They seem to consider men as no more than mice in an air-pump

In the last chapter of my Vauban under Siege book, “Towards a Vigorous Future,” I speculated that even though the French engineer Vauban had systematized the efficient siege attack c. 1700, future generations of commanders would ignore this efficient approach as readily as did commanders in the “age of Vauban.” Fortuitous, then, to find a British staff officer’s description of the siege of San Sebastian in the Peninsula illustrating the British tradition of ignoring siegecraft and relying instead on vigor, regardless of the human costs.

From The Letters and Journals of Sir Maynard Gomm, p. 310:

Before San Sebastian: July 25, 1813.

We attacked the town yesterday morning, and failed. I do not think we have been engaged in so hazardous an attempt since this country became the scene of our adventures, not even at Badajos. I shall not persecute you with the details of this madcap enterprise, but will enclose another scratch for General Benson, which I will beg of you to send him when you have an opportunity. To him, I know, every little detail of this kind will be interesting, although I have my fears that he, with all the assistance of military knowledge, will hardly be able to decipher it. I do not know whether I have ever expressed it to you, but I have always had a dread of being engaged in any of these sieges. We are used to set so much to the hazard, and to dispense with the common precautions which theory would make us believe are necessary to be taken where success is in any degree to be ensured, and which our own repeated experience confirms. Not that in all situations the surest plan of proceeding is the best. Had we, for instance, attended to all the niceties of the art in the attack of Ciudad Rodrigo, or of Badajos, it is possible we should have taken neither. The French armies were collecting for the relief of both, and although they might not have beaten us, they would at least have commanded our attention. I am afraid the success on these occasions, owing to the almost miraculous efforts of our troops, has checked the progress of science among our engineers, and perhaps done more; for it seems to have inspired them with a contempt for as much of it as they had attained. Our soldiers have on all occasions stood fire so well that our artillery have become as summary in their proceedings as our engineers; and, provided they can make a hole in the wall by which we can claw up, they care not about destroying its defences, or facilitating in any degree what is, under the most favourable auspices, the most desperate of all military enterprises. In fact, we have been so called upon hitherto to ensure the success of our sieges by the sacrifice of lives, that our chief engineers and commandants of artillery remind us of what Burke says of the Revolutionary philosophers: The mathematicians, from the dry bones of their diagrams, and the chymists, from the soot of their furnaces, bring with them dispositions which make them more than indifferent to the cause of humanity. They seem to consider men as no more than mice in an air-pump, and calculate upon the expense we shall incur in carrying such and such a post with as much sangfroid as they do upon the supply of ammunition necessary to bring down the wall. We certainly came before this place, supplied, I thought, with all the means necessary for attacking it en règle, and I saw no reason for attacking it otherwise. We have, however, conformed in this instance also to what men of science call the new system, but what plain men call an abuse of the old one.

I have dwelt much longer than I ought to have done upon this subject; but it is at least pardonable in us, who are nearest concerned, to become tedious in passing our censure upon the method of proceeding of those whom we cannot but look upon as the authors of our calamity, which, as it might have been foreseen by them, and was by others, might have been avoided. In a very few minutes five hundred of the flower of the army were cut down: the Royal, which was the pride of the division, the 38th, an excellent corps. The 9th, fortunately, had not time to suffer much; but they lost nearly as many heads as they showed.

Most fortunately the troops behaved as they have always done. Sir Thomas Graham bore testimony to it, and I believe Lord Wellington, who was in the neighbourhood in the course of the afternoon, never expressed a doubt of it. He has too often seen them do what men can do to suppose for a moment that they were wanting in this instance. I do not know what is intended to be done; if we have a sufficiency of military stores remaining, and choose to treat the place with the respect it deserves, we shall certainly take it; if not, I suppose we shall blockade.”

