed by darts along with his horse, and the second being killed as he jumped off his horse to fight at close quarters.  Titus succeeded in escaping with the rest and made it back to his camp in one piece.  The Jews for their part revelled in their perceived success and placed a great deal of false hope in their chances of outfighting the Romans in the siege to follow.

The night a second legion marched from Emmaus to join Caesar, and the following day he moved his camp to a place called Scopus.  From here he could see the walls of Jerusalem and the great temple, which rose inside it.  His camp lay to the north of the city and ran into the plain of Scopus (the prospect) a relatively short distance from the city.  He ordered the Roman camp to be fortified for the two legions that were with him.  He also directed that another camp be fortified, not far behind the main camp to protect another legion (the 5th) which was marching to join them and which he wanted to be concealed from the Jewish defenders.  An additional legion (the 10th), which had marched from Jericho, was also in place at a pass which led into the city.  Vespasian had taken this pass to prevent an ambush against his forces at this site. These legions were ordered to make their camps just outside Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives, which was located on the east side of the city separated by the deep valley of Kedron.

Up until this point, several rival factions within the city had fought against each other in a struggle for political supremacy.  These combatants had set aside their differences and joined forces to fight the Romans.  They observed the Romans constructing three separate fortified camps and realized they would be trapped if they did not take action against them.  A sortie was prepared and launched against the 10th legion as they were fortifying their camp, catching a number of different work parties unarmed.  A great number became casualties in the surprise attack.  Many began to withdraw, and the battle would have turned into a Roman slaughter if Titus had not learned of the raid and launched an immediate counter-attack which he led himself against the Jewish flank with a select band of troops.  His assault on the Jewish raiders pressed them back, with a great number of them being killed or wounded and the remainder being put to flight.  Reinforcements arrived for both sides, and the battle continued on into the valley.  Titus brought those who had joined him around to the walls to prevent the Jews from making anymore sallies, and ordered the remainder of the legion to return to the upper part of the mountain and to finish fortifying their camp.

The Jews interpreted this disciplined marching withdrawal to be a sign that the Romans were running away.  A Jewish watchman therefore gave the defenders inside the walls a signal to send out fresh fighting troops to catch the withdrawing Romans in order to finish them off.  A furious screaming mob roared out of the gates and attacked the Roman ranks tearing their formation to pieces and putting many to flight, leaving only Titus and a handful of his staunchest followers in the midst of the Jewish combatants.  Titus refused to run, even though his friends and escort earnestly exhorted him to “to give way to these Jews that are desirous of death, and not to run into such dangers before those that ought to stay before him; to consider what his fortune was, and not, when he was master of the war and of the world, to fill the place of a common soldier; nor to withstand so fierce an attack risking everything thereby.”

Titus gave them no heed, but drove himself directly into the fighting Jewish mob, hacking and slashing with his gladius and in fact driving them back.  He forced them to turn and as a result succeeded in killing a great many.  The Jewish reinforcements marching uphill ran into the battered fighters pressing to escape.  In spite of their numbers, the mob reared back in admiration of his courage and skill.  Even so, the Jews did not run, and continued to drive forward to climb the hill.  Titus struck against their flanks and eventually brought them to a fighting standstill before the Roman camp.

The Jews did not withdraw, however, and the Roman workers assembling the fortified camp began to succumb to terror as some of the soldiers began to run from the mob.  Much of the legion was dispersed by this time.  Even though they believed the Jewish onslaught could not be sustained, it appeared that Titus himself was in flight.  They reckoned that if he had been able to keep his position none of the Roman soldiers with him would have taken flight.  Surrounded by a fighting mass of swirling combatants panic began to take hold in the Roman lines and a few more began to disperse when suddenly they could see their general slashing his sword into the very center of the mass of fighting men.  Several shouted out to their comrades that the general was in danger, causing those who had begun to withdraw to turn and come to his aid.  The Romans suddenly rallied and renewed their counterattack, driving the Jewish forces back into the valley behind them.

Having gained the advantage of assaulting from the high ground the Romans forced the Jews to retreat.  Titus continued to battle those close to him while again sending the legion again to fortify their camp.  He and those in close support kept up the pressure, forcing the Jews to withdraw.  He had effectively rescued this legion twice in the space of a few hours, and gave them the respite to finish fortifying their camp.

Perceptions and confusion caused some additional surprises for both sides the following night.  Titus had given orders for the erection of three towers higher than 50’, with one being set on each bank in such a position as to permit his soldiers to drive the Jewish defenders away from their walls.  Unfortunately, one of these towers collapsed with a great crash about midnight.  The Jewish defenders assumed that the Romans were launching an attack and ran to their battle stations.  This in turn set the Roman legions in an uproar, because they in turn suspected that the Jews were about to launch another sally from the city gates.  Challenges for passwords were given and countered and both sides remained at a high state of confused alert until Titus was informed of what had happened, and gave orders that all were to be briefed on the events that had taken place.  Once the disturbance had been clarified, the Roman camp settled back to continuing its preparations for the siege of Jerusalem.

The Jews were extremely concerned about the Roman towers because Titus’s archers and slingers kept up a steady fire of darts, arrows and large stones against the walls using the heavy Roman siege engines.  The Jews couldn’t get at them to counter the missiles because of their height, and it was impractical for them to overturn the towers due to their weight.  The towers also seemed to be invulnerable to fire because they were covered with iron plates.  The Jews therefore withdrew to positions out of the reach of the darts, and ceased trying to interfere with the Roman’s assault on the lower walls with battering rams.  Part of the outer wall began to give way under the continuous Roman battering (the ram was referred to as the “Nico” by the Jews).  The Jews had grown weary of maintaining a continuous watch on the Roman battering, and they were also kept away from their inner walls by the constant hail for fire from the Roman siege towers.  Because of this, they were not monitoring the progress of the Nico when the Romans succeeded in making a breach in the wall.

Roman soldiers immediately stormed through the gap created by their ramming efforts and the Jews that had been left to guard the wall withdrew to their second of three inner walls.  The first line of Romans inside the wall immediately opened the outer gates, which allowed the main body to gain entry to the first level of the walled defenses on the 15th day of the siege.  The besiegers quickly demolished a great portion of the wall to prevent it being retaken, along with a great deal of the northern portion of the city.

Titus proceeded to pitch his camp within the city, at a site named the Camp of the Assyrians, having seized upon all the ground that that lay as far back as Cedron, although he was careful to keep his forces out of range of the Jews’ darts which they launched from behind their second wall.  Titus then launched a co-ordinated set of attacks, which forced the Jews to split their defending forces into several separated sections.  The walls were vigorously defended by the Jews from the tower of Antonia, and from the northern cloister of the temple.  Separate battles for the walls took place as the Jews under the command of a leader named John fought the Romans in front of the monuments to king Alexander.  Other Jewish forces under the command of a leader named Simon occupied a patch of ground sited near John’s monument, and fortified it as far as the gate which was normally used to bring water in to a tower named Hippicus.

The Jews launched a number of violently conducted sallies from their fortified gates engaging the Romans with large bodies of combatants.  Quite often, the Jews succeeded in driving the Roman soldiers away from the wall, but when they fought from the wall, the Romans had the superior edge against the Jews with their siege engines.  Both sides took heart from their successes, with the Jews believing they could hold out against the Romans while the Romans were certain that the walls would fall to them in due course.  There was no let up in the fury of the attacks and counter-attacks that took place and which were kept up against Jerusalem’s walls.

The battles continued non-stop through the night with both sides under the constant stress and tension.  The Jews worried that the walls would fall unexpectedly, the Romans worried the Jews would catch them unprepared in their large sallies against their camps.  Soldiers on both sides slept in their armor when they had a chance to sleep, and had themselves ready for battle at first light each day.

Titus stayed at the forefront of each battle, exhorting and encouraging his troops throughout.  He personally viewed his soldiers in action and rewarded those who distinguished themselves.  Many chose to seize the opportunity to be recognized in his presence.  In the middle of a tremendous exchange of dart fire, Longinus, one of Titus’s horsemen leaped into the center of an attacking horde of Jewish soldiers.  As the Jews jumped to the side, Longinus killed two of their men using a spear, pulling it out of the face and body of the first and running it through the side of the second as he tried to escape.  Longinus then bolted back to his own lines unscathed.  Many others also sought to gain recognition for themselves with similar actions

For their part, many of the Jews sought to take down as many Romans as possible in what seemed to be suicidal attacks.  Titus insisted that this not be emulated in his own troops, telling them that “inconsiderate violence was madness,” and that they were to pan and prepare their attacks with a great deal of forethought to ensure the maximum damage was inflicted on the Jewish defenders with the least amount of losses being incurred.  His view would appear to have coincided with the theme of this book, in that the opposing force must be outthought before it is outfought.

Titus brought one of his siege engines to the middle tower on the north part of the Jewish wall, which was being defended by an intelligent Jew named Castor.  Castor was hiding in the tower with ten other combatants hoping to ambush the Romans as they came forward with their battering rams.  As the tower began to shake and vibrate from the battering, Castor rose up and petitioned Caesar for mercy.  Titus gave Castor the benefit of the doubt, and called for the ramming to cease to hear him out.  Castor’s aim was to delay the attack, and he managed to convince the Romans that some his men wanted to surrender, although others would not.  This discussion went on for some time until a Roman dart injured Castor.  Titus reproved the one who had shot the dart, and directed his aide Josephus to stand with Castor as a sign of good faith.  Josephus was certain Castor was up to no good and declined to go.  A deserter named Aeneas went in his place, at which point Castor threw a great stone down on him.  Then missile missed but injured another Roman soldier, and Titus now understood Castor had been using delusion to divert him from the siege.  Titus gave orders for the ramming team to drive full out and to complete the breaching of the wall as quickly as possible.  Castor and his companions set their tower on fire, and jumped through the flames as it collapsed, making their way into a hidden vault and thereby escaping.  To the Romans, it appeared as if they had died in the fire.

Caesar took this wall there on the fifth day after he had taken the first.  As the Jews fled from him he entered the fortifications with a thousand armed men.  Among these were some of his best troops, who quickly found themselves in the sector of the city occupied by wool merchants, braziers and the cloth marker, all sited on streets which ran obliquely back to the wall.   Rather than demolish this area, which might have proven militarily useful, Titus chose to leave it intact with the idea that the Jews might appreciate his willingness to do the minimum damage necessary and to leave the city able to restore its ability to function economically after the battle.

He did not widen the breach to leave himself a safe retreat if it proved necessary later.  He gave his soldiers orders not kill any of those they captured, nor were the Jews homes to be burned.  He directed that non-combatants be left alone, and promised the people that their personal effects would be restored to them, with the object of preserving the city for his own use, and keeping the temple intact for the sake of the city.  The people reacted favorably to his instructions, but the Jewish fighting contingents saw them as a sign of Titus’s weakness and came to believe that Titus might not be able to take the rest of the city.  As a result, they threatened death to any who went along with the Roman’s proposals or talked of surrender.  The few who did had their throats cut.  The Jewish soldiers then attacked the Romans that had already entered inside the city walls.

Battles were fought in the narrow streets, and some of the Romans were attacked from the houses that lined them.  At the same time the Jews made a sudden sally out at the upper gates, and assaulted the Romans that were beyond the wall.  In some cases, a few of the soldiers guarding the wall jumped down from their siege towers and withdrew back to their camps.  The Roman soldiers under attack inside the walls raised a great hue and cry, calling for reinforcements to join them.  The Jews had a considerable advantage over the Romans, knowing the lay of the streets and alleys and using them to great effect to wound, delay and ambush the Romans at all turns, until the invaders had been driven out of the city. 

Not all of the Romans were able to escape via the original breach they had made, since it hadn’t been widened sufficiently as was their normal practice.   Many more would have been cut to pieces if Titus hadn’t sent in reinforcements.  He also ordered archers to stand at the upper ends of the narrow lanes, and he positioned himself where he could overlook the greatest number of the Jewish defenders.  The archers and their darts put a stop to the.  A valiant soldier named Domitius Sabinus stood with him, as Caesar continued to direct the dart fire at the Jews, driving them off his soldiers and enabling those remaining to complete their withdrawal from the city.

The Jews believed that their success in driving the Romans out of the second wall was a sign that the Romans would cease their attack and give up trying to gain access to the city.  They were of the opinion that if all stuck together, the siege could be successfully weathered, blind to the greater size of the attacking Roman force.  The Jews were also seemingly unaware that their food supplies were about to give out.  The Romans renewed their assault and began to open a number of breaches in the walls.  In desperation, the Jewish defenders began to plug the gaps and openings with a wall of their own bodies whenever a fresh portion was knocked down.  The Jews kept up this desperate defense for another three days, but on the fourth day they were overwhelmed by Titus siege engines and forced to withdraw.  This time Titus demolished the northern part of the city completely, and then placed a garrison inside the towers that overlooked the southern parts of the city.  With his forces in place, he planned and prepared for his assault on the third wall.[89]

As Titus surveyed the remaining defenses, the Jews continued to hold out on the strong heights of Sion, the citadel of the Antonia, and within the fortified Temple.  Titus hoped to preserve the remainder of the city intact, and withheld from attacking for a few days, with the aim of letting hunger and the hopelessness of the defenders situation sink in.  He placed his soldiers on parade and conducted a review of his army in full armor gave them their pay in view of the city, the battlements being thronged by spectators who watched in dismay.

The famine inside the walls forced the defenders into desperate acts for survival.  A few ventured outside the walls at night to try and find food in the ravines.  They were caught, scourged, tortured and crucified in full view of the defenders in order to terrify them.  This practice went on until, in Josephus words, “there was not wood enough for crosses.”

Terrible crimes were committed in the city.  The aged high-priest, Matthias, was accused of communicating with the enemy, and as a penalty, three of his sons were killed in his presence.  He was then executed in sight of the Romans, together with sixteen other members of the Sanhedrin.  Eventually the famine took such a grim toll that the defenders were reduced to appalling choices.  It is reported that one woman devoured the body of her own child.  At length, after fierce fighting, the Antonia was scaled, and Titus ordered its demolition.

Titus now promised the city leaders that the Temple should be spared if the defenders would come out and fight in another location.  The Jewish leader John and the Zealots, however, refused to surrender it.  Titus then proceeded to attack the outer cloisters and outer court with rams for several days, but the immense and compact stones resisted the ram’s blows.  Many of his soldiers were killed as they attempted to storm the cloisters, and thus Titus ordered the gates to be set on fire.  Through that night and the next day the flames raged through the cloisters.  Then, in order to save the Temple itself, Titus ordered the fire to be quenched.  On the 10th of August, the same day of the year on which Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the Temple built by Solomon, a cry rang through the remaining population that the Temple was on fire.  The Jews took up their swords and rushed to take revenge on their enemies or die trying.[90]

The slaughter continued while the fire raged.  Soon no part of the Temple remained was left but a small portion of the outer cloisters, where 6,000 people had taken refuge.  These people had been led by a false prophet who had there promised that God would deliver His people in His Temple. The soldiers set the building on fire and all perished.  Titus next spent eighteen days in preparations for the attack on the upper city, which was then speedily captured.  By this time, the Romans were no longer in the mood to display any mercy, and killed as many as possible until nightfall put an end to the carnage.  Josephus concludes his commentary by noting that during the whole of the siege of Jerusalem, 1,100,000 were slain, and the prisoners numbered 97,000.


The Romans engaged in sieges over a wide portion of the known world.  Perhaps one of the best known is the siege of Masada (72-73 AD).  This massive, fortified rock rising over the Dead Sea was the site of a Jewish last stand in a 7-year war against Rome.  Rather than surrender when the Roman siege ramp being prepared to take the fortress neared completion, 960 Jews set fire to their belongings and then committed mass suicide.

The Romans raised the art of circumvallation and countervallation to new heights at Masada, where they built a stone wall around the entire mountain.  Manned at regular intervals with soldiers, the purpose of the wall was to prevent anyone from escaping the besieged fortress.  When there was a threat of an attack from a relieving army, circumvallation was supplemented by countervallation, in which yet another wall was built so that troops could defend against an attack from a relieving force.  These techniques often took a great deal of time.  In the case of Masada, the Romans laid siege to the mountaintop fortress for 3 years.  In the process they built a 3-mile-long sloping earthen ramp to the top, along which they moved siege machinery and troops for the final assault.[91]

The siege took place along these lines.  Flavius Silva was the Roman procurator in Judea in AD 72 during the suppression of a Jewish revolt.  Most of the country had been subdued in the revolt except for a single major stronghold, the fortress of Masada, defended by a group known as the Sicarii under the command of a man named Eleazar.  The Roman general gathered his soldiers and had them construct garrisons and a strong wall completely surrounded the entire fortress to ensure none could escape.  This wall also ensured the defenders would be unable to bring in food, water and other supplies, since the site was barren.  When the wall was complete, Silva ordered the siege to begin.

The fortress was constructed on a tall rock formation surrounded by steep sides and deep valleys with very limited access to the top.  One difficult route led up from lake Asphaltitis, which faced Eastwards, the other had an easier ascent but was also well defended.  The fortress had been constructed under the direction of King Herod, and consisted of white stone 8’ thick and 12’ high.  Built into the walls were 38 towers, each of them 50’ high, which led into smaller defense works built on the inside and running the complete length of the inner wall.  There was a small area of arable land for growing food for the garrison.  On the western portion of the fortress Herod had a palace built on the inside but with its main portion facing the north side.  The palace walls were very thick and towers 60’ high were constructed in each of its four corners.  There were many other structures within this complex, including cloisters, baths and large buildings supported on pillars of single stones on every side.  The walls and floors of the palace were decorated with multi-colored stones.  Herod also had a number of large pits cut into the floor, which served as reservoirs for water.  The road constructed up to the palace was protected by a large fortified tower at its narrowest point some 1000’ from the top of the hill.  The combination of natural rock and man-made defenses made Masada a formidable fortress.

2013 aerial view of the fortress of Masada, Israel.  (Godot13 Photo)

The castle had been well-stocked with fine furniture, corn and food-stocks including considerable quantities of wine and oil, pulse and dates, all of which were seized by Eleazar and his Sicarii when they took possession of the fortress.  A considerable quantity of weapons was stored in Masada, sufficient to equip 10,000 men.  Herod had ensured that stores of cast iron, brass, and tin were kept on hand for any emergency or occasion in which such supplies would be required.  He had originally assembled this material in case the Jews tried to depose him or he was attacked by Queen Cleopatra of Egypt.  He was well aware of her intentions, having been informed that she had spoken to Mark Antony, and with the request that he cut off Herod, and bestow the kingdom of Judea upon her.  (It was, in fact, a surprise that he didn’t do this, as it is well documented that Antony was “miserably enslaved in his passion for her.”)

Silva found only one place that he could launch his assault against the fortress, and this was a large outcrop of rock sited behind the great tower which secured the road leading up to the palace.  It was positioned some 300’ beneath the highest part of Masada, and was called the White Promontory.  Silva directed his engineers to build a large and embankment of earth some 200’ high.  To the surface of this he added another 50’ high and wide level of stones on which he mounted his siege engines.

The siege engines consisted of similar types which had been devised by the Roman general Vespasian, and afterwards by Titus.  Silva also made use of a 60; high siege tower covered with iron.  From behind this tower, Roman slingers fired stones and darts, which eventually forced many of the defenders to withdraw from the walls or to keep their heads down while the Romans brought a battering ram forward.

The Romans succeeded in damaging the walls with the ram, but the Sicarii quickly constructed another wall inside the first, made of softer materials which absorbed the shock of the ram.  They did this by laying together great wooden beams cut lengthways and piled in two rows parallel to one another out from the first wall and filled with earth.  As the ram pounded the outer walls, the earth on the inner walls was compacted together more tightly, make the walls even more resistant to the ramming.  Silva observed this, and ordered this wall to be set on fire with soldiers flinging burning torches at it.  Unfortunately, a strong north wind blew the great flames back on the Romans and threatened to destroy their siege engines.  Eventually the wind changed direction and carried the flames to the fortress walls leaving the Romans convinced they could take the garrison by storm the following morning.


Silva saw the Romans would eventually succeed in overcoming Masada’s defenses, and understood there could be no escape.  He gave a great speech to the remaining defenders, and proposed that while they had the choice, they should destroy their treasures and goods, and slay themselves rather than be taken prisoner and made slaves of the Romans.  He ordered that the provisions be left intact as a testimonial to prove that they had chosen suicide, not because of want, but because they preferred death to submission and slavery.

Although the decision was debated at length, following Eleazar’s speech the defenders eventually chose to destroy themselves by their own hands.  Men killed their own families, then ten were chosen by lot to kill the rest.  When this had been done, lots were cast again for one who killed the remaining nine, and then ran his sword through himself.  Only one old woman and five children who had hidden themselves in the underground cisterns survived to tell the story of the 960 who died in the mass suicide in the fortress.

The Romans had been preparing for a difficult battle in the morning, and accordingly donned their armor, lad bridges of planks across the siege banks and proceeded carry out their final assault.  They met by nothing but fires and silence inside.  They could not understand what had happened, until the old woman and the five children emerged from their hiding place and informed the Romans of what had taken place.  It is said that the Romans took no pleasure in discovering what had been done to their enemies within the walls of the fortress at Masada, and nor could they do other than wonder at the courage of their resolution, and the immovable contempt of death which so great a number of them had shown by taking such an action.[92]

Huns, Ostrogoths and Visigoths

Gothic War, 535-553 Mons Lactarius.

The period between 232 and 552 AD marked the transition from Roman to Medieval forms of war.  As the struggle between the Germanic tribes and the Roman Empire drew to a close, so did the era of the Roman Empire.  Cavalry had taken supremacy over infantry.  As an example, at the Battle of Adrianople which took place 9 August 378 AD, near Constantinople (modern Istanbul), Valens, Roman emperor of the East led an expedition to punish the Visigoths for actions they had taken in Thrace.  Finding the main Visigoth force near Adrianople without its cavalry, Valens attacked without waiting for reinforcements already on their way from Italy.  Unfortunately, the cavalry then came back and was key in the killing of some 20,000 of the 30,000 Romans, including Valens.  The victory convinced most strategists that cavalry was better than infantry.

Raiding Huns attack a Roman Villa.  (Roche Grosse)

One of the causes of Rome’s final collapse was the sudden invasion of eastern Europe by the Huns, a new race of formidable and highly mobile horsemen, in great numbers and well-armed masters in the use of bow and arrow.  The Huns encountered the Goths, a Nordic Germanic tribe which had left Sweden early in the 3rd century, spreading from Pomerania to the Carpathian Mountain region and from there to the Black Sea.  This movement was part of the Great Migrations during which Franks, Allemani and Burgundians moved into the lands between the Harz mountains and the Danube River.  When the Allemani began to move further westwards, they posed an impressive threat to Gaul.  In August 357 AD they were met and defeated in a battle near Strasbourg by the Emperor Julian.[93]

Ostrogoths entering Rome.

The Goths (Ostrogoths and Visigoths) were the first to be affected by the Huns who inflicted a terrible defeat on them at the Dnieper River in 374 AD.  Forced to seek refuge south of the Danube, the Goths raided the eastern and southeastern borders of the Roman Empire.  Eventually the threat of the Huns forced the Goths to join forces with their former enemies, and for a brief period the Ostrogoths, the Romans and the Germans became allies against the Huns.  Together in 450 AD they faced the Huns on the plain of Châlon, winning a victory over the Huns primarily through the use of heavy horsemen who rode them down.[94]

A painting by Paul Ivanovitz illustrating the “Fury of the Goths.”


Gaul was invaded by a great number of attackers following the fall of the Roman Empire.  These invaders included the Burgundians, Visigoths and Franks in the 4th and 5th centuries, although the Franks ultimately outlasted the other competing tribes and rose to power, founding the ruling dynasty of the Merovingians and later the Carolingians.  In 732, Charles Martel halted the Muslim advances into Gaul at Poitiers.  Pepin III (Pepin the Short, 751-768 AD) deposed the last Merovingian king and became the first Carolingian king of the France, starting the Carolingian Dynasty.  In 755 AD and again in 756 AD, Pepin intervened against invading Lombards on behalf of the Pope, cementing his rule.

Between 768 and 814, Charlemagne founded his great empire centered on France and much of present day Germany.  He empire eventually grew to encompass Germany, Austria, Friesland, Saxony, Bavaria, Italy, the frontier Marches of Spain, Brittany, and Carinthia.  Unfortunately, these great land holdings were divided equally into three kingdoms on Charlemagne’s death, and his successors were unable to successfully govern this far-flung empire.[95]

Charlemagne’s Frankish vanguard fought many battles against the Saxons between 778 and 792.  In spite of his successes, he was soon forced to revive the use of field fortification, learning the hard way that a conquered region could not be allowed an opportunity to begin fresh uprisings when the conquering forces moved on to other territories.[96]  Charlemagne would select a strong natural position and built a “burg” on it, with a palisade and ditch around it.  These early fortifications served as a headquarters for a permanent garrison, and were linked together with roads.[97]  In 762 Charlemagne fortified Fronsac in Saxony, installed a garrison in Sigiburg, and later built a castle in Hohbeck in 789.[98]  There were also several larger and more famous imperial palaces built by Charlemagne called palatinates, such as those at Ingelheim, Nimwegen and Aachen.[99]

Towards the end of his reign, Charlemagne’s forces fought and annihilated the Avars, an Asiatic people who had terrorized Eastern Europe for two centuries.  The Avars had settled along the Danube in “rings,” or great enclosures defended by earthworks, the largest of which has been described as 38 miles in circumference.  The Franks succeeded in capturing their chief ring and eventually destroyed all that was left of the Avars.[100]

9th century Statue of Charlemagne (742-814) in the Louvre, Paris; and statue beside Liege, Cathedral (Jacque Renier Photo)

Byzantine Armies

The centuries of invasion, civil war, and general decay took their fatal toll on the Roman empire of the West.  From the 4th century onward the legacy of Rome was gradually transferred to its eastern capital, Constantinople, where Roman emperors attempted to stem the tide of barbarism and preserve the essence of Roman culture.  By 650 AD the empire of the east was resigned to the loss of the western provinces, and found itself confronted with numerous military threats, especially from Islam, closer to home.  These threats occupied the empire’s attention for the next 800 years, and it is a testimony to Byzantine greatness and skill that the empire survived and prospered for more than a millennium after the collapse of Rome until suffering its final defeat at the hand of Ottoman armies in 1453.  The Western Roman Empire had lasted for 500 years. The Eastern empire (395-1453) endured for over a thousand.

The imposition of Roman administrative machinery upon the Byzantine population in the early years kept the traditions of Roman military science and law intact, and preserved Roman culture and achievement for more than a thousand years until, as Allbutt noted, “Western Europe was once again fit to take care of them.”  Byzantium suffered no period of general degradation and decay like the Middle Ages in Europe and, for the most part, remained the most refined and developed culture in the world until the very end.

Vital to Byzantine survival was the maintenance of its military capability which, as Oman notes, “was, in its day, the most efficient military body in the world.”  Despite many evolutionary changes in details, the Byzantine military machine remained Roman in both its organization and values, and it continued to produce excellent soldiers and commanders long after the Roman legions had disappeared in the West.  The basic administrative and tactical unit of the Byzantine army, for both cavalry and infantry, was the numerus comprised of 300-400 men, the equivalent of the old Roman cohort.  Each numerus was commanded by the equivalent of a colonel.  A division or turma was comprised of five to eight battalions commanded by a general.  Two or three turmae could be combined into a corps commanded by a senior general called a strategos.  The empire was geographically organized into provinces or themes, each of which had a military commander responsible for security with deliberately unclear lines between civil and military administration so as to give priority to military defense.  For more than four centuries the Byzantine army numbered approximately 150,000 men almost evenly split between infantry and heavy cavalry forces.

Military manpower was obtained through universal conscription, but in practice recruiting and stationing military forces within each theme allowed commanders to recruit the best manpower from within each province.  The army attracted the best families for its soldiers, thereby avoiding the fatal mistake of the Western empire which relied heavily upon barbarian soldiers while the best Roman citizens served not at all.  Whereas Rome had relied heavily upon infantry until too late, the Byzantines adjusted to the new forms of highly mobile mounted warfare by relying primarily upon an excellent heavy cavalry of their own.  Byzantine military commanders were quick to adopt a number of weapons and tactics of their enemies, so that as the infantry legion had symbolized the might of Rome, the mounted heavily armored horseman, the cataphracti, came to symbolize the military might of Byzantium.

The organizational infrastructure of the army of Byzantium was every bit as well-organized and efficient as it had been under the old Roman legions.  The army had organic supply and logistics trains comprised of carts and pack animals to speed mobility, excellent siegecraft capabilities to include the full range of Roman artillery and siegecraft specialists, a fully articulated staff organization professionally trained in military academies, and a powerful navy to support ground operations.  The genius of the Romans for military organization was preserved intact in almost all its earlier aspects.[101]

Castles and Fortification

In the 8th to 12th centuries, the science of fortification in Europe was forced to grow out of the necessity to defend against the increasingly predatory raids of the Norse invaders.[102]  The Vikings themselves appear to have understood the necessity for defensive structures.  About the year 808, King Godfred of Denmark may have begun building or strengthened an already existing timber and earth rampart built to defend Denmark’s southern frontier.  Known as the Dannevirke, this defensive system became a complex series of earthworks that continued to be used right up to the time of the Second World War, when it served as a mount for anti-aircraft guns.[103]

When the Danish King Svein Forkbeard, ca. 985-1014, mounted massive raids on England from the 980’s, he had four major fortifications built in Denmark to serve as a staging base and barracks during his reign.[104]  These include one in the shape of a ringfort at Trelleborg in West Zealand, with 16 great wooden halls, two others at Nonnebakken on Funen and at Fyrkat, and a larger site at Aggersborg on the Lim Fjord with 48 houses.[105]  Their first permanent fortress built in the west however, was in Dublin.  In the Netherlands they made Asseult, Louvain, Ghent and Courtrai into fortified sites, which proved very hard to take.  They also built permanent fortifications in the east to guard their trade routes and their great cities of Kiev and Novgorod.[106]

The Storming of Ipswich by the Danes.  Painting by Lorentz Ipplich.

The necessity for defense against invading forces from every direction resulted in the construction of great numbers of fortified manors, castles and strongholds and caused the rise of feudalism.  Feudalism was a social and political system which came into vogue with the death of Charlemagne and disintegration of the Carolingian Empire in the 9th and 10th centuries in Europe, eventually branching out from France and Germany and spreading to Italy, England and Northern Spain.  The origins of feudalism lay in the Low Roman Empire, which led to the proliferation of large estates (called latifundia), and a new class of powerful landowners who became defacto rulers of their fiefs.  Fiefs have their origins in the combination of two institutions, the first being the right to the use of land, and the second vassalage.  The right to land represented the privilege of using it during the lifetime of the individual to whom the right was granted, while vassalage meant the swearing of allegiance and the rendering of services by one man to another in exchange for protection by the overlord.  This agreement of service had a direct bearing on how strong a fortification could be in a crisis.  Those serving the overlord were expected to offer armed service in defense of the overlord’s castle, although this service was limited to forty days a year.  If there was an attack, the people in the surrounding area (known as serfs), took refuge in the castle.[107]

Earth and wood had been the chief construction materials for early castles, but stone fortifications began to appear at the end of the tenth century.  Fulk Nerra the Black built a stone keep in 994, the ruins of which still stand in the park of the Château of Langeais, Indre-et-Loire.  It is the oldest surviving rectangular stone built keep in France.[108]  The earliest known “castle” site is found in Doue-la-Fontain, at Maine-et-Loire also in France, dating from about 950.[109]  These early stone structures were the start of a new evolution in fortification and siege warfare.  From that time onward there was a virtual explosion of castle building, with some 1590 castles sites in England and Wales constructed in the 11th and 12th centuries.[110]

Steinsburg Castle, Sinzheim, Germany, ca. 1350.

When Hildebrand became Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085),  he excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV (1076), whose enemies begin to build castles in Germany at a frenzied pace.  Some 10,000 castles were built in Germany in the Middle Ages, while in France the number is estimated at over 20,000 and in Spain some 2,500 castles still survive.  Even the small countries have a substantial number of medieval fortifications, with Belgium for instance, boasting more than 900.[111]

Construction of a castle was tightly governed and controlled, with only those nobles who pledged allegiance to the key overlord being permitted to erect them.  This same overlord was also entitled to destroy any castle erected without his consent.  Unfortunately, this happened more often than not, and in many cases, the ensuing conflict often led to open warfare and insurrection against the overlords.  In time, the largest of the landholders established a sovereign central power and imposed its authority with an army.  Siegecraft played an important role in this imposition of authority, and therefore the construction of defense works became increasingly sophisticated.

