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Siege Warfare

Contrary to the expectations of most people, the Russian invasion of Ukraine got bogged down in the last few weeks, and the Russians seemingly settled for siege warfare after their attempted Blitzkrieg failed.

Siege warfare is all too common for those who are familiar with European military history, and rather surprisingly the modern armies seemingly show some similar limitations of the armies of a far gone age of European history.

To explain my point, I will first do a review of Medieval and Early Modern Siege Warfare, and then later make the comparison with our own era.

Siege Warfare in Medieval and Early modern Europe

Siege warfare was the dominant type of war in Europe during most of the medieval and early modern period. This was no coincidence, of course, generals of the era had good reasons to conduct their campaigns in a certain way.

European armies of that age were rather small. Apart from the Ottoman Sultan, most European rulers/generals usually relied on smaller armies during their campaigns. Even rulers who had bigger armies, like Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Year’s War, were forced to disperse them because feeding them in one place was impossible.

Supply problems were only one reason why maintaining huge armies was difficult for the rulers of the age. During the medieval and early modern era(pre-Thirty Year’s War), the State had a real problem of extracting its resources, as taxing the nobility and the Church was a problematic proposition. Unfortunately, such were the holdings of these two classes that their tax exemption meant that the monarchy was starved of funds.

Anyone who even played a simple strategy game like Total War, knows one simple fact, if you want to wage war you need an army, the bigger the better. But to have a large army, ample resources are needed, which the rulers of the age lacked.

As rulers lacked the resources to maintain large standing armies, the Royal armies of the age were rather small. In wartime, the armies of the king were expanded. Kings took loans and mercenaries, the private armies of Feudal lords joined their monarch, but this size was only maintained during wartime. As the army was only partially royal, the owners of the private contingent were less likely to risk their forces in risky pitched battles, even if the king was a hothead.

Strong defensive positions also gave a great advantage. Castles, and later Star Fortresses were an absolute nightmare to besiege. A clever defender knew that the possession of such strongholds allowed tying down enemy forces for a long time, using only a fraction of the enemies’ strength. The defenders had a strong position thanks to their formidable defences, and by targeting the enemy supply lines, they could make the life of the besiegers a real nightmare. It was no coincidence that many of the most important battles of early modern Europe like the battles of St. Quentin, Rocroi or Vienna, came after sieges.

The smallish scale of armies and the formidable state of fortresses inevitably led to the development of siege warfare, and this only started to change when the status quo was broken up.

After the Thirty Year’s War, European monarchies started to build up the modern states. State bureaucracies were expanded, the power of the nobility curbed, the exemption of privileged classes abolished(partially or totally). As states got better at extracting resources from their territories, the size of the state coffers grew, and consequently, the standing armies of the continent got bigger and bigger.

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The size of the militaries of the Continent grew to over 150,000 soldiers or more during the course of the 18th century. After the French Revolution conscription was used to fill up the ranks and gave the rulers of Europe a pool of manpower that allowed Napoleon to march over half a million men to Russia, while he had over 200,000 in Spain, and recruit another 200,000 in the spring of 1813, to replace the losses he sustained in Russia.

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Modern siege warfare

The Russian invasion of Ukraine saw no large scale pitched battles so far.

Nor should we expect to see anything like what was going on on the Eastern Front during WWI or WWII. The Russian army that invaded Ukraine might look big to someone unfamiliar with military history, but in comparison with the Axis army that invaded the Soviet Union in 1941( 3,8 million men), or the counterattacking Red army in 1943-45( over 7 million men), the 190,000 Russian invasion force is very small. Ukraine also had at the beginning of the conflict an armed force of only 200,000 men.

It is a general tendency in the developed world that armies got smaller since the end of the Cold War, and military expenditure is also a smaller% of the GPD than during the Cold War, though the Russian invasion is seemingly changing this latter fact now.

The Ukrainian army conscientiously avoided large scale engagements in the open so far, and rather targeted the supply convoys of the Russians and decided to defend the urban areas.

It was a very logical decision on their part. Pitched battles were always very risky, the defeated opponent often suffered such crippling losses that continuing the war was impossible. If the Ukrainians had taken this risk and lost, they may have been forced to sue for peace.

Open field battles also required well trained and drilled troops throughout history. During the Napoleonic era, troops were trained in several different marching formations, which were used for different scenarios. Modern warfare, however, is infinitely more complicated.

Combined arms tactics are needed to effectively utilise the different units that armies have(infantry, armoured vehicles, drones/planes), and as cash-starved as most armies are nowadays, I can imagine training is far from perfect.

Urban warfare on the other hand, is a much simpler way, and I can imagine that even conscripts with limited training and no real combat experience can be utilised more efficiently. Trees, cars and all sorts of obstacles can be used to create chokepoints and bottlenecks in urban areas, and even inexperienced conscripts can shoot at blockaded enemies.


Siege Warfare: The Fortress in the Early Modern World 1494-1660 by Christopher Duffy

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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