That the sieges in the Peninsular war were desperate and often ill-managed affairs, and that the British engineering corps was subpar, is no surprise. More interesting to me is the fact that many of the dynamics I detailed in my discussion of the War of the Spanish Succession are present here as well: the pressures to accelerate an attack; the difficulties determining whether to attack a specific town with an accelerated or regular attack; the divisions within the engineering corps as to whether an attack dans les formes is even necessary; as well as the way in which previous vigorous successes lulled commanders into believing that patient siegecraft would never be needed. Plus ça change



9 responses to “They seem to consider men as no more than mice in an air-pump”

  1. Gene Hughson says :

    We have, however, conformed in this instance also to what men of science call the new system, but what plain men call an abuse of the old one.

    Now there’s a familiar tactic.

  2. Chris Tubbs says :

    As to the niceties of the art mentioned: One can always do more digging but what defines a practicable breach and should the defender capitulate if one exists? With an ideal fortress it would be impossible to breach the enceinte without establishing a position on the covered way. An attacker in a covered position close to a breach could put the garrison into such a difficult situation that it justified capitulation. So in a formal siege it seemed reasonable to follow the standard of dig, breach, beat the chamade.
    But what if the attacker was able to breach the walls without digging up to the counterscarp? In these sieges in Spain, the British breached the walls from afar and the French did not capitulate. I am not an expert of this campaign but wonder if the lack of capitulation might be because the French did not feel the breaches were practicable given that the assaults must come across large distances of open ground. But the vigorous British felt the breaches were practicable and proved it by taking the fortresses. So if there was a siege warfare etiquette, which side broke it? The British by not sapping far enough forward or the French for not capitulating after a breach?
    I would be interested in knowing if the type of attack used (regular vs. accelerated) was strongly correlated with the quality of the fortress assaulted (e.g. could the enceinte be breached from afar).

  3. Martin Gibson says :

    Napoleon did not approve of the idea that you surrendered once the breach was practicable so ordered his garrison commanders to fight on even if it clearly was practicable. Thus, the tradition did not apply by 1813.

  4. jostwald says :

    When I have time, I’ll respond to Chris’ comment, but a quick caution about Napoleon’s order to keep fighting. I don’t know if it was the case under Napoleon, but Louis XIV issued similar orders (as did the French Revolutionaries), but it was rarely followed. In the case of Louis XIV, after his well-publicized blanket order to withstand a storm on the breach, he explicitly gave specific besieged garrison commanders the private approval to surrender before a storm on the breach if it would save the garrison from being taken prisoners.
    The tough part for garrison commanders was to figure out how to judge the precise moment at which to surrender: too soon and you’ll be criticized by your enemies at Court (and possibly the King) for surrendering too soon. On the other hand, if you wait too long, you’ll likely be forced to surrender POW, or else withstand a storm, which will likely lead to the garrison being killed (given the dominance of artillery by 1700). And of course
    “the moment to surrender” really means when you beat the chamade – you still need to convince the besiegers that you’re willing to die defending the breach, or else they’ll call your bluff and demand POW or they’ll storm. I don’t envy garrison commanders.
    Things were different in Spain, where there wasn’t nearly the offensive artillery domination as in the Low Countries, which means that the likelihood of a Spanish garrison successfully defending a breach from assault was higher.

  5. jostwald says :

    Chris, a few thoughts.
    My reading of Gomm is not necessarily that the besiegers should have sapped closer to the fortress before storming it, though it would be interesting to see where exactly the storming losses were inflicted – on the glacis/outworks or at the breach itself. Rather it was inadequate use of the artillery. I don’t know the specifics for this siege (not even the exact state of the fortifications), but I can imagine a couple of scenarios:
    1) The breach wasn’t actually practicable, something that should have been obvious to any competent siege engineer or officer. Contemporaries talked about making sure that the slope of the debris from the breach – the talus – was gradual enough to allow an easy descent. If it wasn’t practicable, the artillery should’ve pulverized it until it was. That’s one possible criticism of not using the artillery enough.
    2) Another possibility is that there wasn’t enough preparatory artillery fire in general. This served to: wear down the garrison, dismount the garrison guns so they couldn’t be used defending the breach, and destroy the fortifications behind which the defenders sheltered. If the besiegers were storming from a distance, the artillery should have been keeping the defenders’ heads down as they approached, and used indirect fire weapons (if they had them) behind the breach, assuming it was retrenched.
    This is all speculation, but we do know that Gomm explicitly refers to the failings of the artillery – they had it and should have used it more.

