A siege is a military blockade of a city, or fortress, with the intent
of conquering by attrition, or a well-prepared assault. This derives
Latin for "to sit".
Siege warfare is a form of
constant, low-intensity conflict characterized by one party holding a
strong, static, defensive position. Consequently, an opportunity for
negotiation between combatants is not uncommon, as proximity and
fluctuating advantage can encourage diplomacy.
A siege occurs when an attacker encounters a city or fortress that
cannot be easily taken by a quick assault, and which refuses to
surrender. Sieges involve surrounding the target to block the
provision of supplies and the reinforcement or escape of troops (a
tactic known as "investment"). This is typically coupled with
attempts to reduce the fortifications by means of siege engines,
artillery bombardment, mining (also known as sapping), or the use of
deception or treachery to bypass defenses.
Failing a military outcome, sieges can often be decided by starvation,
thirst, or disease, which can afflict either the attacker or defender.
This form of siege, though, can take many months or even years,
depending upon the size of the stores of food the fortified position
The attacking force can circumvallate the besieged place, which is to
build a line of earth-works, consisting of a rampart and trench,
surrounding it. During the process of circumvallation, the attacking
force can be set upon by another force, an ally of the besieged place,
due to the lengthy amount of time required to force it to capitulate.
A defensive ring of forts outside the ring of circumvallated forts,
called contravallation, is also sometimes used to defend the attackers
Ancient cities in the Middle East show archaeological evidence of
having had fortified city walls. During the Warring States era of
ancient China, there is both textual and archaeological evidence of
prolonged sieges and siege machinery used against the defenders of
Siege machinery was also a tradition of the ancient
Greco-Roman world. During the
Renaissance and the early modern period,
siege warfare dominated the conduct of war in Europe. Leonardo da
Vinci gained as much of his renown from the design of fortifications
as from his artwork.
Medieval campaigns were generally designed around a succession of
sieges. In the Napoleonic era, increasing use of ever more powerful
cannon reduced the value of fortifications. In the 20th century, the
significance of the classical siege declined. With the advent of
mobile warfare, a single fortified stronghold is no longer as decisive
as it once was. While traditional sieges do still occur, they are not
as common as they once were due to changes in modes of battle,
principally the ease by which huge volumes of destructive power can be
directed onto a static target. Modern sieges are more commonly the
result of smaller hostage, militant, or extreme resisting arrest
1 Ancient era
1.1 The necessity of city walls
1.2 Archaeological evidence
2 Greco-Roman era
3 Arabia during Muhammad's era
4 Chinese and Mongols
5 Age of gunpowder
5.1 Emerging theories
5.2 New fortresses
Vauban and Van Coehoorn
5.4 Mobile warfare
5.4.1 Strategic concepts
5.4.2 Industrial advances
6 Modern warfare
6.1 First World War
6.2 Second World War
6.3 Cold War
6.4 Post-Second World War
7 Police activity
8 See also
11 Further reading
12 External links
The necessity of city walls
The Assyrians deployed large labour forces to build new palaces,
temples, and defensive walls. Some settlements in the Indus Valley
Civilization were also fortified. By about 3500 BC, hundreds of
small farming villages dotted the
Indus River floodplain. Many of
these settlements had fortifications and planned streets.
The stone and mud brick houses of
Kot Diji were clustered behind
massive stone flood dikes and defensive walls, for neighbouring
communities quarrelled constantly about the control of prime
Mundigak (c. 2500 BC) in present-day
Afghanistan has defensive walls and square bastions of
City walls and fortifications were essential for the defence of the
first cities in the ancient Near East. The walls were built of
mudbricks, stone, wood, or a combination of these materials, depending
on local availability. They may also have served the dual purpose of
showing presumptive enemies the might of the kingdom. The great walls
surrounding the Sumerian city of
Uruk gained a widespread reputation.
The walls were 9.5 km (5.9 mi) in length, and up to
12 m (39 ft) in height.
Later, the walls of Babylon, reinforced by towers, moats, and ditches,
gained a similar reputation. In Anatolia, the
Hittites built massive
stone walls around their cities atop hillsides, taking advantage of
the terrain. In
Shang Dynasty China, at the site of Ao, large walls
were erected in the 15th century BC that had dimensions of 20 m
(66 ft) in width at the base and enclosed an area of some 2,100
yards (1,900 m) squared. The ancient Chinese capital for the
State of Zhao, Handan, founded in 386 BC, also had walls that were
20 m (66 ft) wide at the base; they were 15 m
(49 ft) tall, with two separate sides of its rectangular
enclosure at a length of 1,530 yd (1,400 m).
The cities of the
Indus Valley Civilization
Indus Valley Civilization showed less effort in
constructing defences, as did the
Minoan civilization on Crete. These
civilizations probably relied more on the defence of their outer
borders or sea shores. Unlike the ancient Minoan civilization, the
Mycenaean Greeks emphasized the need for fortifications alongside
natural defences of mountainous terrain, such as the massive Cyclopean
walls built at
Mycenae and other adjacent Late
Bronze Age (c.
1600–1100 BC) centers of central and southern Greece.
The Egyptian siege of Dapur in the 13th century BC, from Ramesseum,
Although there are depictions of sieges from the ancient Near East in
historical sources and in art, there are very few examples of siege
systems that have been found archaeologically. Of the few examples,
several are noteworthy:
The late 9th-century BC siege system surrounding Tell es-Safi/Gath,
Israel, consists of a 2.5 km long siege trench, towers, and other
elements, and is the earliest evidence of a circumvallation system
known in the world. It was apparently built by
Hazael of Aram
Damascus, as part of his siege and conquest of
Philistine Gath in the
late 9th century BC (mentioned in
II Kings 12:18).
The late 8th-century BC siege system surrounding the site of Lachish
(Tell el-Duweir) in Israel, built by
Assyria in 701 BC,
is not only evident in the archaeological remains, but is described in
Assyrian and biblical sources and in the reliefs of Sennacherib's
palace in Nineveh.
The siege of Alt-Paphos,
Cyprus by the Persian army in the 4th century
The earliest representations of siege warfare have been dated to the
Protodynastic Period of Egypt, c. 3000 BC. These show the symbolic
destruction of city walls by divine animals using hoes.