The Vikings in Normandy, (who eventually became the Normans), began to build small stone castles with great attention to detail in their construction in the 10th century.  They used the same basic ground layout as earlier defense-works which consisted of a wall of stakes surrounded by a wide moat, with a multi-storied fortified tower often made of stone and encompassed by a second moat.  Often there was only a single entrance to this tower sighted well above ground level, and accessible only by a ladder or a bridge across the moat.  In 915, for example, the lords of the Luxembourg-Tréveris region covered their mountains with castles, which ranged in location from Esch-sur-Sure to Luxembourg itself.

Plan view of the fortifications of Luxembourg, 1713.

Fortresses were large buildings of fortified enclosures, which tended to house a permanent garrison and were established to defend a particular site and its surroundings.  Kings or highborn princes generally controlled them.  Castles were specifically designated strong buildings, which were strategically sited and easily defended by a small garrison of often exclusively military forces.  Castles were often the residences for the feudal overlords.  A castle would generally have a chapel, barracks for soldiers and officer’s quarters, granaries, a mill, and an oven arranged in the center of a walled or enclosed space.  Open grounds could be used for stables or fenceworks for sheep, cattle and horses, and additional shelters could be included for the use of the overlord’s serfs who were entitled to claim protection.[112]

The fortress of Haut Koenigsbourg, Alsace, Lorraine, France.[113]

Around each fortress would be a constellation of castles, generally sighted within 15 miles, but often within 6 to 9 miles of each other.  Eventually the strength of these positions began to evolve as the feudal overlords attempted to expand their holdings and to assert greater control and authority over their fiefdoms.  By the 14th and 15th centuries, the kings and overlords had seized or established almost complete control of military construction which in turn led to the development of more advanced types of fortification.  Emphasis moved away from the castle as a defensive structure and shifted towards the development of the fortified house and manor.  Communities of citizens began to fortify their villages and towns, which in turn led to the development of more advanced techniques to overcome them.[114]

As fortifications became increasingly more sophisticated and difficult to overcome, more planning and preparation was required to effect a capture.  An assault, therefore, would often begin with an attempt to ambush or surprise and overpower the guards.  If that failed, bribery or trickery would be tried, with every effort made to subvert a garrison before resorting to the formal siege or blockade.

The defenders also had their work cut out for them.  When a siege threatened to be brought upon a castle, the Castellan or Constable had a great deal of responsibility in the form of preparations to be carried out before hostilities began.  All able-bodied men in the district had to be recruited, specifically those men with feudal obligations to defend their overlord’s castle.  Provisions had to be gathered in, and the surrounding countryside as far as possible had to be stripped of anything that could be used by the attackers to subsist.  The scorched earth policy used by the Russians to aid in the defeat of Napoleon’s forces in the early 19th was born in the much earlier era of medieval tactics.  Nearby trees had to be felled and stored inside the castle to deny their use to the enemy for shelter, and to be kept readily available for making running repairs.  Non-combatants would have been expelled unless sufficient provisions could be stored to feed them.  Weaknesses in a castles walls and battlements which had been neglected in peacetime would have to be rapidly repaired or shored up.  Armourers would have to sharpen weapons and service defense equipment to ensure they were in working order.  Scouting parties would be sent out to gather intelligence or to burn standing crops in all directions.  Other workers would be carrying stocks of missiles up to the wall-walk and into the towers, stacking arrows, preparing buckets of pitch and sand to heat or boil.  Water had to be readily available for fire-fighting and to keep the defenders well supplied.  Non-combatants could also be press-ganged into clearing the defensive ditch of brushwood, or to dig entrenchments, throw up earth mounds and build additional obstacles.  Once the final warning came and the attackers were sighted, all moved quickly inside, the drawbridge was raised and the portcullis was lowered.  The garrisoned would man the battlements on the walls and prepare to receive their adversary.  From then on, the siege took its course.[115]

Siege of Acre, 1799.

Siege of Burgos, Sapin, 1812.  (Francois Joseph Heim)

The Spaniards built a great many castles to counter the Muslim threat, but the Muslim armies were superior in the field.  When Alfonso VI, the Valiant of Castile and León  seized Toledo in 1085, the alarmed Muslims called for aid from Yusuf ibn-Tashfin, chief of the Almoravids, the Berber sect that had conquered northwestern Africa.  Ibn-Tashfin landed at Algeciras, west of Gibraltar in 1086 and marched north through Seville and Badajoz.  At Zalaca, he met the army of Christian knights and infantry under Alfonso on 23 October.  The swift Berber horsemen utterly routed the Spanish, who had a marked superiority in numbers but lacked maneuverability and discipline.  King Alfonso barely escaped with his life.

During the next 20 years, ibn-Tashfin ruled with a firm hand all of Spain south of Toledo.  The temporary exception was Valencia, which became an independent Moorish kingdom in 1094 under the Spanish soldier of fortune Rodrigo (Ruy) Díaz de Bivar, the (El) Cid.  The city reverted to Muslim control when the great folk hero was killed by the Almoravids five years later.[116]

Rodrigo (Ruy) Díaz de Bivar, El Cid, as he has been immortalized in Burgos, Spain.

In 1111, Louis VI conducted an attack on the castle of Le Puiset.  According to an account written by Archbishop Suger, after the defenders had been driven inside the castle, an attempt was made to storm the gatehouse of the bailey, and then to set it on fire.  Carts full of wood soaked in fat were pushed up to the walls under a storm of missiles thrown by the garrison.  The defenders managed to extinguish the burning cars, and then repelled an assault across the castle’s ditch and up the rampart.  Eventually, the attackers succeeded in making a breach in the castle’s palisade, thereby forcing the garrison to retreat into the tower on the motte.  Shortly afterwards, the garrison surrendered.  The siege was brief and characterized by hand-to-hand combat.  Both sides used spears, bows, swords and axes.[117]

Early medieval bowmen were equipped with either a short-stringed bow or a crossbow, although crossbows are known to have been in use by the Romans.  William the Conqueror’s army may have used them at the battle of Hastings in 1066, and they were clearly in use by the Crusaders who arrived at Constantinople on the First Crusade in 1096.  The crossbow of this era was described by Anna Comnena as “a weapon of war which had to be stretched lying almost on one’s back.  The feet were pressed against the bow while the string was tugged back towards the body.  In the middle of the string was a groove into which a short, thick, iron-tipped arrow was fitted.  On discharge, such arrows could transfix a shield, cut through a heavy iron breastplate and resume their flight on the other side.”  Anna’s account may be slightly exaggerated, but the crossbow clearly demonstrated it had heavy hitting power.  Improvements were made in later versions wherein the string could be tensioned by levers or ratchets, which permitted them to be armed and used by even the weakest bowman.  Crossbows were considered to be so deadly that at the Lateran Council in 1139,they were banned as inhuman weapons.  The ban had no effect on the users.  The crossbows limitations were its slow rate of fire and the cost of the bolts that it fired.[118]

The defence was assisted from the later years of the 12th century by the introduction of the crossbow.  The traditional English bow was the short-bow, with a range of no more than 600’.  The medieval crossbow derived from the classic ballista. It was a more accurate weapon, with a longer range, and the quarrel which it fired was in all respects more deadly than a simple arrow.  It had been condemned by the Papacy in 1139, but never ceased to be used.  It was adopted in England in the later years of the 12th century. Richard I favored it, and from the time of King John small bands of balistarii, or crossbowmen, were stationed in the more important castles.  The crossbow gave the defence a considerable advantage during the 13th century.  But it’s rate of fire was slow and the archer needed protection while drawing his bow.  Loops facilitated sighting the bow, and the wide internal splay gave the bowman room to handle his weapon.  The crossbow was a remarkably accurate weapon, capable of picking off defenders on the walls and even of shooting a quarrel through a loop and hitting the defender.  Its accuracy and range led to the construction of wooden shutters and bretaches over the tops of castle walls.[119]

The 12th century development of the trebuchet proved to be an effective counter to stone walls although the trebuchet appears to have been a better “mortar” than catapult.[120]  Other weapons were developed, including a form of land mine called a caltrop.  It was constructed from four iron spikes joined to form a tetrahedron so that when thrown on the ground one spike was always face up.  Numerous devices of this kind were strewn on the ground forward of a fortification and posed a serious threat to horses, often disabling them and forcing a rider to dismount.

Logistics were another important consideration.  When an army had eaten a district bare, it was often forced to move on, even though a siege or battle task was only half complete.  Neither friend nor foe was spared the ravages of a hungry army, and as a result, everyone within the sound of an alarm would race to get behind the protective walls of the nearest castle on the appearance of one.  Such conditions speeded up the development of fortification, which in turn shut off the remaining sources of supply.[121]

Large armies would be forced to come to terms with all these advances in siege engines during the Crusades.  They would also learn to develop an adequate logistic train.  The First Crusade launched in 1095 led to the successful siege of Antioch in 1098, and the capture of Jerusalem after a six-week siege on 15 July 1099.  The Crusaders then erected strong fortresses at vulnerable points along the frontier, and made important advances in the art of castle building.[122]  The Muslims were not long in uniting against them, and on 04 July 1187 the Kurdish leader Saladin decisively defeated the armies of the Second Crusade at the battle of Hattin.  He then went on to recapture Jerusalem on 2 Oct 1187.

12th century Crusaders.  Mary Evans Picture Library.

The fall of Jerusalem led Richard I of England, Philip Augustus II of France and the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of Germany to prepare for a vast expedition to the Holy land.  During these preparations, Guy of Lusignan had attempted and failed to capture Jerusalem due to his lack of siege engines.

Frederick’s German force may have been the largest single army ever seen up to that time, and it moved very slowly overland towards the Holy Land.  Unfortunately for the Crusaders, Frederick drowned in Cilicia enroute to the war in 1190, and the German army subsequently melted away.[123]

Crusaders ambushed by the Turks.

Although Philip II was the first to arrive at Acre, it was Richard I who made it his business to assume command in 1191.  Philip’s gunners along with those of the Templars and Hospitallers, had been bombarding Acre by hurling stones from great siege engines, but when Richard arrived, he doubled the barrage, using the trebuchet, a counter-weight operated war engine and ranks of mangonels and catapults, petriers and arbalasts.[124]   His superior siege machines could fling bigger missiles to a greater distance than those already in use.  Even the strongest masonry cracked under such an irresistible pounding.  Most of the renewed attacks on the walls were ineffective, as the defenders discouraged their foes with showers of arrows, stones and burning pitch, and thousands died in the battle.

When Richard fell sick Philip carried on the attack using a massive siege engine called the “Bad Neighbor” to send hammer-blows against the wall of the largest part of Acre’s bastions known as the “Cursed Tower.”  The defenders countered with a similar contraption mounted on the tower, called the “Evil Kinsman” and destroyed the French weapon.  Philip replied with another piece of technology, a new type of scaling ladder equipped with a protective mantelet, but when this failed he ordered another general assault against the walls.

Although the defenders offered to surrender on certain conditions, the attackers continued the siege.  A breach was made in the wall not far from the Cursed Tower, but an assault led by Aubrey Clement, Marshal of France failed to force its way through the gap.  He and all his men were cut down.  Richard by now recovered from his illness, took charge of the final assault in spite of another attempt by the defenders to surrender with conditions.  On 11 July 1191 the Cursed Tower fell.  The English and their Pisan allies hacked their way into the wide breach, only to be driven back by a concentrated downpour of Greek fire.

At this point, Philip negotiated a surrender, although Richard refused to ratify the agreement.  The garrison was allowed to march out provided three conditions were met, which included the return of the true cross, the release of 1500 prisoners and 200 nobles, and the payment of a ransom of 200,000 bezants to Philip and Richard.  Until these conditions were met, the garrison of Acre was held hostage.[125]

Saladin failed to meet the terms of surrender, even though Richard extended the time limit to three months.  Richard subsequently gave orders to “Keep those of rank for ransom.  Keep the strong for sale into slavery.  Kill the rest.”  2,700 were executed, leading Saladin to reply with equally harsh counter-measures.[126]  Terrorism would be a key weapon in future sieges, and add its morally devastating effect to the list of standard practices in siegecraft.  We see its effects even now in the atrocities being perpetrated in Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Haiti, and of course by the Osama bin Laden minions of Al Qaeda.

It has been said that the Crusaders brought back to Europe techniques, which had wide effects on castle building in the 12th century.[127]  T.E. Lawrence disputed this however, after he had examined the castles of Syria and Palestine in 1909.  He had attempted to determine the influence of the Crusades on European military architecture to the end of the 12th century, and came to doubt the traditional view that the Crusaders drew their excellence in castle building from the East.  He stated that “there is no evidence that Richard borrowed anything great or small, from any fortress he saw in the Holy Land, and that it was not likely that he would do so, since he would find better examples of everything in the South of France, which he knew so well.”[128]  He summed up his observations by saying that “the Crusading architects were for many years copyists of the Western builders.”  Lawrence did acknowledge however, the possibility of mutual influence and the transfer of trifling detail, because of the constant interchange among the East-West upper classes.[129]

When Lawrence produced his thesis on “The Crusading Castles of Syria” in 1910, he wrote, “the aim in the mind of every architect...was to find such a site for his buildings that the waste and weakness of equal accessibility on all sides might be avoided; then he could multiply defenses on the one weak face alone.”[130]

This meant the attacking commander had his work cut out for him once he decided to conduct an attack or siege.  His first duty was to ensure that he had enough troops to adequately surround the fortification he intended to assault, in order to prevent supplies and reinforcements from gaining access to the garrison inside.  If a relieving forces was likely to arrive on the scene, he would have to fortify his own camp by digging lines of trenches, ditches, ramparts and possibly his own fortresses much as Caesar did in his battle with the Gauls at Alesia.  In effect, it might have been necessary to build a fortress in order to besiege a fortress.  On one side, these defense-works would face the castle under siege with the primary intent being to counter sallies by the defending garrison, while the rear of the system being erected would face the open country to protect the attacker against a relieving field army.  If the relieving force did arrive before the siege was complete, the roles could be reversed, with the besieger finding his forces besieged in his own entrenched camp.  Completing an assault with all possible speed became extremely important where relieving forces could be called upon to alter the circumstances of the attack.[131]

Of the methods of attack available, escalade was the quickest and simplest, but carried with it the greatest risks in terms of potential troop losses.  Numerous scaling ladders would be thrown up simultaneously, often with well-armed troops already perched on the top, while archers kept up covering fire over the top of the climbing troops to keep some of the defenders heads down.  The intrepid climbers would be subjected to a wide variety of deadly devices designed to repel them.  Quicklime and boiling liquids such as oil or lead would be poured on them, along with red-hot sand or various heavy objects such as iron bars, bricks, or rocks.  Red-hot sand was particularly effective against attackers wearing armor or chain-mail, as it got inside the joints and incapacitated or at least made the victim very uncomfortable.  If the scaler fell or was thrown from the ladder into the ditch, his ordeal could get worse.  At least one unfortunate knight who found himself in this position had brushwood dropped onto him, which was then set on fire, roasting him alive in his armor.  Ladder and scaling assaults were most effective when conducted as part of a surprise night attack, or against a lightly held part of the defenses in conjunction with a diversionary assault.[132]

Siege of the Castle of Schwanau in Alsace, 1333.

Trebuchets were used to destroy countless numbers of castles in medieval Germany until few remained that had not been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times, with the possible exception of the Marksburg Castle on the north bank of the Rhine River overlooking the town of Braubach.  The Marksburg was first mentioned in 1231, and was the only Rhine castle to escape capture in the Thirty Years War.[133]  It also achieved the remarkable success of being the only fortress of over 500 in the Rhineland-Pfalz area of present-day Germany to withstand all sieges against it between the 14th and 18th centuries.[134]  (For this reason, a photograph of the castle graces the cover of this book).

Marksburg Castle on the Rhine River, Germany.

The French forces of the north that carried out the Albigensian Crusade in the south of France were very well equipped with siege catapults, and used them to effectively reduce the Cathar fortresses high in the Pyrenees.[135]

Catapults and ballistae were eventually replaced with cannon.  Artillery was used at Rouen in 1338, and at Florence in 1326.  In 1356 the Black Prince of England used artillery at the siege of Romorantin to set the town on fire and forced it to capitulate.  As will be shown, the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 was a direct result of the decisive use of gunfire.[136]

Medieval cannon.

Weather and the forces of nature have a major role to play in any battle, as any intelligence officer will attest to.  The massive eight and a half mile long stone walls of the city of Nineveh fell in 612 BC, because of the incessant rains that caused Tigris River to overflow and batter them down.[137]


 (Photo courtesy of Harry) (Photo courtesy of Jean-Paul Grandmont) (Photo courtesy of Jean-Pierre Lavoie)

 (Photo courtesy of bmsgator)

The walled city of Carcassonne in the southeast of France came under siege in the autumn of 1240.[138]  One account exists of this siege:

“The attackers began a mine against the barbican gate of Narbonne.  And forthwith, we, having heard the noise of their work underground, made a counter-mine, and constructed a great and strong wall of stones laid without mortars in the inside of the barbican, so that we thereby retained full half of the barbican.  When they set fire to the hole in such wise that the wood having burned out, a portion of the barbican fell down!  The outer defense line, the barbican of Carcassonne, was then still constructed of wood.

They then began to mine against another turret of the lices; we counter-mined, and got possession of the hole which they had excavated.  They therefore began to tunnel a mine between us and a certain wall and destroyed two embrasures of the lices.  But we set up there a good and strong palisade between us and them.

They also started a mine at the angle of the town wall, near the bishop’s palace, and by dint of digging from a great way off arrived at a certain Saracen wall, by the wall of the lices; but at once, when he detected it, we made a good and strong palisade between us and them, higher up the lices, and counter-mined.  Thereupon they fired their mine and flung down some ten fathoms of our embrassured front.  But we made hastily another good palisade with a brattice upon it and loopholes; so none among them dared to come near us in that quarter.

They also began a mine against the barbican of the Rodez Gate, and kept below ground, wishing to arrive at our walls, making a marvelous great tunnel.  But when we perceived it we forthwith made a palisade on one side and the other of it.  We counter-mined also, and, having fallen in with them, carried the chamber of their mine.[139]

The present day walled city of Carcassone.  (Christopher Eyquonem Photo)

Both sides in a siege could make use of fire.  Many parts of a castle were made of wood, particularly in the inner courtyard or “bailey.”  These wooden buildings often housed provisions and other stores, and their destruction could greatly reduce a defender’s long-term ability to resist.  Wooden hoardings were also vulnerable, unless they were protected by hides.  The defenders, on the other hand, would try to ignite the besieger’s equipment, either by throwing burning material on them or by sallying out on horseback with torches in hand.[140]

Mining played a major role in the methods used to gain entry to a castle.  It was time-consuming and required skill and perseverance.  The technique involved the excavation of a cavity under a part of the wall, generally at the angle of a tower.  Timber props would be used to shore up the tunnel created, and the space was then filled with combustible material (fat pigs were used to undermine the castle at Rochester, England in 1216).  The props and material would be consumed in the fire, causing the masonry above to collapse and hopefully creating a breach sufficient for the attacker to assault through.  According to Herodotus, such mining techniques were in use at the siege of Barca in 510 BC.  Mining became more difficult with the introduction of round towers and plinths.  If mining activities against a castle under siege were detected, the defending garrison could countermine by digging their own tunnel to break in on the enemy excavators.  Once they had opened a breach in the attackers mine, hand-to-hand combat with shovels and picks would follow.  Alternatively, the defenders could flood the tunnel with water, or smoke them out with fire, provided the wind was right.[141]

The technology required to wage war often led to the development of innovative “secret” weapons.  Some time prior to the 5th century BC, the defenses of Delium for example, fell to fire propelled through a kind of gigantic blowpipe.  The secret of Greek fire was as jealously guarded by the Byzantines as are our technological weapons are today.  To this day the exact composition of this terror weapon remains a mystery.  It was a liquid, could be blown from a tube, would burn on water, and even stone and iron could not resist it.  It could be extinguished only by sand, vinegar or urine.  The ancient Greeks used mixtures of pitch, resin and sulphur, and the Romans used quicklime and sulphur (which ignited on contact with water).

Even biological warfare is not new.  Hannibal, when in command of a Hellenic fleet, sent his sailors on shore to collect poisonous snakes alive.  These he enclosed in fragile jars and propelled them into the enemy ships.[142]  Beehives and dead horses would also be launched into a fortification.[143]

The invention of the torsion catapult and its variants added to an army’s capability for assaulting a city.  With this technological advance in weaponry, it became possible to provide a longer-range, more intensive barrage, which would keep down the heads of the besieged at the moment of assault, and break down the parapets, which sheltered them.  The various projectile-throwing weapons, operating by springs, thongs, counterpoised weights and twisted ropes, remained in use up to and during the 15th century.  They reached the peak of their technological development however as early as 200 BC, when mathematical formulae were devised to relate power to size.  Their use then entered a period of stagnation until about 1050, when both the Christian and Muslim world reintroduced the machines into warfare, sometimes on a massive scale running into hundreds of units.[144]

Because of their complexity and the skill required to operate the various siege engines, engineers and the gunners used to man them had begun to take up an increasing percentage of an attacker’s force.  Mercenaries were usually hired for this work.  The mercenaries equipped themselves, which was an important factor when a “contractor” had to calculate the expense of construction and the operation of costly items of siege equipment.[145]

Counter-siegecraft had to be developed for the purposes of self-preservation.  Defenders hurled down siege ladders along with the attackers climbing up on them, or poured boiling oil, lead or pitch on their heads (as graphically depicted in the “Lord of the Rings” book and film trilogy).  Sometimes grappling irons would be lowered from the top of the wall to hook the men from the ladders before dropping them into the ditch.  Alternatively, if the attacking soldiers approached on the tops of siege towers, showers of arrows and flaming torches discouraged them.[146]

It was Philip II of Macedon who first organized a special group of artillery engineers within his army to design and build catapults.  Philip’s use of siegecraft allowed Greek science and engineering an opportunity to contribute to the art of war, and by the time of Demetrios I (305 BC), known more commonly by his nickname “Poliocretes” (the Besieger), Greek inventiveness in military engineering was probably the best in the ancient world.  Alexander’s engineers contributed a number of new ideas.  In honor of the Greek contributions, to this day the military art of siege warfare is called “poliocretics.”

The most important contribution of Greek military engineering of this period was the invention of artillery, the earliest of which took the form of catapults and torsion-fired missiles.  The earliest examples date from the 4th century BC and were called gastraphetes, literally, “belly shooter.”  It was a form of primitive crossbow that fired a wooden bolt on a flat trajectory along a slot in the aiming rod.  Later, weapons fired by torsion bars powered by horsehair and ox tendon (the Greeks called this material neuron ) springs could fire arrows, stones, and pots of burning pitch along a parabolic arc.  Some of these machines were quite large and mounted on wheels to improve tactical mobility and deployment.  One of these machines, the palintonon, could fire an 8-lb stone over 300 yards, a range greater than that of a Napoleonic cannon.  These weapons were all used by Philip as weapons of siege warfare, but it was Alexander who used them in a completely different way, as covering artillery.  Alexander’s army carried prefabricated catapults that weighed only 85 pounds.  Larger machines were dismantled and carried along in wagons.[147]

Château Gaillard 

Richard Coeur de Lion’s career dramatizes the military trends and siege methods of his day.  When he returned from the Crusades he began to apply the principles he had learned to castles he built in France.  It has also been said that Syrian workmen were imported to build his most famous castle, the Château Gaillard.[148]

Château Gaillard, one of Europe’s earliest examples of rounded keeps and concentric fortifications and sighted to dominate Rouen in Normandy, was besieged in 1203-4 by Philip II.  The siege of this famous Château come about as a result of the long struggle between the Angevin and Capetian kings in the 12th century.  The rivalry was brought to a head when Richard built Château Gaillard in order to compensate for the loss of Gisors, which had been ceded to Philip by the Treaty of Issoudun in 1195.[149]

Chateau Gisors.

When Richard built the stronghold in 1197 he introduced the design of outer wards and foreworks beyond the main walls.  The castle had a strong keep and occupied a well chosen strategic position on a steep height defending Rouen, the capital of Normandy, from every direction.  The outer defenses included a bridgehead covering the Seine.

Although Richard believed his fortress was impregnable, he never had the chance to prove it, as he was mortally wounded by a crossbow shot in 1199 during a minor siege at Chalus.  The defense of the Château therefore fell to Richard’s brother John, who was no match for Philip.[150]

In August 1203 Philip brought a great army with him, to lay siege to Château Gaillard as the first stage in his conquest of Normandy.  Philip gained an almost immediate success in destroying Richard’s elaborate system of defenses across the Seine.  Strong swimmers broke up a palisade built across the river, and a fort on the island was taken.  Another swimmer who had carried a sealed pot of coals managed to burn down a wooden stockade around the township of Les Andelys.  The unfortunate citizens fled into the castle.  The only offensive by John’s forces was a night attack, which failed miserably.  In September, Philip built double lines of circumvallation and sat down to wait.

The garrison of Château Gaillard was capably commanded by constable Roger de Lacy, with 40 knights, 200 foot sergeants, and about 60 engineers and crossbowmen.  Hundreds of refugees however, had fled to the shelter of the castle on the approach of the French forces.  To save his supplies, de Lacy expelled many who were allowed to pass through the French lines.  A second wave of about 400 were not, however, allowed to pass through by the French, who hoped de Lacy would take them back.  De Lacy refused to do so, and these unfortunate people had to spend the winter outside the castle, in between the warring factions and in danger of missiles from both sides.  When Philip finally relented and let them through, it was too late for most of them, as they died of the effects of starvation and exposure.  The blockade went on for six months.

By February 1204 the French towers and siege-engines were ready and the assault began.  Ground was leveled and materials were brought up to fill in the castles protective ditch.  Catapults and siege towers were constructed on site, and hurried into action.  Both sides employed picked marksmen.  The first success, however, went to the miners.  While working under the cover of mantelets for protection, they picked holes in the foundation of the curtain wall of the outer bailie, and set fire to wooden props, which caused the wall to collapse.  The defenders burned everything behind them and retreated to the next obstacle.  This was a 30’ deep ditch forward of the inner bailie, whose walls rose flush from the ditch and gave no purchase for the miners.

The siege would have dragged on for some time, but a small group of Philip’s soldiers suddenly noticed that a latrine shaft was open on the west side of the castle just below an unbarred window of the castle chapel.  One man managed to crawl up the drain of the privy, entered the chapel, and reached the window through which he pulled up other soldiers.  There they raised an uproar, which made the defenders believe a great many of them had gained entrance.  In the ensuing confusion they managed to get to the drawbridge and let it down.  The defenders failed in an attempt to smoke them out, panicked, and fled to the safety of the inner bailie.  The paradox is that it was John who had added the chapel, and had thus introduced a weakness into Richard’s design.[151]

Siege engines made no impression on the walls of the inner bailie, which had an odd scalloped design that made it particularly difficult for the miners to attack.  There was however, one place under a stone bridge, which afforded them some protection.  Philip brought in a great catapult named Cabalus to reinforce their efforts.  The defenders made a brave attempt at counter-mining but their efforts only weakened the wall further without driving off the attackers.  There was a huge fall of masonry and the defenders, not even bothering to retreat to the keep, tried to flee by a postern gate where they were met and forced to surrender.

The unusual strength of Philip’s army, and the length of the winter siege were the important factors in the castles fall, rather than the design of the fortress.  It would not have fallen if adequate steps had been taken for its relief.[152]  The seizure of Normandy rapidly followed the fall of Château Gaillard, and Philip Augustus eventually gained the Angevin Empire.[153]

Mural of seige warfare Genghis Khan Exhibit, Tech Museum, San Jose.  (Bill Taroli Photo)

In the 13th century, the Mongols invaded Europe.[154]  They had developed a cold and efficient method of siegecraft based on their extensive battlefield experience.[155]  Their system made use of secret agents who took advantage of cowardice or treachery.  If they failed, the next step was a blockade and bombardment by their war engines, whose essential parts were carried on packhorses.  Finally, if a city could not be betrayed, battered or starved into submission, a continuous day and night attack was carried on by troops serving in relays.[156]

The Mongols themselves had no illusions as to their own invincibility, and their primary interest was in plunder.  The wooden castles and log palisades of Russia, Poland and Hungary offered few difficulties for them, but the remainder of Europe was principally a terrain of forests and mountains, of miserable roads and massive stone fortifications.  The invaders, it appears, prudently took note of these obstacles, and decided not to venture outside their own tactical element.[157]

Polish soldiers, 1674-1696.

Simple handguns first began to appear in the second quarter of the 14th century, in the form of short tubes of brass or iron closed at one end.  Near the closed end, the breech was pierced by a small hole through which the charge could be fired with a piece of burning slow-match or tinder.  This barrel could be fixed to the end of a wooden staff and aimed rather roughly, by tucking it under the arm, or by supporting it on a rest.  In either case, the rear end of the staff could be stuck into the ground to take the recoil.[158]

Handguns were reportedly in use at the Battle of Crécy in 1346, and again at Agincourt in 1415, but without noticeable effect or influence on the outcome of either battle.[159]  In 1521 France’s Francis I went to war with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, making use of guns with six-foot long barrels and one-inch bores.  The French infantry used these long-barreled firearms to rake the parapets of Charles’ castles, forcing the defenders to take cover.

Hand-held cannon

The manufacture of firearms and cannon was an expensive business.  In most cases, only kings or powerful overlords with considerable financial resources at hand could afford to have them made in numbers substantial enough to make a difference in a major siege or battle.  Once they did have them, however, the effects could be devastating.  In 1494, France’s Charles VIII invaded Italy, bringing with him a siege train that included 40 bronze cannon with barrels eight feet long.  These guns were easily elevated or depressed because they moved on two prongs or trunions placed just forward of the barrel’s balancing point.  Except for the heaviest, these cannon were easily moved by lifting the trail of the gun mount and shifting it to one side or the other.  They fired iron balls at ranges equal to those of earlier cannon that were three times their caliber.  Charles guns were transported on carriages that increased their ease of mobility.  His cannon struck the Italian fortresses with an effect that resembled German Blitzkrieg warfare of the Second World War.  The Italian fortress of San Giovanni had once been besieged for seven years.  The French gunners destroyed it in eight hours and then slaughtered the defending garrison.  The era of the long siege was closing, but would never be completely eliminated.

To counter the increase in firepower, new designs in fortification were developed.  Squared castle designs gave way to the lower silhouette of the square fort with corner bastions which were constructed to support a pro-active defense.  The post-gunpowder era fortresses had to have walls thick enough to absorb cannon fire, and sloped enough to counter scaling.  The bastions had to be sited to ensure there was no dead ground where an attacker go undermine the wall or otherwise get close to it unobserved.  Inventive minds did not necessarily restrict themselves to designing fortresses using only increased stonework.  Vauban and other fortress designers incorporated log and earthwork components into their outer walls to absorb cannon fire.  When the Spanish attacked the fortress at Santhia in 1555, its multi-layered and reinforced earth walls reportedly absorbed some 6,300 artillery rounds over three days with suffering major damage.  This put the onus back on the designer of siege weapons to develop new tactics, or to increase the capability of his cannon and firearms.

Japanese matchlock sighting instructions for indirect fire.

The increase in the availability of technologically advanced weapons played a major role in this change, and as will be shown in the following chapter, at the siege of Orleans, gunpowder took a leading part.


The ancient city of Orleans on the Loire had withstood many assaults since the days of the Romans, including an attempt by Attila’s Huns in 451.[160]  It came under siege during the Hundred Years War (1339-1453) when the French were trying to drive out the English forces.  Orleans was protected by walls six feet thick, which rose from 13 to 33 feet above the moat, while five gates and 34 towers completed a system of outer defenses topped by stone battlements and parapets.  In addition to war engines of all sorts, the city had provided itself with 70 mortars, bombards and culverins.  This may have been one of the most impressive concentrations of artillery ever seen in the Middle Ages, since many of the pieces were borrowed from other towns.

A strong garrison manned the city when an English army of about 4,000 appeared in October 1428, with a siege train of mortars and bombards drawn by oxen.  The first act of the assailants was to conscript the labor of the district to build two huge stone and wood bulwarks.  These would be used later to storm the walls of the city.

