Renaissance Warfare and Weapons – Siege Tactics
The era commonly known as “Early Modern Warfare” began during the middle of the fifteenth century and lasted until the end of the eighteenth century. The widespread use of gunpowder along with the weapons designed to use it, changed the methods of warfare dramatically.
China had been using gunpowder for centuries before the European countries began using it. Cannons were the first common weapons to use gunpowder. But at the time, all weapons that used gunpowder were generally large, very heavy, required many men to deploy them and were unwieldy to say the least. Cannons first appeared in Europe during the late Middle Ages and their primary use was for attacking castles. The development of the siege cannon quickly made the use of castles and their tall walls, for your main defense obsolete. The siege cannon meant that the attacker was now favored to be the ultimate battle winner. As a result, the character of the defensive position had to be changed. The high castle walls gave way to slopping walls. These slopping walls would deflect the cannon shots and allow the primary defense mechanism, the wall itself, to remain intact. Castles with their tall and relatively thin walls became obsolete as a defense tool.
The castles gave way to “fortresses”. These fortresses were built with thick slopping walls. To defend themselves, cities had to spend vast amount of money to build the new fortresses. These fortresses, with their ability to sustain cannon fire then brought back the “Siege” as the primary tactic for attacking a position.
A siege is the assault of a city or fortress with the intent of winning through attrition, a more modern term is a “blockade”. When an attacker could not get the city or fortress to surrender and realizing that a direct frontal attack would not be successful would resort to the siege tactic. A siege usually meant the attackers would surround the target, either the city or a fortress with the intent of blocking the entry of supplies and provisions to the inhabitants.
Common siege tactics were:
1. Mining or sapping
Mining or sapping involved digging a tunnel under the walls of the castle or fortress. The mines would have wooden reinforced walls for support. Once complete the attackers would fill the mine with flammable materials and set it on fire. Later, with the use of gunpowder, the mines would be filled with explosives, which was a much more effective use of the “sapping or mining”. The purpose of the sapping, or mining was to bring down the wall over the mine and allow an entrance point for the attackers.
2. Artillery bombardment. Using everything thing imaginable to go over the wall of the fortress or castle and inflict harm.
3. The use of the siege engines.
There are many types of siege engines. The general categories are ballista, battering ram, catapult, helepolis, mangonel, onager, siege tower and trebuchet.
Ballista: This is a powerful weapon that resembles a giant crossbow. The purpose of the ballista was to throw heavy arrows. It could shoot the arrows one at a time or in groups. The ballista is also knows as a “bolt thrower”. In earlier times the Romans used the ballista to hurl large stones but during the Middle Ages the ballista was modified to throw arrows, which at the time were known as bolts. The crossbow is believed to have been inspired by the early ballista. The ballista was made of wood and used animal sinew as the rope or string. Winches were used to pull back (cock) the ballista.
The ballista was a very accurate weapon when hurling bolts (arrows) but the accuracy was gained at the expense of range. The first known use of a ballista was in Italy in 400 B.C.
The catapult was a natural evolution of the ballista.
Battering Ram: Battering rams are devices used to break through fortification walls or doors. They have been in use since ancient time. The simplest form of a battering ram is a large heavy log carried by several attackers to hit the fortress or castle door or wall. The objective is to do enough damage to the wall or door to allow the attackers inside.
A more efficient design of the battering ram was to use a wheeled frame to carry it. The battering ram was suspended by ropes or chains which allowed the ram to be much larger and be swung more easily. The sides and roofs of this improved type of battering ram were sometime covered with protective materials to keep them from being set on fire and to protect the attackers.
Some battering rams were not suspended by ropes or chains but were placed on rollers instead. This would allow the ram to gain much higher speed and thus inflict much more damage. The writer Vitruvius described this type of rolling battering ram as used by Alexander the Great.
To defend themselves from a battering ram the defenders would drop obstacles in front of the battering ram or use grappling hooks to immobilize the ram or set the ram and/or its frame on fire. Another defense was to simply launch an attack on the ram as it approached them.
The use of battering rams can be traced to the destruction of Jerusalem and the fall of Rome. They were used throughout the Crusades too.
Catapult: A catapult is a type of siege engine used to hurl a projectile a long distance. Catapults were not weapons that the attackers carried with them into battle and they were generally built on the battle site. They are made from wood and it was plentiful on most battlefields.
