Siege of Güns

Suleiman the Magnificent was already in Belgrade. His arrival in this “gold key to Europe,” as Belgrade was called, had been an occasion to put the sultan’s magnificence on full display. The city’s streets were adorned with triumphal Roman arches, every bit as grand as those that had adorned Bologna for the coronation of Charles V. Indeed, the Belgrade spectacle seemed intended specifically to surpass the opulence of the Bologna event. Standard-bearers carried banners with Mohammed’s name embossed in jewels and other flags displaying elegant Ottoman symbols. Pages carried fantastic gold-and-jeweled helmets, more amazing than the crown Charles had worn in Bologna. Other pages carried a box containing the actual mantle of the Prophet and two of his swords. The sultan, wearing an immense turban and a fur-lined purple caftan, sat astride a jeweled saddle on an enormous horse that was caparisoned with brocade and whose bridle contained an egg-sized turquoise gem.

The sultan tarried in Belgrade for several weeks, combining military strategy and diplomacy with dazzling ceremonies. Ambassadors from Vienna turned up again, first at Nis and then at Belgrade, offering a much larger annual tribute and withdrawing previous demands about Buda and the recognition of Ferdinand. They were treated roughly at first by Ibrahim, before they were ushered into the presence of the sultan. The audience was choreographed by Ibrahim to induce the utmost awe and amazement. Suleyman sat upon a golden throne whose supports were fashioned to look like quivers containing golden arrows and that were covered with jewels. Upon his head was a stunning golden helmet that had been made by the finest goldsmiths of Venice and that was designed as four golden crowns, one superimposed upon the next, and sprouted jewels as if they were star-bursts. The helmet bore a vague resemblance to the tiara of the pope, but was far more magnificent. One observer called the helmet-crown “the trophy of Alexander the Great.”

In this audience little was said, for, according to a Venetian report, the ambassadors were rendered “speechless corpses.” To them Suleyman again delivered his stark challenge to Charles V. Was he great of heart? If so, let him await me in the field. With that the ambassadors were dismissed unceremoniously to return home empty-handed.
Treated with greater dignity and even more elaborate pomp was a delegation that came from Francis I. Despite the French king’s promise in the Peace of the Ladies three years before to give up consorting with Turks and to join in the defense of Christian Europe, Francis had actually made a secret alliance with Suleyman’s vassal János Zápolya to support the Transylvanian’s claim as king of Hungary. In return, Zápolya agreed that Francis’s second son would succeed Zápolya on the Hungarian throne. The French envoys were taken for audiences with commanders and viziers, and treated to parades by the Anatolian and Rumelian armies. In their audience with the sultan, the French ambassadors tried to dissuade the sultan from going forward with his European invasion, lest it do what in fact it was doing: uniting the Catholics and Protestants and making the Holy Roman emperor even more powerful. Ibrahim Pasha turned the request aside gently. Matters had proceeded too far. There was no turning back from this epic duel for the mastery of the world. The matter had become personal. If he turned back now, Suleyman said, “They would say that I am afraid of the king of Spain.”

From his golden throne the sultan could survey his vast Balkan dominion with satisfaction. The Turks held virtually all of Croatia to the west with the exception of a few coastal cities like Dubrovnik. They held the territory between the Sava and Drava rivers known as Slavonia. They had occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina for nearly seventy years, and Serbia south to Kosovo for almost one hundred and fifty years. In all of these territories, conversion to Islam had been spirited. When Suleyman’s army moved into Hungary, it would encounter a more mixed situation, but the campaign ahead offered the opportunity to reward those who supported his vassal János Zápolya and to punish those who had defected to Archduke Ferdinand.

In the second week of July 1532, the Ottoman army decamped and moved north, while a formidable Turkish fleet on the Danube shadowed the ground forces. At Osijek, the armies crossed the Drava River over twelve pontoon bridges and soon entered southern Hungary. Heavy rain and interminable swamps hindered the progress, but not as dramatically as during the previous invasion. Eight thousand janissaries led the way, their heavy drums and reedy horns announcing the advance. They were followed by more than a hundred cannons, by a contingent of tribute boys with their long hair and scarlet caps festooned with white feathers, and a group of harriers with their hawks and hounds. The Eagle of the Prophet, encrusted with pearls and precious stones, preceded the suite of the sultan himself. Behind him came tens of thousands of soldiers and an immense baggage train pulled by camels and elephants.

The juggernaut moved north through western Transdanubia, taking the more direct overland route to Vienna through Székesfehérvár and Györ, slogging through the swamps south of Lake Balaton (and leaving many of their heavy siege cannons in the mire), skirting the lake itself and avoiding Buda altogether. At town after town, fortress after fortress, local commanders under the sway of Zápolya came out to greet the Turks and offer the keys to their garrisons. Rewards were handed out accordingly.

At Györ the Sultan tarried for discussions with his advisers. There, the Turkish high command made an important strategic decision. The Ottoman navy would continue upriver to Pressburg, and an advance division of sixteen thousand light-armed raiders would proceed to the environs of Vienna, while the main body of the army would proceed west overland to the southern edge of Lake Neusiedler. From there it would turn south to the town of Güns, the first of the small fortresses under the sway of Ferdinand I. After the army made quick work of that tiny fortress, it would move west into the grasslands and meadows of southeast Austria. They hoped Charles V would be lured from his refuge across the Alps to the open and lovely landscape of Styria into the final apocalyptic battle between emperors and religions and continents to determine whether Islam or Christianity was the dominant and superior force in the world.

By now it was early August, prime fighting season, and the Christian force was indeed massing in southern Bavaria at Regensburg. Charles had been elated at how quickly and enthusiastically his army of defense had mobilized itself. On August 9 he had written to his wife that all the states of Germany, including the Protestant ones, had acted with dispatch and zeal. Within a matter of a few weeks, a combined force of Germans, Austrians, Italians, Spanish, and Dutch had been joined by some twenty thousand Lutheran landsknechts. The total strength of the force was about eighty thousand. Charles was well pleased. The moment for which he had been born and risen to power had arrived. This clash would mark his fulfillment as the secular defender of the faith. This was the highest calling of chivalry. In the words of the Order of the Golden Fleece, the society of European Christian nobles of which he was head, he had been brought to this place and this time to lead the fight “for the reverence of God and the maintenance of our Christian Faith, and to honor and exalt the noble order of knighthood.”

On August 9, the first elements of the Turkish army under Ibrahim Pasha arrived in the environs of Güns. To their dismay, instead of a meek and subservient official bowing and offering the keys to the town, the Turkish advance guard was confronted with Hungarian knights in full battle armor. Upon further inspection, it was determined that all the surrounding villages around Güns had been set aflame, the fields of fodder torched, and the wells poisoned. By the time Suleyman himself arrived three days later with the main army, it was clear that not only would the fortress not surrender, but it planned a stiff defense.

The stubborn leader of this affront was a familiar figure, the Croatian nobleman Nicolas Jurischitz, who just months before had presented the tribute offer for Archduke Ferdinand to the Sublime Porte in Constantinople. Against the mighty Turkish army of over seventy thousand soldiers, Jurischitz had arrived in Güns several weeks before in the company of ten fully armed knights and twenty-eight light cavalrymen. The town itself boasted about a thousand able-bodied men and several thousand women, children, and old people. Güns was a classic “castle town,” with low walls, a fortress, and a barbican or gate tower; its walls were surrounded by a moat that was fed by a millrace that coursed down the hill from the north.

Jurischitz saw his mission clearly. To Ferdinand I he wrote, “I have volunteered to fight against the Turkish emperor and his army. I fight not because I presume to equal his force, but only so as to delay him a little while to give time for Your Royal Majesty to unite with the Christian Holy Roman Emperor.” Slowing down the Islamic cyclone, therefore, was his sole purpose.

That the Christians dared to challenge so overwhelming a force was, at first, a source of bemusement to the Turkish high command. Wrote the sultan’s chancellor, “As soon as the mind of His Highness, Ibrahim Pasha, became enlightened as to the situation of the castle, he, like so many lions in courage, intended to break the pride of those locked within and to open the gate of triumph and attach this castle to the string of other fortifications he had conquered.” It would not be so easy.

In classic fashion, the light cannons known as falcons and falconets opened a barrage against the walls, to little effect. The Turks quickly realized they needed the heavy cannons that they had discarded in the swamps of Lake Balaton. Moreover, the defenders had the brio to sally out of their fortress and inflict considerable loss on the besiegers. Six days into the siege a number of all-out assaults had been repelled, and the Turkish forces grew restless. Grumbling about Ibrahim Pasha’s command began; he had promised quick victory and plentiful booty. Men began to drop from starvation. Heavy rain and hail complicated the situation, and supplies started to run short. “We are short of bread,” a Turkish dispatch read. “We have enough grain, but there are no mills to grind it, so we are short of flour.” Twelve days into the siege, Turkish mines brought down a forty-foot section of the wall. But the charge of the janissaries into the breach was turned back.

If the siege was faltering, the will of the defenders was also waning. Scrolls were lobbed over the walls to the Turkish side, describing a desperate situation and encouraging negotiations. But Jurischitz rallied his motley force. Finally, on August 27, after another furious assault was turned back, Ibrahim Pasha offered to talk. The first exchanges stalled, and the siege resumed. At one point eight Ottoman flags were planted on the walls, but they soon disappeared. With no further progress, Ibrahim offered to talk a second time. His sudden interest in peace negotiations had behind it a considerable incentive: his janissaries were on the verge of revolt.

