Friday, June 9, 2017

The Importance of Siege Operations in Kabinettskriege Europe and North America

British reenactors portray men at the head of the sap during the 1759 Siege at Fort Niagara. 

Dear Reader,

Having recently returned from a reenactment at Fort Niagara, and enlivened by the prospect of returning there for their July French and Indian War event, I would like to pose a question: why is the focus of military historical research, reenactments, and wargames so often focused on the great field battles of the eighteenth century, when sieges were so common?

How common were sieges, you ask? Depending on your definition of how many troops engaged constitutes a "battle" there are between 33 and 88 battles in the Seven Years' War era. However, some of those are as small or smaller than battles such as Cowpens in the American Revolution. In the same era, 32 sieges took place,  even discounting a number of siege like events, such as the blockade of Manilla by pro-Spanish rebels. So, depending on your definition of battle, sieges and battles were occurring on something between a 1 to 1 ratio, and 1 to 2.75 ratio.

During the American War of Independence, once again, there are something between 22 and 57 major battles. In the same time, there were around 23 siege operations (when you include European or Caribbean sieges, this number moves much higher) although around half of these, such as the Assault on Fort Washington, or the Assault on Fort Mercer, were not formal European sieges. Once again, depending on your definition of battles, you have somewhere between a 1 to 1 ratio and a 1 to 2.5 ratio.

In terms of scholarly research, I am once again standing on the shoulders of giants. Christopher Duffy has three fantastic books on the subject, (although only two reference the eighteenth century) and for those who can read Polish, Grzegorz Podruczny has written two fine books on Prussian fortresses in the era of Frederick II. However, reenactors and wargamers have been somewhat less quick to represent and simulate sieges in their hobbies. Fort Niagara has an excellent siege event in early July, and Tod Kershner and Dale Wood wrote a handy siege wargame ruleset in the second edition of Warfare in the Age of Reason, but this aspect of both hobbies could be greatly expanded.

A much later depiction of the Siege of Charleston in 1780
Sieges were vitally important for military success in eighteenth-century Europe and North America. Frederick seriously contemplated surrender when he lost the vital fortresses of Schweidnitz and Kolberg in 1761. In the American War of Independence, the largest surrenders of troops came after formal sieges: Charleston in 1780 and Yorktown in 1781. In the American case, it was the largest surrender of American troops until 1862, and in the British case, it stopped serious fighting on the east coast for the duration of the conflict.

Siege of Landau, 1702
Siege of Savannah, 1779

So, what did sieges look like in the Kabinettskriege era? Oddly enough, sieges are one of the areas we can observe a great deal of continuity in Kabinettskriege warfare. Click on and compare the above images. If you look carefully, you will be able to many of the same ideas and representations of siege tactics in both, despite the 77 year gap in the events they depict. What was the process of laying a formal siege in the eighteenth century? For this reference the image below.

Copied from Vauban's Manual on attacking Fortresses, written in 1704, published in 1829.

Unlike the common reenactorism (thanks to the Last of the Mohicans film) all was not over when besieging mortars ranged in on the enemy fortress. While often extremely deadly, mortars did not always play the decisive role.There was a quite formal and methodological approach to taking a fortress. In order to slowly reduce a fortress, the attacking army would first invest (or blockade) the fortress and open negotiations with the place's commander. Then, they would begin building three types of entrenchments: parallels, (support trenches) saps, (approach trenches) and batteries (cannon emplacements facing the fortress).

A siege at the beginning of the Kabinettskriege era, in the mid-17th century

The first stage of entrenchment was digging the first parallel or furthest transverse support trench from the enemy lines. This would normally be done overnight, as engineers and working parties carefully approached to within 500 yards of the covered way, and began to dig. Hopefully, the attackers would finish the trench before morning, and the garrison would be presented with a solid entrenchment. The Russian army eschewed this practice. Their method involved bringing up heavy field pieces and bombarding the fortress in daylight, which served to cover the men working on the first parallel just behind the guns.

Siege of Charleston, 1780

After this, perhaps one or two days after the first parallel, troops would begin planting the first saps, or zigzag approach trenches, towards the enemy lines. This zigzag pattern prevented guns in the fortress from firing down the length of an approach trench. According to Christopher Duffy, artillery fire often commenced on the fourth or fifth day, and besieging soldiers were quite "gratified" to hear their own guns open fire.[1] Work continued until the zigzag trenches were within roughly 300 yards of the covered way, and then men began work on the second parallel or supporting trench.

