Tag Archive | sieges

I sure do love Lincoln and Washington

Because they give us U.S. faculty on a MWF teaching schedule a full week off in the Spring, and that’s before Spring Break. Which, combined with the two consecutive snow days last Friday and this past Monday, mean I’ve had the time to finish up my siege capitulation chapter (okay, 99% done) that I’ve been working on forever. Literally. I wrote a graduate seminar paper on the subject circa 1994.

Why has it taken so long to finish this chapter with a target length of only 12,000 words? Let me count the ways, leaving aside non-project issues: Read More…

When it rains, it pours

Early modern European military history (EMEMH) is a small field. Or so I thought, until I started to dust off my old grad school projects (late 1990s) on the French side of the Louis XIV’s last war. Then I discover, as I’ve already detailed, that there are quite a few French scholars now interested in the subject.

So it’s only fitting that, as I draft the final few pages of my book chapter on siege capitulations (only 18 years in the making!), I discover yet another scholar (not-French) interested in this particular subject:
Swart, Erik. “Defeat, Honour and the News: The Case of the Fall of Breda (1625) and the Dutch Republic.” European History Quarterly 46, no. 1 (January 2016): 6–26.

The honour of the polity, closely tied to military success, was of great importance in seventeenth-century European international relations. This article provides an analysis of the importance of the honour of the polity in the early Dutch Republic – the late sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth-century – and the role of military success and failure as crucial matters in this. It also contributes to the debate about the position of the Republic, now no longer seen as an anomaly, in European relations. In existing research scant attention is paid to the role of military glory in this. A military defeat, the loss of Breda in 1625, functions as an analytical tool. Analysing the manner in which this defeat was dealt with enables an assessment of the importance of the Republic’s honour in a ‘national’ and international context.
Huhn. Sieges and honor. I guess it’s a growth industry.
Which leads to a minor dilemma. Since my current chapter is almost finished, and I’ve been working on it forever, I’m taking the (unusual?) tack of intentionally and stubbornly ignoring the content of these other works at this stage. I’ve adopted this approach for two reasons. First, my own chapter is very focused in time, space and subject: how honor and shame was distributed in sieges (primarily Flanders) during the War of the Spanish Succession. More importantly, I’ve got too much to do as it is: too many primary sources I still need to skim through (and the chapter is already overdue), I just this week figured out the organization for this convoluted chapter, and, wouldn’t you know it, Spring semester starts next week. In other words, not enough time (over a short winter break) to read through a 650-page French dissertation, a few book chapters, and now a brand new journal article, then think about how they all relate to my own thesis, potentially refine/reformulate my own research, then do some additional research in my sources based off of my new thoughts, and then draft it all up – conceivably even requiring a reorganization of my chapter. Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That!
I am, however, mentioning their works in a footnote, with the tried-and-true “too late to be incorporated into this work.”  I feel a slight bit sheepish doing this, but at least it’s intellectually honest. And in an odd way I wonder if it’s a courtesy to these other scholars? Obviously in the case of dissertations, it doesn’t steal the thunder of other scholars – and, on the other side of the coin, I can also (truthfully) claim that I came up with the ideas all by myself. [It certainly wouldn’t be the first time such convergent scholarship evolved. Compare, for example, Michèle Virol’s “Le siège de Namur de 1692: l’héroïsme et la technique,” Dix-septième siècle 228, no. 3 (September 1, 2005): 465–88 with my diss/Vauban under Siege.] And I’d feel bad if I disagreed with their work and felt compelled to attack their work. I think there’s some kind of honeymoon period or something…
All this uncertainty, not surprisingly, circles back to that whole question about how to characterize a historiography that’s in flux that I’ve discussed before.
So when do you stop incorporating new works into your own, and why? When reading other scholars’ works, how up-to-date do you expect their historiography to be?

Early modern movie battles

I’m thinking about making a few minor changes to my European Warfare, 1337-1815 course next semester. Past versions have focused a fair amount on the narratives of various wars: out of the 38 class meetings (50 minutes each), I devote one class meeting each on the 100YW, the Ottoman wars, the Wars of Italy, the French Wars of Religion, the Dutch Revolt, the 30YW, L14’s wars, Frederick the Great’s wars, the French Revolutionary wars, and the Napoleonic Wars. The rest are topical.