During the siege, the town’s normal population of 15,000 swelled to 40,000 people, most of them men-at-arms or refugees from outlying regions.  Tempers were worn thin by overcrowding, and constant friction occurred between the townsmen and soldiers.  Despite a gross lack of sanitary precautions, Orleans managed to escape the usual epidemic.  The English blockade could not prevent merchants from entering the gates with grain, cattle and gunpowder.  This in fact put the besiegers in a worse position than the defenders, since they did not have adequate food and supplies.

The women and children were tasked with the manufacture of the thousands of darts and crossbow bolts that were shot from the battlements.  Twelve master gunners, with many apprentices and laborers to do their bidding, served the myriad instruments of destruction employed by the city.  For their part, the English managed several times to launch large stone balls weighing 150 pounds into the city, causing considerable destruction.

Despite such exceptions, the artillery of 1429, while potent against smaller strongholds, had not yet become a threat to walled cities of any strength.  Attrition was the only result of the seven-month gunnery duel at Orleans.  From the beginning of the battle, the material advantage had been on the side of the defenders, who were superior in numbers, guns and supplies.  Orleans might still have fallen due to low morale, were it not for the appearance of Joan of Arc.[161]  Her very innocence of military affairs proved an incentive to burghers who distrusted their own men-at-arms.  They rallied behind her and stormed by sheer weight of numbers the two English bulwarks commanding the walls.  After severe losses, the invaders lifted the siege in May 1429, and retreated in the conviction that they had been overcome by sorcery.[162]  Joan was eventually captured by Burgundians and sold to the English.[163]  She was put on trial and burnt at the stake in Rouen.[164]

Although the siege of Orleans was not successful, the use of gunpowder was to set the tone for most of the sieges that followed.  The Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) saw many sieges involving firearms.[165]  During the Hussite Wars (1419-1436) the Hussites adopted a distinguishing feature of battle in their employment of the wagon-fort as the unit of tactics.  These wagon-forts could more accurately be described as an armored car pierced with loopholes for crossbows and handguns.  Twenty warriors were attached to each unit, half of them pikemen who manned the gaps between vehicles to guard against cavalry assault.  In line of battle, a ditch protected the front of wagon-forts linked by chains, though both drivers and horses were also trained for offensive maneuver.  Contemporaries have left a legend of complex movements executed at a gallop, but the results indicate that mobility was not sacrificed with the use of the heavy iron cover on the cars.

The handgun was most effective, and the Bohemian leader Ján Zizka armed one third of his infantry with this weapon. Here, the mobility of the wagon-fort had its tactical effect, since the rolling fortresses permitted cool and deliberate aim by sheltered men firing from a rest.  Ziska was also the first to maneuver with artillery in the field, using heavy bombards of medium calibre.  All of his cannon were mounted on four-wheeled carts which could be brought up into the gaps between wagon-forts for a concentration of fire upon any part of the enemy’s line.  Stone balls weighing upwards of 100 pounds were thus sent with deadly effect into massed squadrons of feudal cavalry.  In 14 years, Ziska’s tactics had won at least 50 battles, while accounting for the sack of 500 walled towns or monasteries, all without suffering a single noteworthy defeat.[166]

The armies of France were not slow to perceive the possibilities of artillery firepower, and the gun founders of the country soon led in creative experiment.  In 1494, Charles VIII of France invaded Italy with a siege train that included 40 bronze cannon with barrels eight feet long, mounted on carriages to increase their mobility.  These guns were used to destroy the fortress of San Giovanni, once besieged for seven years, in only eight hours.[167]  The first significant effect of firearms then, was not to increase firepower on the battlefields, but to destroy the immunity of fortresses.[168]

Gunpowder may have originated in China where it was used in the production of fireworks, but the Europeans appear to have been the first to make use of it in firearms, as this is where the Chinese imported them from during the 1400s.  The English Franciscan monk Roger Bacon described a formula for gunpowder in the early 14th century, which consisted of “seven parts saltpeter, five of young Hazelwood (charcoal), and five of sulphur.”  It proved to be effective, for when this compound of traditional black powder is ignited, it expands to 4000 times its volume in a very short period of time.  Small arms (firearms used by a single soldier) possibly came into use by 1284.  By 1326, the city of Florence was paying for the construction of cannon and the manufacture of gunpowder.  In 1331, cannon were used at the siege of Cividale in Italy, and by 1339, the first cast guns were being made. These guns were initially cast using the same techniques used to cast church bells.  Artillery weapons were cast with bronze, a material with a low melting point and considerable toughness.[169]

Advances in the technique and use of the weight, power and destructive capability of artillery quickly led to the development of stronger and more effective fortifications.  Most of the early works were Italian.  Artists such as the Sangallo family working out of Rome, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo brought their fertile imaginations to fortress design.  In Germany, the painter and printmaker Albrecht Durer contributed new designs.  These designs in turn pointed the way towards the development of the military engineer as a specialist in his own right.[170]  Engineering however, would not save the city of Constantinople in 1453 as we shall see in the next chapter.


Constantinople had been heavily fortified since the sixth century with a strong system of triple walls, augmented with a moat 60 feet wide and 20 feet deep.  The moat could be filled with water, which was piped from distant hills, although it was generally used as a dry ditch.  Behind the scarp, a battlemented wall six feet high was constructed to provide cover for archers.  Sixty feet behind this obstacle rose another wall 27 feet high, which was studded with 96 towers, which projected over the wall in such a manner that they were able to permit flanking fire.  These towers were spaced 180 feet apart, and varied in height from 30 to 35 feet above the wall.

The third great wall was connected to the second by a covered way.  This allowed the safe passage of troops, was 30 feet high and nearly as thick, and had a rear drop of 40 feet to the level of the city.  Protruding from this barrier was another system of 96 towers, which in turn were twice the height of the second wall, and laid out in a checkerboard fashion along the wall.[171]

In spite of their strength, the walls fell to the armies of the Fourth Crusade.  The defending garrison beat off wave after wave of attackers, but the Crusaders made good use of the torch.  Advancing behind the flames, they had barely secured a foothold, when the Varangian Guards, the best troops of the city, chose this moment to demand arrears in pay.[172]  With added to the fire, the morale of the defenders collapsed and Constantinople fell on 7 April 1203.[173]

The defenses of Constantinople survived, but in 1453 there was only a small garrison of troops to defend the city when a Turkish army arrived to take it. Constantinople was defended by 7000 troops under (Giovanni) Giustiiniani.  The Turks dragged 70 light ships one mile overland to by pass a heavy iron chain across the Golden Horn, completely blockading the city.  On 18 Apr 1453 Turkish Sultan Mohammed II (Mehmet II) began to use 70 cannon and 80,000 troops to besiege and capture the city of Constantinople, which he succeeded in doing after a series of attacks on 7,12,and 21 May 1453.  The Major assault came on 29 May when 12,000 Jannisary Infantry stormed the gates.  A key role was played by the artillery.

The siege resolved itself into a contest between the new weapons of gunpowder and Europe’s mightiest system of fortifications.  Even in their decline, the walls were more formidable than any masonry yet conquered by cannon, although the Turks brought a siege train of 70 pieces which also merited comment.  One of their enormous weapons was a bombard named Basilica.  Drawn by 60 oxen, it fired a stone ball weighing 800 pounds.  This monster cracked after a few days, but eleven other bombards continued to send projectiles crashing into the outer works.  At first the Turkish artillery made the mistake of firing at random, hoping to make a few lucky hits.  It initially appeared that the defenses might resist this hammering, but the repeated battering by the weighty stone balls eventually shook the defenses and even breached them in places.  As they gained experience, the besiegers learned how to direct their fire more efficiently, and to concentrate their cannon fire against a previously selected section of the wall.[174] 

After 40 days four towers were leveled and so many breaches had been opened that a general land and sea assault succeeded in a few hours.  The fall of Constantinople proved that the mightiest walls were no longer safe against gunpowder.[175]  (Constantinople was renamed Istanbul in 1930).

The evolution forced military architects to design defenses that were dug in for protection instead of building upward to create targets.[176]  Defenses had to be made strong enough to withstand not only the battering of an enemy’s cannon, but allow adequate support for the mounting of bigger and better forms of artillery on the battlements of the defender.

The Turkish Sultan Suleiman the magnificent appeared with a large army before Shabetz in 1521 and carried the walls by storm.   Marching 40 miles east, where Belgrade commanded the junction of the rivers Danube and Save, the Muslims bridged the latter and cut the great fortress off from supplies or reinforcements.  Belgrade, like Shabetz, was woefully undermanned, and the Turkish sappers created breaches by means of gunpowder mines.  The inevitable surrender, after a resistance of a few weeks, found only 400 able-bodied defenders in the citadel.

For the next few years, Suleiman turned to developing a Muslim navy, with the intention of seizing control of the Mediterranean Sea.  His next expedition was against Rhodes, the last great outpost of Christendom in the Aegean, and reputedly the world’s strongest fortress.

Rhodes and Malta  

In 1522 the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent prepared an expedition against Rhodes, the last great outpost of Christendom in the Aegean, and reputedly the world’s strongest fortress.[177]  The Knights Hospitallers, as masters of Rhodes, had incorporated all of the leading improvements in defense-works into their fortress, at an enormous expenditure in time and money.  Suleiman, however, crossed from the Asiatic shore with a great artillery train and an army of 150,000, which included a host of sappers from the mines of the Balkans.  The siege of Rhodes was conducted throughout the summer and autumn of 1522, and proceeded to clearly prove the superiority of the new fortifications over the most powerful offensive of its time.  Although the invaders brought huge mortars firing stone cannon balls, the bastion stood firm and returned a cannonade, which caused frightful losses among the assailants.  The Turks excavated 54 gunpowder mines without gaining a permanent lodgment, being frustrated in most instances by countermines.  In desperation, Suleiman made several attempts to carry Rhodes by storm, but few of his troops were able to penetrate beyond the shot-swept glacis and ditch.

Bombard-Mortar of the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, Rhodes, 1480-1500.  (PHGCOM Photo)

The fortress might have held out indefinitely except for a dire shortage of gunpowder, which in the end caused the Knights to accept the remarkably easy terms of victors whose losses were estimated as high as 60,000 slain.  Ottoman sea power rather than siegecraft deserved the credit however, since neither Venice nor any other Christian state chose to risk a naval encounter with the blockading galleys.[178]

Although the Knights had lost the Fortress of Rhodes, when Suleiman decided to attack them again in their new stronghold on Malta in 1565, they were better prepared.[179] 

The island of Malta had command of the East-West trade routes and its strategic position could not be ignored.  Once it was in Turkish hands, Suleiman could use the island as a base from which he could conquer Sicily and Southern Italy.  A seaborne invasion was launched in the spring of 1565.[180]


The island had little to offer except for a good harbor, and much construction would be needed to build up its defenses.  Although the capital, Medina, was initially poorly protected, the Fort St Angelo at the tip of the Birgu peninsula was strengthened as were the fortifications at Birgu where the order had its headquarters.  Fort St Michael was built at the neck of the Senglea Peninsula, and on the sea point of Mount Sciberras construction was started on the star-shaped Fort St Elmo.[181]

The Grand Master of the Order, Jean Parisot de la Valette had made it his business to improve the island’s defenses and developed it into a powerful fortress.  La Valette had fought at Rhodes and learned much from his many experiences in battle.  He made good use of natural and artificial obstacles, repaired old watchtowers, enlarged ramparts, strengthened walls, and deepened ditches.  La Valette realized that he could count on little in the way of aid, and set up his command to be as self-sufficient as possible.  He was left to defend the island with a force of about 600 Knights and some 8500 soldiers including 3000 Maltese regulars who fought well.

Preparing for the forthcoming siege, foodstuffs were stored away, weapons and firebombs were made and training was stepped up.  La Valette prepared his plans and eliminated any weaknesses in the island’s defenses, for he knew full well that if Malta fell, the Order was finished.  The steel clad Knights carried a heavy two-handed sword and had an assortment of weapons that included pikes, spears, arquebuses, muskets and a variety of fireworks that included a combustible pot used like a grenade/flame-thrower.  They used a refined form of Greek fire in a device called a trump, as well as specially prepared flaming hoops.  These were particularly deadly, for they could encircle three or four Janissaries at a time and set alight their voluminous robes with unquenchable flame.  In the matter of cannon however, the Turks had the advantage in numbers and weight.[182]

The Turks assembled a huge armada of 181 vessels to transport the invasion army to Malta, and set off with troops well furnished with personal weapons, equipment and rations, and had been well briefed that they would find neither houses for shelter, nor earth, nor wood and would not be living off the land.  Both sides appear to have had good intelligence on the ground and the coming battle.

Lookouts spotted the Turkish fleet and fired cannon shots to warn the Knights.  Over 30,000 Turkish troops landed, including 6,300 Janissaries and 6,000 Spahis (who were expert bowmen), far too many for La Valette to counter attack with his force of 9000.  He instead withdrew to the strongpoints and fortifications he had already prepared.

The command of the Turkish force was split, with the army commanded by Mustapha Pasha who had also fought at Rhodes, and the fleet commanded by Piali.  They had a vast quantity of stores with them in a transport fleet, including food, powder, shot, tents and clothing, as well as a number of horses to drag the heavy guns.  It was a well-executed logistic undertaking.[183]

The initial Turkish attacks against the strongpoints were thrown back with significant losses to the Turks.  Two fortified islands at the entrance to the harbor, St Elmo and St Angelo, were now targeted for assault.  50 Knights and 500 men garrisoned St Angelo.  St Elmo was a well-defended old-fashioned star fortress on a rocky headland, defended by some 53 knights and 800 soldiers.  On 31 May the Turks had 24 guns aligned against the front of St Elmo, and shelled the fort for days, but suffered heavy losses while pressing home the attack.  Pounded by a hail of stone, marble and iron cannon-balls, the walls of St Elmo began to crack.  In desperation the garrison sortied out and inflicted huge casualties on the panic stricken Turks.  The Janissaries of Mustapha Pasha checked their retreat and the attack was renewed.

More Turkish ships arrived with another 1500 soldiers under the command of Dragut, the Governor of Tripoli.  He redirected the efforts against the walls of St Elmo and effected breaches in several places.  Exhausted as the defenders were, however, they still managed to beat off a scaling party, driving the Turks back with musket shots, stone blocks, boiling pitch and Greek fire.  Wave after wave of Janissaries were cut down by the defenders.  After losing nearly 2000 men, Mustapha called off the first attack.  A second attack was put in at night, leaving another 1500 Turks dead or dying just outside the fort, for the loss of only 60 defenders.  Six days later the Turks tried again, after a prolonged bombardment.  Fighting back with firebombs and incendiaries, the invaders were again thrown back with tremendous casualties, to the loss of 10 Knights and 73 soldiers for the defenders.

Dragut was killed on 18 June, but the fortress of St Elmo finally fell on 23 June.  Although the crescent flag of Islam finally flew over the fort, the victory gave them little joy.  For every one of the 1500 Christian casualties, the Turks lost seven.  The only survivors of St Elmo were nine Knights taken as hostages and a handful of Maltese who swam across the harbor to safety.  All the others were decapitated and their heads fixed on stakes turned towards the other fort of St Angelo.  In retaliation, La Valette gave orders that all the Turkish prisoners were to lose their heads, which were then fired like cannon-balls into the captured St Elmo fort.

Mustapha’s next move was against the two peninsulas on Senglea and Birgu on the main island.  The Grand Master strengthened the defenses of both and ensured that adequate food stocks were in place.  A bridge of boats connecting the two peninsulas was maintained so that men on one could go to the help of the other if attacked.  The Turks managed to bring some 80 ships overland and into the Grand Harbor, clearly indicating that the next attack would be against St Michael’s fort and the Senglea peninsula.  The chain and the guns of St Angelo would keep these ships from the Birgu peninsula.  This was confirmed when a Greek officer serving in the Turkish army defected and disclosed Mustapha’s intentions.

As a result, when Senglea was attacked simultaneously by land and sea on 15 July, the Knights and their Maltese supporters were able to counter both threats.  Even the local inhabitants joined in, women and children flinging down missiles and pouring boiling water on the unlucky Turks who tried to scale the walls.  This attack cost the Turkish forces another 3000 casualties.  The Hospitallers had lost 250, but these included the commander of the spur.

The Turkish commander then attacked both garrisons simultaneously, so that one could not reinforce the other.  Mustapha led the attack personally, but it again failed.  In spite of the fact that he had lost over 10,000 men since his landing in Malta, he chose to continue the siege.  La Valette confirmed that he had adequate supplies, but was unlikely to receive outside help.  If the Turks were victorious however, he concluded that no one would be spared.  He only course therefore, was to continue to resist.

The Turks now resorted to mining.  They also brought up a special siege engine; a tall tower complete with drawbridge for use against the wall after their mines had exploded.  They again preceded the grand assault with a massive bombardment.  26 guns rained shot on the Castile bastion, while St Angelo was under fire from two batteries, and those on Coradin took care of Senglea.  The damage was considerable, but not nearly as great as Mustapha had hoped.  Although they managed to blast a hole in the wall of one of the bastions, the attackers who pushed through the gap were beaten back on 02 August, in one of the bloodiest encounters of the siege.  Although the offensive was resumed under cover of darkness, the Turks were forced to withdraw at dawn.  The battle dragged on, and on 18 Aug Mustapha had a large mine detonated under the main wall of the Castile bastion, but owing to the personal intervention of the Grand Master this attack also failed.  Mustapha then ordered a large siege tower laden with troops brought forward to the wall, but La Valette was ready for it.  His workmen punched a hole in the wall opposite the base of the machine, trained a cannon on the lower part of the structure and shattered its foundations with chain shot.  The whole affair collapsed and the men inside were thrown to the ground.

It was not a good day for the Turks.  They prepared a second invention, a kind of homemade shrapnel bomb.  It came in the form of a large cylinder filled with shot, stones and nails timed to explode when it had been maneuvered and dropped over the wall, but it had a faulty fuse and failed to explode.  Profiting by the delay, the Knights hauled it to the top of the wall and dropped it in the ditch among the attacking party.  It blew up almost at once with horrendous effect, scattering the Turks as they ran for their lives.

The Turks had fired some 70,000 cannonballs in the siege and they were running short of powder.  They needed a success, and the attacks continued to the end of August, but without noticeable change in either position except the wearing down of the forces of both sides.

Although Mustapha maintained his efforts, a new problem confronted him.  The Viceroy of Sicily, an ally of the Knights, sailed to Malta on 25 August with a relief force of nearly 10,000 men.  Misinformed by a slave who had been deliberately permitted to escape by la Valette, Mustapha was led to believe that the Viceroy had brought 16,000 troops.  This led Mustapha to make up his mind to evacuate Malta.  He discovered that he had been misled during the embarkation and immediately halted the evacuation, landed about 9000 men and unhesitatingly gave battle.  La Valette’s Knights, led by Ascanio de la Corna, made a spectacular charge and utterly routed the Turks.  Mustapha was only saved from capture by a devoted group of Janissaries.  A Turkish rearguard of arquebusiers was formed and these men did their work well until forced to retire when confronted by the full weight of de la Corna’s force.  The Turks lost another 1,000 men, and on the evening of 8 September 1565 the Turkish fleet finally sailed from Malta.

Mdina, Malta.  (Berthold Werner Photo)

The cost to the island had been severe, as out of the original 9000 only 600 were strong enough to bear arms.  Of the Knights, close to 250 had died, along with 7,000 Maltese, Spaniards and other nationals.  The Turkish forces had suffered over 30,000 casualties, and it is thought that no more than 10,000 of the force of nearly 40,000 reached Constantinople, and many of those were wounded or sick.  This unsuccessful siege marked the end of the Turkish dreams of conquest and domination, and as a result, the whole of Europe had good reason to be grateful to the island that refused to surrender.[184]


The ideas of the old world were not long in coming to the new one.  Conquest and the Spanish Inquisition soon followed.[185]  Between May and August 1521, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his forces attacked Tenochtitlan, the capital of Mexico’s Aztec empire in an assault that left more than 100,000 dead.[186]  The Aztecs fought hard; in one gruesome, defiant act, they first humiliated their Spanish prisoners by making them dance and wear feathers, then ripped out their hearts and threw the bodies down a temple pyramid’s steps.  After 80 days of onslaught, the Aztec king, with his people ill and starving, surrendered to Cortés, and the Aztec empire vanished.[187]

Mexico fell to Cortés on 13 August 1521.  The Aztec Empire then became New Spain under the authority of Cortes, who was named Captain General.  In effect Cortés, with the aid of 600 soldiers, sixteen horses, ten cannons and thirteen arquebuses conquered a country that in 1519 had 20 million subjects under the reign of Motecuhzoma II.  The valley of Mexico, which alone may have had as many as five million inhabitants, was at that time the greatest urban concentration in the world.

Science of Fortification

The Spanish built one of the earliest fortified settlements in North America along the Florida coast at St Augustine in 1565.  It included eight artillery bastions and a star citadel.  Quebec City, founded in 1608 on the St Lawrence was sited on a defendable position and equipped with artillery emplacements covering both the land and river approaches from its walled citadel.[188]

Star citadel of Antwerp.

Coevorden citadel, the Netherlands.

The idea of using bastions in fort design was expanded and soon multi-pointed star forts were being developed towards the end of the 16th century.  Maurice of Nassau for example, rebuilt Coevorden, Holland by adding bastions resulting in the formation of a 14-point star.  Palmanova, Italy, was planned as an 18-point star.[189]

Fort Bourtange.

Vauban's system of attack.

European engineers such as Marchi and Busca in Italy, and de Ville and Pagan in France, helped to develop the science of fortification.  The two most prolific designers in Northern Europe were Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707), and Menno de Coehoorn (1641-1704).  Vauban devised a method of conducting sieges that involved a geometric advancement of trenchworks and approaches that moved from parallel to parallel against enemy fortifications that was highly successful.[190]  He used these parallels in the attack on Maastricht in 1673, capturing the “impregnable” fortress after an assault of only 13 days.[191]  Vauban applied the use of common sense rather than untried theory to achieve these successes.[192]  Be that as it may, his ideas were to be put into use for the next 200 years.[193]

Coehoorn is renowned not only for the small, mobile mortar that bears his name, but for his skill in strengthening fortifications at such places as Coevorden, Bergen-op-Zoom and Namur, and for his treatise on fortifications.  He designed his systems with certain specific principles in mind: to provide powerful flank defense; to deprive an attacker of the means of making lodgments; to give ample facilities for sorties; and to avoid unnecessary expense.  Whenever possible, he relied on water as a means of defense.  While generally keeping to the usual bastioned polygon of his era, he adopted earthwork counterguards which he made too narrow for an attacker to use as gun platforms.  He developed the fausse braye into a narrow embankment alongside the ditch protecting it by means of a counterscarp gallery (a loopholed passage behind the counterscarp wall), a wide promenade which was virtually the same as that of the water in the ditch and which was carefully flanked by artillery casemates and musketry galleries.  Its level was deliberate; if an attacker attempted to cut a trench across, they would immediately strike water.  Similarly the covered way was close to the water level so as to deter any attempts to sap or trench across it.[194]

Fortress Charleroi, France, plan of attack, 1693.

Map of the Fortifications of Geneva in 1841. B.R._Davies

In 1777, the Marquis de Montalembert designed a fortress known as a caponiere.  It was a heavily walled structure three stories high and at a right angle to the main wall.  Each story was a great gun platform, effectively placing large numbers of guns and therefore concentrated firepower on any attacking force.  These forts were primarily sited in the defense of harbors and have been built all over Europe at sites from Sebastopol in the Crimea, to Toulon in southern France, to Portsmouth, England and then across the Atlantic to Fort Sumter in South Carolina, and Fort Point in San Francisco Bay, California.[195]  Eventually, fortified places could not be properly defended without large field armies supporting them.  Even then, once the field army was defeated, it was almost inevitable that the fortresses would fall.  Often armies would just bypass them altogether.[196]

Explosive technology also progressed.  Although rockets may have been used as early as the 13th century in Asia, the British army noted what seems to have been the first modern use of a war-rocket by the Sultan Tipu at the siege of Seringapatam in 1799.  Rockets were used in 1806 at the siege of Boulogne to set the town on fire, and at Walcheren and Copenhagen in 1807, at the battles of Leipzig and Waterloo and at New Orleans in 1815.[197]  Hitler and his V2 rockets launched during the Second World War against allied cities in 1944, was followed a generation later by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein firing on the cities of Iran and Israel in 1991.

Good intelligence often had a decisive role to play in the outcome of a siege.  Because every major siege of the 17th and 18th centuries involved major problems of logistics operations, preparations were very hard to conceal.  Vauban stated that the foremost fault committed in siegecraft came from insufficient attention to basic security and secrecy.  He also stated that no fortress, however well defended, could hold out indefinitely.[198]


The English Civil War of the 1640s saw the development of surprisingly defendable town walls, in spite of the already extensive use of cannon to degrade stone fortifications. Complicated lines of circumvallation and earth work bulwarks and bastions laid out in scientifically calculated patterns by Dutch designers gave the defender a fighting chance against a determined attacker. Bernard de Gomme of the Netherlands was one of the most celebrated engineers of his time for his designs of effective fortification systems. Gomme set up a new and very strong system at Newark, the strongest royal city after Oxford which was defended by the “royalists,” and attacked by the “parliamentarians.”

This city was sited on the Trent River and had been regarded as a strategic location since ancient times.  There were Roman defense works in two places, which were later superceded by “New Work” in 900, (from which the town received its name) to protect the site against the Danes.  Early in the 12th century, the town and manor came under the control of the bishops of Lincoln, who built a finely ornamented stone castle on a commanding position overlooking the river, a bridge and the road leading to it.  Throughout the Middle Ages the fortress at Newark was strengthened and added to, and even in the 17th century is was still one of the most powerful river castles in England.

At the end of 1642, King Charles generals decided to fortify and to heavily garrison Newark.  It became in fact, the center of a large fortified area and was used as a rallying point for the King’s army, as well as a supply center.  Newark had to be held because it overlooked the Great North Road which bridged the Trent River and bisected the main road linking Lincoln to Nottingham and Leicester.  It protected the lines of communication between the King’s headquarters in Oxford and his strongholds in Yorkshire and Newcastle, where his supplies of arms that were brought in by sea from the Netherlands were usually landed..  By holding Newark, it was also possible for the King make effective use of his “army of the north” under the command of the Earl of Newcastle to launch a thrust into the territory of the Eastern Association.  This was the main source of parliamentary military power.

Clampes map of the siege of Newark 6 March 1645 - 8 May 1646, sap detail.

The castle at Newark and its defensive system was linked to other royalist castles in the area, including Belvoir, all of which were heavily garrisoned.  From this defensive zone a large area was scoured for supplies and manpower. It also served as a base from which to mount cavalry raids into the neighboring parliamentary territory.

The Parliamentarians made three major attempts to take the city.  Major General Thomas Ballard launched an attack in February 1643 with 6,000 men and ten guns, most of which were small six-pounders.  He fired 80 shots into the town. But a fierce counter-attack cost him three of his guns and 60 prisoners and broke the siege. 

The second parliamentary attack came which came a year later in February 1644, was even less successful.  Sir John Meldrum surrounded the defensive zone with 2,000 horsemen, 5,000 foot-soldiers, eleven cannon and two mortars.  The cannon included one famous monster which had been named “Sweet Lips” (after a notorious Hull whore of that time).  Sweet Lips was described as a “great basilisk” from Hull, four yards long and probably cast in the 16th century.  The gun fired a 30-lb ball to a distance of 400 yards at point blank range and possibly as far as 2,400 yards at ten degrees of elevation.

Meldrum built a pontoon bridge of boats over the Trent River to help his forces conduct an investment of the royalist lines.  In the process, however, he was surprised and surrounded by Prince Rupert and was forced to surrender in what could be assessed as the single worst parliamentary disaster of the war.  He was allowed to march wary, but lost all of his guns, his small arms and his ammunition train.

The third siege began in November 1645,when the main Scots army joined General Poyntz and his English force.  This was the first time the Newark defenders commanded by Lord John Belasyse faced determined professional soldiers.  The Scots constructed a great battering-fort they named “Edinburgh”, a siege device which was the 17th century equivalent of a malvoisin.  General Poyntz also had a giant bastion brought into play which was named “Colonel Grey’s Sconce.”  The Scots set up two boat bridges and brought up an armed pinnace which also mounted two guns manned by 40 musketeers.  These were used to penetrate the Trent River defenses to within half a mile of the castle itself.  General Poyntz also dammed the Smite River and the arm of the Trent which ran directly under the castle, putting the town mills out of action.

By the end of March 1646, some 7,000 Scots and 9,000 English had dug themselves into the town roughly to within the range of cannon shot.  By April, General Poyntz had diverted both rivers away from Newark and had dug saps up to the main outwork of Newark, which had been named the “Queen’s Sconce.”  He had also built a battery within musket shot of one of the town gates.  The Scots by this time had the castle itself within range of their guns.  The defenders surrendered in May.

Lord John Belasyse had done his best to provision the town the previous winter, but the defenders were now reduced to eating their horses.  Plague broke out, and because they had been deprived of water for cleaning and washing, everyone in the town suffered.[199]  Even so, Belasyse had to be ordered to surrender.  He didn’t want to, as his men were still in good heart, and in the end, he marched out with a company of about 1,500.  General Poyntz was awarded a £200 sword by the Commons, and lands worth £300 a year.  Newark was the last major action of the First Civil War; Oxford would surrender in the following month.

The royalists had demonstrated in two out of three sieges, that if a fortification was properly garrisoned and provisioned, they could withstand a considerable amount of punishment.  Even primitive earthworks could keep a besieger’s cannon from firing point-blank at the walls and towers, and could enable them to hold out long enough for a relieving force to arrive.  The castle at Donningham, for example, was fortified in September 1643 and defended by Colonel John Boys, who built a complete set of star-shaped earthworks around it.  In July 1644,the Earl of Essex sent General Middleton to take it with 3,000 dragoons and light cavalry.  Middleton had no “big” guns, and lost 300 men in a hopeless attempt to attack the fortifications with scaling ladders.  In September, Colonel Horton took over with a siege train.  He shot at it for 12 days and “beat down three towers and a part of a wall,” but could not compel the defenders to surrender.  In October, the Earl of Manchester wanted to try to take it by storm again, but apparently his men declined to carry it out.  They had fired over 1,000 rounds of “great shot” in 19 days against the defender’s walls without causing any further damage to the garrison except wrecking some more of its defenses.

Eventually, Donningham was besieged again at the end of 1645 when Cromwell ordered Colonel Dalbier to take it.  Colonel Boys delayed the end by building a large satellite bastion on the castle hill, from which he launched a number of sorties.  Unfortunately, he couldn’t match a giant mortar which Colonel Dalbier had acquired.  This mortar fired 17 large rounds against the staircase tower of the fortifications gatehouse, pounding a large hole in it.  After a parley in March 1646, Colonel Boys surrendered with 200 men, 20 barrels of gunpowder and six guns.  His men marched out with colors flying, muskets loaded and every man packing as much ammunition as he could carry, under the  honorable terms and conditions agreed to at the parley.[200]

Siege of Groningen.  (Bernhard von Galen, 1672)


In 1526 Suleiman the sultan invaded Europe marching from Constantinople to the Danube and gaining considerable success against the army of King Louis of Hungary.  Much of his success was due to his massed use of artillery.  Suleiman annexed the kingdom, and in view of this success embarked on a second invasion in 1529 with an army estimated at 120,000 troops and 20,000 baggage camels.  Realizing that the medieval walls of Vienna targeted by the sultan were not impregnable, Ferdinand, the archduke of Austria, was determined to rely on his troops rather than masonry.  His force was augmented by Spanish infantry sent by Charles from his army in Italy, a veteran German infantry regiments making up the remainder of his garrison of about 20,000.

The Turks spread out on both sides of the Danube, but before they could move their 300 guns into position a sortie of 2,500 defenders inflicted a sharp defeat on advance posts.  This blow was followed only three days later by a surprise attack of Spanish units which added to the casualties of the besieging forces.  From this point onwards, the defenders continued to take away the initiative from their attackers at every opportunity.  Ferdinand’s engineers proved so successful at counter-mining that many of the enemy’s mine-heads were detected and blown up before they could do any harm.  Whenever a breach was opened, the garrison threw up new works while beating off the sultan’s storming parties.  Finally a great Christian sortie of 8,000 men fell upon the invaders at dawn one morning with enormous destruction of Turkish troops and material.  The adage that “the best defence is a vigorous attack”, has seldom been put to better effect.

