Renaissance Warfare and Weapons – Preparing to Siege
Military strategist Vauban was considered a genius at defending against a siege but also a genius at carrying out a siege.
The planning and maintaining of a siege could be just as difficult as defending against one. Because the attacking armies could potentially be attacked not only by those defending their city, castle or fortress, the attackers would also have to guard against being attacked by those coming to the aid of the besieged. As a defense tactic, the besieging armies usually dug lines of trenches. Two main trench lines were common. The first and outermost trench line would surround the entire besieging army and protect it from outside attackers. This outermost trench is called the “lines of contravallation”.
Another trench would be dug facing towards the besieged area; this would protect them from being attacked by sorties from the defending armies. This trench was called the “line of circumvallation”. This line would also help prevent the escape of the defenders.
With his defensive trenches in place, Vauban would then begin a series of trenches to be used in the offensive manner. He would place another trench about 2,000 feet from the target. This trench would contain the heavy cannons and allow them to hit the target without coming under fire themselves.
Once that trench was established, Vauban would then dig another trench about 1,000 feet from the target. This line was used to keep the smaller guns protected.
The last trench would be dug about 200 feet from the fortress. This trench would be used to house mortars and act as a common staging area for the attacking parties once the walls were breached. Sappers (in the Siege Tactics section) would also use this trench to dig their tunnels
The trenches that connected the above trenches to each other could not be built perpendicular to the fortress wall because that would make the attacking soldiers easy targets from the fortress. So these connecting trenches were dug in zigzag fashion.
The last part of the Vauban design is the citadel. The citadel is the strongest part of the fortress. These were sometime built inside the main walls and designed to be the last line of defense. The citadels were used during peacetime to keep the residents in line and to protect the garrison from a potential revolt in the city.
The outcome of sieges was often times won by the army that could last the longest. Most sieges had very little fighting between opposing armies and the decision by the attacking army to just wait for the surrender. There was little to be gained from a direct assault and the resulting high casualties. The besieged would either be starved out or disease would become so rampant that they would be forced to surrender.
On the other hand, disease could also wreak havoc on the besieging army too. Sometimes the besieging army would retreat due to loss of life from disease in its own camp.
There was also a strategy in exactly how to accept the offer of surrender. They had to decide if they would allow the surrender at all. It was common for the siege army to accept the surrender. This saved casualties and allowed word to spread to others that if they came under siege, they too, could surrender. If the siege army had the reputation of killing and pillaging after the surrender then that reputation would make it harder for them during the next siege.
The most dominant type of warfare in Western Europe for most of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was “siege” warfare. Sieges could last a very long time. Ostend was under siege from 1601-1604. These lengthy sieges were costly and slow but they did work better than a direct open battle between armies.
As weapon technology continued to improve the importance of capturing a single fortress became less important. The new tactics with improved weaponry allowed for the fight to be quickly taken to the battlefield. The Napoleonic war was the first to use this type of warfare strategy.