The differentiation of differing types of catapults comes from the way they used to store and release their energy.
The first type of catapult was a variation of the Roman ballista. These used rope or animal sinew to hurl the objects. The rope or sinew was pulled back under tension and when the tension was released the energy carried the projectile. So if the catapult stored and released the energy through tension, it is considered a tensional catapult.
Another type of catapult is the torsion catapult. These have an arm with a bucket, cup or sling to hold the projectile. The force is transferred to the sling through the use of rope at the other end of the throwing arm. These ropes are placed are pulled tight to “load” the catapult with torsion energy.
Another type of catapult uses gravity rather tension or torsion energy to throw the projectile. The Trebuchet is the most common of these types of catapults.
Helepolis: This is an ancient type of siege engine and was known as the “Taker of Cities”. It was invented by Demetrius Poliorcetes for use during the siege on Salamis in Cyprus.
The shape of the original helepolis was a tall square tower that was supported on four wheels. The helepolis was divided internally into nine different stories. The lower stories held machines used to throw projectiles (large stones). The middle section contained catapults for throwing darts (large spears). The top section was used for throwing smaller stones and smaller catapults. The helepolis was manned by two hundred soldiers and was propelled via a large drive belt and wheel inside the helepolis. The soldiers could propel the helepolis from the inside without having to take direct fire from the defenders.
Mangonel: This type of siege engine is a catapult type used to throw projectiles at castle walls. The mangonel could hurl projectiles over great distances (1,300 feet). This is a much longer distance than the trebuchet, which was invented later. The mangonel was not very accurate and hurled the projectiles at a much lower angle than the trebuchet.
The mangonel was a torsion arm catapult that used a sling to hold the projectile. The energy was stored by twisting ropes or sinew.
In battles, mangonels hurled rocks, burning objects or just about anything else the attackers could think of. Vessels filled with flammable materials were popular and would create a large fireball upon impact.
The most unusual object hurled by the mangonel was sometimes the dead and decaying carcasses of animals or people. These were used as psychological weapons to lower the morale of the defenders as well as to spread disease among the defenders. This was an effective tactic due to the poor conditions the besieged had to endure. Poor hygiene, food in short supply, living in cramped conditions and the abundance of vermin were all conducive to the rapid spread of disease.
A variation of the mangonel was adapted to provide cover for troops in battle. This type of variation was first used by Alexander the Great.
The shortcoming of the mangonel was it accuracy but it’s versatility and ease of maneuvering made it the most popular siege catapult during the medieval period.
Onager: The onager is a torsion type of catapult. The torsion energy is stored by twisting ropes. The release of the energy provided a type of kicking action and thus the name onager which meant “wild ass”.
The construction of the onager was pretty straightforward. It consisted of a frame which stayed on the ground. The front of the frame had a solid wooden vertical frame attached to it. The vertical frame had an axle running through it with a large single spoke protruding from it.
In battle the spoke was pulled down via the use of twisted ropes or winched down to hold store the energy. When the energy was release the spoke would violently kick into the crosspiece of the vertical frame and the projectile would shoot forward.
A variation of the onager is the mangonel. The mangonel used a bowl to hold the projectile instead of the sling and was less powerful than the onager.
Siege Tower: This is a specialized siege engine used to protect the attackers as they approached the walls of the fortress or castle. These were often rectangular shaped and sat on four wheels. They were built to a height of approximately the height of the wall and sometimes even higher. When built higher than the wall the siege tower allowed archers to shoot into the castle or fortress.
These were heavy and difficult to maneuver and were generally built on the battle site. They took a long time to construct and were used primarily when all other types of siege tactics had failed, like sapping or direct ladder assault.
Its large size made it an easy target for the defender cannons upon approach.
If the siege tower was successful, the last thing to do was to drop planks between the tower and the wall to allow the attackers to enter the fortress or castle.
The outcome of a siege falls into one of these four categories:
1. If the defenders repelled the attackers without aid from outside forces then the position is deemed to have been “held”.
2. If the defenders repelled the attackers with the help of outside forces then the position is deemed to have been “relieved” or “raised”.
3. If the attackers succeed in taking the fortress, castle or city but the defensive forces are able to escape then the position is deemed to have been “evacuated”.
4. If the attackers succeed in taking the fortress, castle or city and they also destroy and/or capture the defenders then the besieged entity is deemed to have “fallen”.