Sieges (3) Castles and Fortifications

Sieges, Part 3, Castles and Fortifications

Israelite Exodus, ca. 1263 BC

Circa 1263 BC is the approximate date for the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt under the leadership of Moses.  Since that time there have been many conflicts in the region their descendants now occupy in the Middle East, with Jerusalem at the centre of much it.

The destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, under the command of Titus, AD 70.  Painting by David Roberts.

Siege of Jerusalem, 70 AD

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.

Battle map of the Roman siege of Jerusalem, 70 AD.

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.

Siege of Masada, 72-73 AD

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.

(Godot13 Photo)

2013 aerial view of the fortress of Masada, Israel.

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.

Replica of a covered battering ram.

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.

(Oren Rozen Photo)

Aerial view of the Roman siege camp F and section of the Roman circumvallation wall.

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

The Goths at the Battle of Mons Lactarius during the Gothic War, 535-553.   Painting by Alexander Zick.

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]

Engraving of 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]

Fury of the Goths, depicting the Battle of the Sabis, 57 BC, painting by Paul Ivanovitz.

The Battle of the Sabis, also (arguably erroneously) known as the Battle of the Sambre or the Battle against the Nervians (Nervii), was fought in 57 BC near modern Saulzoir in Northern France, between the legions of the Roman Republic and an association of Belgic tribes, principally the Nervii.  Julius Caesar, commanding the Roman forces, was surprised and nearly defeated.  According to Caesar's report, a combination of determined defence, skilled generalship, and the timely arrival of reinforcements allowed the Romans to turn a strategic defeat into a tactical victory.


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]

Imperial Coronation of Charlemagne, painting by Friedrich Kaulbach, 1861.

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.  After the invasion of 869 Ipswich fell under Viking rule. The earth ramparts circling the town centre were probably raised by Vikings in Ipswich around 900 to prevent its recapture by the English.  They were unsuccessful.

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]

(John5199 Photo)

Cahir Castle (Caisleán na Cathrach), one of the largest castles in Ireland, is sited on an island in the river Suir.  It was built from 1142 by Conor O'Brien, Prince of Thomond.  The castle was sited on and near an earlier native fortification known as a cathair (stone fort), which gave its name to the place.  The core structure of the castle dates to construction in the 13th century.  The castle was built in two parts.  Granted to the powerful Butler family in late 14th century, the castle was enlarged and remodelled between the 15th and 17th centuries.  It fell into ruin in the late 18th century and was partially restored in the 1840s. The Great Hall was partly rebuilt in 1840.

Unlike their Anglican kinsmen, this branch of the Butler dynasty sided with the Roman Catholic Irish in the Elizabethan wars.  In 1599 the castle was captured after a three-day siege by the army of the Earl of Essex.  During the Irish Confederate Wars the castle was besieged twice In 1647 George Mathew, the guardian of the young Lord Cahir, surrendered to Murrough OBrien following his victory at the Battle of Knocknanauss.  In 1650 he surrendered again to Oliver Cromwell, during his conquest of Ireland without a shot being fired.  In 1961 the last Lord Cahir died and the castle reverted to the Irish state.

Engraving of Steinsburg Castle, Sinzheim, Germany, ca. 1350.

(p.schmelzle Photo)

Steinsburg Castle, Sinzheim, Germany, present day.  The castle was first mentioned in the year 1109.  In the 13th century the owners of the castle were the Counts of Oettingen.  Later the castle became home to the Counts palatine of the Rhein.  In 1517 the castle was purchased by the Lords of Venningen.  Shortly after this purchase the castle was burnt down during the Peasants' revolt.  The rebellious peasants had to pay 5000 Gulden for the rebuilding of the castle.  After heavy damage in 1777 by a lightening strike, the castle was left in disrepair.  Since 1973 the castle has been owned by the Sinsheim council, who had large parts of the castle restored. The keep, the moat and the towers may still be viewed today.

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 defence 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.


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]

(Bundeswehr Military Museum)

Fortress Luxembourg, plan view.

Fortress of Luxembourg, painting by Christoph Wilhelm Selig, 1814.

The Fortress of Luxembourg refers to the former fortifications of Luxembourg City, the capital of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, which were mostly dismantled in 1867.  The fortress was of great strategic importance for the control of the Left Bank of the Rhine, the Low Countries, and the border area between France and Germany.