The first siege equipment is known from Egyptian tomb reliefs of the
24th century BC, showing Egyptian soldiers storming Canaanite town
walls on wheeled siege ladders. Later Egyptian temple reliefs of the
13th century BC portray the violent siege of Dapur, a Syrian city,
with soldiers climbing scale ladders supported by archers.
Assyrian palace reliefs of the 9th to 7th centuries BC display sieges
of several Near Eastern cities. Though a simple battering ram had come
into use in the previous millennium, the Assyrians improved siege
warfare and used huge wooden tower-shaped battering rams with archers
positioned on top.
In ancient China, sieges of city walls (along with naval battles) were
portrayed on bronze 'hu' vessels, like those found in Chengdu, Sichuan
in 1965, which have been dated to the
Warring States period
Warring States period (5th to
3rd centuries BC).
Depiction of various siege machines in the mid-16th century.
An attacker's first act in a siege might be a surprise attack,
attempting to overwhelm the defenders before they were ready or were
even aware there was a threat. This was how William de Forz captured
Fotheringhay Castle in 1221.
The most common practice of siege warfare was to lay siege and just
wait for the surrender of the enemies inside or, quite commonly, to
coerce someone inside to betray the fortification. During the medieval
period, negotiations would frequently take place during the early part
of the siege. An attacker – aware of a prolonged siege's great cost
in time, money, and lives – might offer generous terms to a defender
who surrendered quickly. The defending troops would be allowed to
march away unharmed, often retaining their weapons. However, a
garrison commander who was thought to have surrendered too quickly
might face execution by his own side for treason.
As a siege progressed, the surrounding army would build earthworks (a
line of circumvallation) to completely encircle their target,
preventing food, water, and other supplies from reaching the besieged
city. If sufficiently desperate as the siege progressed, defenders and
civilians might have been reduced to eating anything vaguely edible
– horses, family pets, the leather from shoes, and even each other.
The Hittite siege of a rebellious Anatolian vassal in the 14th century
BC ended when the queen mother came out of the city and begged for
mercy on behalf of her people. The Hittite campaign against the
Mitanni in the 14th century BC bypassed the fortified city
of Carchemish. If the main objective of a campaign was not the
conquest of a particular city, it could simply be passed by. When the
main objective of the campaign had been fulfilled, the Hittite army
Carchemish and the city fell after an eight-day siege.
Disease was another effective siege weapon, although the attackers
were often as vulnerable as the defenders. In some instances,
catapults or similar weapons were used to fling diseased animals over
city walls in an early example of biological warfare. If all else
failed, a besieger could claim the booty of his conquest undamaged,
and retain his men and equipment intact, for the price of a
well-placed bribe to a disgruntled gatekeeper. The Assyrian
Jerusalem in the 8th century BC came to an end when the Israelites
bought them off with gifts and tribute, according to the Assyrian
account, or when the Assyrian camp was struck by mass death, according
Biblical account. Due to logistics, long-lasting sieges
involving a minor force could seldom be maintained. A besieging army,
encamped in possibly squalid field conditions and dependent on the
countryside and its own supply lines for food, could very well be
threatened with the disease and starvation intended for the besieged.
Medieval trebuchets could sling about two projectiles per hour at
To end a siege more rapidly, various methods were developed in ancient
and medieval times to counter fortifications, and a large variety of
siege engines were developed for use by besieging armies. Ladders
could be used to escalade over the defences. Battering rams and siege
hooks could also be used to force through gates or walls, while
catapults, ballistae, trebuchets, mangonels, and onagers could be used
to launch projectiles to break down a city's fortifications and kill
its defenders. A siege tower, a substantial structure built to equal
or greater height than the fortification's walls, could allow the
attackers to fire down upon the defenders and also advance troops to
the wall with less danger than using ladders.
In addition to launching projectiles at the fortifications or
defenders, it was also quite common to attempt to undermine the
fortifications, causing them to collapse. This could be accomplished
by digging a tunnel beneath the foundations of the walls, and then
deliberately collapsing or exploding the tunnel. This process is known
as mining. The defenders could dig counter-tunnels to cut into the
attackers' works and collapse them prematurely.
Fire was often used as a weapon when dealing with wooden
Byzantine Empire used Greek fire, which contained
additives that made it hard to extinguish. Combined with a primitive
flamethrower, it proved an effective offensive and defensive
The universal method for defending against siege is the use of
fortifications, principally walls and ditches, to supplement natural
features. A sufficient supply of food and water was also important to
defeat the simplest method of siege warfare: starvation. On occasion,
the defenders would drive 'surplus' civilians out to reduce the
demands on stored food and water.
Warring States period
Warring States period in China (481–221 BC), warfare lost
its honourable, gentlemen's duty that was found in the previous era of
the Spring and Autumn period, and became more practical, competitive,
cut-throat, and efficient for gaining victory. The Chinese
invention of the hand-held, trigger-mechanism crossbow during this
period revolutionized warfare, giving greater emphasis to infantry and
cavalry and less to traditional chariot warfare.
The philosophically pacifist Mohists (followers of the philosopher
Mozi) of the 5th century BC believed in aiding the defensive warfare
of smaller Chinese states against the hostile offensive warfare of
larger domineering states. The Mohists were renowned in the smaller
states (and the enemies of the larger states) for the inventions of
siege machinery to scale or destroy walls. These included traction
trebuchet catapults, eight-foot-high ballistas, a wheeled siege ramp
with grappling hooks known as the Cloud Bridge (the protractable,
folded ramp slinging forward by means of a counterweight with rope and
pulley), and wheeled 'hook-carts' used to latch large iron hooks onto
the tops of walls to pull them down.
Cahir Castle in Ireland was besieged and captured three times: in 1599
by the Earl of Essex, in 1647 by Lord Inchiquin, and in 1650 by Oliver
When enemies attempted to dig tunnels under walls for mining or entry
into the city, the defenders used large bellows (the type the Chinese
commonly used in heating up a blast furnace for smelting cast iron) to
pump smoke into the tunnels in order to suffocate the intruders.
