Naming Conventions for Battles and Sieges

We’ve already talked about some of the weird naming conventions one needs to deal with in EMEMH, but there’s another fundamental issue of terminology that military historians haven’t discussed enough. This requires acknowledging the dominance of ‘battle culture’ in military history and among the public more generally. One way to see this is to look at how we name different military events, i.e. to talk in general terms about the relative popularity of the terms “battle” and “siege,” both in terms of how we label specific events as well as their use as metaphors. I will start with a question that is admittedly a bit outside EMEMH but still instructive to our field.

The question: do you know if anybody has researched the use of the terms “battle” and “siege” as applied to World War I? As far as I can recall, just about every major operation of WWI has a name like the Battle of the Marne, the Battle of the Somme… A quick search of Google Ngram Viewer suggests that this was even the case at the time. So why did they/we choose to refer to these giant operations as battles rather than sieges? Most of the combat itself consisted of trench warfare, supposedly using some of the same techniques as Vauban, with vigorous sallies across no-man’s-land, etc. Isn’t this far more siege-like than battle-like?

Maybe you could have discrete sieges of fortified points within a larger operation (e.g. they did refer to “siege” guns and artillery at the time), but the larger operation is still called a battle? If so, why stick with “battle”? Because anything that big is worthy of being assigned to the ultimate category of “battle” rather than the less interesting category of “siege”?

Keegan’s Face of Battle talks about how “battle” slowly lost its unity of time, space and action, becoming a generic term by the 20C as the geographical, numerical and chronological scale of combat expanded – the Battle of the Bulge (or that of Britain) is hardly a one-day battle on the open field as it was in EME. You even see a fair number of people today use the term “battle” in a generic sense, even if that includes sieges. When exactly did “battle” lose its defining connotation of battle in the open field? When entire operations begane being described as “battle”?

Part of the answer to the WW1 question may lie in the fact that in EME you do have occasional “field” battles that revolve around fortified positions or field entrenchments (Malplaquet 1709 being an example near to my heart), and these are/were still called battles. Yet such attacks are not conducted like a siege, with the attacker building his own trenches and sapping forward. The slow progress of WWI trench lines, including constructing new lines as you gain ground, along with massive bombardments and occasional storms and sorties over the top, seem more like a siege than a (field) battle. So why call them “battles”? What did they name these operations in planning documents? Was the press dubbing these operations “battles” after the fact? How did contemporary soldiers and general refer to them? Was there a specific naming convention, e.g. naming a combat based on how it was fought vs. who was fighting vs. what the objective was? Did this convention vary by country or side? Do only certain events/operations merit the moniker of “battle”? Why did we keep the term “battle” when the scale changed so drastically?

Another complicating factor is that sometimes sieges and battles were combined in EME; I’m referring of course to when a relief force attempted to lift a siege by attacking the besiegers, aka a relief battle. Two famous examples would be the French sieges of Pavia in 1525 and that of Turin in 1706, both huge losses for the French. (Note to French: don’t get involved in a land war in Italy.) So technically these were both siege and battle, but no surprise that they are usually described as “battles”, or at least the battle part is of most interest to most people.

To get a good answer to this question, one would need to trace the use of the terms through the 19C, e.g. American revolutionary enthusiasts still refer to the siege of Yorktown, while Wellington’s attack on Badajoz is also referred to as a siege, not a battle. The Prussian capture of Paris in 1870 is still called the siege of Paris. The Japanese attack on Russian-held Port Arthur in 1904-1905 is called a siege, after it was converted from a blockade. Then in WW1 everything big seems to become a battle. This convention continues in World War II, witness the Battle of the Bulge. And even discrete events which would have been called a siege in the past are much more likely to be called a battle now: according to a quick Google web search, the “battle of Leningrad” is six times more popular than the “siege of Leningrad,” with a similar proportional preference for the battle of Stalingrad. Interestingly, a search of Google Books shows however that “siege of Stalingrad” is still more popular than “battle of Stalingrad” among its indexed publications – is this an indication of a divide between the ‘expert’ world of publication and the ‘popular’ realm of the Internet?

In short, why the change to an all-consuming “battle”? It’d be interesting to see if the choice of battle/siege for specific events change over time (from “siege of X” to “battle of X”), or whether the choice of “siege of ___” or “battle of ____” gets fixed according to how it was described at the time it occurred, i.e. whether it happened before or after “battle” subsumed everything else. It might be interesting to see if my speculative divide between expert precision in terminology (“siege of Stalingrad”) and popular conflation of all things military with battle (“battle of Stalingrad”) holds with other examples.

As you can tell, this is part of a broader question of why “battle” has become a far more popular term to use when describing modern combat, even when describing an event that was clearly a “siege.” We can look more broadly at the admittedly problematic database of publications indexed in Google Books to get a sense of the broad trend.