The fortifications were built gradually over nine centuries, from soon after the city's foundation in the tenth century until 1867. By the end of the Renaissance, Luxembourg was already one of Europe's strongest fortresses, but it was the period of great construction in the 17th and 18th centuries that gave it its fearsome reputation.  Due to its strategic location, it became caught up in Europe-wide conflicts between the major powers such as the Habsburg-Valois Wars, the War of the Reunions or the French Revolutionary Wars, and underwent changes in ownership, sieges, and major alterations, as each new occupier, the Burgundians, French, Austrian and Spanish Habsburgs, and Prussians, their own improvements and additions.

Luxembourg took pride in the flattering historical epithet of the "Gibraltar of the North" as a result of its alleged impregnability. By 1443 it had only been taken by surprise by Phillip the Good.  In 1795, the city, expecting imminent defeat and for fear of the following pillages and massacres, surrendered after a 7-month blockade and siege by the French, with most of its walls still unbreached.  On this occasion, advocating to extend the revolutionary wars across the French borders, the French politician and engineer Lazare Carnot explained to the French House of Representatives, that in taking Luxembourg, France had deprived its enemies of "....the best fortress in Europe after Gibraltar, and the most dangerous for France", which had put any French movement across the border at a risk.  Thus, the surrender of Luxembourg made it possible for France to take control of the southern parts of the Low Countries and to annex them to her territory.

The city's great significance for the frontier between the Second French Empire and the German Confederation led to the 1866 Luxembourg Crisis, almost resulting in a war between France and Prussia over possession of the German Confederation's main western fortress.  The 1867 Treaty of London required Luxembourg's fortress to be torn down and for Luxembourg to be placed in perpetual neutrality, signalling the end of the city's use as a military site.  Since then, the remains of the fortifications have become a major tourist attraction for the city.

Fortress of Luxembourg, prior to its demolition in 1867.

Ruins of Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg, 31 Dec 1888, engraving by de T. Taylor, Armand Kohl.

Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg is a medieval castle located in the commune of Orschwiller in the Bas-Rhin department of France, in the Vosges mountains west of Sélestat.  It is situated in a strategic location on a rocky spur overlooking the Upper Rhine Plain, and as a result, it was used by successive powers from the Middle Ages until the Thirty Years' War when it was abandoned.  From 1900 to 1908 it was rebuilt at the behest of the German emperor Wilhelm II.  Today it is a major tourist site, attracting more than 500,000 visitors a year.

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

It is not known when the first castle was built on the site, but a Burg Staufen (Castrum Estufin) is documented in 1147.  By 1192 the castle was called Kinzburg (Königsburg, "King's Castle").  In the early thirteenth century, the fortification passed from the Hohenstaufen family to the dukes of Lorraine, who entrusted it to the local Rathsamhausen knightly family and the Lords of Hohenstein, who held the castle until the fifteenth century.  As the Hohensteins allowed robber barons to use the castle as a hideout, and their behaviour began to exasperate the neighbouring rulers, in 1454 it was occupied by Elector Palatine Frederick I.  In 1462 the castle was set on fire by the unified forces of the cities of Colmar, Strasbourg and Basel.

The fortress of Haut Koenigsbourg, Alsace, Lorraine, France, plan view.

The fortress of Haut Koenigsbourg, Alsace, Lorraine, France, before and after restoration, 1900-1908.

In 1479, the Habsburg emperor Frederick III granted the castle ruins in fief to the Counts of Thierstein, who rebuilt them with a defensive system suited to the new artillery of the time.  In 1517 the last Thierstein died and the castle reverted back to a fief.  It again came into the possession of the Habsburg emperor of the day, Maximilian I.  In 1633, during the Thirty Years' War in which Catholics forces fought Protestants, the Imperial castle was besieged by Protestant Swedish forces.  After a 52-day siege, the castle was burned and looted by the Swedish troops.  For several hundred years it was left unused, and the ruins became overgrown by the forest.

(Alfo23 Photo)

Bronze gun dated 1669, mounted on a wheeled carriage inside Haut Koenigsbourg.

The ruins were purchased by the township of Sélestat in 1865.  After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to 1871 the region was incorporated into the German Imperial Territory of Alsace-Lorraine, and in 1899 the citizens granted what was left of the castle to the German emperor Wilhelm II.  Wilhelm wished to create a castle lauding the qualities of Alsace in the Middle Ages and more generally of German civilization stretching from Hohkönigsburg in the west to Marienburg Castle (also restored) in the east.  The management of the restoration of the fortifications was entrusted to the architect Bodo Ebhardt, a proven expert on the reconstruction of medieval castles.  Work proceeded from 1900 to 1908.  Ebhart's aim was to rebuild it, as near as possible, as it was on the eve of the Thirty Years' War.  He relied heavily on historical accounts but, occasionally lacking information, he had to improvise some parts of the stronghold.  (For example, the Keep tower is now reckoned to be about 14 metres too tall).  Bodo Ebhardt restored the castle following a close study of the remaining walls, archives and other fortified castles built at the same period.  On 13 May 1908, the restored Hohkönigsburg was inaugurated in the presence of the Emperor.

