Mesopotamian linear barriers


1. Muriq Tidnim (conjectural)

Babylonian Line 1

2. Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon to Kish Wall (conjectural)

Babylonian Line 2

3. Habl es-Sakhar (Nebuchadnezzar’s Sippar to Opis Wall, Median Wall)

Line 3 (uncertain)

4. El-Mutabbaq

5. Sadd Nimrud (also called El-Jalu)

6. Umm Raus Wall (site of Macepracta Wall(?), Artaxerxes’ Trench(?))



Mesopotamia and the Rivers Tigris and the Euphrates

Egypt shows that the conjunction of irrigated lands and nomads produced linear barriers – even if the evidence might seem elusive and inconclusive. Therefore, might also then Mesopotamia, with the similarly intensely irrigated Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, produce evidence of walls in the presence of nomads?

In Mesopotamia, the area of irrigated lands runs along the flood plains of the Tigris and the Euphrates up to, and somewhat beyond, the convergence points of the rivers between ancient Babylon and modern Baghdad. Above that point the alluvial plain peters out and the land becomes too hilly to allow for intense irrigation. From the north-east flows the Diyala River which passes through the Zagros Mountains to join the Tigris, linking the high Persian plateau to Mesopotamia. Around the river was especially valued irrigated land. The area of convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates constituted a constricted land corridor. Local nomads and semi-nomads would have been expected to press particularly hard on the rich and productive irrigated lands of Mesopotamia.

As in Egypt, civilisation, sustained by the irrigated lands of Mesopotamia, came early, in the fourth millennia BC, with the Sumerians. Again, as with Egypt, there is evidence of climate change. In the last century of the third millennium BC the stream flow of the Euphrates and the Tigris was very low, according to analysis of sediments in the Persian Gulf. The end of the Akkadian era, due to defeat by the hated Gutian peoples from the mountainous east in the twenty-second century BC, coincided with a few decades of intense drought which was followed by two to three centuries of dry weather. Ur revived and under Ur-Nammu defeated the Gutians and established the third dynasty of Ur, commonly abbreviated to Ur III, in 2112 BC. The Sumerians initiated a short period of cultural renaissance in a time of constant conflict with the semi-nomadic Martu – more familiar as the biblical Amorites.

Indeed, Ur III may have faced two reasonably distinct threats. From the north-west there was the Martu whose aim may in part have been to gain sustenance for their herds in times of drought. The direction of the threat that they posed would have been through the relatively flat lands between and to both sides of the convergence point of the Euphrates and the Tigris. To the north-east were the Elamites and Shimashki confederation in the highlands to the east of the Tigris. Their lines of attack would have been more focused down river valleys – perhaps the Diyala River flowing through the Zagros Mountains to the Tigris.

Mesopotamian linear barriers

In this early period there is only textual evidence for linear barriers, based on letters that remarkably survive from the third dynasty of Ur. These writings between Sumerian kings and their often disobedient generals and officials, are called the Royal Correspondence of Ur (abbreviated to the RCU). Much of the correspondence in the twenty-two or so surviving letters was about defence against the Martu. There was also information about linear barriers in the year names of Sumerian king lists (Mesopotamian kings named each year of their reigns after some major event).

The Sumerian kings Shulgi (2094–2047 BC), Shu-Sin (2037–2029 BC) and Ibbi-Sin (2028–2004 BC) were mentioned in the context of three walls:

bad-mada/Wall of the Land – The Wall of the Land is known only from one reference in the king lists: ‘Year 37: Nanna (the god) and Shulgi the king built the Wall of the land.’10 Shulgi was on the throne for forty-seven years so the wall belongs to the last quarter of his long reign. This was a time of increasing pressure on central and southern Mesopotamia from the Martu.

bad-igi-hur-sag-ga/Wall Facing the Highlands – In the RCU there are several references to bad-igi-hur-sag-ga – both during Shulgi’s reign and that of his successors, Shu-Sin and Ibbi-Sin. The bad-igi-hur-sag-ga has been variously translated as the Wall, Fortress, or the Fortification facing the highlands or mountains – making it uncertain whether this was a continuous linear barrier. If, however, Shulgi really did build a long wall then he has the distinction of being the first known builder of such a barrier. This obstacle possibly faced a threat coming down the Diyala River as it faced the Highlands, presumably the Zagros Mountains.

Muriq Tidnim/Fender off of the Tidnim – There are three references to Muriq Tidnim, or fender (off) of the Tidnim and Shu-Sin. First, the king lists of his fourth regnal year said: ‘Shu-Sin the king of Ur built the amurru (Amorite) wall (called) ‘Muriq Tidnim/holding back the Tidanum’’ Second, there is an inscription in a temple built for the god Shara: ‘For Shara Shu-Sin built the Eshagepada, his (Shara’s) beloved temple, for his (Shu-Sin’s) life when he built the Martu wall Muriq Tidnim (and) turned back the paths of the Martu to their land.’ Third, the most informative reference to the Muriq Tidnim is in a letter from Sharrum-bani, an official of Shu-Sin. ‘You sent me a message ordering me to work on the construction of the great fortification Muriq Tidnim … announcing: “The Martu have invaded the land.” You instructed me to build the fortification, so as to cut off their route; also, that no breaches of the Tigris or the Euphrates should cover the fields with water … from the bank of the Ab-gal watercourse to the province of Zimudar. When I was constructing this fortification to the length of 26 danna, and had reached the area between the two mountain ranges, I was informed of the Martu camping within the mountain ranges because of my building work.’

In this letter, the construction is described as ‘great’. Whatever the uncertainties about Shulgi’s earlier edifices, it is difficult not to interpret this passage as describing a major continuous linear barrier. In the west the Ab-gal canal is associated with an earlier western course of the Euphrates and to the east the province of Zimudar is identified as being on the east side of Tigris in the region of the Diyala river. A danna is about two hours march so 26 dannas may be over 150 kilometres. Therefore, the edifice appeared to extend from the Euphrates to the other side of the Tigris because its length was much greater than the distance between the two rivers. The instructions to build the walls specifically cite stopping the semi-nomadic Martu from overwhelming the fields by a breach between the Tigris and the Euphrates, showing that irrigated land was perceived as particularly vulnerable.

Analysis – Ur III

In the hillier east controlling access down the Diyala river area there may have been a single fortification, the bad-igi-hur-sag-ga or the Wall/Fortress facing the Highlands, first built by Shulgi, which might or might not have been part of another system bad-mada (the Wall of the Land) built in the flatter west. During the reign of Shu-Sin it seems more likely that a linear barrier called Muriq Tidnim was built from new, or it consisted of earlier lines that were linked and much reinforced including Shulgi’s Wall of the land. This is all speculation but there is good if circumstantial literary evidence that Ur III’s strategy for defence against the Martu involved the construction of what would be the first recorded long continuous non-aquatic linear barriers.

There does seem to be a fairly general academic acceptance that under Shulgi and Shu-Sin long walls were built and their purpose was to keep out nomads. For example: ‘Even as early as year 35 of Shulgi, the (nomad) problem was becoming so grave that Shulgi constructed a wall to keep them (pastoral and semi-nomadic Amorites) out, and Shu-Sin built another barrier, called “fender off of Tidnim,” 200 kilometres long, stretching between the Tigris and the Euphrates across the northern edge of the alluvial plain.’ Also: ‘Yet despite Shulgi’s talents, within a few years of his death in 2047 BC his Empire, too, imploded. In the 2030s raiding became such a problem that Ur built a hundred-mile wall to keep the Amorites out.’

Later Mesopotamia

Looking at later Mesopotamia, after the fall of Ur III, how did it defend itself in times of necessity? What emerges is three intense periods of barrier building: firstly, that already discussed, during the short lived Ur III period; secondly, in the neo-Babylonian period associated with Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century BC; and thirdly, later in the fourth century, aquatic linear barriers were built by the Sasanians. There are also a number of major but little studied walls, discussed below, north of the Tigris and Euphrates convergence point, which are not clearly dated.

After Ur III fell to the Elamites and the Shimaskhi confederation, the so-called Amorite dynasty of Isin completed its breakaway. Given that lower Mesopotamia had fallen to peoples from outside the region there was no reason for a barrier between the north and southern Mesopotamia. Also, Martu or Amorite semi-nomads were becoming increasingly sedentarised. Subsequently, the Babylonians of the era of Hammurabi were able to project their power well to the north of Babylon. The Assyrians, coming from the north, had no need for walls around 700 BC to defend Babylon in this region as they controlled the regions to its north and south.

The neo-Babylonians recovered control of their city in the sixth century BC and made it the capital of the region. The second period of major barrier building materialised in this later Babylonian period, associated with Nebuchadnezzar and textually with Queens Semiramis and Nitocris. Nebuchadnezzar II ruled for forty-three years from 604 to 562 BC. The Medes’ conquest of Lydia made Nebuchadnezzar suspicious of their intentions and this led him to strengthen his northern border. Behind the Medes loomed the Persians. This was clearly seen, rightly as it turned out, as a real, unpredictable threat – and one that prompted the construction of a comprehensive linear barrier system. Notwithstanding this attempt, in 539 BC Cyrus the Great led the Medes and the Persians into Babylonia which was absorbed into the Achaemenid Empire.

Linear barriers – survey

There were three lines of barriers at and above Babylon looked at here, starting in the south and going to the north.

Babylon to Kish – Line 1

Two walls of Nebuchadnezzar (604–562 BC) are known from a clay cylinder, dated to 590 BC when relations between the Babylonians and the Medes had deteriorated. (These compose Line 1 and Line 2 in this and the next section.)

Nebuchadnezzar’s Wall from near Babylon to Kish – This cylinder is inscribed: ‘In the district of Babylon from the chau(s)sée on the Euphrates bank to Kish, 4 2/3 bēru long, I heaped up on the level of the ground an earth-wall and surrounded the City with mighty waters. That no crack should appear in it, I plastered its slope with asphalt and bricks.’ A bēru is the distance which could be travelled in two hours so is variable according to terrain. At five kilometres an hour this barrier would be about 47 kilometres long. The problem is that this is considerably longer than the distance between Babylon and Kish – which is little more than 10 kilometres – unless the barrier followed a particularly circuitous route. Also, it would seem a fairly pointless military exercise building a barrier from Babylon to Kish leaving the flood plain open to the east from Kish to the Tigris. Using up the surplus kilometres would take the wall further east to Kar-Nargal, near an earlier channel of the Tigris, hence blocking the land corridor between the Euphrates and the Tigris. No physical evidence of this wall has been identified.

Opis to Sippar – Line 2

The second line ran between the cities of Sippar, above Babylon on the Euphrates, and Opis on the Tigris, the precise position of which has been lost. A number of walls are associated with this location in texts and there is a surviving wall called Habl-es-Sakhar.

Nebuchadnezzar’s Wall from Sippar to Opis – Nebuchadnezzar’s inscribed cylinder described the second wall as follows: ‘To strengthen the fortification of Babylon, I continued, and from Opis upstream to the middle of Sippar, from Tigris bank to Euphrates bank, 5 bēru, I heaped up a mighty earth-wall and surrounded the city for 20 bēru like the fullness of the sea. That the pressure of the water should not harm the dike, I plastered its slope with asphalt and bricks.’ This Opis to Sippar wall would have been about 50 kilometres long. Both the Babylon to Kish and the Opis to Sippar walls were water-proofed by asphalt so they must have been built in proximity to water – possibly water-courses like canals or in flatlands prone to flooding or swamping.

Wall of Semiramis – The geographer Strabo, citing Eratosthenes, when describing Mesopotamia, said the Tigris, ‘goes to Opis, and to the wall of Semiramis, as it is called.’ Therefore, this wall was in the region of the Tigris and the Euphrates’ convergence point. (Herodotus mentioned Semiramis’ works but did not specify a wall. Rather he described levees which controlled flooding.)

