The Gothic Line: the Defence

August–September 1944

The German Plan

In the middle of August, the Allies landed on the southern coast of France, outside Nice, in the amphibious invasion Operation Dragoon. They faced little resistance and headed north through the valley of the Rhone River. The Red Army crossed from Poland onto the boundary of East Prussia itself, and the Americans prepared to invade the Philippines. While the war was being fought on its three other main fronts in a fluid manner, with one side advancing, the other retreating, this was not now the case in Italy. By August 15, the Allied armies had arrived up against the defenses of the Gothic Line and were preparing to attack them. The Germans were largely dug in to static positions, trying to work out where the Allies would attack first. The latter were characteristically disagreeing among themselves where their assault should begin. And then they had a stroke of luck.

In northern Italy in the fifth year of the war, command responsibility often landed on young shoulders. Mino Farneti, a young Italian, had been eighteen and just out of high school when the war began, and he had luckily managed to avoid being drafted into the Italian army. He was from Ravenna, north of Rimini, a two-thousand-year-old classical city that had once been the capital of the Western Roman Empire. It was the site of eight famous early Christian churches, and in 1318 the poet Dante Alighieri, in exile from Florence, took up residence there. (He eventually died from malaria contracted from the ubiquitous mosquitoes that bred in the marshes and canals surrounding the city, and linking it to the sea.) Ravenna was old, rich, and beautiful.

By the time Farneti was nineteen, he was already evading both the Germans and Italian Fascists and was running messages on his bicycle for the local resistance group emerging around Ravenna. When the Italian army collapsed after the Cassibile Armistice with the Allies in 1943, Farneti, brave and resourceful, couldn’t wait to join the partisans and fight. Three partisan groups had sprung up in Ravenna, each with a different political allegiance and agenda. By the summer of 1944, Farneti had established his radio set in a farmhouse on the San Fortunato Ridge, one of two that overlooked from the north the pastures outside Rimini. He had organized three different drop zones onto which the Allied Dakota transports could parachute men and arms. If his first radio set was compromised by the Germans’ never-ending sweeps with their radio-tracking equipment, one of his colleagues had a second hidden on the slope behind a farmhouse. Another partisan outwitted the Germans by keeping a radio inside a very busy, very active beehive. Even when German search parties had been inside the farmhouse itself, headsets attached to radio-tracking equipment mounted on a truck outside, they had been unable to locate the radio set in its honey enclave, even when it was switched on and therefore emitting a low signal.

Along with an estimated 1,200 colleagues from the partisans’ Garibaldi Brigade, the operational remit of Farneti and his colleagues was simple: to make life as difficult as possible for the German defenders behind the lines, and to cooperate as much as possible with British and American SOE and OSS missions in order to be able do this effectively. The Americans, based in Corsica and Naples, and the British at their SOE headquarters and training center at Monopoli outside Bari, were making regular airdrops to the partisans. Farneti’s group had already received three radio sets, as well as large amounts of arms: their orders were to concentrate on attacking the Germans along the length of the Gothic Line, and it was for this purpose that he had moved south from his hometown in Ravenna. Kesselring was aware of the partisans’ successes and the threat they posed. One high-ranking German general stopped traveling with any flags, insignia, or identifying marks on his car. Another, Brigadier General Wilhelm Crisolli, commanding a brigade on the Ligurian coast outside Genoa, died when his staff car was riddled with machine-gun fire in an ambush.

One day in August, a group of Italian partisans were waiting behind some bushes on the side of a road near Rimini, when they saw a German motorbike and its sidecar coming toward them, gunning along the highway. The partisans were cautious. In their experience, the soldier sitting in the sidecar often had an MG-42 mounted in front of him, and it wouldn’t be the first time the combination of the motorcycle’s speed and maneuverability and the machine gun’s firepower had proved a lethal offensive mix. So, with Sten guns and Carcano rifles cocked, the partisans let the Germans come close. Then they opened fire. The driver and the officer in the sidecar never saw the Italians who ambushed them, and were both dead before the BMW Zündapp motorbike came to a crashing halt. Mino Farneti, who led the small group of four partisans, was only twenty-three that summer.

As the wheels of the motorbike combination still turned in the ditch, Farneti and the men with him searched the major’s pouches and briefcase. They pocketed his Luger pistol, watch, and spare 9mm ammunition, and they took the bread, usage, and cigarettes that the driver, like many other German soldiers, possibly stored in his gas-mask case. They would also have taken his MP 40 machine pistol, his six magazines of ammunition, and the precious canvas carrying pouches they came in, attached to the German’s leather belt in sets of three. But it was only as they rifled hurriedly through the officer’s briefcase and knapsack that Farneti realized that on the dusty road outside Rimini, lined with vineyards, they had struck gold. The German major was carrying a complete set of plans for the defenses on the eastern end of the Gothic Line.

The immediate concern for the partisans was simple: How to get the papers to the Allies as quickly as possible? By mid-August, their front line was still around Florence, so they told a partisan courier to take them to a fellow agent in Milan. From there they were escorted by a combination of couriers to the headquarters of the OSS across the Swiss border in Lugano. The lakeside town acted as the headquarters not just for the Office of Strategic Services but also as a main meeting and transit point for the British Special Operations Executive, based in Berne.

A few days later, on the western end of the Gothic Line, another group of partisans got lucky. They succeeded in stealing another set of plans that showed the German defenses that stretched from Bologna in the center toward the Mediterranean. These partisans were based in and around the old medieval walled town of Lucca in western Tuscany, twenty miles from the sea in the shadow of the Apennines. In late summer 1944, the weather was hot and calm, and the German soldiers patrolling around the town took cover from the afternoon sun in the shade of the palm, magnolia, and cypress trees. The Americans were still ten miles to the south, advancing steadily.

So when the partisans in Lucca got hold of the set of German plans, they had two choices. Take them across the Allied front lines ahead of them and risk capture by the Germans, immediate torture and execution, and the loss of the documents? Or take the safer route by smuggling them north to Switzerland? The disadvantage of this was having to cross miles of German-occupied territory, thus losing precious time. They chose the first option.

The plans were voluminous: heavy paper with detailed markings in colored wax pencil. Any partisan carrying them had to imagine he would be stopped and searched by at least one German checkpoint or patrol, so it was out of the question to carry them in a bag, in the lining of a jacket, or taped around the legs. So the most important parts of the maps were cut into a long strip, showing the geographical line from La Spezia on the Mediterranean to Bologna. A partisan then divided the papers in two, folded the plans into tight compact squares, and put them in the soles of his boots, under the leather inlay beneath his socks. It meant he had to walk slowly lest the crunching sound of the papers give him away. Leaving Lucca before the curfew, he set off across the fields of corn, the orchards of lemons and peaches, and the stands of ilex and cypress trees interspersed with irrigation ditches. He crossed through territory controlled by the SS soldiers of Max Simon’s 16th Reichsführer-SS Division, which was the part of the German 14th Army responsible for this part of the western sector of the Gothic Line. The Allied front line lay ahead of the partisan courier. This was ground occupied by the Indians of the Marathas deployed south of the River Arno, and by the Nisei of the 442nd between them and the sea. Once across the front, the small partisan group headed south for Siena and contacted the OSS. The plans headed immediately to General Mark Clark’s HQ.

The Germans and Their Defensive Positions

The plans confirmed what the American general had most hoped: Kesselring was expecting an attack at the western end of the Gothic Line, where it hit the Mediterranean. The weakest part of the German defenses was exactly in the middle, where the 14th and 10th Armies interlinked in the mountains outside Bologna. British General Harold Alexander wanted to storm the line at this point, cut through the Apennines, and fan out with his armor into the plain of the River Po. The Allied landings in the south of France on Operation Dragoon—that both Churchill and Clark had bitterly resisted—had reduced the combined strength of the British 8th and American 5th Armies to some 150,000 men, or eighteen divisions. Up against them were two German armies that, with their reserves and an army corps in the Ligurian mountains above Genoa, consisted of nearly thirty divisions. So while both sides were unevenly matched in terms of men, the Allies had the massive advantage of air superiority, while the Germans held the high ground and had had ample time to prepare their defenses. Although the Allies had a numerical superiority in tanks and artillery, the terrain counted against them: heavy artillery pieces had to be towed, driven, pushed, hauled, and dragged up the mountainous terrain of central Italy. Until the Allies crossed over into the plain of the Po, their superiority in tanks gave them only a small advantage. And the Germans’ artillery was well dug in, camouflaged, and commanded every single main road, river, bridge, mountain approach, crossroads, town, and village.

The partisans were able to give a very clear intelligence picture, to both the OSS and Mark Clark’s headquarters, of what life was like in the territory occupied by the Germans. Partisans and their families had been conscripted as forced labor for the Germans, so they could give an accurate appraisal of the exact strengths and weaknesses of the Gothic Line defenses. In cities like Bologna, partisans reported that the German officer cadres were leading a busy and enjoyable social life. Italian Fascist officers and their sympathizers gave parties all the time: there was no shortage of wine, grappa, and vermouth, and no shortage of friendly Italian women who still thought that the war could swing back into the Germans’ and Mussolini’s favor. Collaborating Italian women frequently worked as prostitutes. There was little shortage of food for the Germans. Allied air attacks were frequent but caused as much damage and disruption to the civilian population as to the Germans, and weakened support for the British and Americans, mostly in the cities and towns that were hardest hit.

The plans and information smuggled across the lines contained information about the German high command structure too. From intercepted coded communications, cracked by Ultra, the Allies had already built up a clear picture of the commanders they were facing on the Gothic Line. One of the most capable German generals in front of them was Luftwaffe General der Fallschirmtruppe Richard Heidrich. He was a hugely experienced and highly decorated paratrooper who had fought as an infantryman in the First World War, jumped with German airborne units in the invasions of France and Crete, fought in Russia, and parachuted again in advance of the Allied landings in Sicily. He’d fought at Anzio and, crucially, during the four battles of Monte Cassino. It was his men who had held up the Allied advance so doggedly during their attacks on the site of the Benedictine monastery. His fallschirmjäger (paratroopers), the so-called Green Devils, were among the best troops the Germans had, past masters of dug-in, defensive fighting.

The partisans reported that after withdrawing northward from Rome toward Florence, Heidrich had briefly based the headquarters of his 1st Parachute Corps in a Tuscan villa outside the town of Regello. The night before he and his HQ departed north, they hosted a large and grand party for the officers from their own and other German units. But the partisans had connections among the Tuscan waiters and gardeners, and via the OSS, the exact location of the villa and the time of the party was passed to the Allied Desert Air Force in Corsica. As the German paratroop officers relaxed after almost a year of constant combat, the sky overhead groaned and rumbled as American B-24 Liberators flew in and unloaded sticks of 500-pound bombs on the villa and its surroundings. The good news for the Allies was that Heidrich’s garden party had been ruined. But the bad news, as passed on by the partisans, was that Heidrich’s crack parachute corps had moved northeast and taken over the defenses in the key coastal town of Rimini, one of the Allies’ main targets.

The German paratroopers near the Adriatic town were doing more than preparing defensive positions. It was summer, and they were reportedly making the most of it—taking advantage of the sun to go swimming naked, occupying any number of hotels, and interspersing their preparations with forays into the countryside to pick tomatoes, grapes, and melons with which to augment their rations. One detachment of paratroopers, searching through a beachfront hotel in Rimini, found a letter from two women, sent from Germany. In early summer that year, the women had been planning to vacation in German-occupied Italy, which was a relatively safe destination until the Allies broke through the defensive lines outside Rome and headed north. Was it possible, the German women had asked in their letter, to go swimming in the nude in the sea at Rimini? Courteously, given that they were preparing for an enormous countrywide attack by the Allies, the German paratroopers wrote a letter back, saying that yes, everybody was swimming naked in the Adriatic that season.

The German Generals

In the center of the line, opposite the Marathas, were not only the 16th SS but also a division of infantry from Berlin Brandenburg. Their morale was low, reported the partisans, mainly due to the eccentric and merciless leadership of their commanding major general, who was a tireless advocate of the tactical approach of fighting to the last man. The Allies knew Generalleutnant Harry Hoppe well. He was an Evangelical Christian from Braunschweig in eastern Prussia who stood five foot eight and weighed 126 pounds. He had been a soldier since 1914, when he enlisted as a private. Continually wounded, continually decorated, and continually promoted, by the summer of 1944 he was a major general in charge of the defense of Ancona on the Adriatic coast south of Rimini. He’d already won the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross on the Russian Front, and he was to be mentioned in dispatches for his tenacious and highly skillful defense of the Adriatic port under a blistering attack by the Poles in late June. Nicknamed “Stan Laurel” by his men, because of his lack of height and facial resemblance to the popular comedian, he had changed his name from Arthur to Harry in February 1943 as he thought it would make him more popular with his men. Whether it did is doubtful. A newly arrived detachment was hardly reassured when greeted with, “You have come here to die and to be quick about it.”