Relative frequency of "battle" and "siege" in Google Books Ngram Viewer

Battle was clearly a lot more popular than siege, increasingly so from the late 18C on. We could undoubtedly match this pattern with the declining frequency of actual sieges in this same period as the main European theaters of war shift to its less-fortified eastern parts, and as sieges were replaced by battles in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era. I’m not sure what’s going on with the 19C though, other than the spike in the 1860s. An increase in publications leads to a boom in popularity for battle, despite there being relatively few wars in the period? Maybe they can’t stop talking about Napoleon?

Since the Google search is case sensitive, here is another version with capitals:

Ngram Viewer results for "Battle" and "Siege"

Odd to note how changing the capitalization leads to a lot more Siege references than Battle references in the 17C (vs. the previous chart), and that the proportion between the two stays a lot closer than with lower-case battle vs. siege. Notice however that even though there are more Siege than Battle occurrences early on in the second chart, the battle/siege search (first chart) turns up twice as many hits overall, peaking at 0.015% of the works in the database, vs. the Battle/Siege search which only appears in at most 0.009% of the works. One might also speculate that the fashion of capitalizing Battle or Siege of X petered out in the second half of the 18C. All these speculations would require detailed analysis of the books themselves, but this is increasingly what historians will need to be doing in the digital age.

Is the fact that “battle” is the default name for combat indicative of the dominance of battle in military history?

Whole bunch of variations on battle and siege


  • The Google Ngrams database has various methodological issues, including poor metadata. In my experience, one of the more common errors is to have an incorrect date of publication. The OCR results are also best for typefaces from the 19C onward.
  • For the Google Ngrams I only looked at battle and siege. I excluded various other terms such as ambush, attack, combat, surprise, storm, bombardment, blockade… The last four are discussed in an appendix to my Vauban under Siege book.
  • The search for the bare words battle and siege also fails to distinguish between military contexts and non-military contexts. We can control for this somewhat by searching for specific battles and sieges. The fact that battles are far more popular than sieges in all contexts (presumably including when used as a metaphor) is itself worthy of note.
  • The fact that navies could engage in battles but were much less likely to engage in sieges means that the frequency of battle vs. siege on land is probably overestimated.
  • The plural of battle (battles) is also much more common than the plural of siege (sieges).
  • And yes, for those sticklers out there, I also did searches for “seige” and even “fiege”, with no significant difference. It’s not surprising to note that the variant spelling “battel” disappears by the late 18C. There’s also an interesting spike that just happens to coincide with the War of the Spanish Succession. Hmmm, I wonder why…


11 responses to “Naming Conventions for Battles and Sieges”

  1. Elizabeth Mindel Ostwald says :

    Also, battle(s) can be a verb, while siege(s) isn’t. Although you could look for besiege(s). Did you do “battle of” and “siege of”?

    I’d say in the popular mind, a siege has to be of some specific, named, and vaguely-circular place. That is, there has to be an into and out of. If you’re just going forward, but not into, then it seems like it shouldn’t be a siege. But I’m not a military historian.

  2. Gene Hughson says :

    Both Wikipedia and Merriam-Webster use the word “blockade” in their definition of “siege”. This is consistent with my own experience that sieges involved investment, either complete (Tobruk) or virtually complete (Leningrad). Incremental investment (Petersburg), would count as well.

    I’d never heard of Leningrad being referred to as a battle…I’m gratified that the “experts” don’t show that trend.

    Yorktown (to use a nearby example) is an interesting case in that it should rightly be called a siege, but I’ve always seen it referred to as a battle.

    • jostwald says :

      You’re right that being surrounded is a common connotation of siege, although I’m on record as warning of the dangers of defining a siege as a fully invested force.
      Using encirclement (who was attacked) as the criteria is one option, but of course that still leaves exceptions like the Bulge and Britain that were pretty darn close to being “surrounded.” And as these examples indicate, it still doen’t make sense to talk about encirclement in a (grand) strategic sense.

  3. Erik Lund says :

    It’s worth noting the political connotation. As we digest Napoleon in the years after 1830, we get the idea that premodern dynastic states are all about “manoeuvre” and sieges. Napoleon warfare is the historical moment that gives us both the Liberal-National state and the pursuit of “decisive battle.” That is, a new kind of war legitimises a new kind of state, the owl of Minerva is flying at dusk, all that stuff. In practical terms, what used to be a siege is now more likely to be labelled a battle. And the practice is retrospective, salvaging historical campaigns that revolved around sieges and foregrounding the battles fought during them This is especially noticeable in the Prussian GQM Staff’s attempt to turn Frederick the Great into a precursor to Napoleon in Krieges Frierdrich des Grossen, but you’ll also see, say, Churchill trying to turn the Duke of Marlborough into a “Napoleonic” general, eager to push for Paris, and only diverted to the siege of Lille by Eugene’s “caution.”