Wall of Nitrocris – Herodotus also described a Babylonian queen called Nitocris – possibly the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar and the mother of the Book of Daniel’s King Belshazzar brought down by Cyrus – whose constructions in Babylon were mainly connected with diverting the Euphrates. Nitocris built works in the entrance of the country (which is clearly a description of a land corridor) against the threat of the Medes. ‘Nitocris … observing the great power and restless enterprise of the Medes, … and expecting to be attacked in her turn, made all possible exertions to increase the defences of her empire.’

Wall of Media – In the Anabasis, Xenophon described how he led the 10,000 Greeks back from Mesopotamia. In it he encountered the Wall of Media twice. Here what is described is the second occasion when Xenophon actually crossed the wall itself following the battle of Cunaxa in 401 BC. ‘They reached the so called Wall of Media and passed within it. It was built of baked bricks, laid in asphalt, and was twenty feet wide and a hundred feet high; its length was said to be twenty parasangs, and it is not far distant from Babylon.’ Assuming that a parasang is the same as a bēru or a danna, that is a two hours march, then the wall was about 100 kilometres long.

Habl-es-Sakhar – There is a surviving wall in the vicinity of Sippar. In 1867 one Captain Bewsher described the ruins of a wall then called Habl-es-Sakhar – which translates from the Arabic as a line of stones or bricks. ‘The ruins of this wall may now be traced for about 10½ miles and are about 6 feet above the level of the soil. It was irregularly built, the longest side running E.S.E. for 5½ miles; it then turns to N.N.E. for another mile and a half. An extensive swamp to the northward has done much towards reducing the wall.… There is a considerable quantity of bitumen scattered about, and it was probably made of bricks set in bitumen. I can see nothing in Xenophon which would show this was not the wall the Greeks passed, for what he says of its length was merely what was told him.’ The description of the ‘baked bricks laid upon bitumen’ is like Nebuchadnezzar’s description of his wall between Opis and Sippar: plastered with asphalt and bricks.

In 1983 a joint team of Belgian and British Archaeological Expeditions to Iraq investigated the ruins of Habl-es-Sakhar. This confirmed that Habl-es-Sakhar was built by Nebuchadnezzar, for bricks marked with his name were found during its excavation. The team reported that Habl-es-Sakhar is the name of ‘a levee 30 metres wide and 1 metre high which could be followed for about 15 kilometres. A trench across the levee to the north of the site of Sippar revealed baked brick walls (largely robbed) on either side of an earth embankment. The earth core was about 3.2m wide and the brick walls about 1.75m in width. Between the brick courses was a skin of bitumen. On the bottom of each brick was a stamp of Nebuchadnezzar. If the wall extended to the ancient line of the Tigris it would have been nearly 40k long.’

The wall stood astride the northern approaches to Babylon itself. The wall’s function appeared primarily to have been military as it was not well situated to protect land against the flooding of the Euphrates which lay to the south. It is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that Habl-es-Sakhar is Nebuchadnezzar’s wall and Xenophon’s Wall of Media due to the location north of Sippar, the details of the construction, and the stamped bricks set in bitumen. This is rather satisfying because a surviving wall has been matched up with literary text.

Umm Raus to Samarra – Line 3

A third line of walls runs from Samarra on the Tigris to Ramadi on the Euphrates which delineated the upper limits of the alluvial plain where intense irrigation was possible. Here the fertile plain is not continuous between the Tigris and the Euphrates but the regions close to the rivers fit the description of valued irrigated land. As the rivers have diverged already significantly in the area of the third uppermost line, compared to the lower two lines, a wall that extended the whole distance would have had to have been much longer. Central sections might also have been purposeless as there was little valued, highly irrigated, land to protect and attackers would not have wanted to stray too far into less fertile land. This area is the site of two walls described in ancient texts and three surviving linear barriers.

Trench of Artaxerxes – In the Anabasis Xenophon described the march along the Euphrates, at the point where canals began, thereby indicating intense irrigation: ‘Cyrus … expected the king to give battle the same day, for in the middle of this day’s march a deep sunk trench was reached, thirty feet broad, and eighteen feet deep.… The trench itself had been constructed by the great king upon hearing of Cyrus’s approach, to serve as a line of defence.’ The trench does not appear to have survived but the site might have been reused to build later walls – the first being the Wall of Macepracta, discussed next, and second the surviving wall at Umm Raus.

Wall of Macepracta – Ammianus Marcellinus, describing the assault in AD 362 by the apostate Emperor Julian on the Sasasian Empire of Shapur II, wrote: ‘our soldiers came to the village of Macepracta, where the half-destroyed traces of walls were seen; these in early times had a wide extent, it was said, and protected Assyria from hostile inroads.’

There is a surviving belt of linear barriers which extends – with long gaps – between the Euphrates and the Tigris. The three walls mark the line where the fertile Babylonian plain peters out. There is the rampart starting at Umm-Raus which extends east from the Euphrates; El-Mutabbaq is a burnt brick wall with towers running west from the Tigris; and between them is a dyke named Sadd Nimrud (also called El-Jalu). Their dating is very uncertain.

Wall at Umm Raus – The wall, running east from the Euphrates, has been described: ‘From Umm Raus we see the wall running inland for a distance of about 7 miles, with rounded bastions at intervals for 2½ miles.… The wall appeared to be about 35–45 ft broad, with bastions projecting about 20ft. to 25ft., set at a distance of about 190 feet axis to axis. At its highest point the mound made by the wall is about 7 to 8 feet high. From the air it can be seen that there are about forty buttresses in all.’

The line may follow that of Artaxerxes’ trench. It is not a brick wall but an earth rampart. It was ‘never defensible, perhaps never finished’. Also: ‘This wall must have been designed … to protect the suddenly broadening area of fertile irrigated land to its south from raids and infiltration; large armies entering Iraq by the Euphrates would not have found it a serious obstacle.’

Again, there is the explicit mention of defending irrigated land. The Umm Raus rampart must date between 401 BC, as it is not mentioned by Xenophon, and AD 363, when a ruined wall was described at Macepracta by Ammianus Marcellinus.

El-Mutabbaq – The modern name, El-Mutabbaq, means built in layers or courses of bricks. This is a massive rampart lying at the boundary of the irrigatel alluvium of the widening Tigris valley south of Samarra and the desert to the north-west. It is about forty kilometres long and ‘has traces of turrets and moat on the north-west side and follows … the natural contours of the land. The rampart was four to six metres high, thirty metres wide at the bottom.’ It is, ‘a mud-brick wall three and a half bricks wide behind which is 10.5m of gravel-packing held in by a small mud-wall. The gravel packing was compartmented by mud-brick cross walls. There are projecting towers at regular intervals and a ditch about 20 to 30m. wide which is now about 2m. deep.’

The following description shows El-Mutabbaq as being designed to protect valued land against a nomad threat: ‘Herzfeld (a German explorer and historian) attributed construction to the threat of the Bedouin invading the fertile area along the Tigris by the river Dujail.’ These walls were seen as intended to stop nomads thereby affirming their ineffectiveness against great armies: ‘Cross-country walls of this type are notoriously inefficient at stopping great armies; this particular example could be outflanked without any difficulty at all. A stronger objection to any theory that it was designed to stop a great army is that it blocks the one route into southern Mesopotamia which, because of natural obstacles north of Samarra, invading armies have preferred never to use.’ The walls were intended to defend irrigated land: ‘El-Mutabbaq was more probably intended to help protect the irrigated land from unwanted settlers and raiding parties coming from the desert.’ There is no consensus as to the builder although they are described as Sasanian. Basically, these linear barriers do not seem to have been examined since the 1960s and remain effectively undated.

Sadd Nimrud – A dyke called Sadd Nimrud or El-Jalu, which is about forty kilometres long, that lies to the west of El-Muttabaq. This linear barrier does not extend the full distance between El-Muttabaq and the Wall at Umm Raus: ‘The fortification in the central area peters out in the direction of Falluja – perhaps as a considerable gap did not need to be defended – as armies could not advance far into the desert away from water.’ No date, other than this possibly being pre-Islamic, has been suggested.

Analysis – three lines at the Euphrates and Tigris convergence point

These three barriers between the Tigris and the Euphrates present a very baffling picture. They follow roughly the line where intense irrigation ceases. Rather than being a single response, however, they seem to be three discrete AD hoc reactions to separate threats to irrigated lands near the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. They can lay claim to being among the longest and oldest walls outside China, excepting certain Roman and Sasanian walls, yet there appears to have been no very detailed study of them. The attribution is generally vague – with comparisons made to features on Sumerian to Sasanian walls, in other words millennia apart. Generally commentators do regard them as forming part of a local response to the need to protect valued irrigated land in the immediate vicinity, rather than as having any strategic purpose to block routes into central and southern Mesopotamia.

Sasanian aquatic barriers

In the early fourth century AD a semi-nomadic people, the Lakhmid Arabs, who were originally from the Yemen, emerged as a serious threat to Sasanian Mesopotamia.

Khandaq-i-Shapur – Arab tradition associates Shapur II (AD 309–379) with a defensive dyke that reputedly ran west of the Euphrates, from Hit to Basra. This barrier is looked at again later when Sasanian barriers are discussed. It is clear however that the linear barrier was built to hinder the nomadic Arab people from the desert. Although this Khandaq is much later than the Egyptian Walls of the Ruler, it throws an interesting perspective on it. Firstly, there is neat symmetry. In the face of a threat from nomadic Asiatics, the response to both the east and the west of the Arabian Desert was to build a moat or canal. Secondly, the historian Yāqūt, writing later in the Islamic period, said that Anushirvan (531–579) who rebuilt Shapur’s earlier work, ‘built on it (the moat) towers and pavilions and he joined it together with fortified points.’ Therefore, this was a continuous fortified aquatic linear barrier. The fact that such a barrier was constructed by the Sasanians perhaps meant that Egypt’s early Walls of the Ruler were also a continuous aquatic barrier, strengthened by forts.


The Siege of Antwerp

Parma’s bridge across the Scheldt at Antwerp

Over the next few years the Duke of Parma consolidated the line between the loyal south and the rebellious north, and set about reducing the northern strongholds by means of a long succession of sieges, a process that culminated in the thirteen-month-long Siege of Antwerp – one of the most fascinating operations of the Eighty Years War. Parma’s plans involved cutting the city off from the north by building a bridge across the Scheldt. To many this was the strategy of a lunatic. That a river half a mile wide could be bridged while there were so many rebels around to prevent its construction was one reason for the scepticism. The other reason was that some years previously, when Antwerp was still in Spanish hands, William the Silent had attempted to build a bridge, only to see his creation swept away with the coming of winter and the pounding of ice floes. Nevertheless, William remained one of the few people to take Parma’s threat seriously, and he proposed a drastic course of action to frustrate Parma’s plans.

William’s plan involved the almost total inundation of the area. Downstream from Antwerp, the Scheldt was confined within its banks by a complex system of dykes, the most important of which extended along its edges towards the sea in parallel lines. On the right bank this barrier became the mighty Blauwgaren dyke, which was met at right angles by the equally formidable Kowenstyn dyke. Not far from where they joined, the Dutch had a strong fortress called Lillo. If the Blauwgaren dyke was pierced, it would take the Kowenstyn dyke with it and would cause such an extensive flood that Antwerp would become a city with a harbour on the sea. It would then be almost impossible to starve out.

Had William the Silent’s orders been carried out immediately, then Antwerp might indeed have been safe, but a fateful and time-wasting debate took place, and just a few weeks later William was assassinated. The idea of a massive flood was certainly not well received. In an echo of Alkmaar, it was pointed out that twelve thousand head of cattle grazed upon the fields protected by the two dykes. If Parma was intent upon starving Antwerp’s citizens, then surely there was no better way of helping him than by the Dutch destroying such a huge food supply.

The tiny village of Kallo, which lay about nine miles from Antwerp, became the construction site for Parma’s bridge, but the scheme was such a huge undertaking that by the autumn of 1584 little seemed to have been achieved. Antwerp continued to be supplied by flotillas of craft, which exchanged fire with Parma’s forts as they boldly made their way upstream. The Antwerp authorities then made an astounding blunder. It transpired that grain bought in Holland could be sold for four times its original price in beleaguered Antwerp, a mark-up that was attractive enough to make Spanish cannon fire an acceptable hazard. But the city fathers then set a fixed price for supplies brought in, and simultaneously regulated the accumulation of grain in private warehouses. Seeing their profit wiped out, the ships’ captains stopped the traffic stone dead. Even Parma could not have created such an effective blockade!