As a last resort, Suleiman ordered a general storm of Vienna.  His men, by now dispirited by the numerous past reverses, were unable to make any headway against the Spanish and German arquebuses.  The assault failed with heavy losses, and that night the Ottoman host began a retreat which became one of the catastrophes of military history.  Snow fell in October, weeks earlier than expected in the Danube country.  Horses and camels floundered to their deaths in roads resembling morasses, while Austrian horsemen hung on the flanks of the beaten army to cut off stragglers.  The sultan’s entire transport had to be burned, and most of his artillery was destroyed or captured before the shrunken remnant reached Constantinople in December.  The outstanding defence of Vienna in 1529 may be considered the first great turning point in the struggle between Muslims and the Christian world.  It did not deter Suleiman from conducting a third invasion in 1532, but this time he discretely avoided Vienna.

Well-placed and utilized artillery could often offset seemingly overwhelming numerical forces set against an opposing side.  The lack of it could also change the tide in a siege where relief could arrive at any time.  At the siege of Vienna in 1683, a coalition of Polish, German, and Austrian forces faced a much larger Turkish army of about 15,000 Tatars.  The Turkish forces were led by a relatively unspectacular general, the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa.  From the month of March the Turks prepared to launch an attack on the Hapsburg capital of Vienna, and had gathered their forces together to conduct the advance fairly efficiently.  By June, the Turks had invaded Austria, and on 14 July 1683, they reached Vienna, where they began to lay siege to the great city.  The Turks were inadequately equipped with artillery, which caused the siege to drag out.  Although the defenders resisted effectively, their food supply and ammunition stocks became depleted.  As the siege wore on, the Turks managed to affect a number of breaches in Vienna’s walls but the barricades erected by the defenders hindered their efforts.

In an early version of the NATO and Warsaw Pact treaties that were formed during the Cold War, Austrian King Jan III Sobieski (1674-1696) had signed the Treaty of Warsaw with the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold earlier that year on 31 March 1683.  In the terms of the treaty, each of the co-signers agreed to come to the other’s aid if the Turks attacked either Krakow or Vienna.  With the Turkish attack clearly underway, Sobieski proceeded to march to Vienna with an army of about 30,000 men, where he joined his forces with the Austrians and Germans.  Sobieski launched a mounted attack against the weakest point in the Turkish lines, using his “husaria,” (Polish Hussars) on 13 September, completely surprising Kara Mustafa and causing heavy losses.  It is claimed that this victory prevented Europe from being dominated by the Ottoman Turks and halted further invasions from their domain.  It also secured Christianity as the main religion in Europe.[201]


In December 1688, the town of Londonderry declared its gates closed to James II, then fighting to regain the throne of England that he had lost in the ‘Glorious Revolution’, a bloodless coup d'etat in which William of Orange had been invited to become king.

On 13 April 1689 James came to the gates of Londonderry and called on the city to surrender.  But thirteen apprentice boys ran to the city gates and shut them in the face of his army.

A siege began which lasted until 28 July, a total of 105 days.  It was a brutal affair, fully in keeping with the standards of seventeenth century warfare.  Thousands died as James's army rained down cannon balls and mortars on the town.  Disease and famine also took a terrible toll, among the attacking soldiers as well as the townsfolk.  Eventually, an English ship called the Mountjoy managed to break through a boom which had been set up across the river Foyle by the besieging army and relieved the town.

The Mountoy and Phoenix breaking the boom.


Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, a Marshal in the army of Louis XIV, was a member of the French bourgeoisie who made important contributions to the field of engineering and in the application of science to warfare.  Vauban devised a method of siege that involved a geometric advancement of trenchworks and approaches that moved from parallel to parallel against enemy fortifications that was highly successful.  The widespread adoption of his practical solutions to the problems of siege warfare resulted in a remarkable order by Louis XIV to commanders of all French fortifications.  The king ruled that should a fortress commander come under attack by an enemy using Vauban's methods of siege, the commander might honorably surrender once an initial breach had been made in his citadel and he had repulsed one assault.[202]  In effect, Vauban's methods of siegecraft virtually guaranteed the successful completion of an assault on the defense-works and fortifications in existence at that time, and indeed for many years to follow after his death.[203]

The sciences of artillery ballistics and the design of fortifications that could withstand artillery projectiles had both been making rapid advances.  Artillery had long since negated the existing defenses of the old high-walled medieval castles that had been designed to withstand early siege methods.  Fortress design had become highly standardized.  Low-silhouette gun platforms would be laid out to conform to the conventional pattern of a polygonal bastion.  The bastions would in turn be adapted to the contours of the terrain and the dimensions of the site to be defended.  Heavy inner ramparts were designed into fortifications, with a parapet for the mounting of additional guns.  A broad ditch would be dug outside the walls, followed by the construction of an outer rampart called a “glacis.”  This would consist of a wall with an open, gentle slope up which an attacking force would have to advance while being continuously exposed to the defenders fire.  The key element in the layout of these fortifications, consisted in the positioning of outlying bastions.  These were designed so that they placed every potential axis of attack not only under direct fire, but also under mutually supporting crossfire.  The design of the bastions had therefore come to be a matter of applying standard geometric rules, formulated largely by Blaise, Comte de Pagan, who was a mathematical theorist rather than a practicing engineer.[204]

Although Vauban studied and made use of Pagan's idea's, he proceeded to develop several specific and separate ideas of his own in his designs of fortifications.  One of these was to build ramparts of earth rather than of stone.  He had sound reasons for this, based on his personal observation of cannon-fire.   Stone ramparts shattered stone cannonballs, causing them to break-up and shoot off dangerous fragments.  Earth walls, which could absorb the impact of incoming rounds, were therefore safer, and had the added advantages of being cheaper and more easily built.  Secondly, he designed angled rather than rounded bastions, therefore making it possible for all parts of defended walls to be covered by enfilade fire against attackers.  These ideas had already been applied to some extent in the wars since the mid-sixteenth century, but no one thus far had thought them out and applied them to their fullest extent.  Vauban's methods transformed this branch of warfare into a geometric exercise, with the result that his defenses eventually became too formidable to allow frontal assaults by irreplaceable soldiers.  In a logical extension of his methods, he always made the best use of the ground to assist and expand the depth of his defensive network.[205]

Vauban adhered to simple basic principles in his fortifications, but followed no set design.[206]  He retained the traditional ground plan for a fortress, which consisted of an inner enclosure, a rampart, a moat and an outer rampart.  Existing fortresses could last intact only until the main body of their fortifications had been breached, and the result of a siege was thus in large part a question of which side could hold out the longest.  To counter this problem, Vauban endeavored to extend the fortification of his outworks as far as possible.  He thus compelled the enemy to begin his siege operations at a distance, and multiplied the obstacles in his way so that the difficulties in gaining ground never ceased.  If the outworks should fall to the enemy, they were still commanded by fire from the main central works.[207]

Vauban's geometrical skill and practical eye for ground enabled him to design fortifications in such a way that every wall facing outwards was flanked and supported by additional works behind and beside it.  The basic element in these designs, multiplied and varied in scale, was a large outward-pointing triangle with its inner side missing.[208]  The outward point made a difficult target for the enemy to breach and thus forced him to concentrate his forces vulnerably.  Each outward-facing wall of the triangle was so angled as to cover the area of wall between it and the face of the next salient.  This was the principle of the great bastions on every angle of the main polygon.  The large bastions were interspersed with smaller ones along the curtain wall, close enough together for each to be able to cover the next with small-arms fire.  Other triangles, widely varying in size, called “ravelins,” or “demi-lunes” (half-moons), if they were actually crescent shaped, stood in a dry moat.  The demi-lunes projected farther forward in such a manner that they covered each other, as well as being covered from behind.  Repeated complexes of fortifications of this type often extended 300 yards from the central rampart, and made powerful obstacles to a siege.[209]

The fortification of Lille, France, designed by Vauban in 1709.

The forts designed by Vauban for Louis XIV have come to be divided by historians into three stages of development.  An examination of specific details found in several key fortresses of his design follows, including Lille, Arras, Besançon, Belfort, Landau, Neuf Brisach and Louisbourg.

Neuf Brisach, France.

Vauban's first system was essentially the same as that devised by Blaise Françoise, Comte de Pagan (1604-1665), who was another practical soldier with an equally remarkable career.  In spite of having been blinded in battle, Pagan achieved the rank of Maréchal-de-Camp, as well as having written a book advocating a new order in which works should be constructed.  In Pagan's opinion the bastions were the most important features against which the main force of an attack would fall, and therefore the integrity of this work depended on its being sited correctly.  Once the works had been sited they could then be connected by ramparts in such a way as to give whatever space was necessary inside the walls, and not inside the bastion salients.  Pagan strengthened his works by fortifying outwards.  He later proposed a second method in which he converted the ravelins and counterguards into a continuous protective envelope around the work, echoing the bastioned shape and furnished with three-tier batteries at every flanking angle.   A second wet ditch was placed in front of this envelope, protected by more ravelins and then the usual covered way and glacis.  The only fortress in existence today attributable to Pagan is that of Blaye, on the Gironde. Construction of Blaye according to Pagan's designs began in 1652 and was completed in 1685 by Vauban, thus forming an interesting link between two successive masters.[210]  The major modifications that were to make Vauban the most renowned of military engineers came late in his career, after he had already constructed most of his fortresses.

When French forces seized Flanders in 1667, the situation created the necessity to strengthen fortifications or add citadels at strategic places in, or adjacent to, the disputed territory.  The citadels at Arras and Lille were thus the first major projects undertaken by Vauban, along with the strengthening of other town fortifications.[211]   The resulting construction produced specific and identifiable elements that were to characterize most of his later fortifications.[212]  Lille, however, was highly regarded as one of the engineer's finest works, a classic example of a “bastioned” defence.[213]

As an example of Vauban's “first” system, the citadel of Lille was laid out on a perfect pentagon, each front (measured from one flanked angle to the next), being 300 metres long and the curtains between bastions being half that length.  The bastions are large and spacious, with straight flanks set at an obtuse angle (106 degrees) to the curtains in accordance with Pagan's concepts.  There are no right angles to be seen in the fortification.[214]  The outworks Vauban placed in the ditch before the curtains were an innovation of his.  Instead of the “fausse-braye” so widely favored at the time, he introduced a variant he called a “tenaille.”

Vauban's tenaille was a low, parapetted work built along the prolongation of the lines of defence works from the faces of the adjacent bastions and which formed a re-entrant angle where the lines intersected midway along the curtain.  The resulting defence works thus presented an obstacle in the form of a shallow V in front of the curtain, so that an enemy gaining the “covered way” of the glacis would find an additional area behind which the defence could continue a spirited resistance with small arms. In addition, the work masked the base of the curtain and adjacent flanks from enemy batteries.  The function of the tenaille was essentially the same as that of the fausse-braie, but Vauban had detached these works from the base of the rampart and advanced them into the ditch, aligning them along the line of defence.  He thereby achieved more efficient flanking fire, as defenders would be augmenting the fire from the faces of the adjacent bastions instead of simply firing straight out from the curtain.  At the same time, he lessened the likelihood of debris from the parapets on the main “enceinte” collapsing onto the heads of the defenders below after an artillery strike.  Vauban was convinced of the utility of additional defence in this location, and situated tenailles of one form or another in all of his fortresses whenever possible.[215]

Vauban's use of defence in depth was well advanced even in his earliest fortifications, when he endeavored to present to the enemy a series of obstacles, each of which had to be overcome in turn before reaching the main body of the place under attack.  At Lille for example, the “practitioner” initially placed a “demi-lune” on each front before the tenaille and the curtain.  For greater resistance, each demi-lune contained in its gorge a redoubt, separated from the larger work by a small branch of the ditch.  In addition, beyond the 40-metre wide flooded ditch and the glacis, he added another wet ditch.  In the re-entrants of this advanced ditch on all fronts except the two covered by the town itself, were placed seven small demi-lunes or lunettes in total.  Finally, an additional covered way and glacis encircled the entire site.[216] 

Vauban surveyed the site not only from the point of view of an engineer, but from his observations as a soldier of what might work and what did not. For the main enceinte for example, he calculated that an escarp inclined to a “batter” of one in five would retain the 12-metre high earthen rampart if counterforts spaced at 18 pieds (5.8 metres) were used and the top of the escarp was 4 1/2 pieds (1.4 metres) thick.  The base of the wall, the angles and the cordon were all in dressed stone, as were the gateways.  The revetments were all in brick.  In the interior, the buildings were similarly furnished with dressed stone surrounds and brick walls.  From the parapets, the defence commanded the tenailles, demi-lunes, covered ways and glacis.  From the tenailles, the ditch, covered way and the rear of the demi-lunes could be swept.  From the demi-lunes, fire could be directed into the advanced works.  In reverse, however, each successive work masked the next, so that only the parapet of the main enceinte was visible.  Lille therefore exemplifies Vauban's concerns with the practical aspects of construction of his fortifications.[217]

The citadel of Lille was built on a site never previously used for fortifications, in an area of perfectly flat, open ground, permitting a “textbook symmetry” rarely found in Vauban's works.  Regular fortifications were held to be preferable, as they were equally strong all around.  Engineers however, would more often than not be confronted with an existing enceinte to be strengthened or unfavorable terrain to be fortified.  Simple geometry was not enough in situations that were by definition, exceptions to the rules.  This problem was not new to Vauban, and he knew that his predecessor Pagan also had to deal extensively with designs for irregular fortifications.[218]

Vauban's methods were not only developed from Pagan's principles, but expanded upon whenever the opportunity presented itself.  For example, in designing the new defenses for the town of Ath, similar dispositions of “fronts” to those of Lille were employed, using six sides of an irregular heptagon.  On the seventh side, however, he imposed a modification on the existing town and walls.  The straight curtain in which the medieval castle was set was too long to be treated as a single front, so Vauban constructed a flat bastion around the castle midway along the curtain wall.  An outer ditch was added to the front of this wall, and a horn-work was added to cover a potential weak point where the River Dendre entered the town.[219]

During this same period, Vauban built the citadel at Arras and improved the town's defenses.  The most striking difference between Lille and Arras is that, in Arras, he designed his bastions with orillons and retired flanks.[220]

Vauban made liberal use of orillons throughout his fortifications for the next 20 years following the design of Lille and Arras, but only rarely used casemates, and then only under exceptional circumstances.  He instead designed solid retired flanks that permitted artillery fire from the parapet level only.  Such flanks were built on a graceful arc that permitted the defenders more room to maneuver.  In order to gain additional room, Vauban modified his design of the curtain wall without leaving a continuous straight line to directly join the flank.  Instead, a short distance before the junction, he angled the curtain slightly back.  This break or “brisure” kept the entire curve of the flank unobstructed.  It has been said (by Muller) that this was Vauban's only original design element.  Vauban may have been influenced in this by Pagan, since he later completed Pagan's citadel of Blaye where curved flanks are in evidence.  Whatever the inspiration, Vauban rapidly introduced this design (in the true style of a sound practitioner), on all the frontier strongholds of France, and it is therefore the one most readily identified with the great engineer.[221]  There are still several well-preserved partial fronts designed by Vauban in existence.[222]   Many of Vauban's fortresses still stand, and are a visible reminder of the lasting qualities that helped to make his fortresses as nearly impregnable as the engineering of the age would allow.[223]

It is difficult to get an exact figure for the number of fortresses connected with Vauban's name, as the figures vary from author to author.  Dupuy, for example, has stated that Vauban built 33 new fortresses, and remodeled 300 others.  Goetz and Hogg have both indicated that he worked on 160, and Koch states that Vauban built 90 fortresses.[224]  All those that are presently associated with this remarkable engineer however, have been constructed on the basis of precise mathematical calculations and usually contain a practical layout of depots, arsenals and storage of supplies which would in turn provide a very secure base for offensive operations.[225]

The second of Vauban's systems began to appear in 1682, and was used for the first time at Belfort and then later at Besançon.  Being a practical engineer, Vauban took note of deficiencies in his first system and improved on it.  The second system was therefore devised in a logical and practical extension of the first.  He retained the use of a basic polygon structure, but the curtain walls in the regions between the bastions were lengthened.  The bastions themselves were replaced at both sites by a small work or tower at the angles, these in turn being covered by so-called detached bastions constructed in the ditch.[226] 

Before the innovation of Vauban's second system, the outlying bastions all remained attachments of the main enclosure, or the “main enceinte.”  If any of them fell, the citadel itself was immediately threatened.  Vauban's replacement of the bastions at the angles of the polygon with these small works or towers that were themselves covered by detached bastions, forced an assailant to work his way through them.  Even then, an attacker would still not be in a position to threaten the principal defensive works.[227]

Another fortress most commonly classified as belonging to Vauban’s second system is that of Landau, which is comparable in size and scope to Belfort.  The most striking characteristic of both of these fortresses is the fragmentation of the design of the enceinte.  Small masonry gun towers or “tours bastionnes” project from the curtain walls, while expansive faces and flanks that typify Vauban's bastions have been detached from the enceinte and placed before the towers.  This design is somewhat like the face-covers or counterguards Pagan had originally proposed.  The size of these works, together with the fact that they were designed with true flanks, resulted in their being referred to as “bastions detacheés,” or “bastions a contregarde,” rather than face-covers.

The problem of commanding heights is of fundamental concern to all military engineers and throughout his career, Vauban made masterly use of heights when attacking a place. Vauban fortified places in mountainous districts such as Mont Louis in the Pyrenees, Briançon, and Mont Dauphin and Château Queyras on the Savoy frontier.[228]  He also made every attempt to minimize the danger when fortifying places where he had no choice in the selection of the terrain.[229]  Concerning hill fortifications, Vauban commented for example, that “the frontier of the Savoy was so extremely hilly that I was obliged to invent a new system of fortifications so to take advantage of it.”  He also mentioned Colmar, Entrevaux and Guillames as being “situated in hilly country and commanded from far and near by surrounding high ground, (and therefore) only the method of fortifying with tower bastions should be followed.”  He used “tours bastionneés” in the Alpine region, for example, but developed a completely different arrangement in the Pyrenees.

In the valley of the Tet, on the route from Roussillon to the pass into Spain, lies the formerly Spanish town of Ville-franche-de-Conflènt, fortified since medieval times and improved by Vauban after his inspection in 1669.  Describing the place, he wrote that it was “tightly hemmed in by surrounding high mountains with steep slopes so close that even the most distant was within sling-shot”, but because of the sharp inclines and extreme height of the mountains, no artillery could be brought to bear.  However, outcrops afforded “positions for musketry, from which anyone showing his nose in the streets could be picked off like a sitting duck.”

To afford adequate protection for the defenders of fortifications in hilly terrain, Vauban ensured that normally exposed parapets were roofed over in the most vulnerable sectors, so that bastions and curtains assumed the appearance of a medieval “chemin de ronde,” or covered street.  At the Northeast angle of the town of Ville-franche-de-Conflènt for example, the parapets of the Bastion du Roi were extremely high in relation to the terreplein they covered.  This gave the gunners manning the embrasures maximum protection.  Masonry traverses bisecting the bastions were included to reduce the risk of enfilading fire sweeping across one flank and taking defenders of the other flank in the rear.  This worked well in this fortress, but  Vauban did not repeat the idea in any others.[230]

Vauban continued to make further revolutionary improvements to his method of defence in depth. In all previous cases, adaptation of fortifications to mountainous terrain had been through projecting crown works or horn works, and when this was done, the main line was directly affected.  Vauban gained flexibility by adapting his designs to the terrain without imperiling the main line of defence.[231]

The fortresses of Belfort and Landau both used towers and detached bastions to replace the conventional bastions.  Tower bastions were actually first introduced when they were added to the existing enceinte at Besançon, years earlier.  There, and at Villefranche, Vauban's task was to improve the existing defenses of a town.  Its medieval walls were built on the river's edge, and were within range of commanding heights.  On the limited ground available on two fronts, squat, compact artillery towers were built.

One of the criticisms of Vauban's tower bastions was that they were too vulnerable to artillery fire.  The towers at Besançon were commanded by heights that Vauban was careful to fortify, but if these had fallen into enemy hands, the towers could have been bombarded with ease.  It is therefore unlikely that Vauban the practitioner considered his towers as offering improved defence against artillery, and thus the local constraints at Besançon may have been the immediate reason behind his new approach. Although the situation at Villefranche was better since artillery could not readily be brought into action except in the pass, Vauban would likely have employed tower and detached bastions had he considered them effective alternatives to standard bastions at the time.[232]

After the construction at Besançon, Vauban favored further experimentation along the same lines.  At Belfort, the limitations on design are less apparent, and could have been resolved by a series of strong outworks such as he had already used at Arras or Bayonne.  The change in approach is even more marked in the defenses of Landau, where clear details of Vauban's second system can be seen in the plan of the fortress, such as his use of tower bastions on the main enceinte protected by detached bastions or counter-guards.  The intervening tenailles cover the curtains, which rise from a wet ditch.  Demi-lunes are located in advance of the tenailles on all fronts, and a wet outer ditch surrounds the place at the foot of the glacis.  Two large horn-works in the conventional manner with fronts comprised of two half-bastions with orillons and retired, curving flanks are located south of the town.  An additional outer perimeter of detached redoubts was placed beyond the glacis, as discovered by attacking forces during four sieges made on the site during the War of Spanish Succession.  These works, shaped like demi-lunes and open at the rear so that they would be exposed to defensive fire if taken by the enemy, demonstrate Vauban's increased preoccupation with defence in depth.  Here again, he deliberately placed as many obstacles in series in the way of an attacker, well before the main body of the fort could be reached.  It has also been suggested by the engineer Lazard, that Vauban developed his second system as a means of countering the effects of ricochet fire.[233]

Vauban's unconventional designs were not entirely impregnable, in spite of the strengths of the bastioned system of fortification.  Landau for example, changed hands often during the War of the Spanish Succession, being taken by the Allies in 1702, recaptured by the French in 1703, taken again by the Allies in 1704, and finally recaptured by the French in 1703.  These battles demonstrated that no fortress or system could be considered impregnable, and Vauban's successors did not attempt to emulate his second or third systems.  He had, however, spent a lifetime providing the country with a formidable barrier of fortresses along every frontier and exposed coastline, a barrier that, in spite of all the wars, had held.  It was thanks to the holding power of Vauban's fortifications (and to the generalship of Villars), that France secured very reasonable terms at the final Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.[234]  When peace came, the French frontiers were still secure.[235]

Vauban's third system consists in fact, of a single fortress, that of Neuf-Breisach in Alsace.  It was designed in 1697, and not completed until 1708, a year after Vauban's death.  It was the last major work he designed, and although he used the same basic principles introduced at Belfort and Landau, the practitioner side of him led him to the increase the scale of almost all elements of this major new fortress.  Everything was made larger than in his previous designs, including the towers, or “tours bastionées” at the angles of the fortress, covered by detached bastions.[236]

In this scheme the curtain is modified in shape to permit an increased use of cannon in defence, and the towers, the detached bastions, and demi-lunes are all increased in size.[237]  The differences are in detail only, an additional flank being provided on the curtains by adding re-entrant angles.  In plan, the enceinte gives the appearance of a series of shallow bastions with the towers located at the flanked angles.  Casemates were provided in the small flanks thus created.  The demi-lunes were made stronger by the inclusion of a detached redoubt in each gorge.  In profile, the counter-guards or detached bastions are seen to be demi-riveted.  The masonry escarp is only as high as the level of the covered way.  The rampart above is of sloped earth with a line of pickets and a quickset hedge at the foot of the slope.  Detached works beyond the glacis are absent and none were needed.[238]

Neuf Breisach was an entirely new place, built on the flat, open land that was the old floodplain of the Rhine River.  Vauban selected the site at some distance from the river in order to keep the fort out of range of guns on the higher ground of Alt-Brisach.  Vauban had submitted three schemes to the King, who after close study approved the third one.  This design provided an octagon fort with bastioned towers in the angles, detached bastions, tenailles, demi-lunes, and with a moat filled from the Rhine.  (The estimated cost was 4,048,875 livres, and it was not completed until 1708).[239]  No earlier defenses had to be considered, nor were any constraints imposed by the lie of the land.  All of the experience and expertise at Vauban's disposal were given free reign in the layout and design of his third system.  Defence in depth and the formidable array of barriers at Neuf Breisach were the culminating result.[240]

In essence, the third system was only a modification of the second.  Although it was used for only a single work, Neuf-Breisach is considered the great masterpiece of Vauban.[241]  This should be considered from the point of view that during a half century of ceaseless effort, Vauban conducted nearly fifty sieges and drew the plans for well over a hundred fortresses and harbor installations.  For example, during the interval between the cessation of French hostilities with Spain in 1659 and Louis XIV's first “War of Conquest” in 1667, Vauban worked to repair and improve numerous fortifications of the kingdom under the direction of Clerville. 

In 1667 Louis XIV attacked the Low Countries.  It was during this brief “War of Devolution”, that Vauban so distinguished himself as a “master of siegecraft” and the other branches of his trade that Louvois noticed his distinct superiority to Clerville and made him virtual director, as commissaire general, of all the engineering work in his department.  The acquisitions of the War of Devolution launched Vauban on his great building program.  Important towns in Hainaut and Flanders were acquired, including Bergues, Furnes, Tournai, and Lille.  These and many other important positions were then fortified according to one of the three systems developed by Vauban.[242]

Vauban's systems of fortification evolved from his experience on the battlefield, and from the exercise of considerable common sense.  The systems attributed to Vauban were categorized on the basis of regular fortifications, although the majority of Vauban's works, adapted as they were to the terrain, were highly irregular.[243]  He did not reinvent the wheel if it wasn't necessary, and as noted, his first system was primarily based on a trace originally designed by Pagan, almost without modification.  The outlines of these early fortification designs were, whenever possible, regular polygons, i.e.: octagonal, quadrangular, and even roughly triangular, as at Kenoque. 

Bastions were still the key to the defensive system, though they tended to be smaller than those of Vauban's predecessors.  Except for the improvements of detail and the greater use of detached exterior defenses, little had altered since the days of Pagan.[244]  All works with recognizable bastions, whether having straight flanks or curved one with orillons, were classed in the first system.  Within this system, considerable variances in the lengths of fronts, curtains, faces and flanks occur according to the dictates of the terrain.  Vauban did not decree specific dimensions.  The same holds true for the plans in profile, as the low, earth-topped, tree lined ramparts as seen in the fortress at Bergues, are adapted to the flat, inundated meadowlands of the Low Countries and bear no resemblance to the multi-tiered effect created by the defenses of the citadel at Besançon, in the foothills of the Jura.[245]

Vauban received and evaluated considerable information concerning the colonies of France including Canada, from some of the administrators and officers that he knew there, and from engineers that were sent there following his recommendation.[246]  Vauban also examined all plans of fortifications for New France, corrected them and sometimes executed changes to the drawings sent to him for review.[247]   His correspondence with people in New France covered a great variety of subjects ranging from fortification to recommendations for town planning.  For example, the work on the redoubt at Cape Diamond, Quebec, was carried out by Gedeon de Catalogne, under the direction of Marshal Vauban.[248]  This fortification held dozens of guns and was built with solid earthworks faced with stone, which girdled the city from the Cape to St. Charles.  Quebec as a fortress was considered impregnable, partly because it had been modeled on Vauban's pattern of fortifications.[249]   The star-shaped stronghold of Louisbourg sited in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, is in many respects the final memorial to the Marquis de Vauban.[250]  Two of Vauban's pupils, Verville and Verrier, made extensive use of Vauban's ideas and designs to make the fortress of Louisbourg one of the greatest strongholds of New France.

Louisbourg, 1745.  (Peter Monamy 1681-1749


Louisbourg, 1746.

The fortress of Louisbourg is built on a narrow headland, with water on three sides.  The sea itself provides a moat, and on nine days out of ten the surf pounds hard on the rock-strewn shore.  There is a string of shoals and islands that reduces the harbor entrance to a mere 400 yards, and which offers positions for gun emplacements that command the roadstead and the only channel into the harbor.  The landward side was very marshy in its day, and would have severely impeded the movement of any heavy artillery that an enemy might try to drag onto the low hillocks that rise up over half a mile away.  Built using Vauban's principles, the walls were ten feet thick and faced with fitted masonry that rose thirty feet behind a steep ditch.  This in turn was fronted by a wide glacis, with an unobstructed sloping field of fire that could be raked at point-blank range with cannon and musket shot.  In places where the often-violent seashore itself was the first line of defence, additional earthworks and sometimes ponds and palisades were deemed to be sufficient.  Enough gun emplacements for 148 cannon, including 24 and 42-pounder's, jutted from the walls, enabling all-round fire, or massive concentrations at danger points.  Covered ways gave shelter to the defenders against bomb splinters.[251] 

In the end, following two sieges, Louisbourg was considered such a threat by the English that it had to be destroyed.[252]  The characteristic outlines of the plan of this fortress, which was strongly influenced by the concepts of Vauban, have become more discernible during the continuing restoration of this remarkable fortress in present day Nova Scotia.  The sieges that overcame it are discussed in the following chapter.


Serendipity sometimes has a role to play in the successful outcome of a siege.  During the first siege of Louisbourg on 28 May 1745, the combined forces of William Pepperell and Admiral Warren lacked the heavy cannon needed to reduce the fortifications of the Gabarus island battery blocking access to the harbor defenses.  This was due to poor and hasty planning, and should have caused the siege to end in failure.  During a reconnaissance by a landing party however, a sharp eyed man looking down into the clear water saw what incredibly appeared to be a whole battery of guns half hidden in the sand below.  This is exactly what it was, ten bronze cannon which had slid from the deck of a French Man-o’-War years earlier and had been left in the water by the profligate Governor.  The men swiftly raised the guns, scoured them off, hoisted them onto the headland and were soon blasting shot across the half-mile gap onto the French battery.  When one shot finally hit the island’s powder magazine, the French commander d’Aillebout had to surrender.  With this vital position in hand the siege was then brought to a successful conclusion, having lasted 46 days.

English landing on Cape Breton Island to attack the fortress of Louisbourg in 1745. (F. Stephen)

After Louisbourg’s surrender and occupation, Admiral Warren put the French flag back up.  Thus, French ships kept sailing into Louisbourg’s harbour, including one carrying a cargo of gold and silver bars.  850 guinea’s was given to every sailor as prize money.[253]

Engraving made after a painting by Richard Paton.  Burning of the French ship Prudent 74 guns and capture of Bienfaisant 64 guns during the siege of Louisbourg in 1758.

The second siege of Louisbourg was more orthodox in example, and was fought 1-26 July 1758.  The French forces of Governor Augustin de Droucourt defended the fortress with 3,080 men and 219 cannon against the combined forces of Major General Amherst and Admiral Boscawen.  With 25,000 men and 1,842 guns afloat, some 200 ships left England in February 1758 with orders to take Canada.  James Wolfe was one of the three brigade commanders onboard.  The force conducted amphibious training in Halifax before sailing to Louisbourg where a 49-day siege was successfully carried out.  The fortress was bombarded in a well-planned and concerted manner, to the point where the defenders were left with only three cannon able to fire, at which point Governor Augustin surrendered.  Shortly afterwards, the task force set off to take Quebec, which fell to Wolfe on 13 September 1759.[254]

Surrender of Louisbourg, 1758.


The siege of Gibraltar by the Spanish in July 1782, demonstrated that old artillery tactics from the 15th century could be successfully adapted to more modern times.  The British garrison on Gibraltar had successfully held out for three full years, when the Spanish tried a new siege method.  They built ten ships armored six feet thick with green timbers reinforced by iron, cork and raw hides.  Mounting heavy siege artillery on these gunboats, they anchored near the British works and began a harsh pounding of Gibraltar’s defenses.  Ordinary round shot buried themselves harmlessly in the wooden armor, but the garrison had been experimenting with cannon balls heated in furnaces.  The shore guns changed to red-hot shot, and after 8,300 rounds the grand assault failed with every Spanish ship blown up or burnt down to the water line.  Although the siege lasted seven more months, “the Rock” was never again in serious danger.[255]

The Alamo 

The siege of the Alamo took place during what is known as the Texan War of Independence.  Texas had been a state of Mexico until American settlers north of the Rio Grande began agitating for independence.  After losing San Antonio to the Texans during the Siege of the Bexar, Mexican General Antonio de Santa Anna was determined to retake this key location and at the same time impress upon the Texans the futility of further resistance to Mexican rule.  With these goals in mind, Santa Anna marched into Texas with some 6,000 troops under his command.  The vanguard of his army arrived in San Antonio about 23 February 1836.  Some 145 Texans in the area took refuge in the fortified grounds of an old Spanish Franciscan mission that had been converted into a fort.  It was known as Alamo, and at the time of the siege was under the joint command of the Commandant, William B. Travis (for the regular army), and James Bowie (for the volunteers).  Famous American frontiersmen Davy Crockett and James Bonham were also participants in the battle.