Using clichés such as “They Shall Not Pass” and “Better Death than Captivity” in front of parades did not inspire confidence in his men, a thousand of whom chose captivity over death when the unrelenting Poles of General Władysław Anders’s II Corps overwhelmed them at Ancona. The survivors of the 278th Infantry Division were then transferred to central Italy, where they were aghast to discover that opposite them was another enemy just as hard as the Poles: the Marathas of the 21st Indian Brigade. And to make things worse, behind them were the partisans. Even the remorselessly upbeat General Hoppe was obliged to describe Easter 1944 in his diary as “a somber festival” after partisans blew up a Good Friday cinema performance, killing a number of his men as they celebrated the holiday. But contrary to morale, which was variable, the quality of German leadership across Italy was high. The style of generalship varied, with determined leaders like Heidrich, Hoppe, and the 16th SS’s Max Simon. They led their men with a combination of tactical capability, inspiration, discipline and, in the case of the SS, ruthless devotion to a cause.

Yet morale among the German soldiers was variable. They knew they were well led, predominantly well equipped, and had control of the terrain. But by mid-1944, they were under no misapprehensions that their Italian allies were anything other than lackluster and unreliable. Allied air strikes were a constant but predictable worry. But if and when everything went wrong, they knew from long experience since Sicily and North Africa that they could surrender to the Americans or British or Canadians and stand a good chance of making it to a POW stockade alive. Italy was not Russia, and the Allies were not the Red Army. Prisoners were taken. It was the Italian partisans who were the unknown, constant fear. It was impossible to tell where they would strike next. Any German vehicle traveling in a convoy that did not contain an armored car or tank was a target. Small units based on isolated stretches of the line—and the Gothic Line snaked across some of Europe’s most rugged, isolated mountainous terrain—had no idea who could be moving in front of their trenches, dugouts, or fortified houses in the darkness. Partisans? Wolves? Deer? Marathas or Gurkhas? It was impossible to tell.

And out of the line it was impossible to relax and feel secure. Vicious reprisals against partisans and the civilian population had, since the massacre at Sant’Anna di Stazzema, become more frequent. So the partisans had no qualms about attacking the Germans wherever or whenever they found them. The individual political leadership of each partisan group, and the SOE and OSS officers who operated with them, continually reiterated to the partisans the operational imperatives stressed by Jock McCaffery, the head of the SOE in Berne: “offensive military action and sabotage against German targets in support of the advancing Allies’ war aims and strategic plan.”

So the Germans, in many cases, felt just as vulnerable to attack from behind as from the front. Way behind the Gothic Line were units stationed in the region of Liguria. This is a region of mountains that rise above the Mediterranean coast west of Genoa to the French border. The string of seaside towns—Savona, Imperia, San Remo—sit in the shadow of the mountains. Since the late 1870s, they had been the seaside resorts of choice for the inhabitants of northwest Italy; Bordighera, with its villas and carefully designed gardens, was a favorite of the British upper middle class. Each town had a long sandy beach with some rocky coves, a coastal railway line leading behind it, a little station, and then the town itself built up the gradual slopes that led into the limestone mountains. These were covered in harsh scrub of olive, ilex, and small oak trees.

Among the other German generals who led through a combination of bravery and enormous personal example was an officer who commanded a unit in this part of Italy. The 90th Panzergrenadier Division had been pulled back to the Gothic Line after the fighting at Monte Cassino. It was commanded by Major General Ernst-Günther Baade. He’d been a Rhodes scholar, winning a sports scholarship to study at Oxford University before the war, and was well known on the European equestrian circuit. He loved Scotland.4 He frequently took to wearing kilts, and during the fighting at Monte Cassino, he announced the names of Allied POWs over the English and American radio frequencies so their unit commanders could know their men were alive. He had been wounded in North Africa during the fighting at Bir Hakeim, before the battle of El Alamein. Colleagues in the Afrika Korps remembered him as a legend, who was known to go into battle dressed in a Scottish kilt and carrying a claymore, a double-edged Scottish medieval broadsword. Wounded twice and decorated for gallantry nine times, he was adored by his men.

The Adriatic sector of the Gothic Line, from Pesaro to the Muraglione Pass near Florence, was under the command of an aristocratic Prussian officer, Generaloberst Heinrich von Vietinghoff, and his 10th Army. Having lied about his age (he was fifteen) to join the army during World War I, he was a tank officer during the invasion of France in 1940, a general by the time Hitler’s panzers pushed into Yugoslavia, and a tank corps commander in Army Group Centre during Operation Barbarossa. It was in Russia that he earned the nickname “Panzerknacker,” Tank Breaker. And it was in Italy, commanding the 10th Army on the Gustav Line, that he was awarded the Oak Leaves to accompany his Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. It was he who reportedly developed the defensive concept of removing the 75mm guns and turrets of Panther tanks from their chassis and digging them into concrete revetments as a fixed gun emplacement. The turret mechanism and its traversing system was embedded in a concrete bunker at ground level, tactically sited, and then camouflaged. This allowed the tanks’ firepower to be deployed on mountainous terrain in very strong defensive positions where tanks themselves do not have the capacity to maneuver.

The eastern end of the Adriatic sector was under the control of LXXVI Panzerkorps, commanded by General Traugott Herr, another tank officer who had fought in France and Russia, been wounded, and decorated for gallantry. He had five divisions—one panzergrenadier, three infantry, one mountain—and Richard Heidrich’s paratrooper corps, itself with three more divisions. One of the infantry units, the 162nd, was primarily composed of Turkoman troops recruited from central Asia. Backing them up to the west, toward Florence, was Lieutenant General Valentin Feurstein’s LI Mountain Corps, which had only two actual jäger (mountain) divisions, and five line infantry divisions, one of them Italian.

From Bologna west to the Mediterranean was the fiefdom of Lieutenant General Joachim Lemelsen and his 14th Army. His deputy was another Anglophile and Oxford Rhodes scholar—Lieutenant General Frido von Senger und Etterlin, a Bavarian and devout Catholic, who was also a lay Benedictine; he commanded the army’s XIV Panzer Corps. This was made up of one panzer division, one infantry division, and SS-Gruppenführer Max Simon with the 16th Reichsführer-SS Division, stationed west of Florence. To the far west, and north of the Gothic Line in the Mediterranean province of Liguria around Genoa, were two more German divisions and two Italian. In and around the mountains and passes on the French-Italian border was the German LXXV Corps. This was made up of three infantry divisions, one of which was the 90th Panzergrenadiers of the Claymore-wielding Ernst-Günther Baade. Another four reserve divisions were spread behind the German lines between the Gothic Line and the Alps, making thirty-one divisions in total facing the Allies. Many were understrength.

In addition to the partisans’ military operations behind the lines, they had been busy sabotaging the construction of the fortifications of the Gothic Line. The Germans had started building these around the time of the armistice, in September 1943, when Italy surrendered. They conscripted thousands of Italians as forced labor. Partisans, naturally, were among them. They couldn’t make any difference to such factors as the layout of minefields, or the quality of weapons the Germans were using, but they could directly affect the building. Straw, hay, gravel, and the bare minimum of cement were used where possible, meaning that a pillbox made of the lowest quality concrete would buckle under Allied fire. Gun emplacements were built facing twenty or thirty degrees the wrong way, and only when German troops placed their MG-42s or their antitank weapons in them did they discover, too late, that they didn’t have the necessary commanding view of approach roads and valleys. Barbed wire was stretched in front of trenches and gun positions, but it wasn’t attached at either end to anything but a bush. Trenches were built on slopes that flooded easily in autumn and filled with snow in winter. Pillboxes were positioned by streams and rivers that would fill the concrete bunker with water through holes low on its sides. The partisans kept detailed notes of these soft spots in the German defenses.

So across the Gothic Line the Germans waited. On the road toward Bologna, Walter Reder and his SS reconnaissance battalion headed toward the enormous mass of Monte Sole that overlooked the road north from Florence. Brigadier General Max Simon had deployed the remainder of the 16th Reichsführer-SS on the north side of the Arno, opposite the 34th U.S. Infantry Division, on whose flanks were Sergeant Daniel Inouye and the 442nd RCT. General Harry Hoppe’s battered but disciplined 278th Infantry Division was north of Florence, opposite the Maratha Light Infantry. General Ernst-Günther Baade and his 90th Panzer were far to the northwest, spread across the Ligurian terrain right up to the outskirts of the city of Turin, in the shadow of the Alps. On the Adriatic coast at Rimini, the talented paratrooper General Richard Heidrich agreed with Kesselring’s strategic evaluation that the Allies would attack in the center or west of the Gothic Line. So in the third week of August, he went on leave. His paratroopers shook out across the city and surrounding countryside, preparing defensive positions that covered roads, open country, and the approach routes to the San Fortunato and Coriano Ridges that dominated the flat land outside the port. Mortars, 88mm guns, and MG-42s were sited, minefields laid, antitank guns hidden inside haystacks and abandoned houses, and trenches dug.

In the church of San Lorenzo in Strada, outside the seaside suburb of Riccione, the Green Devils dug in. The building dominates the main road that leads northwest from Riccione to Rimini airfield, and then straight up the coast into the heart of the port itself. Any Allied attack up the seacoast would have to go through Riccione, and then directly at the church. Paratroopers from Heidrichs’s 1st Fallschirmjäger Regiment took over the church in the third week of August. One of them was only seventeen that month. Jäger Helmut Bücher was born on Christmas Day 1926. He was from Otzenhausen, a town in the German Saarland that lies southwest of Frankfurt, only twenty miles from the border with eastern France. His hometown dated back to the days of Julius Caesar’s wars in Germania in 30 B.C., and just north of it is one of the oldest surviving Gothic settlements in Europe. Bücher had enlisted in the paratroopers when he turned seventeen, and it was a great source of pride to him that he had been posted to the 1st Fallschirmjäger Regiment. Only in late June had he joined his unit. Most of his comrades were survivors of Monte Cassino. Several had parachuted into the vineyards of Crete in 1941. A few, a hard, central cadre, had been in Russia and France.

They dug trenches and a tunnel connecting the houses surrounding San Lorenzo in Strada to the crypt of the church; they’d learned the technique in Russia and at Monte Cassino. The defenders could run from one position to another without showing themselves, and vacate a house or building when it came under sustained tank or mortar fire, reappearing in the next house or garden or field or farm building. They knew from Cassino and the fighting in the mountain towns and villages of southern Italy that underground dugouts were vital. The Allies relied heavily on artillery bombardments to soften up a target: the German paratroopers would sit out the barrage, then the moment it stopped, emerge aboveground and instantly get their MG-42 machine guns into pre-prepared firing positions. They zeroed in on the tanks that often spearheaded the advance with antitank guns dug in up to a half mile away. The fall of shot of 81mm mortars was cross-mapped onto individual paths of advance, paths of retreat, and the areas of cover where the Allied infantry would hide and wait. The fallschirmjäger also prepared an escape route behind the church that would expose any Allied soldiers chasing them to the fire of tanks and machine guns stationed behind them as the next line of defense.

Helmut Bücher felt he was in the right place, at the right time, as he dug trenches, made a fire to heat food, carried belts of 7.92mm cartridges for the machine guns, and got ready for an attack his sergeant had told him could not be far away. He and colleagues walked the ground in front of and around their positions in the church and surrounding houses. They paced out distances—one, two, four, six hundred yards. Then they marked particular walls, low-hanging branches on notable trees, and the sides of visible houses with whitewash crosses. This would tell the defenders the exact range of their attackers once battle was joined. Bücher had told his parents in a letter that he thought he was defending all that was right and good about Germany. But as he prepared the position in front of the church outside Rimini, he wondered if he would see his eighteenth Christmas.


French Divisions Pinned Down in the Maginot Line

1st Lieutenant Germer’s Engineer Assault Team Attack against Fort No. 505 at La Ferté, 18 May 1940

The vanquished contributes to a victory just as much as the victor.

Field Marshal Graf von Schlieffen

The missions of Army Group B and Army Group C were basically identical. They were to create a diversion away from the actual main effort in the center, in the sector of the Army Group A, and coax the strongest possible enemy forces away from the center toward the wings. Von Leeb, the commander in chief of Army Group C, thought that it would be incomparably more difficult to simulate the kind of strength that was not there. Most of his formations had rather inferior equipment and were more suitable for defense than for taking the mighty Maginot Line, opposite which they were positioned. Above all, this army group did not have a single Panzer formation. Its mission, therefore, was to attract the enemy’s attention to this area through deception measures, to tie down as many enemy divisions as possible.