(Rolf Kranz Photo)

Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg, view from the battlements.

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]

(Kim Traynor Photo)

Bombard, Mons Meg, Edinburgh Castle, Scotland.

(Karelj Photo)

Dulle Griet (Crazy Griet), a medieval supergun from the first half of the 15th century from Ghent, Belgium.

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.

(Person Scott Foresman Archives)

Illustration showing an object being dropped from a machicolation that is supported by stone corbels.  

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 which could be poured through a machicolation (a slot or a floor opening between the supporting corbels of a battlement, through which stones or other material, such as boiling water or boiling cooking oil, could be dropped on attackers at the base of a defensive wall).  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

The Siege of Acre of 1799 was an unsuccessful French siege of the Ottoman-defended, walled city of Acre (now Akko in modern Israel) and was the turning point of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt and Syria.  It was Napoleon`s first strategic defeat as three years previously he had been tactically defeated at the Second Battle of Bassano.

Plan view of the fortifications at St. Jean d'Acre, 1779.

(Avram Graicer Photo)

Aerial view of Acre.  The outline of the city's defences has changed little since 1799.

Siege of Badajoz, 1812

In the Siege of Badajoz (16 March – 6 April 1812), also called the Third Siege of Badajoz, an Anglo-Portuguese Army, under General Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington), besieged Badajoz, Spain, and forced the surrender of the French garrison.

The siege was one of the bloodiest in the Napoleonic Wars and was considered a costly victory by the British, with some 4,800 Allied soldiers killed in a few short hours of intense fighting during the storming of the breaches as the siege drew to an end.  Enraged at the huge number of casualties they suffered in seizing the city, the troops broke into houses and stores consuming vast quantities of alcohol with many of them then going on a rampage.  Threatening their officers and ignoring their commands to desist, and even killing several, the troops massacred about 4,000 Spanish civilians.  It took three days before the men were brought back into order.

After capturing the frontier towns of Almeida and Ciudad Rodrigo in earlier sieges, the Duke of Wellington's army moved south to Badajoz to capture this frontier town and secure the lines of communication back to Lisbon, the primary base of operations for the allied army.  Badajoz was garrisoned by some 5,000 French soldiers under General Philippon, the town commander, and possessed much stronger fortifications than either Almeida or Ciudad Rodrigo.  With a strong curtain wall covered by numerous strongpoints and bastions, Badajoz had already faced two unsuccessful sieges and was well prepared for a third attempt, with the walls strengthened and some areas around the curtain wall flooded or mined with explosives.

The allied army, some 27,000 strong, outnumbered the French garrison by around five to one and after encircling the town on 17 March 1812, began to lay siege by preparing trenches, parallels and earthworks to protect the heavy siege artillery, work made difficult by a week of prolonged and torrential rainfalls, which also swept away bridging works that were needed to bring the heavy cannon and supplies forward.  On 19 March the French made a strong sally with 1,500 men and 40 cavalry which surprised the working parties and caused losses of 150 officers and men before being repulsed.  By 25 March batteries were firing on the outwork, Fort Picurina, which that night was stormed by 500 men and seized by redcoats from General Thomas Picton's 3rd Division.  Casualties were high with 50 killed and 250 wounded, but the fort was captured.  The French made several raids to try to destroy the lines advancing toward the curtain wall, but were repeatedly fended off by the famed British 95th Rifles while simultaneously being counter-attacked by line infantry.

The capture of the bastion allowed more extensive siege earthworks to be dug and with the arrival of heavy 18 lb (8.2 kg) and 24 lb (11 kg) howitzers, breaching batteries were established.  On 31 March the allies began an intense bombardment of the town's defences.  Soon a maze of trenches were creeping up to the high stone walls as the cannons continued to blast away at the stonework.  On 2 April an attempt was made to destroy a barrier that had been erected amongst the arches of the bridge to cause flooding that was hampering the siege. The explosion of 450lbs of powder was only partly successful.

By April 5 two breaches had been made in the curtain wall and the soldiers readied themselves to storm Badajoz.  The order to attack was delayed for 24 hours to allow another breach to be made in the wall.  News began to filter to the allies that Marshal Soult was marching to relieve the town and an order was given to launch the attack at 22:00 on April 6.