Over the following two weeks, the Mexican forces continually strengthened to over 2000 troops. During the same period, a few reinforcements for the Texans answered Travis’ famous appeal for aid and managed to penetrate enemy lines and enter the Alamo grounds, bringing the total strength of the defenders to about 189 men.

After periodic bombardment, the siege ended on the morning of 6 March 1836, when the Mexicans stormed the Alamo  fortress.  During the battle, no quarter was given, and all of the Texan defenders were killed.  Several non-combatants were spared, including Susanna Dickenson, the wife of one of the defenders, Susanna's baby, and a servant of Travis.  Partly to reinforce his goal of terrorizing colonists in Texas, Santa Anna released this small party to inform Texans of the fate of the defenders.

The Fall of the Alamo.  (Robert Jenkins Onderdonk)

Losses in the battle have been placed at 189 Texans against about 1,600 for the Mexicans.  This was only the first of eight battles that Santa Anna would fight against American troops.  He continued his march eastward, destroying American settlements that lay in his path, until he reached Galveston Bay five weeks later.  In a convention at Washington on 2 March 1866, Texas had proclaimed its independence from Mexico.  Sam Houston was named commander of the Army.  On 21 April, Houston met Santa Anna’s 1,200 Mexicans along the western bank of the San Jacinto River near its mouth.  In spite of being outnumbered, the Texans routed the Mexicans, and captured Santa Anna.  He agreed to recognize the independence of Texas (although this agreement was later repudiated by the Mexican Congress).  Texas would later be admitted to the United States on 29 December 1845.[256]

Fort Pulaski 

Fort Pulaski.  (Edibobb Photo)

Rifled artillery could have a devastating effect against what had previously been termed “impregnable” masonry.  This was amply demonstrated during the siege and reduction of Fort Pulaski in the American Civil War.[257]  The fortification was built with 25 million bricks, from 1829 to 1847 on Cockspur Island at the mouth of the Savannah River and named after Count Casimir Pulaski, who died defending the town of Savannah during the Revolutionary War.  The walls of the massive five-sided fort were seven feet thick.

Rifled Guns at Fort Pulaski 1862.  (Berean Hunter Photo)

Georgia state troops occupied Fort Pulaski in January 1861.  During the fall of that year Union troops seized Port Royal and Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, and threatened the Georgia coast.  Confederate authorities immediately concentrated troops around Savannah and increased the garrison at Fort Pulaski to some 360 soldiers.  Soon after Federal forces occupied Tybee Island, a short distance by water from the Confederate fort, the expedition's engineering officer, Capt. Quincy A. Gillmore (soon breveted brigadier general), announced that the walls of the fort could be knocked down with new heavy-caliber rifled weapons firing grooved James projectiles.  Despite opinions by the best officers, (both North and South), that the fort could not be reduced by artillery, Gillmore ordered heavy weapons brought to Tybee at night.  Sailors rowed vessels bearing guns, whose barrels alone weighed 17,000 pounds, close to shore and dumped them at high tide; these were recovered after the tide ran out and were then hauled hundreds of yards on planks laid across mud and sand and placed in batteries supported by sand bags.  Two hundred and fifty soldiers were needed to move mortars weighing over eight tons. Parapets of sand and mud were constructed to hide the weapons.

By 10 April 1862, there were eleven batteries or thirty-six weapons in place on Tybee Island; five rifled artillery pieces were aimed at Fort Pulaski, about 1,650 yards distant.  That same day Gen. David Hunter, commanding officer of the Federal troops, demanded the surrender of Col. Charles H. Olmstead, commander of Fort Pulaski.  When Olmstead refused, Hunter gave the order to fire.  Over the following two days more than 5,300 shells were hurled at Fort Pulaski, blasting away bricks and dismantling Confederate guns.  The rifled guns firing James projectiles were especially effective.  When shells passing through the breached walls of the fort threatened to detonate the magazine, Olmstead surrendered.  As cheers rang from battery to battery, Lieutenant Horace Porter shouted, “Sumter is avenged!”  Afterwards, General Hunter summarized the significance of the fall of the Confederate strongpoint, “No works of stone or brick can resist the impact of rifled artillery of heavy caliber.”

Cannons Fort-Pulaski (Photo courtesy of Yobtpic P. Stone)

This successful attack led to more remarkable engineering feats directed by General Gillmore who had brought his big guns to bear on the fort, all of which was a practice run for him.  In just over a year Gillmore would position heavy artillery in the mud and sand of James and Morris Islands for the bombardment of Charleston.[258]


The South African landscape has seen more than its share of battles and sieges. On 22 January 1879, the Battle of Rorkes Drift was fought during the Zulu-British War.  Chief Cetewayo with more than 4,000 Zulus attacked northern Natal.  Lt John Chard of the Royal Engineers with 140 troops fought off Cetewayo’s tribesmen killing 400 and taking 25 casualties of his own.  As a result, eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded, more than for any other single action ever fought.[259]

Firepower alone however, was rarely sufficient to protect or defeat a fortress. During the Boer War in 1899-1902 both sides brought heavy long-range guns into the field.  The British eventually won the war by carrying out punitive expeditions based on chains of blockhouses, although the firepower of modern arms enabled the Boers to resist for two and a half years.[260]

Boer "Long Tom" artillery in action in South Africa.

In 1899, the town of Mafeking in South Africa held by British forces came under siege by the Boer army.[261]  Mafeking is situated upon the long line of railway, which connected Kimberley in the south with what was then known as Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the north.  It served as the main depot for the western Transvaal on one side, and the starting-point for all attempts to cross upon the Kalahari Desert on the other, with the Transvaal border sited within a few miles of it.  It was not clear to the defenders why the town should have been held since it had no natural advantages to aid in its defense, and lay exposed in a widespread plain.  Looking at a map, an attacker would quickly determine that the rail lines could easily be cut in places both north and south of the town, and the garrison was isolated some 250 miles from any reinforcements.  The Boers clearly had the strength in men and guns to seize the town if and when they chose to do so.  The unanticipated variable would be the extraordinary tenacity and resourcefulness of the defending commander, Colonel Baden-Powell.  “Through his exertions the town served as a bait to the Boers, and occupied a considerable force in a useless siege at a time when their presence at other seats of war might have proved disastrous to the British cause.”

Boer riflemen at Makefing.

Colonel Baden-Powell was the kind of soldier who was exceedingly popular with the British public.  A skilled hunter and an expert at many games, there was always something of the sportsman in his keen appreciation of war.  In the Matabele campaign he had out-scouted the opposition’s scouts and enjoyed himself tracking them through their native mountains, often alone and at night, trusting to his skill to save him from their pursuit. He would prove to be as difficult to outwit, as it was to outfight him.  He was also blessed with a curious sense of humor, meeting the Boers head on with bluffs and jokes which were as disconcerting to them as his wire entanglements and his rifle-pits.  It has also been said that he had that “magnetic quality by which the leader imparts something of his virtues to his men.”

Even before the formal declaration of war, Baden-Powell had been well aware of the precarious state of defenses at Mafeking and had taken steps to prepare for the worst by provisioning the town.  The garrison of the town consisted of irregular troops, 340 of the Protectorate Regiment, 170 Police, and 200 volunteers, as well as the Town Guard, who included the able-bodied shopkeepers, businessmen, and residents, numbering 900 men.  Their artillery consisted of just two 7-pounder guns and six machine guns.  Under the able direction of Colonel Vyvyan and Major Panzera who planned the defenses, Mafeking soon began to take on the appearance of a fortress.

The Boers arrived on 13 October, and were met by two truckloads of dynamite sent out by Baden-Powell.  The attackers fired on them blowing them to pieces.  By 14 October, British pickets, which had been sited around the town, were driven behind their defenses.  As they began their withdrawal, the defenders sent out an armored train and a squadron of a unit known as the “Protectorate Regiment,” to support the pickets and drove the Boers way from them.  A few of the Boers later doubled back and interposed themselves between the British and Mafeking.  In response, two fresh troops were sent out from the garrison equipped with a 7-pounder cannon which was used to effectively fire enough high-explosive shrapnel to drive them off.  The garrison lost two killed and fourteen wounded, but they inflicted considerable damage on the Boers.

On 16 October the Boers stepped up their siege efforts, and brought two 12-pounder guns to bear on Mafeking.  They also managed to seize the garrison’s outside water supply, although in anticipation of this, the garrison had already dug wells.  Before 20 October, 5,000 Boers, under their formidable leader, General Cronje, had surrounded the town.  He sent the garrison a message, which read, “Surrender to avoid bloodshed.”  In response, Baden-Powell asked, “When is the bloodshed going to begin?” After the Boers had been shelling the town for some weeks the light-hearted Colonel sent out another message telling Cronje, “if the shelling went on any longer he should be compelled to regard it as equivalent to a declaration of war.”  (Cronje’s reply has not been reported).

The town’s defenses contained some major drawbacks.  For one, there were only about 1,000 men to defend a protective wall of five or six miles in circumference against a determined attacker who could assault at any point and time at his convenience.  To cope with this, the defenders devised an ingenious system of small forts, each of which held from ten to forty riflemen, protected with bomb-proof shelters and covered ways.  The central bomb-proof shelter was connected by a telephone line, which ran out to all the outlying forts, which reduced the risk and manpower in the form of runners.  An alarm system was rigged using a system of bells within each quarter of the town.  These were rung when an incoming shell was observed in time to enable the inhabitants to get to shelter.  The defenders also made use of an armored train, which they camouflaged with green paint, covered it with scrub, and kept hidden in the clumps of bushes which surrounded the town.

The Boers began a heavy bombardment of the town on 20 October, and kept it up with brief intervals for seven months.  The Boers had brought an enormous gun across from Pretoria, which fired a 96-pound shell, and this, with many smaller pieces, kept up a nearly continuous fire on the town, although little was achieved.  As the Mafeking guns were too weak to adequately return the Boer fire, Colonel Baden-Powell determined that a more suitable response would be to conduct a fighting patrol or sortie.  On the evening of 27 October, about 100 men under Captain FitzClarence moved out against the Boer trenches with instructions to use only their bayonets.  The mission was successful and the Boer position was overrun with many of the Boers being bayoneted before they could disengage themselves from the tarpaulins, which covered them.  The British lost six killed, eleven wounded, and two prisoners, with the Boer losses slightly higher.

On 31 October, the Boers launched an attack on Cannon Kopje, a small fort and eminence to the south of the town defended by Colonel Walford, of the British South African Police, with 57 of his men and three small guns.  The attack was repelled with heavy loss to the Boers. The British casualties were six killed and five wounded.

This experience seems to have caused the Boers to rethink their strategy, and no further expensive attempts were made to rush the town.  For the next few weeks the siege degenerated into a blockade.  About this time, Cronje was recalled to deal with a more important task, and the siege was taken over by Commandant Snyman.  The Boers continued to use their great gun to fire its huge shells into the town, but the defenders boardwood walls and corrugated iron roofs reduced the impact of the bombardment.  On 3 November the garrison sent out a sortie to storm a position called “the Brickfields,” which had been held by the enemy’s sharpshooters.  Another small harassing sally ventured out on 7 November. 

On 18 October, Colonel Baden-Powell sent a message to Commandant Snyman that he could not take the town by biting and looking at it.  At the same time he dispatched a message to the Boer forces generally, advising them to return to their homes and their families.  Some of the commandos had gone south to assist Cronje in his stand against Methuen, and the siege stagnated until 26 December when the garrison launched a casualty intensive sortie against the Boers.  This attack was made against one of the Boer forts on the north.  The Boers may have had some idea of what was coming, because the fort had been strengthened to the point where it could not be taken without the use of scaling ladders.  The attacking force consisted of two squadrons from the Protectorate Regiment and one of the Bechuanaland Rifles, backed up by three guns.  53 out of the 80-man attacking force were killed and wounded, (25 killed, 28 wounded).

Such losses could not be sustained, and from then on, Colonel Baden-Powell chose to hold on until he could be relieved by the British forces under Plumer who could arrive from the north, or under Methuen who could drive up from the south.  The siege settled down into a monotonous series of sporadic shelling by the Boers through the months of January and February.  A truce was usually observed on Sunday, and the snipers who had exchanged rifle-shots all week gave only cat-calls and occasionally good-humored chaff.  In spite of the humor, however, there was no neutral camp for women or sick, and the Boer guns kept up their fire against the inhabitants inside Mafeking in order to bring pressure upon the defenders to surrender.

In the midst of the siege, the defenders held a Jubilee ball, presided over by the Colonel, which was briefly interrupted by a Boer attack.  The defenders also endeavored to keep up sports matches to maintain morale.  (Apparently their Sunday cricket matches so shocked Snyman that he threatened to fire upon it if they were continued).

In spite of limited resources, an ordnance factory was put into operation in Mafeking, formed in the railway workshops, and conducted by two men named Connely and Cloughlan, of the Locomotive Department.  Daniels, of the police, supplemented their efforts by making both powder and fuses.  The factory turned out shells, and eventually constructed a 5.5-in. smooth-bore gun, which fired a round shell with great accuracy to a considerable range.

The Boers constructed a series of trenches, which moved forward through the month of April 1900.  When the trenches came within range, both sides resorted to throwing hand-grenades on each other, with a number being launched by Sergeant Page of the Protectorate Regiment.  At times the numbers of the besiegers and their guns diminished, due to forces being detached to prevent the advance of Plumer’s relieving column from the north.  The Boers who remained held their counter-forts, which the British defenders were unable to storm.

The northern British force had a difficult task fighting the Boers, but they were eventually strengthened by the relieving column, and began making their way to Mafeking.  This force was originally raised for the purpose of defending Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and it consisted of pioneers, farmers, and miners and other volunteers, many of whom were veterans of the native wars.  The men of the northern and western Transvaal whom they were called upon to face, the burghers of Watersberg and Zoutpansberg, were tough frontiersmen living in a land where a “dinner was shot, not bought.”  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described them as “shaggy, hairy, half-savage men, handling a rifle as a medieval Englishman handled a bow, and skilled in every wile of veldt craft, they were as formidable opponents as the world could show.”

When the war first broke out, the British leadership in Rhodesia sought to save as much as possible of their railway line, which was kept them in contact with the south.  For this reason, an armored train was dispatched just three days after the expiration of the Boer ultimatum to the British, to a point four hundred miles south of Bulawayo, where the frontiers of the Transvaal and of Bechuanaland join.  Colonel Holdsworth commanded this small British force.  About 1,000 Boer commandos attacked the train, but were driven back with a number being killed.  The train then pressed on as far as Lobatsi, where it found the bridges destroyed.  At this point the commander directed it to return to its original position.  As it did so, it was attacked again by the Boer commandos, but escaped capture and destruction a second time.  From then until the New Year the line was kept open by an effective system of patrolling to within a hundred miles or so of Mafeking.  Skirmishes continued with a successful British attack on a Boer laager at Sekwani being carried out on 24 November.  Colonel Holdsworth approached the Boer laager and attacked in the early morning with a force of 120 frontiersmen, killing or wounding a number of the Boers and scattering the rest.  Other British forces were engaged in similar tactics elsewhere on the northern frontier.

About this time, Colonel Plumer had taken command of the small army, which was operating from the north along the railway line with Mafeking for its objective.  Plumer was an officer with considerable experience in African warfare.  Conan Doyle described him as, “a small, quiet, resolute man, with a knack of gently enforcing discipline upon the very rough material with which he had to deal.”  With his weak force, which never exceeded a thousand men, and was usually from six to seven hundred, he had to keep the long line behind him open, build up the besieged railway in front of him and gradually creep onwards in face of a formidable and enterprising enemy.  He kept his headquarters for some time at Gaberones, about 80 miles north of Mafeking, and kept up precarious communications with the besieged garrison.  In the middle of March he advanced as far south as Lobatsi, which is less than fifty miles from Mafeking; but the Boers proved to be too strong for him, and Plumer had to drop back again with some loss to his original position at Gaberones.  

Gathering his forces for another push, Plumer again came south, and this time made his way as far as Ramathlabama, within a day’s march of Mafeking.  Unfortunately, he only had 350 men with him, which was not enough to press through to the garrison.  Plumer’s relieving force was fiercely attacked by the Boers and driven back on to their camp with a loss of 12 killed, 26 wounded, and 14 missing.  Although some of Plumer’s men were dismounted, he managed to extricate them safely while under attack by an aggressive mounted enemy.  His force withdrew again to near Lobatsi, and collected itself for another effort.

While this was taking place, the defenders of Mafeking kept up a spirited and aggressive defense.  Its riflemen maintained an accurate and deadly fire on the Boer gun crews, forcing them to move their biggest gun further away from the town.  The siege had now dragged on for six months.  In spite of being a small tin-roofed village, Mafeking had become a prize of victory, a symbol that would become a necessity for one side or the other to gain in order to demonstrate its supremacy in the South African conflict.  Something had to be done to break the stalemate.

The Boer besiegers increased their ranks and added to the number of guns laying fire on Mafeking.  On 12 May the Boer’s launched a dawn attack with about 300 volunteers under Commander Eloff.  They had crept around to the west side of the town at a point furthest the lines of the besiegers. At the first rush they penetrated into the native quarter, which they immediately set on fire.  The first large building they seized was the barracks of the Protectorate Regiment, which was held by Colonel Hore and about 20 of his officers and men.  The Boers quickly sent an exultant message by telephone to Baden-Powell to tell him that they had it.  The Boers held two other positions within the lines, one a stone kraal and the other a hill, but their reinforcements were slow in arriving, and they were immediately isolated by the defenders and cut off from their own lines.

The Boers had successfully penetrated the town but were still far from being able to take it.  The British for their part spent the day squeezing a cordon around the Boer positions, hemming them in without rushing them and incurring casualties, but making it impossible for the Boer commandos to escape from them.  Although a few burghers slipped away in twos and threes, the main body found itself trapped in a fire-sack swept with rifle fire.  Recognizing the hopelessness of their position, at seven o’clock in the evening Eloff with 117 men laid down their arms.  Their losses had been 10 killed and 19 wounded.  It is not known why these men were not reinforced once they had gained entry, but if they had been, it is possible the attack would have been successful.  Colonel Baden-Powell, with his characteristic sense of humor introduced himself to Commander Eloff, saying, “Good evening, Commandant, won’t you come in and have some dinner?”  The prisoners, who were comprised of burghers, Hollanders, Germans, and Frenchmen, were apparently then treated to as good a supper as the destitute larders of the town could furnish.

Eloff’s attack was the last, though by no means the worst of the attacks, which the garrison had to face. The siege ended with the British having lost six killed and ten wounded.  On 17 May 1900, five days after Eloff’s unsuccessful assault, the defenders of Mafeking were relieved.  Colonel Mahon, a young Irish officer who had made his reputation as a cavalry leader in Egypt, had started early in May from Kimberley with a small but mobile force consisting of the Imperial Light Horse (brought in from Natal for the purpose), the Kimberley Mounted Corps, the Diamond Fields Horse, some Imperial Yeomanry, a detachment of the Cape Police, and 100 volunteers from the Fusilier brigade, with M battery horse artillery and pom-poms, some 1,200 men in all.

Mahon with his men struck round the western flank of the Boers and moved rapidly to the northwards.  On 11 May, he had fought a short engagement with the Boers who had opened fire at short range on the Imperial Light Horse, who led the column. A short engagement ensued, in which the casualties amounted to 30 killed and wounded, but which ended in the defeat and dispersal of the Boers, whose force was certainly very much weaker than the British.  On 15 May the relieving column arrived without further opposition at Masibi Stadt, twenty miles to the west of Mafeking. 

In the meantime Plumer’s force in the north had been strengthened by the addition of C Battery of four 12-pounder guns of the Canadian Artillery under Major Eudon and a body of Queenslanders. These forces had been part of the small army which had come with General Carrington through Beira, and after a detour of thousands of miles, arrived in time to form a portion of the relieving column.  These contingents had been assembled after taking long railway journeys, and then being conveyed across thousands of miles of ocean to Cape Town.  From here they had covered enormous additional distances by rail and coach to Ootsi, and then conducted a 100-mile forced march to their battlefield positions.  With these reinforcements and with his own hardy Rhodesians, Plumer pushed on and the two columns reached the hamlet of Masibi Stadt within an hour of each other.  Their united strength was far superior to anything which Snyman’s force could place against them.

Although the Boers put up a stiff resistance, they were eventually forced to withdraw past Mafeking and took refuge in the trenches on the eastern side.  At this point, Baden-Powell sallied out of the garrison, and, supported by the artillery fire from the relieving column, drove them from their shelter.  The Boers still managed to escape with all of their guns except for one small cannon.  They did leave a number of wagons and a considerable quantity of supplies. 

The relieving force ended a siege of an open town which contained no regular soldiers and inadequate artillery against a numerous and enterprising enemy with very heavy guns.  The defense of Mafeking took place during the opening months of the war, and held up a Boer force of between 4,000 and 5,000 commandos.  If these forces had been available at other points in the British line, the losses might well have been unsustainable.  The Boers kept 2,000 men and eight guns, (including one of the four big Creusots in their arsenal) on the siege lines.  It prevented the invasion of Rhodesia, at a cost of 200 British lives, with Boers taking an estimated 1,000 casualties.  In Arthur Conan Doyle’s words, “critics may say that the enthusiasm in the empire was excessive, but at least it was expended over worthy men and a fine deed of arms.”[262]


During the First World War, Germany’s General Falkenhayn drafted a plan designed to indirectly strike at Britain by striking a blow at one of her allies.[263]  He examined France, and looked for a seemingly impregnable place that could be assaulted on a narrow front with powerful artillery support.  He chose the fortress of Verdun.  It had originally served as a barrier across the wooded valley of the river Meuse, and Vauban had designed its enceinte.  It was strengthened in the 1870s when a circle of forts was erected, and 1855 when another fort was built about five miles outside of town.  Subsequently reinforced with steel and concrete, these detached forts put a strong defensive ring around Verdun itself, making it a fairly difficult fortress to assault.  For this reason the allies had great difficulty determining what Falkenhayn’s intentions were, as he assembled a huge force on the western front in 1916.  32 divisions were arrayed against the British lines, and another 14 (later increased to 30) divisions were placed opposite Verdun.

It was Falkenhayn who had sanctioned the first use of gas at Ypres, advocated unrestricted submarine warfare and promiscuous bombing of built up areas in reprisal for Allied air raids.  Ruthless he may have been, but his strategic appreciation’s were said to have been brilliant, and much of the credit for bringing Germany up out of the low point of disaster on the Marne belongs to Falkenhayn.  He had a seemingly limitless capacity for work, and drove himself and his staff to great lengths.  He would prove to be a formidable opponent.[264]

Marshal Petain who commanded the 2nd French Army organized the defense of the fortress.  Generals Nivelle and Mangin led the defenders, although the actual commander of Verdun was General Herr.  The French forces were aware that something was coming on 16 January 1916, but apart from moving reserve forces forward, took no action.  The Germans put in a dummy attack at Lihons, but the real assault was preceded by a prolonged bombardment by German batteries east, west and north of the Verdun salient shelling the French positions along a 25-mile front.  With only two army corps to hold back seven, the French had to take advantage of the ground.  The engineers had added a number of protecting tunnels where the defenders could keep out of range of flame-throwers, deep saps in the woods with reliable cover against flying shrapnel, wire entanglements, land mines and forbidding barriers loaded with high explosive ready to go off at the first intruders touch.

German trench system, 1916.

After the heavy bombardment, the Germans concentrated heavy howitzers on a small sector of entrenchments near Brabant and the Meuse.  12” shells exploding fairly close together quickly blasted the trenches out of existence.  Then the other end of the front was subjected to the same bombardment, followed next by the target of Cannes wood in the center of the Verdun salient.  The Germans were attempting to capture the first lines of trenches without using infantry until they could move reconnaissance patrols forward.  The French however, had sited their machine-gunners and a number of light guns in concealed positions some distance away from the front line trenches.  The German patrols were mown down and the main attack made very little progress.

Through persistent attacks, the Germans gradually wore down the French opposition and broke up their defensive works for a depth of three or four miles, driving the defenders out of Brabant and Haumont.  The French lost Herbois wood on the right of the line, but managed to hold on to Hill 351.  The slaughter in the Maucourt sector was particularly appalling, with large numbers of dead and wounded between Ornes and Vaux.

After heavy fighting on the left and in the center of the salient, the French forces near the Meuse attempted a counter-attack, but were forced to withdraw under accurate German shellfire.  They withdrew to the Cote du Poivre (Pepper Hill), generally acknowledged to be the key to the defense system of Verdun.  At this point, if the Germans had been able to advance to a position parallel to the Meuse, thousands of French troops would have been surrounded.  French artillery fire under the command of General Herr halted the German advance at Vacherauville, just below the vital Pepper Hill.

More troops from both sides were moved up to reinforce their forward positions under the cover of February snows and mists.  In spite of General Herr’s successful defense on Pepper Hill, he was relieved of his command on the recommendation of General Castelnau, the French Chief of Staff, by Joffre.  An engineering officer expert at the handling of heavy artillery, Henri Philippe Petain, replaced him.  Petain took on the task of reorganizing the defenses of Verdun.

Fort Douamont eary in the war.


Fort Doumont late 1916.  (Photographisches Bild-und-Film-Amt)

Fort Douamont, 1916.

The Germans managed to capture the great armored fort of Douaumont, the north-eastern pillar of the defenses of Verdun without having to fight for it, opening the way to Verdun itself.  Not anticipating this “gift” the Germans did not follow up the initial opportunity it presented, and the delay allowed the French forces to throw extra bridges across the Meuse and to bring in relief divisions and more guns.  Petain rotated his fresh troops, placing them where and when they could do the most good rather than jamming them into the congestion of Verdun all at once.

The Germans, now held up on the Douaumont plateau, exerted pressure on their right, attempting to capture “The Mort Homme,” (Dead Man Hill).  The French forces held on.  At great cost, the attackers took Forges, Bois des Corbeaux and Cumieres wood.  Petain in turn hurled in more reinforcements, and strengthened his positions on the long ridge of Dead Man Hill.  In the lull that followed, Petain was promoted and transferred, being replaced at Verdun by General Nivelle.

Over the battlefield an enormous air battle was kept up.  Outmatched 5 to 1, the French lack of air superiority over Verdun contributed to enormous losses sustained on the ground.  The technology of airpower was beginning to exert its first great effect on fortification.  Although the Germans had air superiority they failed to cut the French supply lines, which would have sealed Verdun’s fate.[265]

Sometimes the bravest efforts are overcome by the severest privations.  Fort Vaux was one of the last forts to fall, in an isolated and heroic action.  Shelled by heavy long range artillery known as Big Berthas, besieged, attacked by gas and fire, cut off from France, with nothing more imposing than machine guns for its defense, it had held off the weight of the Crown Prince’s army for a week.  Even after the Germans had actually penetrated the fort, they had been unable to advance more than thirty or forty yards underground in five days of fighting.  The garrison had suffered about 100 casualties against the German losses of 2,678 men and 64 officers.  The men had fought well, but the fort had simply run out of water.  A nearly impregnable fort had in the end been defeated by thirst.[266]

Falkenhayn continued to withdraw divisions from other theaters of war, especially the Russian front, in spite of recommendations that the German losses be cut and the remaining troops withdrawn.  Unfortunately, Falkenhayn realized that if he broke off the engagement, the reinforced French armies, now over 500,000 strong, would immediately switch over to the offensive.  If he persisted however, there was a strong chance that he would fail.  The steady drain on German military strength therefore continued until it was obvious that the breakthrough attempt at Verdun had failed.  The Germans losses eventually totaled 337,000 men including 100,000 killed, and for France 377,231 of which 162,308 were killed or missing.  The figures have varied, but the generally accepted figure for the combined casualties of both sides is over 700,000.[267]

Neither side “won” at Verdun.  Horne summed it up as an indecisive battle in an indecisive war, both of which were unnecessary.  Neither the French nor the German army would ever fully recover from this battle, and from this point forward the main burden of the war on the Western Front fell on Britain.[268]

An indirect effect of Verdun on siege warfare was the lasting impression of the survivability of the French forts against heavy artillery.  This in turn led France to develop a new wall, its famous Maginot Line.  The misplaced idea of putting the nation’s complete trust in this wall led directly to the downfall of France in 1940.[269]

Turret formations in a portion of the Maginot Line.

The end of the First World War saw the diminishing of experimentation and innovation in France as technology became increasingly more costly.  Marshal Petain and General Debeney influenced their officer corps by their advocacy of the dogma of static prepared defenses.  “Continuous prepared battlefields” on the frontiers and massed defensive artillery replaced maneuvers set around fortified regions.  This new mode was systematized and symbolized by the construction of fixed fortifications from Switzerland to Luxembourg.  This line was decided on by military commissions between 1922 and 1927, but always attributed to the war minister, Andre Maginot, who piloted the laws for its finance through parliament.  Permanently garrisoned, the line was politically uncontentious by virtue of appearing strictly defensive.  It was a prudent investment, for it afforded not only security to vulnerable industrial regions only recently recovered from Germany, but also protection for the two-week process of mobilization and concentration of the army’s reserves.[270]

Verdun may therefore have served its purpose in spite of the losses.  Dupuy stated for example, that a defender’s chances of success are directly proportional to fortification strength, although he noted that others assert that like Verdun, defenses are attractive traps to be avoided at all costs.  One of his key observations however, is that never in history has a defense been weakened by the availability of fortifications, and that defensive works always enhance combat strength.  At the least they will delay an attacker and add to his casualties; at the best, fortifications will enable the defender to defeat the attacker.  He noted that although the Maginot Line, the Mannerheim Line, the Siegfried Line, and the Bar Lev Line were overcome in battle, it was only because a powerful enemy was willing to make a massive and costly effort.  In 1940, the Germans were so impressed by the defensive strength of the Maginot Line, that they bypassed it.[271]

To further illustrate how quickly the times changed, Verdun fell in less than 24 hours on 14 May 1940, to the German Panzers, costing them less than 200 dead.  Airborne forces had also played a key role in the German invasion, particularly in the attack launched against the Dutch fortress of Eban Emael and the Albert Canal bridges on 10 May 1940.[272]

Eban Emael

The German invasion of the Low Countries required that the Albert Canal and its extensive fortifications be captured in order to convince the Allies that the main German attack was to come through Belgium.  The Belgians had built the canal after the First World War in order to deter any repetition of the 1914 German invasion.

Fort Eban Emael.  (Hullie Photo)

Fort Eban Emael.  (Guido Radig Photo)

Fort Eban Emael.  (Scargill Photo)

Bunker, Kanal Nord 2.  (Scargill photo)

The key to this defensive system was the fortress of Eben Emael.  Considered impregnable, and set on the west bank of the Canal, its guns were capable of dominating all crossing sites on the Mass river and the Albert Canal out to a range of 16 kilometers.  Surrounded by carefully sited moats and anti-tank ditches, it had four rooftop casemates which could retract into the ground.  The guns of the fortress were only part of the fort’s elaborate system of fire control, in which the firepower of Eben Emael was interlinked with the neighboring field works.  The fortress was garrisoned with approximately 1200 officers and men, safely housed under 25 meters of concrete and well supplied with food, water and ammunition sufficient to withstand an indefinite siege.

More importantly, the fort commanded the three bridges the Germans would need in their drive to outflank the French Maginot Line which lay to the north, and the complex of Belgian forts around Liege.  The bridges over the canal at Canne, Vroenhofen and Veldwezelt were well defended, each having a garrison of an officer and 11 men with anti-tank guns and automatic weapons.  Reinforcements were also close at hand.[273]

The Germans studied this formidable defensive system carefully, accumulating and collating detailed intelligence and interpreting the data with an eye to minute details.  They built models and used them to devise special methods for its conquest.  On the advice of Hanna Reitsch, a well-known aviatrix, Hitler agreed to the recommendation for a silent assault using troop-carrying gliders. Lieutenant-General Student confirmed the plan’s feasibility and nominated Hauptmann Walter Koch to carry it out.[274]

German DFS-230 troop carring glider.  (British Ministry of Defence Photo)

German paratroops with a DFS-230 glider.