Numerous elite formations that were to be moved to the central sector of the western front after the Polish campaign, were first routed to the south, either to First Army in the Saarbrücken area or to Seventh Army along the Upper Rhine. After these troops had moved into their final standby areas, an attempt was made to suggest the presence of Panzer Troops by using misleading tactical symbols, stories in the press about maneuver damage, and so on. This resulted in a rather strange masquerade, as part of which several officers had to put on the uniforms of the Panzer Troops and to make a big show in public. Finally, Army Group C got some limited-service Panzers that were now permanently run back and forth near the border.

Seventh Army was assigned the most important deception measure. With only four divisions, it was to cover the far-flung sector between Karlsruhe and the Swiss border. It was to simulate preparations for an offensive against Switzerland to envelop the Maginot Line from the south. Nowhere else along the front did the Germans employ such a repertoire of ruses of war. There were some very ostentatious train switching movements at the marshaling yards in Freiburg im Breisgau, where General der Artillerie [Friedrich] Dollmann, the army commander in chief, had his headquarters. Most of the time, however, these movements were carried out only in darkness so that the enemy’s agents would not notice that this was always the same military train. In that way it would also be very difficult to determine whether Panzers and big artillery pieces were really hidden under the canvas covers, as one might assume by the general outline. Hush-hush “headquarters” were set up in ostentatious mansions and spa hotels, although, in reality, only the very military-looking guards out front were genuine.

In the end, the southern portion of the Black Forest looked like a huge army camp because there were permanent German troop movements in the side valleys that were open toward Switzerland—all in keeping with precise instructions in the script for this show. These troop movements were so managed that they could be observed from the south and the Swiss guards conscientiously took down all observations on paper. The clanking noises of moving Panzers and the engine noises from vehicle convoys were heard over and over again near the border during the long winter nights. In reality, however, this noise was manufactured from loudspeakers and was played from tape. The German Counter-Intelligence Service, under Canaris, also participated in these deception measures with a specifically target-oriented disinformation drive according to which an attack through Switzerland was allegedly planned.

In reality, however, the German general staff never seriously considered an offensive through Swiss territory to outflank the Maginot Line to the south. Obviously, the German general staff had too much respect for the reputed Swiss bravery. According to the later Generalmajor Liß, at that time chief of the Foreign Armies West Section of Army Intelligence, this option was looked into within the army high command but was soon dropped. There was indeed a harvest from these deception measures. Thus, it happened that at the start of the campaign in the west thirty-six French divisions were concentrated in the area of the heavily fortified Maginot Line facing only nineteen divisions of Army Group C on the German side.

Immediately after the start of the German offensive, however, the French high command should have realized that there was no danger threatening on the right wing. Now the important thing would have been to employ many of the divisions, stationed needlessly behind the Maginot Line, as part of a countermove heading north. The real clincher came only at that particular point in time when Propaganda Minister Goebbels set the scene. The German troops had just broken through the front at Sedan when in a radio address he stated that “within twice 24 hours, there will no longer be any neutral states in Europe.” The way things looked at the moment that could only have meant an attack against Switzerland. Now the Wehrmacht Intelligence Service (Abwehr) launched a furious deception operation, employing numerous diplomats in various countries for the purpose of spreading rumors. The French and British were made so nervous that they began to prepare for the evacuations of their embassies in Bern. On 15 May, Colonel Gauché of the French Intelligence told the Swiss military attaché in confidence: “We know from an absolutely reliable source that the German attack against Switzerland scheduled for 16 or 17 May, in the morning, is firm.” The French leadership fell victim to a mirage: the German attack against Switzerland never took place.

The German general staff believed that the biggest threat was located along the northern wing of the Maginot Line, which extended to within just a few kilometers of Sedan. The Achilles heel of Sickle Cut was that the French could take many uncommitted formations out of this sector and employ them for a counterattack into the left flank of the Panzer Corps Guderian while shielded by the mighty fortification line. As mentioned earlier, von Bock, had remarked rather sarcastically to Halder: “You will be creeping by 10 miles from the Maginot Line with the flank of your breakthrough and hope that the French will watch inertly!”

But the enemy did indeed stand by and do nothing. This can be traced to the following operational chess move: The German Sixteenth Army initially only had the mission of providing a defensive screen for the left breakthrough flank of Panzer Corps Guderian. Its VII Corps, however, was to make a maximum effort and attack the left flank of the Maginot Line at La Ferté in order to tie down strong enemy formations here. The 71st Infantry Division was to attack Fort No. 505 that constituted the western corner post of that fortification line. The fight for La Ferté finally was played up as much as if the Battle of Verdun had to be fought a second time at this spot. So, Georges, the commander in chief of the Allied northeast front, already on the afternoon of 15 May had personally phoned the commanding general of XVIII Corps and appealed to him with these words: “You must hold at all costs the Inor-Malandry shoulder [at La Ferté]. The whole issue of the war may depend on it.”

The explosives that Germer had thrown inside caused a fire in the armored turret that spread immediately and, due to the heat generated, gradually caused the shells stored there to explode. The blast waves from the detonations ripped the steel doors open and made way for the fire. Thereupon, the occupants fled to the lower floors down to a connecting gallery that was 35 meters below ground and led to Block I of the fort, 250 meters away. In the end, Germer’s assault team also put out of action that fortification, with its steel gun turrets and observation cupola.

A fire also broke out inside, so that the occupants there had to flee to the connecting gallery. Now the disaster was complete. The situation of the trapped men resembled a disaster in a coal mine, where the fire from the higher galleries not only blocks the exit for the mine workers but also deprives them of oxygen. The air became increasingly worse so that the soldiers had to put on their gas masks. Again and again, blast waves blew through the galleries as more ammunition was ignited, knocking the trapped men to the ground. Finally, the electric lights also failed.

But there was continuous contact with the outside world via a field telephone. The French commander, 1st Lieutenant Bourguignon, requested permission to surrender the fort that the Germans had already put out of action because poisonous powder gases kept spreading more and more inside the system of galleries and tunnels. Because the explosions let up, there was still a chance of climbing up to one of the blocks and getting out into the open from there. His superiors required him to hold out—an order that a French historian later on described as a “monstrous absurdity.” The last contact with the trapped fort occupants took place at 0539 on 19 May. The French sergeant Sailly reported in a weak voice, interrupted by coughing: “I cannot stand it anymore. . . . The 1st lieutenant is next to me. . . . We will try to climb up again.” Several days later, after the smoke and the poison gases released during the explosions had evaporated, German soldiers climbed down into the underground tunnel system. There they found the corpses of the 107 men of the fort garrison who had died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning.

In their theatrical plays and novels, the French existentialists again and again gave full rein to their imagination in order to conjure up hopeless situations. But reality by far outdid them in the light of this drama that took place thirty-five meters below ground. Perhaps the real tragedy of 1st Lieutenant Bourguignon and his men was that holding on to Armored Fort No. 505 for such a length of time had not only become meaningless but, in an operational sense, was even counterproductive. After all, the VII Corps attack against La Ferté was primarily a deception maneuver to divert attention from the real point of main effort at nearby Sedan. When the Germans launched their attack on the fort on 16 May, a crack in the front line, amounting to far more than a hundred kilometers, already gaped north of La Ferté—the entire Meuse River line had collapsed.

Widening the breach by three or four kilometers to the south was bound to seem insignificant. The issue in this fight for Fort No. 505 that was fought so bitterly by both sides was something entirely different, that is, the myth of the “impregnability of the Maginot Line.” No French general could afford to give up even a small piece of it.

The irony of destiny, however, was that this myth fatally tripped up the French. After the breakthrough at Sedan, the situation was so desperate that the only chance was to strip the Maginot Line, which “almost defended itself,” of all personnel and to use the bulk of the formations not tied down here to attack the southern flank of the German breakthrough. Instead of shifting the troops, the French generals even dispatched reinforcements from the Sedan sector of all places to protect the Maginot Line. And so, the Char B tanks of the 41st Tank Battalion, 3d Armored Division, were taken out of the bitter fighting around Stonne and sent to mount a counterattack against La Ferté. The attempt to relieve the encircled Fort No. 505 failed.

This incomprehensible behavior cries out for a comparison to the situation in August 1914. The French supreme commander Joffre had concentrated his troops precisely on the wrong wing, that is to say, on France’s eastern border. Now the Germans who were attacking according to the Schlieffen plan had outflanked his left wing and threatened to hit him in the rear. In that situation, he did the only correct thing: He stripped the right wing that was protected anyway by strong border fortifications, such as the Maginot Line in 1940, and dispatched as many troops as possible by rail to the opposite wing. In doing so, he was even inclined, if necessary, to sacrifice the prestige target of Verdun and ordered artillery pieces to be withdrawn from there. In that way, he was successful in hitting the Germans by surprise in the flank and stopping them along the Marne River. For his successors, however, the Maginot Line had almost become an end in itself. To that extent, during the crucial phase, the nineteen moderately armed divisions of Army Group C were successful in checkmating the thirty-six French divisions that were protected by the Maginot Line.

The Use of Mining in Sieges early-13th Century England

Techniques of siege.


Rochester saw one of the few military successes of King John. Rochester 1215, illustration by John Cann.

King John uses mining to win this famous siege

Known to history as `Bad’ King John, the infamous English monarch has gained a reputation for military incompetence, but during the Siege of Rochester Castle he demonstrated a little-known talent for siege warfare. Rebel barons defended the fortress and the siege lasted for two months before surrendering to John. The ­ fighting was ­ fierce and without letup, with the Barnswell Chronicler recording, “Our age has not known a siege so hard-pressed nor so strongly resisted.”

John committed himself totally to retaking the castle and set up his command post on Boley Hill. When his siege engines failed to make an impact on the strong walls, he ordered mining tools to be delivered. On 25 November 1215, he sent an urgent writ to his justiciar to, “Send us with all speed by day and night, forty of the fattest pigs of the sort least good for eating, to bring ­ re beneath the tower.” This meant a mining operation. Pig fat was used to ­ re the mine props that John had positioned beneath the southeast corner of Rochester’s keep, which in turn kept up the undermined foundations. The king’s mine was successful and a whole section of the keep came down, but despite this achievement the rebels retreated further inside the keep and the siege continued. After they were reduced to a diet of horse-flesh and water, the garrison eventually surrendered to John.

Rebel Scum

Throughout this period of conflict in England, the barons looked across the Channel to the powerful and stable royal line in France. In marked contrast to the discontent, conflict and usurpations which had characterised the Anglo-Norman monarchy since 1066 (Gerald of Wales notes that the Plantagenets were `princes who did not succeed one another in regular hereditary order but rather acquired violent domination through an inversion of order by killing and slaughtering their own’), the French had experienced over two hundred years of smooth successions from father to son. Philip Augustus had been on the throne for thirty-five years, and his five immediate predecessors had enjoyed reigns of between twenty-nine and forty-eight years each. He had an adult son, a younger son and two grandsons. The barons might be understandably wary of offering the throne to Philip himself (and besides, he was now fifty years old so possibly not a long-term prospect), but Louis was a younger man, a proven warrior, a prince with a reputation for being moral and just; he came from a dynasty which had a tradition of involving a council of nobles in its decision-making process; he had a claim via the blood of his wife, John’s niece. And on a more practical level, with the might and resources of the French crown behind him, he was likely to be successful. This tipped the balance in his favour against other possible candidates such as King Alexander of Scotland (who was descended from the old Anglo-Saxon kings of England) who did not have the military might to back up a potential claim. And Louis being French had an additional advantage: many of John’s mercenaries were from various regions of France, so having Louis at the head of the campaign might mean that John would be deprived of their services, as he had been in Poitou in 1214. Of further comfort to the barons was the fact that Louis, if and when he became king, would probably not reside in England permanently, thus giving them more scope for their own activities. This was not unusual as Henry II and his predecessors had spent much of their time on the Continent, so there was precedent for a cross-Channel king. All in all, he was the perfect choice. A party of barons headed by Saer de Quincy, the earl of Winchester, Henry de Bohun, the earl of Hereford, and Robert Fitzwalter sailed for France in September 1215.

September was the month in which John was expecting the arrival of the new mercenaries he had engaged from Aquitaine and Flanders; he headed to the Kent coast in anticipation. However, there were storms and heavy seas during that month and instead of the expected ships, waves of drowned corpses washed up on the shores along Kent and Suffolk.

While John was bemoaning his losses on the coast the barons decided to take advantage of his situation by capturing Rochester Castle, which would bar his route back to London. The castellan there had been loyal to John for many years but, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, he opened the gates to the rebels. This irritated John, who moved to assault it; there would now be actual armed conflict on English soil between the king and his subjects. A line had been crossed.