After two full weeks, the garrison still held out. Their exasperation tinged with grudging admiration, the Turks turned to diplomacy in earnest. Messages began to be exchanged between the sides. Did the fortress commander propose to continue his “futile display of arrogance and pride?” If he would surrender, a free passage to freedom was promised. Jurischitz replied that he was merely the servant of the Holy Roman emperor, who had entrusted the town and fortress to his care. As such he would surrender to no one as long as he lived. Next came an offer of money to the defenders, one gold ducat for every house in the town, though their superiors would have to pay considerable tribute for the trouble they had caused the great Suleyman. To this Jurischitz replied that the town did not belong to him but to his master. He was in no position to take money for it. As for the ducats for the sultan’s troubles, he barely had enough money to pay his own soldiers. As each of these retorts were reported to Suleyman, he grew more livid. He ordered one more furious assault. Word was passed through the Turkish ranks. “I will have the head of my enemy, or he will have mine,” Suleyman was quoted as saying.

When huge wooden, pyramid-shaped assault towers were rolled close to the high walls, the defenders filled barrels with sulfur, tar, and tallow, set them on fire, and burned the towers. As their defense went into folklore, it was said that during this last assault “a rider of vast and imposing stature appeared in the sky, brandishing a flaming sword. This engendered such fear in the Turks that they retreated from the walls.” St. Martin himself had become, in folklore, the savior of Güns.

When the dust of this final assault settled, a Turkish herald approached the walls and shouted a question. Was the commander still alive? Jurischitz was, in fact, wounded. Half his garrison was dead, and his remaining soldiers were ready to give up. The store of gunpowder was virtually depleted. But the Croatian shouted back that he lived still. Then, shouted the herald, the grand vizier demanded a conference with him. Safe conduct was promised, and two Turkish hostages came forward to remain in Christian hands while their leader talked to the enemy.

Jurischitz instructed his comrades that if something happened to him, they were not to surrender the castle. “Thus, alone and timid,” he wrote later, “I left the fortress with my escort that consisted of a thousand janissaries with their captain riding by my side.”
At Ibrahim Pasha’s sumptuous tent the Croatian commander was greeted with ceremony and respect. The grand vizier rose to welcome him warmly and conveyed him to a seat of honor. Ibrahim inquired about the commander’s injuries with evident sincerity. Were the wounds dangerous? he asked. Soon enough, he came to the point. Why had Jurischitz not surrendered? Ibrahim went down the long list of other commanders who had done so in the face of so mighty a force. So much pain and suffering could so easily have been avoided. Ibrahim then turned to the status of Jurischitz’s Christian masters, displaying a precise awareness of where Charles’s Christian army was now encamped. Did the Croatian expect the king of Spain to come to his relief? There was almost a note of hope in Ibrahim’s voice.

If Jurischitz had at Güns proved himself a great warrior, he was no less a diplomat. To each of the grand vizier’s questions, he had an elegant response. He thanked Ibrahim for his concern about his wounds. Only his honor had prevented him from giving up, for he could not endure the humiliation of surrendering without being forced to do so. Gradually, it dawned on Jurischitz that Ibrahim was attempting to lure him over to the Turkish side. How could the Croatian bear to live under so tyrannical a rule as this? Ibrahim asked. The great Suleyman was offering a gift of his grace for the castle, the city, its citizens, and the commander himself. As long as the sultan had ruled, never had his people fallen to such a low state as the people of Güns. Rising decorously, Ibrahim Pasha offered his hand and proposed to take Jurischitz for an audience with the Grand Turk, only a short distance away. The commander needed only to bow before the sultan and he would be saved.
Jurischitz declined.

“I know the power of your grace over the Grand Turk,” he said. “My respect for him will not allow me to present myself to him in such a weakened state. I am too weak to bow.”
It had been a delicate dance. “I noticed how pleased Ibrahim seemed to be by showing my reverence and great esteem for him,” the Croatian wrote to the archduke a day later. Flattery had gotten him everywhere. He knew full well that had he given offense, another assault would have followed and that would have been the end of it. At the parting, Ibrahim presented Jurischitz with a magnificent robe of honor.

As the Christian commander was escorted back to the castle, the janissary captain asked if he might come inside the walls to congratulate the brave defenders. Jurischitz did not think it was a good idea. Unruly Germans and Spanish soldiers were inside over whom he had little control, he said. The captain’s safety could not be guaranteed. Not long after, Ibrahim Pasha appeared in person outside the walls. Please do not harm further any injured Turks who might be inside the walls, he shouted to Jurischitz. There were none, the commander shouted back.

“If you are well and wish to ride to the gates of Vienna with His Majesty’s ambassadors, it can be arranged,” Ibrahim shouted. There would be no last assault, only a last effort at recruitment. Again the Croatian thanked the grand vizier for his generous offer, but he must decline. He had fought them for twenty-five days, he shouted back. His defense was more important to him than any major battle or any other honor could be.
Ibrahim nodded his understanding. “You speak the truth,” he said and rode away.

The strangest of conclusions was arranged for this historic David-and-Goliath affair. To save face, a contingent of janissaries was permitted to occupy a breach in the walls for several hours. There they planted their huge flag in the rubble, green in its background, with thick white Arabic lettering: “There is but one God, and Mohammed is his prophet.” As the janissaries sang and chanted boisterously, accompanied by loud drums and horns, Ibrahim sent his congratulations to Suleyman. Heavy rain began to fall, but it did not dampen the farce. Suleyman himself wrote the good news in his diary, as if he were writing for the historical record:

“The Grand Vizier held a Divan with the ceremonial hand kiss. With the joyful news of the surrender of the fortress the Grand Vizier was given five hundred gold coins and a caftan. The Pashas kissed the Sultan’s hand to congratulate him for conquering the castle.”
In his heart Suleyman must have had a very different emotion. His mighty army had been detained and rebuffed by a puny force for more than three critical weeks. In these campaigns against Christian infidels he seemed cursed to encounter brilliant commanders: Philippe de Villiers de L’Isle-Adam at Rhodes, Graf Nicolas von Salm at Vienna, and now Jurischitz here.

At an agreed-upon time, 11 a.m. the next day, the Turks withdrew from the breach, and to this day the bells of Güns (now the Hungarian border town of Köszeg) chime at that hour every morning.

The Turks had wasted three precious weeks on this pointless assault. The chill of fall was not far away. Notwithstanding the lame efforts of Turkish propaganda to turn defeat into victory, the siege of Güns would later be compared to the humiliation of Xerxes at Thermopylae.


28 February–1 June 1807: The Siege of Danzig I

General Chasseloup-Laubat (1754–1833). The celebrated engineer who directed French operations at Danzig, Kolberg and Stralsund. At Danzig he was opposed by fellow Frenchman, Bousmard, an engineer whose methods he had studied and absorbed.

The Siege of Danzig. A French map of the siege, indicating the siting of French batteries. Please note the left-hand side of the map is north.

An 800-year-old port at the mouth of the Vistula, Danzig is of major strategical importance. A fortified city of great wealth, crammed with bursting storehouses and magazines, it is a bastion on the Baltic: constituting, in Napoleon’s mind – as Petre notes – ‘a standing menace, whilst in the enemy’s hands.’ In fact, Napoleon is obsessed with Danzig, considering its capture vital for a variety of reasons: first, to deny the port’s facilities to the Russians, who – with the help of the British Royal Navy – might attempt a landing in his rear; second, to remove the threat posed to his left flank by the Prussian garrison; third, to exploit the city’s great strategical and material resources himself. And last – but perhaps not least – to divert attention away from his failure to crush Bennigsen at Eylau. Thus, as Petre states: ‘Scarcely was the battlefield of Eylau cleared when, on 18 February, Napoleon commenced his arrangements for the siege, which had been interrupted by Bennigsen’s advance, necessitating the recall of Lefebvre to guard Thorn.’

Marshal François-Joseph Lefebvre – former commander of the infantry of Napoleon’s Old Guard – is, according to Foord, ‘merely a rough, honest old soldier of little strategic or tactical ability.’ Of humble background (his father was a miller), this tough 52-year-old veteran is a replacement for the unfortunate General Claude Victor, captured while changing horses near Stettin by a party of Prussian soldiers disguised as peasants. Lefebvre knows nothing of siege warfare, but will be aided in his task by Napoleon’s top engineer, General Chasseloup-Laubat. As for Lefebvre’s command, it consists of the 26,000 troops of X Corps. Only some 10,000 of these soldiers are French, the rest being an assortment of foreigners, largely Poles and Saxons. But Lefebvre’s force will continue to grow over the coming months, strengthened by a steady stream of captured Prussian ordnance from the fallen fortresses of Silesia.

Opposing X Corps is a complement of some 16,000 men, augmented by 450 guns, howitzers and mortars. The bulk of the manpower – around 11,000 men and 300 guns – is concentrated in Danzig itself, the remainder strung out in detachments north of the city, tasked with maintaining communications with the Baltic. Despite later claims (from both sides), these garrison troops are not of the first class: but they are well-supplied and ably led by General Count Friedrich Adolf von Kalkreuth (also spelt ‘Kalreuth’, ‘Kalckreuth’ or ‘Kalkruth’ in contemporary sources), a veteran of the Seven Years War. Like Lefebvre, Kalkreuth is no expert when it comes to sieges, and will rely, in his turn, on an experienced advisor. But this guru is none other than the celebrated French émigré, Henri Jean-Baptiste Bousmard, whose treatise on the science of siege warfare, General Essay on Fortification (published in the 1790s and dedicated to the king of Prussia) is Chasseloup’s bible. Thus, the commanding generals will preside over a game of cat-and-mouse between the 58-year-old Bousmard and the 53-year-old Chasseloup: two clever and resourceful men, seemingly sharing the same textbook. But the game will be a lethal one, and only one of the two Frenchmen will survive.