Advances in the prosecution of sieges in ancient and medieval times
naturally encouraged the development of a variety of defensive
countermeasures. In particular, medieval fortifications became
progressively stronger—for example, the advent of the concentric
castle from the period of the Crusades—and more dangerous to
attackers—witness the increasing use of machicolations and
murder-holes, as well the preparation of hot or incendiary
substances. Arrowslits (also called arrow loops or loopholes),
sally ports (airlock-like doors) for sallies, and deep water wells
were also integral means of resisting siege at this time. Particular
attention would be paid to defending entrances, with gates protected
by drawbridges, portcullises, and barbicans. Moats and other water
defences, whether natural or augmented, were also vital to
In the European Middle Ages, virtually all large cities had city
Dalmatia is a well-preserved example—and more
important cities had citadels, forts, or castles. Great effort was
expended to ensure a good water supply inside the city in case of
siege. In some cases, long tunnels were constructed to carry water
into the city. Complex systems of underground tunnels were used for
storage and communications in medieval cities like
Tábor in Bohemia,
similar to those used much later in
Vietnam during the Vietnam
Until the invention of gunpowder-based weapons (and the resulting
higher-velocity projectiles), the balance of power and logistics
definitely favoured the defender. With the invention of gunpowder,
cannon and mortars and howitzers (in modern times), the traditional
methods of defence became less effective against a determined
Although there are numerous ancient accounts of cities being sacked,
few contain any clues to how this was achieved. Some popular tales
existed on how the cunning heroes succeeded in their sieges. The
best-known is the
Trojan Horse of the Trojan War, and a similar story
tells how the Canaanite city of Joppa was conquered by the Egyptians
in the 15th century BC. The
Book of Joshua
Book of Joshua contains the story
of the miraculous
Battle of Jericho.
A more detailed historical account from the 8th century BC, called the
Piankhi stela, records how the Nubians laid siege to and conquered
several Egyptian cities by using battering rams, archers, and slingers
and building causeways across moats.
Alexander the Great's army successfully besieged many powerful cities
during his conquests. Two of his most impressive achievements in
siegecraft took place in the
Siege of Tyre and the
Siege of the
Sogdian Rock. His engineers built a causeway that was originally
60 m (200 ft) wide and reached the range of his
torsion-powered artillery, while his soldiers pushed siege towers
housing stone throwers and light catapults to bombard the city walls.
Most conquerors before him had found Tyre, a Phoenician island-city
about 1 km from the mainland, impregnable. The Macedonians built
a mole, a raised spit of earth across the water, by piling stones up
on a natural land bridge that extended underwater to the island, and
although the Tyrians rallied by sending a fire ship to destroy the
towers, and captured the mole in a swarming frenzy, the city
eventually fell to the Macedonians after a seven-month siege. In
complete contrast to Tyre, Sogdian Rock was captured by stealthy
attack. Alexander used commando-like tactics to scale the cliffs and
capture the high ground, and the demoralized defenders surrendered.
Roman siege machines.
The importance of siege warfare in the ancient period should not be
underestimated. One of the contributing causes of Hannibal's inability
to defeat Rome was his lack of siege engines, thus, while he was able
to defeat Roman armies in the field, he was unable to capture Rome
itself. The legionary armies of the
Roman Republic and Empire are
noted as being particularly skilled and determined in siege warfare.
An astonishing number and variety of sieges, for example, formed the
core of Julius Caesar's mid-1st-century BC conquest of
Commentarii de Bello Gallico
Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War),
Caesar describes how, at the
Battle of Alesia, the Roman legions
created two huge fortified walls around the city. The inner
circumvallation, 16 km (10 mi), held in Vercingetorix's
forces, while the outer contravallation kept relief from reaching
them. The Romans held the ground in between the two walls. The
besieged Gauls, facing starvation, eventually surrendered after their
relief force met defeat against Caesar's auxiliary cavalry.
Sicarii Zealots who defended
Masada in AD 73 were defeated by the
Roman legions, who built a ramp 100 m high up to the fortress's
During the Roman-Persian Wars, siege warfare was extensively being
used by both sides.
Arabia during Muhammad's era
Campaigns of Muhammad
Ghazwah (expeditions where he took part)
Main article: List of expeditions of Muhammad
Muhammad, considered a prophet for Muslims, made use of sieges
extensively during his military campaigns. The first use was during
the Invasion of Banu Qaynuqa. According to Islamic tradition, the
invasion of Banu Qaynuqa occurred in 624 AD. The Banu Qaynuqa
were a Jewish tribe expelled by
Muhammad for allegedly breaking the
treaty known as the Constitution of Medina:209 by pinning the
clothes of a Muslim woman, which led to her being stripped naked. A
Muslim killed a Jew in retaliation, and the Jews in turn killed the
Muslim man. This escalated to a chain of revenge killings, and enmity
grew between Muslims and the Banu Qaynuqa, leading to the siege of
their fortress.:122 The tribe eventually surrendered to
Muhammad, who initially wanted to kill the members of Banu Qaynuqa,
but ultimately yielded to Abdullah ibn Ubayy's insistence and agreed
to expel the Qaynuqa.
The second siege was during the Invasion of Banu Nadir. According to
The Sealed Nectar, the siege did not last long; the Banu Nadir Jews
willingly offered to comply with the Muhammad's order and leave
Madinah. Their caravan counted 600 loaded camels, including their
chiefs, Huyai bin Akhtab, and Salam bin Abi Al-Huqaiq, who left for
Khaibar, whereas another party shifted to Syria. Two of them embraced
Islam, Yameen bin ‘Amr and Abu Sa‘d bin Wahab, and so they
retained their personal wealth.
Muhammad seized their weapons, land,
houses, and wealth. Amongst the other booty he managed to capture,
there were 50 armours, 50 helmets, and 340 swords. This booty was
exclusively Muhammad's because no fighting was involved in capturing
it. He divided the booty at his own discretion among the early
Emigrants and two poor Helpers, Abu Dujana and Suhail bin Haneef.
Other examples include the
Invasion of Banu Qurayza in
February–March 627 and the
Siege of Ta'if in January 630.