The French garrison were well aware of what was to come, and mined the large breaches in the walls in preparation for the imminent assault.

Engraving of the Siege of Badajos in 1812.  (Archibald Wilberforce, editor - The great battles of all nations)

With three large gaps in the curtain wall and with Marshal Soult marching to the town's aid, Wellington ordered his regiments to storm the town so at 22:00 on the 6th and the troops made their way forward with scaling ladders and various tools.  Three attacks would be mounted.  The first men to assault the breaches were the men of the Forlorn Hope, who would lead the main attack by the 4th Division on two of the breaches.  The third breach would be assaulted by Craufurd's Light Division while diversionary attacks were to be made to the north and the east by Portuguese, and British soldiers of the 5th Division and Picton's 3rd Division would assault the Castle from across the river.

Just as the main Forlorn Hope were beginning their attack, a French sentry was alerted and raised the alarm.  Within seconds the ramparts were filled with French soldiers, who poured a lethal hail of musket fire into the troops at the base of the breach.  The British and Portuguese surged forward en masse and raced up to the wall, facing a murderous barrage of musket fire, complemented by grenades, stones, barrels of gunpowder with crude fuses and bales of burning hay to provide light.

The furious barrage devastated the British soldiers at the wall and the breach soon began to fill with dead and wounded, over whom the storming troops had to struggle.  The carnage, rubble and loss of guiding Engineering officers led the Craufurd's Light Division to become confused; assaulting an outlying ravelin that led nowhere, the troops got mixed up with those of the 4th Division.  Despite the carnage the redcoats continued to surge forward in great numbers, only to be mown down by endless volleys and shrapnel from grenades and bombs.  The French could see they were holding the assault and the British were becoming stupefied and incapable of more exertion.  In just under two hours, some 2,000 men had been killed or badly wounded at the main breach, while countless more men of the 3rd Division were shot down as they made their diversionary assault.

"The Devil's Own" 88th Regiment at the Siege of Badajoz. Watercolour en grisaille by Richard Caton Woodville Jr.

Picton's 3rd Division managed to reach the top of the castle wall, without General Picton, who was wounded as he climbed a ladder to try to reach the top of the wall, and found themselves secure within the castle, but as all doors into the town were blocked up, could not immediately come to the assistance of the other divisions.

Everywhere they attacked, the allied soldiers were being halted and the carnage was so immense that Wellington was just about to call a halt to the assault when he heard that the soldiers had gained a foothold in the castle.  He ordered the castle gates to be blown and that the 3rd Division should support the assaults on the breaches with a flank attack.

The 5th Division, which had been delayed because their ladder party had become lost, now attacked the San Vicente bastion; losing 600 men, they eventually made it to the top of the curtain wall.  FitzRoy Somerset, Wellington's military secretary (and the future Lord Raglan), was the first to mount the breach, and afterwards secured one of the gates for British reinforcements before the French could organise a fresh defence.

The town's fate was sealed with the link up with men of the 3rd and 5th Divisions, who were also making their way into the town.  Once they had a foothold, the British and Portuguese soldiers were at an advantage.  Seeing that he could no longer hold out, General Philippon withdrew from Badajoz to the neighbouring outwork of San Cristobal; however, he surrendered shortly after the town had fallen.

When dawn finally came on 7 April, it revealed the horror of the slaughter all around the curtain wall.  Bodies were piled high and blood flowed like rivers in the ditches and trenches.  Surveying the destruction and slaughter Wellington wept openly at the sight of British dead piled upon each other in the breaches and bitterly cursed the British Parliament for granting him so few resources and soldiers.  The assault and the earlier skirmishes had left the allies with some 4,800 casualties.  Estimates of the numbers vary between 4,924 and 4,760.   The elite Light Division had suffered badly, losing some 40 percent of their fighting strength.

With success came mass looting and disorder as the redcoats turned to drink and reprisals. The wanton sacking of Badajoz has been noted by many historians as a particularly atrocious conduct committed by the British Army: many homes were broken into, property vandalized or stolen, Spanish civilians of all ages and backgrounds killed or raped, and many officers were also shot by the men they were trying to bring to order.

After fifteen to eighteen hours Wellington finally issued an order that the sack of Badajoz should cease and ordered detachments to restore order beginning at 5 a.m. the next day.  It was some 72 hours before order was completely restored, however.  Many British soldiers were flogged as punishment and a gallows was erected, but no one was hanged.

