Throughout the history of warfare, it has sometimes proven necessary—and less costly—to lay siege to an enemy fortification, rather than assault it directly. The drawback with this, of course, is that it could take months, or even years, to get an enemy to capitulate, which is what made wars in the past so lengthy (think about the Hundred Years War, and you get the idea.) Worse, it made conditions for those trapped within the besieged fortress or town often unbearable, leading to starvation and, in a few rare cases, even cannibalism. This was why sieges often resulted in more civilian deaths than military casualties—a situation not seen again until the bombing raids of World War II, when civilian deaths far outnumbered those suffered by the military.
History is replete with these unfortunate events, with hundreds being recorded over the last few thousand years. Only a handful are famous however, either for their horrific nature, or because of the geo-political changes the siege brought about. In fact, entire Empires, and ways of life, came to an abrupt halt as a result of a major city falling to its besiegers, so their impact cannot be underestimated. So which sieges stand above the others, in terms of their impact on history?
10. Dien Bien Phu (1954)
While not particularly long or bloody, as sieges go, few changed the Asian political landscape more than the siege of a French garrison, by Communist forces under Võ Nguyên Giáp. Still recovering from the Second World War, France lacked the military means to administer many of its far-flung colonies—especially in Asia—as was ultimately dermonstrated by its inability to hold onto French Indochina (modern day Vietnam). 40,000 French troops, trapped in a valley and surrounded on all sides by mountains and around 40,000 Viet Minh troops, put up a heroic stand. Unfortunately, after 54 days of artillery and infantry attacks, the French were ultimately overwhelmed, effectively bringing an end to a hundred years of French rule in the area. The defeat also sowed the seeds for a larger conflict a decade later, when the colony was divided into a Communist north and pseudo-democratic south, resulting in the Vietnam War (1965-1975) and all that portended.
9. Paris (1870-71)
Though overshadowed by the tragic twin World Wars, Germany (known as Prussia at the time) and France fought each other some 45 years before WW1, in a brief conflict that most people know little about. Known as the Franco-Prussian War, it proved to be an overwhelming German victory, and one that was made possible by the surrender of Paris after a four-month siege. Though not hugely costly in terms of loss of life—most of which occurred in the last few weeks, when the city was finally subjected to artillery barrages in an effort to hasten a surrender—it set the stage for the wars of the 20th Century, and established the nation of Germany. It was also the first siege in history in which hot air balloons were used extensively. The French employed them to maintain communications between the besieged army and the rest of France.
8. Fort Sumter (1861)
This was a very short-term affair—just 34 hours—and one that also had the distinction of being one of the few sieges that resulted in almost no casualties. The brief bombardment of the Union fort had huge repercussions, however, in that it proved to be the opening salvo in what would be the bloodiest war in American history. Within weeks of the fort’s evacuation and surrender, Union and Confederate soldiers would be meeting on numerous battlefields, in a Civil War that would leave over a million dead and wounded on both sides. Interestingly, the fort would later be the scene of a second siege, this time by the Union against Sumter’s Confederate defenders, and one which would last for almost two years. The Confederates would hold out to the end of the war, however, making it one of the few sieges in history that failed.
7. The Alamo (1836)
While small in scale, and lasting just a little over two weeks, it’s hard to argue that any siege in history is as famous as the one that took place in San Antonio, Texas, during February and March of 1836. The Alamo is the stuff of legend, and the inspiration for numerous books, documentaries and Hollywood productions. The actual siege occurred when some 260 Texans, under Colonel William Travis and James Bowie, decided to fortify a small mission known simply as the Alamo, against some 2,400 soldiers under the command of the inept Mexican President General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Wiping out the defenders almost to the last man, it proved to be one of Santa Anna’s few military victories, and one that was to come back to haunt him. Within weeks of his victory, he would be soundly defeated by Texan soldiers at San Jacinto. Many of these soldiers were fueled by outrage over the slaughter at the Alamo two months earlier. Santa Anna was forced to surrender, and Texas won its hard-earned independence. Not that it lasted; Texas joined the United States nine years later.
6. Yorktown (1781)
Like with Fort Sumter from earlier, this siege wasn’t particularly long or costly (in terms of lives), but proved to be so pivotal, in terms of historical significance, it warrants inclusion in this list. Here, a combined force of American and French soldiers trapped some 9,000 British soldiers on the peninsula of Yorktown, Virginia. Unable to evacuate by sea, due to a large French fleet anchored off-shore, and an inability of the Royal Navy to break the blockade, the British were forced to surrender to General Washington within three weeks, bringing an end to six years of warfare, and creating the United States of America. Remarkably, fewer than 300 men died on both sides, in what may have been one of the most game-changing sieges in modern history.