The venue for the Bousmard v. Chasseloup match is a walled city protected by nineteen bastions. Danzig – an old Hanseatic town – was bagged by Prussia in 1793 during the Second Partition of Poland. The city’s inhabitants – Germans and Poles – had enjoyed hundreds of years of municipal autonomy: consequently, Prussian rule was despised. In 1797 a rebellion broke out but was soon crushed, Danzig remaining in Prussian hands.

In 1807, as Petre states: ‘the civil population of Danzig numbered about 45,000. The city had somewhat declined in importance of late years, yet was still a very important port and market. Its fortifications had, in 1806, been much neglected, and were in very bad repair. It was only when the Prussian power collapsed, in the autumn of that year, that a siege began to seem probable. Then every effort was made to repair and strengthen the fortress.’

In fact, Danzig’s fortifications are formidable, its storehouses full, and its approaches covered by boggy ground and several waterways. It will be a difficult nut for Chasseloup to crack. Above the city, the Vistula – flowing from east to west – hugs the northern flank of the fortress. Then, once past Danzig, the river sweeps north in a wide arc, through a vast swampy plain, known as the Nehrung, before emptying into the Baltic a few miles beyond. The navigable Laake Canal cuts through the eastern Nehrung, connecting Danzig with the estuary, thus creating the garrisoned island of Holm, the southern tip of which gazes across the Vistula at Danzig’s northern walls. The mouth of the Vistula is guarded by a small fort at Weichselmunde, opposite the tiny port of Neufahrwasser. Meanwhile, to the east and south of Danzig lies more marshland, intersected by several streams, including the River Mottlau: a tributary of the Vistula, which, running through the centre of the city, bisects it on a north–south axis. To the west – the only practicable line of attack for a hostile army – stand the fortified bastions of the Hagelsberg and the Bischofsberg (armed with forty guns apiece): the first dominating the main approaches to the city; the second forming its south-west corner.

Dabrowski’s victory at Dirschau on 23 February has effectively confined Kalkreuth’s troops to the precincts of Danzig, leaving Lefebvre free to make his advance on 9 March. The next day, having driven in the Prussian outposts, the marshal occupies villages south and south-west of the city. Several days later, the western suburb of Schidlitz is successfully stormed.

But Napoleon wants Danzig’s communications with Weichselmunde and the Baltic cut and orders Lefebvre to encircle the city. Consequently, on 20 March, General Jean-Adam Schramm – operating on Danzig’s eastern flank – leads 2,000 French troops onto the northern bank of the Vistula, and marches west on Weichselmunde. The small French task force succeeds in pushing the Prussian outposts back along the eastern Nehrung and into the fortress of Weichselmunde itself. Speedily reinforced by Lefebvre, Schramm then beats off a sortie from Danzig, and secures a position on the Nehrung north of Danzig: his right anchored on the Baltic, his left on the Vistula. The French stranglehold on the port is tightening. Now Lefebvre feels himself strong enough to open a regular siege.

By 1807 the basic method for beleaguering a city is well-established. The engineers on both sides know what to expect. First, the attackers will attempt to isolate the garrison by enforcing a blockade. Then, at a safe distance, an initial trench or ‘first parallel’ will be dug opposite a section of the city walls. Once completed, saps will advance from this trench until a ‘second parallel’ is completed, and then a third, and so on, until the walls are almost reached. Meanwhile, well-sited batteries will batter the walls facing the trenches, and when a breach is made, the city will be invited to surrender. If the invitation is refused, the attackers will issue from the trenches and storm the breach. Should the fortress fall, a time-honoured tradition – dating back to the Middle Ages – grants victors the ‘right’ to murder the garrison and plunder the town as ‘punishment’ for obliging them to suffer casualties by mounting an assault. So much for the theory.

28 February–1 June 1807: The Siege of Danzig II

Panoramic view of the Siege of Gdańsk by French forces in 1807.

In practice, Chasseloup – aided by his assistant, François Joseph Kirgener – is faced with a difficult task. Danzig is well-stocked, and as long as ships can reach it from the Baltic, the garrison will never starve or run short of ammunition. The city’s fortifications are sound, and its approaches covered by both natural and artificial obstacles on three sides. Left with little choice but to attack from the west, Chasseloup bites on granite, selecting the great bastion of the Hagelsberg as the focal point of his campaign. But to keep Kalkreuth and Bousmard off balance, a diversionary operation against the Bischofsberg will also be mounted. It will be dangerous work, especially as the trenches creep closer to the city and come within range of shot and shell hurled from the walls above.

On 2 April the ground has thawed enough for Chasseloup’s sappers to start digging opposite the Hagelsberg. This first trench or ‘parallel’ will eventually run for some 1,300 yards (1,200m). The following day sees a see-saw battle for possession of redoubts west of the city. After a bloody hand-to-hand contest, the garrison keeps control. Meanwhile, the digging continues, hampered by collapsing trenches and Kalkreuth’s decision to release dammed floodwaters onto the plain. By 8 April, a second parallel is opened and the sappers are exposed to enemy fire, as well as repeated sorties by the Danzig garrison. In fact, Kalkreuth is conducting a vigorous defence, mounting spoiling attacks on the siege works and disputing every inch of ground. Nevertheless, Chasseloup is determined the trenches must be pushed forward and siege works opposite the Bischofsberg begin. Lefebvre is uneasy about the campaign against the Bischofsberg, which slows the pace of the siege and uses up valuable men and materièl. But Chasseloup is insistent that both forts must be approached, to keep Kalkreuth guessing which one will be assaulted.

On 11 April, the Silesian fortress of Schweidnitz falls to Vandamme and its heavy guns sent north to the besiegers before Danzig. Two days later, Lefebvre receives reinforcements and repulses another sortie by the garrison. By 15 April the second parallel is completed west of Danzig: the besiegers are creeping closer to the city. And to the north, on the Nehrung, French troops under General Gardanne successfully advance along the Laake Canal to cut Kalkreuth’s communication with the sea. Meanwhile, staff officer, Louis Lejeune arrives at Lefebvre’s camp. Although technically an aide-de-camp to Marshal Berthier, Lejeune – a trained engineer – is acting as both a courier and an observer for an impatient Napoleon:

All the best engineer officers of the French Army were collected together under General Chasseloup at the Siege of Danzig, and the operations were conducted with great rapidity, though not fast enough to please the emperor, who, at a distance from the scene of action, did not realize that fresh obstacles were thrown in our way every day by the skill of the directors of the defence.’

On 20 April high winds and snowstorms halt operations before Danzig. But next day, the first big guns arrive at Lefebvre’s camp. Two days later, General Jean-Ambrose Lariboisière – commanding the French artillery – orders a twelve-hour bombardment of the city. Fifty-eight heavy guns open up, smashing buildings and igniting fires. Public morale crashes in a storm of panic, as the cannonades continue over successive days. Meanwhile, during the night of 25 April, Chasseloup’s engineers complete the third parallel before Danzig’s western defences. The besiegers are within musket-shot of the walls and sappers are smashing the palisades of redoubts protecting the city’s approaches. Kalkreuth launches a major counter-attack, and when it is repulsed, the Prussian general is invited to surrender. Kalkreuth refuses to capitulate and the bombardments continue. A few days later, General Gardanne takes the island of Holm on Danzig’s northern flank, killing or capturing the entire garrison. According to Petre: ‘The island was a most valuable prize; it was promptly fortified, and its guns turned against Danzig, the defences of which they took in reverse … The flying bridge connecting Danzig with the island was gallantly cut adrift by a miner named Jacquemart, under a heavy fire.’

But on 10 May, with Danzig encircled and an all-out assault imminent, a fleet of fifty-seven transports appears at the mouth of the Vistula, carrying some 7,000 Russian troops under General Kamenski (spelt ‘Kamenskoi’ in some sources, but no relation to the ex-commander-in-chief). Kamenski has been sent to save Kalkreuth’s skin, his task force sailing from Pillau, near Königsberg, in British ships. Kamenski, so Petre tells us, ‘disembarked on the 11th at Neufahrwasser. He was, till he landed, unaware of the loss of the island of Holm, which seriously compromised his plans.’ So much so, the Russian general resolves to stay-put and dig-in. This passivity plays into Lefebvre’s hands, giving the marshal time to call up Lannes (recovered from his Pultusk wound), at the head of a 15,000-strong ‘Reserve Army’, which includes Oudinot’s élite Grenadier Division.

At 4.00 a.m. on 15 May, Kamenski bestirs himself at last, marching south from Weichselmunde to meet Schramm and Gardanne on the plain north of Danzig. Advancing in four great columns led by Cossacks, Kamenski’s troops are in action within the hour, pushing back Frenchmen, Saxons and Poles. Soon after 5.00 a.m. Schramm is hotly engaged and giving ground. Kamenski pushes on, making repeated attacks, the fury of the fight increasing each minute. But just when a Russian breakthrough seems likely, Lannes’ leading column arrives to rescue the situation. Outnumbered, Kamenski’s force is driven back to the fort of Weichselmunde, leaving some 1,500 dead and wounded on the plain. Kalkreuth’s Prussians remain passive spectators, Kamenski’s offensive collapsing before effective support can be organized.

