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.
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:
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?
NOTES ON GOOGLE NGRAMS VIEWER
- 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…