Chinese and Mongols
In the Middle Ages, the Mongol Empire's campaign against China (then
comprising the Western Xia Dynasty, Jin Dynasty, and Southern Song
Genghis Khan until Kublai Khan, who eventually established
Yuan Dynasty in 1271, with their armies was extremely effective,
allowing the Mongols to sweep through large areas. Even if they could
not enter some of the more well-fortified cities, they used innovative
battle tactics to grab hold of the land and the people:
By concentrating on the field armies, the strongholds had to wait. Of
course, smaller fortresses, or ones easily surprised, were taken as
they came along. This had two effects. First, it cut off the principal
city from communicating with other cities where they might expect aid.
Secondly, refugees from these smaller cities would flee to the last
stronghold. The reports from these cities and the streaming hordes of
refugees not only reduced the morale of the inhabitants and garrison
of the principal city, it also strained their resources. Food and
water reserves were taxed by the sudden influx of refugees. Soon, what
was once a formidable undertaking became easy. The Mongols were then
free to lay siege without interference of the field army, as it had
been destroyed. At the siege of Aleppo, Hulagu used twenty catapults
against the Bab al-Iraq (Gate of Iraq) alone. In Jûzjânî, there
are several episodes in which the Mongols constructed hundreds of
siege machines in order to surpass the number which the defending city
possessed. While Jûzjânî surely exaggerated, the improbably high
numbers which he used for both the Mongols and the defenders do give
one a sense of the large numbers of machines used at a single
Another Mongol tactic was to use catapults to launch corpses of plague
victims into besieged cities. The disease-carrying fleas from the
bodies would then infest the city, and the plague would spread,
allowing the city to be easily captured, although this transmission
mechanism was not known at the time. In 1346, the bodies of Mongol
warriors of the
Golden Horde who had died of plague were thrown over
the walls of the besieged Crimean city of Kaffa (now Feodosiya). It
has been speculated that this operation may have been responsible for
the advent of the
Black Death in Europe. The
Black Death is
estimated to have killed 30%–60% of Europe's population.
On the first night while laying siege to a city, the leader of the
Mongol forces would lead from a white tent: if the city surrendered,
all would be spared. On the second day, he would use a red tent: if
the city surrendered, the men would all be killed, but the rest would
be spared. On the third day, he would use a black tent: no quarter
would be given.
Chinese and Korean troops assault the Japanese forces of
Siege of Ulsan
Siege of Ulsan
Castle during the Imjin
However, the Chinese were not completely defenseless, and from AD 1234
until 1279, the Southern Song Chinese held out against the enormous
barrage of Mongol attacks. Much of this success in defense lay in the
world's first use of gunpowder (i.e. with early flamethrowers,
grenades, firearms, cannons, and land mines) to fight back against the
Khitans, the Tanguts, the Jurchens, and then the Mongols.
The Chinese of the Song period also discovered the explosive potential
of packing hollowed cannonball shells with gunpowder. Written later
around 1350 in the Huo Long Jing, this manuscript of
Jiao Yu recorded
an earlier Song-era cast-iron cannon known as the 'flying-cloud
thunderclap eruptor' (fei yun pi-li pao). The manuscript stated that
The shells (phao) are made of cast iron, as large as a bowl and shaped
like a ball. Inside they contain half a pound of 'magic' gunpowder
(shen huo). They are sent flying towards the enemy camp from an
eruptor (mu phao); and when they get there a sound like a thunder-clap
is heard, and flashes of light appear. If ten of these shells are
fired successfully into the enemy camp, the whole place will be set
Ming Dynasty (AD 1368–1644), the Chinese were very
concerned with city planning in regards to gunpowder warfare. The site
for constructing the walls and the thickness of the walls in Beijing's
Forbidden City were favoured by the Chinese
Yongle Emperor (r.
1402–1424) because they were in pristine position to resist cannon
volley and were built thick enough to withstand attacks from cannon
For more, see Technology of the Song dynasty.
Age of gunpowder
The introduction of gunpowder and the use of cannons brought about a
new age in siege warfare. Cannons were first used in Song dynasty
China during the early 13th century, but did not become significant
weapons for another 150 years or so. In early decades, cannons could
do little against strong castles and fortresses, providing little more
than smoke and fire. By the 16th century, however, they were an
essential and regularized part of any campaigning army, or castle's
The greatest advantage of cannons over other siege weapons was the
ability to fire a heavier projectile, farther, faster, and more often
than previous weapons. They could also fire projectiles in a straight
line, so that they could destroy the bases of high walls. Thus, 'old
fashioned' walls – that is, high and, relatively, thin – were
excellent targets, and, over time, easily demolished. In 1453, the
great walls of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire,
were broken through in just six weeks by the 62 cannons of Mehmed II's
Late 16th-century illustration of cannon with gabions.
However, new fortifications, designed to withstand gunpowder weapons,
were soon constructed throughout Europe. During the
the early modern period, siege warfare continued to dominate the
conduct of the European wars.
Once siege guns were developed, the techniques for assaulting a town
or fortress became well known and ritualized. The attacking army would
surround a town. Then the town would be asked to surrender. If they
did not comply, the besieging army would surround the town with
temporary fortifications to stop sallies from the stronghold or relief
getting in. The attackers would then build a length of trenches
parallel to the defences (these are known as the "First parallel") and
just out of range of the defending artillery. They would then dig a
trench (known as a Forward) towards the town in a zigzag pattern so
that it could not be enfiladed by defending fire. Once within
artillery range, another parallel (the Second Parallel) trench would
be dug with gun emplacements. This technique is commonly called
If necessary, using the first artillery fire for cover, this process
would be repeated until guns were close enough to be laid accurately
to make a breach in the fortifications. In order to allow the forlorn
hope and support troops to get close enough to exploit the breach,
more zigzag trenches could be dug even closer to the walls with more
parallel trenches to protect and conceal the attacking troops. After
each step in the process, the besiegers would ask the besieged to
surrender. If the forlorn hope stormed the breach successfully, the
defenders could expect no mercy.