    I do find it a little odd that the engineers get the brunt of Gomm’s criticism, since normally it’s the siege/approach commander who makes the ultimate decision whether to storm or not. From my WSS background, I’d guess that the siege commander wanted to accelerate the siege (and/or didn’t want to waste munitions), so he quickly pressed for a storm. The engineers, as usual, acquiesced, or perhaps sought to curry favor with the vigorous commander by abbreviating the artillery phase. Or maybe they really weren’t very good at their jobs and didn’t know how to use them.

    As for who violated the etiquette: I’ve always hated when people combine “etiquette” and “siege” in the same sentence, since it too often stems from or contributes to the idea that sieges were somehow less-than-real warfare, that they had to follow a formalized process.

    Regarding accelerated attacks and fortress strength, you’re correct that weak fortresses were attacked without all the trappings of the Vaubanian siege – Vauban himself approved of this, though he was leery about giving too much carte blanche to vigorous commanders. The issue of breaching the works from distance was only part of the equation, however, since assuming the fortress had a covered way and a ditch, these would require (possibly) a lodgment and (certainly) bridging, presumably under fire. If the garrison’s fire was not silenced through artillery bombardment, a long charge across open ground (even without a ditch to overcome) could easily turn into a massacre if the garrison still had its cannon intact. John Stapleton can correct me, but I believe that happened at the attack on Namur’s citadel in 1695.

    • Chris Tubbs says :

      Have no fear; I definitely feel that siege warfare is real warfare. I study decisive battle, and decisive sieges are every bit as common, if not more so.

      … and I did say “if” when I mentioned siege etiquette but it is hard to say if etiquette is the right word. (Etiquette: A conventional but unwritten code of practice followed by members of any of certain professions or groups)

      Louis XIV’s blanket order definitely runs counter to a breach = capitulation paradigm. He obviously valued his troops if he was willing to allow capitulation to avoid losing a garrison but I wonder how much his blanket order was a strategic move designed to give his garrison commanders an advantage in negotiations. The commanders could now say “The King has ordered me to stand on the breach and I’ll have to do it if you do not give us good terms”. Of course, it is still hard to make this type of strategic move credible.

      • jostwald says :

        Since besiegers captured their targets 85% of the time, Louis was only acknowledging the inevitable when he gave his commanders approval to surrender – the garrison better at least wait until a breach was close to practicable. Strategic coverage is a possibility, but you’d think Louis would’ve issued the order much earlier than 1706. On the besieger’s side, the possibility of casualties from a storm usually combined with the desire to end the siege and get on to other things, result : give honorable terms. But there were lots of variations.

  6. Martyin Jourdan says :

    I am loving all that you have written and it is a shame it is not really relevant to my Masters which is looking at Marlborough’s logistics and aiming to demonstrate that it was the Dutch who were the real heros. However, I am also planning to write a case study on Marlborough’s march to the Rhine when he paid for much of his bread and forage with coin taken with him. He must have accounted for this expenditure; does anyone have a reference for the document that would show these transactions?
    Incidentally I am a 5* pitstop on the A303 for anyone passing!

    • jostwald says :

      Hey! You’re confusing our threads! Oh well.
      Not certain about your question, but I wouldn’t be surprised if such a document didn’t exist, given the disorganized nature of English military administration (see Scouller, Armies of Queen Anne), and the fact that the money for bread was so poorly documented that it became an issue (the infamous 2.5%) used to put Marlborough on trial in 1712. The English were far less organized than the Dutch, with the unsurprising result that some of the English paymasters were quite corrupt. I suppose the domestic debate about Marlborough’s “missing money” and the work on paymasters like Brydges would be the places to start. Scouller’s diss on the Secretary of War might also help, and the current expert on WSS English finances would be Aaron Graham, currently at Oxford I think.

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