And so, with Kamenski’s survivors botded up at Weichselmunde, the siege resumes. Louis Lejeune survives the battle on the Nehrung, but brushes with death on his return to Lefebvre’s camp:

During the battle I rode a horse lent to me by Marshal Lefebvre, and on my way back to headquarters in the evening a ball from Bischofsberg shattered a rock beneath me, and the fragments killed my horse on the spot. I remained flat on my face on the ground for some time before I could get up. The effects of the shock and the pain of my bruises soon went off; I was not really wounded, and I was able to drag myself to headquarters, where the rejoicings over the victory soon quite restored me.’

Several days later, Lejeune describes the scene when a British corvette, the Dauntless, enters the Vistula, and sailing past Weichselmunde, attempts to deliver supplies to Kalkreuth’s incarcerated garrison:

on 19 May an English sloop of war with twenty-four guns tried to run the blockade and get into the town by way of an arm of the Vistula which winds through the meadows round Danzig. The bold commander of the vessel hoped to break down every obstacle with discharges of grape shot from his cannon. He had actually got within range of the town, having met with no more formidable obstacles than a few simple booms, which were easily broken through. He was not, however, prepared for the sudden attack opened upon him by several companies of our sharpshooters, who rushed across the meadows and fired a volley into the ship from both sides of the stream, mowing down the sailors and bringing the sloop to a standstill. Without helmsmen, and with sails flapping helplessly, the vessel drifted to the side of the stream and grounded; the soldiers sprang on board and took 150 prisoners as well as the valuable cargo of weapons, ammunition, and provisions which the commander had intended for the use of the garrison of the beleaguered city.’

Cut off from the sea, the Danzig garrison is doomed, and on 20 May Kalkreuth opens tentative peace negotiations. He is offered honourable, even generous, terms by Lefebvre – a sign, perhaps, of Napoleon’s need to close the siege quickly – including the right to march his garrison out of the city, ‘with arms and bag-gage, drums beating, colours flying, matches lighted, with two pieces of light artillery, six pounders, and their ammunition waggons, each drawn by six horses.’ Furthermore, a safe passage is guaranteed to Kalkreuth’s officers, on condition they swear not to bear arms against France for twelve months from the date of surrender. Kalkreuth signs, but inserts a clause stipulating that capitulation will only come into effect if the city is not relieved by noon on 26 May.

But Lefebvre – running out of patience and fearful of another Allied attempt to relieve the city – decides to storm Danzig as soon as possible, as described by Louis Lejeune:

Marshal Lefebvre was as impatient as we were to get into the town and to put an end to the tedious operations … One day the marshal, angry at all the delays, took me by the arm and began banging with his fist at the base of a wall, pierced by the sap, shouting in his Alsatian brogue, “Make a hole here, and I’ll be the first to go through it.” Meanwhile the walls were falling under our bombardment, and a practicable breach had at last just been made. Troops were ready for the assault, and the decisive blow was to be struck the next morning …’

On 23 May, however, events take an unexpected turn: Kamenski’s Russians re-embark at Weichselmunde and sail back to Pillau, while the ethnic Poles among the Prussian garrison start to desert. Then, Danzig’s shopkeepers appear at the city gates, setting up stalls and selling wine to Lefebvre’s troops at thirty-two sous a bottle. It is clear everyone is sick of the siege. Soon the soldiers of both sides are fraternizing, merrily getting drunk together. Finally, the arrival of Marshal Mortier with a further 12,000 French troops decides the issue and Kalkreuth announces his desire to quit. Thus, Danzig is spared the trauma of a bloody assault, and on 27 May the defenders march out and the besiegers march in, led by Chasseloup’s sappers.

In his official report to Frederick William, Kalkreuth blames mass desertion for the fall of Danzig: though it is only after the capitulation that large numbers – some 2,000 Pomeranian Poles forced to fight for Prussia – go over to the French. But it is reasonable to assume that falling morale – rather than dwindling numbers or supplies – is a factor in the Prussian surrender, as Petre notes:

From famine or shortness of supplies or ammunition the garrison had never suffered. Enormous quantities of stores of every description remained in the place, and were of the utmost service to the French. Whether Kalkreuth should not have held out longer is a moot point. The Hagelsberg would probably have been stormed with great slaughter on both sides …’

And so, despite orders from Frederick William to defend Danzig to the last, Kalkreuth opts to save lives by capitulating in the face of lengthening odds. He has lost some 3,000 men during the siege from sickness and enemy action. Among the dead is engineer Bousmard, killed by his own countrymen. But Kalkreuth is not disgraced, the Prussian king quickly promoting him to field marshal. Equally gratifying – perhaps more so – is public praise from Napoleon, who considers Kalkreuth’s defence of Danzig masterly.

But then, Napoleon could afford to be generous to his enemies. In fact, with Danzig’s coffers at his mercy, he could afford to be generous to everyone, each soldier of X Corps being awarded a bonus of 10 francs. Lefebvre, meanwhile, is sent a box of chocolates. The gruff marshal – perhaps baffled at first – is delighted to find 300 banknotes inside, each of 1,000 francs denomination (according to Blond, soldiers will refer to cash as ‘Danzig chocolate’ for years to come). A year later, Napoleon will make Lefevbre duke of Danzig, with a gratuity of two and a half millions. Meanwhile, having scored a major military, political and financial coup at the cost of some 6,000 men (1,500 of them Poles), a gleeful Napoleon announces the fall of Danzig in his 67th Bulletin of 29 May 1807:

Danzig has capitulated. That fine city is in our possession. Eight hundred pieces of artillery, magazines of every kind, more than 500,000 quintals of grain, well-stored cellars, immense collections of clothing and spices; great resources of every kind for the army … Marshal Lefebvre has braved all; he has animated with the same spirit the Saxons, the Poles, the troops of Baden, and has made them all conduce to his end.’

The Siege of Smolensk 1632-33

Mikhail Shein surrendering to the Poles in Smolensk

Smolensk War: Smolensk Voivodeship, showing in red the disputed territory.

Diplomatic maneuvering in Stockholm and the Crimea completed Russia’s war preparations. Gustaphus Adolphus had recently intervened in the Thirty Years War as an ally of the Protestant princes and consequently welcomed Russia’s proposed attack on Poland, hoping that it would secure his Livonian flank. Negotiations with the Tatars, although less smooth, finally resulted in the Khanate’s promise of neutrality.

Confident that Russia was ready, Filaret made his final choice for war when he learned of the sudden death of King Zygmunt III in April 1632. A Poland distracted by the quarrels and intrigues of an interregnum, Filaret reasoned, would be more vulnerable than ever. Accordingly Moscow ordered the concentration of the troops of foreign formation and commanded the cavalry troops to “ready themselves for service, assemble supplies, and feed their horses.” Voevody (district military leaders) and namestniki (provincial viceroys) were ordered to cooperate with the recruiting officers who would shortly arrive to verify the musters of the local nobility. All those processes required time. At last, by August the Muscovite state had at its disposal 29,000 troops and 158 guns. Overall command rested with the aged boyar Mikhail Borisovich Shein. Shein’s qualifications for his post were his close association with Filaret (the two men hand endured Polish captivity together), his prestige as a hero of the Smuta and his intimate knowledge of the fortress of Smolensk (as commandant of the garrison there during the Polish siege of 1609–11).

A nakaz, an instruction issued in the name of the tsar, spelled out for Shein the general objectives of the war and the overall strategy he was to follow in their pursuit. Russia’s goals were in fact modestly limited to the reconquest of the territories that had been lost to Poland in 1618. Russia’s forces were supposed to capture Dorogobuzh and as many other frontier outposts as they could, as quickly as possible. Simultaneously, they were to issue proclamations calling on the Orthodox subjects of the Poles to rise in rebellion. Then they were to move briskly to invest and take the important town of Smolensk, some 45 miles southwest of Dorogobuzh. Possession of Smolensk was critical to Muscovy’s plan for the entire campaign. The lands Russia wanted to reacquire lay roughly within the oval described by the Dniepr river to the west and Desna to the east. Smolensk was located on the Dniepr at the northern end of the oval, less than 30 miles from the headwaters of the Desna.

The war began splendidly for the Muscovites. By mid-October 1632, Dorogobuzh and twenty other frontier forts were in Russian hands. On October 18, Shein and the main army arrived at the outskirts of Smolensk and prepared to besiege it.

To seize Smolensk was, however, no easy matter, for the town was protected by series of daunting natural and man-made obstacles. The core of the city was ringed by a wall almost 50 feet high and 15 feet thick. Thirty-eight bastions furthered strengthened this defense. Although those fortifications had been considerably damaged during the 1609–11 siege, the Poles had recently devoted great attention to their repair. They had augmented them by erecting a five-bastion outwork to the west of the city (known as King Zygmunt’s fort), which was furnished with its own artillery and subterranean secret passages to facilitate sorties and countermining. To the north the city was defended by the Dniepr and to the east by a flooded marsh. The southern side of the city consequently offered the most promising approach for an assault, but here the Poles had build a strong, palisaded earthen rampart. The garrison, under the Polish voevod Stanislaw, was also relatively strong, comprising 600 regular infantry, 600 regular cavalry, and 250 town Cossacks. Stanislaw could rely on the townspeople to man the walls in a pinch and could also enlist the services of several hundred nobles of the local levy, who, armed and mounted, had taken refuge within the town of Smolensk at the news of the Muscovite advance.

Smolensk thus confronted Shein with formidable military problems: a resolute garrison, strong fortifications, and natural obstacles. Shein’s troop dispositions were commendable for prudence, economy, and foresight. He recognized that the same natural obstacles (the Dniepr, the flooded marsh) that protected the Poles to the north and east also hemmed them in, serving as natural siege works. That made a complete set of lines of countervallation unnecessary. Shein therefore deployed his troops to achieve three purposes: the possession of all tactically significant positions, such as patches of high ground around the city; the protection of his own lines of communication, supply, and retreat; and defense against potential relief columns. He ordered Colonel Mattison to occupy the Pokrowska Hill due north of the town of Smolensk on the opposite side of the Dniepr. The site was clearly the one most suitable for the emplacement of artillery batteries. Due west of the city Shein stationed the formations of Prince Prozorovskii. Prozorovskii, whose back was to the Dniepr, enclosed the rest of his camp with an enormous half-circle of earthworks (the wall alone was over 30 feet high). His purpose was both to menace the Polish ramparts on his right flank and to serve as the first line of defense against any Polish army of relief coming from the west. Between Prozorovskii and the walls of Smolensk, Shein placed van Damm’s infantry and d’Ebert’s heavy cavalry. Colonel Alexander Lesly, Colonel Thomas Sanderson, and Colonel Tobias

Unzen, in command of the main body of Russian forces (almost nine thousand men) positioned themselves along the perimeter of the enemy’s palisades to the south. To the east Karl Jacob and one thousand Russian infantry of new formation formed a screen behind the flooded marsh. Two and a half miles farther east, in a pocket formed by the bend in the Dniepr, was Shein’s own fortified camp. Shein’s camp protected not only the army’s wagon trains and magazines, but also two pontoon bridges the Muscovites had erected across the Dniepr to secure communications with Dorogobuzh, where the reserves of food were stockpiled.

Those arrangements were certainly intelligent, yet Shein from the beginning was incommoded by a lack of artillery. Heavy rains in the late spring and early summer of 1632 had turned the roads to mud. In the interests of surprise, Shein had decided to advance on Dorogobuzh, leaving most of his heavier guns behind. Thus the Muscovites had only seventy mostly light artillery pieces on hand in October. The rest of the field artillery was not delivered to Shein until the end of the year. It took until March of 1633 (five months into the siege) for the Russians to drag the nineteen heavy siege guns from their arsenal in Moscow to Shein’s camp on the Dniepr. Part of the delay resulted from the massive size and weight of the siege pieces: more than 450 wagons were required to carry the guns, the shot, and the powder to the theater of war; the two largest guns fired projectiles weighing about 200 pounds.

Without heavy guns, and siege pieces in particular, Shein was unable to effect a close blockade of Smolensk. The Poles profited hugely from this. News of the siege of Smolensk reached Warsaw by early November. Within two weeks the Diet appropriated money to put a 23,000-man crown army into the field. In the meantime the Grand Hetman of Lithuania, Prince Krzysztof Radziwill, mustered elements of the separate Lithuanian army and advanced on Smolensk himself. Although Radziwill did not have enough troops to raise the siege unaided, he was able to bring Smolensk some succor. By means of two night operations in March of 1633 he broke through Shein’s lines and delivered food, munitions, and more than a thousand reinforcements to the beleaguered town. That, however, was the limit of Radziwill’s capability. Thereafter he withdrew from the city and engaged in guerrilla attacks on the Muscovite camps. Those attacks were more annoyances than serious threats.

By April the Russians had demolished the earthen ramparts the Poles had constructed south of the city. Shein now trained his guns on the walls of Smolensk itself in the hope of achieving a breach. Simultaneously he ordered that two mines be dug: one west from the camp of Jacob; and one northwest from Lesly’s position to the Malaclowski gate. By mid-July, Muscovite gunners had reduced one section of wall almost 100 feet broad to rubble, while Lesly’s sappers, under the direction of chief engineer David Nichol, had succeeded in implacing in another section a gigantic bomb of twenty-four powder kegs. On the appointed day the mine went off with such concussive force that tons of rock and timber were catapulted into the ranks of the Muscovite soldiers, who had been assembled too close to the wall for safety. In addition to the hundreds of casualties inflicted on the infantry, the blast also took the lives of thirty miners, who had been unable to scramble out of the tunnel in time. Still worse, Shein was not even able to exploit the 400-foot breach the mine had created, because the Polish defenders improvised hasty (but nonetheless substantial) barricades from the debris. The Russians consequently had no choice but to break off their attack.

They never got a chance at a second assault. In part as a response to the gravity of the military emergency, the Polish and Lithuanian magnates in Warsaw had composed their differences and had chosen the son of the deceased monarch as Poland’s new king. On August 23, 1633, King Wladyslaw IV arrived at Smolensk at the head of 23,000 men. From that point on the campaign was an unbroken litany of Muscovite military disasters.

On September 7 Wladyslaw launched diversionary attacks against both Mattison and Prozorovskii that made possible the conveyance of still more men and supplies into Smolensk. On September 21, despite Russian countermeasures, the Poles succeeded in smashing Mattison’s defensive works to the north and west. Believing that the Pokrowska hill was now untenable, Shein ordered it evacuated.

The siege of Smolensk had effectively been lifted. The Muscovite army was now split in two; almost 10 miles separated Shein from the isolated detachments still holding positions west of Smolensk. The destruction of van Damm, d’Ebert, and Prozorvoskii was now Wladyslaw’s top priority. On the night of September 27 the Poles began a series of nonstop assaults. Powerless to resist the pressure and aware that certain of his foreign troops had already deserted to the enemy, in early October Shein ordered Prozorovskii to abandon his enormous fort and retire to the main Russian camp downriver. This retreat entailed leaving tons of guns, powder, and supplies behind. Prozorovskii tried to blow up this military equipment prior to his departure, but a sudden downpour unfortunately extinguished the fuses and delivered his arsenal to the Polish king intact.

Japanese Siege Weapons

Early Fortifications

Although fortifications were constructed in Japan prior to the feudal period, frequent conflicts associated with warrior ascendancy inspired new, distinctive temporary architectural forms as well as more lasting structures to protect against military attack.

Up to the beginning of the feudal era, three forms of fortifications were built, according to archaeologists. The grid-pattern city form was inspired by Chinese planning precedents, and included gates or walled enclosures. Mountain fortresses appear to be an indigenous form, and were typical of remote areas. Plateaus or plains often utilized the palisade, a semi-permanent defense. Typical defenses included a rampart, a ditch, and a palisade. Grid-pattern cities were surrounded by walls that served as a demarcation point rather than as true protection, and eventually such barriers disappeared. Remains of mountain fortresses found in northern Kyushu were a more effective means of protection, and may have belonged to ancient kingdoms that ruled parts of Japan in early times. Palisades were often constructed in the northeastern areas of the main island of Honshu. Although excavations have revealed only partial remains of such structures, they are significant since they offer prototypes for medieval fortifications.

Until the end of the Kamakura period, most fortresses built in Japan were relatively simple, and were designed for a particular siege or campaign. Terms such as shiro and jokaku (translated in later eras as “castle”) appear frequently in 12th- and 13thcentury accounts of warfare, but in the Kamakura era, these terms refer to temporary fortifications. Early medieval defense structures were more like barricades than buildings, and were not intended to house soldiers for extended periods. However, such fortifications could be elaborate and large in scale.

Many extant screens depict scenes from Tale of the Heike, the famous Japanese historical saga of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Its twelve volumes relate the long narrative of the rise and fall of two rival warrior clans, the Genji (or Minamoto) and the Heike (or Taira). This screen illustrates famous episodes from the saga, including the battle at Ichi-no-tani Mountain and the death of Taira no Atsumori at Yashima.

Literary and pictorial accounts confirm that extensive planning and earthworks projects were utilized throughout the medieval era for major battles. For instance, the defense works at Ichinotani erected by the Taira clan in 1184 included boulders topped by thick logs, a double row of shields, and turrets with openings for shooting. Even if descriptions of such structures taken from accounts of the Gempei War dating to the late Kamakura era exaggerate these defenses, they capture the labor, time, and ingenuity involved in such efforts.

As wartime construction continued, Japanese military architects became skilled in adapting civilian structures that offered multiple options for warrior defenses. Composite barriers utilizing timber and other materials that protected crops from intruders and animals were helpful in subduing infantry offenses. Military architects familiar with agricultural irrigation principles constructed ditches and moats to deter mounted troops. In sum, military construction of the early medieval period involved tailoring familiar forms to warrior needs to provide an initial line of defense.

Some temporary construction types afforded flexibility and served well in both offensive and defensive situations. Kaidate (shield walls) and sakamogi (brush barricades; literally “stacked wood”) were both in common use by the 13th century. Kaidate, formed of rows of standing shields, had been employed since the end of the Asuka period (eighth century), and were valuable as portable field fortifications. Sakamogi, which were most likely inspired by barriers for livestock, were useful in several contexts as well. These deceptively simple structures continued to be effective in the age of gunpowder as they remained difficult to cross and also resisted explosive shells. Barriers made of shields could be made more effective through deployment atop, or in front of, another defensive form. However, as the power of the Ashikaga shoguns declined in the Northern and Southern Courts era, combat conditions changed, and samurai clans confronted elevated fortresses where warriors on horseback were ineffective.