The castles that in earlier years had been formidable obstacles were
easily breached by the new weapons. For example, in Spain, the newly
equipped army of
Ferdinand and Isabella
Ferdinand and Isabella was able to conquer Moorish
Granada in 1482–92 that had held out for centuries
before the invention of cannons.
In the early 15th century, Italian architect Leon Battista Alberti
wrote a treatise entitled De Re aedificatoria, which theorized methods
of building fortifications capable of withstanding the new guns. He
proposed that walls be "built in uneven lines, like the teeth of a
saw". He proposed star-shaped fortresses with low, thick walls.
However, few rulers paid any attention to his theories. A few towns in
Italy began building in the new style late in the 1480s, but it was
only with the French invasion of the Italian peninsula in 1494–95
that the new fortifications were built on a large scale. Charles VIII
invaded Italy with an army of 18,000 men and a horse-drawn
siege-train. As a result, he could defeat virtually any city or state,
no matter how well defended. In a panic, military strategy was
completely rethought throughout the Italian states of the time, with a
strong emphasis on the new fortifications that could withstand a
The most effective way to protect walls against cannonfire proved to
be depth (increasing the width of the defences) and angles (ensuring
that attackers could only fire on walls at an oblique angle, not
square on). Initially, walls were lowered and backed, in front and
behind, with earth. Towers were reformed into triangular bastions.
This design matured into the trace italienne. Star-shaped fortresses
surrounding towns and even cities with outlying defences proved very
difficult to capture, even for a well-equipped army. Fortresses
built in this style throughout the 16th century did not become fully
obsolete until the 19th century, and were still in use throughout
War I (though modified for 20th-century warfare). During World
War II, trace italienne fortresses could still present a formidable
challenge, for example, in the last days of World
War II, during the
Battle in Berlin, that saw some of the heaviest urban fighting of the
war, the Soviets did not attempt to storm the Spandau
between 1559 and 1594), but chose to invest it and negotiate its
However, the cost of building such vast modern fortifications was
incredibly high, and was often too much for individual cities to
undertake. Many were bankrupted in the process of building them;
others, such as Siena, spent so much money on fortifications that they
were unable to maintain their armies properly, and so lost their wars
anyway. Nonetheless, innumerable large and impressive fortresses were
built throughout northern Italy in the first decades of the 16th
century to resist repeated French invasions that became known as the
Italian Wars. Many stand to this day.
In the 1530s and '40s, the new style of fortification began to spread
out of Italy into the rest of Europe, particularly to France, the
Netherlands, and Spain. Italian engineers were in enormous demand
throughout Europe, especially in war-torn areas such as the
Netherlands, which became dotted by towns encircled in modern
fortifications. The densely populated areas of
Northern Italy and the
United Provinces (the Netherlands) were infamous for their high degree
of fortification of cities. It made campaigns in these areas very hard
to successfully conduct, considering even minor cities had to be
captured by siege within the span of the campaigning season. In the
Dutch case, the possibility of flooding large parts of the land
provided an additional obstacle to besiegers, for example at the Siege
of Leiden. For many years, defensive and offensive tactics were well
balanced, leading to protracted and costly wars such as Europe had
never known, involving more and more planning and government
involvement. The new fortresses ensured that war rarely extended
beyond a series of sieges. Because the new fortresses could easily
hold 10,000 men, an attacking army could not ignore a powerfully
fortified position without serious risk of counterattack. As a result,
virtually all towns had to be taken, and that was usually a long,
drawn-out affair, potentially lasting from several months to years,
while the members of the town were starved to death. Most battles in
this period were between besieging armies and relief columns sent to
rescue the besieged.
Vauban and Van Coehoorn
Vauban's star-shaped fortified city of Neuf-Brisach.
At the end of the 17th century, two influential military engineers,
Vauban and the Dutch military engineer Menno van
Coehoorn, developed modern fortification to its pinnacle, refining
siege warfare without fundamentally altering it: ditches would be dug;
walls would be protected by glacis; and bastions would enfilade an
attacker. Both engineers developed their ideas independently, but came
to similar general rules regarding defensive construction and
offensive action against fortifications. Both were skilled in
conducting sieges and defences themselves. Before
Vauban and Van
Coehoorn, sieges had been somewhat slapdash operations.
Vauban and Van
Coehoorn refined besieging to a science with a methodical process
that, if uninterrupted, would break even the strongest fortifications.
Examples of their styles of fortifications are
Arras (Vauban) and the
no-longer-existent fortress of
Bergen op Zoom
Bergen op Zoom (Van Coehoorn). The main
differences between the two lay in the difference in terrain on which
Vauban and Van Coehoorn constructed their defences:
Vauban in the
sometimes more hilly and mountainous terrain of France, Van Coehoorn
in the flat and floodable lowlands of the Netherlands.
Planning and maintaining a siege is just as difficult as fending one
off. A besieging army must be prepared to repel both sorties from the
besieged area and also any attack that may try to relieve the
defenders. It was thus usual to construct lines of trenches and
defenses facing in both directions. The outermost lines, known as the
lines of contravallation, would surround the entire besieging army and
protect it from attackers.
This would be the first construction effort of a besieging army, built
soon after a fortress or city had been invested. A line of
circumvallation would also be constructed, facing in towards the
besieged area, to protect against sorties by the defenders and to
prevent the besieged from escaping. The next line, which Vauban
usually placed at about 600 meters from the target, would contain the
main batteries of heavy cannons so that they could hit the target
without being vulnerable themselves. Once this line was established,
work crews would move forward, creating another line at 250 meters.
This line contained smaller guns. The final line would be constructed
only 30 to 60 meters from the fortress. This line would contain the
mortars and would act as a staging area for attack parties once the
walls were breached. Van Coehoorn developed a small and easily movable
mortar named the coehorn, variations of which were used in sieges
until the 19th century. It would also be from this line that miners
working to undermine the fortress would operate.
The trenches connecting the various lines of the besiegers could not
be built perpendicular to the walls of the fortress, as the defenders
would have a clear line of fire along the whole trench. Thus, these
lines (known as saps) needed to be sharply jagged.