At the same time, the inundation urged by William the Silent had actually begun, albeit in a much-reduced fashion. Yet, ironically, the opening of the sluices on the Flanders side actually made Parma’s communications that much easier, because the flooded countryside now enabled him to give Antwerp a wide berth. By the time it was finally decreed that the dykes of Blauwagaren and Kowenstyn should be cut there were strong Spanish garrisons in place to prevent this happening. The Kowenstyn in particular now resembled a long, bastioned city wall bristling with cannon and pikes.

Meanwhile, the bridge grew slowly. On the Flemish side a fort called Santa Maria was erected, while on the Brabant side opposite developed one named in honour of King Philip II of Spain. From each of these two points a framework of heavy timbers spread slowly towards the middle of the river. The roadway was twelve feet wide, defended by solid blockhouses. Numerous skirmishers attacked the workmen in order to prevent the two halves meeting, but skirmishes is all that these attacks were. In spite of entreaties from Antwerp the vacuum of power since the death of William the Silent prevented any concerted attack from occurring.

Parma was also suffering from a lack of money. His army had not been paid for two years, and he was not yet in a position to promise early payment from loot. A botched attempt by the rebels to capture s’Hertogenbosch, Parma’s main supply centre for the siege, served only to increase the commander’s determination to complete his bridge, against which the wintry weather was now providing the only real challenge. The ocean tides drove blocks of ice against the piers, which stood firm, but in the centre portion of the construction the current was too strong to allow pile-driving, so here the bridge had to be carried on the top of boats. There were thirty-two of them altogether, anchored and bound firmly to each other and armed with cannon.

Parma’s bridge was completed on 25 February 1585. It was twice as long as Julius Caesar’s celebrated Rhine bridge, and had been built under the most adverse weather conditions. As an added precaution, on each side of the bridge there was anchored a long heavy raft floating upon empty barrels, the constituent timbers lashed together and supported by ships’ masts, and protected with iron spikes that made the construction look like the front rank of a pike square. An entire army could both sit on the bridge and walk across it, and, to impress the citizens of Antwerp, Parma’s soldiers proceeded to do both.

So that they should be under no illusions as to the strength and size of the edifice, a captured Dutch spy, who expected to be hanged, was instead given a guided tour of the bridge and sent safely back to relate in wide-eyed wonder what he had seen. `Tell them further’, said Parma to the astonished secret agent, `that the siege will never be abandoned, and that this bridge will be my sepulchre or my pathway into Antwerp.’

The Dutch ship Fin de la Guerre (“End of War”) during the Siege of Antwerp in 1585.

The first marine application of mine warfare occurred in 1585 at the city of Antwerp. Fighting for their independence from Spain, the Dutch were under siege by Spanish forces, who had built a fortified bridge across the Scheldt River to prevent supplies from entering the city. Frederigo Gianibelli sent a small ship loaded with gunpowder down the river, with a time fuse. The ship detonated directly beneath the bridge, destroying it and the Spanish soldiers guarding it.

The Diabolical Machine

The besieged citizens of Antwerp, however, still possessed one possible winning card. In their city lived a sympathetic Italian engineer by the name of Frederigo Gianibelli, and in a similar display of enthusiasm to that with which Parma had built his bridge, so did this Gianibelli determine to destroy it using exploding ships. His proposal to the city authorities involved the construction of a fleet, but by the time his project was approved the parsimonious city fathers had reduced the fleet to two ships, which disgusted Gianibelli, even though each of the vessels, to be optimistically named Hope and Fortune, was enormous. The two ships were nothing less than artificial volcanoes. In the hold of each was a chamber of marble, along their entire length, built upon a brick foundation. This chamber was filled with gunpowder under a stone roof, on top of which was a `cone’ – also of marble – packed with millstones, cannonballs, lumps of stone, chain-shot, iron hooks, ploughshares and anything else that could be requisitioned in Antwerp to cause injury when blown up. On top of all of this were piles of wood that gave the vessels the appearance of conventional fireships. The one difference between the two ships lay in the means of ignition of the volcanoes within. On the Fortune this was to be done by means of a slow match. On the Hope the business would be done by clockwork and flint, rather like an enormous wheel-lock pistol. The progress of these infernal floating mines was to be preceded on the ebb tide by thirty-two smaller vessels laden with combustible materials, which would keep the defenders of the bridge busy until the two great ships reached Parma’s masterpiece and utterly destroyed it.

The date for the attack was to be dusk on 5 April 1585, and the enterprise was placed into the hands of Admiral Jacob Jacobzoon. He began badly, sending all the thirty-two vanguard ships down the Scheldt almost all at once rather than in the steady progression previously agreed upon. On each bank, and from every dyke and fortress, the Spanish troops gathered in their thousands to gaze at the burning flotilla that was turning the night back into day with its ruddy glow. Some of the boats hit the forward barges of the bridge and stuck on the spikes, where they burned themselves out ineffectively. Others struck the banks or ran aground. Some simply sank into the river as their own fires consumed them.

To the guardians of the bridge the attack seemed to be having no effect, but behind these minor vessels there now loomed the two great ones. They meandered somewhat aimlessly with the tide and the current, because their pilots had long since abandoned them. There was a moment of concern for the Spanish when the Fortune swung towards the side of the river, completely missing the forward protective raft. It eventually ground itself while, unknown to the Spanish defenders, the slow match burned through. There was a small explosion, and some minor damage, but so slight was the effect that Parma sent a boarding party to examine the interior of the ship.

They did not stay long, because the Hope had now followed its sister downstream. Its precision in finding its target could not have been better if it had been guided until the very last moment, because it managed to hit the bridge next to the blockhouse where the middle pontoons began. However, as Parma had confidently expected, the bridge had been so strongly built that the impact alone caused it no damage. Expecting it to be another fireship, Spanish boarders leapt on to the deck, and with excited whoops of laughter promptly extinguished the decoy fire. With some sixth sense, an ensign rushed up to his commander and begged him to leave the scene. So earnest were the man’s pleas that Parma reluctantly withdrew to the Fort of Santa Maria. This saved his life, for at that very moment the Hope exploded.

Not only did the ship vanish, so did much of the bridge, the banks, the dykes, the fortresses, and for a brief moment even the waters of the Scheldt, as possibly the largest man-made explosion in history up to that date lit up the night sky. The facts and statistics of the act took months to establish, and still have the power to cause amazement. The entire centre section of the bridge disintegrated. More than a thousand Spanish soldiers died instantly, and their bodies were never found. Houses nearby collapsed as if hit by an earthquake, and the pressure wave blew people off their feet. From the sky there began to fall the cannonballs and stones that had been crammed into the ship, accompanied by the mortal remains of its immediate victims. Slabs of granite were later found buried deep in the ground having travelled six miles from the scene of the explosion.

The personal tales were also quite remarkable. One Marquis Richebourg, who had been in command on the bridge, simply disappeared. His body was located several days later, its progress through the air having been arrested by one of the chains Parma had strung across the river. Seigneur de Billy’s body was not located until months afterwards when his golden locket and an unpleasant stain on one of the surviving bridge supports provided identification. The fortunate Duke of Parma was merely knocked unconscious by a flying stake. One captain was blown out of one boat and landed safely in another. A certain Captain Tucci was blown vertically into the air in his full armour and dumped in the river, where he still retained the presence of mind to remove his cuirass and swim to safety. Another young officer was blown completely across the river and landed safely after a flight of half a mile.

The original plan was that immediately after the expected explosion Admiral Jacobzoon should launch a signal rocket that would send boatloads of armed Dutchmen pouring on to the scene. Instead, he was totally stupefied by the explosion and gave no order. No rocket was fired and no one advanced. During the hiatus Parma regained consciousness, and by displaying leadership skills of unbelievable quality he managed to marshal his men to begin to repair the damage. Even though the Dutch advance was expected at any moment, it never came. By daybreak, even Parma began to believe the unbelievable – that the Dutch rebels, having set off the largest explosion since the introduction of gunpowder to Europe and blown a hole in his bridge, were now going to let him mend it. Yet this is precisely what happened.

The battle for the Kowenstyn dyke

The Kowenstyn Dyke

With the initiative lost it took the defenders of Antwerp a full month to mount another attack on Parma’s besieging army. The new attack was not against his damaged bridge but on the mighty Kowenstyn dyke. As the target was an earthen dam explosives would not have been effective, so the goal of breaking the great barrier would be made by men capturing the dyke with pike and musket and then cutting it with pick and shovel. It was a low-tech solution, and it was likely to be a very bloody one.

Following a successful landing a fierce `push of pike’ began on top of the Kowenstyn dyke. The rebels could well have been shoved back into the water had it not been for the arrival of the other half of their army downstream from Antwerp. For once in this campaign a co-ordinated effort had actually worked, and three thousand men now occupied this small section of the dyke. Among them was an eighteen-year-old youth called Maurice of Nassau, the son and heir of William the Silent, who was experiencing his first real taste of combat in what was to become a renowned military career. While two walls of soldiers shot, cut and speared their enemies, the sappers began two very different but complementary operations: to reinforce the dyke with trenches and mounds, and also to cut a hole through it. At last a loud cheer went up as the salt water rushed in a torrent through the newly created gap. A few moments later a Zeeland barge sailed through.

It is to the great credit of the Spanish commanders on the scene that they did not immediately panic; they stayed calm, even though their leader was some distance away. They were also sensible enough to realise that a breach sufficient to allow a Zeeland barge through was by no means sufficient to permit the passage of an entire fleet, and if the dyke could somehow be recaptured then the rupture might even be repaired. Five attacks followed along the dyke in a manner that demonstrated beyond all doubt why the Spanish were regarded as the finest infantry in Europe. The last assault was successful, and it was not long before intelligence arrived in Antwerp that the wild celebrations currently taking place were somewhat premature.

The failure plunged Antwerp into despair and forced its rulers back to the negotiating table. They sought three reassurances from Parma: that religious freedom would be granted, that troops would not be stationed in the city, and that the hated citadel would not be rebuilt. Knowing that King Philip II would accept none of these `exorbitant ideas’, as Parma termed them, he reminded the citizens of Antwerp of the stranglehold he still had on their city. But he had other cards to play, and drew their attentions to the role of Antwerp as the `great opulent and commercial city’ that it had been in the past and could be again. What cause, what real cause, did rich Antwerp have with the heretical Sea Beggars of Holland and Zeeland? Surely the loyal south was more to their liking?

Parma’s own fears lay with the winter that was fast approaching. It turned out to be so severe that Parma’s bridge would have been unlikely to survive, but by the time winter came a settlement had already been reached. A minor concession regarding the troops to be stationed in Antwerp proved sufficient for all parties to be satisfied, and Antwerp capitulated with honour on 17 August 1585 without a shot having been fired at the city itself. There was no massacre, no sack, no pillage and Parma’s soldiers were paid not by loot but in hard cash. The noble Duke of Parma had achieved his objectives, and, unknown to him at the time, he had actually achieved something quite remarkable. By detaching the fate of Antwerp and the lands to the south from the United Provinces of The Netherlands he had effectively created a recognisable and workable border. In 1648, as part of the Treaty of Westphalia, this border was to be given both recognition and reality, confirming that Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, had invented Belgium.

Trench Warfare in the American Civil War

The Peninsula Campaign and Trench Warfare

When General George McClellan persuaded Lincoln (against the latter’s judgement) to leave only 75 000 men guarding Washington from behind fortresses and land more than 100 000 men on the Yorktown Peninsula on 22nd March 1862 to strike at Richmond by sea, he sowed the seeds of failure by keeping secret from the President the fact that he was leaving only 50 000 to guard the capital. For when Lincoln discovered the deceit, he withheld 25 000 men from McClellan. By then the General was enmeshed in what amounted to almost constant and costly siege warfare against a series of well-entrenched lines of resistance, dug across his predicable line of advance through the ten-mile neck of the peninsula, but guarded by only 60 000 enemy troops under General Joseph Johnston.