Return fire from the fortress began to become increasingly deadly at this time. Fortress commanders faced a stark choice of when to begin the artillery duel with the besieging batteries. Wait too long, and the approach trenches would reach the fortress in record speed, open fire too early, and all your guns might be dismounted by enemy fire by the fire the besiegers were close to the fortress. Frederick II consistently advocated for opening fire as early as possible. Another Prussian, chief engineer Walrave, argued that in a siege "infantry fire is the most murderous of all weapons, therefore, everything must be done to utilize it."[2] Defenders sometimes issued forth from the covered way to sortie against the besiegers, sometimes around 12:00pm, when the attackers seemed to have been lulled into a false sense of security.

The final stages of a formal siege, copied from a 1704 drawing by Vauban

Upon reaching the edge of the glacis, or grassy slope running up tot he covered way, the besiegers dug their third parallel.At this point, the attackers feverishly worked to silence any remaining guns on the fortress, before carrying the covered way by storm. Once there, the attackers would bring up guns to breach the bastions and walls of the fortress, planting the 24-lbder guns necessary for the work on the lip of the glacis. Very few sieges in the eighteenth century reached this point, as many governors opted to surrender once the enemy reached the glacis.

Map of Loudon's assault on Schweidnitz 

Other options were open to the attackers aside from a formal siege. Austrian field marshal Loudon stormed the Prussian fortress Schweidnitz in the early morning hours of the 1st of October, 1761. French and American forces attempted the same type of manuever during the siege of Savannah in 1779, but without success. Storming fortresses by surprise could be incredibly effective, or incredibly deadly to attacking troops, depending on the situation.

 And what about mortars, you ask?

You often hear that John Prideaux was killed by a mortar round to the head as he inspected his own batteries at Niagara in 1759. Upon further review, it appears that he was hit in the head by a premature shell detonation from a howitzer. But to answer your need for a humorous and grizzly anecdote, I will give you one, once again drawn from the master, Christopher Duffy.

In 1717, during the siege of Belgrade, a Hessian soldier reported:

"there was a young pole present at the siege, who asked Prince Eugene for permission to fire off three bombs, declaring that he was willing to answer with his head if one of other of his bombs did not blow up the magazine in the Wasserstadt. Prince Eugene was perfectly agreeable, but since the gunners were too haughty to offer any help to our Pole, he had to betake himself to the Hessians. 
The Polack then aimed the mortar and got me to set off the charge. Nothing happened with the first two bombs, and while I was applying the match for the third time he called out: 'If I don't land the bomb on the roof this time I shall have to make myself scarce!' As it happened, the third bomb actually blew up the magazine. The whole town was reduced to ruins. Stones, timbers and Turks, (both in whole and in pieces) whirled through the air and were flung as far as the Imperial trenches.[3]
Certainly, the account ends showing the incredible potential for horror in siege operations.

As reenactors and wargamers plan their interpretations of the past, why not utilize the setting of the siege more often? Many eighteenth century commanders thought sieges were the ideal place to accustom green troops to hearing gunfire, and of training men in the hard work of military life. Sieges were a vitally important part of eighteenth-century warfare, one which we should not lose sight of in portraying the past. For reenactors, I would argue that it takes more than firing cannons at a fortress to simulate a siege. Get men digging, or if the historic site will not allow you to dig, make gabions and fascines in the place of trenches. Form work parties. Work through the night. Make surprise assaults on the covered way, or sorties at the besieging trenches.  For wargamers, good siege rulesets exist for the eighteenth century. Christopher Duffy even wrote a short one. All that remains is for you to incorporate these games into your conventions.

Please feel free to share this post if you know people and groups who might be intrigued.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

[1] Duffy, Fire and Stone, 111.
[2] Mueller, Geschichtes des Festungskrieges, 75.
[3] Op Cit, Duffy, Fire and Stone, 123.


  1. Very True on the importance of sieges. In the SYW in North America (FIW), all of the Campaigns/Battles revolved around a Fortress of some sort. In the SYW in Europa the Austrian/Prussian Theatre in Saxony, Silesia, Bohemia and Moravia all revolved around the Fortresses Supply Magazines or choke points of: Dresden, Schweidnitz, Breslau, Prague, Konnigratz, and Olmutz most of which endured at least one siege in the war and some two. The Russian/Prussian Theatre had Zorndorf fought to lift the siege of Custrin and the Russians could not winter in Pomerania till they took Colberg on their third siege attempt in three years in 1761.

  2. Thanks for a well-written summation of siege warfare. I would like to second the recommendation for Christopher Duffy's books, particularly "Fire and Stone". I also recommend "Fortress" by Ian Hogg, published 1978 (?). This was my first book on fortifiactions and was the start of my interest in forts, particularly the work of Vauban.