Fortify the Battlements: 6 of the Greatest Sieges in History You Need To Know

Fortify the Battlements: 6 of the Greatest Sieges in History You Need To Know

William McLaughlin - June 9, 2017

City sieges are an odd concept today. Fights over cities are still common, but we often call them battles as they unfold quite differently than classic sieges. The most recent example we might have of a classic siege would be the Siege of Leningrad during WWII.

The early modern period sandwiched between the medieval ages and the industrial revolution and Napoleonic warfare saw a back and forth with leaps of technological advancements in attack and defense. Great bombards could plow through the old standard curtain walls of the day, but defenders began to figure out ways to use gunpowder weapons for defense as well as ingenious and complex star forts.

The addition of gunpowder made killing far easier even when simply shelling a city in off days of a siege, so the list below contains some of the deadliest sieges in human history.

Fortify the Battlements: 6 of the Greatest Sieges in History You Need To Know
Mehmed II with his Great Bombard in the Background. Wikipedia

1453 Siege of Constantinople: The End of Rome and the beginning of the Renaissance

Despite its fractured and fragile appearance in the 15th century, the Byzantine Empire was still proudly known by its people as the Roman Empire. Even surrounded on all sides, Constantinople was still the jewel of the Mediterranean and the most desired target of the growing Ottoman Empire.

When Mehmed the Conqueror decided to finally take the city he didn’t mess around. Assembling an army of 100,000 to as many as 200,000 and a navy of over 100 ships, Mehmed outnumbered the Byzantines 10-1 on land and 4-1 at sea, But the Byzantines still had the famous triple Theodosian Walls defending Constantinople and a massive chain guarding the entrance to the harbor.

Fortify the Battlements: 6 of the Greatest Sieges in History You Need To Know
The layout of Constantinople. by the time of the siege their were vast empty spaces within the walls as the population had dwindled so much. Wikipedia

As the armies prepared for a siege, a famous cannon engineer, Orban, offered his services to the Byzantines to build cannons for their defense. The dilapidated empire couldn’t afford his service so Orban went to Mehmed, who gladly accepted and soon had several giant cannons to smash through Byzantine walls.

The entirety of Western Europe was wary of the Ottomans and their different culture and religion, but few sent aide to the last Christian stronghold guarding Europe. Some Genoese archers and other supply ships found their way to the city, but many other western states would deeply regret letting the city fall.

The commander of the Ottoman fleet was almost executed for failing to find a way past the chain and allowing several Christian ships to sneak through the blockade but was saved after a daring plan. Using hundreds of greased logs, the Ottoman ships were dragged overland and around the fortified housing of the harbor chain. A fierce naval fight that night left prisoners on both sides. Mehmed decided to impale his prisoners on stakes and the Byzantines then executed their Ottoman prisoners on the top of their wall, this proving that the defenders were willing to fight to the end and expected no mercy.

Mehmed tried several different assaults over the next weeks. His great bombards crumbled sections of the walls where thousands of Turks charged through. The Byzantines would simply set up overlapping zones of fire from archers and smaller cannons likely set up as rudimentary shotguns. With the cannons taking hours to reload, the Byzantines filled in each defended gap with barrels of dirt and were pleasantly surprised when these absorbed the cannonballs better than their walls.

Ottoman tunnels were expertly countermined by the Byzantines and many hundreds and thousands died underneath the walls of the city. Seeing his piecemeal attempts failing, Mehmed resolved to try one massive attack on the 29th of May 1453.

Sending waves of his poorest quality soldiers, Mehmed overwhelmed the thin lines of Byzantine and Genoese defenders. After hours of this, the elite Janissaries attacked and were able to capture several sections of the walls including an area that had a small unlocked gate allowing Ottomans to pour through into the city.

Seeing this, many citizen defenders fled and Europeans scrambled to their ships to flee. The Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI reportedly charged into the fray and died fighting. The Byzantine defenders were able to hold out for up to a few hours before they were overwhelmed.

Fortify the Battlements: 6 of the Greatest Sieges in History You Need To Know
The last Roman Emperor, Constantine XI, on the for right charging to his death. Wikipedia

The Fall of Constantinople sent shock waves through Europe and brought about an epic conflict between the expanding Ottoman Empire and Europeans. The magnificently cultured Constantinople was finally extinguished as a remnant of the Roman Empire and rebranded as a bastion of Islam as Istanbul. The many fleeing scholars and works of art and literature would be one of the biggest reasons for the start of the Renaissance period.

Fortify the Battlements: 6 of the Greatest Sieges in History You Need To Know

Siege of Rhodes 1480: Knights Hospitaller Defend the Ancient Island

Well despite their difficulty in taking Constantinople, the Ottomans were in a huge position of power after they finally gained the great capital they wanted. Soon they decided to scoop up some of the many islands of the Mediterranean and Rhodes, at about ten miles off the coast of Ottoman territory, was high on the list. The headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller, the city was ready to put up a stout defense.

Landing with around 70,000 men supported by over 100 ships, the Ottomans faced around 500 knights and about 3,000 regular soldiers. The Ottomans decided to attack the tower of St. Nicholas which split and defended the two major harbors of the city. The Knight’s Grand Master Pierre d’Aubusson led the defense of the tower as other sections of the city walls came under attack.

Knowing that the Ottoman cannons would eventually break through the walls the defenders dug interior trenches and funneled fortifications just behind their walls. As breaches formed the rushing Ottoman infantry were met in good order by elite Christian knights in several different bottlenecks. The failed attacks cost thousands of Ottoman lives.