This time I’ll be condensing a few of the war narratives and warfare topics into a single class (sorry Dutch Revolt, sorry French Wars of Religion). Thus I’ll focus on the Italian Wars, the 30YW, Frederick’s wars, the Revolutionary/Napoleonic wars, but more and more Louis XIV’s wars. This will give me more space to read a few of the new French books out, and focus a bit more on the actual process of campaigning, Louis XIV-style. This includes dedicated classes on small war, professionalization (military ranks/organization…), maybe even the fiscal-military state. Shockingly, I hardly mention the Military Revolution in the course – I’m not a big fan of sweeping historiography at the undergrad level. Even in a course that covers almost 500 years of European military history!

But to the reason for my post: Any suggestions for good early modern combat sequences from movies? I’ll include a few scenes from Alatriste, and there are a few things on YouTube, but if you have any other favorites, let us know in the comments.

Love and Death

A new one for the Safe Sex Manual, from the Daily Mail (among others):

Couple fall to their deaths from Vauban Fort into the moat whilst having sex.

I must admit that I too had a close call once – slipping atop the Le Quesnoy ramparts on a rainy October day. I was, however, fully clothed. And the only erotic element of my tour was the slight frisson I experienced visiting one of Vauban’s creations.

And for those seeking historical accuracy: assuming the scene of the accident was the Fort Vauban (on one of Normandy’s Chausey islands), it was actually constructed in the 1860s. But when you’re famous, you get all sorts of things named after you.

Help identifying things

I’m finishing up my edits for the final version of my West Point History of Warfare iBook chapter on the War of the Spanish Succession. Eventually they’ll release it beyond those lucky cadets who get to read it for their course.

Among other tweaks, it was suggested I incorporate the following image and include various hotspots. Here’s a low-res version of the whole thing:


The image is available from the Rijksmuseum to view and download in all its gory and glorious detail (once you register). All rights belong to them, of course.

I’ve spoken about the bombardment of Gelder before, and will have plenty to say about it for this image. One of the features of the chapter, however, is to give the reader a sense of the nitty-gritty reality of war. And since I’ve personally participated in at least thirteen early modern sieges (and have the wounds to show for it), I’m obviously the expert who can explain what all of these things are.

And yet, somehow, I don’t know everything. In fact, there are a few things in this panorama of a bombardment battery that I don’t know. A few others, I have speculations. But we certainly can’t let the West Point cadets rely on guesswork.

Since I’m leaving for France in the morning, I don’t have time to look through my Saint-Rémy and various other artillery manuals right now. Thus I’m hoping someone already knows what these things are, and is looking to impress. (Bonus points if you can cite a source or point to other examples.)

To help contextualize, recall that this depiction of a battery is only a bombardment of a poorly-garrisoned town, not a full-blown siege, which means there aren’t approach trenches or saps, and the bombarding side likely isn’t expecting sallying troops to charge all the way to the battery across all that open ground. (See the appendix in my Vauban under Siege if you’re still unclear on the difference between a bombardment and a siege.)

Let the quiz begin.

First up, what are these bucket-like objects resting on the parapet in the guard trench in front of the battery? What were they used for? And please don’t say they’re helmets. (And I sure hope they’re not airing out their chamber pots either.)

Bombardement de Guelder 1703 buckets

Next up, I’m thinking this might be a mechanical planer of some sort (given the boards, possibly a rough pre-board in the back and an after-planing straight board in the front). Can anyone confirm?

Bombardement de Guelder 1703 planer

And what are these things on the ground at the bottom, which look like a metal container with some black cloth attached to their tops?

Bombardement de Guelder 1703 possible funnels

I’m guessing they might be funnels: I’d speculate the pliable cloth opening is pushed into whatever-size hole and then you tip up the container and gunpowder goes in – either down a muzzle or in a bomb. The other staff-like objects are for loading and cleaning cannon obviously.

Next question: What goodies do these little huts hold?