The campaign developed a pattern hitherto unknown in warfare. Excepting sieges of fortified cities, combat in the past had been of short duration, major battles rarely lasting for more than a day. The Peninsula campaign, commencing with the Battle of Kernstown on 23rd March as part of General Jackson’s diversionary activities in the Shenandoah Valley, and ending in the withdrawal of Federal forces from the Peninsula in August, consisted of almost ceaseless fighting. Including the siege of Yorktown from 4th April to 4th May, there were no less than six major battles in the Valley and nine in the Peninsula, connected by continual skirmishing and one major raid by a cavalry division. Moreover, the Peninsula fighting coincided with a major campaign in the west, on either side of the Mississippi, where the struggle to control that jugular vein of the Confederacy culminated in the bloody Battle of Shiloh on the 6th and 7th April; the capture of New Orleans by a Federal fleet of 17 warships under Admiral David Farragut on 25th April; and the fall of Memphis to Federal river gunboats on 6th June. Losses were colossal – 14 000 Federal and 11 000 Confederate troops at Shiloh alone. Exhaustion became endemic, halting operations.

Although these heavy losses could partly be ascribed to errors of raw troops, as well as to poor staff work, the underlying reasons were improved technology which had redoubled firepower, and crippling deficiencies in communication which technology had not yet solved. When McClellan advanced from Yorktown in the direction of Richmond, his progress was slowed by an out-numbered Confederate rearguard which gave ground only grudgingly on a wide front. This was possible because no longer did men need to be packed into tight ranks in order to generate sufficient volume of fire to maintain their position against assault. Reciprocally, the thinning out of ranks made them less vulnerable to incoming fire. Such gams were ameliorated further when men took to lying down to shoot or, better still, made a point of firing from trenches or behind cover instead of standing up in the open, as so recently in the past decade. Not that either army was yet able to apply the full devastating potential of modern weapons. Many old, muzzle-loading rifles were still in service, but a sound of the future ripped forth at the Battle of Fair Oaks when on 31st May, within sight of Richmond, a battery of hand-operated Williams machine-guns chimed in to support the first Confederate counter¬ stroke – a battle which was to save their capital city though it failed, with losses of over 6000 men, to drive McClellan back.

As had been shown in the Crimea and at Solferino, head-on assaults against a well emplaced enemy of equal calibre were no longer profitable operations of war. Even less viable was cavalry against modern artillery and rifle fire. The only chance of making a worthwhile mounted contribution was to ride through gaps in the enemy lines, both for reconnaissance and for raids, into the wide-open spaces of the enemy rear. In a country the size of America, and with relatively small forces engaged, there would always be gaps and nobody was better at exploiting these than General JEB Stuart, as he demonstrated between 12th and 15th June when he rode right round McClellan’s army, creating havoc in the rear and returning to Lee (given command in the field after Fair Oaks) with invaluable information about Federal dispositions.

Trench Warfare – The Lines of Petersburg

When Grant deluded Lee as to his true intentions after the Wilderness Campaign, managing suddenly to appear in mid-June with massed forces at Petersburg instead of further north as expected, the thinly defended city lay at his mercy. But war weariness and a conditioned caution held back the Federal troops who now approached all entrenchments warily as a matter of course. One quick determined rush by a Corps on 15th June 1864 might well have broken through. Three days later an army of 65 000 was insufficient to overcome the 40 000 men Lee had rushed to the spot by rail. Faced at first by an improvised line, the initial Federal assault failed from lack of co-ordination. Detachments advanced independently, inadequately supported by artillery, and were pinned to the ground by fire of only moderate intensity. By the time a set-piece attack could be launched on the 18th, the volume of defensive fire was annihilating, compelling Grant to call a halt and commence probing the city’s southern flank with a view to isolating it. Keeping pace with each Federal sidestep to their left, the Confederates extended their entrenchment to their right, always in time to meet each assault while fiercely contesting Grant’s further attempts to cut the line to Richmond or the one running westward from Petersburg. Assault was usually of the battering-ram sort – a blasting of the selected point of attack by artillery and mortars (the latter, with their plunging fire, being particularly suitable for striking at the deeper enemy emplacements) followed by a massed infantry charge.

Historians accuse those in charge of a succession of failed set-piece attacks with bungling. To some extent they are right, although they tend to overlook that the dimensions and ferocity of modern war had produced a complex problem beyond the knowledge and technology of the day to solve. `In war’, said a Prussian officer called Hindenburg, many years later, `only simple plans work’. In 1864 simplicity could not be adopted. Even if every plan had been perfectly devised, staff work impeccable, communication arrangements fault¬ less and every order executed implicitly, the weather, or the enemy could be expected to disrupt them. But nothing could be perfect in this form of warfare, with masses of men and numerous weapon systems somehow to be coordinated. Humanity failed in all its unpredictability. That way chaos and slaughter were assured.

The attack on the Redoubt at Petersburg on 30th July demonstrated in utter confusion the inability of commanders to make human courage prevail over material factors and human frailty. As a powerful augmentation of the, by now, conventional artillery concentration of fire, a mine containing four tons of black powder was to be exploded beneath the redoubt and its defenders. Placed in a cross shaft at the end of a 511-foot tunnel which a regiment of coal miners secretly dug, it was blown at dawn without warning to the enemy. General Ambrose Burnside, whose four divisions of infantry were to exploit the explosion, seems to have relied too much upon the shock effect of the mine; beyond doubt the measures he took to ensure that the troops not only occupied the crater but pressed on rapidly beyond, were ambiguous and unambitious. As for the troops, so staggered were they by the enormity of the explosion, the air pressure of its blast and the scene of carnage which met their eyes when they poured into the crater, that they lost all sense of purpose and stayed there all morning, poking about among the grisly ruins of dismembered men and equipment. On the Federal side leadership came to naught while among the Confederates initial shock was gradually overcome and a counter-stroke launched in the afternoon. Artillery sealed off the flanks of the 500-yard breach in the defences, as infantry rushed to the lip of the crater where they fired volleys into the disorganized mob below. The Federals were flung back with the loss of 3793 men. That day the Confederates lost 1182, including those blown up.

For the rest of the summer and into the fall, Grant strove fitfully to break the deadlock in front of Richmond and Petersburg, creating for the logistic support of his troops a comprehensive conglomeration of base depots, camps and railway spurs leading to within artillery range of the enemy. Facing the Confederate capital the entrenched front was some 37 miles long, manned by 90 000 well-provisioned Federal troops on one side, and 60 000 deprived but fanatically determined Confederates on the other. Try as he would to smash through, Grant was defeated. Likewise, Lee was rebuffed when in March 1865, a last sortie took Fort Stedman but got no further than its ramparts before it was stopped by a Federal counterattack. In a four-hour battle, the attackers lost twice as many men as the defenders – 4000 to 2000.

Had Grant’s exploits comprised the sole Federal effort in 1864 they could well have led to his and President Lincoln’s downfall in an election year. The disgruntled General McClellan was campaigning for the Democratic candidacy with a call for an end to the war. He might have won if General William Sherman, taking advantage of the dram of Confederate strength to the east, had not struck the decisive blow in the west.

Hohentwiel Fortress

The fortress resisted five Imperial sieges in the Thirty Years’ War, under the command of Konrad Widerholt between 1634 and 1648. The effect was that Württemberg remained Protestant, while most of the surrounding areas returned to catholicism in the Counterreformation.

The mountaintop fortress of Hohentweil under attack in October 1641.

1643 illustration of Festung Hohentwiel (Hohentwiel Fortress), near modern Singen, Germany.

The only feasible way from Alsace for an army is around the southern end of the Black Forest where the route divided. One branch ran north east to the upper reaches of the Danube around the Württemberg enclave of Tuttlingen and thence to Bavaria. This route was overlooked by the duke’s impregnable castle of Hohentwiel perched on an extinct volcano 263 metres above the surrounding plain. The other branch ran east through the towns of Überlingen, Lindau and Radolfzell along the northern shore of Lake Constance to the Bregenzer Klause, the pass giving access to the Tirol and Valtellina. The area between the lake, the Danube and the Bavarian frontier was studded with walled imperial cities, notably Ravensburg, Kempten, Memmingen, Ulm and Augsburg. The emperor was rarely able to devote significant resources to defending these positions, despite a strategic importance that grew with French intervention in 1635. Defence was left largely to local militia, especially in Villingen and the imperial city of Rottweil which guarded the back door from Württemberg through the Black Forest to Breisach.

Sweden Loses Southern Germany

Against this the Habsburg loss of 2,000 seemed slight and enabled them to claim a major triumph. Following a long succession of defeats, Nördlingen appeared to be vindication for Wallenstein’s murder and cemented the influence of Gallas and Piccolomini by associating them with victory. As at Breitenfeld, the scale was magnified by the demoralization of the enemy army. News of the defeat reached Frankfurt on 12 September along with a flood of refugees. The remaining Heilbronn delegates fled the next day. Oxenstierna tried to improvise a new line of defence along the Main to contain the defeat to the south. No one cooperated. Johann Georg failed to launch the requested diversionary attack against Bohemia, while Duke Georg refused to move south to hold the middle section of the river. Wilhelm of Weimar abandoned Franconia and fell back with 4,000 men to his base at Erfurt, exposing the upper Main to Piccolomini and Isolano who approached with 13,000 troops from Nördlingen and north-west Bohemia. Piccolomini took Schweinfurt, while Isolano destroyed the Suhl arms workshops that had supplied most of the Swedes’ small arms and munitions since 1631. Isolano and 6,000 Croats then swept down the Main in November, rampaging into the Hessian possession of Hersfeld.

The main imperial army moved west, bypassing Ulm to enter Stuttgart on 19 September. Duke Eberhard III fled to Switzerland and the last Württemberg fort surrendered in November. Only the isolated Hohentwiel on the upper Danube held out. While the Imperialists made themselves at home, the Spanish continued westwards and the Bavarians, now under the command of Werth, captured Heidelberg on 19 November, though its castle remained defiant. Riding ahead, Werth’s cavalry harried the remnants of Bernhard’s army as it fled to Frankfurt. The commanders of Sweden’s Rhine army refused to join him, on the ground this would spread demoralization to their own troops. Birkenfeld abandoned Heilbronn and retreated to the Kehl bridgehead opposite Strasbourg. His hopes of replacing Bernhard were dashed by Oxenstierna, who felt there was no realistic alternative to the defeated general. The death of Count Salm-Kyrburg to plague on 16 October enabled Bernhard to incorporate the former Alsatian units into his command.

Leaving Werth and Duke Charles to complete the conquest of the Lower Palatinate, Fernando continued his march down the Rhine, crossing at Cologne on 16 October to reach Brussels nineteen days later. Meanwhile, Philipp Count Mansfeld collected the Westphalians at Andernach, allegedly accompanied by a hundred coach-loads of Catholic lords and clergy eager to recover their property. As Philipp marched south, it looked as if Bernhard would be crushed between his hammer and Gallas’s anvil.

The situation mirrored that of 1631, only this time Protestant areas were the ones affected as government collapsed in the wake of the headlong flight of Sweden’s German collaborators. Suffering was also more general because the plague hindered the harvest, causing widespread hardship. There were signs that Emperor Ferdinand had learned the lessons of 1629 as efforts were made to restrain over-zealous Catholics. He intervened to stop Bishop Hatzfeldt punishing the Franconian knights for collaborating with the Swedes and the Jesuits were refused permission to take over Württemberg’s university at Tübingen. Political considerations undoubtedly influenced this, since Vienna did not want to jeopardize promising negotiations with Saxony. Archduke Ferdinand’s presence was another moderating factor. However, it often proved impossible to stop officers and administrators exploiting the situation, either to enrich themselves or to find cash for the perennially underpaid imperial army. Catholic government resumed relatively quickly in Würzburg despite the Swedish garrison holding out on the Marienberg and in Königshofen until January and December 1635 respectively.