From an engineering view point, the requirement to undertake the assault in a hasty manner, relying upon the British bayonet, rather than scientific methods of approach, undoubtedly resulted in heavier casualties, as did the lack of a corps of trained sappers.  The siege was to lead, within 2 weeks, to the formation of the Royal School of Military Engineering. (Fletcher, Ian. In Hell before Daylight: The Siege and Storming of the Castle of Badajoz, March–April 1812 , Spellmount Ltd.); and, (Jac Weller. Wellington in the Peninsula 1808–1814, London. 1962)

Siege of Burgos, 1812

Siege of Burgos, Spain, 1812, painting by Francois Joseph Heim.  The Siege of Burgos took place from 19 September to 21 October 1812, during the Peninsular War, part of the Napoleonic Wars.  The initial siege was carried out by an Anglo-Portuguese Army led by General Arthur Wellesley, Marquess of Wellington, in an attempt to capture the castle of Burgos from its French garrison under the command of General of Brigade Jean-Louis Dubreton.  The French repulsed every attempt to seize the fortress, resulting in one of Wellington's rare withdrawals, as he went on to defeat the army sent to flank him at the Lines of Torres Vedras.  He pursued the French, and then returned to complete the siege of Burgos and capture the city . Burgos is located about 210 kilometres (130 mi) north of Madrid.

British engineers quickly began digging in batteries on the hornwork hill, the first battery (protective position for the guns) was finished on 22 September but hoping to get lucky again, Wellington ordered an attack on the night of 22/23 September before his guns had fired a shot. Men of the 1st and 6th Divisions rushed forward against the palisades with axes, followed by men with just five ladders to scale the 24 foot wall, they failed to receive the support of other troops and were easily repelled with 150 of the 400 men killed and wounded.  The engineers then began digging a mine 60 feet to get under the fort's west wall. When this was detonated in the early hours of the 29 September, part of the wall collapsed, the advanced party of British dashed forward but were not supported and were soon driven back from the defences.  It turned out that the mine was run under an ancient buried wall that was in front of the modern wall. Consequently, the main French defenses were unscathed by the explosion.

A frustrated Wellington ordered his engineers to dig a new mine.  Meanwhile, he had his soldiers work overnight to erect a breaching battery close to the walls.  At daybreak on 1 October, the French discovered this position and immediately zeroed in their defending artillery.  They rapidly destroyed two of the three cannons and inflicted heavy losses on the gun crews.  The following night the British reestablished the battery only to see it destroyed again in the morning.  On 2 October, Wellington asked Popham to send two 24-pound cannons to replace his lost artillery.  As it happened, these guns would not arrive in time.  When the new mine was finally ready on 4 October, it was fired, blowing a 100-foot gap in the northwest wall and killing most of the defenders in that area.  The subsequent attack managed to secure a foothold in the outer defenses after heavy fighting and 220 casualties.

After the Allies began digging a new trench against the inner defenses, Dubreton launched a sortie without warning on 5 October.  The attackers killed and wounded almost 150 Allies and carried off or spoiled much of their equipment.  No sooner had Wellington resumed siege operations than Dubreton struck again.  At 2am on the 8th, with perfect timing, the French swarmed out of the fort and inflicted 184 casualties while suffering small losses.  Rain began to fall in sheets, flooding the siege trenches.  The British guns on the hornwork ran so low on ammunition that French cannonballs were retrieved and reused.  Wellington wrote, "This is altogether the most difficult job I ever had in hand with such trifling means.  God send that they may give me a little more time."

A third mine was dug and on 18 October, at 4.30pm the mine was detonated under the Chapel of San Roman near the south wall.  Assaults were mounted against the west and north walls, but support for the assaults was weak and as before, these attacks withered in the face of intense fire and 170 more casualties were added to the butcher's bill.  With a French army threatening his position and with the problems arising from the shortage of artillery and ammunition, Wellington made preparations to retreat on 21 October.  However, he was unable to withdraw all his siege guns.  The engineers tried to demolish the captured hornwork, but their charges failed to explode.  British losses in the siege amounted to 550 killed, 1,550 wounded, and three guns . The French lost 304 killed and 323 wounded, plus the 60 captured.  (Glover, Michael. The Peninsular War 1807-1814. London: Penguin, 2001, p. 213)

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.

El Cid

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]

Santa Gadea Oath, an 1864 painting by Marcos Giráldez de Acosta depicting Alfonso VI (at the centre with a red cape) swearing with his right hand on the Bible that he did not take part in the murder of his brother Sancho II, while El Cid stands as a witness in front of him.

Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, known to his men as El Cid (meaning "The Lord"), was a Spanish nobleman and military leader of the medieval kingdom of Castile. Raised in the court of King Ferdinand the Great, he rose to become the commander and standard-bearer of Castile's military, and served under Ferdinand's son, Sancho II.  Rodrigo led several successful campaigns against Sancho's brothers, and the local Muslim nations.  Sancho was later assassinated, and the throne passed to his brother Alfonso, who gave the order to have Rodrigo exiled.

Rodrigo went on to command the armies of the Muslim state of Zaragoza. He led Zaragoza's army to victory over their enemies several times, and even defeated the large Christian army of the Kingdom of Aragon.  His newfound reputation led Alfonso to put aside his personal grudges and invite him back to the court of Castile.

Rodrigo refused Alfonso's request for aid, instead deciding to focus on his own ambitions.  With his army, he marched his army towards the coastal city of Valencia, intending to create his own kingdom there.  Along the way, he defeated the army of Barcelona and conquered many towns and cities.  He laid siege to Valencia, and by the time the siege was broken, Valencia had been made into Rodrigo's own principality that he ruled independently.  The city was made up of both Christians and Muslims, who lived in peace.

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]

Medieval crossbowmen.  (Payne-Gallwey)

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.

Trebuchet and caltrop.

(Bullenwächter Photo)

Roman Caltrop made of iron, Westfälisches Museum für Archäologie, Herne, Germany.

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]

(Ferrario, Giulio, 1767-1847; Melzi, Gaetano, conte,1783-1851. Bibliografia dei romanzi e poemi romanzeschi d'Italia)

Europeansiege illustrating weapons and tactics of the 18th century.

Catapult used by the Crusaders during the First Crusade, ca 1097, engraving by Gustave Doré.

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, engraving by Gustave Doré.

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, painting by Émile Schweitzer.

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).

(Author Photo)

Marksburg Castle on the Rhine River, Germany, 1979.

The Marksburg is a castle above the town of Braubach in the Rhineland-Platinate, Germany.  The fortress was used for protection rather than as a residence for royal families.  Of the 40 hill castles between Bingen am Rhein and Koblenz, the Marksburg was the only one which was never destroyed.  A stone keep was built on the spot in 1100 by the Eppstein family and expanded into a castle around 1117 to protect the town of Braubach and to reinforce the customs facilities.  It was first mentioned in documents in 1231.  The Eppsteins were a powerful family in the region, with several members becoming archbishops in Mainz and Trier.  In 1283, Count Eberhard of Katzenelnbogen bought it and throughout the 14th and 15th century the high noble counts coninuously rebuilt the castle.   In 1429 territories went to the Count of Hesse, who expanded the castle to accommodate artillery and added the round towers of the outer curtain wall.

(Tobi 87 Photo)

Marksburg Castle on the Rhine River, Germany.

The French emperor Napoleon seized then abolished the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.  He gave the Marksburg to his ally the Duke of Nassau for his service.  He used the castle as a prison and as a home for disabled soldiers.  After the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 the Duchy of Nassau became a territory of Prussia, which took ownership of the Marksburg.  It was sold in 1900 for a symbolic price of 1,000 Goldmarks to the German Castle Association, which had been founded a year earlier as a private initiative to preserve castles in Germany.  The Marksburg has been the head office of this organisation since 1931.  In March 1945, the castle was badly damaged by American artillery fired from the other side of the Rhine.

Albigensian Crusade, 1209-1229

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]

The Albigensian Crusade or the Cathar Crusade (1209–1229, was a 20-year military campaign initiated by Pope Innocent III to eliminate Catharism in Languedoc, in southern France.  The Crusade was prosecuted primarily by the French crown and promptly took on a political flavour, resulting in not only a significant reduction in the number of practising Cathars, but also a realignment of the County of Toulouse in Languedoc, bringing it into the sphere of the French crown and diminishing the distinct regional culture and high level of influence of the Counts of Barcelona.

The Cathars originated from an anti-materialist reform movement within the Bogomil churches of Dalmatia and Bulgaria calling for a return to the Christian message of perfection, poverty and preaching, combined with a rejection of the physical to the point of starvation.  The reforms were a reaction against the often scandalous and dissolute lifestyles of the Catholic clergy in southern France.  Their theology, neo-Gnostic in many ways, was basically dualist.  Several of their practices, especially their belief in the inherent evil of the physical world, conflicted with the doctrines of the Incarnation of Christ and sacraments, initiated accusations of Gnosticism and brought them the ire of the Catholic establishment.  They became known as the Albigensians, because there were many adherents in the city of Albi and the surrounding area in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Between 1022 and 1163, the Cathars were condemned by eight local church councils, the last of which, held at Tours, declared that all Albigenses should be put into prison and have their property confiscated.  The Third Lateran Council of 1179 repeated the condemnation.  Innocent III's diplomatic attempts to roll back Catharism were met with little success.  After the murder of his legate, Pierre de Castelnau in 1208, Innocent III declared a crusade against the Cathars.  He offered the lands of the Cathar heretics to any French nobleman willing to take up arms.