Vienna took place in 1683 after
Vienna had been besieged
Ottoman Empire for two months.
Another element of a fortress was the citadel. Usually, a citadel was
a "mini fortress" within the larger fortress, sometimes designed as a
reduit, but more often as a means of protecting the garrison from
potential revolt in the city. The citadel was used in wartime and
peacetime to keep the residents of the city in line.
As in ages past, most sieges were decided with very little fighting
between the opposing armies. An attacker's army was poorly served,
incurring the high casualties that a direct assault on a fortress
would entail. Usually, they would wait until supplies inside the
fortifications were exhausted or disease had weakened the defenders to
the point that they were willing to surrender. At the same time,
diseases, especially typhus, were a constant danger to the encamped
armies outside the fortress, and often forced a premature retreat.
Sieges were often won by the army that lasted the longest.
An important element of strategy for the besieging army was whether or
not to allow the encamped city to surrender. Usually, it was
preferable to graciously allow a surrender, both to save on
casualties, and to set an example for future defending cities. A city
that was allowed to surrender with minimal loss of life was much
better off than a city that held out for a long time and was brutally
butchered at the end. Moreover, if an attacking army had a reputation
of killing and pillaging regardless of a surrender, then other cities'
defensive efforts would be redoubled. Usually, a city would surrender
(with no honour lost) when its inner lines of defence were reached by
the attacker. In case of refusal, however, the inner lines would have
to be stormed by the attacker and the attacking troops would be seen
to be justified in sacking the city.
Siege warfare dominated in Western Europe for most of the 17th and
18th centuries. An entire campaign, or longer, could be used in a
single siege (for example, Ostend in 1601–04; La Rochelle in
1627–28). This resulted in extremely prolonged conflicts. The
balance was that, while siege warfare was extremely expensive and very
slow, it was very successful—or, at least, more so than encounters
in the field. Battles arose through clashes between besiegers and
relieving armies, but the principle was a slow, grinding victory by
the greater economic power. The relatively rare attempts at forcing
pitched battles (
Gustavus Adolphus in 1630; the French against the
Dutch in 1672 or 1688) were almost always expensive failures.
Storming of Redoubt #10 during the
Siege of Yorktown
The exception to this rule were the English. During the English
Civil War, anything which tended to prolong the struggle, or seemed
like want of energy and avoidance of a decision, was bitterly resented
by the men of both sides. In France and Germany, the prolongation of a
war meant continued employment for the soldiers, but in England, both
sides were looking to end the war quickly. Even when in the end the
New Model Army—a regular professional army—developed the original
decision-compelling spirit permeated the whole organisation, as was
seen when pitched against regular professional continental troops the
Battle of the Dunes during the Interregnum.
British infantry attempt to scale the walls of Badajoz, Peninsular
Experienced commanders on both sides in the English Civil War
recommended the abandonment of garrisoned fortifications for two
primary reasons. The first, as for example proposed by the Royalist
Sir Richard Willis to King Charles, was that by abandoning the
garrisoning of all but the most strategic locations in one's own
territory, far more troops would be available for the field armies,
and it was the field armies which would decide the conflict. The other
argument was that by slighting potential strong points in one's own
territory, an enemy expeditionary force, or local enemy rising, would
find it more difficult to consolidate territorial gains against an
inevitable counterattack. Sir
John Meldrum put forward just such an
argument to the Parliamentary Committee of Both Kingdoms, to justify
his slighting of Gainsborough in Lincolnshire.
Sixty years later, during the
War of the Spanish Succession, the Duke
of Marlborough preferred to engage the enemy in pitched battles,
rather than engage in siege warfare, although he was very proficient
in both types of warfare.
On 15 April 1746, the day before the
Battle of Culloden, at Dunrobin
Castle, a party of William Sutherland's militia conducted the last
siege fought on the mainland of Great Britain against Jacobite members
of Clan MacLeod.
In the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, new techniques
stressed the division of armies into all-arms corps that would march
separately and only come together on the battlefield. The
less-concentrated army could now live off the country and move more
rapidly over a larger number of roads.
Fortresses commanding lines of communication could be bypassed and
would no longer stop an invasion. Since armies could not live off the
Napoleon Bonaparte always sought a quick end to any
conflict by pitched battle. This military revolution was described and
codified by Clausewitz.
Engineer Corps during the
Siege of Antwerp, 1832
Advances in artillery made previously impregnable defences useless.
For example, the walls of
Vienna that had held off the Turks in the
mid-17th century were no obstacle to
Napoleon in the early 19th.
Where sieges occurred (such as the
Siege of Delhi
Siege of Delhi and the
Cawnpore during the Indian Rebellion of 1857), the attackers were
usually able to defeat the defences within a matter of days or weeks,
rather than weeks or months as previously. The great Swedish
white-elephant fortress of Karlsborg was built in the tradition of
Vauban and intended as a reserve capital for Sweden, but it was
obsolete before it was completed in 1869.
Railways, when they were introduced, made possible the movement and
supply of larger armies than those that fought in the Napoleonic Wars.
It also reintroduced siege warfare, as armies seeking to use railway
lines in enemy territory were forced to capture fortresses which
blocked these lines.
During the Franco-Prussian War, the battlefield front-lines moved
rapidly through France. However, the Prussian and other German armies
were delayed for months at the
Siege of Metz and the
Siege of Paris,
due to the greatly increased firepower of the defending infantry, and
the principle of detached or semi-detached forts with heavy-caliber
artillery. This resulted in the later construction of fortress works
across Europe, such as the massive fortifications at Verdun. It also
led to the introduction of tactics which sought to induce surrender by
bombarding the civilian population within a fortress, rather than the
defending works themselves.
Siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean
War and the
Petersburg (1864–1865) during the American Civil
War showed that
modern citadels, when improved by improvised defences, could still
resist an enemy for many months. The
Siege of Plevna
Siege of Plevna during the
War (1877–78) proved that hastily constructed field
defences could resist attacks prepared without proper resources, and
were a portent of the trench warfare of World
Advances in firearms technology without the necessary advances in
battlefield communications gradually led to the defence again gaining
the ascendancy. An example of siege during this time, prolonged during
337 days due to the isolation of the surrounded troops, was the Siege
of Baler, in which a reduced group of Spanish soldiers was besieged in
a small church by the Philippine rebels in the course of the
Philippine Revolution and the Spanish–American War, until months
after the Treaty of Paris, the end of the conflict.