Oxenstierna worked feverishly to salvage what he could of the situation, reconvening the Heilbronn League congress at Worms on 2 December. Though some members were willing to fight on, most sought a way out through Saxon mediation. Saxon and Darmstadt envoys agreed draft peace terms, known as the Pirna Note, on 24 November. Oxenstierna tried to stem desertion by publishing what he could discover of the terms, notably the suggestion of 1627 as a new normative year that would secure many of the Catholic gains.

Partisan Leaders

The horrendous losses of the 1638 Rhine campaign were a major factor behind this decline. Bernhard of Weimar was determined to achieve the objective set the year before and establish a firm foothold for France east of the river. This time he prepared thoroughly. Since he had wintered in Mömpelgard and the bishopric of Basel, he was already close to the stretch of the Rhine along the Swiss frontier to Lake Constance. This route offered an alternative to the previous year’s attempt to punch directly across the Black Forest. Though he had been joined in person by Rohan, who had escaped from the Valtellina, he still had few troops. Savelli’s Imperialists held Rheinfelden with 500 men, with other garrisons in Waldshut, Freiburg and Philippsburg and Reinach’s regiment in Breisach. These posts would have to be taken if the river was to be secured. He also needed a base beyond the Black Forest to tap the richer resources of Württemberg and the Danube valley.

Fortunately, Bernhard had an excellent spy network and knew how weak his opponents were. He also had the services of Colonel Erlach, a veteran of Dutch service who had been wounded at White Mountain and subsequently served Mansfeld and Sweden until 1627. Since then he had commanded the militia of his homeland, the Protestant canton of Bern. He joined Bernhard’s army in September 1637, although he did not leave Bernese service until the following May. His contacts with the canton’s patriciate ensured a good flow of supplies to Bernhard’s army.

Erlach also opened negotiations with Major Widerhold, a Hessian who was the Württemberg militia’s drill instructor and commandant of the Hohentwiel, the duchy’s only fortress still holding out against the emperor. Though he has now faded from the local popular consciousness, Widerhold occupied a prominent place in Swabian patriotic folklore into the twentieth century. He exemplifies the partisan leaders who played an increasingly important role as the rapid escalation of the conflict left numerous isolated garrisons scattered across the Empire. These sustained themselves by raiding and acted as potential bases should friendly forces return to their area. The Swedes in Benfeld, Ruischenberg’s Imperialists in Wolfenbüttel and Ramsay’s Bernhardines in Hanau are three examples encountered already. Others included the Hessians in Lippstadt under the Huguenot refugee Baron St André and his subordinate, Jacques Mercier from Mömpelgard, known as Little Jacob, who rose through the ranks of Hungarian, Bohemian, Russian and Dutch service. Both were contemporary celebrities incorporated by Grimmelshausen into his novel. A counterpart in Habsburg service was the Swiss patrician Franz Peter König, ennobled in 1624 as von Mohr, who distinguished himself in skirmishes around Lake Constance in the early 1630s. As these background sketches indicate, such men generally came from relatively humble backgrounds and made reputations and fortunes through daring exploits. They never rose to command armies and were often difficult to control. König was dismissed after becoming embroiled in a feud with the highly disagreeable Wolfgang Rudolf von Ossa, Habsburg military commissioner for south-west Germany.

Widerhold acted nominally in the name of Duke Eberhard III of Württemberg, but pursued his own agenda. Mixing terror with benevolence, he spared the immediate vicinity of the Hohentwiel and concentrated on longer-range raids against Catholic communities, forcing 56 villages, monasteries and hamlets to provision his garrison that rose to 1,058 men and 61 guns by the end of 1638. He was well-supplied with intelligence from friendly villagers who often participated in his plundering expeditions. He returned the favour on his death, leaving a large endowment for the local poor. His exploits became legendary. Once he caught the bishop of Konstanz out hunting and stole his horse and silver, and later he netted 20,000 talers by capturing the local imperial war chest in Bahlingen.

Blockaded since Nördlingen, Widerhold agreed to remain neutral after February 1636 because of renewed talks to include Württemberg in the Prague amnesty. Ferdinand III made surrender a condition for restoring Eberhard III in 1637, but Widerhold ignored ducal orders to comply and declared for Bernhard in February 1638. He remained a constant thorn in the Habsburg side, not least by raiding the Tirolean enclaves, and did not submit to ducal authority until 1650.


By draining other regions of their troops, Ferdinand III managed to collect 44,000 men in Bohemia by January 1640. Of these, only 12,400 were available as a field army under Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, reinforced by 4,100 under Hatzfeldt who had wintered in Franconia. Piccolomini was down to 13,000 in Westphalia, while the Saxons mustered 6,648, or only a quarter of their strength five years earlier. The Brandenburgers had effectively been knocked out. The Bavarians still totalled about 17,000 men, most of whom were on the Upper Rhine where there were perhaps 10,000 in total, including a few Imperialists. The rest were in winter quarters around Donauwörth and Ingolstadt. As these figures suggest, it was now very difficult to launch major operations in more than one region at a time.

His enemies were in a similar position. Banér was reduced to 10,000 effectives, while the other Swedish commanders had only enough men to hold their current positions. Banér had little choice but to evacuate Bohemia in March and fall back the way he had come the previous year to join Königsmarck at Erfurt. The units left to hold Saxony were defeated at Plauen on 20 April 1640, forcing the garrison in Chemnitz to surrender while most of the others abandoned their positions.

The challenge over the coming two years was for France and Sweden to establish a viable framework for military and political cooperation that had to include the Hessians and Guelphs, while Ferdinand pinned his hopes on frustrating this with one last effort to rally all Germans behind the Prague settlement. The emperor’s preference for negotiation was cruelly exploited by the Guelphs and Hessians who had used the winter to gather their strength and now declared their hand in May 1640. Duke Georg did this openly by sending troops to Banér, counting on Swedish help to prevent an invasion of Hildesheim. He nominally mustered 20,000, but in fact had 6,000 at Göttingen and garrisons along the Weser, plus a field force of 4,500 under Klitzing. Amalie Elisabeth acknowledged her French alliance in March, but still promised to respect the truce in Westphalia. With French agreement, Melander moved the 4,000-strong Hessian field force east to the Eichsfeld in May to reinforce Banér. Richelieu summoned de Longueville from Italy, hoping that he possessed sufficient personal authority as a duke to master the 8,000-strong Bernhardine field army. This moved back down the Rhine to join the allied concentration.

The emperor was obliged to match these moves. He still hoped to win over the Hessians and so accepted Amalie Elisabeth’s assurances. Nonetheless, Wahl, the new Cologne commander, was authorized to recover the positions her troops had seized over the last two years in breach of the truce. Hessian garrisons also became bolder, now raiding Paderborn. Piccolomini followed Melander east and joined Leopold Wilhelm at Saalfeld, south of Erfurt, on 5 May. They entrenched to block the way into Franconia. After a two-week stand-off, Banér fell back north-west into Lower Saxony, alarming the Guelphs who feared he would abandon them. Once they had promised another 5,000 men, he marched south again to Göttingen and Kassel. Leopold Wilhelm shadowed him, moving through Hersfeld to entrench again at Fritzlar in August. It was cold all year, the summer was wet and miserable and food proved hard to find. Banér’s second wife died and de Longueville fell ill, relinquishing command to Guébriant again. The Bavarian field army arrived from Ingolstadt, bringing Leopold Wilhelm back up to 25,000 men. After another four-week stand-off, Banér withdrew, allowing the archduke to advance north down the Weser to join Wahl’s 4,000 field troops. Together, they took Höxter in October, but the men were exhausted and ill-disciplined. The weather grew windy and even colder. Leopold Wilhelm retreated south to winter at Ingolstadt. Banér left 7,000 to blockade Wolfenbüttel, while the rest of his army made themselves comfortable at the expense of the Guelphs’ villagers.

Seemingly uneventful, this campaign completely shifted the war’s focus to northern Germany, transplanting the ‘little war’ of outposts from Westphalia to the Upper Rhine instead. Under Erlach’s direction, the Bernhardine garrisons operated from Breisach and the Forest Towns in conjunction with Widerhold in the Hohentwiel. The Bavarians retaliated from Philippsburg, Heidelberg and Offenburg, while the Imperialists sortied from Konstanz and Villingen. Neither side managed to spare more than 3,000 men from their fortresses, severely restricting what they could achieve. Erlach helped disrupt plans to besiege the Hohentwiel in 1640 by sending cavalry to collect the Swabian harvest. Claudia scraped together another expedition against Widerhold in 1641, but heavy snow and lack of food forced this to be abandoned in January 1642. Erlach and Widerhold scored the only success, briefly combining the following January to take Überlingen by surprise.

The Freiburg Campaign

The situation appeared promising for the emperor at the beginning of 1644. Sweden’s decision to attack Denmark at the end of the previous year removed the threat to the Habsburg hereditary lands. The forces there were reduced to 11,000 men under the rehabilitated Field Marshal Götz, allowing Ferdinand to mass 21,500 under Gallas who marched down the Elbe to help the Danes. Buoyed by their success at Tuttlingen the previous year, Mercy’s Bavarians totalled 19,640, or twice the size of France’s Army of Germany despite Mazarin spending 2 million livres to rebuild it during the winter. This was the first time since 1637 that the emperor and his allies began the year with an army large enough to go on the offensive on the Upper Rhine.

General Turenne had been recalled to command in Alsace, but his forces were too weak to fulfil Mazarin’s expectations of conquering land beyond the Black Forest. Mercy attacked instead, retaking Überlingen on 10 May, eliminating the last French gain from 1643. Having been repulsed from the Hohentwiel, he left 1,000 men to blockade Widerhold’s garrison and crossed the Black Forest to recover the areas lost in the 1638 campaign. Turenne was forced to abandon his own advance through the Forest Towns, double back into Alsace and re-cross to save Breisach. Duke Charles broke off another of his periodic negotiations and renewed raiding into Lorraine. Mazarin was obliged to redirect d’Enghien from covering Champagne to retrieve the situation on the Rhine. Despite dashing 33km a day, d’Enghien arrived too late to save Freiburg, which had surrendered to the Bavarians after a prolonged bombardment on 29 July.

Turrets used in the Maginot Line

There were six types of turrets used in the Maginot Line, in different sizes and styles. The turrets ranged from 1.98m in diameter for the machine-gun turret to 4m for the 75mm M1933 turret for two guns. The 135mm and 81mm housed curved fire mortars. The mixed-arms turret was a refurbished M1905 75mm gun turret left over from World War I.

In the mid-1920s the French high command appointed a new set of commissions to study the future defences of the French border in the north as well as in the Alps: the Commission de défense du territoire (CDT), Commission de défense de la frontière (CDF) and Commission d’Organisation des Régions Fortifiées (CORF). The CDF was the main decision maker. Composed of engineering and artillery experts, it met on multiple occasions to debate the nature of the fortifications to be built and to decide which types of artillery and infantry pieces to install in the forts.

The removal of 75mm guns from the flanking casemates at Verdun led to the diminished functionality of the forts. It became a policy of the CDF and later the CORF (tasked with implementing the ideas of the CDF) to create casemate and turret pieces that could not be used outside of the forts. Thus, the piece and the envelope in which it was placed were to be indivisible. This included both the gun barrel and the carriage. The new forts were designed to ensure flanking of the intervals with casemate guns; long-range, short-barrelled cannons in retractable turrets for frontal action; and heavy, medium-range mortars to hit areas hidden from direct fire. The forts would keep infantry troops and sappers at bay with mortars, machine guns and automatic rifles.

The 75mm M1897 cannon was selected as the basic cannon-howitzer for flanking protection. A shortened version of the gun (with the barrel cut to 30cm in length) was selected for installation in the 75mm M1933 turret. It was modified to fit a new carriage, affixed with a hydraulic brake mechanism to give it a shorter recoil in the enclosed space, and a ball joint on the end of the barrel to fit snugly in the embrasure. To cover the ground that could not be reached by the longer-range cannon-howitzer, the French also developed the 75R32 gun turret, a mortar with an even shorter barrel. Finally, the 135mm M1932 Lance-Bombe heavy mortar had no precedent in French artillery history. The CDF proposed the concept of a bomb launcher, like a trench mortar, in a retractable turret to defend a space 3,000m to 4,000m from the approaches to the fort.

