Encircled, cut off and facing attack by government troops, the northern Syrian city of Aleppo has been under what’s being described as a state of siege since late July. Elements of the 11th and 18th divisions of the Syrian Army along with that country’s Republican Guard have spent the past six weeks hammering away at anti-government rebels, Mujahedeen, Kurdish militia and various foreign fighters entrenched throughout the city. Already, the fighting has claimed as many as 300 on each side and more than 500 civilians have perished in the ongoing battle. Syrian president Bashar Hafez al-Assad has fallen under intense criticism internationally for the bloodshed in Aleppo, which is Syria’s largest city. What Assad is doing is by no means revolutionary — the idea of surrounding and starving defenders into submission (rather than defeating them in open battle) has been a common feature of war going back as far as the earliest walled settlements and Bronze Age hill forts. History’s first recorded siege was in the 15thCentury BCE, when an Egyptian army under the leadership of Thutmose III wore down the Canaanite defenders of Megiddo, in present day Israel. Since then, there have been nearly 500 sieges recorded in military history. Here are some of the more remarkable facts about siege warfare.
The “rules” of the siege
Unlike the struggle for Aleppo, many historical sieges (at least among European powers) would unfold in a set-piece manner, often in accordance with a series of rules laid down by military strategists over the centuries. According to the website http://www.fortified-places.com, the “rule” of siege warfare, were actually compiled by the 17th Century French military engineer Marquis de Vauban. These included de facto formulas for determining how long a defender should hold before surrendering a city (while still retaining his honour). Attackers, on the other hand, were expected to provide ample opportunity for those behind the fortifications to give up the town, fort or castle without bloodshed. However, if the defenders refused to capitulate within the allotted time, the attacking army was well within its rights to plunder the settlement and slaughter its inhabitants without mercy once the defenses were overcome. Vauban also wrote the specifics on how to carry off a successful siege. Typically, cavalry would encircle the town, seizing and holding all roads in and out of the city. Infantry would then movie in to throw a more substantial cordon around the target. Next artillery would be brought forward. Engineers would erect fortifications to shield the attackers from harassing fire from within the walls or to fend off any attempt by the defenders to sally forth and surprise the besiegers. These fortifications would also protect against any advancing army that would try to march to the city’s rescue. The attackers would then either attempt to outlast the enemy within the city or if possible breach the walls either through cannon fire or mining (originally known as undermining) the fortifications via underground tunnels and explosives.
The longest sieges
Siege warfare is based on the principle of waiting. Over time, conditions in besieged cities would deteriorate as the food and water dwindled. The inhabitants’ misery would only be intensified as the attackers would bombard the walls and buildings within. The sieges of Leningrad in World War Two and Vicksburg during the U.S. Civil War were both particularly miserable for each cities’ inhabitants. However, in many other sieges, defenders had the supplies on hand and the fortitude to hold out for what at the time must have seemed close to indefinitely. Consider these:
The siege of Harlech Castle during the 15th Century War of the Roses lasted an incredible seven years from 1461 to 1468 — the longest siege in British history. The Welsh fortress was the last refuge for the Queen of Anjou and her Lancastrian allies following their defeat at the Battle of Northampton. Although the Yorkists surrounded Harlech, the castle’s location on the water made resupply by sea possible. After several years, King Edward IV was compelled to force a conclusion to the standoff — more than 10,000 soldiers were ordered to storm Harlech. While seven years seem long for a siege, there have been several longer ones elsewhere in history.
The Romans besieged the Carthaginian stronghold at Drepana, Sicily for eight years between 249 and 241 BCE. It would finally take the Roman navy to blockade the town from the sea and the legions to cut off access to the fortress overland before Drepana fell. The capture of the settlement marked the end of the First Punic War.
Christian Greeks held the city of Philadelphia in what is now Turkey for an amazing 12 years from 1378 to 1390 in the face of the Ottoman Empire. A staggering length of time to be sure, but even that wasn’t the longest siege in history.
Between 1648 and 1669, Venetians in the city of Candia on Crete would hold an army of 60,000 Turkish soldiers and 20,000 engineers at bay. An astounding 19 years! For close to two decades, the Turks tried to blast through the city’s walls with artillery, but to no avail. Venice responded to the siege by blockading the Turkish-held Dardanelles, thereby cutting off the besieging army. However a subsequent attempt by a Venetian landing force on Crete to lift the siege failed. With the city’s supplies almost completely exhausted, Venice’s French allies tried a last-ditch joint land and sea operation to break the blockade in 1669. It ended in disaster. Starving, demoralized and with no hope of relief, the Venetian commander and his remaining 3,600 defenders gave up Candia. As part of the terms, the inhabitants were permitted to leave with their lives and some of their belongings.
Most Besieged Places
A number of cities throughout history have fallen prey to besieging armies multiple times. For example, Rome, the city so well protected during the reign of the Caesars, would suffer no fewer than seven sieges between the 5th and 19th centuries. In 410, Rome was besieged and then sacked by the Goths under command of the war chief Alaric. Forty-five years later, it was the Vandals’ turn to surround and starve out the Romans. Between 530 and 550, the city would endure three additional year-long sieges, once more at the hands of the Goths. The next siege of Rome came by the French in 1849 during the turmoil surrounding the Italian unification. Rome’s final siege was in 1870 when the remnants of the French occupiers were themselves besieged by an Italian nationalist army. Like Rome, armies have fought over strategic Gibraltar for centuries. The port city that serves as a gateway from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic has suffered as many as 14 sieges over the centuries. Nine of these took place during the re-conquest in the 14th and 15th centuries, when Spaniard armies fought to eject the Muslims from the peninsula. Then in 1540, corsairs under the command of Barbarossa surrounded and stormed Gibraltar. In 1704, a combined Anglo-Dutch attack would capture the city, placing the strategic port and commanding rock in the hands of the British. Later that year, the French and Spaniards would try and then fail to retake Gibraltar. Another Spanish siege would follow in 1727. The so-called Great Siege of 1782 would take place as an offshoot the American War of Independence when Spain and France would once again try to wrest control of the vital choke point from the British. Another strategic bottleneck in the Mediterranean region, Constantinople, would experience 17 sieges in its history. The Persians would unsuccessfully try to capture the Byzantine capital in 626. An Arab force would lay an unsuccessful four-year siege starting in 674. Another would follow in 717. European Crusaders would take the city by force in 1203 and again in 1204 as part of the Fourth Crusade. Bulgarians and Niceans would try and fail to break the defences in 1235 as would the Ottomans in 1422. However, a month long siege of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 would succeed, thus ending the Byzantine Empire once and for all. Surprisingly, the most besieged city in history is Jerusalem, having been surrounded and attacked as many as 27 times, beginning in 1443 BCE. Over the next 2600 years, the holy city would be cutoff by King David, the Egyptians, the Philistines, the Ethiopians, the Syrians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Macedonians, the Romans (several times), the Arabs, the Crusaders, and finally the Tartars.
If you’d like to receive alerts about the latest articles and posts, click on the link in the upper right margin marked “FOLLOW THIS BLOG”. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter.