Distinguishing battle from siege

Following on previous posts, we’ve broadened out our discussion of battle into battle vs. siege, since I think this is a key dichotomy in military history, at least in military historiography. Sheldon Clare’s comment on a previous post started me musing on how to define siege (vs. battle), and I quickly realized that my response’s length indicated that 1) I need to get a life, and 2) it deserves its own post. So I’ll focus on #2.

To quote Sheldon: “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…”

This reinforces an important point – what criteria do we use to define battle vs. siege? As with everything else, there are numerous criteria one could use – in the previous post I mentioned three: who is attacked (e.g. using Sheldon’s criteria of an encircled garrison in a permanently fortified position), how they are attacked (type of tactics used), and what the objective is. Focusing on the ‘who is being attacked’ is a common tendency, and is certainly justifiable. But I think we need to do two things: 1) separate discussion of siege tactics from siege events before we combine them back together, and 2) give more thought to how the ‘tactics’ of siegecraft were viewed, and what they tell us about military history and about battle as the norm. Too much of this is implicit, and I’d like to see it made more explicit.

If we don’t use ‘type of tactics’ to define a siege event and instead use ‘who is attacked and their disposition’, then it gets interesting when we take it back to the early modern period. For many of the early moderns (and many of their historians, e.g. Chandler), they lump all those attributes of sieges together as bad. They spend time talking about fortification design, but when it comes to sieges, the defining characteristic for them is delays, delays required by fortifications which require them to use the sap, to dig trenches and construct batteries. And they preferred other positional tactics as well (storm, surprise, bombardment). The fact that they distinguished between these different types of positional tactics suggests that it’s the method of attack that bugged them more than the fact that they have to attack someone holed up and cut off, and that for them the method of attack was the defining characteristic of “siege.” I’m no expert on WWI but I’d imagine contemporaries were as frustrated with the plodding pace of the advance as in our period (anyone?). If true, that takes us back to the siege tactics, if not the siege event. The context matters, but I think the tactics used needs more investigation, because I think it significantly influences how we view one type of combat or another. Storms are good and honorable, saps are bad and less-than-honorable.

As far as defining an event as a ‘siege’ or not, it seems we’re back again to the importance of encirclement and permanence. As a beginning caveat, whether the encirclement was total or not doesn’t matter, since many EME places were besieged without full investment – it’s amazing how many 17C siege manuals have to remind their readers to fully invest the besieged, and there were many sieges that were prolonged because of a faulty investment (can you even have a full investment of a coastal fortress in the age of sail?). This claim is surprisingly controversial, however, witness people wanting to describe the siege of Toulon as a ‘pseudo-siege’ (Y.J. Saint-Martin, “Le pseudo-siège de Toulon en 1707,” Provence historique, 176 (1994): 199-209) because it wasn’t fully invested, and because they were attacking the field entrenchments outside the town. I’m on record as rejecting this view (see Vauban under Siege appendix), and contemporaries clearly didn’t see it that way – try a Google Books search for “battle of Toulon” 1707 and limit it to 1700-1800 if you don’t believe me. But as we saw previously, what gets published in print and then scanned is often quite different from what people (and institutions) say online. If you contrast the results of a Google Books search (even including modern works) with a regular Google search on whether Toulon 1707 was a battle or siege, you see there is a big gulf between published and web-based works. The Google search for “siege of Toulon” 1707 -1744 -1792 [you need to add -1744 and -1792 to eliminate the hits coming from those other attacks on Toulon] results in 21,400 hits, while “battle of Toulon” 1707 -1744 -1792 results in 12,700 hits – lots of somebodies online think Toulon was a battle. [This method isn’t perfect, since you can’t do sophisticated searches with Ngram Viewer, and since Google’s normal search automatically includes proximity out to several words.] The fact that Wikipedia defines Toulon 1707 as a “battle” rather than a siege is a crowning example of how poorly the average modern understands early modern warfare, or at least the average Anglo, as the French Wikipedia rightly sticks with “siège” rather than “bataille”. Even worse, it represents yet another attempt by moderns to ignore historical categories and impose their views on the past. Do we really think we have a better understanding of early modern warfare than contemporaries did, and particularly of their conceptual categories? Who are we to ignore unanimous contemporary usage? If we are surprised that contemporaries referred to Toulon as a siege, shouldn’t we stop and try to figure out why our categories diverge from theirs, rather than assume they didn’t know their own terms and simply redefine them? I don’t have a problem with continuing to use anachronistic historical terms; I do have a problem with re-labeling historical events without regard for what contemporaries thought, especially if we reuse their terms in the process.

Next, what do we mean by permanence? Here I think it helps to probe at the margins of our definitions, because I don’t know if there’s a clear answer, which may be part of the problem. Maybe we mean permanence of the fortifications? So does an old dilapidated château count if it’s refurbished as a position, or a town’s medieval works that haven’t been repaired since the last siege 50 years earlier? There are lots of such châteaux taken in the Spanish Succession, for example, but they were stormed and their defenses didn’t last even a day. Contemporaries didn’t refer to these as sieges, but if a medieval walled town was captured with trenches, it was a siege same as if they attacked Lille. Would we (or did they) make a distinction between attacking a permanently-fortified fortress (e.g. brick/stone walls) vs. attacking a town with ad hoc wood/earth fortifications, as frequently happened early on (pre-trace italienne) in response to gunpowder, when they’d just ram up a bunch of earth into a rampart? Or maybe we mean permanence of the military occupation of said fortifications? Early moderns left various towns ’empty’ of troops until they were needed (if necessary, the town militia would keep watch); the town and its inhabitants were permanent, but the garrisons weren’t. Does that qualify as ‘permanent’? A half-renovated fortress could be weaker than strong field fortifications, so is it just about the relative strength of the fortification, or is there something about the works being in existence for a long time? I’d say the role of permanence in defining a siege depends on 1) how we define “permanent”, and more importantly, 2) why permanence is important as a criteria. I don’t think I know the answer to that. Ideas?

Other cases muddle the matter further. Fortified lines. Many of those WWI trench complexes seemed relatively permanent (depending on how long permanence requires – some of them are still around today long after most fortress walls were demolished – permanence depends on maintenance) – did they demolish them when they moved forward, or leave them empty in case of retreat? By the late 17C we’re seeing fortified lines (in the Low Countries 9YW but especially in the War of the Spanish Succession) similar to WWI trenches, at least in terms of linear breadth if geographical scale is important. We usually talk about “forcing” or “attacking” such lines, rather than refer to a battle or siege of them, even though we have storm tactics on fortified positions, some of which had been occupied for several years (the French 1702 lines were held until pierced in 1705). So what does this tell us?
What about fortified camps anchored on towns? This is separate from an attack on a besieger’s camp, e.g. there’s a consensus over how to distinguish the siege of Turin 1706 from the battle of Turin 1706, which lifted the siege. I’m referring here to the common tendency to encamp a large field force in an entrenched camp right next to a strategically-located town (e.g. Liège). On occasion these camps would be attacked. For example, Villars’ attack on the Allied fortified camp anchored to Denain in 1712 was and is called a battle rather than a siege, even though the Allies were pursued past the palisades. Toulon 1707 saw an assault on the field fortifications constructed above the town, and we saw the disagreement over whether this should be a battle or a siege. Neither attacks on fortified lines or entrenched camps are usually referred to as “sieges,” but notice that there is a fair amount of ambiguity as to what we should call these.
Can we talk about a relief force “besieging” a besieging force that is in turn besieging a garrison, e.g. what happened at Pavia 1525 before the actual battle? I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that language used, but the besiegers don’t meet the standard requirements for permanent fortifications.
As a final example, what do we call attacking a sconce or churchyard or even a village, fortified on all sides, surrounded by the enemy during a battle (say a fortified village within the larger battlefield of Blenheim)? That’s a permanent position, encircled and captured, but does that mean it’s a siege? If they stormed the fortified work, I’d just call it part of the battle, but if they had sapped up to it, would it have been a siege? Maybe we should just add a level-of-war indicator, e.g. a strategic battle, a tactical siege…? Any typology of different types of combat requires dealing with such middling cases, and settling on a scale of analysis.

Clearly there are degrees in all these examples, and there’s a big difference between academic language and popular language, but I think to the extent that we are interested in the serious study of EMEMH, we need to be consistent with our terminology, which requires figuring out a typology of combat, or maybe even several, depending on which period of time we are referring to. In the meantime, we need to avoid metaphorical use of these terms, because it only muddies the waters.

Going back to the WWI parallel, what motivated the original post was my sense that even though WWI had many “battles”, not only were these unlike the previous stereotype of battles (regarding unity of time, space and action), but the reality of trench warfare means that when looking past the troops huddled in their trenches out across no-man’s land, it sure would’ve looked like a siege to me. And, regardless of what they call(ed) these operations, most people still see them just like any siege – plodding, bloody, expensive and a tragic waste of time. Regardless of the ‘proper’ military term for these operations, the fighting on the Western Front has all the connotations of siegecraft rather than battle. There’s what we call a military operation, and then there’s what we think of a military operation. With WWI, I’d argue that even though we call the operations “battles,” we still think of them as sieges, and that shapes our view of WWI more generally.

Just thinking out loud here.

BTW, I’m still waiting for a good explanation for why we’ve chosen the term “battle” to expand from a fight on an open field between two field armies to applying it to operations of a massive scale such as WWI/WWII. Why is this the “obvious” choice? Any ideas?


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5 responses to “Distinguishing battle from siege”

  1. Gene Hughson says :

    First of all, I’m in total agreement that the disruptive technology of the mid 19th century – early 20th century muddled things greatly. The supremacy of defense in the face of rifle fire had become obvious by the Civil War. Use of protective terrain (Fredericksburg) and hasty field fortifications (Cold Harbor) was a natural development. Further advances in weaponry (quick firing artillery and machine guns) without collateral advances in command and control capabilities reinforced this. Thus battle in WWI has the look of siegecraft, down to the use of mining at the Battle of Messines (to further muddy the waters, there’s the Battle of the Crater that was an episode of the Siege of Petersburg during the Civil War).

    In my opinion, circumstance of the defenders is the primary determinant, with tactics a lesser consideration. I see sieges as requiring isolated barricaded defenders (I don’t think permanent fortification is necessary, but some sort of protected haven seems to be a requirement). “Encircled” is overly restrictive; Toulon, Petersburg, and Leningrad being examples of partial investments (and personally, I think calling Toulon a pseudo-siege is ludicrous). Because the troops in the trenches of WWI were still in contact with their base of supply, I consider those actions battle, regardless of the tactics used.

    I’m more ambivalent about using objective to determine what is or isn’t a siege. At times, the attacker’s objective is to take a location, which could be a battle objective. Other times, their objective could be to remove (or at least reduce) an enemy strongpoint that can’t safely be bypassed or screened. Likewise, the defenders motive could either be defense or delay.

    I believe the delay aspect would explain the distaste for siege warfare. When the campaigning season was limited, a siege could severely impact a commander’s ability to conduct operations. I personally don’t put a lot of stock in considerations of honor. Use of firearms and light infantry tactics were also considered less than honorable at different times. Each came into its own despite that.

  2. Ralph Hitchens says :

    There is a distinction, but is it really important to invoke it? Ever since “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho…” the terms have been used interchangeably. Strictly speaking, I agree that viable external lines of supply & communication should invalidate the term “siege” but certainly people talk about the battles of Yorktown, Vicksburg, et. al., despite the fact that both were campaigns culminating in sieges.

    • jostwald says :

      Thanks for the comment. And sorry to be contrary, but yes, we do need to invoke it. Check out the results from Google Ngram on battle of Jericho vs. siege of Jericho.

      (I couldn’t include just Jericho because the scale made the others invisibly small).
      It doesn’t look like the King James version mentioned either battle or siege, but if you do a Google Books search of 17C-18C works, they all use siege and not battle. It’s amazing we can do this kind of seat-of-the-pants analysis with Google Books.

      A big part of my battle book will be to talk all about the ways in which battles and sieges were polar opposites for contemporaries. I can’t say early moderns never used battle in its broadest sense, but when talking about specific combats, they would never confuse a battle with a siege. They hated sieges and loved battle.
      The fact that this topic is getting comments is a good indication that my battle book is needed! Keep it up!

  3. Erik Lund says :

    I’m going to be the guy who argues that you can have a siege with open lines of communication. Sieges are versus places; battles are versus armies. Stalingrad was a siege. Verdun was a siege. Operation Bagration was a battle. But then I think about Arnhem… We really need a third category of coup de main.

    • jostwald says :

      Then you’re joining a good group (see Vauban under Siege, p 352)! In that appendix D I define the variety of positional tactics: siege, storm, blockade, bombardment, surprise/stratagem. These were all distinct categories for contemporaries.

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