In general, the armoured turrets of the Maginot Line were built along the same principles as the earlier models. The guns were protected by a thick steel cap within steel walls. This cylinder, called the gun compartment, rested on a pivoting tube that was connected at its base to a balancing arm and a counterweight. The turret was built to function by electric power but it was equipped with a backup manual system. The shells were stored adjacent to the turret and lifted up to the gun compartment in an electrically operated lift. Spent shells dropped out of the gun breech into a chute that fed them to the lower floor of the bloc where they were recovered and re-used. Each turret was positioned in a concrete well and protected by a thick layer of reinforced concrete. The turret blocs were located on the surface and connected by staircase or elevator/staircase combination to the lower level of the underground fortress, the ouvrage. The turret blocs functioned efficiently with a highly trained crew to operate the guns, which were swift to fire and highly accurate.

Maginot Line 1940

In at least one regard, the Maginot Line proved to be an unqualified strategic success. The French created it with several major objectives in mind, such as channeling the Wehrmacht’s initial thrust into Belgium, thus keeping initial fighting off French soil. The Line achieved this goal, though the French lacked the mobile armored forces necessary to exploit it and deal a knockout blow to the German advance.

The German high command, or OKW, recognized France as the next target after Poland. Overrun in 1939 by Nazi attacks from the west and Soviet incursions from the east, Poland furnished an excellent proving ground for Blitzkrieg tactics. The fighting there also highlighted the weakness of certain German weapons systems such as the Panzer I and II tanks. Production therefore shifted to more effective Panzer IIIs and Panzer IVs.

The invasion of Poland prompted Britain and France to declare war on Germany, starting World War II. Neither nation figured out to do next, however, leaving Hitler with the initiative. Conquering France and using that conquest as a springboard to either coerce the British into backing out of the war (Hitler’s preferred solution, as he hoped for an alliance with the English) or to invade the “Sceptered Isle” followed as the logical next step in the struggle.

The OKW initially believed no invasion of France could hope to succeed prior to 1942. However, a much accelerated timetable proved possible with the power of modern transport and paratrooper action to launch a swift, successful offensive, the kind of campaign seen in the Germans’ lightning conquests of Denmark and Norway.

As the French predicted, the Germans entered Holland and Belgium first on May 10, 1940, with the intention of both outflanking the Maginot Line and drawing its defending forces away to the north. A French army under Henri Giraud moved to the support of the Netherlands, but the Wehrmacht’s “new style” of warfare prevented him from his intended goal of linking up with the main Dutch military force. The Germans used paratroopers – the elite Fallschirmjagers – to drive a wedge deep behind enemy lines, preventing the French and Dutch from linking up, and the Dutch army’s main concentration fell back northward while Giraud’s French forces withdrew to the south. When German bombing set fire to Rotterdam, Holland surrendered on May 14, 1940, after which the Germans sent fire engines to assist in halting the blaze.

The Wehrmacht also struck more rapidly than its enemies anticipated in Belgium. Glider-borne troops seized the main Belgian fortress in a few hours on May 11th, and Fallschirmjager took key river bridges, once again exerting powerful control over the battlefield and cutting off much of the Allies’ potential for tactical and strategic maneuver. French General Georges Blanchard led the First Army forward nevertheless, and in two tank battles, he managed to halt the Germans temporarily, but events elsewhere proved the undoing of the French defense.

Rather than throw the main weight of their attack either into Belgium – where they knew the French awaited them – or against the powerful Maginot Line, the Wehrmacht sent a deadly thrust through the Ardennes Forest instead. The French judged the Ardennes to be largely impassible for tanks, which it had been during World War I, but the advanced tanks of the late 1930s negotiated the forested and soft terrain with little difficulty. The French left the Ardennes as a leafy gap in their national “armor,” a narrow but crucial weak point between the Maginot Line and the armies supporting Belgium.

While the French concentrated their attention on Belgium, 1,222 tanks, 400 other vehicles, and 134,000 men under the famous Panzer General Heinz Guderian rolled steadily forward down the labyrinthine roads of the Ardennes. Arriving at the River Meuse at Sedan on May 13th, the Germans immediately attacked across the river. The stunned French defenders, manning small, isolated bunkers rather than massive ouvrages, found themselves under a torrent of fire and steel delivered from the sky by 1,000 Luftwaffe aircraft, including the dreaded Stuka dive-bombers, while the German engineers forced a crossing. Small parties of Wehrmacht soldiers crossed immediately in rubber boats to knock out the bunkers, as recounted by one Staff Sergeant Rubarth, soon to be a recipient of the Iron Cross for his actions in taking no less than seven of these structures: “I land with my rubber boat near a strong, small bunker, and together with Lance               Corporal Podszus put it out of action. … We seize the next bunker from the rear. I fire an explosive charge. In a moment the force of the detonation tears off the rear part of the bunker. We use the opportunity and attack the occupants with hand               grenades. After a short fight, a white flag appears. … Encouraged by this, we fling ourselves against two additional small bunkers.” (Jackson, 2004, 44-45).

The French failed to counterattack this penetration successfully, and within 48 hours, German armored units had plunged deep into French territory to the west. Many French divisions in the area, made up of second-rate units comprised of reserve troops and pensioners, panicked and fled without firing a shot.

The French formed a defensive line deeper in the countryside under General Maxime Weygand. Here, the French gave a better account of themselves, fighting with immense courage despite their lack of hope until the concentrated attacks of well-equipped and highly aggressive Wehrmacht infantry, deep penetration by Panzer attacks, and the relentless dive-bombing of the Luftwaffe compelled them to fall back. “The words of a German soldier provide an apposite summary of events after 5 June when the French Army was fighting against odds of three to one on the Weygand Line: ‘In the ruins of the villages, the French resisted to the last man … Here, on the Aisne, the French regiments were determined to defend every last route to the heart of France, in a battle that would decide the fate of their country. The poilu had done his duty.” (Sumner, 1998, 4).

After everything that had gone into building it, the Maginot Line proper only saw action following these opening disasters. With the British in full retreat from Dunkirk and the Panzers pushing towards Paris, the Germans felt secure enough to attempt reduction of the Maginot Line on their flank. The first encounter with the Maginot Line involved four petit ouvrages on the extreme western end of the fortifications, known as the “Maginot Line Extension.” The Germans attacked the westernmost of these from May 17-18 after a preliminary bombardment that annihilated the ouvrage’s antitank defenses and barbed wire entanglements. A small, relatively weak position armed only with 25mm cannons and machine guns, “La Ferte” still resisted as vigorously as possible. German combat engineers used explosive charges and 88mm guns to blow open a number of the ouvrage’s turrets, after which they dropped charges inside. Return fire ceased late on May 18, and when the Germans cautiously entered the ouvrage on the morning of May 19, they found the approximately 100 defenders dead but mostly unwounded; they had apparently asphyxiated when the ouvrage’s ventilation system failed. Their commander, Lieutenant Bourguignon, asked his superiors repeatedly via radio for permission to evacuate due to uncontrolled fires in the fortification, but the French command refused to listen to him and the French soldiers slipped into their final sleep during the night.

Following this appalling failure, the French sector commanders, not wishing to vainly sacrifice more men, ordered the other three ouvrages of the Maginot Line extension evacuated, but events overtook the French defenders before they could carry these orders out.

The initial German thrust bypassed the city of Maubeuge and its defenses, but the OKW tasked following units with seizing the city in late May, despite the French emplacements defending it. The Maginot defenses in the area consisted of four ouvrages, named Bersillies, Sarts, La Salmagne, and Boussois, interspersed with 7 interval casemates, 13 casemates forming a 6-mile line in the Mormal Forest, and various small blockhouses. The French 101st Division of Fortress Infantry manned these positions, supported by 120mm and 155mm artillery batteries.

The 5th Panzer Division and the 8th and 28th Infantry Divisions of the German Army advanced to seize these defenses on May 18, and though heavily outgunned, the French defenders fought valiantly, pinning the German forces in place for four days before the Wehrmacht finally overcame them. “Boussois was the first to come under fire on 18 May. Although its 25-mm guns were no match for German 150-mm cannons and deadly 88-mm Flak, the little fort resisted gamely. On 20 May, […] The mixed arms turret of Block 2 at Boussois suffered some damage and was unable to retract, but it was repaired in the dead of               night. On 21 May, the powerful interval casemate of Heronfontaine repelled a German assault with its mixed-arms turret.” (Kaufmann, 2006, 162).

The Germans pounded the French positions with powerful mortars, including 210mm mortars, and repeated Stuka dive-bomber attacks, but the cement and steel resisted these strikes and the French fought on. The Germans finally reduced the casemates by attacking them from their blind side and using 88mm guns point blank. This damaged the ventilation systems sufficiently so that the French surrendered to avoid death by asphyxiation.

Meanwhile, the four petit ouvrages proved tougher nuts to crack. The Germans eventually forced their evacuation or surrender by use of demolition charges, 88mm gun fire directed point-blank at firing embrasures, and flamethrowers. The Wehrmacht troops found it necessary to lay down enormous smoke-screens so that they could approach the emplacements across open ground to lay charges.

On May 22nd, the Germans attempted the reduction of Fort Boussois. Their first dawn attack came to grief when their supporting artillery fire fell short and killed or wounded large numbers of attacking troops, forcing them to fall back. Later in the morning, a massive artillery bombardment forced the French to retract their eclipsing turrets into their wells, reducing defensive fire enough for German combat engineers to climb on top of the ouvrage. Locating the ventilation system conduits, the Germans dropped explosive charges in, knocking out the air purification systems. Faced with a slow but inevitable death by asphyxiation, the gallant French defenders surrendered at noon.

That afternoon, the ouvrage La Salmagne also fell. Smoke rounds enabled German combat engineers to climb atop it. These men used axes to destroy many of the machine guns protruding from firing embrasures and began their search for the ventilation shafts. The French, knowing the game was up, surrendered before their ventilation failed. The French evacuated their last positions on May 23rd, but the Maubeuge fight had demonstrated the toughness of even petit ouvrages and casemates against the era’s heaviest weapons.

The slow, piecemeal reduction of the Maginot Line continued, though the Germans focused most of their efforts elsewhere for a time. The Wehrmacht took a few casemates here and a petit ouvrage there, but they were mostly content to leave the line be for a time. This changed on June 14 when the Wehrmacht launched Operation Tiger against the Sarre Gap. This relatively weakly defended section of the Maginot Line lay between the two massively fortified, modern sections of the line guarding the frontier from Switzerland to the Ardennes. This southward offensive planned to pierce the Gap, defended only by blockhouses and dikes rather than a continuous line of ouvrages, with 11 infantry divisions against 5 French regiments, plus Luftwaffe air support and a colossal supporting force of 1,000 artillery pieces.

The Germans commenced their attack with vast artillery bombardments, followed by large infantry and vehicle attacks. However, the French defenders of the Sarre Gap fought back ferociously. The blockhouses, despite their small size, made good use of interlocking fields of fire to mow down the German attackers. The French also opened the gates to prepared “flood zones,” filling whole areas of the front with river water and thus further impeding the German advance. Pre-sighted French artillery pounded the Wehrmacht with lethally accurate shelling.

The German commander, von Witzleben, almost called a full retreat at nightfall on June 14, as the French had repulsed most of his attacks with heavy losses and the few gains appeared tactically insignificant. However, a German patrol in the Kalmerich Forest captured a French courier bearing a retreat order, which convinced Witzleben to order another attack the following morning. The French, falling back under cover of darkness, found themselves overtaken by a fresh German offensive the following morning. Once again, the French soldiers halted the immensely superior numbers of the Germans by using the defensive positions further from the border as a force multiplier. On the night of the 15th, however, they withdrew rapidly, enabling an unopposed German breakthrough in the Sarre Gap on June 16th. At this point, the Germans had broken the Maginot Line’s remaining defenses in two.