The barons had garrisoned Rochester well: ninety-five knights and forty-five sergeants held it under the leadership of William d’Albini, an able commander. However, as they expected Rochester to hold until the delegation returned from France they had made no back-up plans for reinforcing it and had no second force ready to relieve a siege. John, on the other hand, was prepared for the long haul. He had siege machinery built and remained at Rochester for seven weeks, conducting the operations personally – the longest he had ever spent in one place since his accession to the throne sixteen years earlier. Roger of Wendover tells us: `The siege was prolonged many days owing to the great bravery and boldness of the besieged, who hurled stone for stone, weapon for weapon, from the walls and ramparts on the enemy.’ The keep resisted all attempts at assault so John turned to mining: a tunnel was dug under the wall, held up by wooden posts, then filled with flammable material including the fat of forty pigs which John sent for specially, and set alight. As the timbers burned and collapsed the roof of the mine caved in, bringing one of the four towers of the keep crashing down. The garrison, by this point starving and forced to eat their horses, retreated to the other half of the keep and resisted a little longer but eventually realised it could not hold out and surrendered on 30 November 1215. John’s first inclination was to execute them all, but he was persuaded not to on the basis that similar treatment would then be meted out to royal garrisons by the barons. In the end only one man was hanged, a crossbowman who had previously been in John’s service.


Dover siege reconstruction by Peter Dunn.
Dover Castle siege, 1216, (c1990-2010). Reconstruction drawing of a French siege tower and earth works. Commanding the shortest sea crossing between England and the Continent, Dover Castle was a vital strategic and communication lynch-pin in the empire of the Angevin kings of England. in 1216, The castle successfully resisted a major siege directed personally by Prince Louis of France during his near-successful invasion of England. He had some success breaching the walls, but was unable ultimately to take the castle. Artist Peter Dunn. (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Dover Castle, Kent. The siege of 1216. Reconstruction drawing by Peter Dunn (English Heritage Graphics Team) of mining under the North Gate East tower…

The future Louis VIII of France fought a forgotten war for the English crown against John I and Henry III.

A prince of France uses mining as part of an attempted invasion of England.

The Siege of Dover Castle was part of a military campaign by Prince Louis of France to assert control over England. King John had alienated many of his nobles and some of them invited Prince Louis, the son of the King of France, to invade England and rid the country of John’s tyranny. Louis tried to take the strategically vital fortress at Dover to secure the conquest of Kent.

The siege began in July 1216. He used trebuchets, mangonels and siege towers to try and take the castle but then resorted to mining. A Cat was used to protect the miners and Dover’s timber barbican was undermined, enabling Louis’ men to successfully storm the barbican. Louis now tried to press his attack and sent miners to dig beneath the main castle gate. A chronicler recorded, “They mined, so that one of the towers fell, of which there were two.”

Large numbers of Louis’ men managed to enter the castle through this breach but the defenders, who successfully blocked the gap in the defences with timbers, repulsed them. After this failure Louis was forced to strike a truce and he eventually had to abandon the siege and ultimately left England. Dover showed that the potential of siege mining was limited and in this particular case in­fluenced the failure of a determined invasion of England by a foreign power.


Mining was a subterranean response to end a siege if conventional weapons, such as mangonels, battering rams and trebuchets, failed to make an impression on the walls. Towers and keeps were particularly hard to destroy by conventional means, so miners would dig beneath them in order to weaken their foundations. Miners had a very dangerous job, as their digging efforts would initially be in plain sight of the garrison and to begin with they had to rely on the protection of a `Cat’.

The Cat was a covered house placed on wheels with a very strong roof. The besieged garrison would always try to destroy this device, so the Cat was designed to withstand assaults from weapons as varied as heavy stones, beams of wood, hot water, molten lead and spiked poles. Under this portable cover the attacking force would dig beneath the walls. While they worked, the miners would build wooden supports to prop up the tunnel and once they were sure they had dug far enough, brush would be mixed with pig fat and placed near the wooden supports. When all of the ­ flammable material had been placed in the mine, everybody would evacuate the tunnel except for the torchman who would set the place on ‑ fire, before also hurriedly departing. As the wooden supports burned, they would collapse and in theory the stonewalls or towers would collapse with them.

The digging and preparations were hazardous in themselves but miners were also at risk from prematurely collapsing tunnels and counter-mining activities from the enemy garrison. Defending armies attempted to detect miners by using buckets of water in suspected digging areas. When a potential mine was detected, garrisons would start digging their own tunnels to counter the miners’ efforts. If these passageways ever connected then ‑ fierce hand-to-hand ‑ fighting would often ensue, which was especially dangerous in the weakly supported tunnels. Siege mining was definitely not for the faint-hearted.

The Siege

Louis arrived in front of Dover Castle on 25 July 1216. It was an impressive sight and a daunting prospect: huge and well-fortified, it had been much enlarged and improved by Henry II and now comprised a stone keep – 100 feet (30 metres) square and with walls up to 20 feet (6 metres) thick – in its own compound, surrounded by curtain walls broken only by a great twin-towered gatehouse at the north-western tip of the castle enclosure, which was itself protected by a wooden barbican, an additional defensible structure erected in front of it. Inside, Hubert de Burgh had some 140 knights (many of them Flemish or Poitevin), a greater number of sergeants, plenty of weapons and an ample store of supplies. The castle was set high on a hill overlooking the town, which gave the defenders even more of an advantage. To capture it would take a huge investment of time, troops and resources.

Thanks to a remarkably detailed and almost certainly eyewitness account in the History of the Dukes, we are very well informed about the progress of the siege of Dover. When Louis arrived he spent several days with his army billeted in or camping around the town, reconnoitring and planning. Louis accommodated himself in a priory rather than in the tented encampment; he needed a campaign headquarters, and he no doubt thought that he might as well lodge in some comfort as nobody was going anywhere for a while. Then he divided his forces, one part remaining in the town to one side of the fortress and the other moving to the hill in front of the castle gatehouse, which gave him the advantage of higher ground and from where he was able to direct siege operations. Petraries and mangonels were set up to bombard the walls and the gate, but the machines which had succeeded at Winchester and Odiham would be insufficient at Dover.

Before he had set off for the coast Louis had sent a messenger back to France to ask his father for help, and this help duly arrived in the shape of large-scale siege machinery. Philip sent over a device known as Malvoisin or `Evil Neighbour’, which was probably the first appearance of a trebuchet on English soil. A trebuchet acted in a similar way to a petrary, in that it used balance in order to throw stones. However, instead of using traction – men pulling down on ropes in order to fling the other arm of the lever in the air – it used a counterweight. A long wooden beam was pivoted near to one end; the longer side of the beam ended in a sling, in which the projectile was placed, and the shorter end held a large weight, generally a container filled with earth or rocks. A team of men would haul down the sling end in order to lift the counterweight into the air, at which point the beam was fixed and held in place. A stone or other missile was loaded into the sling, and then the beam was released: the counterweight came crashing down and the missile was flung into the air. The advantage of the heavy counterweight was that the trebuchet could throw much bigger stones over a much greater distance than either traction or torsion machines.

Despite what must have been his satisfaction with his new engine of war, Louis did not rely on this alone. His troops were already blockading the landward side of the castle; now his ships, after unloading their cargo, secured the sea outside Dover so the castle was completely cut off from outside aid and could not be either reinforced or reprovisioned.

Louis’s first point of attack was the gatehouse and barbican to the north of the castle enclosure. As well as his stone-throwing machinery he also had his men build a wattle siege-tower (a device which put the besiegers on the same level as the defenders on the wall, meaning they could shoot arrows across at them; alternatively it could be filled with men and then moved closer to the wall, so the besiegers would not need to try and scale it by ladder, which left them open to attack or bombardment from above) and he also set men, under cover of a protective moveable device known as a `cat’, to undermine the walls. As had been demonstrated at Rochester the previous year, mining was an effective strategy, but it was a very slow process as the attackers were only able to use pickaxes and other hand tools against the gigantic stones and their foundations.

The siege was by no means one-sided. While Louis was directing these operations from the field north of the castle, the garrison made frequent sorties, charging out on horseback to kill and wound the attackers in hand-to-hand combat. Louis’s men repulsed them but were unable to inflict many casualties in return as the defenders could retreat back behind their walls. Those inside were also able to use their crossbowmen as snipers, picking off anyone foolish enough to bring himself into range without adequate protection. Louis, who had no doubt been told in his youth of the agonising end of Richard the Lionheart from blood poisoning following a wound inflicted by a crossbow at a siege, was not harmed, although he probably wore his mail armour almost permanently.

The weeks went by, and gradually men began to trickle away from Louis’s force. The count of Holland had taken the cross and now decided that the time was right for his pilgrimage to the Holy Land; some knights felt that their obligatory period of military service was up; some mercenaries thought they were not being paid enough; others were killed by the frequent sorties of the defenders. Committed to staying in one place, Louis for the first time began to lose the initiative in the war, and with it his temper. Roger of Wendover notes that he was `greatly enraged and swore he would not leave the place until the castle was taken and all the garrison hung’.

In the middle of August there was a breakthrough when Louis’s knights made a direct and bloody attack on the barbican which protected the main gate, and were able to capture it; the History of the Dukes tells us that Peter de Craon, who had defended the barbican so well for many weeks, was killed in the attack along with other men. However, although the besiegers were one step closer they were still confronted with the double-towered gatehouse; and, even if they could batter their way through that, the defenders could regroup further by taking refuge in the keep. A long campaign was still on the cards.

Louis continued with the siege, and was heartened by further reinforcements from France: Peter de Dreux, who had left his obligations in Brittany in order to come to the aid of his cousin and companion, and Thomas, the young count of Perche. Perche was a rising star of the French nobility: he had succeeded to his title in 1202 at the age of seven after the death of his father, had fought for King Philip at Bouvines while still in his teens, and now at twenty-one was building a reputation for deeds of arms and chivalry. In an example of how inextricably the men on both sides of the conflict were linked, Perche was a kinsman of John’s most faithful supporter, William Marshal (his great-grandmother and Marshal’s mother were sisters); he also had a tenuous claim to the English throne himself as his maternal grandmother was John’s sister Matilda, but he supported Louis wholeheartedly.

Both nobles had brought knights and men with them, which would help the cause, but the news also came across the Channel that the new pope, Honorius, had confirmed Louis’s sentence of excommunication. It was a bitter blow, but Louis was by now in far too deep to back out from claiming the crown of England even if he had been so inclined. He would push on: once he had subdued the country, captured John and been crowned he would have the leisure to talk properly to the pope, not to mention the power to influence him.

In the meantime, as August turned into September, Dover still needed to be subdued. The miners had been continuing their slow and painstaking work, and now came the breakthrough: one of the towers of the gatehouse was brought crashing down, and Louis and his knights could charge into the breach.

This is what the knights had been waiting for. Trained since boyhood to engage in hand-to-hand combat, they detested having to kick their heels at a siege while miners and engineers held sway. Now they had the chance to throw themselves at the enemy in person, to take out their frustration at the long siege, to hack with their swords and their axes into armour and flesh. But the defenders were just as frustrated, just as fierce, and even more desperate – after all, had Louis not threatened to hang them all once the castle was taken? The normal policy at the time was that if a garrison surrendered they would be allowed to leave unharmed, but that if a castle had to be taken by storm then those inside were liable to be executed. After irritating Louis and thwarting his plans for so many weeks they were unlikely to be treated with clemency if defeated, so they fought back with all their might, filling the gap in the wall with men. Slowly but surely they repulsed the attack, holding the line, pushing the besiegers back and keeping them out long enough for running repairs to be made to the breach, which was shored up with timbers taken from buildings inside the compound. The barricade held. Dover still stood.

The stalemate could not be allowed to go on forever. Force had not worked; starving the garrison out would take too long and Louis needed to be on the move. To stand still for too long, as he well knew, was to lose momentum. Louis agreed a truce with Hubert de Burgh, and his army withdrew from the siege on 14 October 1216.


Hen Domen

This artist’s impression of Hen Domen, based on the archaeologists’ findings, shows how the castle might have appeared in the twelfth century.

How were these buildings actually constructed? The trees, as you might expect, were felled using axes and dragged to the site by animals in order for construction to begin. The

After his coronation, William was faced with the dilemma common to many conquerors: how to rule his new subjects with fairness, and at the same time reward his victorious comrades-in-arms. Having claimed to be the legitimate successor of King Edward, he wanted to prove to the English that he would be a good king, willing and able to uphold the laws and customs of his predecessor. At the same time, however, he had an army of seven thousand men at his back, all recruited by the promise of rich pickings, and all now hungry for payment. In the early days of his reign, we see William trying to balance these contradictory expectations and demands. Certainly, many Normans grew rich at the expense of Englishmen. Plunder and booty—which the Continental chroniclers called “gifts”—were shipped back to Normandy in large quantities.