5. Constantinople (1453)
Though short in length—lasting just six weeks—the subsequent fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks on May 29, 1453, spelled the end of Christianity in the Middle East and opened the gates for the Muslim conquest of Europe. It also was the final nail in the coffin of the old Roman Empire, which had existed for a remarkable 1500 years, but was a mere shadow of what it had been, with Constantinople being about all that was left of it. Especially noteworthy about this siege was how it was the first time cannons had been used against enemy fortifications. However, because they were so difficult to transport and aim, and took so long to reload, they proved ineffective against Constantinople’s nearly twenty-foot-thick walls. Its introduction, however, did write a new chapter in the history of siege warfare that remains to this day.
4. Masada (72-73 AD)
Though small in scale—there were fewer than a thousand Jewish rebels holed up in the mountain fortress—the lengthy siege took on symbolic significance, as an example of a heroic last stand by Jewish nationalists choosing death over slavery, in their struggle against an oppressive Roman Empire. What makes it unique among sieges is that it ended, not in surrender or overwhelming victory for the Romans, but in the mass suicide of the fortresses’ defenders, who died almost to the last man (many after taking the lives of their own families to prevent them from being pressed into slavery). A sad end for Jewish dreams of an independent homeland, and one that was to result in Jews being dispersed throughout Europe, along with 2,000 years of persecution and, in the case of the Holocaust, genocide.
3. Jerusalem (70 AD)
Though Jerusalem has been the subject of numerous sieges throughout its long history, the siege and capture of the city by Roman legions, under the Emperor Titus in 70 AD, remains the most famous. Though it lasted just seven months (March through September), it ended in the complete destruction of the short-lived and newly independent state of Israel, which had rebelled against its Roman occupiers four years earlier. What made the siege, and subsequent fall, of the city so bad was that Jerusalem was swelled with Jews who had come to the city to observe Passover, only to become trapped inside its walls and forced to starve with the rest of the population. In addition, the siege resulted in the utter destruction of the Temple of Solomon, thereby destroying the very heart of Judaism.(imagine how the burning of the Vatican would impact Catholics, and you get the idea.)
How many died in the siege? According to the Jewish historian Josephus, over a million Jews were killed or died of starvation during the siege (including nearly all of its 60,000 armed defenders), and another 90,000 were taken into slavery.
2. Stalingrad (1942-1943)
Dramatically turning the tables on the up-till-then unstoppable German Army, the Soviet encirclement of Hitler’s Sixth Army in Stalingrad (present day Volgograd), dealt Hitler a blow that Germany was never to recover from. Not only did it cost nearly two million lives on both sides, but it set a new standard for barbarism and human suffering, unprecedented in history. How bad was it? The Soviets executed over 13,000 of their own men for desertion during the battle and, of the 110,000 Germans taken prisoner by the Soviets at the end of the siege, only about 6,000 would survive their captivity. It just doesn’t get any worse than that.
1. Leningrad (1941-1944)
This was technically not a siege in the truest sense of the word, as the city was never entirely surrounded and continued to receive supplies throughout the course of its siege. However, this hold-out city (present-day St. Petersburg) endured nearly 900 days of continuous artillery bombardment and bombing raids, by the combined forces of Germany and Finland, that didn’t stop until January of 1944. Not only was the siege important, in that it demonstrated Russian resolve and determination, but it kept much of Hitler’s army tied up when they would have been much more useful elsewhere on the front, likely contributing to Germany’s ultimate defeat. While the final number of deaths is difficult to ascertain—especially in the first winter, when starvation was rampant—best estimates place the number of Russians killed at around one and a half million, of which about a third of those were civilians, making this another of the few sieges in history that failed.
Other Famous Sieges in History:
Vicksburg (1863): resulted in the loss of the Mississippi River to the Union, and the division of the Confederacy
Corrigedor, Philippines (1942): Largest surrender of American forces in history
Candia (modern Crete): Longest siege in history: 1648-1669
Berlin (1945): left the city in rubble, and ended Hitler’s reign of terror
Troy (1200 BC): Made famous by Homer’s Illiad
Megiddo (1457 BC): the first recorded siege in history
Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality and religion. To see more of his stuff, visit his website at www.ourcuriousworld.com.