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The Siege of Constantinople (Jean Chartier, 15th century)

The siege is a special form of attack with the aim of conquering fortified structures or wearing down the combat strength of the defenders and at least temporarily neutralizing them. The place is surrounded by its own troops in such a way that any traffic between the inside and the outside of the siege ring is prevented. In particular, the supply of soldiers, weapons and food should be prevented. Sieges are mostly associated with the use of siege equipment , artillery and sappers .

If some of the besieged leave the fortress to attack the besiegers or to destroy siege equipment, this is called a failure . For this purpose, hidden sustaining gates were created. If the besieged troops come to the aid of the outside, one speaks of relief . In besieged areas the government can impose a state of siege , a special form of emergency .


Storming a City (detail of an engraving from the late 15th century)

The aim of a siege is to weaken a fortified structure of the enemy to such an extent that an assault becomes promising or the defenders consent to surrender . Siege equipment and artillery are used for this purpose, as is the wearing down of the defenders through starvation and demoralization .

Since a siege has always been costly and protracted, attempts were often made to avoid a siege by exploiting a moment of surprise, cunning or betrayal. Surprise attacks and coup-like raids but intact fortifications were risky, failed frequently and were able to run heavy losses for the attacker.

Sunzi generally judged the siege system negatively: “If you besiege a city, you will use up your strength” and “The highest general art thwarts the opponent's plans, the second best prevents him from gathering his strength, the third best leads into the field battle, the worst for the siege of fortified cities. " Carl von Clausewitz expressed his skepticism more cautiously:" Meanwhile, a siege of a not entirely insignificant place is always an important undertaking, because it causes large amounts of money, and in wars where the whole is not always these must be very much taken into account. "

A special testimony to sieges are the occasionally minted siege coins, a special form of emergency coins that were often only made with the simple means of the siege location and therefore appear more primitive than regularly minted coins.


The siege was an essential element of warfare from prehistoric times to the early modern period . Important scientists and engineers were involved in the development of suitable weapons and devices, for example Archimedes or Heron of Alexandria in antiquity and Leonardo da Vinci in the Renaissance who designed fortifications as well as war machines. The siege technique is referred to with the technical term poliorketics (from ancient Greek πολιορκητικός poliorkētikós "belonging to the city siege").

As poliorketics developed, so did the effectiveness of fortress construction, which reached a high level, particularly in France. By the mid-15th century, defense was in most cases superior to the attacker. Only the introduction and continuous improvement of long-range weapons and especially firearms led to a tie.

The importance of both siege and fortress construction as part of warfare slowly declined with the increasing availability of effective artillery. With the growing importance of aerial warfare in the 20th century, both became essentially obsolete.

Early history and antiquity

Siege of a city on an Assyrian bas-relief from Nimrud ( British Museum , London)
Use of a siege tower on an Assyrian bas-relief from Nimrud (British Museum, London)

Since the earliest historically known time, cities have been surrounded with walls in order to make it difficult for possible enemies to conquer. On the other hand, a technique of siege developed just as early. Mythical accounts go back to the siege of Jericho in the Old Testament and the siege of Troy , which Homer described in the Iliad .

The army of Alexander the Great also carried out many sieges, in particular the sieges of Tire and the Sogdian Rock . Tire was a Phoenician island city one kilometer from the mainland and believed to be impregnable. The Macedonians built a dam to the island which, according to tradition, was at least 60 m wide. As soon as this dam reached into the artillery area, Alexander had the city walls bombarded with slingshots and light catapults. After seven months of siege, the city fell under the control of the Macedonians. In contrast, the fortress of the Sogdian Rock, high on the cliffs, was captured by cunning. Alexander ordered his troops to climb the cliffs and take the high areas. The demoralized defenders then gave up.

Apollodor von Damascus , Poliorketika 148: “Tortoise” (Chelone), a mobile protective roof as a siege device , in the manuscript Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale , Graec. 2442, fol. 81v (11th / 12th century)
Apollodor von Damascus, Poliorketika 170: siege tower with drawbridge. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Graec. 2442, fol. 97v (11th / 12th century)

The siege war was central in ancient times. The simplest form of siege is to simply lock the enemy in and wait until they run out of food or water. However, the duration of a siege often leads to epidemics for both the besieging troops and the besieged because of poor hygiene.

The Hellenistic armies developed a complex siege technique based on purely mechanical principles - explosive weapons were unknown in ancient times. The Roman armies in particular were known for their successful sieges. Julius Caesar's campaign to take Gaul, for example, was essentially based on a large number of different sieges. During the Gallic War , Caesar described how the Roman legions erected two fortified walls around the city at the Battle of Alesia . The inner circumvallation , with a diameter of ten miles, kept the Vercingetorix forces in the siege area, while the outer contravallation prevented that this could be reached by supplies. After the relief troops of the Gauls were defeated by the Roman cavalry auxiliaries, the Gauls gave up in the face of starvation.