Yet even as churches and monasteries were being pillaged, William was being lenient and generous in his dealings with the governing class of England. Of course, a lot of aristocrats, including Harold and his brothers, had perished at Hastings, but there was little anyone could do about that. To those who survived, however, William was quite charitable, allowing them (once they had sworn allegiance, naturally) to remain in possession of their existing lands and titles. When it came to governing his new subjects, the king exhibited the same sensitive streak. Letters drafted by his ministers continued to be written in English, and William was so keen to make a good impression that he even started learning the language himself. He seems to have believed that, given enough time, the English and the Normans could settle down and live happily side by side.

But William’s lenient approach did not endear him to the English. On the contrary, treating them with kid gloves actually provoked the opposite reaction. In the first five years of his reign, William faced a series of rebellions up and down the country. His response was to deal with them in much the same way as he had dealt with his opponents in Normandy. At the first sign of trouble, he marched his army into the affected region, put down the insurrection, and began to build a major new castle. These new royal foundations were, almost without exception, constructed in the larger towns and cities of England, where the population and the resistance were most concentrated. The king had already enforced his authority in London in the weeks immediately after his coronation, building a castle in the southeast corner of the city. When, early in 1068, the first rebellion broke out in the West Country, William wasted no time marching his troops down to Exeter and repeating the exercise. Likewise, when in the summer the two English earls who controlled the Midlands and the north cast off their allegiance, William pushed his way northward, establishing castles at Warwick and Nottingham. When he reached York, he began the construction of the giant motte that still stands in the city center (Clifford’s Tower). Returning south, the king planted three more new castles at Lincoln, Cambridge, and Huntingdon, mopping up pockets of resistance as he went.

None of this, of course, was especially good for Anglo-Norman relations. When building these new castles, the king and his engineers showed little concern for the English inhabitants of the town or city in question. Nothing was allowed to stand in the way once the optimum site had been selected. At Cambridge, twenty-seven houses were razed to the ground to clear a space for the works to begin. In Lincoln, the number of dwellings destroyed was 166. But while William showed few or no scruples about building castles over people’s homes, he could at least claim to be acting out of strategic necessity. Outside the towns and cities, the king was still reluctant to indulge in any wide-scale disinheritance of Anglo-Saxon landowners.

A handful of his leading men had been rewarded with grants of land at this time, and they were busy asserting their own authority in similar fashion. In Sussex, for example, a number of Continental-style lordships, each organized around a castle, were created immediately after 1066. But how far castle-building extended in general is not known. Writing just one year after the Norman invasion, a monk at Worcester said that, when the king was away in Normandy, his regents “built castles far and wide throughout the land, oppressing the unhappy people.” How much this statement reflects the general situation, however, is open to question. One of the regents, William Fitz Osbern, had been made earl of Hereford, and constructed several castles in the Severn valley region before 1070; our Worcester monk may have heard more horror stories about castles going up than most people. We should also perhaps allow for the fact he was clearly very depressed about the Conquest in general.

“Things went ever from bad to worse,” he said in his next sentence. “When God wills, may the end be good.”

What did transform the situation, however, was the great rebellion of 1069. It was a response, in part, to William’s castle-building program of the previous year. The king’s new foundations were seen as a provocation—an invitation, even, for the English to rise up and smash them. When the men of Northumbria and Yorkshire rose early in the year, the lightly defended motte and bailey at York was an obvious and tempting target. William soon retook the castle and ordered the construction of another, but the city still fell for a second time in the summer. On this occasion the northerners came in greater numbers, aided in their rebellion by the arrival of a Danish army.

“Forming an immense host, riding and marching in high spirits, they all resolutely advanced on York and stormed and destroyed the castle, seizing innumerable treasures therein, and slaying many hundreds of Frenchmen.”

For the third time in eighteen months, William was obliged to move his army into Yorkshire and retake its principal city. On this, his final attempt, defeating the rebels took considerable effort, and the Danes had to be paid to withdraw. By the time he rode triumphant through the smoldering ruins of York, the king himself was fuming.

Dealing with the rebellion of 1069 appears to have caused something inside William to snap. He had, after all, tried to be nice to the English, letting many of them keep their lands and promising to uphold their ancient laws and customs. Yet all they had done in return was repay his generosity with contempt, and force him to spend time, money, and energy in putting down their insolence. What’s more, even now, after three years, they showed no signs whatsoever of giving up. So, since the softly-softly approach had evidently failed, William now allowed the more brutal side of his character to take over. After a somber Christmas in York, he divided his army into small contingents and sent them out into the countryside of Yorkshire and Northumbria. Their mission was to burn crops, homes, and livestock, in order to render the entire region incapable of supporting human life. Modern historians have dubbed this the “Harrying of the North,” but only a contemporary author can fully capture the horrific consequences of the king’s decision. One northern chronicler described it thus:

So great a famine prevailed that men, compelled by hunger, devoured human flesh, [and also] that of horses, dogs, and cats . . . [Some] sold themselves to perpetual slavery, so that they might in that way preserve their wretched existence; others, while about to go into exile from their country, fell down in the middle of their journey and gave up the ghost. It was horrific to behold human corpses decaying in the houses, the streets, and on the roads, swarming with worms while they were consuming in corruption with an abominable stench . . . There was no village inhabited between York and Durham; they became lurking places to wild beasts and robbers, and were a great dread to travelers.

In retrospect, the Harrying was seen as the most savage and merciless act of William’s whole career. At the time, however, the king regarded it as just the beginning of a new direction in royal policy. If the English did not want him as their king, and were never going to give him their love or loyalty, why should he worry about respecting their laws or customs? This cold logic soon translated itself into action. Not only did William abandon his English lessons, and start spending much less time in England; he also decided there was no point in upholding the rights of Englishmen when there were loyal Normans who needed rewarding. In the year 1070, therefore, he deposed many native bishops and abbots, including the archbishop of Canterbury, and replaced them with Continental newcomers. In the same year, the king permitted English monasteries to be plundered for cash.

The biggest change, however, was not felt in church cloisters, but in the countryside at large. In the wake of the English rebellions, William created huge new blocks of power for his most trusted followers, and charged them with holding down their new territories by whatever means they chose. Above all else, this meant building many hundreds of castles.

One of the main beneficiaries of William’s change of heart in 1070 was Roger of Montgomery. Roger was one of William’s oldest and closest friends: we first spot the pair of them together when William was in his late teens, and their friendship may have stretched back even earlier. Two major things underline the degree of trust between the two men. First, when William set sail for England in 1066, Roger was the man he left in charge of Normandy during his absence. Second, when Roger joined William in England shortly after the invasion, the king rewarded him with large grants of land. Roger was one of the individuals who profited from the early redistribution of property in Sussex, and in 1070 he received an even bigger prize. In the carve up following the Harrying of the North, William made Roger earl of Shrewsbury (or Shropshire).

This was a very large gift, and it catapulted Roger right to the top of English society. In the list of the top ten Normans in England after 1066, Roger ranks number three—below William himself and his half-brother, Odo, but above the king’s other half-brother, Robert. With great power, however, came great responsibility. As earl, Roger was expected to keep order in the region, and also to defend the English border with Wales. Shropshire, like Yorkshire, was one of the remotest and wildest parts of William’s new kingdom. In order to carry out the task appointed to him, Roger built several new castles. One of the most important of these, to judge from its name, was the one he called “Montgomery,” after his own home town of Montgommeri in Normandy. This castle, a perfect little motte and bailey, still survives, but for centuries it has been known by its Welsh name, simply meaning “the old mound.” It is called Hen Domen.

Hen Domen provides an interesting contrast with castles built by William the Conqueror at around the same time. Rather than being constructed in the middle of a town or city, Roger of Montgomery’s new castle was built in the open countryside. Despite its isolation, however, it was of crucial importance for Roger in controlling his earldom. He picked the site in order to command an ancient crossroads, and also to control the traffic across a major ford on the River Severn. Today the castle is no less lonely than it was nine centuries ago. It squats between two farmers’ fields, is overgrown by trees and bushes, and looks for all the world like nothing more than a woodland copse. But despite its apparent obscurity, Hen Domen has once again become very important. In fact, it is one of the most talked-about castle sites in Europe.

For a period of almost forty years, Hen Domen was the site of a massive archaeological dig. Every summer, from the early sixties to the late nineties, archaeologists gathered at the castle for weeks on end to try to uncover its secrets. With a total of over two years spent digging, this was the biggest and most sustained archaeological investigation of its kind ever undertaken. Thanks to the work done at Hen Domen, a great deal has been learned, not only about the nature of early castles, but about what life was like within their vanished wooden walls.

In itself, Hen Domen has good reason to be considered special. Although it is only a small- to medium-sized motte and bailey, the strength of the castle’s defenses reflect both the high status of its builder and the dangerousness of its position on the border. As at the royal castle at Berkhamsted, built by either William or his half-brother Robert, we find multiple lines of defense. Three earthen ramparts ring the whole site, forming two deep ditches around the castle. Anyone approaching with hostile intent would have had to cross the first ditch, climb over a wooden fence with a fighting platform behind it, and then negotiate another, deeper ditch—all this before they reached the castle’s main walls, which stood twelve to fourteen feet high.

Of course, it is impossible to say exactly what stood above the ground by digging underneath it. Nevertheless, the excavations at Hen Domen permitted some reasonable estimates. They revealed two rows of post-holes, one set behind the other, which indicated that the walls must have been backed by a fighting platform, raised off the ground by the posts. In order to allow a man to pass underneath it, the platform must have been raised to a height of at least six or seven feet. Similarly, a man standing on top of the platform would need to be protected from attack, so we must assume that the wall rose at least another six or seven feet in front of him, bringing the total height of the wall up to the suggested height of twelve to fourteen feet.

In a similar fashion, the archaeologists were able to estimate the size of bailey buildings at Hen Domen. Certain post-holes were evidently home to very large timbers, and from the scale of these foundations the overall shape of the buildings can be guessed. At the foot of the motte, for example, the archaeologists uncovered the remains of a very large building. In all probability, this was the castle’s great hall. Judging by the massive size of its foundation ditch, the hall stood two stories high, providing space downstairs for storage, and a main first-floor room where Roger and his household would have sat and dined. Behind the hall the team discovered evidence of a flying bridge of exactly the kind depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. Again, it was the size of this structure that was striking. The foundations (and also, remarkably, a surviving timber that was found preserved in the ditch) indicate that the bridge must have been twelve feet wide; large enough to ride a horse up, if necessary. Finally, on the top of the motte, the diggers uncovered evidence for a great tower—or rather, several great towers, for it seems that the buildings on the motte were replaced several times over the years. Again, the scale of the foundations suggest that the greatest of these towers was at least two stories tall.

How were these buildings actually constructed? The trees, as you might expect, were felled using axes and dragged to the site by animals in order for construction to begin. The trunks, however, were not cut to shape using saws, but by the more efficient process of splitting. Starting with a large oak tree, wooden or metal wedges were driven into the trunk along its length, using a wooden mallet or hammer. Eventually a crack would open and, with a little encouragement from crowbars, the tree would split in half. After this, the process could be repeated several times—the half could be split into quarters, the quarters split into eighths, and so on. In fact, if you had a good-sized oak tree, it was possible to get over a thousand square feet of planking from a single trunk. Once you had produced enough timber in this manner, you could start building with them right away—provided your boss wasn’t too concerned about the rough quality of the finish. If, however, he demanded smoother surfaces on his castle walls, these could be produced by working the split wood with an axe, and then dressing it with a smaller, subtler tool called a T-axe.

Other materials besides timber went into constructing an early castle. The walls of buildings could be built or reinforced with clay, as well as the well-known “wattle and daub.” When it came to roofing, slate tiles may have been used in some cases, but no such slates were ever uncovered at Hen Domen. Thatched roofs may also have existed, but using thatch obviously meant that there was a much greater danger from fire. Bearing both these things in mind, the archaeologists assumed that the roofs at Hen Domen would also have been made of timber, built either from planking or by using shingles. There was nothing low-status about any of these materials—especially wood. Roger of Montgomery was a very powerful man, and wood was his material of choice. Likewise, the castles built by William the Conqueror and his brothers were constructed in almost every case from earth and timber. The diggers at Hen Domen were slightly disappointed that none of the buildings there seem to have been very ornate—no carved timbers were uncovered. Roger’s castle, it seems, was not a fancy example like the one at Bayeux on the Bayeux Tapestry, with its dragon’s head over the doorway. Nevertheless, the size and number of the buildings was in itself revealing. It gradually became clear to the archaeologists at Hen Domen that they were not uncovering a small huddle of shabby-looking structures, but a site that was thickly planted with buildings, built on a scale that matched the fabulous descriptions of the chroniclers.

