Siege is a military operation where the forces surround a fortress or a city with the aim of conquering by cutting out essential supplies. The word is derived from the Latin word sedere, which means “to sit.” A siege is commonly laid when the attacking forces come on a fortress or city that cannot be easily conquered by a quick assault and they are not ready to surrender. The attackers seek to curtail the provision of essential supplies and the escape of troops, a tactic known as investment. Typically, the attacking forces try to reduce the fortifications through mining, siege engines, and artillery bombardment, as well as the use of treachery to breach defenses. Sieges can stretch for years if the fortified position has adequate provisions.
Sieges In The Medieval Era
The Assyrians and several settlements occupying the Indus Valley Civilizations erected fortifications. The initial cities in the ancient Near East also made use of fortifications including Uruk, Babylon, Handan, and Mycenae. Archaeologists have uncovered a few of such siege systems. One of these ancient siege systems is the system surrounding the archaeological site of Lachish, situated in Israel. It was erected in 701 BC by Sennacherib of Assyria. The medieval attacker sometimes staged a surprise attack, as seen during the 1221 capture of the Fotheringhay Castle by William de Forz. An attacker would coerce an insider to breach the fortification or offer generous terms to the defender. Earthworks were also commonly built to cut off supplies.
Another offensive tactic was the use of disease such as flinging diseased animals into the city using catapults. Multiple siege engines were invented to hasten sieges including ladders, siege hooks, onagers, battering rams, ballistae, siege towers, and trebuchets. The mining tactic involved digging tunnels underneath the walls' fortifications while fire was also used on wooden fortifications. The defenders would, on the other hand, pump smoke through the tunnels build by the attackers to suffocate them. An adequate stock of water and food was a strategic means of defeating starvation as a form of siege warfare, while the defenders would sometimes drive out "excess civilians" to lessen the demand for the provisions. Over the years, ancient fortifications were constructed stronger, as seen in the construction of concentric castles, preparation of incendiary substance, and the inclusion of murder holes, sally ports, deep water wells, arrowslits, and machicolations. Cities also made use of tunnels for water supply, communications, and storage while the advent of gun powder added more advantages to the defender.
The Impact Of Industrial Advances On Sieges
Industrial advances greatly disadvantaged the defenders. Where sieges typically took weeks or months, inventions reduced the number to days or weeks at most. The walls of Vienna, for example, had managed to stall Turkish attacks in the mid-17th century but they posed no obstacle to Napoleon in the 19th century. The introduction of railways encouraged the transportation of bigger armies than those involved in Napoleonic Wars. Armies resorted to capturing those fortresses that lay in the railway lines of those enemy territories they intended to occupy. The defenders of the cities of Paris and Metz made use of firepower as well as the principle of both detached/semi-detached forts and heavy-caliber artillery to wade off attacks in the course of the Franco-Prussian War. The introduction of steamships further aided the defense as blockade runners could transport such items as food to towns under siege at a much greater speed.
Sieges In The Modern Era
Trench warfare evolved as a form of siege during the WWI. By this time, sieges had disappeared from urban settings since city walls had grown ineffective against modern weaponry. Trench warfare borrowed from the strategies of sieges including attrition, sapping, barrage, and mining on a greatly extended front and a larger scale. Trench sieges accompanied traditional sieges of fortifications. The siege of Tsingtao in 1914 saw the German forces overwhelmed by the Japanese. The inability of adequate resupply for the defending garrison was one of the factors blamed for the German defeat. The largest recorded sieges of the war occurred in Europe. The 1st German procession into Belgium, for example, produced four main sieges. Germany emerged victorious due to the use of the Skoda 305 mm Model 1911, as well as the Big Berthas siege mortars. These massive guns gained prominence as the most effective weapons of siege warfare in the century. The Battle of Verdun is regarded as the largest siege of the war, and neither the French nor the Germans won. Sieges in WWII featured the use of the Blitzkrieg where the offensive would launch rapid and powerful attacks to breach the defensive line. The use of air power saw sieges lasting a short time. The Siege of Leningrad is particularly notable for its devastation, and by the time it ended in the 29th month, about one million residents had died. The most powerful of the individual siege engines used in the war were used in the siege of Sevastopol where the German 600mm siege mortar and the 800mm railway gun ensured Axis victory. Western powers amassed airlift expertise which came in handy in such situations as the Cold War Berlin Blockade.
The Siege of Tyre
One of the sieges carried out under the command of Alexander the Great was the 332 BC siege of Tyre. Traditional siege warfare proved ineffective as the city stretched out on an island and it had fortified walls that extended up to the sea. The Macedonian army resorted to besieging and blockading Tyre for seven months. Alexander commanded his army to use stone and timber in the construction of a causeway linking the mainland to the island. This artificial bridge became one of the history's most prominent illustrations of military engineering. The bridge enabled Alexander's men to prop siege engines and subsequently bombard the city walls. This causeway gradually collected silt and sand and changed Tyre from an island to a peninsula.
The Siege of Vicksburg
The siege of Vicksburg unfolded in the course of the American Civil War. It lasted from May 18 to July 4, 1863. The United States advanced into Vicksburg as it was the last main Confederate stronghold situated along the Mississippi River. The offensive was overseen by Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant who decided to besiege Vicksburg after the defenders curtailed two assaults with heavy casualties. The garrison held out for over 40 days, but diminishing supplies and reinforcement triggered its surrender. The offensive side had 4,835 casualties and losses and 32,697 on the defensive side.
About the Author
Benjamin Elisha Sawe holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Statistics and an MBA in Strategic Management. He is a frequent World Atlas contributor.
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