The Roman sieges took place in several stages. If the practically mandatory first assault to test the readiness for defense and the will to defend had failed, the fortress was surrounded by the attacking troops. Fortified camps were then built for the attacking troops. Next, a counter-fortification was put in place to prevent those trapped from making attacks or sending messengers. When the possibility of attacks by relief troops was given, an external fortification was built. Only then did the real siege begin.

First the approach to the fortress had to be made. For this purpose, obstacles such as wolf pits or abatis had to be removed and trenches filled in. Mobile or portable walls and roofs such as the chelone (turtle) and other different types were used.

The Romans also used ramps to storm geographically protected positions (e.g. Tire, located on an island, and the Hebrew fortress of Massada , located on a plateau ).

After that, the ramparts or walls of the fortress had to be overcome. There were basically four options:

  1. Scaling ladder or siege tower to climb over the wall.
  2. Battering ram or wall drill to break the wall or tear down the gate. Both devices were usually built into mobile protective frames.
  3. the catapult to pierce the wall or to shoot into the wall. The shelling of the wall solid stone floors were mostly used (with wooden walls partly incendiary ). Massive or incendiary projectiles were fired into the walling in order to cause demoralizing destruction. Corpses or heads of relatives of defense lawyers for psychological warfare . Corpses and rubbish used in biological warfare to cause disease.
  4. You undermine walls, so you dig a passage under the wall. Either by creating a mine chamber in which the supporting elements are burned away after completion, surprisingly to bring the wall to collapse at this point, or to secretly bring a small group of soldiers into the fortress, who then carry out a coup d'état.

Middle Ages and Early Modern Times

Siege of a city, in addition to armored riders and servants, guns are also used (woodcut 1502)
Siege of Nagykanizsa (May 1664)

In the Swabian city of Crailsheim, the siege was supposedly ended in 1380 by the following ruse: The citizens threw the besiegers baked croissants over the city wall to hide the scarcity of food, see Horaffe legend .

With the invention of explosive powder and gunpowder and cannons (see also Steinbüchse ), new possibilities arose for both sides.

A simple form of the siege “technique” was the so-called human pyramid . No siege device at all was necessary for this; rather, a group of determined attackers formed the siege machine themselves. The aim was to bring one or a few attackers to the height of the ramparts. For this purpose, the attacking group formed a kind of robber ladder by standing in a pyramid shape on the opposing wall. However, this pyramid could only be set up in the areas in which the defenders' guns could not work - the so-called dead angle . The process was only successful with relatively low wall heights and only became important again when the fortress walls were made lower and lower in order to be able to counter the threat from modern artillery. During the Battle of Verdun in 1916, the attackers overcame the inner moat wall of Fort Douaumont with the help of a human pyramid , which enabled them to penetrate the undefended fort.

The attack on a fortress with massive angle bastions was always a risky affair, so that the attackers often offered a so-called storm money . In order to cut a breach in the fortress walls, the besiegers dug trenches, usually parallel to one of the front sides of a bastion. Then guns were posted in this trench, which immediately opened cover fire. Now an approach trench was dug in the direction of the bastion, and after a few meters another parallel trench, in which the cannons found protection. The besiegers had to expect when digging approach trenches that the defenders of the fortress would make a sortie to interrupt the work of the sappers . That is why they often built fortresses in the smallest format at regular intervals between the trenches, in which troops were stationed to quickly ward off a failure. Complex trench systems with numerous fortifications emerged during many early modern sieges.

The besiegers using trenches approach close enough to be a bastion had been working approach, the guns were so much firepower unfold to a breach to fire into the bastion. But in such a case the defenders usually formed a dense line of fire behind the breach, and they kept baskets of rubble, earth and wood ready to temporarily close a breach. In addition, attackers could be attacked when attacking a breach from adjacent bastions, especially from withdrawn flanks. When a breach was looming, the defenders of the fortress often laid a retirata behind the wall in question, if such a second front was not already present in the fortress from the start.

The old tactic of undermining was also used during sieges. The besiegers dug a tunnel that was dug under the fortification, as unnoticed as possible by the enemy . Initially, the foundation was undermined until the structure collapsed under its own weight, but this was very dangerous for the besiegers themselves because the time of the collapse was uncertain. It was therefore decided to support the walls with wooden pillars. When the exposed section seemed sufficient, additional combustible material was brought in, which was set on fire and destroyed the pillars, causing the walls to collapse. In early modern sieges, the use of gunpowder charges was preferred, whereby the term “mine” was transferred from a tunnel to a laid-out explosive charge. If the besieged suspected that an undermining was in progress, listening posts were set up to listen to typical excavation noises during pauses in the fire. Other means were set up empty barrels, on the top of which a little water was poured, or pea-strewn drums to determine and localize the vibrations emanating from the earthworks. Once a corridor was located, the defenders for their part dug tunnels in order to thwart the opponent's plan with their own explosive charge.

As early as the late 16th century it became customary for the besiegers in turn to build a ring of temporary fortifications, e.g. B. with the help of bulwarks to put on the besieged city or fortress. In this way, the besiegers secured themselves against a possible attack by a relief army, cut off the besieged fortress completely from the outside world and protected themselves from possible attacks by the defenders. Such a fortification ring consisted of innumerable trenches and works, some of which were driven as close as possible to the besieged fortress. A particularly complex ring of field fortifications was created, for example, during the siege of the Dutch city of 's Hertogenbosch in 1629.