Furthermore, the development of steamships availed greater speed to
blockade runners, ships with the purpose of bringing cargo, e.g. food,
to cities under blockade, as with
Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston, South Carolina during
the American Civil War.
First World War
This sepoy PoW shows the conditions of the garrison at
Kut at the end
of the siege in World
Mainly as a result of the increasing firepower (such as machine guns)
available to defensive forces, First World
War trench warfare briefly
revived a form of siege warfare. Although siege warfare had moved out
from an urban setting because city walls had become ineffective
against modern weapons, trench warfare was nonetheless able to use
many of the techniques of siege warfare in its prosecution (sapping,
mining, barrage and, of course, attrition), but on a much larger scale
and on a greatly extended front.
More traditional sieges of fortifications took place in addition to
trench sieges. The
Siege of Tsingtao
Siege of Tsingtao was one of the first major sieges
of the war, but the inability for significant resupply of the German
garrison made it a relatively one-sided battle. The Germans and the
crew of an Austro-Hungarian protected cruiser put up a hopeless
defence and, after holding out for more than a week, surrendered to
the Japanese, forcing the
German East Asia Squadron
German East Asia Squadron to steam towards
South America for a new coal source.
The other major siege outside Europe during the First World
War was in
Mesopotamia, at the
Siege of Kut. After a failed attempt to move on
Baghdad, stopped by the Ottomans at the bloody
Battle of Ctesiphon,
the British and their large contingent of Indian sepoy soldiers were
forced to retreat to Kut, where the Ottomans under German General
Baron Colmar von der Goltz laid siege. The British attempts to
resupply the force via the
Tigris river failed, and rationing was
complicated by the refusal of many Indian troops to eat cattle
products. By the time the garrison fell on 29 April 1916, starvation
was rampant. Conditions did not improve greatly under Turkish
imprisonment. Along with the battles of Tanga, Sandfontein, Gallipoli,
and Namakura, it would be one of Britain's numerous embarrassing
colonial defeats of the war.
The Skoda 305 mm Model 1911.
The largest sieges of the war, however, took place in Europe. The
initial German advance into Belgium produced four major sieges: the
Battle of Liège, the
Battle of Namur, the
Siege of Maubeuge, and the
Siege of Antwerp. All three would prove crushing German victories, at
Liège and Namur against the Belgians, at Maubeuge against the French
and at Antwerp against a combined Anglo-Belgian force. The weapon that
made these victories possible were the German Big Berthas and the
Skoda 305 mm Model 1911
Skoda 305 mm Model 1911 siege mortars, one of the best siege mortars
of the war, on loan from Austria-Hungary. These huge guns were the
decisive weapon of siege warfare in the 20th century, taking part at
Przemyśl, the Belgian sieges, on the Italian Front and Serbian Front,
and even being reused in World
Siege of Przemyśl
At the second
Siege of Przemyśl, the Austro-Hungarian garrison showed
an excellent knowledge of siege warfare, not only waiting for relief,
but sending sorties into Russian lines and employing an active defence
that resulted in the capture of the Russian General Lavr Kornilov.
Despite its excellent performance, the garrison's food supply had been
requisitioned for earlier offensives, a relief expedition was stalled
by the weather, ethnic rivalries flared up between the defending
soldiers, and a breakout attempt failed. When the commander of the
garrison Hermann Kusmanek finally surrendered, his troops were eating
their horses and the first attempt of large-scale air supply had
failed. It was one of the few great victories obtained by either side
during the war; 110,000 Austro-Hungarian prisoners were marched back
to Russia. Use of aircraft for siege running, bringing supplies to
areas under siege, would nevertheless prove useful in many sieges to
The largest siege of the war, and arguably the roughest, most gruesome
battle in history, was the
Battle of Verdun. Whether the battle can be
considered true siege warfare is debatable. Under the theories of
Erich von Falkenhayn, it is more distinguishable as purely attrition
with a coincidental presence of fortifications on the battlefield.
When considering the plans of Crown Prince Wilhelm, purely concerned
with taking the citadel and not with French casualty figures, it can
be considered a true siege. The main fortifications were Fort
Fort Vaux, and the fortified city of Verdun itself. The
Germans, through the use of huge artillery bombardments,
flamethrowers, and infiltration tactics, were able to capture both
Vaux and Douaumont, but were never able to take the city, and
eventually lost most of their gains. It was a battle that, despite the
French ability to fend off the Germans, neither side won. The German
losses were not worth the potential capture of the city, and the
French casualties were not worth holding the symbol of her defence.
The development of the armoured tank and improved infantry tactics at
the end of World
War I swung the pendulum back in favour of manoeuvre,
and with the advent of
Blitzkrieg in 1939, the end of traditional
siege warfare was at hand. The
Maginot Line would be the prime example
of the failure of immobile, post–World
War I fortifications.
Although sieges would continue, it would be in a totally different
style and on a reduced scale.
Second World War
Blitzkrieg of the Second World
War truly showed that fixed
fortifications are easily defeated by manoeuvre instead of frontal
assault or long sieges. The great
Maginot Line was bypassed, and
battles that would have taken weeks of siege could now be avoided with
the careful application of air power (such as the German paratrooper
Fort Eben-Emael, Belgium, early in World
Map showing Axis encirclement during the
Siege of Leningrad
The most important siege was the
Siege of Leningrad, that lasted over
29 months, about half of the duration of the entire Second World War.
The siege of Leningrad resulted in the deaths of some one million of
the city's inhabitants. Along with the
Battle of Stalingrad, the
Siege of Leningrad
Siege of Leningrad on the Eastern Front was the deadliest siege of a
city in history. In the west, apart from the
Battle of the Atlantic,
the sieges were not on the same scale as those on the European Eastern
front; however, there were several notable or critical sieges: the
island of Malta, for which the population won the George Cross,
Tobruk. In the South-East Asian Theatre, there was the siege of
Singapore, and in the Burma Campaign, sieges of Myitkyina, the Admin
Box, Imphal, and Kohima, which was the high-water mark for the
Japanese advance into India.