From 1209 to 1215, the Crusaders experienced grand success, capturing Cathar lands and perpetrating acts of extreme violence, often against civilians.  From 1215 to 1225, a series of revolts caused many of the lands to be lost.  A renewed crusade resulted in the recapturing of the territory and effectively drove Catharism underground by 1244.  The Albigensian Crusade also had a role in the creation and institutionalization of both the Dominican Order and the Medieval Inquisition.  The Dominicans promulgated the message of the Church to combat alleged heresies by preaching the Church's teachings in towns and villages, while the Inquisition investigated heresies.  Because of these efforts, by the middle of the 14th century, any discernible traces of the Cathar movement had been eradicated.

Siege of Béziers, 1209

By mid-1209, around 10,000 crusaders had gathered in Lyon before marching south.  Many Crusaders stayed on for no more than 40 days before being replaced.  A large number came from Northern France, while some had volunteered from England.  The crusaders turned towards Montpellier, and the lands of Raymond Roger Trencavel, aiming for the Cathar communities around Albi and Carcassone.  Raymond Roger, Raymond's nephew and Count of Foix, was a supporter of the Cathar movement.  He initially promised to defend the city of  Béziers, but after hearing of the coming of the Crusader army, he abandoned that city and raced back to Carcassonne to prepare his defences.

The Crusaders captured the small village of Servian and then headed for Béziers, arriving on 21 July 1209.  Under the command of the papal legate, Arnaud Amalric they began to besiege the city, calling on the Catholics within to come out, and demanding that the Cathars surrender.  Neither group did as commanded.  The city fell the following day when an abortive sortie was pursued back through the open gates.  The entire population was killed and the city burned to the ground.  It was reported that Amalric, when asked how to distinguish Cathars from Catholics, responded, "Kill them all! God will know his own."  Whether this was actually said is sometimes considered doubtful, but, according to historian Joseph Strayer, it captures the "spirit" of the Crusaders, who killed nearly every man, woman, and child in the town.

Amalric and Milo, a fellow legate, in a letter to the Pope, claim that the crusaders "put to the sword almost 20,000 people."  Strayer insists that this estimate is too high, but noted that in his letter "the legate expressed no regret about the massacre, not even a word of condolence for the clergy of the cathedral who were killed in front of their own altar."  News of the disaster quickly spread and afterwards many settlements surrendered without a fight.

Siege of Carcassonne, 1209

After the Massacre at Béziers, the next major target was Carcassonne a city with many well known Cathars.  Carcassonne was well fortified, but vulnerable, and overflowing with refugees.  The Crusaders traversed the 45 miles between Béziers and Carcassonne in six days, arriving in the city on 1 August 1209.  The siege did not last long.  By 7 August they had cut the city's water supply.  Raymond Roger sought negotiations but was taken prisoner while under truce, and Carcasonne surrendered on 15 August.  The people were not killed, but were forced to leave the town.  They were naked according to Peter of Vaux-de-Cernay, a monk and eyewitness to many events of the crusade, but "in their shifts and breeches," according to Guillaume de Puylaurens, a contemporary.

Simon de Montfort, a prominent French nobleman, was then appointed leader of the Crusader army, and was granted control of the area encompassing Carcassonne, Albi, and Béziers.  After the fall of Carcassonne, other towns surrendered without a fight. Albi, Castelnaudary, Castres, Fanjeaux, Limoux, Lombers and Montréal all fell quickly during the autumn.

The next battle centred around Lastours and the adjacent castle of Cabaret. Attacked in December 1209, Pierre Roger de Cabaret repulsed the assault.  Fighting largely halted over the winter, but fresh Crusaders arrived.  In March 1210, Bram was captured after a short siege.  In June the well-fortified city of Minerve was besieged.  The city was not of major strategic importance.  Simon's decision to attack it was probably influenced by the large number of perfects who had gathered there. Unable to take the town by storm because of the surrounding geography, Simon launched a heavy bombardment against the town, and in late June the main well was destroyed and on 22 July, the city, short on water, surrendered.  Simon wished to treat the occupants leniently, but was pressured by Arnaud Amalric to punish the Cathars.  The Crusaders allowed the soldiers defending the town as well as the Catholics inside of it to go free, along with the non-perfect Cathars.  The Cathar "perfects" were given the opportunity to return to Catholicism.  Only three women did.  The 140 who refused were burned at the stake. Some entered the flames voluntarily, not awaiting their executioners.