The longest siege of modern times was the siege of Candia . It lasted from 1648 to 1669, that is 21 years.

The Vauban siege process

The French general and fortress builder Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban designed the siege as a pure artillery attack. He expressly rejects the breaching of mines as well as the bombardment , i. H. the bombardment of the civil buildings in the fortress. Instead, he only attacks the fortifications, using three parallels :

  • The first parallel is drawn parallel to the edges of the fortifications a maximum of 575 meters in front of the works, a kind of trench that is much longer than the attacked area. In this first parallel stand " rikoschett batteries ".
  • Of the first parallel are Sappen or trenches (approximation trenches) driven forward in the direction of the fortress and Sappenköpfe 225 connected to 275 feet in front of the works to the Second parallel. In the second parallel there are "dismantling batteries" which, firing three cannons at a time, quickly silence the artillery of the attacked section. “Counter batteries” fire at the fortress guns to the left and right of the attack section, preventing them from intervening. "Enfilierbatterien" bombard the fortress lengthways.
  • In the meantime, more saps are brought up to 30 to 40 meters in front of the Glaciskrete (inner slope of the Glacis ) and the third parallel is drawn. Opposite the in and out corners of the fortifications are the so-called stone mortars, which throw baskets full of stones in arches at the infantry in the fortifications.

From the third parallel, Vauban erected the "breach batteries" ( six to eight heavy cannons against bastions , four against Ravelins ), which opened a 30-meter-wide breach in the fortification within 24 hours. As soon as the breach was open, the defender cleared the plant. If the main wall was breached, the fortress surrendered because they feared the storm and thought a breach was not defensible.

Vauban first used this method at the siege of Ath in 1697. The attack went as planned and cost Vauban's troops only 50 dead and 150 wounded. In the Vauban process, the besiegers always have artillery superiority. The defense of the fortress by means of guns is practically futile and can only serve to delay the time of surrender, e.g. B. by firing smaller cannons on the sapphires and rapid change of position with these small cannons before they can be caught by the dismantling batteries. The only sure protection against Vauban's attack were floods as long as the besiegers could not drain them. Mines were also effective (but not as small as in today's sense, but many thousands of pounds of gunpowder) in the glacis, which were detonated when the besiegers came upon them with his work. Frederick the Great ("fortresses are defended by fire and water", i.e. by mines and floods) built mines in such a way that they could jump three times (first the "flood mine" near the surface, then the "chamber" and then the actual " Mine ", which was below groundwater level and therefore could not be dug up by the besiegers).


Part of an attack u. Defense process of a fortress using the example of Fort Hahneberg

The 154-day siege of Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese War provided a first impression of modern warfare . Machine guns, heavy siege guns and mines were used in large numbers for the first time, as was the hand grenade , which was practically out of use in the 19th century, and was reintroduced.

In the First World War , the siege could be effectively prevented by forming a front. This led to trench warfare , since the most essential element of the siege was missing, the almost complete disruption of enemy logistics. Otherwise the trench warfare can be seen as an extension of the siege to the entire front. With extensive artillery and aircraft , it became almost impossible to protect cities. The siege of Przemyśl on the Eastern Front is probably an outstanding exception.

A siege of high symbolic power was the siege of the Alcázar of Toledo in the Spanish Civil War . During the siege of Madrid , this city was repeatedly attacked between 1936 and 1939. Both fortification and siege lines were formed around a large part of the city perimeter. Despite several attempts, the city could not be surrounded and cut off, so that in this case it is not a "real" siege, even if the fighting showed many clear characteristics of such a siege.

Ironically, the increase in mobility, especially the massive use of tanks , made the siege possible again in World War II . B. 1940 in Dunkirk. The Siege of Leningrad was one of the longest-running sieges of a city in modern times. Stalingrad was to become a trauma for the German armed forces .

A modern weakened form of siege can be found in the blockade . With the blockade, in contrast to the classic siege, the supply of certain goods, in particular food, is permitted by the besieging person.

The last siege in the classical sense was the battle for the French fortress Điện Biên Phủ in Vietnam in 1954. More recently, the siege of Sarajevo in the Bosnian war and that of Vukovar in the war in Croatia have been spoken of, the latter in the international press also as “ Stalingrad of the Balkans ”.

See also


Web links

Wiktionary: siege  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: besiege  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Sieges  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files


  1. ^ Sunzi: Art of War. 2.2
  2. ^ Sunzi: Art of War. 3.3
  3. ^ Carl von Clausewitz : From the war. 3rd part, 16th chapter in the Gutenberg-DE project
  4. ^ Ian Hogg: Grenades & Mortars. Ballantine Books 1974
  5.  ( page no longer available , search in web archivesInfo: The link was automatically marked as defective. Please check the link according to the instructions and then remove this notice.@1@ 2Template: Dead Link /