The only genuine disappointment for the archaeologists at Hen Domen was the limited number of “small finds” they uncovered, and the fact that none of these items suggested a truly aristocratic lifestyle. There were no brooches or jewelry to compare with the finds at Threave (see Chapter Five); the most exciting find was half a wooden bucket. Of course, we can make certain allowances for the lack of luxury items. This was a castle, not a town or a battlefield; people were not necessarily dropping and losing things all the time. They must have had rubbish pits in which to throw away their unwanted or broken items, but these were never found: despite digging for forty years, the archaeologists only had time to excavate half the bailey. Who knows what treasures—or rubbish—might be concealed in the other half? Hen Domen has by no means given up all its secrets.

But even with all these excuses, the inescapable conclusion was that life at Hen Domen was not exactly luxurious. It was not a place where Roger of Montgomery turned up with his precious things: certainly no gold or jewels, and probably not even much money—only one coin was found on the site. In its early days at least, it was a garrison castle, manned entirely by knights and soldiers, whose standard of living was basic, not to say Spartan. Only two of the bailey buildings showed signs of being heated by fires and, to judge from the animal bones that were found, the diet of the occupants was quite simple. They typically ate beef, mutton, and pork, and from time to time they got to dine on deer—a slightly classier dish. All this food, however, could be sourced locally; there was no indication that fancier foodstuffs ever found their way to the castle.

But this would not have been unusual. In the eleventh century, knighthood was still a long way from the fine living and pageantry of the late Middle Ages. In Roger of Montgomery’s day, it was not such an exclusive club; knights were numbered in thousands, not hundreds, and the poorer ones were not much better off than peasants who had done well for themselves. The men whom Roger sent to Hen Domen to guard the fringes of his earldom no doubt cursed the cold and criticized the cooking. But their experience was probably little different from that shared by Norman knights all over England.

Führer Order No. 11

“Feste Plätze” Posen 1945

Map showing the location of the originally 29 “Feste Plätze” (fortified places), which were introduced by Adolf Hitler in March 1944 to stabilize the Eastern Front. The original line of “feste Plätze” in far western Ukraine was abandoned after hardly any resistance, as the Red Army broke through and raced for the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in late March. Only the garrison at Ternopol fought hard, until overwhelmed on April 14. Other “feste Plätze” were declared later, notably contributing to disaster during BAGRATION in Belorussia in July–August, 1944. Still more were announced along the extended and bitter line of retreat out of the western Soviet Union back into the Balkans, Central Europe, and Germany itself.

On 8 March, in Führer Order No. 11, he had already proclaimed a new strategy, that of the festen Plätze (fortified places). Festen Plätze, along with the Atlantic Wall, were intended finally to provide the defensive bulwark against which enemy attacks would shatter. According to Hitler’s directive, “fortified places” were to be established in key towns or cities controlling railroad and highway supply and communications. By retaining them, allowing themselves to be surrounded, and then “holding down the largest possible number of enemy forces,” the Germans could theoretically disrupt and eventually stall the momentum of the enemy advance. Taking or containing these fortresses, Hitler assumed, would cost the enemy more forces than were necessary for their defense, a crucial consideration in the face of critical German manpower shortages. In conception, these “fortified places” were to be a sort of “wave- breaker,” doing to the enemy what Hitler thought Stalin had done to the Wehrmacht in 1941 and 1942. Jodl, in a lecture to the Gauleiters on 7 November 1943, appropriated Clausewitz to provide the conceptual justification for this defensive strategy: “Every attack that does not lead to an armistice or peace, must of necessity end in defense.” As if anticipating skepticism, Jodl also used Clausewitz to quell any doubts about the Führer’s strategy: “The most perfect General Staff with the most correct views and principles does not in itself represent perfect leadership of an Army, if the soul of a great General is missing.” Although Goebbels understood the problem with such a defensive concept – “[It] contains only negative elements. A fortress can be besieged, and it is only a question of time when it falls” – it resulted largely from the recognition that Germany had been forced onto the defensive and had insufficient resources to defend all threatened areas.

To the Führer, a “hold” strategy seemed to make some sense, at least on paper – not the last time he would pursue an idea that seemed promising in theory but was devoid of contextual understanding – especially as the Germans had lost their advantage in mobility and in the air. Simply put, in view of their limited manpower and resources, the idea was to meet the enemy in prepared defenses, force him to squander his forces, and thus blunt his advance. As early as 1938, Hitler had stated that the purpose of a fortress was to sustain overall fighting strength, and not necessarily preserve that of the fortress garrison. The problem was that the Germans could offer no key strategic point of such importance that it would draw the Soviets in and force a bloody showdown, such as at Stalingrad. Since most of the designated “fortified places” were never particularly formidable or threatening, the Soviets always had the option of simply bypassing them and reducing the pockets at a later time. The German forces trapped there, though, were lost for any future defensive operations, thus further aggravating the force imbalance. In the new era of mechanization, especially in the wide open spaces of the east, holding key transportation junctions had lost some of its earlier value, as most could simply be bypassed without seriously jeopardizing the flow of supplies. The assumption that these festen Plätze would tie down large numbers of Soviet troops seldom proved true; even when they did force the enemy to attack them, they usually employed second- rate follow- up troops while the frontline units continued on. Any benefit to holding the fortresses thus tended to be outweighed by the loss of the units defending them.

Still, probably too much has been made of these “fortified places” as the key reason why Germany failed to hold the Red Army at bay. In early 1944 the strategy was primarily applied in four instances in Ukraine – Vitebsk, Cherkassy, Kovel, and Kamenets- Podolsky – where some enemy forces had been tied down and no great disaster resulted.

The force trapped at Tarnopol was much smaller than that at Cherkassy-Korsun, illustrates clearly the direction of Hitler’s thinking. On 8 March, in Führer Order No. 11, he declared a new policy of festen Plätze (fortified places), the object of which was to deny the enemy key cities and junctions, tie down his forces, and blunt the momentum of his offensive, but which in reality merely preordained encirclements. As at Kovel, on 10 March, Tarnopol was declared a “festen Platz that was to be held to the last man” even though it had no fortifications or airfield, not to mention insufficient troops and supplies to defend against an aggressive Soviet attack. Although the city was not surrounded until the twenty-third, the Germans made few preparations for its supply. Not until the twenty-fifth was a relief attack mounted to bring a convoy of supplies into the besieged city, and even this quickly degenerated into a farce. Despite the fact that the supply trucks never arrived from Lvov and the roughly forty-six hundred men inside the city had not been given permission to break out, the battle group was, nonetheless, ordered to launch its attack. It encountered heavily mined roads, fierce antitank defenses, flank attacks from Soviet tanks, and aerial assaults that forced the Germans to give up the attempt. Since Tarnopol had no airfield, the Luftwaffe tried supplying the pocket by air drops, with the result that most of the supplies fell into enemy hands. The next relief attempt was not made until 11 April, when the Ninth SS Panzer set out in a driving rain and deep mud. Hitler at first refused to allow the besieged men to break out, then relented the next day. By this time, however, the Kessel had been reduced to a few thousand yards, with the German defenders fighting desperately from room to room under massive Soviet artillery fire. Although the remaining troops, some fifteen hundred, attempted a breakout on the fifteenth, it was too late: only fifty-five men were able to make it successfully out of the pocket.

In the end, these proved to be merely tactical defeats, for, ironically, Hitler did allow strategic withdrawals. In view of the criticism of this concept, it is well to remember that it was applied to great effect at Monte Cassino, where the Italian topography and the nature of Italian villages, with their thick stone walls and labyrinthine streets, greatly aided the defender in stalling the Allied advance. A similar policy of festen Plätze would also be successful when used in Brittany and the Channel ports after the Normandy breakout. By denying the Allies the ports they desperately needed for logistic reasons, it aggravated supply difficulties and contributed to the slowing momentum of their autumn advance.

Any strategy, of course, requires both a coherent concept and the resources by which to carry it out. Hitler’s “wave- breaker” idea had a logic to it but faltered for lack of the means by which to make it successful. The only alternative, a tactical mobile defense, suffered from a similar problem. Since the Wehrmacht no longer had the strength for major operations or counterattacks, so the idea went, combined arms battle groups could be formed that maximized remaining mobility in order to blunt Soviet attacks, then withdraw at the last moment to defensive positions. By taking advantage of the firepower afforded by new arms such as the MG 42 machine gun, the Panzerfaust anti- tank weapon, and the StG-44 Sturmgewehr assault rife, as well as the Panthers and Tigers – now overcoming their initial problems – in combination with the formidable assault guns and tank destroyers, the enemy could be harassed and worn down. While successful enough to dissuade the Soviets from attempting ambitious offensives, at least until the summer of 1944, this scheme was really not much more feasible than its alternative, namely, Hitler’s halt policy. Given enemy aerial, mobility, and firepower superiority, it simply left exposed German forces vulnerable to relentless pressure. Germany’s real dilemma was its fundamental weakness: any defensive strategy in the east was problematical, since the Soviets could choose to launch attacks anywhere they desired. Although Hitler’s “halt doctrine” could offer little more than to delay the inevitable, it was probably no worse than Manstein’s notion of maneuver, which had been unable to deliver the time necessary to allow Germany to marshal its resources for a decisive effort in the west or the victories from which to negotiate a separate peace. In any case, the key decision about the future of the war would come in the west; if the Allied invasion succeeded, then Germany had no further cards to play.


A view showing how the motte and bailey castle in Tonbridge, Kent, may have looked after it was erected by Richard Fitz Gilbert in the aftermath of the victory at Hastings. Mottes were not just a huge lump of earth but a carefully constructed structure and were usually built up in layers or around a rubble core where there was not an existing natural mound that could be used. They could vary from 50ft to over 100ft high and could have a diameter up to 300ft across. A timber palisade, a tall defensive wall made of vertical planks or logs, would have been erected around the keep or donjon on top. There is uncertainty as to the exact design of these buildings as evidence is sparse, mainly coming from stylised images on the Bayeux tapestry or descriptions from contemporary writers. It is likely they were simple timber structures in order to keep the weight down on the earthen motte and so they could be erected quickly by soldiers and local labour. Richard Fitz Gilbert’s original motte and bailey castle had a short life, as when the Conqueror died in 1087 he sided with his eldest son Robert, rather than the younger William. The latter however took the throne of England and besieged Richard’s castle at Tonbridge. After only two days, he stormed the defences and burnt it to the ground. The motte still survives today within the remains of the later stone castle.

Attackers fighting their way through the bailey while fire arrows rain down upon the tower on top of the motte. Defenders have draped fresh raw hides over the timber wall to reduce the chances of it catching fire.

Since ancient times, fire was used by attackers to destroy fortifications which contained timber structures. Lit torches or fires set up against a wooden wall were probably the earliest type of incendiary device. Flaming arrows were used in the medieval period as, even after castle walls were built of masonry, there was still wood in the roofs and floors of stone buildings and lesser timber structures within the enclosure. The arrow could have been crudely assembled with a strip of material soaked in pitch, oil or resin wrapped around the shaft. More sophisticated arrowheads were designed with metal cages for coal, wood shavings, cloth or similar materials soaked in oil, which were then lit and fired. A more potent weapon which struck fear into the hearts of defenders was `Greek fire’, a petroleum-based mixture which could not be extinguished with water. The knowledge for making this mixture (an early form of napalm) came via the Crusades to the Middle East in the 11th century where siege warfare was far more advanced than it was in Western Europe. Although the exact contents varied and its use was probably limited in this country, there are records of experts being paid to make Greek fire for attack on later stone castles. Richard I used some form of Greek fire when he was besieging Nottingham Castle in 1194 and pots were ordered to contain an explosive mixture during the siege of Stirling Castle in 1304. In 1340 at Tournai, France, Edward III’s forces employed a man who successfully created Greek fire to use against the defenders only for him to vanish without a trace after he had received payment in advance for more of his secret concoction.

When, in 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, sought to establish his right to the English throne, his first action after he crossed the channel was to build a castle within the old Roman fortification at Pevensey, Sussex. After the victory a short way along the south coast at Hastings, William was faced with the problem of having to control his new territory with an army and entourage which probably numbered around 20,000 in a country of 1,500,000 potentially rebellious Saxons. In order for such a limited number of Normans to hold key strategic points and also strike fear so that the native population would be reluctant to rise up against them, William had to quickly establish a network of castles.

William was of Viking descent and the title Norman is derived from Norseman. He had even brought some flat-packed fortified structures across the channel with him to speed up their construction. Many were built by his victorious barons on land William granted them in return for their loyalty. The first were erected along the coast to protect the landing points for his supplies and then as he pushed inland more were built to control valleys and river crossings. Some were also established in urban areas and many of these were purposely sited within existing fortifications, old Roman forts and Saxon burhs. He was not only saving time by reusing part of their defensive structures but also depriving the native population of a point from which to rebel. With these new imposing castles stamped upon Saxon towns and cities William was making it clear that he was in control and they would have to submit to his authority.