The siege of Sevastopol saw the use of the heaviest and most powerful
individual siege engines ever to be used: the German 800mm railway gun
and the 600mm siege mortar. Though a single shell could have
disastrous local effect, the guns were susceptible to air attack in
addition to being slow to move.
The airbridge methods were developed and used extensively during the
war. The logistics of airbridge operations were first developed in
April 1942 as the British began flying military transport aircraft
India to China over the Hump, to resupply the Chinese war effort
Chiang Kai-shek and the units of the United States Army Air Forces
(AAF) based in China.
The airbridge methods which were developed were used extensively for
supplying the Long Range Penetration Groups, (1943–1944). They were
special operations units of the British and Indian armies, which saw
action during the Burma Campaign.
During the short
Siege of Bastogne
Siege of Bastogne (December 1944) airbridge
techniques were used to resupply the Allied defenders of Bastogne.
Several times during the Cold
War the western powers had to use their
Blockade from June 1948 to September 1949, the Western
Powers flew over 200,000 flights, providing to West Berlin up to 8,893
tons of necessities each day.
Airbridge was used extensively during the siege of Dien Bien Phu but
failed to prevent its fall to the
Việt Minh in 1954.
Airbridge proved crucial during the siege of the American base at Khe
Sanh in 1968. The resupply it provided kept the North Vietnamese Army
from capturing the base.
Post-Second World War
French troops seeking cover in trenches, Dien Bien Phu, 1954
Sarajevo residents collecting firewood, winter of 1992–93
During the First Indochina War, the battles of Dien Bien Phu (1954)
and Khe Sanh (1968) possessed siege-like characteristics. In both
Viet Minh and NLF were able to cut off the opposing army by
capturing the surrounding rugged terrain. At Dien Bien Phu, the
French were unable to use air power to overcome the siege and were
defeated. However, at Khe Sanh, a mere 14 years later, advances in
air power – and a reduction in Vietnamese anti-aircraft capability
– allowed the United States to withstand the siege. The resistance
of US forces was assisted by the PAVN and PLAF forces' decision to use
the Khe Sanh siege as a strategic distraction to allow their mobile
warfare offensive, the first Tet Offensive, to unfold securely.
Siege of Khe Sanh displays typical features of modern sieges, as
the defender has greater capacity to withstand the siege, the
attacker's main aim is to bottle operational forces or create a
strategic distraction, rather than take the siege to a conclusion.
In neighbouring Cambodia, at that time known as the Khmer Republic,
Khmer Rouge used siege tactics to cut off supplies from Phnom Penh
to other government-held enclaves in an attempt to break the will of
the government to continue fighting.
In 1972, the Easter offensive, the
ARVN troops and U.S. advisers and air power successfully defeated
communist forces. The
An Lộc pitted some 6,350 ARVN men
against a force three times that size. During the peak of the battle,
ARVN had access to only one 105 mm howitzer to provide close
support, while the enemy attack was backed by an entire artillery
division. ARVN had no tanks, the NVA communist forces had two armoured
regiments. ARVN prevailed after over two months of continuous
fighting. As General Paul Vanuxem, a French veteran of the Indochina
War, wrote in 1972 after visiting the liberated city of An Lộc: "An
Lộc was the Verdun of Vietnam, where
Vietnam received as in baptism
the supreme consecration of her will."
Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s,
Republika Srpska forces
besieged Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The siege lasted
from 1992 until 1996.
Sieges of cities are widespread in the Syrian civil war.
Siege of Deir ez-Zor (July 2014 – November 2017)
Siege of al-Fu'ah and Kafriya
Siege of al-Fu'ah and Kafriya (March 2015 – present)
Not to be confused with Police action.
The conflagration of the
Mount Carmel Center
Mount Carmel Center on the final day of the
Siege tactics continue to be employed in police conflicts. This has
been due to a number of factors, primarily risk to life, whether that
of the police, the besieged, bystanders, or hostages. Police make use
of trained negotiators, psychologists, and, if necessary, force,
generally being able to rely on the support of their nation's armed
forces if required.
One of the complications facing police in a siege involving hostages
is Stockholm syndrome, where sometimes hostages can develop a
sympathetic rapport with their captors. If this helps keep them safe
from harm, this is considered to be a good thing, but there have been
cases where hostages have tried to shield the captors during an
assault or refused to cooperate with the authorities in bringing
The 1993 police siege on the
Branch Davidian church in Waco, Texas,
lasted 51 days, an atypically long police siege. Unlike traditional
military sieges, police sieges tend to last for hours or days, rather
than weeks, months, or years.
In Britain, if the siege involves perpetrators who are considered by
the British Government to be terrorists, and if an assault is to take
place, the civilian authorities hand command and control over to the
military. The threat of such an action ended the Balcombe Street siege
in 1975, but the
Iranian Embassy siege
Iranian Embassy siege in 1980 ended in a military
assault and the deaths of all but one of the hostage-takers.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sieges.
Battleplan (documentary TV series)
War I portal
List of established military terms
List of sieges
^ Merriam-Webster: siege
^ Merriam-Webster: invest
^ a b Fletcher & Cruickshank 1996, p. 20.
^ Stearns 2001, p. 17.
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^ For example, Roland 1992, pp. 660,663
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^ a b Ebrey 2006, p. 29.
^ Turnbull 2002, p. 40.
^ Sellman 1954, p. 26.
^ Sellman 1954, p. 22.
^ Sellman 1954, pp. 44–45.
^ Mubarakpuri, Saifur Rahman Al (2005), Ar-Raheeq Al-Makhtum,
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Publications, p. 189 (online)
William Muir (2003), The life of Mahomet, Kessinger Publishing,
p. 317, ISBN 9780766177413
^ Mubarakpuri, Saifur Rahman Al (2005), The sealed nectar: biography
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^ Grousset 1970, p. 362.
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^ Townshend 2000, p. 211.
^ Townshend 2000, p. 212.
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