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The Art of the Siege

The Art of the Siege

Oct 16, 2008, 4:32 PM 2

The medieval period was one of brave knights, powerful kings, and the architectural wonder of castle-building. Is there a more fascinating period of human history? Alas, the medieval era is often ignored by the non-fiction world, particularly by contemporary military historians. Why is this so?

The primary reason for this negligence is that medieval military history routinely defies the accepted standard for Western military operations. Instead of pitched battles involving the art of maneuver, medieval battles were largely comprised of small skirmishes and a lot of siege-craft. Simply, this style of warfare just ‘does not compute’ for the modern historian. Historian Bernard S. Bachrach has commented that:

During the later nineteenth century and throughout much of the twentieth, military planners cleaved to the doctrine which is often styled "the strategy of overthrow." This emphasized "the importance of battle to such a degree that they regarded it as the only important act in war."(6) Indeed, those historians who wrote medieval military history, whether professional scholars or amateurs, not only would appear to have adhered to this doctrine but regarded any other way of conducting warfare as ostensibly unworthy of study.(7)

This is unfortunate as the art of the siege can be a fascinating study to undertake. Not only did it involve its own “combined arms” tactical doctrine - one often described as involving the “six S’s” of suborning or subverting key defenders, scaring the garrisons with "propaganda," sapping the walls, starving the population, storming the defenses, and "shelling" the besieged - but also a greater strategic doctrine of determining where to siege and when. As anyone who has ever played Medieval Total War can tell you, placing the correct town, city or castle under siege at just the right moment with the correct correlation of forces is an art in itself (by the way: the majority of sieges involved towns and cities and not castles which were often considered too tough to crack.) Do it correctly, and you can unhinge your opponent’s entire strategic effort and bring down his realm’s defenses like a house of cards. Do it incorrectly, and you can squander everything you have and find yourself on the defensive. All told, the entire process can be very chess-like.

This, of course, brings us to the point that the art of the siege can be applied in the world’s greatest medieval wargame, Chess. Like its real world counterpart, a siege in Chess has to be conducted carefully, with the king combining his forces in a carefully orchestrated action designed to weaken the enemy’s position one move at a time. Failure to do so effectively will often result in a fruitless action that accomplishes little more than sapping your own strength and not that of your opponent’s. For an example of this, please see the Great Siege of Malta…or the following Chess game. Here, I attempted to break my opponent’s defenses but only succeeded in breaking my own army against his solid walls.

Time to pack up and go home, boys….the siege is over.

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