Bombardement de Guelder 1703 powder sheds

Less-likely speculation: are these fascine-topped huts gunpowder storage? In the entire image, there’s surprisingly little gunpowder that I can see, apart from (possibly) a few pony kegs. Admittedly, one would rather not have gunpowder lying around willy-nilly, but this strikes me as a very clean battery. There’s a solid-looking red shed on the far left that would be a logical place to store gunpowder barrels, but you’d think they’d have more illustration of gunpowder being transported to the different guns (unless maybe those funnel-like containers are actually gunpowder carrying case + funnel. Which might make sense now that I think about it).

More-likely speculation: Or perhaps the fascine-roofed sheds store pre-filled mortar bombs? I don’t see any obvious equipment (other than possibly the funnels) that indicates that they are filling the gunpowder-filled bombs on-site, so possibly they were delivered to the battery already full, or filled all at once, and then placed in the shelters for some minimal protection. The fact that these fascine sheds are directly behind the mortars, whereas the grates heating the red-hot shot are behind the cannon, might support this idea.

Final question: Who’s a brave doggie?

Bombardement de Guelder 1703 doggie

You are!

Où est le Michigan?

Faithful skulker John Grenier points us towards a recent exhibition at the University of Michigan Library’s Special Collections on 18C British fortifications in the Americas.

A Salon story on it is here, while the online exhibit is here.

And no, your memory isn’t failing you. Oxford University’s Museum of the History of Science also held its own exhibit entitled “The Geometry of War” back in 1996. You can check out its online catalog here, which deals more with instruments of war (hey, there’s a book title in there somewhere I think).

Speaking of memories, I have fond ones of Michigan’s library, which offered innumerable printed riches to an interloping grad student from “that state down south.” I spent many a dime on photocopies there – this was in the days when libraries still kept 18C books in the stacks, rather than hide them away in rare book rooms. But maybe it’s for the best that Ohio State’s library recalled the copies of Deidier’s 1757 Le parfait ingénieur français and Lamberty’s 1724 Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du XVIII siècle that I had on a floor bookcase for several years – I’m lucky my cat didn’t pee on them.

The staff at EYM (the library’s OCLC code – another tidbit you needed to know pre-Google Books) were also incredibly helpful. On one of my research jaunts to the land of maize and blue, they were kind enough to digitize several dozen maps from Pelet’s atlas companion to Vault’s Mémoires militaries, and even place them online. And, of course, Michigan has been at the forefront of Hathi Trust, which means that I can finally throw away all those paper copies I made 15 years ago of the Europische Mercurius and Santa Cruz de Marcenado’s Reflexions militaires. So thanks to the Spauldings, who made much of it possible:

Stephen Spaulding Collection

And, if  you plan a trip there, don’t forget to take a peak at the 18C Spanish mortar nearby.


Sometimes we have no idea what we’re talking about

When not teaching and serving, I’m trying to get some researching done on the side. The small chunk I’ve been working on of late is examining how contemporaries discussed the surrender of the French garrison at the citadel of Tournai in 1709. Reminder to self: this takes forever if you have 100+ accounts to go through (and that’s only for Tournai).

It’s an interesting surrender for numerous reasons which I won’t get into. But if you do bother to read through enough capitulation texts (beyond Tournai as well), dissect discussion of the capitulation process in various contemporary treatises, and peruse discussion of specific surrenders in the participants’ correspondence, in the contemporary newspapers and prints, and in the histories of the war, you start to see some patterns. So when you’ve immersed yourself in the primary accounts, you just have to cringe when you come across something like this, from Archdeacon William Coxe’s 19C multi-volume biography of Marlborough (v2:427):

The Allies “…forced at length the commandant to surrender at discretion. The two generals, respecting the bravery of the garrison, mitigated the hardship of their lot, by permitting them to march out with the honours of war, retaining their swords and baggage, on the condition of leaving behind them their other arms and colours. They were to return to France, and not to serve till an equal number of prisoners, captured from the allies, were restored in exchange. On the 3d of September the gate of the citadel was delivered to the confederates, and on the 5th the garrison was conducted to Condé.”