Hauptmann Walter Koch of the 1st Parachute Regiment made extensive use of a DFS-230 glider developed by General Student in training exercises, while a replica of the fortress at Eben Emael was constructed and subjected to different methods of demolition.  Special 50 kg hollow charges were developed for piercing the reinforced concrete of the fortress.  These charges would be placed by a team of 100 glider-borne sappers, who would land on the grassy roof of the fortress.  Codenamed Granite, they were commanded by Lt Rudolf Witzig.  Three assault groups codenamed Iron, Concrete and Steel were assigned to glide in and capture the key Albert Canal bridges.  They were equipped with flamethrowers, machine guns, anti-tank sections, mortars and demolition teams.  Trained to fight in small groups, Koch’s force was well prepared for the attack, which was set to go in one hour before dawn to achieve surprise.

Aircraft allocated to Assault Group Koch comprised 42 Ju-52 transports and glider tugs, and 42 DFS 230 gliders.  Early on the morning of 10 May, the assault group set off from Koln-Wahn towards Maastricht, carrying a total of 493 officers and men.[275]  Because surprise was essential, the operational plan called for the glider tugs to climb to a height over 8,200’ and release their gliders over Germany, allowing the gliders to fly silently to their objectives.  Most of the gliders cast-off from their tugs over the fortress.  Accurate landings at two of the bridge sites, Veldwezelt and Vroenhofen, resulted in total surprise and success, but at the third bridge at Canne, the German gliders had landed slightly too far away, and the Belgian defenders were able to hold off the attackers just long enough to obtain permission to destroy the bridge.  The garrison blew it in the face of the German’s as they arrived.

Surprise was crucial at Eban Emael, and it was also successfully gained.  The nine gliders, streaming brake parachutes, skidded to a rest within 20 meters of landing.  The sappers dashed out and began placing their deadly explosive charges on the inconspicuous roofs of the six most important casemates and 12 gun emplacements that threatened them and the bridges, detonating them as dawn came.  The German engineers then entered and secured the top level of the fortress, effectively trapping the majority of the garrison in the rest of the fortress, from where they could do little damage.[276]

At first light, swarms of Luftwaffe dive?bombers appeared overhead, sealing off all reinforcement routes to the stricken fortress.  Paratroops arrived in the daylight to reinforce the assailants.  Swarms of dummy parachutists were also dropped to the west to further confuse the defense.

Elements of the 4th Panzer Division fought across the Mass River and made contact with the paratroopers and glider infantry at Veldwezelt at 1430.  All through the night of 10 May, the Germans continued to batter away with their explosives, and at 1230 hours of the 11th of May 1940, the fort surrendered.  Sixty of its garrison had been killed and 40 wounded and over 1,000 men marched out to be taken prisoner.  The entire German force had lost only 6 men killed and 19 wounded.  Hitler personally decorated Hauptman Koch’s special force, and the unit was later expanded into an airborne assault regiment.[277]

The loss of this “impregnable” fortress, led to the subsequent German successes against the Belgian army and its capitulation on 28 May 1940.[278]  Dutch, French and British forces were then driven into the sea, which in turn led to an armistice with France on 17 June 1940.  Airborne forces had made a difference, and they would see more use as the war progressed, particularly during the Normandy invasion of 6 June 1944.


Medieval sieges tended to last less than 40 days (the length of service owed by serfs to their overlords).  In later years a determined attacker would stay until the fort, castle or city either fell or was relieved.  During the Second World War, German forces kept the city of Leningrad under siege for 900 days.  For the people of this city, today known once again as St. Petersburg, the Blokada (the Siege) of Leningrad is an important part of their heritage and for the older generations it brings memories that they will never forget.

Russians soldiers defending Leningrad.

German troops approached Leningrad within two and a half months of their invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941.[279]  By 8 September 1941 they had outflanked the Red Army and had fully encircled Leningrad, at which point the siege began. The siege lasted from 8 September 1941 through to 27 January 1944, roughly 900 days.  (In contrast, the siege of Moscow lasted only from 2 October to 5 December 1941).

Soviet anti-aircraft gunners defending

Leningrad after a German air raid, 1942.   (Boris Kudoyarov Photo, RIAN Archive)

Soveiet machinegunners defending Leningrad.   (Boris Kudoyarov Photo, RIAN Archive)

The city held a civilian population of 2,887,000 (including about 400,000 children) and troops, and was stocked with minimal supplies of food and fuel (1-2 months at the beginning of the siege).  All public transport was brought to a standstill, and by the winter of 1941-42 heating and water supplies had ceased to exist, there was almost no electricity and very little food.  The winter month of January 1942 was unusually cold, and food rations were reduced to only 125 grams (about 1/4 of a pound) of bread per person each day.  More than 200,000 people died in Leningrad of cold and starvation during the months of January and February 1942 alone.  The city did not surrender, and continued to maintain some of its war industry production throughout the siege.

Several hundred thousand people were evacuated from the city across Lake Ladoga via the famous “Road of Life” (“Doroga Zhizni”), the only route that connected the besieged city with the mainland.  When the weather warmed, people were ferried to the mainland, while in the winter they were carried by trucks that drove across the frozen lake under constant air attack and artillery bombardment.  The city continued to function while preserving the treasures of the Hermitage and the suburban palaces of Petrodvorets, Pushin which were hidden in the basements of the Hermitage and St. Isaac’s Cathedral.  Many students continued their studies and even passed their final exams.   Dmitry Shostakovich wrote his Seventh “Leningrad” Symphony and it was performed in the besieged city.

The German siege was broken in January 1943, but it was not fully lifted until a year later on 27 January 1944.  At least 641,000 people died in Leningrad during the siege (some estimates are higher, and place the losses at 800,000).  Most lie buried in massed graves in different cemeteries, although almost 500,000 lie in the Piskariovskoye Memorial Cemetery, one of the most impressive national war memorials in present-day Russia.[280]

Continuing on the theme of airborne forces, the next operation to be reviewed is the siege of Dien Bien Phu.

Dien Bien Phu

When Japan surrendered to the Allied forces on 14 August 1945, the Indochinese colony of Vietnam technically reverted to French control.  Unfortunately for France, Ho Chi-Minh, a veteran Marxist, proclaimed a Communist-dominated Vietminh republic as the legal government.  Communist China and the Soviet Union supported the Vietminh, while France organized its own government headed by Emperor Bao Dai.  Within a year, the country was torn by civil war.  From 1946 to 1953 France fought a difficult campaign against the Vietminh guerrilla forces, who received much of their aid from Communist China on their northern border. In November of 1953, the French Commander-in-Chief General Henri Navarre prepared a plan to lure the guerrillas into a major pitched battle in which he believed European heavy weapons would prove decisive.  Navarre chose to make his stand at Dien Bien Phu (which roughly translated means, “big frontier administrative center”), in a three-mile wide valley, which extended 11 miles from north to south.[281]

The French had been fighting the Viet Minh for seven years in 1953 when General Harry Navarre, age 55, arrived in Saigon to take command of an army of 375,000 men.  Not knowing that his own government had all but given up the cause of hanging on to Viet Nam, General Navarre was about to find himself up against General Vo Nguyen Giap, who had a determined army of 125,000 regulars, 75,000 regional troops and 150,000 guerrilla soldiers under his command.[282]

General Navarre set out a policy of mobility and aggressiveness for his conduct of the war in Indo-China.  He wanted to seek out the enemy, destroy him, and then gradually hand over the pacified areas to the Vietnamese army.  His aim was to destroy Viet Minh attacks before they were launched, and to avoid involvement in a general battle.

Navarre put forward the concept of an air-land base at Dien Bien Phu, a district covering some thirty square miles up in the mountainous zone of Thai country.  Situated in the middle of a formidable circle of hills, some as high as 2000’, Dien Bien Phu was of immense strategic value.  A force occupying such a natural administrative center would be in a position to control the whole region, as well as part of South-east Asia.  Two problems had to be dealt with first.  The French forces would have to be firmly established both in the basin and on the ring of heights.  Secondly, good roads and airstrips would have to be constructed to the site.  The French government had no money to spare for the scheme, and refused to send reinforcements.  Navarre pressed ahead anyway, giving the operation the code name “Castor,” and setting the stage for the siege of Dien Bien Phu.

General Giap’s forces were closing in on Laos at this time, and Navarre argued that the French occupation of Dien Bien Phu would effectively block such an advance.  Navarre clearly did not fully understand the strong capability of Giap’s forces to sustain itself in operations against the unsupported French army.  The French orders for Castor were hammered out on 17 November 1953 against the advice of Navarre’s own Staff officers, who objected on technical grounds.  Major General René Cogny felt that there would not be enough troops to support the operation, and he believed that intelligence reports were correct in that at least two Viet Minh divisions would be in the region by Jan 1954.  Colonel Jean Nicot, the officer commanding air transport, stated that it would be impossible to deliver a steady flow of supplies into Dien Bien Phu.  Then, on 20 November 1953, General Navarre received instructions from the Committee for National Defense in Paris that he was to limit any operations to the means currently at his disposal.[283]

General Navarre believed that Giap could not maintain for very long the possible four divisions he was now estimated to have in the field.  His staff also believed that the Viet Minh could not get artillery over the mountains and so would have to fire from reverse slopes at considerable distances.  They also thought that French air strikes would destroy any artillery emplacements the Viet Minh could establish.  Navarre concluded that Giap would not attack, and therefore pressed on in spite of the opposition.[284]  Three days later on the morning of 20 November 1953, 65 twin-engine Dakota (DC-3/C-47) transport aircraft loaded with six battalions of paratroopers flew out of Hanoi.[285]

The initial landings of the 1st, 2nd and 6th Colonial battalions at Dien Bien Phu met with very little resistance and the first 5000 men to land began to dig in.  The next day large twin-engined Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcars dropped in bulldozers followed by other heavy equipment.  The remaining garrison, eventually numbering 13,500 men including four battalions of the Foreign Legion, the 3rd Battalion of Moroccan Tirailleurs, the 2nd Battalion Vietnamese Infantry and the 3rd battalion Thai Infantry, together with 10 M-24 Chaffee tanks, four 155 mm guns and 24 105-mm for artillery support, were then airlifted to the site.[286]

Air support was provided in the form of reconnaissance aircraft, four engine Privateer bombers, five Curtis SB2C Helldiver dive-bombers, DouglasB-26 Invader attack-bombers, Grumman F8F Bearcat, and Vought F4U Corsair fighter-bombers, four Douglas C-47 Dakota transports and a Sikorsky S-51 Dragonfly helicopter for casualty evacuation.  The men on the ground found themselves in a valley about 12 miles long and between four and five miles wide with a winding river running along the valley floor.  The hills varied in elevation from 700’ to 1,400’ and were covered with dense jungle.  Dien Bien Phu was the largest settlement in the valley, with 112 houses.

General Giap was confident that even if the French persisted with their buildup at Dien Bien Phu, they would be overcome.  He did not underestimate his enemy, and therefore brought all available force to bear before putting in his attack.  On 29 November, another cavalry officer named Colonel Christian de Castries was placed in command of the Dien Bien Phu garrison.  More stores and provisions were dropped onto the site, as General Giap’s soldiers moved into position, well prepared for the coming battle.  The Viet Minh worked indefatigably, bringing forward guns, ammunition, provisions and supplies of every description, building up a vast reserve.  Supplies also continued to arrive for the French.  The French Airforce had promised a daily delivery of 100 tons and fire support for the ground troops. 

Within the town were the command post, the main hospital, and mortar emplacements.  Ringing this center, an all around defense perimeter was established with protective strongpoints including bunkers, dugouts, trenches, machine gun and mortar emplacements, each surrounded by barbed wire and minefields.  These strongpoints were codenamed, on the west side, Claudine, Francoise, and Huguette and, on the east side, Elaine and Dominique.  The airfield angled northwest from the center.  Strongpoint Anne-Marie, almost a mile from the center protected the field’s wet flank, and strongpoint Beatrice, quite isolated and about another mile from the center, covered the field’s east flank.  Gabrielle, like a cork in a bottle, was over two miles north of the center.  Isabelle was located about two miles south of the center.  Numbers, such as Dominique 1, 2, and 3, and Claudine 1 identified the various peaks and the high ground within each strongpoint through 5.[287]

The French had twenty-four 105 mm guns and 16 heavy mortars, none of which were dug in.  The entire complex was constructed with dirt and logs and there were no concrete bunkers.  When General Navarre flew into the entrenched camp during the Christmas period he found the situation alarming.  He was well aware that the fate of the garrison depended entirely on ground-air cooperation.  This could only work if Dien Bien Phu had a fully serviceable landing strip and there were no enemy anti-aircraft batteries.

Viet Minh anti-aircraft artillery at the Dien Bien Phu Museum, Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam.  (Mztourist Photo)

By 5 December, four Viet Minh divisions were marching toward Dien Bien Phu, and by 31 December the position was surrounded.  Giap kept adding men and equipment, eventually assembling 27 infantry battalions supported by twenty 105-mm guns, eighteen 75-mm guns, eighty 37-mm guns, one hundred 12.7-mm anti-aircraft machine guns and mortars varying in size up to 120-mm.  All of it was brought in at night, and the French Airforce observed none of this.  Giap prepared to do battle at Dien Bien Phu knowing he would be bringing some 70,000 Viet Minh troops including the 304th, 308th, 312th and 316th Infantry Divisions and the 351st Artillery Division as well as a regiment of engineers, against a French force of 15,000 men.  In the end the battle would result in the combined deaths of over 10,000 of them.[288]

As Navarre became aware of the seriousness of the situation he decided to prepare an evacuation plan.  His second in command, General Cogny disagreed and argued that the 13,500 men on site should stay put.  Although Dien Bien Phu was surrounded, Navarre’s greatest disadvantage was that he still underrated the enemy, believing that a Viet Minh victory over the French was inconceivable.

Viet Minh artillery began shelling the airfield from the north-east.  On 12 and 13 March, the enemy registered hits on four French aircraft.  Next, all the strongpoints around the perimeter were attacked, and one of them, Beatrice, was captured and occupied with a 75% loss of men of the 13th Demi-Brigade of the Foreign Legion.  The Viet Minh had dug approach trenches by night, cut the perimeter wire, and cleared paths through the minefields.  Bangalore torpedoes were shoved under the remaining wire and exploded as the infantry rose to the attack.  The assaults were launched from 200 yards, and one by one the French emplacements were overwhelmed.

On the 14 March the 5th Vietnamese Parachute Battalion was dropped in to reinforce the garrison.  At the same time the Viet Minh began an assault on strongpoint Gabrielle.  The French fired some 6,000 rounds of 105 mm ammunition to stop the attacks, to no avail.  Gabrielle fell to an attack by 8 Viet Minh battalions, in spite of a French counter attack supported by six tanks without artillery cover.  Only 150 men escaped.  The French gunner, Colonel Piroth committed suicide, distraught over the failure of his gunners to locate the Viet Minh artillery emplacements, and for having left his own guns unprotected.  Strongpoint Dominique was surrounded by 15 March, followed by Huguette and Claudine within four days.  The Thai’s abandoned Anne Marie on the 16th.  In spite of the losses, reinforcements continued to be dropped in between 16 and 27 March, including 400 volunteers making their first jump.  Parachute drops were only mildly successful, because anti-aircraft fire pushed drops up to 6000’, causing many loads to land in the Viet Minh lines.

Two days later, all the strongpoints were either in enemy hands or in a state of siege and Giap’s troops were in the process of tightening their stranglehold on the garrison.

The principal Viet Minh offensive came on 30 March.  After exploding a mine beneath Elaine and firing a heavy preliminary bombardment, men of the 312th and 316th Divisions assaulted the five hills that made up the positions of Dominique and Eliane.[289]  By 12 April, the dead numbered in the thousands, and Dien Bien Phu had become a charnel house.  The combatants were often less than 30 yards apart.  Navarre and Cogny blamed each other for the catastrophe.  At this point, only outside intervention could have saved the situation.  Unfortunately, this did not materialize before the conditions at Dien Bien Phu had deteriorated beyond salvage.

By the 14th the site was in a shambles, and towards the end of the month the Viet Minh captured the whole of the airstrip.  This disaster was followed by days of heavy rain, which reduced the basin area to a sea of mud.  Although the garrison could not hope to resist much longer, reinforcements in the form of the 1st Battalion Colonial Paratroops flew in at night and made a successful landing, heartening the defenders, even though the end was obviously in sight.

By 23 April, most of strongpoint Huguette had been lost to the Viet Minh.  The airfield was overrun on the 25th, and on 4 May, Huguette, Dominique, Claudine, and Elaine collapsed.  A plan was prepared to form three columns to smash through the ring of attackers at different points, each group to follow its own track.  As this would have proved to be suicidal, the plan was abandoned.

During the next few days the strongpoints outside the perimeter changed hands several times, with the Viet Minh attacking in waves with shock troops.  The battlefield became one vast killing-ground.  At midnight on the 6/7 May, five Dakotas attempted to drop reinforcements, but were forced to turn back to Hanoi without completing the operation, because they couldn’t risk dropping into the battle with the light from flares exposing them to ground fire.  The defenders on the ground had to choose between keeping the battlefield illuminated to give maximum effectiveness to the machine guns and recoilless rifles laying down final protective fires, and accepting the risk of running out of defenders later.  For immediate survival, the illuminating “fireflies” had to be given priority.[290]

As the battle continued, the Viet Minh set off a huge mine under strongpoint Elaine, and followed up the blast with a heavy assault.  The few French survivors continued to inflict terrible casualties on the attackers, but by morning they had been overwhelmed.

When 7 May dawned over the valley of Dien Bien Phu a heavy French air attack was launched, but it was too late to do much to relieve the beleaguered defenders, as the Viet Minh forces swarmed across the plain towards the severely reduced garrison.  De Castries contacted Cogny and told him that Dien Bien Phu was finished.  He requested permission for the main force to withdraw to the south, while he and a handful of men would stay behind and keep firing to cover the retreat.  Aerial photographs dropped by a French Navy Vought F4U Corsair fighter flying low over the camp however, revealed that all avenues for possible escape were now too heavily defended by the Viet Minh to attempt a breakout and that it was now too late to escape.[291]

As the garrison was hammered into submission, stores, arms, ammunition, vehicles and everything of value was destroyed.  De Castries had just been promoted to brigadier general, as he surrendered the defenders of Dien Bien Phu.  When the Viet Minh took over on 7 May, he was taken away for interrogation and ten thousand Frenchmen were herded together to be marched off to the prisoner-of-war camps in Tonkin.  Only 3000 men survived from the total of 16,544.  Over 3000 died in the battle, and a further 10,000 in the march to the prison camps and the period of re-education in the camps.  The Viet Minh lost 8000 dead and 15,000 wounded.[292]

The results of the decision to mount operation Castor cause it to be ranked as one of the greatest strategic blunders in history.  The loss of Dien Bien Phu however, can be blamed on the combination of flagrant errors of judgment, the enemy’s will to win, and in no small part, France’s indifference and complacency.[293]

Although the United States was later to win every major battle that it fought in Viet Nam, including the siege at Khe Sanh, it too would find the enemy’s will to win insurmountable.  The Americans fought and died against the same Vietnamese forces that defeated General Navarre, for many of the same reasons.


Underestimating one’s opponent is not the newest self-defeating tactic in siege warfare, but as has been shown, it is certainly one that was often repeated.  The complacency of people who think that they are safe behind their walls continues.  There are many in North America today for example, there are those who believe that there is no further need for a large army, nor a requirement to be part of the NATO, NORAD and UN alliances.  In effect, since the house hasn’t burned down, canceling the insurance policy can save money.  I believe it has been shown that a country’s best fortress continues to be its maintenance of an effective and combat ready offensive force in concert with solid alliances.  The threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of nations such as Korea, Iraq, Iran, or any rogue state has been an impending problem since these weapons were first developed.[294]

Walls are no longer effective.  The Berlin wall was erected between 2 August and 20 November 1961 during the Cold War to keep its citizens in, rather than to keep an enemy out.  It fell not to a siege, but to a change in political reality in October 1989.  The North American fortress, in the form of its present coalition of armed forces, is far from impregnable.  We stand behind our past service records and hope that it will be the same in the future, without the upgrading and maintenance required to stay ahead of the pendulum.  The next conflict any of us becomes embroiled in, be it counter-terrorism or conventional war, will be a “come as you are” affair, as there will be no time to expand or build on our existing “fortress.”

The technological pendulum is swinging faster in each direction as opposing forces seek to out-think each before trying to out-fight each other.  The length of time it takes for a strategic, tactical or technological idea to become obsolete is now being measured in nano-seconds.  The ultimate stage of the technological pendulum may be infinite.  The SDI Star Wars program put into effect under President Reagan was a counter missile program designed to render the offensive missiles of the former Soviet Union completely ineffective.  Sometime in the not so distant future, a potential adversary will develop a method to overcome such advanced technology.  Even though it was never implemented, Star Wars ideas implied we could have an aerial defence that would create form of “Fortress North America.”  Sooner or later the system would have been rendered obsolete.  The recognition and implementation of a better idea that improves on the last good idea is the next (and possibly only) best defense.

By the landmarks of history included in this volume, it has been shown that no fortress is impregnable.  Aristotle noted that walls should always be kept in good order, and be made to satisfy both the claims of beauty and the needs of military utility.[295]  It would not be safe then, to say that the walls presently employed to protect North America, are in good order. The morale effect of fortification is often forgotten, but it has a great influence on the development of defensive systems and the thinking behind their construction.  We would do well to remember this, and take steps to ensure our “walls” in the form of forward looking solutions to sound defenses, are in good order.


“Innovation within the armed forces will rest on experimentation with new approaches to warfare, strengthening joint operations, exploiting…intelligence advantages, and taking full advantage of science and technology…While maintaining near-term readiness and the ability to fight the war on terrorism (it is necessary to have) a wider range of military options to discourage aggression or any form of coercion against (our homeland), our allies, and our friends.”[296]


The examples of siegecraft in this book have been used to demonstrate that no matter how invincible a fortress was thought to have been, sooner or later a determined enemy will devise a way to overcome it.  When technology is not available, ideas take their place.  These have included deception, imaginative and effective use of time and resources, innovation, bold and courageous application of strategy, and on occasion, the seizing of an unexpected opportunity and making the most of it.  It has been demonstrated that, more often than not, the overcoming of a so-called impregnable fortress was often due to good planning to ensure the defenses had out-thought, long before they had been outfought.

The implications for our own future, and in particular for that of North America must therefore be viewed against this background.  The future plans for defense must viewed in the light of the fact that one day soon, we will more than likely find ourselves again under some form siege, as has been effectively demonstrated on 11 September 2001.  The siege will not necessarily limit itself to terrorism, or war and its technological means, but could include such factors as attempts by a foe to dominate our ideas, purchasing power, natural resources and our economy- in short, our very way of life. 

In the introduction to this paper a siege was described as an assault on an opposing force attempting to defend itself from behind a position of some strength.  It has been observed in this book that whenever the pendulum of technology swings against the “status quo,” the defenders of a fortification were usually compelled to surrender.  Sieges often take time to produce results, but in this day and age North America has very little time to develop its protective insurance policy in terms of preparing for an adequate defense for siegecraft of the future.  We must stay ahead of the pendulum, and not be out-thought long before we are out-fought, for, as it has been shown here, “no fortress is impregnable.”

Appendix A - The Crusades

1096-1099  First Crusade.  This was essentially successful, and basically due to a backlash of Christendom against Islamic conquests in the Middle East.  The Byzantines wanted Western assistance, and the Holy Roman Emperors needed some measure of unity.  Knights and separate contingents of simple people were led by itinerant preachers such as Peter the Hermit.  Many pogroms against the Jews took place during the course of this movement.  The First Crusade reached Constantinople in 1097.   A seven month siege was mounted against Antioch in 1098, followed by the fall of Jerusalem on 15 July 1099, after a siege which had taken 40 days.  The Kingdom of Jerusalem was then created and governed by Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine, along with the Principality of Antioch and the Counties of Edessa and Tripoli.  The 1st Crusade Battles of Nicaea, Dorylaeum I, and Tarsus were fought in 1097.  The Battle of Antioch I was fought 1097-1098; the Battles of Jerusalem and Ashkelon I were fought in 1099.

Duke Godfrey of Bouillon was a tall red-bearded man and reputedly one of the hardest fighting knights of the Crusade.  He captured Jerusalem in 1099, and eight days after the fall of the city he was elected the first Christian King of Jerusalem.  He refused to take the title however, and instead chose to be named “the Defender and Baron of the Holy Sepulchre.”  He died of a fever a year and three days later and was buried in the Holy Sepulchure.  During his short reign, he consolidated the new kingdom, and Outremer was founded for half a century.  He was succeeded by Baldwin I on 18 July 1100.

1147-1149  Second Crusade.  The second major expedition to the “Holy Land” was prompted by the loss of Edessa to the Muslims and preached by St Bernard at Vezelay in 1146.  Louis VII of France and the Emperor Conrad II took part.  The Battle of Dorylaeum was fought 1147; the Battles of Edessa II and Damascus were fought in 1148.

On 4 July 1187, the Battle of the Horns of Hattin was fought near the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  The armies of Jerusalem were defeated by Saladin and the true cross was captured by the Muslims.  The cities and fortresses of the kingdom, denuded of their garrisons, could offer no serious resistance, and on 2 October 1187 the Holy City of Jerusalem was captured by Saladin.  This action prompted the Third Crusade.

1189-1192  Third Crusade.   This was a multi-national expedition which was mounted following the recapture of Jerusalem by Salah ed-Din Yusuf (Saladin) in 1187.  Emperor Frederick Barbarossa took the cross, but while leading a major Germanic force, he drowned in Anatolia, Cilicia, on 10 June 1190.  His forces melted away.  Richard the Lionheart left England in 1190, and fought on the island of Cyprus until 8 June 1191.  Philip Augustus, King of France left France in 1190 and arrived in the Holy Land 20 April 1191.  Both took part in the Battle at Acre, from 1189-1191.  Richard won a battle at Arsouf in 1191, but was not able to free Jerusalem.  The Muslims capitulated on 12 July 1191 after a two year siege.  Leopold Duke of Austria sailed for Europe (after an altercation with Richard, for which he was later taken prisoner).  Conrad of Montferrat (Italy) sulked in Tyre, and King Guy of Lusignan was installed as the Crusader ruler.

1202-1204  Fourth Crusade.  This expedition was essentially an act of plunder on an ally, rather than an assault on the Holy Land.  It was instigated by Pope Innocent III.  The demands of the Venetians, who provided the Crusaders with sea transport, lead to the capture of the Byzantine town of Zara, then of Constantinople itself in 1204.  A Latin empire replaced the Byzantine empire, and its capital was established at Nicaea.  Frankish nobles carved out fiefs for themselves in Greece.  The Crusaders launched an attack on the city of Constantinople on 7 April 1203.  When the city walls were breached a year later (1204), the Byzantine Empire fell and the establishment of a Latin Empire followed.  Baldwin I was established as Emperor.  Related Crusader Battles were fought at Adrianople in 1205; and at Philippoplis in 1208.

1208-1213  Albigensian Crusade.  Crusade conducted in southern France against the Cathars.   The Cistercian battles against Cathar heretics centered around Albi and Carcassonne.  The Treaty of Paris ended the Crusade although the Cathar stronghold of Montsegur did not fall until March 1244.

Montsegur fortress, France.

1217-1221  Fifth Crusade.  This was a failed expedition which was originated by Pope Innocent III.  The crusaders took Cyprus, Acre and Egypt.  Damietta in Egypt was taken between 1218 and 1221, but then lost.  This expedition was preceded by the Children’s Crusade, which in reality was composed of young people, the majority of whom died on the journey.

1228-1229  Sixth Crusade.  This expedition was organized by Frederick II, even though he had been excommunicated at the time.  He succeeded in capturing Jerusalem after negotiating a truce with the Sultan for the right to reoccupy the city, which was finally lost in 1244.  The Crusade was relatively successful.

1248-1254  Seventh Crusade.  Louis IX of France lead this expedition to Egypt.  He succeeded in taking Damietta, but was defeated and captured at Mansourah.  After he was freed on payment of a ransom, he spent another four years in the Holy Land.

1270  Eighth Crusade.  This expedition was led to Tunisia by Louis X of France, who died outside the city of Tunis.  This is also the time of the earliest record of a sea chart, which was shown to Louis IX, King of France.

Appendix B – American Forts

            The numerous forts constructed in the New World were used to command coastlines, protect frontiers and to serve as trading posts in times of peace or for protection during the multiple wars that followed the arrival of the Europeans.  Many underwent storm and siege, and a few have remained intact for the present day historian to examine archaeologically.  The frontier forts remain alive in imagination through films and television depiction of the western theme, but there are many others with considerable historical significance.  Of particular note are the 30-plus forts built after the War of 1812 to provide a “Third System” of protection for seaports along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The introduction of rifled cannon during the American Civil War rendered most of these fortifications obsolete, although many have survived to become tourist attractions.  The following is a brief listing of a few of the major forts by state.

The Presidio of San Francisco, California, is the only “Third System” fort on the West Coast, and stands intact beneath the south anchorage of the Golden Gate Bridge.  It was the base of operations for the building of the bridge and a backdrop for many Hollywood movies. 

Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site in La Junta, Colorado, is a reconstructed adobe trading post, which bustled as a commercial center on the Santa Fe Trail between 1833-1849.  Its furnishings made it the “Castle of the Plains.” 

Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in Florida was designed to fend off pirates.  The Castillo survives as the only intact 17th century fort in the continental U.S. and the larger of only two forts built anywhere using coquina stone.

Fort Pulaski National Monument in Savannah, Georgia is surrounded by a moat.  The fortress took 18 years to complete, beginning in 1829.  Considered invincible, its 7.5-foot-thick walls were breached by rifled artillery in 1862.

Fort Lamed National Historic Site in Lamed, Kansas has nine restored buildings, and is one of the best surviving outposts from the Indian Wars era.  It functioned both as a guardian of the Santa Fe Trail and as an Indian Bureau Agency.

Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore, Maryland is the site of the historic star-shaped fort (built 1799-1805) whose garrison repelled an intense British attack in September 1814.  Commander Armistead wanted the post’s flag “large enough that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it,” resulting in the inspired composition of America’s national anthem.

Fort Mackinac, Mackinac State Historic Parks, located on Mackinac Island, Michigan has a military outpost with 14 structures whose initial construction was begun by the British in 1780.  A sister fort, Colonial Michilimackinac, is located near the Mackinac Bridge in Mackinaw City.  On the site of a 1715 French fort and fur-trading village are 18 reconstructed buildings and an underground archaeological exhibit.

Fort Atkinson State Historical Park, at Fort Calhoun, Nebraska was the first post west of the Missouri River from 1820 to 1827, and was built to protect the Western fur trade.  Local concern resurrected the fort in the 1960s, leading to its substantial reconstruction.

Fort Union National Monument, at Watrous, New Mexico has a number of ghostly ruins still standing which give testimony to the military outpost and supply depot that flourished here alongside the Santa Fe Trail in the mid-1800s.  A tour trail winds through the adobe ruins of the largest fort in the Southwest, built to protect settlers and travelers from Indian raids.  Nearby is the largest network of wagon ruts from the Santa Fe Trail.

Fort Stanwix National Monument at Rome, New York is a Revolutionary War-era fort, which has been almost completely reconstructed.

Fort Ticonderoga, near present-day Ticonderoga, New York overlooks Lake Champlain and controlled the connecting waterway between Canada and the American Colonies.  Originally built by the French in 1755, it saw battles between the French and British, and during the Revolutionary War.

Fort Fisher Historic Site at Kure Beach, North Carolina was the largest Confederate earthwork fortification during the Civil War, and kept the seaport of Wilmington open to receive foreign supplies for Confederate armies. Less than 10% of the fort remains.

Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site at Williston, North Dakota was built by the American Fur Company in 1828.   Fort Union was the center for trading on the Upper Missouri.

Fort Sumter National Monument on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina was a “Third System” fort in Charleston Harbor, and the target of the first engagement of the Civil War.  Later, Confederates held it through a 22-month siege that nearly destroyed it.

Fort Davis National Historic Site, Fort Davis, Texas guarded the San Antonio-El Paso Road from 1854 to 1891, garrisoned the famed Buffalo Soldiers, and tested the use of camels for the military.  This site is considered the best-preserved fort in the Southwest.

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, at Vancouver, Washington was an outpost created by the Hudson’s Bay Company and became the fur trade capital of the Pacific Coast from 1825 to 1849, making it a political and cultural hub.