Azuchi-Momoyama- and Edo-Period Castles

After the feudal system was reorganized by the Tokugawa shogunate, castles (shiro) were erected in the center of a daimyo’s domain, so they would be easily accessible. Without natural defenses such as hills and plateaus, these structures required additional protection compared with the elevated shiro built during the late Muromachi and Momoyama periods. For security, builders developed walls of enormous boulders that often had smooth surfaces that would be difficult to scale. Moats (hori) also provided a means to deter an attacking force.

The castle was not only a means of defense, but also served as the hub of administration and commerce in the domain. Castles housed the domain lord and chief retainers. Towns developed around the structures, called “towns beneath the castle” (jokamachi) since the castle was often elevated, and both literally and figuratively overshadowed all other buildings nearby. Merchants and artisans became an important aspect of life in these castle communities, as daimyo and their retainers had more time and disposable income than in the past. Further, the rise of fashion and interest in display (in the sense of decoration and adornment) that arose in the cosmopolitan Edo period made it necessary for members of the warrior class to keep up appearances, and this led to healthy economic growth even in provincial castle towns.


In the late Kamakura and early Muromachi eras, locally powerful landholders did not yet have the resources to commission and train considerable numbers of mounted warriors. At this stage, extensive forces designed for long-distance campaigns were unnecessary as well, since battles in the provinces often culminated in localized sieges to gain control of a strategically positioned castle. Thus significant numbers of well-trained foot soldiers were necessary to enter the territory of an opponent and scale his fortress. While swordsmanship began to gain prominence among samurai skills in the early medieval era, the primary warrior weapon among foot soldiers was a long polemounted arm called naginata, and this was supplemented by archery. Military drills using polearms involved learning to pull a cavalryman from his mount and engage him in close-range combat. Other practical applications of such weapons included thrusting, or throwing, a spear or other polearms in order to hit a distant target. Archers and infantry equipped with spears were also trained to send arrows over castle walls to cover the approach of foot soldiers who sought to scale the walls and thereby gain access to the castle.


Siege Warfare

Japanese castles were adapted to siege warfare. Again the similarities between Western and Eastern warfare are evident and the sophistication of Japanese siege-craft is obvious.

If a samurai is on the defending force, the following items are things he would be familiar with as he moved in and around the castle.

Arrow and Gun Ports

Inset into the walls of castle defenses are small holes—they are normally rectangular, circular or triangular. Positioned at different heights, the defenders use them to shoot out over the field of battle. However, shinobi creep up to these apertures and fire burning arrows and flash arrows through them into the interior of the castle grounds to discover details about the interior layout. In addition to this, they would throw in hand grenades to kill those shooting out at the opposition.

Stanchions, Walkways and Shields

Along the inside of castle walls, wooden stanchions and frames would support multiple levels of walkways—similar to modern day scaffolding. Samurai would use these levels from which to shoot outward, either through arrow and gun ports or over the tops of castle battlements from between shields. In addition to this, bridges that could be retracted were set up at various positions; if the enemy breached the defenses these walkways could be retracted, allowing defending samurai to kill the enemy from the opposite side.

Killing Zones

Walls, turrets and enclosures were created to form killing grounds and zones, where the defending army could attack the enemy with crossfire and pin them into a corner and halt movement.

Turrets and Palisades

As discussed before, the castles of the early Sengoku Period and before were generally smaller; walls could be protected by turret towers, wooden shields and semipermanent buildings that were made of wood and were built along the tops of walls. Shinobi had various mixtures that would set fire to these, fires that would be difficult to extinguish, helping to break through the castle defenses.

Allied Help

A defending castle could set up a series of fire beacons and send messenger relays to request allied forces to counter the siege. Sometimes the relieving force could surround the besiegers, forcing them to defend their own rear and fight on two fronts.

Sallies and Sorties

The castle would send out night raids and attacks when they thought that the time was right. They may even evacuate a castle from an non-besieged section—if any—through gates and ports. Shinobi were trained to watch the smoke rising from castles. If the smoke from cooking fires and kitchens was too much, too little, or later than normal, a shinobi would know that the enemy had either started to evacuate or that they were preparing extra food for those going on night raids or that the food stores were diminishing. All of which was information the shinobi would pass on to his commander.

Those who were attacking the castle had certain weapons and tools to help degrade the height and protection advantages of the defenders.

Trench Warfare

Trenches at their smallest were three feet deep with an earth mound on the top of around two feet; this total of five feet covered the average height of a samurai. The closer to the castle the trench lines were the deeper they had to be dug, as arrows could be shot into the defenses from such an angle.

Towers and Constructed Turrets

As discussed previously, the enemy battle camp had collapsible turrets and towers; these were erected to see enemy troop movements and shinobi.

Battering Rams

Covered rams on wheels were used to take down castle doors and break open sections of defenses.

Shields and Walls on Wheels

Small platforms were placed on low carts with walls erected on the front. These walls had shooting ports and would be rolled into place, and from here attacking samurai could shoot at the enemy. This included walls mounted on arms that could be raised so that samurai could shoot out from below them and other such contraptions.

Shields, Bamboo Fences and Bundles

Human-sized wooden shields that stood erect with the help of a hinged single leg would protect samurai. In addition to this, bamboo was tied in large bundles and shooting ports were cut out of the middle. These bundles could be leaned against waist-height temporary fences so that samurai could shoot from behind cover.

Cannon and Fire

Cannon were used to launch fire and incendiary weapons and shot. Kajutsu—“the skills of fire”—included long-range rockets, flares and anything that causes flames in the enemy camp. Some shinobi were essentially agents who moved into the enemy castle and made sure that fires were set from within. One shinobi trick was to set a fire away from the main target to distract the defenders from the actual target and then to move on with their initial aim of setting fire to more important things like the main compound.


Tunneling was undertaken to undermine the enemy defenses. If done in secret and not on a war front, the tunnel had to start far from the target, or start from inside a nearby house. To discover if tunneling was taking place, empty barrels would be set into the ground to listen for mining below.

Moat Crossing Skills

Portable bridges and temporary structures were used to cross rivers and bridges. The shinobi’s task was to discover the length, width and depth of a moat and report the dimensions, or to cross it in secret at night.

On the whole, the samurai castle was a place of residence and the target of a siege. The samurai would defend and attack castles with ingenious tricks and tactics and shinobi on both sides would come and go, stealing information or setting fires to things, something that was quite normal in life as a samurai.

The Battle of Sparta

Flamininus’ three main assaults.

For four days the opposing forces limited themselves to skirmishes in front of the walls. When at some point the Spartans attempted to engage the Romans in proper combat, they were easily defeated and put to flight. Since the city walls still had gaps in several places, some of the Romans caught up in pursuit of the routed Spartans managed to briefly penetrate into the city. This fact did not escape Flaminus’ attention who decided, before beginning a regular siege of the city, to attempt her capture by storm. The Roman proconsul rode with his staff along Sparta’s fortifications in an effort to identify weak points in them. Nabis had not had time to completely fortify the city. The wall protected only the most vulnerable points, where the ground was flat and passable. In the hills, and otherwise inaccessible or rough areas, where the terrain provided a measure of natural protection, there was no wall.

Flaminius’ biggest advantage was his superiority in numbers. He tried to benefit from it as much as he could by concentrating all his forces around Sparta. To increase the numbers of his army even more, he summoned to Sparta even the personnel of his naval forces at Gytheion. His army now numbered 50,000 men. The fact that not all these men were of the same calibre as the Roman infantry did not inhibit the effectiveness of Flamininus’ plan in the least. What he needed the most, and they provided, was a feint for his legions. His forces developed around the city’s circuit. His aim was to attack at several places simultaneously, in order to confuse the defenders and to force them to scatter their forces. This way he would divert their attention from the points where the main attack would occur, so that it would be impossible for the Spartan forces to reinforce them.

The Roman legions aimed their main attack at the three unwalled areas in the south of the city: Diktynnaion, Eptagoniai and Phoebaion. It was there that the Romans would attempt to penetrate the defences.

When the signal was given, the attacking forces hurled themselves simultaneously at the city from all directions. The pressure was so strong and relentless that the defenders almost came to the end of their rope. Nabis constantly received agonized pleas for help from various areas of the city that were in danger. Whenever possible, he would send aid, while he himself would rush to the points which were under the greatest pressure. But the strain of such an intense the battle proved too much for his nerves, to the point where he lost control of the situation. As the battle was reaching its peak amid general confusion, Nabis became paralyzed and ‘was unable either to order what was appropriate or to hear the reports, and not only lost his power of judgment but was almost bereft of reason’.

The fighting reached its highest intensity in the three areas where Flaminius had directed his main attack. At Diktynnaion, Eptagoniai and Phoebaion, the defenders initially repulsed the enemy attacks. The Roman legions’ advance was slowed by the concentration of such a great number of troops in a limited space. However, this limited space created problems for the Spartans as well. It drastically reduced the effectiveness of the javelins they were throwing at their enemy, since there was too little room for them to run and build up momentum before launching them. This made it easier for the Romans to defend themselves with their large shields.

Eventually the leading Roman troops managed to push through the unwalled areas and approach the first houses of the city. There they found themselves at a disadvantage, as they also came under attack from above by the Spartans. The defenders resisted stubbornly, even removing and throwing tiles from the roofs of their homes at the invaders, while those who were still controlling the nearby hills tried to attack the enemy’s most exposed flanks. At that point, the Roman infantry displayed its superb qualities. Reacting calmly and with exemplary discipline, the Romans ‘…held their shields above their heads and fitted them so closely together that no space was left for random shots or even for the insertion of a javelin from near at hand, and having formed their testudo they forced their way forward’.

For as long as the fighting was confined to the narrow passages, the Spartans were able to hold their own against the Romans, who were not able to fully deploy their forces and exploit their numerical superiority. But when the Romans managed to move to wider thoroughfares and the open areas of the city, it was impossible to contain them. Some of the defenders retreated seeking cover and protection, while others fled the city spreading panic. When the Romans stormed into the city, most thought that Sparta had perished. Even Nabis himself ‘trembling as if the city had been taken, looked about him for a way to escape’. But against all odds, Sparta did not fall. Yet it was not the Spartan king, but the Argive Pythagoras who rose up to the challenge. Demonstrating the courage and determination of a truly great leader in that critical moment, he took initiative and saved the city: he ordered the torching of all the houses located near the gaps of the wall through which the enemy was pouring in. Dense clouds of smoke then spread throughout the city, creating a suffocating atmosphere. With no visibility and amidst pandemonium, the invaders could no longer keep their cohesion. The situation became even worse when parts of the burning rooftops started falling on them as they collapsed. The Roman army was cut in two. The fire prevented not only the retreat of those who had penetrated the walls, but also the advance of the forces that remained outside the walls. Considering the situation, Flamininus realized that the attack could not continue. Victory had literally slipped between his hands. Unable to do otherwise, he reluctantly ordered a general retreat. Sparta had been saved.

But this victory was only temporary. For the next three days, Flamininus continued to wear down the defenders of the semi-destroyed city ‘sometimes harrying them with assaults, sometimes blocking open spaces with siegeworks that no way might be left open for escape’. Realizing that continued resistance would result in annihilation, Nabis decided to capitulate. This time he sent Pythagoras to negotiate with Flamininus in order to end hostilities. According to Livy, initially Flamininus sent him away from his camp scornfully, and Pythagoras was forced to fall to his knees and beg the Roman general to condescend to listen to him. Yet Livy then continues to state that while Pythagoras offered Flamininus the unconditional surrender of the city, in the end the negotiations ended in a truce under the same terms that the Spartans had initially rejected. This unexpected turn, which certainly cannot be attributed simply to Pythagoras’ diplomatic skill, is remarkable. Flamininus himself claimed that he simply showed magnanimity, ‘when he saw that the destruction of the tyrant would involve the rest of the Spartans also in serious disaster’. But it is obvious that the lenient attitude of the Roman proconsul to Nabis and his regime owed less to his vaunted love of the Greeks and more to the realpolitik Rome exercised. What concerned Flamininus the most was that potentially, a complete weakening of Sparta would lead the Achaean League to dominate the Peloponnese with unpredictable consequences for the relations between the League and Rome. Instead, as long as the threat of Sparta lingered, the Achaean League would remain dependent on Rome and a faithful ally.

After this settlement, Flamininus headed to Argos to attend the Nemean festival and accept honours from the city’s oligarchs, who had come to power in the meantime. Flamininus was also honoured in other cities, such as Gytheion where citizens erected a statue in his honour. However, his allies did not show the same enthusiasm. When the news of the liberation of Argos was announced at the Achaean assembly, the general joy was tempered by the fact that Nabis had not been removed from power. The Aitolians, who were seeking an excuse to break their alliance with the Romans, took their resentment even further. In all their meetings they provocatively tore the treaty in pieces and declared that ‘the Roman army had become the ready agent of Nabis’ despotism.’ Despite these grudging reactions from the Achaeans and the Aitolians, the treaty was officially ratified by Rome in the winter of 195–194.

The Siege Of Raglan

The siege of Raglan had begun. The first task facing Parliament’s Colonel Thomas Morgan’s troops was to look to their own protection. To this end, they began building earthworks and digging trenches just as their Royalist opponents had done. Like trenches in the First World War, the two lines ended up very close to each other; Morgan described how he had brought his approaches to within pistol shot of the enemy lines. The Colonel had with him a skilled engineer, one Captain John Hooper, who had recently scored a great success in defeating the Royalist castle at Banbury. Hooper set about building platforms on which to mount the Parliamentary cannon; their faint outline can still be seen in the fields to the east of the castle. Soon the Roundhead gunners were in position and ready to begin their bombardment.

The barrage, when it began, was relentless. The Roundheads pounded the castle with up to sixty shot a day. The noise was deafening, the stench from the guns sickening. Once they had found their range, Morgan’s gunners were easily able to destroy the tops of the castle towers, and with them the lighter Royalist guns that had been placed there. The battlements at Raglan were only eight inches thick, and quickly crumbled under the assault. The Parliamentarians began to concentrate their fire on the larger guns around the perimeter, and also on their main objective: blowing a breach in the castle walls.

The walls, however, held out. According to a contemporary witness, “the [great] tower itself repulsed bullets of 18 to 20lb weight, hardly receiving the least impression.” The walls of the rest of the castle proved equally defiant. Along the eastern face of the castle, the damage caused by the Parliamentary artillery is still very evident—the walls are chipped and battered, and a number of cannon balls have been found embedded in them. But the medieval masonry neither cracked nor collapsed under the barrage. To judge from the above comments on the size of the shot, it would seem that Morgan’s guns were simply not big enough. A gun firing shots of eighteen to twenty pounds would have been a culverin. This was a fairly impressive piece of equipment, weighing in at around five thousand pounds and measuring thirteen feet from breach to barrel. It could not, however, smash through stonework. For that, Morgan would have needed larger guns—demi-cannon, or whole-cannon. Capable of firing balls of up to eighty pounds in weight, these were a convincing answer to even the stoutest stone walls. Morgan appears not to have had them—at least, not at the outset. The problem with cannon was getting them where you wanted them in the first place. Whereas a culverin could be shifted by a team of twenty horses, a single cannon would have required two or three times as many beasts to get it moving. Even with such large trains, the biggest siege guns could only be moved a few miles a day. Trundling them along muddy tracks took weeks on end and, as such, was prohibitively expensive. Both sides were reluctant to commit cannon to the fray unless there seemed to be absolutely no alternative.

Morgan did, in fact, have other options open to him, but they were extremely tedious. While his gunners could continue to try and destroy their enemy’s artillery, his troops could hope to pick off individual defenders by using muskets. Muskets had been around for some time (about a hundred years) and had proved effective in battle, where they could be massed together and fired in volleys. In a siege situation, however, they were less useful, not having the accuracy required for long-distance sniping. Although you would be extremely lucky if you survived a shot from a musket, you would have to be exceedingly unlucky to get hit by one in the first place.

On one occasion during the siege of Raglan, the marquis of Worcester enjoyed just such mixed fortunes. One evening after dinner, he and his dining companions had withdrawn into his private parlor beyond the great hall—a handsome room, “noted for its inlaid wainscoting and curious carved figures, as well as for . . . a large and fair compass window on the south side.” The redoubtable Dr. Bailey, who (as ever) was there to witness events, described what happened next. As the marquis was about to entertain the assembled company with one of his pleasant after-dinner discourses, there was a distant crack, a whizz, and a sudden shattering of glass. A musket ball came crashing through the ornamental window, glanced off a little marble pillar, and struck the marquis on the side of the head. As the flattened bullet dropped to the table with a gentle thud, some of the ladies present fainted from the shock. The marquis, however, saw a golden opportunity for the kind of witty apophthegm that later enabled Bailey to dine out for decades.

“Gentlemen,” he said, turning the musket ball in his fingers, “those who had a mind to flatter me were wont to tell me that I had a good head-piece in my younger days; but if I do not flatter myself, I think I have a good head-piece in my old age—or else it would not have been musket-proof.”

Joking aside, the marquis must have realized he had had a lucky escape. By this stage, moreover, he can have had little else to joke about. The loss of his great ornamental window was just the latest in a long line of disasters to befall his beautiful castle. If he had dared to peek over the parapets, he would have hardly recognized the scene before him. Where there had once been ornamental gardens, orchards, and ponds, there was now a war zone—a no-man’s-land where every tree had been torn down and every building destroyed. The Royalist situation was becoming desperate, and five weeks into the siege, on July 12, the garrison attempted to break out; four hundred infantry and eighty cavalrymen poured over the defenses to engage Morgan’s troops. Within half an hour, however, it was all over: the Royalists were beaten back, having sustained heavy losses.

But if the Royalists could not break out, the Roundheads could not break in. Despite the successful defeat of the sortie and the destruction his guns had wreaked on the castle, Colonel Morgan was still no closer to ending the siege. All he could do was keep tightening his grip, and order Captain Hooper to keep driving forward his trenches.

Meanwhile, events elsewhere were shaping Raglan’s fate. In May 1646, even before the siege had begun, Charles I had slipped out of his headquarters at Oxford and traveled in secret to Newark, where he handed himself over to a waiting Scottish Army. It was a desperate move, choosing what he considered to be the lesser of two evils and hoping to divide his enemies. For the Royalist troops who remained in Oxford, however, it was the beginning of the end. Negotiations began almost immediately, and within a few weeks it was all over. Having been besieged and blockaded for years, the exhausted city finally surrendered on June 25.

The consequences of Oxford’s fall were first felt at Raglan two weeks later, when Parliament’s Major-General Skippon and Colonel Herbert arrived outside the castle with two thousand extra men. They arrived the day after the garrison had attempted to break out of the castle, and their presence put paid to any further thoughts of flight on the part of the Royalists. Joshua Sprigge, a chaplain who had arrived with the new troops, noted the scales were beginning to tip against the defenders.

“The enemy,” he wrote, “was reduced to more caution, and taught to lie closer.”

It was not Skippon or Herbert, however, who ended the siege, but two new characters who arrived at the start of August. The first was Sir Thomas Fairfax. A man of thirty-four years, Fairfax had cut his teeth fighting in the Netherlands, and made his reputation in the north of England during the early stages of the war. Although by no means a striking figure—he suffered from poor general health, and his physical sufferings had been compounded by two separate musket wounds—Fairfax demonstrated both skill as a military commander and a refreshing lack of egotism. At the start of 1645 he had been the natural choice as leader of the New Model Army. At Oxford, he had managed to persuade the Royalists to submit without a fight, and had avoided having to fire his great guns into the city. The ancient colleges had been saved, and Fairfax had taken the trouble to post a guard around the Bodleian Library in order to stop it from being sacked. He now hoped to bring the siege of Raglan to a similarly bloodless conclusion.

By the time Fairfax arrived at Raglan on August 7, it was all but the last garrison in England still holding out for the king. The fall of Oxford had been the signal for those few remaining Royalist strongholds to surrender. Only the tiny Henrician fort at Pendennis in Cornwall, strengthened by massive Civil War earthworks, was putting up a resistance comparable with Raglan’s. As Joshua Sprigge poetically put it, “many other garrisons that attended [Oxford’s] fate fell with it, even like ripe fruit, with an easy touch; but the two garrisons of Raglan and Pendennis, like winter fruit, hung long on.”

The garrison at Raglan, however, knew nothing of distant Pendennis. When Fairfax wrote to the marquis shortly after his arrival, he stretched the truth in order to emphasize the hopelessness of the old man’s situation.

“Raglan only obstructs the kingdom’s universal peace,” he told him, before proceeding to pile on further pressure. He had come into Monmouthshire “with such a strength as I may not doubt,” and was now offering the marquis a last chance to surrender on favorable terms. If, however, the marquis delayed or refused, “such terms . . . cannot be hereafter expected.”

But the marquis continued to play the same game as before. In his letter back to Fairfax, he referred to the castle as his “house,” and added that (having lost both Chepstow and Monmouth) Raglan was “the only house now in my possession to cover my head in.” This was not a mere word game, or the sentimental blubbering of a foolish old man. The marquis was choosing to make a point about personal property and his inalienable rights as a landowner that had been a familiar theme of Royalist propaganda throughout the war. Concluding his letter, he referred to his “house” for a final time, and wondered aloud how, “by law or conscience I should be forced out of it.”

Fairfax, exasperated, sent back a testy reply. “For that distinction which your lordship is pleased to make [i.e., between castle and house]; it is your house. If it had not been formed into a garrison, I should have not have troubled your lordship with a summons; and were it dis-garrisoned, neither you, nor your house should receive any disquiet from me!”

But Fairfax knew that he did not have to waste time with the marquis debating the legal merits of their respective positions. Even as he had drawn up his forces at Raglan, another character had appeared, and one with a far bloodier reputation than the general. This was a lady, no less, but one whose name struck fear into the hearts of grizzled soldiers. Roaring Meg had come to Raglan.

Meg was a mortar piece—a squat metal tub measuring just four feet from end to end, but nonetheless the most terrifying weapon imaginable in the seventeenth century. She was a gun, but not intended, like a conventional cannon, to smash through walls. Mortars like Meg were designed to lob their missiles clean over the defenses of a town or castle, right into the heart of the enemy camp. These missiles, furthermore, were not the solid iron balls fired by cannon, but large hollow grenades, twelve inches across and two hundred pounds in weight. Typically made of copper (or a similarly brittle metal), the grenade was packed with gunpowder, and lit by a fuse before being launched toward its target. When the powder ignited, the grenade exploded, sending shrapnel flying in all directions, killing or maiming everything within a wide radius.

The mortar was, in short, an anti-personnel weapon, intended to destroy human life rather than wear down defenses. Of course, a well-aimed shot weighing two hundred pounds could rip right through the roof of a building, and the explosive force of a grenade could easily start a fire. But they were not always successful, or even reliable weapons. A grenade was, in essence, a very crude type of shell—one without a detonator. It therefore required great skill on the part of the gunner to judge not only how far to fire it, but also how long to make the fuse. Too short and it would explode in mid-flight; too late and it might give the defenders the chance to render it harmless. There is a famous example of how, during the siege of Gloucester, a quick-thinking woman extinguished the fuse of a mortar grenade by throwing a bucket of water over it.

Above all, however, mortars could be relied upon to produce fear and panic among your opponents. During the siege of Lathom House in Lancashire in 1644, one of the defenders indicated the terror that a falling grenade could provoke.

“Little ladies had stomach to digest cannon,” he wrote, “but the stoutest soldiers had no heart for this . . . the mortar piece had frightened ’em from meat and sleep.”

From an attacker’s point of view, mortars were satisfyingly effective. Parliamentarian troops trying to break Banbury Castle in 1646 reported screams every time the mortar was fired.

When Roaring Meg arrived at Raglan in August 1646, she was still only a few months old, having been specially cast earlier in the year for the purpose of defeating the Royalist garrison at Goodrich Castle. The young lady came with powerful friends. Escorted by Colonel John Birch, Meg rolled up with five of her sister-pieces, as well as all the conventional cannon that Parliament was able to spare. In terms of the mortars, at least, this was the greatest concentration of firepower so far deployed in the Civil War. Captain Hooper, who was still busy digging his way toward the Royalist lines, now began to construct platforms for the new weapons sixty yards from the castle’s defenses.

As the marquis of Worcester watched Roaring Meg and the other mortars being rolled into position, he knew he was caught between a rock and a hard place. The level of danger had suddenly become far, far greater. No longer could he hide behind his ancestral walls; if the mortars were fired, there was a good chance that he or a member of his family would be killed. By the same token, surrender was not a tempting prospect. Who knows what a vindictive Parliament might do to him? As he confessed in a letter to Fairfax, the prospect of surrender “doth a little affright me.”

Fairfax, sensing the old man’s desperate dilemma, hammered his advantage home. Come to terms, he urged.

“If you stand it out to the last extremity,” he wrote to the marquis, “[you risk] your person, those of your family (which I presume are dear to you), and the spoil of the castle.”

Fairfax also chose to invoke the memory of another marquis who had defied Parliament to the bitter end.

“Your Lordship has no reason to expect any better than the marquis of Winchester received. He made good Basing House to the last, narrowly escaped with his own life, lost his friends, subjected those that escaped to great frights, and hazarded his house and estate to utter ruin, and himself to the extremity of justice.”

At the same time, Fairfax reassured the marquis that he would receive fair treatment at Parliament’s hands. “That what I grant,” he promised, “shall be made good.”

And so, after more than two months besieged in his castle, the marquis decided that it was time to surrender. Over the weekend of August 15–16, negotiators thrashed out the terms of the cease-fire, and on Monday a deal was struck. In two days’ time, it was agreed, the Royalist troops would march out of Raglan castle, unmolested by their opponents, and disband. Certain individuals, including the marquis himself, were exempted from this pardon; and when, on the eve of the surrender, the marquis presented the terms to his men, they pledged to keep on fighting. Their master’s mind, however, was made up. Like Jonah, he said, he would be cast overboard rather than see them all perish. Accordingly, the next morning, the Royalist garrison marched out of Raglan, with “colors flying, drums beating, [and] trumpets sounding,” just as the negotiators had agreed.

Both the marquis and Fairfax had good reason to be happy with the conclusion. For Fairfax, it was the bloodless outcome he had hoped for—once again, he had achieved victory without needless expenditure, either of men or of money. The marquis also had reason to be grateful. His castle and his household had got off lightly, even if he himself now faced an uncertain future. When the two men met that day, the marquis, true to form, was in good spirits. As the general was taking his leave, the old man made what Dr. Bailey called “a merry petition” on behalf of a couple of pigeons, which he had been feeding throughout the siege. Would the great general take the two young birds, as it were, under his wing? With so many hungry soldiers about, the marquis was concerned for their safety.

The only individual who was apparently less than pleased by the bloodless conclusion was Colonel Morgan. He was, after all, the one who had started the siege back in June, and since then he had endured the hardship of living under canvas and fighting in trenches for the best part of two months. Now, thanks to Fairfax’s negotiated surrender, his opportunity to heroically storm the breach had vanished. Worse still, he hadn’t even got to fire a mortar—Roaring Meg had on this occasion stayed silent. Writing to the Speaker in the House of Commons on the day the cease-fire was agreed, Morgan began, “After long and hard duty performed, it hath pleased God that commissioners on both sides have agreed upon articles for the surrender of the castle and garrison.”

You can hear the disappointment and the petulance in his voice when he finally adds that, “truly, had not this happy conclusion been made, our mortar pieces would have played very suddenly, and we were come very near with our approaches.”