Sieges and Siegecraft, Part One: Attackers
Throughout the bloody pages of innumerable fantasy books there are countless examples of the siege in fiction. From epic wars that last for years to brutal assaults that are swift and decisive, sieges are a classic element in many stories. They can provide some of the most dramatic and memorable events of the book, opening up possibilities for great action and storytelling. Helm’s Deep, Dagoska, Capustan, Dros Delnoch – I’m sure any fantasy reader can reel off a list of favourites that were truly unforgettable. Whether it’s a daring assault on the dark lord’s castle or a valiant defence against a horde of enemies, a siege is a pivotal moment in the story.
When it comes to writing them yourself, a good knowledge of siegecraft is essential in ensuring your work is realistic and clear for the reader. In essence, a siege is about the level of access between two opposing forces. The assaulting force is trying to reach the enemy, and the defending force is trying to keep them away. All efforts and stratagems by either party are focused on these goals; every method or construction is a counter to something else from the opposition. History is always a good source of material for research and is brimming with examples of sieges examined in exhaustive detail, where new methods of war evolved and new tactics were developed. But for those who don’t have time to read through centuries of military history, this article will get you up to speed on the basics.
To be part of a besieging army was no picnic; such endeavours were hugely expensive, time consuming and filled with hardship. As the besiegers surrounded an enemy and cut off its supplies, they would be left with two options: starve the enemy out and make them surrender, or take the city by force. This meant periods of grim tedium for the soldiers, living in poor conditions and likely suffering from disease, mixed with moments of incredibly brutal fighting as they attempted to overcome the fortifications.
A high wall is a simple, but undeniably effective method of defence. This can be anything from a simple wooden palisade to an enormous stone wall fifty feet tall and guarded with fixed artillery emplacements. Obviously the complexity of the defences as well as the level of sophistication used to breach them will vary depending on the technological level of the forces involved. Yet for all their variety, it boils down to going through the walls or around them. The attackers need to reach the enemy before they can kill them, which means they need a way to overcome the walls that is mobile, and resistant to attacks from above.
OVER, UNDER, OR THROUGH?
The humble ladder is the first port of call, whether you need to reach a light bulb, or take down that archer. Easy to build in large numbers, siege ladders were a logical response to walls, allowing troops to get to grips with the enemy. More sophisticated designs had increased stability or methods of securing themselves to the walls – remember those ladders in The Two Towers that latched onto the walls of Helm’s Deep?
Next up is the slightly more complicated siege tower. As the name suggests, it’s a mobile tower on wheels, built to approximately the same height of the walls. Again, it was relatively simple to construct and had the added advantage of providing the troops inside with protection against the defenders’ arrow fire while they got into position. As they were usually constructed of wood, siege towers would often be draped with wet animal skins or other methods to make them resistant to flammable weapons used by the defenders. Siege towers would unfurl a bridge when they reached the walls, allowing a mass of attackers to charge the enemy as a group, rather than fighting at a disadvantage one at a time as they came up a ladder.
Opting for a sneakier tactics, an attacker might try undermining and ‘sapping’ (the practice of tunnelling under fortifications to grant access or bring down the walls). In a long siege where the forces were at a stalemate it was common for diggers to spend weeks burrowing under the earth to gain an advantage. An attacker might tunnel under the walls in order to come up behind the enemy and launch a surprise attack from inside the defences. Or they might only go as far as the walls, propping up their tunnels with wooden beams that were subsequently set on fire, causing the tunnel to collapse as well as the wall above it. Naturally, this was incredibly time consuming as well as dangerous – especially if the defenders found out! – but it could provide a decisive advantage and save the attackers the losses of a normal attack. Sappers also did the grunt work to make attacks easier, such as filling in a moat or constructing the various siege engines.
If going around walls isn’t your style, then it’s time to punch through. Battering rams have been around since ancient times and are the epitome of blunt force. Designed to breach fortifications or smash open gates, rams could be as simple as a few stout men carrying a log, or a wheeled contraption with an iron spike suspended by chains and ropes. Some designs even had armoured canopies fixed onto the frame to protect the soldiers manning it. Rams were often sent ahead to avoid exposing more of the army than necessary, but once a breach was made the rest of the force would advance and try to break though the defences.
To avoid the casualties incurred in a direct assault, besieging forces would often try to soften the enemy with artillery. To that end, a whole range of devices have been created throughout history – ballista, catapults, trebuchets, all built with the aim of inflicting damage over a large distance. The purpose of these siege engines was to kill off defenders, damage or destroy fortifications and set fires throughout the city or fort, as well as causing psychological damage to the inhabitants. These machines usually worked via complex engineering methods of tension and counterweights, and while they might often be time consuming to build and reload, they could break down walls or pummel their enemies into submission from afar. The Fencer Trilogy by K. J. Parker goes into a lot of detail on the construction and use of these weapons, with some epic sieges and artillery duels.
There’s no shortage of dirty tricks when it comes to sieges, either. Attackers were always looking for something to give them an edge and help end the siege quickly. Not satisfied with hurling rocks and firebombs, attackers would pelt an enemy fortress with the plague-ridden corpses of animals in an attempt to spread disease through the population. It was also common to try and solicit a traitor within the fortress, someone to poison supplies, sabotage defences or open a gate at a crucial moment. Cunning plans or daring assaults would be devised in an effort to breach the defences, many worth a story in their own right. Who can forget the tale of The Trojan Horse?
TECHNOLOGY & OTHER MAGIC
To return to technology, the advent of gunpowder completely changed the methods of siege warfare. Those mighty fortifications that the defenders spent so long building could be blown apart with ease or knocked down with a hail of cannon fire. Battles like the Siege of Constantinople in 1453 showed the devastating effect of such technology, and there were many applications for its use. Sappers could plant explosives under walls; raiders could hurl explosive grenades on the defenders; there are even records from China of using disposable carrier birds with incendiary devices tied to their feet. Gunpowder was a real game changer; it’s a good idea to decide for your own sieges whether or not those fighting have access to it, as it will fundamentally change how the battle is fought.
Another tide turner is the potential fantasy elements you might choose to include in your siege. Unfortunately, there are no real world examples to draw on so it’s up to your imagination to figure out how they would work – and, of course, by looking at other fiction. Take Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, which includes magical attacks on fortresses, Moranth flying on giant insects and helping drop explosives on cities, or ferrying supplies to defenders. The golden rule still applies, though: think about what happens realistically and how people would come up with countermeasures. Perhaps some kind of magic powered anti-aircraft gun to shoot down those insects, or wards carved into stone to protect against magic?
GRIND THEM DOWN
With such a range of options it might seem the attackers are spoilt for choice, but the stakes will always be high in a siege. In order to ensure success, a besieging army would make use of a combination of various methods to try and overwhelm the defenders. They would attempt to create several breaches, forcing the defenders to split their forces on multiple fronts and try to wear them down. Given the potential complexity that can arise, I’m sure there are more tactics and methods than those I’ve covered, but hopefully you’ve now got a few more ideas about how to write your siege and take that stubborn castle. So man the catapults, ready the ladders, and for god’s sake be careful with that birdseed; you’ll kill us all!
Next time, siegecraft for defenders. Drive them back!
Title image by Toby Carr.