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[1] The Holy Bible, King James Version, Thomas Nelson Inc., Camden, New Jersey, 1970, Genesis, Chapter 9, verse 6, p. 6.

[2] The White House, Washington, 20 September 2002, W01081-02: The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, p. 1.

[3] 26 Aug 1346  Battle of Crécy.  The English defeat the French.   First known use of gunpowder weapons in battle in Europe (by the English), although guns may have been used at Metz in 1324, or at Algeciras in 1342.  The English chose the battle site, their strength 20,000, the French strength 60,000.  Beginning about 6 PM in rain, the battle went through the night.  English archers stopped the French knights in the mud in 15 or 16 waves, leaving 1,542 dead French knights and Lords and between 10 and 20,000 men.  English losses were 200, including 2 knights.  The French had good cavalry, but atrocious leadership.  Since the time of Crécy, infantry has remained the primary element of the ground combat forces.

19 Sep 1356  Battle of Poitiers.  The French are defeated by an Anglo-Gascon force at Maupertuis, near Poitiers.  Fought during the Hundred Years War.  Edward the Black Prince with 7,000 troops vs. the French led by King John II with 16,000 men.

25 Oct 1415  Battle of Agincourt.  Fought during the Hundred Year’s War between Henry V of England with 1000 knights and men-at-arms and some 5000 archers, against Charles VI of France and 20,000 French forces.  The English won, losing 1600 casualties vs. 7000 casualties for the French.

The renewed English invasion of 1415 found France ruled by a mad king, Charles VI.  From his conquest of Harfleur on 22 Sep, Henry V marched northward toward Calais with his English army.  Unable to cross the lower Somme because of flooding and French defenses, the English had to swing inland to cross above Amiens.  This detour enabled a French army of 20,000 men under the constable Charles d’Albret and the Marshal Jean Bouciquaut II to interpose itself between the invaders and Calais.  Henry had no choice but to fight.  At the village of Agincourt, 33 miles northwest of Arras, he chose a position between two patches of woods that narrowed the front to 1,200 yards.  Sending his horses to the rear, he deployed his men-at-arms in three divisions abreast, each supported by a group of archers on either flank.  To his front lay ploughed fields, heavy with mud after a week of rain.

The French, with most of their numerical superiority lost on the cramped front, also dismounted and deployed in three lines in depth.  Little use was made of their crossbowmen or heavy cannon.  At eleven o’clock on 25 Oct the English opened the battle by advancing their archers to bring the longbows within killing range (about 250 yards).  The French first line, led by a cavalry spearhead, plodded forward through the mud.  Although suffering terrible casualties from English arrows, they reached Henry’s front ranks, only to be repulsed when the archers exchanged their bows for axes and swords.  Then the second line, under the Duc d’Alencon, pressed forward to continue the deadly hand-to-hand struggle.  It, too, was finally beaten back, leaving the duke dead on the field, and many wounded, as well as able-bodied, prisoners in the hands of the English.  At this moment the French camp followers broke into Henry’s camp, seeking plunder.  Believing himself attacked in the rear while the third line of the enemy stood intact on his front, the king ordered the massacre of all prisoners.  Thus perished much of the remaining warrior arm of the French nobility.

After extinguishing the threat to their rear, the English braced to meet a new assault.  But the French third line, shaken by the heaps of corpses to their front, recoiled without making an effective charge.  The battle had ended in less than three hours with 7,000 French casualties.  D’Albret was dead and Bouciquaut a prisoner.  English losses were reported no higher than 1,600.  At odds larger than 3 to 1, England had won one of the great victories of military history.

With the way now open Henry marched on to the English base at Calais, reaching there on 16 Nov.  Buoyed by the dramatic victory at Agincourt, he returned two years later to launch a systematic conquest of all Normandy.

[4] 98 AD:  Trajan reinforces the Roman wall on the Rhine known as the Limes Germanicus.  117-138 AD:  Hadrian’s Limes constructed, followed by additions from138-161 by Antonius Pius.  Limes abandoned ca. 260 AD.

[5] Excavations by archaeologists at Jericho on the west bank of the Jordan River note that its approximately 3,000 citizens of that period (7,000 BC) enclosed their town with a free-standing stone wall 6’ thick, 22’high and running almost 900 yards around it.  It was defended with a tower 24’ across and the fortifications were completely surrounded by a ditch 26’ wide and 9’ deep.  Martin H. Brice, Stronghold, A History of Military Architecture, B.T. Batsford Ltd., London,1984, p.33.

[6] Egypt was divided into Lower and Upper Egypt.  Lower Egypt refers to the area north of Memphis, and Upper Egypt traditionally refers to the area south of Memphis, which is the opposite of the way it seems they should be on the map.  Upper Egypt is both upriver and uphill from Lower Egypt.

[7] Ibid, p. 34.

[8] 1469 BC:  Battle of Megiddo, the first recorded battle of history.  Thutmosis led an Egyptian Army of 10,000 men on a rapid and unexpected march into central Palestine.  Rebel Chieftains assembled an army at Megiddo, North of Mount Carmel.  The King of Kadesh led the rebels, who formed a concave formation to the South.  Thutmosis led a Northern “horn” between the rebel flank and the fortress of Megiddo.  The victory went to Egypt.

[9] Ibid, p. 35.

[11] The Holy Bible, King James Version, Thomas Nelson Inc., Camden, New Jersey, 1970, 2 Chronicles, Chapter 26, verses 9-15, p. 341.

[12] 410 AD:  Beginning of the Dark Ages for the people of Europe, when the Army of Alaric the Visigoth captured and sacked Rome.  Dark because of the apparent lack of light shed in those times by contemporary historians.  The walls of Rome had been constructed 271-281 AD, restored 395 AD, and held out against Alaric in 408 AD, when the invaders were bought off.  In 410 AD, slaves opened the gates and Alaric’s troops stormed in.  476-814 AD:  Period considered to be the Middle Ages.

[13] The manufacture of gunpowder in the 17th century involved extracting and refining the saltpeter from earth found in decomposing organic matter such as the kind found in cattle sheds, sheep pens and dung heaps.  It was then blended with charcoal and brimstone, and then the mixture was milled finely, in a relatively simple but dangerous process.  Paul Johnson, Castles of England, Scotland and Wales, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London,1989, p. 168.

[14] The Author earned his military jump wings in 1975 at CFB Edmonton, Alberta, and later served as a member of the Canadian Forces Parachute Team (CFPT), the SkyHawks from 1977 to 1979.  From 1986 to 1989 he served as the Regimental Intelligence Officer for the Canadian Airborne Regiment (CAR) within the First Special Service Force (FSSF) based at CFB Petawawa, Ontario, when the training exercise described here took place.  He continued to serve as an active military parachutist until his retirement at CFB Gagetown, New Brunswick,  in August 2011.  The CAR motto is “Ex Coelis” (from the skies).

[15] The Holy Bible, King James Version, Thomas Nelson Inc., Camden, New Jersey, 1970, Joshua, Chapter 6, verses 1-20, p. 166.

[16] Castle under siege.  P. Newark.

[17] Anthony Kemp, Castles in Colour, Blandford Press, Poole, Dorset, 1977, p. 13.

[18] G. J. Ashworth, War and the City, Routledge, London and New York, 1991, p. 12.

[20] 212 BC:  Siege of Syracuse by Romans.  Archimedes designed giant ship lifting cranes and invented a method of training great mirrors onto the Roman ships burning their fleet during the siege. Archimedes died in Syracuse.

[21] Anthony Kemp, op. cit., p. 14.

[22] Peter Paret, Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1986, p. 90.

[23] Charles Connell, The World’s Greatest Sieges, Odhams Books Limited, Long Acre, London, 1967, p. 9.

[24] Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, The Calamitous 14th Century, Ballantine Books, New York, 1978, p. 5.

[25] LCol Daniel Gosselin, CFCSC, Toronto, RMC War Studies 500 Program, 14 April 1994.

[26] At 07:45 Tuesday morning 11 September 2001, American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767, left Boston, Massachusetts bound for Los Angeles, California, with 92 people onboard.  At 07:58, United Airlines Flight 175, also a Boeing 767, left Boston for Los Angeles with 65 people onboard.  At 08:01 United Airlines Flight 93, a Boeing 757, left Newark, New Jersey bound for San Francisco, California with 45 people onboard.  At 08:10, United Airlines Flight 77, also a Boeing 757, left Washington, DC, bound for Los Angeles with 64 people onboard.  At 08:45 American Airlines Flight 11 hit the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York.  At 09:05, United Airlines Flight 175 hit the south tower of the World Trade Center.  At 09:39, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon outside Washington, DC.  At 09:40, the American Federal Aviation Administration halted all flights in the USA>  At 09:58 the South tower of the World Trade Center collapsed.  At 10:10, United Airlines Flight 93 crashed near Johnstown, Pennsylvania.  At 10:25 all overseas flights bound for the USA were diverted to Canada.  At 10:28 the World Trade Center’s north tower collapsed.  The terrorist group Al Qaeda. led by Osama bin Laden claimed responsibility. Maclean’s, article, Special Report After the Terror, 24 September 2001, p. 14.

[27] TIME Canada Ltd., Toronto, Ontario, 21 February 1994, p. 11.

[28] The castle of Krak des Chevaliers in Syria was captured by the Mameluke Sultan Beibars of Egypt, using a false messenger.  It had been the most important possession of the Knights of St John.  Beibars had surprised Caesarea in 1265, and stormed Arsouf, a town belonging to the Hospital.  Safed, Jaffa, Belfort and the city of Antioch had fallen in 1266, before Beibars took on the “Castle of Krak.”  St Jean d’Acre fell 3 years later.

[29] Anthony Kemp, op. cit., p. 167, and Wolfgang F. Schuerl, op. cit., p. 16.

[30] Anthony Kemp, op. cit., p. 167.

[31] Bruce Allen Watson, Sieges, A Comparative Study, Praeger Publishers, Westport, Connecticut, 1993, p. 1.

[32] Charles Connell, op. cit., p. 10.

[33] Ibid., p. 22.

[34] Anthony Kemp, op. cit., pp. 166-167.

[35] N. J. G. Pounds, The Medieval Castle in England and Wales. Cambridge University Press, 1990.  Internet:

[36] Philip Warner, Sieges of the Middle Ages, G. Bell & Sons Ltd., London, 1968, p. 5.

[37] William was descended from Vikings who had settled at the mouth of the Seine River in France in 896.  This area, known as Normandy, was ceded to Rollo the Viking Chief by Charles the simple in 911.  William used Normandy as his base and point of assembly for his invasion fleet in 1066.  In the subsequent famous battle, William defeated the Saxon King Harold Godwinson and became the King of Britain.  Carlos Paluzie de Lescazes, op cit., p. 84.

[38] Martin van Creveld, Technology and War, From 2000 BC to the Present, The Free Press, Collier MacMillan Publishers, London, 1989, p. 25-27.

[39] Anthony Kemp, op. cit., pp. 15-16.

[40] Luo Zewen et al, The Great Wall, McGraw Hill Book Coy, Maidenhead, England, 1981, p. 67.

[41] Martin H. Brice, Stronghold, A History of Military Architecture, B.T. Batsford Ltd., London, 1984, p. 33.

[42] Anthony Kemp, op. cit., p. 14.

[43] Martin van Creveld, op. cit., p. 28.

[45] Wolfgang F. Schuerl, Medieval Castles and Cities, Cassell Ltd., London, 1969, p. 64.

[46] Anthony Kemp, op. cit., p. 167.

[47] During the Trojan War (1204-1194 BC), a Greek Army, known as the Achaeans, laid siege to the city of Troy in Asia Minor, just south of the Dardanelles.  According to Greek mythology, the Greeks were commanded by King Agamemnon of Mycenae, brother of the king of Sparta, Menelaus.  The war was reportedly begun when Helen, the wife of Menelaus, was enticed to Troy by Paris, son of the Trojan King, Priam.  Four nine years the Greeks failed to penetrate the sturdy walls of the city.  In the 10th year Hector, another son of King Priam, was killed in individual combat with the mercurial Greek hero Achilles.  Achilles was then killed by Paris.  At this point the Greeks made use of their famous wooden horse, as related above, placing 100 warriors inside and pretending to withdraw the rest of their forces to the island of Bozcaada (Tenedos).  The ruse worked, the city was subdued and Helen was returned to her husband.  The story is told in the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid.  There is considerable historical evidence to support the fact that a war did take place at Troy, although none of the legend of the horse has been confirmed. David Eggenberger, An Encyclopedia of Battles, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1985, pp. 445-446.

[48] Archaeologists have determined that the city of Troy was destroyed about the middle of the 13th century.  It is possible that enemy infiltration brought the long siege to an end, horse or no horse.  The main source for the history is the Iliad.  Charles Connell, op. cit., p. 21-21.

[49] F.E. Adcock, The Greek and Macedonian Art of War, University of California Press, Berkley, 1957, p. 57-62.

[50] Eyewitness accounts of the daring exploits of Alexander unfortunately do not exist.  What we know about him comes from secondary sources. Arrian (first century BC) refers to the works of Ptolemy, a general of Alexander, and Aristobolus, whose writings are lost.  Diodorus Siculus (first century BC) and Quintus Curtius (first century AD) no doubt had access to earlier histories that have been destroyed.

[51] Alexander the Great (356-323 BC).  Alexander’s father Philip II (382-336 BC) was the king of Macedon. Philip II married Olympias, the wild, witch-like daughter of the king of Epirus.  According to Plutarch in his Life of Alexander (2.3-4) when newly wed, Philip came upon his wife asleep with a serpent by her side.  He was filled with revulsion and feared her as an enchantress.  Alexander, born of their union, was a fair-skinned handsome youth, quick to anger.  He studied under Aristotle, the most celebrated philosopher of his time and had Leonidas as a tutor, a man of stern temperament. Alexander thus became a great lover of all kinds of knowledge and always placed Homer’s Iliad alongside of his dagger under his pillow when he slept.  Alexander’s faithful companion in both battle and the hunt was his horse Bucephalus.  Plutarch (6.1-4) records that Alexander was barely fifteen years of age when he tamed this tempestuous and unruly steed. Bucephalus was brought before Philip by a Thessalian who demanded an exorbitant sum of thirteen talents in exchange.  No sooner did an attendant attempt to mount him, than the horse reared up and tossed him to the ground.  As the horse was being led away, Alexander exclaimed that he would be able to mount him.  Philip mocked his son and asked him what sum he would pay in case he was unhorsed.  Alexander replied that he would pay his father the full price of the horse.  On hearing this, the king and his attendants burst out into loud laughter.  Unabashed, Alexander ran to the horse and turned him directly towards the sun, for the youth had observed that Bucephalus was afraid of the motion of his own shadow.  He then lead the horse forward, stroking him gently, and with one nimble leap, mounted him, let him go at full speed and galloped away.  Philip and his attendants looked on in wonder.  When Alexander dismounted, according to Plutarch (6.5), Philip embraced him and said, “O my son, look thee out a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself for Macedonia is too small for thee.”

[52] 356-323 BC:  Alexander the Great unraveled the legendary Gordian Knot by cutting it with his sword.  Between 336-323 BC, Alexander III mobilizes The Great Army, comprised of light mobile columns & light cavalry bowmen.  He was wounded in 327 BC during an assault on the citadel of Malli in India, when a scaling ladder broke under him.  Having seized Taxila, which was at that time a major centre of Brahman culture, Alexander vanquished the Indian armies of King Puru (Poros in Greek), but because his troops refused to go further he retreated towards the mouth of the Indus river.  He died in Babylon (Iraq), of a fever (possibly of malaria).

[53] Tyre has been of major importance from ancient times.  It was great commercial city on the eastern Mediterranean under the Phoenicians when it came under siege by Nebuchadnezzar in 585 BC during the Babylonian-Phoenician War (585-573 BC).  Alexander’s siege was the first to successfully take Tyre.  David Eggenberger, An Encyclopedia of Battles, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1985, p. 450. 

[54] Internet:

[55] Following the siege of Tyre, Alexander founded the city of Alexandria at the mouth of the Nile, which was destined to be the new commercial and intellectual center of the Eastern Mediterranean world.  In the spring of 331 BC Alexander left the Mediterranean to strike into the heart of the Persian Empire.  Near Nineveh he was met by the Persian leader Darius who was accompanied by an army hastily assembled to stop him.  In the battle of Arbela which followed, Darius was defeated and fled into Media.  Alexander then followed the Tigris River into Babylonia, the central seat of the Persian Empire and its richest region.  From here he proceeded on to Susa, and then to the royal city of Persepolis with its enormous treasure.  There he destroyed the palace by fire according to the geographer Strabo (15.6), ostensibly in revenge for the burning of Greek temples by Xerxes during the Graeco-Persian wars.  Plutarch (38.1-4) gives another version saying that the fire was started during a drunken revelry but was then extinguished by order of Alexander who regretted the deed.

From Ecbatana Alexander pursued Darius to the Caspian Sea.  As the Persian Empire crumbled, Darius was deserted by his generals one by one as well as by his troops. His cousin, Bessus, seized this opportunity to rid himself once and for all of the Persian king.  At night he and a few followers burst into Darius’ tent, tied him up with ropes and carried him to his chariot and on to Bactria.  He hoped eventually to offer the Persian king as a hostage in exchange for Alexander’s recognition of him as ruler of the eastern satrapies.  Alexander followed Darius in hot pursuit.  Seeing he could not escape, Bessus suddenly galloped up to the royal chariot, stabbed Darius to death and escaped. When Alexander finally caught up with his rival, he found only Darius’ corpse. Alexander looked down on his fallen foe with compassion, and covered his body with his purple cloak.

Eventually Bessus was captured and put in chains.  Due to the nature of the crime, Alexander had him sentenced by Persian judges, not by himself.  Bessus was found guilty of rebellion against his king.  The sentence was cruel.  Bessus’ nose and ears are cut off and he is led to Ecbatana where he was crucified on a tree.

Alexander marched through Bactria and Sogdiana putting down rebellions and founding Greek cities.  Then he crossed the Hindu Kush and proceeded on to India.  King Porus ruled one of the principalities, situated between the Hydaspes and Ascenines. Alexander crossed the Hydaspes, and encountered Porus, who held the opposite bank with a powerful force and two hundred elephants.  During the battle that followed, Porus was wounded and fell into Alexander’s hands.  Alexander, however, gained the fallen king as a friend.

It is at this time, Plutarch (61.1) records that Bucephalus died, wounded in battle. Others relate that the horse died of fatigue and old age.  Alexander was overcome with grief.  On the banks of the Hydaspes River he built a city on the tomb of his horse, which he named Bucephalia in his memory.  When he reached the Hyphasis River (Beas) the Macedonian army refused to go farther although Alexander believed he had not much more to go to reach the ocean and the eastern limit of the inhabited world.  He was obliged to give way and the return began.

In the spring of 323 BC, Alexander returned to Babylon.  There he made plans for the construction of a great fleet and the opening of a route by sea from Babylon to Egypt around Arabia.  In Babylon, however, he fell ill, consumed by a raging fever that did not leave him.  He died towards evening on 13 June 323 BC at the age of thirty-three.

[56] The Holy Bible, King James Version, Thomas Nelson Inc., Camden, New Jersey, 1970, 2 Chronicles, Chapter 26, Verse 15, p. 341.

[57] Anthony Kemp, op. cit., p. 14.

[58] Greek fire was a name given by the Crusaders to various inflammable mixtures they encountered in their wars against the Muslims.  The Byzantines did not call it Greek fire (they regarded themselves as Romans), but Maritime or Sea Fire.  The Byzantines reportedly introduced the weapon in 672 at the first Saracenic siege of Constantinople.  The exact composition of Greek fire is unknown, but it likely consisted of variations of an oil or petroleum based substance with pitch to make it burn longer, sulphur to make it stick, and quicklime to make it ignite on contact with water.  These ingredients were difficult to extinguish, and only sand, vinegar or urine were apparently effective in putting the fire out.  The Arab name for the same substance was “Naptha,” and they made highly effective use of it against the Crusader’s siege engines.  The Arabs used small copper, glass or pottery containers filled with naptha and thrown as a form of hand grenade.  Hollow arrow-heads packed with naptha and sprinkled with powdered black sulphur were turned into arrows which sprang into flame as they traveled through the air.  Ordinary flaming arrows with straw and cotton soaked in tar were also used.  At sea, naptha was packed into brass-bound wooden tubes and fired by pumping water into the tubes at high pressure.  The water ignited the naptha and the combined explosion and water pressure projected the naptha a considerable distance with great effect on wooden ships.

[59] Ibid., pp. 162-163.

[60] Procopius was a Byzantine historian, born in the latter years of the fifth century at Caesarea in Palestine.  He died some time after 562 AD.  Little is known of his background except that by a legal and literary training he qualified himself for the civil service.  As early as 527 AD, before Justin’s death, he became counselor, assessor, and secretary to Belisarius, whose fortunes and campaigns he followed for the next twelve or fifteen years.  He was raised to the dignity of an illustrius.  He is reckoned the greatest of the later Greek historians.  Internet:

[61] Between 885-886 AD, Viking bands of 100-200 men joined together to form armies.  One of these Viking force besieged Paris for 11 months, and it may have involved close to 30,000 men.  Vikings also developed their own cavalry units.

[62] Anthony Kemp, op. cit., p. 164.

[63] Ibid., p. 165.

[64] N. J. G. Pounds, The Medieval Castle in England and Wales. Cambridge University Press, 1990.  Internet:

[65] Philip Warner, op. cit., p. 29.

[67] N. J. G. Pounds, The Medieval Castle in England and Wales. Cambridge University Press, 1990.  Internet:

[68] Anna Comnena (1083-1146), was a Byzantine historian and the eldest daughter of Alexios I Comnenos Emperor of Constantinople (1081-1118), and Irene She received, as was the custom for Byzantine princesses, an excellent education in the Greek classics, history, geography, mythology, and even philosophy.  She was married to Nicephorus Bryennius, son of a former pretender to the imperial office, and in 1118 joined in a conspiracy to place her husband on the throne. Failing in her ambition she retired with her mother, the Empress Irene, to a monastery that the latter had founded, where she wrote the Alexiad, a 15-volume biography of her father’s career from 1069 to his death in 1118. Internet:

[69] Anthony Kemp, op. cit., p.161.

[70] Ibid., p. 162.

[71] Ibid., p. 162.

[72] Carlos Paluzie de Lescazes, Castles of Europe, Crescent Books, Barcelona, 1982, p. 21.

[73] Trevor N. Dupuy, The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare, Hero Books, Fairfax, Virginia, 1984, p. 30.

[74] Brigadier-General Thomas R. Phillips, The Military Institutions of the Romans, Flavius Vegetius, Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1965, p. 59-65.

[76] Charles Connell, op. cit., p. 42-43.

[77] Charles Connell, op. cit., p. 49-50.  The Barbarians crossed the Rhine in 406 AD, and the Visigoth, Alaric, took Rome in 410 AD. Genseric’s Vandals took Hippo, St Augustine’s city, in 431 AD, then Carthage in 439.  They sacked Rome in 455 AD.

[78] Ibid., p. 84. In 52 BC Julius Caesar defeated and took prisoner Vercingetorix the Celtic leader, at Alesia following its siege and capture.  The scarlet cloaked Caesar led 40,000 Legionaries, including some German cavalry, against 100,000 Infantry and 8,000 cavalry under Vercingetorix and Vercassivellaunus.  Vercingetorix was taken to Rome in Chains and beheaded.

[79] Julius Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, translated by S.A. Handford from The Gallic War (52 BC), Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1967, p. 192.

[80] Julius Caesar, op. cit., p. 223-233.

[81] H.W. Koch, Medieval Warfare, Bison Books Limited, London, 1982, pp. 12-13.

[82] The Phalanx had proven itself to be effective, but if it was penetrated, the formation tended to fall apart.  As an example, the phalanx was used at the Battle of Pydna (near Mount Olympus in Greece) which took place 22 June 168 BC.  This was the culminating battle of the Third Macedonian War (172-167 BC).  Rome had entered the war on the side of an old ally named Pergamum, when Perseus of
Macedonia had tried to murder Eumenes II, ruler of Pergamum.  Perseus had defeated three Roman armies in the previous three years.   Lucius Aemilius Paulus, son of a Roman consul, arrived with reinforcements.   Paulus soon tried an envelopment of the Macedonians, but it failed when Perseus withdrew across the Aeson River.   On the afternoon of the 22 June, the battle broke out by accident as both sides were watering their horses.  Perseus took the initiative and attacked across the river with his Macedonian phalanx, and the Romans fell back rapidly.  But the rolling terrain soon caused gaps in the phalanx, which Paulus saw and was able to take advantage of after rallying his troops.  Once penetrated the phalanx collapsed.  The Macedonians lost 20,000 killed and 11,000 captured (Perseus escaped but later surrendered).  Roman losses were less than 1,000.  Macedonia was later partitioned by the Romans into four republics under the protection of Rome.

[83] H.W. Koch, Medieval Warfare, Bison Books Limited, London, 1982, p. 13.

[84] The legions under Varus were marching during the autumn with their baggage train to return to their winter quarters on the Rhine or at Aliso.  The Roman force consisted of three legions, six cohorts of auxiliaries, and three troops of cavalry, with an estimated strength of between 12,000 to 18,000 combatants and another 12,000 personnel with the baggage train.  On hearing the first battle cries of the Germans, the vanguard at the head of the column halted near present day Herford where they quickly fortified a suitable place and surrounded it with a stockade and a moat.  As the column arrived it assembled inside the stockade.  Varus abandoned his surplus baggage and marched out the next day intending to reach Aliso, but German attacks forced them into a blocked gorge under heavy rains.  Roman counter attacks failed to make headway over the muddy ground.  Trapped in the Doeren Gorge without any hope of escape, morale disintegrated.  Varus and a number of his officers committed suicide and the bearer of the Roman eagle jumped into a swamp to ensure that Rome’s insignia would not fall into German hands.  The remainder surrendered except for a few, primarily cavalry, who managed to escape and make their way to Aliso where they were besieged.  They successfully broke out of the fortress and got back to Roman lines along the Rhine.  The Germans, expecting a strong Roman force to return to avenge their comrades, withdrew back into the interior. H.W. Koch, Medieval Warfare, Bison Books Limited, London, 1982, p. 14.

Boudicca statue, Westminster, London.

[85] Under Emperor Nero, Roman rule over Britain was benevolent and constructive, except in East Anglia (modern Norfolk and Suffolk).  The death of the Iceni king in 61 AD opened the way to plunder and cruelties on the part of the occupying Roman forces.  The Iceni took up arms under the leadership of the widowed queen Boudicca (Boadicea), and attacked the undefended Roman town of Camulodunum (Colchester), slaughtering the Roman settlers and the Britons who collaborated with them.  Hurrying from Lindum (Lincoln) to put down the revolt, the Ninth Legion was overcome by sheer numbers and virtually annihilated.  At Gloucester, the Second Legion commander. Poenius Postumus, refused to leave the protection of his encampment.  The other two legions in Britain, the Fourteenth and Twentieth, under Governor Suetonius Paulinus, stood in Wales.  Before they could intervene, Boudicca’s rebels attacked Londinium (London), and burned it to the ground after massacring its inhabitants.  Her forces also attacked Verulamium (Saint Albans) killing an estimated 70,000 people in the three rebel onslaughts.  Paulinus force-marched his two legions (10,000 men) to the scene from Wales, and, choosing his ground carefully to give maximum advantage to his vastly outnumbered soldiers, directed a coordinated attack on the Briton rebel horde.  The battle was fought without mercy, even for the women and children in Boudicca’s wagon train.  Roman discipline and tactical skill triumphed in the face of superior numbers.  Almost 80,000 Britons were killed at a cost of 400 dead legionaries and a somewhat larger number of wounded.  The Iceni queen took poison, while at Gloucester the news of the battle induced Postumus to stab himself to death.  The victory of Paulinus gave him rank with Domitius Corbolo, in the East, as the best Roman General of the first century AD. David Eggenberger, An Encyclopedia of Battles, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1985, pp. 460-464..

[86] The cities of Adrianople (Edirne), Constantinople (Istanbul), and Rome have each been the site of seven separate battles and sieges; Warsaw has borne the brunt of six, Pavia five, and Alexandria, Baghdad, Paris, Prague and Ravenna four each.  These cities continue to stand, although the 20th century aerial bombardments of Baghdad may be counted as more recent additions to its score.  David Eggenberger, An Encyclopedia of Battles, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1985, p. iv.

[87] Jerusalem was besieged and destroyed in 586 BC by Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Babylon, (all its leading personalities were exiled in Mesopotamia, and in turn, Judah ceased to exist as a political entity); Antiochus IV destroyed the wall of Jerusalem between 168-165 BC; the Roman General Pompeii the Great laid siege to Jerusalem in 66 BC, although the city held out for three years.  Titus, the son of Titus Flavius Vespasian conducted the 4th siege as related above. The 5th siege took place in 615 AD during the Byzantine-Persian wars, when the Persians stormed the city, reportedly killing 50,000 and taking another 35,000 prisoners back to Persia.  The Muslims led by caliph Omar I besieged Jerusalem in 637, taking and holding it until the First Crusade in 1099.  Led by Raymond IV of Toulouse, Robert of Normandy, Godfrey de Bouillon, Robert of Flanders and Tancred of Taranto, the Christian army of 1,200 knights and 11,000 foot soldiers began the siege of Jerusalem on 7 June 1099, seizing it by 15 July 1099, and launching a wholesale slaughter of 70,000 of the defenders.  The Crusaders were themselves defeated at the Horns of Hattin near Tiberias in 1187, and were therefore unable to come to the aid of Balian of Ibelin when Saladin began his siege of Jerusalem on 20 September 1187.  It was over by 2 October with some captives ransomed and the rest sold as slaves.  In 1948, the city again came under siege by the Arabs during the first of the modern-era Arab-Israeli wars.  The defense of Jerusalem came under the command of Colonel David Shaltiel of the Hagana, and later with Colonel Moshe Dayan on 4 August 1948.  When the cease-fire finally came into effect, the city was divided with part of it remaining inside Jordan, and remained so until the 1967 six-day war when it came under full Israeli control.  Ibid, pp. 211-212.

[88] The siege of Jerusalem by Titus in AD 70 was conducted with the help of onagers reportedly capable of firing a 20-kilogram stone some 400 meters, although its impact velocity at that range cannot have been high. Anne Gael & Serge Chirol, Châteaux et Sites de La France Medievale, Hachette Realites, Paris, 1978, p. 157.

[89] Extrapolated from The Works of Flavius Josephus. (London: 1906).

[90] The temple was burnt 10 August AD 70, on the exact same day and month on which it had been burnt by the king of Babylon: Josephus, Ant. b. xx. c. 11. s. 8.

[92] The Works of Flavius Josephus. (London: 1906). Internet:

[93] H.W. Koch, Medieval Warfare, Bison Books Limited, London, 1982, p. 16.

[94] Ibid, p, 16.

[95] Carlos Paluzie de Lescazes, Castles of Europe, Crescent Books, Barcelona, 1982, p. 84.

[96] 742-814 AD:  Charlemagne (born 2 Apr 742, died 28 Jan 814) fought 40 campaigns in a 43 year reign, while carrying his sword Joyeuse.  Offa King of Mercia (757-796 AD) was the only monarch he treated as an equal. (Offa constructed Offa’s Dyke separating England from Wales.)  He stimulated and encouraged revivals of learning, art and literature.  After Charlemagne came the emergence of feudal society, based on the mounted knight and the fortified castle.  The strong protected the weak, and the weak paid a price.  Freemen of some wealth and property became vassals of the neighbouring lord, and in return for his promise of protection, pledged themselves (and retainers, if any) to serve him as cavalry or soldiers under certain clearly defined conditions i.e.: Viking or Magyar raids.  Charlemagne established a logistical organization including supply trains with food and equipment sufficient to maintain his troops for several weeks in the field.  Replenishment of supplies was done on an orderly basis, both by systematic foraging and by convoying additional supply trains to the armies in the field.  This permitted Charlemagne to carry war a thousand miles from the heart of France and to maintain armies in the field on campaign or in sieges, throughout the winter, something unknown in Western Europe since the time of the Romans.

[97] Lynn Montross,  War through the Ages, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York & London, 1946, p. 97.

[98] Carlos Paluzie de Lescazes, Castles of Europe, Crescent Books, Barcelona, 1982, p. 11.

[99] Wolfgang F. Schuerl, op. cit., p. 74.

[100] Lynn Montross, op. cit., p. 97-98.

[102] Lynn Montross, op. cit., p. 99.

[103] James Graham-Campbell and Dafydd Kidd, The Vikings, British Museum Publications, London, 1980, p. 122.

[104] William Anderson, Castles of Europe, From Charlemagne to the Renaissance, Ferndale Editions, London, 1980, p. 41.

[105] Ian Heath, The Vikings, Osprey Publishing, London, 1985, p. 61.

[106] William Anderson, op. cit., p. 39. The first date in Russian history according to Byzantine sources is 860 AD, when the Kiev Vikings (Rus) now known as Russians made their first attack and siege on Constantinople. The Patriarch Photius attempted to convert them to Christianity between 864-867 AD.

[107] Carlos Paluzie de Lescazes, Castles of Europe, Crescent Books, Barcelona, 1982, pp. 5-6.

[108] Wolfgang F. Schuerl, op. cit., p. 80., and William Anderson, op. cit., p. 45.

[109] R. Allen Brown et al, Castles, A History and Guide, Blandford Press, Poole, Dorset, 1980, p. 19.

[110] R. Allen Brown et al, op. cit., p. 18.

[111] Wolfgang F. Schuerl, op. cit., p. 7.

[112] Carlos Paluzie de Lescazes, Castles of Europe, Crescent Books, Barcelona, 1982, p. 9.

[113] The Haut-Koenigsbourg was constructed in the 12th century and suffered numerous sieges and assaults until it was taken and destroyed by the Swedes during the 30 Years War in the 17th century.  It was restored at the turn of the 20th century. Anne Gael & Serge Chirol, Châteaux et Sites de La France Medievale, Hachette Realites, Paris, 1978, p. 236.

[114] Carlos Paluzie de Lescazes, Castles of Europe, Crescent Books, Barcelona, 1982, p. 12.

[115] Anthony Kemp, op. Cit., pp. 168-169.

[116] David Eggenberger, An Encyclopedia of Battles, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1985, p. 487.

[117] Anthony Kemp, op. cit., p. 96.

[118] Ibid, p. 96.

[119] N. J. G. Pounds, The Medieval Castle in England and Wales. Cambridge University Press, 1990.  Internet:

[120] Hannibal von Luttichau-Barenstein, Alte Burgen-schone Schlosser, Eine romantische Deutschlandreise, (Old Fortresses and beautiful Castles, a romantic German tour), Verlag Das Beste GmbH, Stuttgart, 1980, p. 273.

[121] Lynn Montross, op. cit., p. 161-165.

[122] Carlton J.H. Hayes et al, History of Western Civilization, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1964, p. 179.

[123] G. Braun, Stauferburgen am Oberrhein (Staufer Castles on the Upper Rheinland), GmbH, Karlsruhe, 1977, p. 24.

[124] 1113-1118  Knights Templar founded by Baudoin I (crowned 18 July 1100).  When the Crusaders took the city of Jerusalem on 15 Jul 1099, there was in existence a small hospital for Christian pilgrims dedicated to St John the Baptist and under the rule of a certain Brother Gerard.  Brother Gerard had taken care of many wounded Christian soldiers and had his hospital had so impressed Duke Godfrey of Bouillon that he endowed it with the manor of Montboise, in Brabant.  Other Crusaders also gave grants.  They decided to formalize the hospital with a regular constitution.  The Knights of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem (Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem) were confirmed by the 1113 order of Pope Pascal II as a military order to protect pilgrims and also to defend the Latin states in the East.  They adopted the Augustinian rule, and took as their habit the black robe, with a white cross of eight points on the left side near the heart.  It originally consisted mostly of French Knights (1119-1120), but nine women as nursing sisters were also original members of the Hospitallers at Jerusalem.  About 50 women were generally part of the establishment for the next 150 years.  When Brother Gerard died in 1120, the Hospitallers elected Raymond du Puy, the second founder of the Order, whose destinies he guided for the next 40 years to 1160.  He was the first to take the title of Master.  Pope Clement V suppressed the Order 22 Mar 1312, and two years later burnt the last Grand Master Jacques de Molay; ancestors of the Rosicruscians & Freemasons.

Knights dubbed at the tomb of Christ were known as Knights of the Holy Sepulchre.  When Acre fell in 1291, they lost their last stronghold in the Holyland.  The Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem (Hospitalers) later retreated to Cyprus, then Rhodes, where it ruled for 200 years.  The Sealords of Sultan Suleiman besieged Rhodes in 1522 and forced them out after six months.  Seven years later the Knights were offered Malta by the HRE Charles V (with Tripoli included), for the payment in rent of one falcon.  The Knights arrived in Malta in 1530.  The Order of the Temple of Solomon (Templars) was followed by the Order of St Lazarus, all at the end of the 11th Century.  The orders were comprised of a Grandmaster, Pillars of Lands (provincial masters), Grand Priors, Commanders, and Knights. 

In Spain several orders were established in Castille between 1156-1171, including The Orders of: Calatrava; Alcantara; and Santiago (St James).  In Portugal, the Orders of: Avis; Montesa (Aragon); and the Order of Christ.  The Teutonic Order-Great Order of German Knights.  There are awards still presented for the Orders of: The Garter; the Golden Fleece; of St Michael; the Most Ancient Order of the Thistle; the Most Honourable Order of the Bath; the British Empire; the Chrysanthemum; and the Companions of Honour. 

The Knights of Malta still exist and continue to function to this day.  Their Order was divided into langues, or tongues: Auvergne, Provence, France, Aragon, Castille, England, Germany, and Italy.  The Turks attacked Malta in 1547 and 1551 unsuccessfully, although the Knights were driven out of Tripoli in 1551.  On 18 May 1565 the Ottoman Turks and their allies totaling 48,000 troops attacked the 8000 men (540 Knights, 4000 Maltese, and Spanish and Italian Mercenaries) on Malta.  The Grand Master, La Valette defeated the Turks.  Six years later the Turks are also defeated at Sea- the Battle of Lepanto.  Napoleon captured Malta in Jun 1798, but it was retaken by the British in Oct the same Year.  In 1802 the Treaty of Amiens ended the war between England and France, and Malta was returned to the Order of St John.  In 1814, under the Treaty of Paris, Malta became a UK possession.

[125] Charles Connell, op. cit., p. 56.

[126] Charles Connell, op. cit., p. 57.

[127] William Anderson, Castles of Europe, from Charlemagne to the Renaissance, Ferndale Editions, London, 1980, p. 46.

[128] A.W. Lawrence, T.E. Lawrence by His Friends, Jonathan Cape, London, 1954, p. 53.

[129] John E. Mack, A Prince of Our Disorder, The Life of T.E. Lawrence, Mack, London, 1976, p. 52-54.

[130] Desmond Stewart, T. E. Lawrence, Paladin, Granada Publishing, London, 1979, p. 61-62.

[131] Anthony Kemp, op cit., p.96 & p. 161.

[132] Ibid., p.161.

[133] Defenestration of Prague took place on 23 May 1618, leading to the start of the Thirty Years War.  Most of the battles took place in Germany.  The war ended on 20 August 1648 with the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia which recognized the independence of the Netherlands.

[134] Werner Bornheim et al, Burgen un Schlosser, Kunst und Kultur in Rheinland-Pfalz, (Fortresses and Castles, Art and Culture in the Rhineland-Pfalz Region), Ahrtal-Verlag, Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, 1981, p. 31.  H. von Luttichau-Barenstein, Alte Burgen-schone Schlosser, Verlag Das Beste, Stuttgart, 1980, p. 137.


[136] Steven Runicman, The Fall of Constantinople, 1453, Cambridge at the University Press, 1965, p. 77-78, 95-97.

[137] Trevor N. Dupuy, The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare, Hero Books, Fairfax, Virginia, 1984, p. 27.

[138] Carcassonne, situated in the middle of the Languedoc on the Aude River in southern France, with portions which date from the 6th century, although its current castle was constructed in the first half of the 12th century.  The original town was built on a bluff sloping down steeply on all sides.  It is an amalgam of mainly Romanesque and Gothic buildings which were restored by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century. Wolfgang F. Schuerl, op. cit., p. 143.

[139] H.W. Koch, Medieval Warfare, Bison Books Limited, London, 1982, p. 85.

[140] Ibid., p. 166.

[141] Anthony Kemp, op. Cit., p. 166.

[142] Philip Warner, op. cit., p. 30.

[143] Wolfgang F. Schuerl, op. cit., p. 68.

[144] Martin van Creveld, op. cit., p. 33.

[145] H.W. Koch, Medieval Warfare, Bison Books Limited, London, 1982, p. 128.

[146] Charles Connell, op. cit., p. 11.

[148] John E. Mack, op. cit., p. 52-53.

[149] In 1152, Eleanor of Aquitaine, divorced wife of Louis VII of France, married the Count of Anjou, who became Henry II of England in 1154.  Her dowry was half of France.  For the next 300 years, France and England would be at war over these territories.  In 1214, Philip II Augustus of France defeated the English ally Emperor Otto IV of Germany.  Louis IX (Saint Louis) crushed a rebellion of nobles supported by England.  This resulted in England being forced to give up all of her French territories except for Aquitaine by the Treaty of Paris in 1259.  The dispute continued long after the treaty was signed, with England’s Edward II launching the “Hundred Years War” in 1339.  In spite of his victory at Crécy, his campaign was brought to a halt by lack of money. Carlos Paluzie de Lescazes, Castles of Europe, Crescent Books, Barcelona, 1982, p. 84.

[150] John Lackland (1199-1216) was defeated by the Capetian Philip Augustus in 1214 at Roche-au-Moine, and his allies, Otto IV of Brunswick and the Counts of Flanders and Boulogne, had also been defeated at the Battle of Bouvines.  His barons took advantage of this to force him to accept the conditions of Magna Carta in 1215.

[151] Anthony Kemp, op. cit., p. 170.

[152] Anthony Kemp, op. cit., p. 171.

[153] William Anderson, op. Cit., p. 118-124.

[154] ca. 1162-1227  Genghis Khan, son of Mongol chieftain Yesugai, born in the south east of the Baikal.  His son Tuli took over after his death.  The Mongols withdrew undefeated in 1242.  Khan Toktamish and Tamerlane lead both the White Horde and the Golden Horde, uniting them 1243-1400.

[155] Genghis learned from Chinese engineers the use of siege engines, mangonels and catapults.  Trevor N. Dupuy, The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare, Hero Books, Fairfax, Virginia, 1984, p. 71.

[156] In the first decades of the 13th Century the Mongol horsemen, united by Genghis Khan in 1206, conquered the empire of the Chin Tartars to the South of their homelands, and advanced west through Muslim Asia as far as the Caucasus, thus creating the nucleus of an empire that would become, under Kublai Khan, larger than any the world had seen.

The term horde, denoting a Mongol tribe or a field army, did not necessarily mean large numbers of men.  Genghis Khan and his successors accomplished feats that would be hard, if not impossible, for modern armies to duplicate, principally because they had one of the best-organized, best trained, and most thoroughly disciplined armies ever created.  The Mongol army was usually smaller than those of its principal opponents.  The largest force Genghis Khan ever assembled was 240,000 men, with which he conquered Persia.  The Mongol armies that later conquered Russia and all of eastern and central Europe never exceeded 150,000 men.

[157] Trevor N. Dupuy, The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare, Hero Books, Fairfax, Virginia, 1984, p. 72.

[158] A.V.B. Norman and G.M. Wilson, Treasures from the Tower of London, Lund Humphries, Bradford, 1982, p. 29.  Werner Meyer and Erich Lessing, Deutsche Ritter, Deutsche Burgen, Orbis Verlag, 1990, p. 211.

[159] Under Charles V of France, Bertran Du Guesclin began the reconquest of the French territories captured by England in the Hundred Years War at that time.  The balance of power returned to the English forces again when Henry V of England landed in France in 1415 and won the battle of Agincourt.  Carlos Paluzie de Lescazes, op. cit., p. 85.

[160] Attila the Hun reached Metz in June 451 AD, but he was defeated in the Battle of Chalons-sur-Marne.  He went on to invade northern Italy in 452 AD.  He died in 453 AD.

[161] During the reign of Charles VII, King of France (1422-1461), the country was divided into three large areas: The English occupied Normandy, Poitou, and Aquitaine; Burgundy was an independent state and the remainder consisted of Anjou and the south of France under the French crown.  Joan of Arc was aided and in many ways manipulated by a number of ruling power-brokers, serving as a powerful and near-mystical symbol in the battles which helped to turn the tide in favor of France.  Normandy was ultimately recovered by France in 1450, and Aquitaine in 1461.  Carlos Paluzie de Lescazes, op. cit., p.85.

[162] Lynn Montross, War through the Ages, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York and London, 1946, p. 183.

[163] During the reign of Louis XI (1461-1483), Burgundy was annexed after the death of its ruler, Charles the Bold, at which time Maine and Provence fell to the French on the death of King René.  France lost Flanders in 1482 as it formed part of the dowry of Marie of Burgundy when she married Maximillian of Austria.  When the Burgundian inheritance was divided by the Treaty of Senlis in 1493, the groundwork was laid for the future rivalry between France and the Hapsburgs.  Carlos Paluzie de Lescazes, op.cit., p. 85.

[164] There is nothing to show that Joan had military ability, as the French men-at-arms often averted a disaster by declining to attack when the tactical circumstances were unwinable.  Joan would eventually be taken prisoner, tried and convicted on charges of heresy, and burnt at the stake in Rouen by the English.  After her martyrdom, it took 15 years of anarchy and civil strife before another woman helped to transform warfare as it was then known.  Agnes Sorel, one of the first of the royal mistresses to mold French history, urged Charles to create a formal military establishment.  As a result, the first standing army of the Middle Ages came into being.  It consisted of 9,000 permanent troops, paid and equipped by the king, and which could be used to crush his enemies.  The raising of this small force set a precedent for other monarchs, and is one of the landmarks of military history.  With these forces at his disposal, Charles conducted a series of swift campaigns which cleared France of the invaders, leaving the English only Calais as the prize of a century’s conquests.

[165] The Wars of the Roses took place 1450-1485 in England between the houses of York (White Rose) under Richard Plantagenet, and Lancaster (Red Rose) under Henry VI.  A scion of the latter house founded a new dynasty in 1485, when the Tudor, Henry VII, became king of England.

[166] Lynn Montross, op. cit., p. 189-190.

[167] Bruce Allen Watson, op. cit., p. 2.

[168] General Sir John Hackett, The Profession of Arms, Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd., Great Britain, 1983, p. 57.

[169] Hans Halberstadt, The World’s Great Artillery, from the Middle Ages to the Present Day, Barnes & Noble Books, New York, 2002, p. 11.

[170] Bruce Allen Watson, op. cit., p. 2.

[171] Lynn Montross, op. cit., p. 111-112.

[172] The conquest of Constantinople took place from 11-13 April1204.  The Varangian (English/Danish) Guard fought well, but were destroyed by the Crusaders and Venetians.

[173] Martin H. Brice, op. cit., p. 95.

[174] Charles Connell, op. cit., p. 59.

[175] Lynn Montross, op. cit., p. 195.

[176] Lynn Montross, op. cit., p. 223.

[177] In 1444, a great Egyptian armada, too powerful for the galleys of  “the Religion,” had landed a force of 18,000 Mamelukes on the island of Rhodes.  The island of Rhodes was ravaged from end to end, and the siege of the city lasted 40 days.  The Egyptians had concentrated their fire on the outlying fort covering the entrance to the Harbor of the Galleys, where the Castle of St Nicholas was later built, and on the curtain wall linking the harbor to St Peter’s Tower.  By mid August, the curtain wall began to show a serious breech, and John de Lastic decided to take the offensive and to make a sortie in force with all the troops at his disposal.  On 24 August 1444, in the darkness of the early morning the garrison silently filed out of the fortress and formed up in front of the ditch, light troops in front, supported by a stand of pikes and the archers on the flanks.  As soon as daylight began to appear, the drums and trumpets sounded the charge, and the Egyptian camp was successfully rushed.  A great number of Mamelukes were killed, and the remainder, taken completely by surprise, fled in panic to their galleys and hastily embarked, abandoning guns, stores and baggage to the garrison.

[178] Lynn Montross, op. cit., p. 225.

[179] Craig Philip, Last Stands, Famous Battles Against the Odds, Bison Books Ltd., Kimbolton House, London, 1994, Introduction.

[180] William Seymour, Great Sieges of History.  Brassey’s (UK), Oxford, 1991, p. 46.

[181] William Seymour, op. cit., p. 47.

[182] William Seymour, op. cit., p. 49.

[183] William Seymour, op. cit., p. 50.

[184] Charles Connell, op. cit., p. 75-84.

[185] The Inquisition began in 1478, instituted by Isabel in Castile, Spain.  The Spanish Inquisition was formally established by a union of the Inquisitions of Aragon and Castile in 1483.  Torquemada was appointed Grand Inquisitor 1493.  The Inquisition lasted until the 19th Century, and is estimated to have been inflicted on 3 million people.

[186] Having set out from Cuba, Hernan Cortes (1485-1547), landed near the site of modern Veracruz with 500 men on 22 April 1519.  He then marched on Mexico, arriving in August, and entered Tlaxacallan on 23 September.  He destroyed Cholula on 18 October, and entered Mexico City on 8 November where he took power.  He conquered the Aztec empire of Montezuma in two years.

[187] TIME magazine, 21 February 1994, p. 11.

[188] G. J. Ashworth,  War and the City, Routledge, London and New York, 1991, p. 31.

[189] Bruce Allen Watson, op. cit., p. 3.

[190] Russell F. Weigley, The Age of Battles: the Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo.  Indiana University Press, 1991, p. 55.

[191] Reginald Bloomfield, Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban, 1633-1707, Methuen & Company Ltd., London, 1938, p. 61.

[192] Harold A. Skaarup, Vauban: His Fortifications and Methods of Siege, RMC War Studies 500 Paper, 14 January 1994, p. 3.

[193] Bruce W, Fry, “An Appearance of strength” The Fortifications of Louisbourg, Volume One and Volume Two.  Canadian Government Publishing Centre, Supply and Services Canada, Hull, Quebec, 1984, p. 45.

[194] Ian Hogg, op. Cit., p. 129-130.

[195] Bruce Allen Watson, op. cit., p. 7.

[196] Bernard L. Montgomery, A History of Warfare, Collins, London, 1968, p. 295

[197] J.F.C. Fuller, Major General, The Conduct of War, 1789-1961, Lyre and Spottiswoode, London, 1962, p. 90-91.

[198] Marguerita Z. Herman, Ramparts, Fortifications From the Renaissance to West Point, Avery Publishing Group Inc., Garden City park, New York, 1992, p. 46-47.

[199] The first wave of the Black Death swept through Europe between 1347-1350.  The Black Death originated in the steppes of Central Asia, and traveled the trade routes opened up by the Mongols, reaching Constantinople in 1347.  By the end of the following year it had spread through Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal, and had appeared in southern England.  The infection was then carried north, through Scotland and Germany, reaching the Baltic in 1350.  A few sparsely populated areas were spared, but overall perhaps a third of the population of Europe perished in the first epidemic of 1347-1350.  Outbreaks continued for many years afterwards.

[200] Paul Johnson, Castles of England, Scotland and Wales, Weinfeld and Nicolson, London, 1989, pp. 168-173.

[201] Wimmer, Jan, The 1683 Siege of Vienna (Warsaw; Interpress, 1983); Internet:

[202] Russell F. Weigley, The Age of Battles: the Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo.  Indiana University Press, 1991, p. 55

[203] Reginald Bloomfield, Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban, 1633-1707, Methuen & Company Ltd., London, 1938, p. 61.

[204] Russell F. Weigley, op. cit., p. 53-54.

[205] Field-Marshal Viscount Bernard L. Montgomery of Alamein, A History of Warfare, (Collins, London, 1968), p. 293.

[206]  Reginald Bloomfield, op. cit., p. 56.

[207] Bernard L. Montgomery, op. cit., p. 293.

 [208] A list of definitions, terms and illustrations used to describe the fortifications is included in the appendix.

[209] Bernard L. Montgomery, op. cit., p. 295.

[210] Ian Hogg, The History of Fortification, Orbis Publishing Ltd., New York, 1981, p. 120-121.

[211] The large citadel Vauban built at Arras still stands today.  Peter and Helen Titchmarsh, Exploring France, Warwick, 1990, p. 191.

[212] Bruce W. Fry, “An appearance of strength” The Fortifications of Louisbourg, Volume One, (Parks Canada, 1984), p. 38.

[213] Ibid. p. 38.

[214] Loc. cit., p. 38.

[215] Bruce W. Fry, op. cit., p. 39.

[216] Ibid. p. 39.

[217] Loc. cit.

[218] Loc. cit.

[219] Loc. cit.

[220] Loc. cit.

[221] Loc. cit.

 [222] Some of which are visible in the fortifications at Longwy, Mauberge and Verdun, where one can see the characteristic designs of Vauban in the curved flanks protected by orillons.  Loc. cit.

[223] Peter and Helen Titchmarsh, op. cit., Index.

[224] Colonel T.N. Dupuy, The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare, Indianapolis, 1980, p. 110.  Ian Hogg, The History of Fortification, St. Martin’s Press Inc, New York, 1981, p. 122.

[225] H.W. Koch, History of Warfare, Bison Books Ltd., London, 1987, p. 193.

[226] Peter Paret, op. cit., p. 81.

[227] Russell F. Weigley, op. cit., p. 56.

[228] Reginald Bloomfield, op cit., p. 59.

[229] Bruce W. Fry, op. cit., p. 41.

[230] Ibid. p. 42.

[231] Peter Paret, op. cit., p. 82.

[232]  Bruce W. Fry, op. cit., p. 42.

[233] Bruce W. Fry, op. cit., p. 43.

[234] Field Marshal Viscount Bernard L. Montgomery of Alamein, op. cit., p. 313.

[235] Bruce W. Fry, op. cit., p. 44-45.

[236] Ibid. p. 43.

[237] Peter Paret, op. cit., p. 81.

[238] Bruce W. Fry, op. cit., p. 43.

[239] Reginald Bloomfield, op. cit., pp. 141-142.

[240] Bruce W. Fry, op. cit., p. 43.

[241] Peter Paret, op. cit., p. 81.

[242] Peter Paret, op. cit., p. 75

[243] Bruce W. Fry, op. cit., p. 41.

[244] Peter Paret, op. cit., p. 81.

[245] Bruce W. Fry, op. cit., p. 41. 

[246] Louise Déchene, la correspondance de Vauban relative au Canada.  Ministere des affaires culturelles, (Paris, 1968), p. 3, 3rd para, and André Charbonneau, Québec, p. 35 & 99.

[247] Ibid. p. 4, 3rd para, free translation.

[248] Leslie F. Hannon, Forts of Canada, The Conflicts, Sieges, and Battles that Forged a Great Nation.  McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1969, p. 62.

[249] H. W. Koch, History of Warfare, p. 276.

[250]  Leslie F. Hannon, op. cit., p. 30.

[251] Leslie F. Hannon, op. cit., p. 30.

[252] The English captured Louisbourg in 1745, during King George’s War (1744-1748).  This was the third French-English conflict in North America, which ended with the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle.

[253] Leslie F. Hannon, Forts of Canada, The Conflicts, Sieges, and Battles that Forged a Great Nation.  McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1969, p. 30.

[254] Leslie F. Hannon, op. cit., p. 30.

[255] Lynn Montross, op. cit., p. 442.

[256] David Eggenberger, An Encyclopedia of Battles, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1985, p. 382.

[257] The American Civil War was fought between April 1861 and 1 April 1865.  The issue of slavery, particularly in the new states being formed from western territories, drove an ever larger wedge between the free states of the North and the slave holding states to the South.  When the Republican candidate for President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, won election on 6 November 1860, the situation reached a crisis.  South Carolina seceded from the Union on 20 December 1860, declaring that its sovereignty now stood in jeopardy.  Six other states followed suit from 9 January to 1 February 1861: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. 

On 4 February representatives from these states formed the Confederate States of America, with Jefferson Davis elected President.  Federal forts and arsenals were seized throughout the South.  Confederate shore batteries forced the surrender of Fort Sumter outside Charleston, South Carolina on 13 April.  President Lincoln then called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the “insurrection” against the United States.  From 17 April to 20 May, four more states left the Union: Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina.  The Confederate government established its capitol at Richmond, Virginia, and mobilized for war.  Its chief aim was to force the North to recognize its independence.  The 23 states of the North and West, under the leadership of Lincoln, sought originally only to restore the Union.  However, after the President’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1 January 1863, freeing the slaves became an almost equally important objective.

For four years the United States was torn by bitter civil war.  The major theater of operations was east of the Appalachians, especially in northern Virginia between the two hostile capitals of Washington, DC, and Richmond.  From the Appalachians westward to the Mississippi River an important secondary theater developed.  The last two Confederate armies in the field surrendered on 9 April and 18 April 1865.  In the costliest war in United States history (in the proportion of casualties to participants), the Confederate government was decisively abolished.  In all, the North mobilized 1,557,000 men, the South 1,082,000.  Federal losses were 359,528 dead (of these 110,070 were killed or mortally wounded in battle), 275,175 wounded.  Confederate casualties were 258,000 dead (including 94,000 battle deaths) and more than 100,000 reported wounded.

[258] Herbert M. Schiller, Sumter Is Avenged! The Siege and Reduction of Fort PulaskiWhite Mane Publishing Co., Shippenburg, Pennsylvania, 1996.  Commentary by Walter J. Jr., Fraser.

[259] The Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth’s highest military decoration for bravery, is founded by Queen Victoria in 1856 to award outstanding gallantry in the Crimean War.  The decoration, a bronze cross pattee with, in relief, the Royal crest, bears the simple words: “For Valour.”  It is suspended from a ribbon that was formerly blue for the navy and red for the army.  The ribbon is now red (dull crimson) for all services.

[260] Lynn Montross, op. cit., p. 676.

[261] The British had expanded into large portions of Central and Southern Africa just before the turn of the century.  Cecil Rhodes, a British “diamond king” developed part of this territory and gave it his name “Rhodesia” (now Zimbabwe) in 1895.  He clashed with President Kruger of the Transvaal Republic, just as major deposits of gold were discovered launching a destabilizing rush to the area.  A Briton named Jameson led a disastrous and unsuccessful raid into the Transvaal which began much of the trouble leading up to the war.  Jameson, a friend of Rhodes was captured and the German Kaiser, William II, telegraphed his congratulations to Kruger.  Although William was Queen Victoria’s grandson, the British were outraged.  Relations between the Boer Republics and Great Britain deteriorated further because of the poor treatment of foreign miners and prospectors who had flooded into the Transvaal in the Gold Rush.  War broke out in 1899.  The skill and tenacity of the Boer farmers had been seriously underrated and the Boers under the command of men like General Cronje who led the Transvaal forces at the sieges of Mafeking and Kimberly, inflicted a number of serious defeats on the British forces with heavy losses.  The arrival in early 1900 of Lord Roberts, who had conquered Afghanistan, and Lord Kitchener who had conquered the Sudan, improved the British situation, but the war did not end until May 1902.  Though the Boers were granted the same civil liberties as those in effect throughout the British Empire, the two small farmer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State disappeared, and the British dominated all of South Africa.  Larousse Encyclopedia of Modern History from 1500 to the Present Day, Ed Marcel Dunan, Paul Hamlyn, Singapore, 1973, pp. 335-336.

[262] Arthur Conan Doyle, The Siege of Mafeking; The Great Boer War: A Two-Years’ Record, 1899-1901, London, Smith, Elder & Co., 1901.  Internet:

[263] On 28 June 1914, the Austrian Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated at Sarajevo in Bosnia.  Austria held Serbia responsible, and William II promised his support to the Austro-Hungarians in case of war.  On 28 July 1914 Austria-Hungary declared war on the Serbia.  Shortly afterwards, on 1 August, Germany declared war on Russia, and on 3 August Germany declared war on France and entered Belgium.  On 4 August 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany.  As a British Colony, Canada was automatically at war as well.

[264] Alistair Horne, The Price of Glory, Verdun 1916, Macmillan and Co Ltd., London, 1962, p. 33.

[265] Alistair Horne, op. cit., p. 205-206.

[266] Alistair Horne, The Price of Glory, Verdun, 1916, MacMillan and Co Ltd., London, 1962, p. 263.

[267] Alistair Horne, op. cit., p. 304.

[268] Charles Connell, op. cit., p. 196-202.

[269] Alistair Horne, op. cit., p. 338.

[270] Peter Paret, Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1986, p. 604-605.

[271] Trevor N. Dupuy, The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare, Hero Books, Fairfax, Virginia, 1984, p. 330-331.

[272] Michael Hickey, Out of the Sky, A History of Airborne Warfare, Mills & Boon Limited, London, 1979, p. 51

[273] Michael Hickey, op. cit., p. 52.

[274] Ibid, p. 53.

[275] James Lucas, Storming Eagles, German Airborne Forces in World War Two, Arms and Armour Press, London, 1988, p. 22.

[276] Philip de Ste Croix, Airborne Operations, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Great Battles of Airborne Forces, Salamander Books, London, 1978, p. 43.

[277] Philip de Ste Croix, op. cit., p. 44.

[278] The Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Belgium, The Official Account of what happened, 1939-1940, 1941, p. x.

[279] On 22 June 1941, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the greatest ground attack in history, with 138 divisions, (including 19 armoured divisions).  On the left, Field Marshal Wilhelm von Leeb’s Army Group “C” with 30 divisions attacked from East Prussia through the Baltic States toward Leningrad.  On the right, Field Marshal Karl von Rundstedt’s Army Group “A” with 57 divisions drove southeast from southern Poland and Rumania into the Ukraine.  In the center, Field Marshall Fedor von Bock’s Army Group “B” with 51 divisions, carried the heaviest weight of the German armor and with four armies in the van press north of the Pripet Marshes straight towards Moscow.  To defend against this onslaught, the Soviet Union had 148 divisions spread along the 1,500-mile long frontier from the Baltic to the Black Sea.  The Russian army groups were commanded by General Kliment Voroshilov in the north, General Semën Timoshenko in the center, and General Semën Budënny in the south.  The ensuing combat is now known to history as the world’s greatest land battle.  In the north, Field Marshall von Leeb’s forces advanced rapidly through the Baltic States to close in on Leningrad within 10 weeks of the initial invasion.  David Eggenberger, An Encyclopedia of Battles, Accounts of Over 1,560 Battles from 1479 BC to the Present.  Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1985, p. 411.

[280] Internet:

[281] David Eggenberger, An Encyclopedia of Battles, Accounts of Over 1,560 Battles from 1479 BC to the Present.  Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1985, p. 121.

[282] Bruce A. Watson, op. cit., p. 149.

[283] Bruce A. Watson, op. cit., p. 149.

[284] Bruce A. Watson, op. cit., p. 150.

[285] Bernard B. Fall, Hell in a Very Small Place, The Siege of Dien Bien Phu, J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, New York, 1967, p. 1-3.

[286] Philip de Ste Croix, op. cit., p. 176.

[287] Bruce A. Watson, op. cit., p. 150.

[288] Bernard B. Fall, op. cit., p. 52-53.

[289] Philip de Ste Croix, op. cit., p. 177.

[290] Bernard B. Fall, op. cit., pp. 381-382.

[291] Bernard B. Fall, op. cit., p. 399.

[292] Philip de Ste Croix, op. cit., p. 177.

[293] Charles Connell, op. cit., pp. 257-264.

[294] On 6 and 9 August 1945, Atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, following the first atomic bomb exploded at Alamagordo in the United States.  A non-nuclear explosive charge is used to bombard fragments of fissile material which thus reach a critical mass and spark off a chain reaction in a fraction of a second.  Other countries quickly followed with nuclear devices of their own: the USSR on 14 July 1949, Great Britain in 1952, France on 13 February 1960, China  in 1964, India in 1974, Pakistan more recently and certainly Israel, South Africa and soon others.  On 1 November 1952, the first thermonuclear H-bomb was exploded in the USA.  The A-bomb uses the fission of heavy nuclei, while the H-bomb uses light nuclei.  The USSR quickly followed with an H-bomb device of its own on 12 Aug 1953, Great Britain in 1957, China in 1967 and France in1968.  The detonation of the first atomic bomb in modern times marked 1945 as year one of the atomic era.

[295] Anthony Kemp, op. cit., p. 14.

[296] The White House, Washington, 20 September 2002, W01081-02: The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, p.22.