The siege constitutes the natural corollary of fortifications, and until the advent of aerial bombardment a fortified location could be compelled to surrender in war only by employing one of four strategies. Many places, especially those containing a large civilian population, have fallen through hunger or thirst after a lengthy blockade (like Vicksburg, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi during the American Civil War, whose capitulation in 1863 cut off the western Confederate states). Others have been taken by a ruse (Troy, according to legend, fell to a group of soldiers intruded in a large wooden horse). Others still have succumbed through treachery ( Jericho, in the first recorded siege, was betrayed by information provided by "Rahab the harlot," the first spy--as well as the first prostitute--recorded in history). Finally, defenses have been demolished, either by artillery fire (as at Constantinople in 1453) or by the use of mines (see Siege Weapons), resulting in immediate assault and sack by the besiegers or in negotiated surrender.
Jericho by the Israelites (1350? b.c.): The first recorded siege in history.
Troy by the Greeks (1190?-1180? b.c.): The longest recorded siege in history.
Constantinople by the Turks (1453): An early example of gunpowder artillery causing a fortress to fall.
Tenochtitl[aacute]n by the Spaniards (1520-1521): The first full-dress siege in the Americas.
Yang-chou by the Manchus (1645): The bloodiest sack in history.
Vicksburg by the Union army of Ulysses S. Grant (1863): A turning point in the American Civil War.
Verdun by Germany (1916): The costliest siege of this century.
Leningrad by Germany (1941-1944): The longest siege of this century (nine hundred days).
Stalingrad by Germany (1942-1943): The turning point of World War II in Europe.
Dien Bien Phu by the Viet Minh (1954): Its fall marked the end of French colonial rule in Southeast Asia.
Whatever the outcome, sieges normally caused huge loss of life. First, maintaining large concentrations of people in the same spot--whether inside the beleaguered stronghold or in the trenches around it--could easily create acute food shortages and serious epidemics that claimed numerous lives. Second, the fighting itself could cause heavy casualties, whether in hand-to-hand combat during attacks on the trenches and assaults on the town, or through the use of artillery and mines. Third, if the defenders rejected calls to surrender and then succumbed to a storm, according to the prevailing laws of war, they might be slaughtered or enslaved: thus, after the capture of Yang-chou in China in 1645 by the Manchus, a ten-day massacre left perhaps 800,000 dead, while all the women were raped, chained together, and deported. Knowledge of their likely fate if captured normally encouraged either hasty capitulation or else desperate resistance by defenders. Some sieges therefore lasted for years. Troy in the twelfth century b.c. defied the Greeks, according to Homer's Iliad, for ten years (see Trojan Wars); Leningrad in the twentieth century a.d. held out for nine hundred days--and even then starvation and repeated German assaults failed to subdue the Russian defenders, who knew the fate of other cities that had fallen.
Some sieges have been used to "bleed" an enemy. During World War I, at Verdun in 1916, the German high command laid siege to a fortified complex that their adversaries were sure to defend at all costs in order to maximize their casualties. In the event, however, they lost almost as many men as the French defenders--the 400,000 killed and 800,000 wounded were split roughly equally between the two sides--and Verdun never surrendered. During World War II, at Stalingrad in 1942-1943, although at one point the Germans held 90 percent of the city, the Soviets fed in enough fresh troops to keep the siege going until a decisive counterattack cut off some 200,000 of the exhausted besiegers. At Dien Bien Phu in 1954, French elite troops in Indochina created a fortified complex in an isolated but strategically crucial location, in the hope of exhausting the Viet Minh through a costly siege. Instead, however, arrangements for supplying the exposed garrison broke down and they eventually surrendered, in effect ending the war.
The frequency of sieges normally reflected the military geography of the theater of operations. Thus in Europe, areas with numerous towns close to a political frontier, such as Belgium, Hungary, or northern Italy, have traditionally invested heavily in fortifications, so that battles became to some extent irrelevant: defeating the enemy's field army only mattered if it led to the fall of fortified towns. In areas lacking modern defenses, however, such as England during the 1640s, field engagements proved both more common and more decisive (see English Civil Wars). In other parts of the world, all urban centers might remain unfortified: in Southeast Asia, Siberia, and sub-Saharan Africa, for example, until the arrival of the Europeans in the sixteenth century, even commercial and political capitals lacked fortifications, and the normal response to enemy attack was flight, since dwellings destroyed could easily be rebuilt. Sieges therefore remained unknown. But the creation of European artillery fortresses around the coasts of Asia and Africa introduced a new element to warfare and underpinned the rise of the West to global hegemony: until the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942, no major European center overseas succumbed to a siege by non-European forces.
The Reader's Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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