MHM looks at five of the most significant sieges in history.
5. THE ALAMO – 1836
DURATION: two weeks
One of the best-known sieges in history, the encirclement of the Alamo took place in San Antonio, Texas, during February and March 1836. Commanded by Colonel William Travis and James Bowie, 189 Texans held the small fortified mission against around 1,800 soldiers under the command of Mexican President General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. After breaching the wall, Santa Anna’s forces wiped out the defenders to the last man. Within weeks of his victory, however, Santa Anna was forced to surrender to Texan soldiers at San Jacinto. Texas thus won its hard-earned, if short-lived, independence, before joining the United States nine years later.
4. PARIS – 1870-1871
DURATION: four months
Though overshadowed by the two World Wars, Prussia and France fought each other some 45 years before WWI, in the brief Franco-Prussian War. It was an overwhelming Prussian victory, one that was made possible by the surrender of Paris following the siege.
Though not hugely costly in terms of loss of life – most of which occurred in the last few weeks, when the city was finally subjected to artillery barrages in an effort to hasten a surrender – it set the stage for the wars of the 20th century, and established the nation of Germany. It was also the first siege in history in which hot-air balloons were used extensively. The French employed them to maintain communications between the besieged army and the rest of France.
3. LENINGRAD – 1941-1944
DURATION: 900 days
This was technically not a siege, as the city was never entirely surrounded, continuing to receive supplies throughout the more than two years it was blockaded. However, Leningrad (now again called by its pre- Revolution name St Petersburg) endured nearly 900 days of continuous artillery bombardment and bombing raids, by the combined forces of Germany and Finland.
The defence of Leningrad demonstrated Russian resolve and determination, and kept much of Hitler’s army tied up when they would have been much more useful elsewhere on the Eastern Front. The final number of deaths is difficult to ascertain – especially those during the first winter, when starvation was rampant – but best
estimates place the number of Russians killed at around one and a half million, of which about a third were civilians.
2. CONSTANTINOPLE 1453
DURATION: six weeks
The Siege of Constantinople heralded the end of Christianity in the Middle East, and opened the gates for the Muslim conquest of Europe. Though short in length, it is noteworthy for marking the demise of the old Roman Empire – whose mighty empire had been reduced to Constantinople – and for being the first siege in which cannon were used against defending forti cations. This was a new chapter in the history of siege warfare, although in this instance the cannon proved cumbersome to transport, difficult to reload, and ineffective against Constantinople’s 20 -thick walls.
1. JERUSALEM – 7 AD
DURATION: seven months
Jerusalem has been besieged a number of times throughout history. The siege and capture of the city by Roman legions, under the Emperor Titus in AD 70, however, remains the most famous. It lasted seven months, and ended in the complete destruction of the newly independent state of Israel, which had rebelled against its Roman occupiers four years earlier.
What made the siege – and subsequent fall – of the city so bad was that Jerusalem was swelled with Jews who had come to the city to observe Passover, only to be trapped inside its walls. There they starved alongside the rest of the population.
According to the Jewish historian Josephus, over a million Jews were killed or died of starvation during the siege (including nearly all of its 60,000 armed defenders); another 90,000 were taken into slavery.
This article featured in issue 50 of Military History Monthly.