The problem, if you happened to read an exchange in the comments on a previous post, is that Coxe has unfortunately butchered contemporary categories almost beyond recognition. As I explained in that exchange, contemporaries c. 1700 viewed a garrison’s ultimate fate as one of two broad possibilities. First was the possibility of a successful garrison defense, retaining the fortress and forcing the besiegers to abandon their attacks. A rare beast for the War of the Spanish Succession. More likely, a fortress would be forced to surrender. In this case, the garrison could receive any one of several outcomes:

  1. The garrison could be given an “honorable” surrender (the standard phrasing used), which meant that a variety of symbolic “marks of honor” would be granted the garrison upon its evacuation – things like drums beating, flags flying, &c. Most importantly, the garrison would be allowed to return to action by rejoining their field army.
  2. Alternately, the garrison could be denied their status as free combatants, and taken prisoner. Within this broad imprisoned fate were several important gradations, however. If a garrison was “taken prisoner”, the capitulation might dictate that the garrison be exchanged immediately, or the capitulation might remain mute on this point, which meant that the garrison might instead linger until a later point. Sometimes prisoners might be allowed some of the marks of honor.
  3. Distinct, however from a garrison taken prisoner, was one taken “at discretion”. Hard-pressed defenders taken at discretion still ended up prisoners, it’s true, but taken “at discretion” was the early modern equivalent of unconditional surrender. This was a far more shameful way to be captured, and more dangerous, for their treatment was technically at the discretion of the commander. There was, in other words, no capitulation document that provided written protection for the garrison (or almost never – like I said, these things are complicated). Nevertheless, contemporaries made clear distinctions between defenders taken prisoners and those taken at discretion (unless of course one side wanted to inflate their own honor by blurring the lines – it gets complicated). So while there’s definitely a fair amount of gray, it’s completely confusing for Coxe to say that the garrison was taken at discretion yet they were given the honors of war. It’s possible there may have been some garrison somewhere that received such mixed terms, but I’ve yet to see one, and this certainly wasn’t the case with Tournai. Keeping (only) their swords and baggage was a significant step down from being allowed the standard marks of honor – I don’t think contemporaries even referred to “swords and baggage” as “marks of honor” (though I’d have to check to be sure).
  4. The worst fate of all was to be put to the sword. Defenders that resisted to the bitter end would likely be slaughtered in the breach or in the streets. This fate became increasingly rare as the 17C progressed.

In case you weren’t yet confused with the above categories, I provide my confusing visualization of how this all played out in the Low Countries during the Spanish Succession war (a diagram for my paper presentation created, I should note, while at the Charlotte airport a mere three hours before my presentation):

Siege End States1

So what Coxe has done is give me whiplash. First, contemporaries were quite explicit that Tournai’s garrison was not taken “at discretion” – they earned a slightly more honorable fate than that, though not particularly honorable all the same. Coxe is partially correct when he says they were allowed to march out with “honours of war”, but he muddies the point with his use of the definitive article. “The honors of war” was an oft-used phrase at the time, but being given “the honors of war” while being denied arms and flags would have made little sense to contemporaries. In short, Tournai’s surrender was largely shameful for the garrison: they had defended far more briefly than might be expected given their fortifications, and their initial demands for a truly “honorable” surrender (free evacuation, all the honors of war) was rejected, only for them to abjectly accept the besieger’s harsh conditions within three days. It gets even more confusing (and interesting) when it comes to the garrison’s actual evacuation, but I need to save something for the inevitable book chapter/article. (For readers who care, it looks like the conference organizers may try to publish something off of the World of the Siege conference.)

Yet this leaves us with a problem. Coxe was born in 1748, and therefore lived as an adult through several of Europe’s wars of the late 18C and early 19C, all of which were covered in the British press. So why didn’t he know the difference between prisoners/discretion, and between the various marks of honor? Had these conventions changed by the end of the century? (Just what I need, the suggestion that I have to look at even later discussions of surrender conventions. Ugh.) Or maybe the Archdeacon was a clueless pointy-headed prelate, armchair quarterbacking without an understanding of the conventions of a previous generation? Or was he just being literary and trampling historical understanding in the process?

So I’m not sure what the lesson is, other than to pay closer attention to the language used by contemporaries. But that’s a good lesson to start with.