The new castles which were established across the country by William and his barons were usually of a motte and bailey design. This new type of fortification had evolved in Western Europe over the preceding century as kingdoms broke up into smaller units governed by nobles who needed a defendable home during these turbulent times. The bailey was a large enclosed area for the garrison, horses and supplies surrounded by a timber wall or palisade. It was overlooked by the motte, a tall mound upon which stood a timber lookout tower and refuge, known as the keep or donjon, which also provided accommodation for the noble or owner. The two were connected by gated bridge or steps which may have been removable in part at a time of trouble. The motte and bailey castle was a flexible form which could be adapted to the different sites. There were however, some occasions where a simpler form of earthwork was used. Ringwork castles, an enclosure formed from a defensive ditch, bank and palisades with the buildings erected within were often used, especially where there were existing fortifications or where a stone keep was planned which needed to be built upon a secure flat area.

These imposing fortifications made from wood and earth had the advantage that they could be built quickly as most men had the required building skills and the materials were readily available. The soil dug out when forming the ditches that surrounded the castle could be used to build up the bailey and the motte (the word motte was Norman for hillock). Timber for the structures could be sourced from the local area as well as from the houses and other buildings, which were often ruthlessly cleared off the site to make way for the castle. Although most buildings and walls were built from wood until the second half of the following century, in parts of the north and west stone was readily available and could have been used at an early date for some structures.

Attacking a Motte and Bailey Castle

The motte and bailey castle was a formidable obstacle for any army. The motte was designed with steep sides so it could not be scaled by men on horseback, and would be difficult for those on foot too. Some may have been covered in clay or timber to help protect the mound’s structure and make a surface which was harder to get a foothold upon. Thorn bushes could have also been planted to form a further barrier. It was the bailey which made the easier target for an attacking force and would be the first point where they would concentrate their efforts. Men with axes could hack at the timber palisades while shields or protective covers held off the defender’s arrows. In many cases the castle was simply stormed by a superior force who overwhelmed the defenders, attacking them with volleys of arrows, scaling the walls on ladders, and making their way through the castle with hand-to-hand fighting. When William II attacked rebels at Tonbridge Castle in 1088 he did not wait for machines to be built, but charged straight into direct action, taking the fortification within two days.

There was one weapon however which became the first choice for forces attacking a timber castle, and that was fire. Archers could shoot flaming arrows directly at the walls or aim higher and let them rain down upon the buildings behind them. Some arrowheads were designed with small oval-shaped metal cages behind the point specifically to contain natural fibres or cloth soaked in pitch for this purpose. William II’s brother, Robert of Normandy, ordered his bowmen to heat up the metal tips of their arrows in a fire until red hot and then shoot them onto the castle buildings. The defenders did not realise these arrows were setting fire to the roof until it was too late. The Bayeux Tapestry shows men setting fire to the timber palisades with firebrands on long poles so presumably this was a tried and tested method. There are also records of early attempts of making incendiary devices. A clay vessel filled with a mixture containing an inflammable substance like pitch, tar or animal fat was ignited and thrown at the walls, smashing on impact and forming a fire which would be hard for defenders to extinguish. These could have been dispatched by hand, thrown using a staff sling (a pole with a sling at the end) or by catapult. Geoffrey Plantagenet, the Count of Anjou and father of Henry II, became something of an expert in the use of fire and made an iron cauldron containing flax, seed and oil, which was heated up and thrown at the gates of the castle he was besieging so that it exploded on contact and set them on fire.

Defending a Motte and Bailey Castle

The defence of many castles began before an attacking army was in sight. The area around the outer walls could be cleared; this required demolishing houses and burning fields. The local drinking water could be poisoned and all good timber collected and stored inside the castle so the enemy could not use it. When the defenders of Wolvesey Castle, Winchester were preparing for an attack from the Empress Matilda in 1141, they burnt all the houses close to the walls which could give the enemy cover. In doing so they accidentally destroyed a large part of the old city. Carpenters and blacksmiths could also be forced inside the castle to help with making arms and also to ensure they were not available to assist the enemy.

With fire being the greatest threat, defenders could try and soak the timbers or drape fresh or wet animal hides over the palisades. The walls may have been coated in limewash or perhaps daub (a rendering made from clay, straw and other ingredients) in an attempt to make the timber more fire resistant. Water, sand, ash and earth may have been used by defenders to throw over any parts of the fortifications which had caught fire. If the enemy broke into the bailey then the garrison could retreat to the motte and destroy any bridge between the two, making an effective last stand. As the motte was on the outer edge of the bailey it also gave the defenders the chance to escape down the slope if all was lost. However, there was also the terrifying possibility that they could be trapped within a burning ring of fire, with any defenders trying to douse the flames picked off by archers.

Once the dispute was over, the crown had been settled and the new king Henry II had a firm grip over his kingdom, there began a great shift in the design of castles. Timber motte and bailey castles which had been erected without royal approval were demolished. Those which by the 1150s no longer served a military role were abandoned. Many fortifications which remained, especially those in the hands of the Crown or his wealthiest nobles, were extended and rebuilt. The revised fortifications had to adapt not only to the threat of fire as the knowledge of how to make and use it became more widespread, but also to the threat of new siege engines which could throw stones and smash timber palisades. Hence from the mid-12th century, castles were increasingly rebuilt in stone.

The Templars and the Defence of the Holy Land

From the moment that the First Crusade arrived in the Middle East, the Crusaders started building castles. As in Europe, they served as residences and administrative centres, as well as having a military function. But after the Second Crusade the Franks in Outremer found themselves on the defensive and the military nature of castles became more important. Often large and elaborate, and continuously improved by the latest innovations in military science, the Franks built over fifty castles in Outremer. Geography, manpower and the feudal system all explain this considerable investment in stone.

The Crusader states were long and narrow, lacking defence in depth. The Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli and the Kingdom of Jerusalem stretched 450 miles from north to south, yet rarely were they more than 50 to 75 miles broad, the County of Tripoli perilously constricting to the width of the coastal plain, only a few miles broad, between Tortosa (present-day Tartus) and Jeble. The inland cities of Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus all remained in Muslim hands, while Mesopotamia and Egypt were recruiting grounds for any Muslim counterthrust, as the campaigns of Saladin and the Mamelukes would show. For the Crusaders the natural defensive line was the mountains, and they built castles to secure the passes.

Stones more than soldiers were pressed to this purpose as Outremer was chronically short of men. After the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 most of the Crusaders returned to Europe; the Kingdom of Jerusalem was thereafter defended by 300 mounted knights. Despite successive crusades, at no time during the entire history of the Crusader states were they able to put more than 2600 horse in the field. Moreover, though there was still a large local Christian population, these were Orthodox while the Crusaders were a Latin minority.

Outnumbered and insecure, the Franks of necessity housed themselves in fortified towns or in castles. Nevertheless, if the Crusader states were to survive they had to be a going concern, and the Franks set about organising their possessions along familiar European feudal lines. Castles were as much centres of production and administration as they were military outposts–battlemented country houses, containing corn mills and olive presses, and surrounded by gardens, vineyards, orchards and fields. Their lands in some cases encompassed hundreds of villages and a peasantry numbering tens of thousands. Wood to Egypt, herbs, spices and sugar to Europe, were important exports; indeed throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Europe’s entire supply of sugar came from the Latin East.

But in times of war, agriculture was always the first victim. Were it not for Western subvention and the taxes imposed on trade between the Muslim East and Europe as it passed through the Crusader states, they would have collapsed sooner than they did. The Latin rulers were always strapped for cash, the bulk of their revenues going towards the upkeep of mercenaries, knights and castles. It was a vicious circle; insufficient land and manpower making castles a necessity; the cost of knights and castles greater than the productivity of the land could justify.

In this situation the military orders came into their own. They had the resources, the independence, the dedication–the elements of their growing power.

Structure of the Templars

THE TOP FIVE OFFICIALS of the Knights Templar were the Grand Master, the Seneschal, the Marshal, the Commander of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and the Draper. Ultimately, the Order owed its allegiance to the Pope–and to no other authority, spiritual or temporal.

 THE GRAND MASTER Ruler of the order, the Grand Master was elected by twelve senior Templar members, the number representing the twelve apostles, plus a chaplain who took the place of Jesus Christ. The master had considerable but not autocratic powers.

GRAND CHAPTER Comprised of senior officials. All major decisions by the Grand Master–such as whether to go to war, agree a truce, alienate lands, or acquire a castle–required that he consult with the chapter.

 SENESCHAL Deputy and advisor to the Grand Master.

 MARSHAL Responsible for military decisions such as purchase of equipment and horses; he also exercised authority over the regional commanders.

 DRAPER The keeper of the robes, the Draper issued clothes and bedlinen, removed items from knights who were thought to have too much, and distributed gifts made to the order.

 REGIONAL COMMANDERS These were the COMMANDER OF THE KINGDOM OF JERUSALEM, who acted as the order’s treasurer and within the Kingdom had the same powers as the Grand Master; the COMMANDER OF JERUSALEM, who within the city had the same powers as the Grand Master; and the COMMANDERS OF ACRE, TRIPOLI AND ANTIOCH, each with the powers of the Grand Master within their domains.

 PROVINCIAL MASTERS France, England, Aragon, Poitou, Portugal, Apulia and Hungary each had a provincial master who was responsible to the Grand Master.

 THE KNIGHTS, SERGEANTS and other MEN AT ARMS were subject to these various officers and their deputies.

A Power Unto Themselves

After the Second Crusade both the Hospitallers and the Templars came to provide the backbone of resistance to the Muslims, but the military impetus came from the Templars. The Hospitallers were still an entirely pacific order when the armed order of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ came into being. But sometime in the 1120s the Hospitallers extended their role from caring for pilgrims to protecting them by force of arms if need be, becoming known as the Knights of the Hospital of Saint John, or Knights Hospitaller, with Saint John no longer the Almsgiver but replaced by the more imposing figure of Saint John the Baptist. The first recorded instance of Hospitallers in combat dates from 1128, eight years or so after the founding of the Templars; it was the example of the Templars that helped turn the Hospitallers into a military order.

In due course the military orders were put in possession of the great castles, a task for which they were perfectly suited. The frontier castles were remote, isolated and lonely places; they did not appeal to the secular knighthood of Outremer. But the monastic vows of the military orders suited them to the dour life of castles where the innermost fortifications served as monasteries for the brothers. Their members were celibate, which made them easy to control, and they had no outside private interests. Superbly trained and highly disciplined, the Hospitallers and the Templars were led by commanders of considerable military ability; the capabilities of the orders generally stood in marked contrast to those of the lay institutions of Outremer.

The orders owed direct responsibility to the Papacy, placing them above not only local feudal quarrels but the antagonisms of nations and their kings. As corporate bodies, the orders were everlasting, their numbers undiminished by disease or death, and they were able to draw on an inexhaustible supply of young men of noble families in Europe seeking to fulfil the moral and religious obligations of knighthood. Also the Templars and the Hospitallers received donations of property in Europe which soon made them wealthy. Each order levied its own taxes, had its own diplomatic service and possessed its own fleet of ships. In effect the Hospitallers and the Templars were states within the state. Very quickly the under-manned and under-financed Crusader states were selling or giving frontier fortresses to the orders, and by 1166 there were only three castles in the Kingdom of Jerusalem which the military orders did not control.

Costing the Templars

Every Templar was a highly trained and expensive mounted knight. Such a knight in the second half of twelfth-century France required 750 acres to equip and maintain himself as a mounted warrior, and a century later that cost had quintupled to 3750 acres.

For a Templar knight operating overseas in the Holy Land the costs were even greater, as much had to be imported, not least horses. Each Templar knight had three horses, and because they fell victim to warfare and disease, and had a lifespan of only twenty years, they needed to be renewed at a rate greater than local breeding allowed. The cost of horses rose six fold from the twelfth to the thirteenth centuries. Moreover, horses consumed five or six times as much as a man, and required feeding whether or not they were in use. A bad harvest in the East, and urgent food supplies had to be shipped in for men and horses alike.

Each Templar also had a squire to help look after the horses. And in addition there were sergeants, more lightly armed than knights, who each had a horse but acted as their own squires. Sergeants were often locally recruited and wore a brown or black tunic instead of white. In fact for every Templar knight there were about nine others serving in support, whether as squires, sergeants or other forms of help. This is not much different from modern warfare in which every frontline soldier is backed up by four or five who never see combat, not to mention the many thousands of civilians producing weapons and equipment and providing clothing, food and transport.