Despite the breakthrough in the Sarre Gap, the Metz and Lauter halves of the Maginot Line remained unconquered. Massively fortified and heavily armed, the fortress system readily survived the loss of the Sarre section at its center and continued to hamper German troop deployments across the border.

The Germans launched Operation Little Bear, a Rhine crossing at another weak point in the Maginot Line, on June 15th. 400 pieces of artillery destroyed many small casemates and bunkers outright, but the ouvrages proved immune, as usual, to both artillery fire and Stuka dive-bombing. By June 16th, the French retreated from their riverbank positions, but they did so only to occupy even tougher positions in the Vosges Mountains, limiting the effect of Little Bear and leaving the Maginot Line still essentially intact and combat-ready. This situation did not change until after the armistice on June 25th, 1940.

Nothing highlights the fact that the Maginot Line could have proved decisive if better supported and used as a base for aggressive counterattacks based on flexible, largely independent commands than the reality that its defenders were the last French soldiers to surrender. “[W]hen the armistice took effect, the main fortifications of the Maginot Line were still intact and capable of continuing the fight. Although active combat had ended,              several fortress commanders refused to admit defeat. Remaining defiant, they surrendered only after being ordered by Gén. Georges, and then only under protest. In early July, a week after the rest of the French Army laid down arms, the last fortress was handed over by its crew to the Wehrmacht.” (Romanych, 2010, 90).

Ironically, the fortress system whose name has become a synonym for a fear-inspired defensive strategy actually stood as the last defiant bastion of France during the Nazi conquest of 1940. Though this defiance remained largely symbolic, the final spark of French fighting spirit kindled for a moment in the Maginot Line.

Battery Lindemann

View of one of the 406mm naval guns while being installed at Battery Lindemann. The gun had a range of between 29 and 34 miles.


Photos from propaganda magazines showing Battery Lindemann under construction and completed.

Perspective view of Battery Lindemann.

Although the navy had its own construction units, this project was too large for them to handle. The OT had to deploy about 9,000 men to prepare positions for all the batteries in the Pas de Calais. Most of the batteries required for Operation Sealion initially occupied temporary firing positions until the concrete fortifications were ready to receive them.

Although the Kriegsmarine planned to position additional 380mm gun batteries along the Baltic after the summer of 1940, it gave the French coast higher priority in preparation for Operation Sealion. The new interest in the Baltic stemmed from the Soviet Union’s occupation of the three Baltic States in the summer of 1940, which gave the Red Fleet new bases outside the Gulf of Finland. The naval staff drew up plans for two batteries of 380mm guns, one to be sited on the Danish island of Bornholm and the other on the German coast near Kolberg to bar the Soviet fleet from the western end of the Baltic. Work began in November 1940 but had come to a stop by April 1941 as the site of the southern battery at Bornholm neared completion. The navy decided against emplacing any of the guns there and moved them to Hanstholm in Denmark, where work had also started back in November. The machinery and equipment went to Kristiansand in Norway, where another 380mm battery under construction was to join with Hanstholm to close the Skagerrak Straits. The largest guns were the 406mm (16-inch) pieces of Battery Schleswig-Holstein that the navy had installed at Hela on the Hel Peninsula in November 1940 to cover the approaches to Danzig. These were the ‘Adolph’ guns, intended for the 56,000-ton H-Class battleships. Organization Todt began the work late in 1940 and the site was ready for occupation by April 1941. The first gun’s test-firing took place in May, followed by the other two guns in June and October. The position included two munitions bunkers, a 23-metre-high fire-control position towering above the forest, and three large concrete emplacements for the turreted guns.

Not long after the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, the Kriegsmarine bottled up the Red Fleet at the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland, reducing the need for the heavy battery positions in the Baltic. In September 1941 the naval high command (OKM) determined that Battery Schleswig-Holstein would be better employed in France, and by December the guns had been dis mantled and made ready for shipment to the West. The gun crews and other personnel did not leave Hela until April 1942, by which time the guns were already in France. The OT had begun the construction of the battery position in December 1941. The initial designation was Battery Grossdeutschland, but later in 1942 it was renamed Battery Lindemann in honour of Captain Ernst Lindemann, who went down with the Bismarck on 27 May 1941.

Construction for Battery Lindemann had to wait until the arrival of the guns from Hela in early 1942, since the casemates had to be built over the guns. These guns first fired in the summer of 1942.

Construction of a Battery Position

The construction time for a battery with concrete emplacements varied according to the size and type of gun position. A simple concrete platform that allowed the artillery piece to rotate from its fixed position took the least time to pour and cure and constituted the first construction step for a battery position. At this early stage the position also included concrete storage chambers for ammunition. This first stage took a relatively short time to complete. A gun casemate for an artillery piece with or without a shield or turret required much more time to put together. The casemates for the super-heavy artillery had to be built around the guns, which took even longer than for most gun positions. A large artillery piece to be emplaced on a large concrete bunker-like position with a turret or shield for protection took about the same length of time since the structure’s concrete roof had to be poured and cured sufficiently before the installation of the gun. A large gantry crane had to be brought to the site to emplace the guns and their turret before the construction of the casemate walls and roof.

Battery Lindemann, the largest in the Pas des Calais, is a good example. Work on its foundations began at the end of 1941, well before the first guns arrived. Once the guns were emplaced, work continued through 1942. The last gun positions were not ready until late spring 1942 and the first test-firings did not take place until June and July.

It took from six months to a year to get most of these batteries operational. Besides the firing positions, munitions bunkers, crew shelters and fire-control posts, other positions also had to be built to serve the battery.

The battery was operational by June 1942 and formally inaugurated in September. It consisted of three 406mm cannon each mounted in a turret within its own casemate. The walls of the upper level of the casemate were built around the gun turret. Each of these Regelbau S-262 gun casemates, identified as Anton, Bruno and Caesar, were large enough to contain quarters and facilities for the garrison, as well as munitions storage. Separate chambers in the magazine at the lower level held 600 rounds, powder charges and fuses. There was also a heating and air- conditioning room, an engine room and a filter room. The intermediate level and the upper level housed quarters for the garrison, the NCOs and officers, with showers, toilets and other facilities. A guard post covered the men’s entrance and on the opposite side another, larger entrance with a guardroom allowed access to munitions and supplies. At the end of the entrance an overhead monorail system carried shells to a hatch and lowered them to the magazine level. The roofs were thick enough to resist 380mm shells. The overall dimensions of the casemates were approximately 50 x 47 metres

In 1943 the OT completed ammunition magazines large enough for trucks to enter, as well as a hospital bunker. Wire obstacles and sentry posts surrounded the battery site. In addition, the battery was defended by 20mm Oerlikon and 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns captured from the British, two 75mm guns, several 25mm and 50mm anti-tank guns, a few mortars and several heavy machine-guns mounted in Tobruks. The thirty Tobruks were Bauform/Regelbau-58c intended for machine-guns. An additional Tobruk mounted one of the two 50mm anti-tank guns. Near the main gate leading to the town of Sangatte there was a Regelbau-655, a troop shelter with one chamber for six men, one for ammunition and an attached Tobruk. This bunker measured 10 x 10 metres. The battery formed a strongpoint manned by naval troops, but many of the bunkers were army designs. At the main gate there were two pre-fabricated concrete one-man sentry posts.

A large, two-level fire-direction S-100 Leitständ (fire-control) bunker served as the eyes of the battery guns. The OT built only four additional bunkers of this type in Norway and Denmark for the super-heavy 406mm gun batteries and for two other batteries. The Leitständ bunker housed an office for the battery commander and the bunker commandant. A rotating steel cupola mounted a 10-metre stereoscopic range-finder near the front of the block. In front of it was an observation cloche. A telephone and a radio room for receiving and relaying instructions were in this forward section, below the cloche and range-finder cupola. The operators in these rooms also received information from other observation positions. Behind these rooms there was a large computations room where about a dozen men tabulated the information and used plotting boards and charts to make the calculations for the firing orders that were sent to the gun casemates. Beyond this large room, near the entrance, were chambers for officers, NCOs and enlisted men. A ventilation room and an engine room to power the bunker and its equipment were located at the end of the bunker on either side of the entrance and gas lock. The lower level included quarters for the enlisted men with showers, toilets and a heating room. This large bunker measured 28.6 x 20.6 metres. Except for the positions on the roof, earth covered the exposed surfaces. The entrance at the rear was accessed from ground level by an incline.

One of the key instruments for locating targets was mounted on the roof of the S-100 bunker. This was the See-Riese FuMO 214 radar known as the Giant Würzburg (Würzburg-Riese) by the Allies. The Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine both used this type of radar. The one at Battery Lindemann was a naval version. The radar, like the cupola for the range-finder, stood above ground level, since this was the only way it could function properly.

The entire battery site occupied a position 500 to almost 1500 metres behind the coastal cliffs that rose over 20 metres above the beach. The coastal road ran between the cliffs and the battery position, which began on a small rise. Here stands the S-100 fire-control bunker with a view of the sea. The ground drops slightly behind this bunker for a few hundred metres and then begins to rise. This is where the three gun casemates were built. The ground rises behind the gun casemates, forming an escarpment. The small rise in front of the gun casemates and the escarpment behind them hides the bunkers from sight from the sea. Anti-aircraft guns and their facilities were located at the top of the escarpment.

The S-100 fire-control bunker was forward of the gun positions on a rise in the terrain that leads down to the sea cliffs across from the main coastal road. The battery and all its associated positions were surrounded by obstacles that included an anti-tank ditch and a wall along a few sections. The outer perimeter consisted of about 700 ‘Belgian Gates’ that were once part of a continuous anti-tank barrier south of Brussels extending towards the Meuse between Namur and Liege in 1939-1940. Barbed wire and minefields extended beyond the perimeter. Some minefields were actually inside the perimeter. An electrified wire fence surrounded each of the three gun casemates.

he battery complex also included a medical bunker, H-118, identified as the hospital. This bunker, measuring 22.2 x 12.8 metres, was smaller than the fire-control bunker but was large enough to house a couple of wards for patients, an operating room, a storage room and the quarters of the medical officer and his staff. Near this bunker stood the huts for the garrison, and a little further to the west were the two large ammunition bunkers. These two bunkers measured about 20 x 20 metres and were built into the terrain. Only the tunnel-like openings that ran in front of each bunker and the outer wall were exposed. On the south side of the position, near or at the top of the escarpment, two areas on either side of the anti-aircraft positions were encircled with double apron barbed wire obstacles. One of these areas included troop accommodation and entrances to a tunnel system that was never completed. The other area included two observation bunkers to assist in fire-control. Battery Lindemann and its associated close-combat defensive positions formed a strongpoint (StP) known as StP Neuss. Strongpoints like this or for smaller batteries often included covered brick-lined trenches that allowed the troops to move relatively safely from one point to another. This strongpoint was so heavily bombarded that it was difficult to determine if there had actually been covered trenches on the site. Other obstacles included steel hedgehogs, anti-tank ditches, etc. An anti-tank ditch ran along much of the east side, outside the perimeter made of Belgian Gates, and was backed by a concrete anti-tank wall up to 4 metres high. The medical bunker, the fire-control bunker and the three gun casemates were linked to a water line with a pumping station located between the gun casemates and the fire-control bunker.

Some features that show up on plans of Battery Lindemann but are often ignored are the hydrants. High-pressure water hydrants were distributed at various points at the large gun battery positions –and even the U-boat bunker complexes – for fire-fighting because fire extinguishers in the fortifications had limited capabilities. At complexes like Lindemann, special features like the hydrants, air-conditioning systems for cartridge rooms and power generating systems were necessary to operate the equipment effectively.