    The NGram spikes don’t fit this conventional historiographic picture well, however, leading me to think that other factors are at work. What about translation? “Sieg” is German for …hmm, maybe let’s not go there. Anyway, the point is that the “Sieg vom Turin” (I think it’s ‘vom–‘ stupid cases) is a victory where Eugene kicked French ass, as well as both a siege and a battle. The late Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Century give us a great many “Siegs” to be discussed in this light: Vienna, Turin, Corfu, Belgrade, Gibraltar, perhaps, given that there was nothing else to talk about in 1725. Then by the middle of the Eighteenth Century, the British were heavily enmeshed in wars with France, Perhaps typical English-out-of-French language more clearly distinguishes “sieges” from “battles” than English-out-of-German. As I type that, though, I also recall the increasing importance of naval actions. Notice the earlier mid-1700s peak of “battle” over “siege.” Certainly there’s no way that we’d say “The Siege of Kentish Knock/Quiberon Bay/Trafalgar!”

    • jostwald says :

      One chapter in my book will address Battle as Politics.
      Not to give too much away, but there was a lot more battle-centrism c. 1700 (at least among the English) than most have recognized.
      Re: translation. I’ll have to check, but I think the Ngram viewer was set to only search English-language work, though with Google there’s always the possibility of metadata errors. Maybe tomorrow I’ll do a post comparing the different languages: siege/beleg/belegering, battle/bataille/schlacht…

    • jostwald says :

      Your naval comment just made me realize that we do have an interesting parallel (no pun intended) in naval warfare. Yes, navies fight each other in battles, and navies don’t besiege each other on the open sea. But do navies “besiege” at all? I’d suggest they don’t besiege, but they do bombard – land targets like the French channel ports in the Nine Years War. And once we get into the age of steam, it’s easier for fleets to blockade a land target.
      So why don’t we talk about navies “besieging” a land target, and only blockading/bombarding them? I’d proffer that it’s because they aren’t attacking them with siege tactics like trenches, getting close and personal-like. Certainly the characteristics of a permanent fortification and relative isolation (at least from the sea), are present in naval blockades and bombardments, though I suppose a navy could also bombard/blockade a field force on land.
      Once we introduce the land element, we’re talking about the different beast of amphibious landings – the English used the separate term of a “descent” for that, and usually that’s more a case of a quick surprise or storm or bombardment. A fleet can definitely be a *part* of a siege of a coastal port, e.g. Oostende in 1706, but it assumes there’s also a land force doing the heavy lifting.
      So, I would suggest, the naval case also encourages us to think of sieges in terms of getting in the enemy’s face tactically, which requires some kind of close approach via trenches, saps, mines, etc.

      • Gene Hughson says :

        Obviously naval units have limited capabilities to blockade land traffic, though I’ve seen sieges referred to as blockades (one land force sealing up another in a fortress/city & preventing access, though without active breaching/storming activity). Then there’s the question of naval blockade vs. islands.

      • jostwald says :

        Definitely siege vs. blockade on land – I use the abbreviation SBBSS: siege, blockade, bombardment, storm, surprisal. I’ve been thinking more about this typology of late – I might go through and survey how various early modern theorists categorized these different things, if in fact they saw them as “different”. I know they did c. 1700 (dozens of examples), but it’s quite possible (as I mentioned in my VuS appendix) that earlier usage wasn’t nearly as delineated.

      • Gene Hughson says :

        I know I’ve seen the term blockade used to refer to land operations as well. I believe it was the 1813 campaign, referring to the Oder fortresses & their garrisons. I think the differentiator being the desire to bottle up forces versus take the real estate they occupy.

  4. Sheldon Clare says :

    In World War one is it not correct to call the combat a battle when both sides are in effect employing the same tactics of sapping and mining against each other concurrently? If the combat is to be termed a siege, does a siege not require that one party is laying siege and the other is besieged? The fighting cannot really be thought of as sallies to defend against a siege and assaults in the act of laying siege if both sides may be employing the same tactics in the same area at the same time. When I think of a siege, I think of a permanent position under attack by a force that has moved into position to isolate, invest, and reduce such a position with the aim of capturing or destroying the value of said position. Trench lines and saps really seem to me to be a type of fighting intended to deal with the reality of the weaponry, tactical situation, and strategic condition that led to how warfare came to be conducted in the Great War. Thus, I would suggest that the events around Namur and Maubuege in 1914 are sieges, but the events around Ypres, Hooge, and Passchendaele, despite their often protracted nature and relatively fixed locations, are properly battles and not sieges. What do you think?

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