Growing responsibilities increased Templar costs immensely. As secular lords found themselves unable to maintain and defend their castles and their fiefs, they handed these responsibilities over to the military orders. According to Benedict of Alignan, a Benedictine abbot visiting the Holy Land in the 1240s, the Templars spent 1,100,000 Saracen besants in two and a half years on rebuilding their castle of Saphet (Safad)–this at a time when a knight in Acre could live well on 500 Saracen besants a year–and continued to spend 40,000 Saracen besants in each following year on the day-to-day running of the castle. Saphet had a complement of 50 Templar knights, 30 mounted sergeants, as well as 50 mounted archers, 300 crossbowmen, 820 engineers and other serving men, plus 400 slaves–1650 people, which in wartime increased to 2200, all of whom had to be housed, fed, armed and kept supplied in various ways.

Only their vast holdings in Outremer and more especially in the West permitted the Templars to operate on such a scale and recover after losses and setbacks to continue the defence of the Holy Land.

Ruins of the castle of Baghras – a.k.a. Gastim – built in 1153 by the Templar Knights to control the Syrian [Belen] Gates, the mountain pass between Alexandretta and Antioch. It was forced to capitulate to Saladin in 1189. Retaken and restored in 1191 by the Armenians, the castle was returned to the Templars in 1216. In 1268, before having to surrender to the attack of Sultan Baibars, the Templars dismantled Gastim and set it on fire.

Templar Castles

When the First Crusade marched into the Middle East it came over the Belen Pass, about sixteen miles north of Antioch, that same crossing over the Amanus mountains that Alexander the Great had taken 1400 years before, after crushing the Persian army of Darius III at the battle of Issus. Known also as the Syrian Gates, the Belen Pass was the doorway into Syria and it was also the northern frontier of Outremer. Sometime in the 1130s the task of defending the pass was given to the Templars. Their key fortress was Baghras, built high above the pass itself, and the Templars built several others in the Amanus mountains. These castles formed a screen across the northern frontier where the Templars ruled as virtually autonomous border lords, effectively independent of the Principality of Antioch.

The Templars also took charge of the Kingdom of Jerusalem’s southern frontier with Egypt when they were made responsible for Gaza during the winter of 1149–50. Gaza was uninhabited and ruinous at this time, but the Templars rebuilt a fortress atop a low hill and slowly the Franks revived the city around it. This was the first major castle in the Kingdom of Jerusalem that the Templars are recorded as receiving, and its purpose was to complete the blockade of Ascalon ten miles to the north, a small patch of territory on the Mediterranean coast still held by the Fatimids. Ascalon had long been the base for Muslim attacks on pilgrims coming up the road from Jaffa to Jerusalem or descending to the river Jordan, and in 1153 the city finally fell to Baldwin III, the king of Jerusalem. The Templars played a prominent part in this triumph, for they were first into the breach when a section of the walls came down, yet William of Tyre was predictable in turning this against them when he claimed in his chronicle that their eagerness was due to their greed for spoils. In fact the Templars lost forty or so knights in the attack, and their Grand Master lost his life.

Another vital strategic site as well as an important spot for pilgrims was Tortosa (present-day Tartus) on the Syrian coast. Said to be the place where the apostle Paul gave his first mass, a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary was built there in the third century, long before Christianity was officially tolerated within the Roman Empire, and it contained an icon of the Virgin said to have been painted by Saint Luke. To help the pilgrims who came to pray, the Crusaders built upon this history with the construction of Our Lady of Tortosa in 1123, an elegant cathedral which architecturally marks the transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic. But in 1152 Nur al-Din captured and burnt the city, leaving it deserted and destroyed; and as the County of Tripoli lacked the means for its restoration, Tortosa was placed in the care of the Templars, who greatly improved its defences, building a massive keep and halls within a triple circuit of tower-studded walls, and with a postern in the seawall enabling the city to be supplied from sea.

The strategic significance of Tortosa was that it stood at the seaward end of an opening in the range of coastal mountains which runs back into the interior towards the Muslim city of Homs. Towards the eastern end of this Homs Gap, as it is called, and towering high above the route between the interior and the sea, is the great castle of Krak des Chevaliers gained by the Hospitallers in 1144, while in the mountains between Krak and Tortosa is the castle of Chastel Blanc, now known as Safita, already in the hands of the Templars some time before 1152. From the roof of the massive keep at Chastel Blanc can be seen both Krak des Chevaliers to the east and the Templar castle of al-Arimah to the west on the Mediterranean coast just south of Tortosa. In short the Templars, together with the Hospitallers, entirely controlled the one important route between the interior of Syria and the sea. Moreover, they did so with sovereign rights within their territories, having been granted full lordship over the population of their estates, the right to share in the spoils of battle, and the freedom to have independent dealings with neighbouring Muslim powers.

In the 1160s the Templars took over further castles, this time across the Jordan river at Ahamant (present-day Amman) and in Galilee at Saphet (also called Safad) to which was added Chastellet in 1178. Gaza, Ahamant, Saphet and Chastellet were all within the Kingdom of Jerusalem but close to its borders where they served defensive purposes. Chastellet covered Jacob’s Ford, the northernmost crossing point of the river Jordan, previously a weak point where Saladin came down out of Damascus and made easy raids against the Christians. So alarmed was Saladin when the Templars installed themselves at Chastellet that he immediately attacked, failing in his first attempt in June 1179 but two months later storming the castle and taking seven hundred prisoners whom he then slaughtered, although the Templar commander threw himself to his death to avoid capture.

More centrally placed was La Feve at the crossroads of the route between Jerusalem and Acre via Galilee. Acquired by the Templars in about 1170, it served as a major depot for arms, tools and food, and it housed a large garrison. It was later the launching point for the expedition that led to the disastrous defeat at the Springs of Cresson on 1 May 1187, a foreboding of the catastrophe at Hattin.

As well as fighting in the defence of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Templars continued to fulfil their original role of protecting pilgrims coming up to the holy sites at Jerusalem from the ports of Acre, Haifa and Jaffa, or going down from Jerusalem to the Jordan river. One of the duties of the Templar commander in Jerusalem was to keep ten knights in reserve to accompany pilgrims to the Jordan and to provide a string of pack animals to carry food and exhausted travellers. The Templars had a castle overlooking the site at the Jordan river where Jesus had been baptised, to protect not only pilgrims but also the local monks after six of them were gratuitously murdered by Zengi.

The acquisition of castles was accompanied by lands which helped to support them, especially around Baghras, Tortosa and Saphet. In these areas the Templars held many villages, mills and much agricultural land. The details are lacking because of the destruction of the Templar archives on Cyprus by the Ottoman Turks in the sixteenth century. But from what can be pieced together it seems that the orders between them, the Hospitallers and the Templars, may have held nearly a fifth of the lands in Outremer by the middle of the century, and by 1188, the year of the Battle of Hattin, something like a third.

Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China (Chinese: Wanli Changcheng; “10,000-Li Long Wall”) consists of a series of defensive structures built across northern China. One of the largest building-construction projects ever carried out, it runs (with all its branches) about 4,500 miles (7,300 km) east to west. Large parts of the fortifi cation date from the 7th to the 4th century B.C.E. In the 3rd century BC the emperor Shihuangdi connected existing defensive walls into a single system fortified by watchtowers. These served both to guard the rampart and to communicate with the capital, Xianyang (near modern Xi’an) by signal-smoke by day and fi re by night. Originally constructed partly of masonry and earth, it was faced with brick in its eastern portion. It was rebuilt in later times, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries. The basic wall is about 23 to 26 feet (7 to 8 metres) high; at intervals towers rise above it to varying heights.

The Qin dynasty (221-207 B.C.E.) was so influential that the name “China” is derived from Qin. Shihuangdi was its founder and most notable emperor. On the one hand, he was a cruel tyrant. On the other hand, changes he made during his reign helped to define China even today. The boundaries he set during his reign became the traditional territory of China. In later eras China sometimes held other territories, but the Qin boundaries were always considered to embrace the indivisible area of China proper. He developed networks of highways and unified a number of existing fortifications into the Great Wall of China. He established a basic administrative system that all succeeding dynasties followed for the next 2,000 years. His tomb near Xi’an contains one of China’s most famous treasures-6,000 life-sized terra-cotta statues of warriors

It was Chu that innovated advanced weapons such as crossbows and steel swords, and Han that was skilled at making a wide range of weapons, including crossbows, swords, and halberds. Crossbows first appeared in Chu in the early fifth century B.C.E.  and were in general use in the fourth century B.C.E. Their strength and effective killing range generally increased over the centuries as their mechanisms were perfected.

There is no doubt that innovations in heavy crossbows, linked crossbows, and siege weapons such as catapults, rolling towers, mobile shields, scaling ladders, and battering rams facilitated the offense in the Warring States period. However, in ancient China as elsewhere, “[t]echniques for assault and defense advanced simultaneously.” Whereas military classics advocate the offensive doctrine, the less well-known Mohist school emerged as “the defensive counterpart,” so that various texts together “document a mutual escalation in the art of offense and defense.” As offensive weapons and techniques developed, various states also “undertook the expanded defense of borders, constructing great walls, ramparts, forts, and guard towers throughout the countryside to defend the entire territory against incursion.” After unification, the defense walls built by Qi, Yan, Zhao, and Qin against Xiongnu were connected to form the Great Wall, while those built by various states against one another were demolished.

The prevalence of conquests discussed earlier should not be interpreted as evidence that conquest was easy in the ancient Chinese system. Most major cities had such strong fortifications that they could not be taken except with resort to stratagems or at high cost. For instance, Qin’s siege of Han’s Yiyang produced high casualties. Qin’s conquest of Ba and Shu, which were ringed by mountains, required most of a century. Similarly, Han’s conquest of Zheng involved multiple wars fought intermittently over the course of five decades from 423 to 375 B.C.E. , and Zhao’s conquest of Zhongshan lasted from 307 to 286 B.C.E. . At the same time, Qi failed to conquer Yan in 314 B.C.E. . Yan, in turn, was not able to take two well-fortified Qi cities, Ju and Jimo, after five years of siege.

Construction of defensive walls began during the reign of China’s ‘‘First Emperor,’’ Qin Shi Huang, in 221 B.C.E. These connected sections of preexisting border fortifications of Qin’s defeated and annexed enemies, dating to the Warring States period, from which the Qin empire had emerged as victor. The building technique of this remarkable structure was the ancient method of stamped earth that employed masses of slave laborers as well as military conscripts. Some parts of the wall stood for nearly two millennia and were incorporated into the modern ‘‘Great Wall’’ built by the Ming dynasty following the humiliation of defeat and capture of the Zhengtong Emperor at Tumu (1449). After he regained the throne in 1457, the Ming court decided on a purely defensive strategy and began building 700 miles of new defensive walls starting in 1474, fortifying the northern frontier against Mongol raiders. The Ming system involved hundreds of watchtowers, signal-beacon platforms, and self-sufficient garrisons organized as military colonies. Infantry were positioned along the wall to give warning. But the main idea was for cavalry to move quickly to any point of alarm and stop raiders from breaking through. In that, the Ming strategy emulated Mongol practices from the Yuan dynasty. It was also reminiscent, though not influenced by, the Roman defensive system of ‘‘limes’’ which in Germania alone were 500 kilometers long.

The Great Wall was meant to reduce costs to the Ming of garrisoning a thousand-mile frontier by channeling raiders and invaders into known invasion routes to predetermined choke points protected by cavalry armies. This strategy was mostly ineffective. The Great Wall was simply outflanked in 1550 by Mongol raiders who rode around it to the northeast to descend on Beijing and pillage its suburbs (they could not take the city because they had no siege engines or artillery). The wall was also breached by collaboration with the Mongols of Ming frontier military colonies, which over time became increasingly ‘‘barbarian’’ through trade, marriage, and daily contact with the wilder peoples on the other side. Some Han garrisons lived in so much fear of the Mongols they were militarily useless; others lost touch with the distant court and hardly maintained military preparations at all. Finally, the Great Wall could always be breached by treachery or foolhardy invitation. Either or both occurred when a Ming general allowed the Manchus to enter China via the Shanhaiguan Pass to aid in the last Ming civil war in 1644, which brought the Ming dynasty to an end and put the Qing in power.

China never built a defensive wall along its Pacific sea frontier, as it felt no threat from that quarter. And yet, the main threat to its long-term stability and independence came across the Pacific in the form of European navies and marines. As with the 20th century Maginot Line in France, building the Great Wall in some ways signaled Ming defeatism rather than advertised Ming strength. The overall historical meaning of the Great Wall is ambiguous. To some, it signifies the worst features of China’s exploitative past; to others, it celebrates the longevity of China’s advanced, classical civilization.

Suggested Reading: Sechin Jagshid and V. J. Symons, Peace, War, and Trade Along the Great Wall (1989); Arthur Waldron, The Great Wall of China (1990).