The Art of Sieges



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    The nature of war was changing through the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. War was more often conducted between two forces out in the open. However there were two famous, or is that infamous, seiges during the Peninsular War, Cuidad Rodrigo and Badjoz which represent both the nature of seige and the underlying morality of them. But if there was a fort in the way an army just couldn't march right past it. A fort provided a threat to an armies rear if they ignored it - and a threat to their supply lines and communication.

    If the cost and time of a siege was considered too great an army could choose to blockade the city by leaving a force to harrass it and prevent supply line and enemy soldiers from relieving the garrison. It split the enemy and forced them to put forces into defending their forts.

    Sieges were costly with time, money and life, but were sometimes the most necessary option. They usually started with a blockade to prevent relieving forces, food or support from outside. The engineers were then brought in and trenches were started. These were called parallels - for the obvious reason, they ran parallel to the walls of the fort. The first one was built some distance from the fort for protection, second and third parallels were built gradually getting closer to the fort so the siege guns could be brought in to close range to batter the walls for a breach.

    You can imagine that the work of shifting massive amounts of dirt under constant fire from guns and the forces from above was both hard work and hazardous. Infantry were often brought in to help the sappers and engineers with the heavy shifting of dirt.

    Once the trenches were dug and the artillery had blasted a hole in the wall that was deemed breachable it was considered the honourable action for the governor of the fort to surrender. Honourable and merciful. Sieges were notoriously gruesome with a massive death and injury toll. It was a time honoured tradition that, should a governor refuse to surrender and thus force the siege, then no quarter might be given to the garrison or the city - resulting in a sack. No doubt this was in part fired by the anger of the beseiging forces who watched their comrades die around them - the death toll in a seige was extremely high and bloody.

    The storming of a fort was a choreographed affair usually had a number of fronts to split the inner defences and to try to weaken at least one area. For those defending it, the breach was the obvious point of weakness so it was guaranteed that the the fort's defences would be greatest there. So, by splitting the offensive forces the storming army hoped to split the defending force enough to weaken the breach. Points were chosen around the walls to attack at the same time by escalade (ladder) the reasoning being that while it was far less likely to be able to take these points but it split the garrison. Occassionally a fort was taken by the escalande forces which was what happened at Badajoz. The death toll for those who tried to take the fort was terrible but especially those who tried to storm the breach.

    The first party to storm the breach was commonly known as the 'Forlorn Hope', a breach was usually identified by the piles of bodies which littered it - contemporaries described the breach at Badajoz as "The gates of hell."

    The 'forlorn hope' is described in Costello's 'Adventure's of a Soldier'

      " On the eve of the Storming...captains of the companies, on their private parade, give to understand that such and such a place is to be taken by storm. Every man then, who wishes to volunteer to head the stormers, steps forward to the front, and his name is taken down by the officer. If none offer themselves the first men for duty are selected."

    Costello offered at least twice to be part of the forlorn hope as did Kincaid (Sir John) and notes that there was never a lack of volunteers n his company. (2nd Battalion, 95th Regiment) These breaches were protected by 'Chevaux de frise' sword blades chained together to cut up people trying to charge in - a lethal and razor sharp obstacle - in the case of the one at Cuidad Rodrigo, Costello describes it as "Consisting of a piece of heavy timber studded with sword blades, turning on an axis." The storming parties carried hatchets to deal with them, but they could become lost if those carrying them were shot before reaching the point, or dropped on the way. Sometimes there were trenches inside the walls with swords and knives at the bottom for invaders to fall into.

    Both Badjoz and Cuidad Rodrigo - where Wellington's army was forced to take these forts by siege, resulted in the most hideous sacking of the city in retribution where neither garrison forces nor civillians were safe.

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