The other heavy battery positions were not much different from Battery Lindemann and were usually part of an StP. The engineers and artillerymen had laid out the batteries to meet the needs of the weapons available to them. As a result, except for the types of structure needed, no two batteries were identical. At Battery Lindemann and Battery Todt the large naval cannon were mounted in armoured turret types designated as Bettungsschiessgerüst C/39, but at Battery Grosser Kurfürst the 280mm gun was found in a single gun turret mounted on a large S-412 bunker. Like the Lindemann and Todt casemates, this bunker included all the facilities needed for munitions, the machinery and the crew. Batteries Fjell and Oerlandet in Norway were even more impressive than the ones in France. Their 280mm triple-gun turrets from the battlecruiser Gneisenau were mounted on an emplacement with a concreted shaft that connected to the magazines and a tunnel system below it. The shaft of Battery Fjell below the turret was 17 metres deep and consisted of six levels that were used for loading the weapon. Battery Vara at Kristiansand, Norway, had 380mm guns mounted in a turret on an emplacement that was part of a complex of four large single-level gun bunkers somewhat similar to the 305mm guns of Battery Mirus on the Channel Islands. The S-169 gun emplacement was actually adjacent to the bunker facilities and not on top of the bunker as at Battery Grosser Kurfürst. Since there was nothing below the gun position, this type was considered an open emplacement. One of these S-169 gun bunkers – only four of which were actually built – included a casemate over the gun turret.

Csókakő Castle

Csókakő Castle – an artistic rendering as it looked during the late Middle Ages (Credit: Ferenc Tamas)

Towering above its surroundings, a fortress perched high above a village has a timeless appeal. It is a magnet to the eyes, allowing the imagination to wander back in time to the Middle Ages when chivalry and honor were seemingly all that mattered. It is as though warriors are still perched on the heights above, behind formidable walls, ready to defend to the death their lonely outpost. For the enemy, these same walls would have looked impregnable. They offered an almost insurmountable obstacle, but that was nothing compared to the topography. Sloping, precipitate hillsides were as much a part of an elevated castle as were its stone walls. By the time a besieging army attempted to scale nature’s heights, they would have despaired at the near impossible task of confronting the thick, stone walls ahead and above them.

Located in the Transdanubian region of western Hungary, high above an 1,100 person strong village bearing the same name, the medieval castle of Csókakő has stood the test of time. Its location bears as much responsibility for its security as the stone walls. The castle was constructed several hundred meters above the surrounding landscape on a rocky plateau that is part of the Vertes Mountains. The hillsides were nearly vertical on three sides of the castle’s strategic location. The lone approach was from the western side, but a defensive ditch guarded that direction. Natural geological processes that unfolded over millennia created this piece of highly defensible terrain. It is little wonder that the Hungarian nobility of the Middle Ages chose such a strategic setting to safe guard their existence.

The Ottoman victory at the battle of Mohacs, 1526, not only decided the fate of Hungary but also drastically transformed the battle environment and face of the combat in the western theater. After Mohacs, the Habsburgs, who had replaced the Hungarians as the Ottoman’s principal adversary, launched a large construction campaign of renovating old fortresses and building new ones based on the latest Italian designs. This was congruent with contemporary Western European experiences and pitched battles, and short decisive wars became very rare, whereas long wars of sieges and reliefs became the norm. Süleyman conducted seven large campaigns against Hungary between 1529 and 1566. Although the borders of the empire moved further west, none of the campaigns achieved the decisive victory that would have led to the stability and security the Ottomans required. This inconclusive state of events-in which fortresses changed hands, new ones were built, and the personnel strength of fortress garrisons ever increased – continued to dominate the Ottoman northwestern frontier until the end of the seventeenth century.

Because of the formidable terrain, Csókakő castle was a mighty symbol. Constructed in the late 13th century, it became one of the main political centers for Fejér County, second only to the royal coronation site at nearby Szekesfehervar. The castle was a critical part of a series of fortifications built to guard the road between the cities of Gyor and Komarom. Despite Csókakő castle’s supposedly impregnable location it fell to the Ottoman Turks during the 16th century. This was just the beginning of a chaotic period in the castle’s history. It was the scene of numerous battles over the next 140 odd years as it changed hands multiple times. For instance, in a battle that took place in the autumn of 1601, Hungarian forces under the command of Archduke Matthias emerged victorious. Less than a year later they had lost the castle. It was not until 1687 that the fortress was cleared of all Turkish forces. At this point the region was devoid of population and the castle began an afterlife as a ruin. After resettlement of the area the Austrian Habsburg’s had little interest in rebuilding the castle. They did not want to give any possibly rebellious Hungarian subjects a fortification that one day might be captured and used against them.

The County of Fejér – coat of arms

The coat of arms is a standing, triangular shield with a blue background.

An irregular green hill can be seen at the bottom of the shield and a castle stands on it. It is built of silver bricks. A spired bastion rises on either side of the castle. A drawn-up portcullis opens in the middle of the castle wall. In the middle a red topped tower rises above the castle wall. Two smaller triangular shields are put on the upper part of the shield. A gold bunch of grapes can be seen on the left shield. A gold vine leaf is joined to the bunch of grapes from the right. A gold handled, silver bladed knife can be seen to the left of the bunch of grapes. A silver stylized bird (a daw) can be seen on a gold twig on the left shield.

A stylized castle can be seen on the coat of arms which symbolizes the castle of Csókakő. The castle is divided into an older, upper castle and a later built lower castle in reality. Heraldry prohibits the representation of the space that is why only a civil-living quarters’ tower – which rises above the castle wall – symbolizes the upper castle.

On the right-hand side of the coat of arms the so-called – floating coat of arms – represents a stylized, silver daw. The castle and the village got its name after that daw.

On the right-hand side there is also the another coat of arms agrees with the original seal mark of the village or the rubber-soled seal mark from 1903. All in all it can be said that the coat of arms of Csókakő is a so-called information coat of arms since it tells us the name, the history and the geographical position of Csókakő.

Ancient Egyptian Fortresses


This was a site between the second and first cataract of the Nile near WADI HALFA, settled as an outpost as early as the Second Dynasty (2770–2649 B.C.E.). This era was marked by fortifications and served as a boundary of Egypt and NUBIA (modern Sudan) in certain eras. The New Kingdom (1550–1070 B.C.E.) pharaohs built extensively at Buhen. A Middle Kingdom (2040–1640 B.C.E.) FORTRESS was also discovered on the site, with outer walls for defense, bastions, and two interior temples, following the normal pattern for such military structures in Egypt. HATSHEPSUT, the Queen- Pharaoh (r. 1473–1458 B.C.E.), constructed a temple in the southern part of Buhen, with a five-chambered sanctuary, surrounded by a colonnade. TUTHMOSIS III (r. 1479–1425 B.C.E.) renovated the temple, enclosing a complex and adding porticos.

The actual fortress of Buhen was an elaborate structure, built partly out of rock with brick additions. The fort was set back from the river, giving way to a rocky slope. These walls supported external buttresses, which were designed to turn south and east to the Nile. A ditch was added for defense, carved out of rock and having deep sides that sloped considerably and were smoothed to deter scaling attempts. A gateway in the south wall opened onto an interior military compound, which also contained the original temples. AMENHOTEP II (r. 1427–1391 B.C.E.) is credited with one shrine erected there.


The defence of Egypt and its soldiers took various forms, including defensive building works (such as fortresses, walls, and border posts), the use of personal shields by soldiers, and, arguably, through political manoeuvres by Egypt’s rulers. One of ancient Egypt’s largest defensive projects was the building of border fortresses. There were several examples of these built throughout Dynastic Egypt’s history on the orders of several pharaohs. One of the most famous Pharaohs, Ramesses II, ordered the building of a line of such fortresses along Egypt’s northwestern coast in a bid to prevent further infiltrations into his lands by the ‘Sea Peoples’.

As previously discussed, prior to the New Kingdom, Egypt usually had a policy of defending its existing borders rather than looking outwards at the state’s geographical and political expansion. As a result of this particular outlook, Egypt had no standing army, but instead relied almost exclusively on provincial militias and conscription when threatened with invasion. One example of this took place in the Sixth Dynasty (during the reign of Pepi I) when an attempted invasion by the ‘sand-dwellers’ or ‘Shasu’ threatened his eastern borders. The force raised by Pepi I was led by Weni, a court official with no previous military leadership experience. With numbers on his side Weni’s lack of experience was overcome, leading to a successful outcome for Egypt. Due to this Weni was then appointed as the army commander for at least four more operations against the ‘sand-dwellers’. It would seem that Pepi I was perfectly content to leave his army’s activities at defensive manoeuvres and had no desire, and perhaps no resources, to expand Egypt’s borders at that time. So did Old Kingdom military/defence attitudes influence the building of fortresses? Fortresses certainly do not seem to have been designed specifically for outward invasions.

Fortresses (rather than fortified towns) were built by the ancient Egyptians in order to guard and control Egypt’s vulnerable northern and southern frontiers. These, primarily mudbrick, structures could hold up to a few hundred troops (occasionally comprising Nubian, Philistine, or Libyan soldiers), serving for up to six years at a time. According to the Semna Papyri (reports that were sent by the commander of the fortress at Semna to the military headquarters at Thebes during the reign of Amenemhat III), these troops had to carry out surveillance and reconnaissance patrols of the surrounding areas at regular intervals. There were examples of fortresses (called the Walls of the Prince) that were built in the eastern Delta during the reign of Amenemhat I (1991-1962BC), which were designed to defend the coastal route from the Levant. This was at around the same time as a fortress was built at Wadi Natrun, which was designed to defend the western Delta region against invading Libyans. These sites were maintained and improved during the New Kingdom, perhaps as a way to prevent reinvasion by the Hyksos, who had ruled this area of Egypt in the Second Intermediate Period between the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom.

The mudbrick fortress of Buhen, in Lower Nubia (in the Second Cataract, 156 miles upstream of Aswan), is one of the most well-known and impressive of these structures. Buhen was one of the most elaborate of ancient Egypt’s fortresses and united all the Second Cataract fortresses under its command by the time of the New Kingdom. Initially founded in the Second Dynasty, the site was established early on as a trade centre, becoming known for copper-smelting in the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties. It was during the Middle Kingdom that the fortress was enlarged and strengthened in order to become a frontier fortress, one of a string of eleven in the area. These improvements took the form of mudbrick ramparts added to the 4m thick outer western wall, which itself incorporated five large towers. There was also a large central tower that served as the main entrance (comprising two openings with double wooden doors) and a drawbridge. The inner fortress was built along a more regular square plan and had towers at each corner along with bastions that were at 5-metre intervals.

While fortresses always played a defensive role to some extent, there are many interpretations as to their core role, both in terms of function and symbolism. Shaw is of the opinion that these Nubian fortresses were not designed for border defence but were, in fact, to protect Egypt’s monopoly on exotic trade goods (such as gold and ivory) which were brought up through Nubia into Egypt.412 Archaeologists generally believe that fortresses such as Buhen were designed for propaganda reasons, with elaborate crenellations, bastions, and ditches. As Buhen was built on flat ground with a square ground-plan it would have looked very impressive but, arguably, would have been difficult to defend effectively as it lacked any advantage, such as being built on top of a hill or other elevated land. Certainly by the New Kingdom, Buhen had become a primarily civilian settlement, as Egypt’s frontiers were pushed further south.

Arguments on their exact role aside, the importance of fortresses cannot be ignored and the erection of new fortresses (or rather forts and walls) continues long throughout the New Kingdom and beyond. Some of the most notable include the string of forts along the Mediterranean coast of the Delta that were commissioned by Ramesses II and the forts at Qasr Ibrim and Qasr Qarun that were built by the Roman rulers in the Graeco-Roman Period of Egypt’s history. During periods of great disturbance (such as the Third Intermediate Period and the Late Period) there was an increase in the building of fortifications. The Kushite King Piye even boasted on his stele at Gebel Barkal of his defeat of the Egyptians in 734BC, which includes a mention of Middle Egypt and its nineteen fortified settlements along with various walled cities in the Egyptian Delta.416 This boasting by Piye shows the importance of fortresses in the defence of ancient Egypt, at least in the minds of Egypt’s enemies.

The fortress of Mirgissa

Egyptian Fortresses

Egypt’s Largest Ancient Fortress Unearthed