In August, the Crusade proceeded to the stronghold of Termes.  Despite sallies from Pierre-Roger de Cabaret, the siege was solid.  The occupants of Termes suffered from a shortage of water, and Raymond agreed to a temporary truce.  However, the Cathars were briefly relieved by an intense rainstorm, and so Raymond refused to surrender.  Ultimately, the defenders were not able to break the siege, and on 22 November 22 the Cathars managed to abandon the city and escape.

By the time operations resumed in 1211, the actions of Arnaud-Amaury and Simon de Montfort had alienated several important lords, including Raymond de Toulouse, who had been excommunicated again.  The crusaders returned in force to Lastours in March and Pierre-Roger de Cabaret soon agreed to surrender.  In May the castle of Aimery de Montréal was retaken; he and his senior knights were hanged, and several hundred Cathars were burned.  Casses fell easily in early June.  Afterwards, Simon marched towards Montferrand, where Raymond had placed his brother, Baldwin, in command.  After a short siege, Baldwin signed an agreement to abandon the fort in return for swearing an oath to go free and to not fight again against the Crusaders.  Baldwin briefly returned to Raymond, but afterward defected to the Crusaders and remained loyal to them thereafter.  After taking Montferrand, the Crusaders headed for Toulouse.  The town was besieged, but for once the attackers were short of supplies and men, and Simon de Montfort withdrew before the end of the month.  Emboldened, Raymond de Toulouse led a force to attack Montfort at Castelnaudary in September.  Montfort broke free from the siege but Castelnaudary fell that December to Raymond's troops and Raymond's forces went on to liberate over thirty towns before the counter-attack ground to a halt at Lastours in the autumn.

The Cathars now faced a difficult situation. To repel the Crusaders, they turned to Peter II of Aragon for assistance.  A favourite of the Catholic Church, Peter II had been crowned king by Innocent III in 1204.  He fought the Moors in Spain, and served in the Battle of Las navas de Tolosa.  However, his sister, Eleanor, had married Raymond VI, securing an alliance.  His victories in the south against the Spanish, along with the persuasion of a delegation sent to Rome, had led Innocent III to order a halt to the crusade.  On 15 January 1213, he wrote the legate Arnaud Amaury and to Simon, ordering Simon to restore the lands that he had taken.  Concerned also that Simon had grown too powerful, Peter decided to come to the aid of Toulouse.  The Crown of Aragon, under Peter II, allied with the County of Toulouse and various other entities.  These actions alarmed Innocent, who after hearing from Simon's delegation denounced Peter and ordered a renewal of the crusade.  On 21 May, he sent Peter a letter severely castigating him for allegedly providing false information, and warning him not to oppose the Crusaders.  However, Peter's coalition force engaged Simon's troops on 12 September 12 in the Battle of Muret.  The Crusaders were heavily outnumbered.  Peter and Simon both organized their troops into three lines.  The first of the Crusader lines was beaten back, but Simon managed to outflank the coalition cavalry.  Peter II was struck down and killed.  The coalition forces, hearing of his death, retreated in confusion.  This allowed Simon's troops to occupy the northern part of Toulouse.

It was a serious blow for the resistance, and in 1214 the situation became worse.  As the Crusaders continued their advance, Raymond and his son were forced to flee to England, and his lands were given by the Pope to the victorious Philip II, a stratagem which finally succeeded in interesting the king in the conflict.  In November, Simon de Montfort entered Périgord and easily captured the castles of Dommel and Montfort; he also occupied Castlenaud and destroyed the fortifications of Beynac.  In 1215, Castelnaud was recaptured by Montfort, and the Crusaders entered Toulouse.  The town paid an indemnity of 30,000 marks.  Toulouse was gifted to Montfort.  The Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215 solidified Crusader control over the area by officially proclaiming Simon the Count of Toulouse.  (Stayer, Joseph R.  The Albigensian Crusades.  The Dial Press, New York, NY, 1971)

Siege of Carcassonne, 1240

(Jean-Paul Grandmont Photo)

The walled city of Carcassone above the Aude River.

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]

(Chensiyuan Photo)

Aerial view of the present day walled city of Carcassone.

Advances in siege engines

(Oren Rozen Photo)

Replica of Roman Ballista in the Hecht Museum, Haifa, Israel.

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 bombard.

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]

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]

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