After a few months, with regular bombardment, the Ottomans copied their strategy at Constantinople and launched an all-out attack. The mass of troops was well defended against as the Grandmaster ran from spot to spot to inspire and lead the defense. Eventually, the elite Janissaries entered the fray and were able to secure a section of the walls and rush into the city.

Fortify the Battlements: 6 of the Greatest Sieges in History You Need To Know
Ottoman Janissaries could stand toe to toe with some of the most elite units of Europe. Wikipedia

Instead of panicking, the defenders rallied in the streets and organized a fierce resistance. Gradually, and with the Grandmaster suffering several grievous wounds, the assault was slowed, halted and pushed out of the city. The Ottomans were confused and disorganized and eventually routed. A Hospitaller counterattack went all the way to the Ottoman’s camp before heading back to the safety of the walls. The Ottomans would leave Rhodes in a shameful retreat soon after.

The elder Sultan Mehmed II was furious and resolved to retake the island the next year, but he died before plans could be made. The Rhodians would enjoy over 40 years of freedom before the Ottomans came back with an army and navy three times larger than their first force. Even with such a huge advantage, it took six months to take the city during the second siege.

Fortify the Battlements: 6 of the Greatest Sieges in History You Need To Know

Siege of Tenochtitlan 1521: A Brutal Introduction to the Conquest of the Americas

One of the most underrated cities of the Medieval and Renaissance period was Tenochtitlan, the center of the Aztec Empire. The city may well have been the largest population center in the world before smallpox decimated its inhabitants. Cortez’s conquest of the Aztecs is often glossed over and made to seem as if it was almost easy for Cortez. In reality, it was a terribly difficult campaign that was on the brink of failing countless times.

Cortez and his men were initially welcomed into the great island city of Tenochtitlan with curiosity, but tensions soon ended with the kidnapping of the Emperor Montezuma. The Spaniards were attacked and fled the city on what would be known as the night of sorrows. Many captured men were drug to the top of the great temples and sacrificed for Cortez and his men to see.

Led by revenge, but also be greed and glory, Cortez took about a year to prepare his forces and secure thousands of native allies to attack the city. The island city had three great causeways and huge canoe fleets that would put enemies on three sides of anyone pushing to get into the city.

Fortify the Battlements: 6 of the Greatest Sieges in History You Need To Know
The Aztecs had plenty of trodden down enemies who were more than eager to join Cortez. Wikipedia

Cortez was able to build several larger ships and had three separate forces push up each causeway as the bigger Spanish ships cleared the canoes. Aztec elite eagle warriors sprung from the shallows of the lack to hit the flanks of the attackers as the assaults inched forward.

When a large group of Spaniards was cut off and captured the Aztecs tried psychological tactics. They again sacrificed the men in full view of the causeways, but they then threw the heads at the Spanish and reportedly ate the bodies, telling the Spanish allied coastal natives that they were filled with the flesh of the so-called Gods.

Fortify the Battlements: 6 of the Greatest Sieges in History You Need To Know
This painting really shows the multiple avenues of attack and the difference between the Spanish and Aztec ships. Wikipedia

Eventually, the Spaniards pushed through the causeways and into the city. Here, the bulk of the 100,000 native Spanish allies took out centuries of hatred against the Aztecs who regularly took human tributes for sacrifices and acts of cannibalism. Over 200,000 inhabitants were killed and the Spaniards tortured the royal classes to find all the gold that they could get their hands on. The tremendous siege and fall of the great Aztec Empire opened the door for mass colonization and a new era of history in the Americas.

Fortify the Battlements: 6 of the Greatest Sieges in History You Need To Know

Great Siege of Malta 1565: The last Great Knightly Order Saves the Western Mediterranean

Another round of the Ottomans and the Knights Hospitaller fighting over an island, this time the strategically important Malta. The Knights had to relocate after Rhodes was finally taken in 1522. Malta wasn’t good for much other than natural harbors so the Hospitallers took up naval raiding against the Ottomans. After several successful raids, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent had had enough.

A massive fleet of over 150 ships and about 40,000 men prepared for about 6 months. The Grandmaster Jean Parisot de Valette heard the warning of Ottoman preparations right away and began work on several fortifications around Malta’s Great Harbor.

Like Rhodes, a peninsula divided two great harbors and the point of the peninsula saw the construction of Fort St. Elmo. Two other forts were built or extensively repaired and the whole population prepared to fight off the Turks.

When the Ottomans arrived they immediately focused on Fort St. Elmo. de Valette figured that the Ottomans would try for the crucial fort and focused his best troops and artillery there. The fighting for the fort lasted a month, sometimes lasting well into the night. Ottoman cannons kept up a constant stream of fire on the fort and the new construction was reduced to rubble in a few weeks.

Fortify the Battlements: 6 of the Greatest Sieges in History You Need To Know
The fight for St. Elmo was furious, even though it slowly became little more than a pile of rocks. Pinterest

Slowly but surely the Ottomans gained pieces of the fort, usually by way of Janissaries. By June 23 the fort was finally captured and the Ottoman commander Pasha had the thousands of defenders beheaded and sent across the bay to the rest of the knights. de Valette responded by beheading his Ottoman prisoners and firing their heads from cannons into the Ottoman camps. This set the grim tone for the rest of the siege.

With the capture of St. Elmo, Christian Europe became worried; Malta was a springboard into the Western Mediterranean. Only 600 troops were ready to reinforce from Sicily, however. But when they snuck through Ottoman lines and into Malta, the spirits of the defenders rose tremendously.

An Ottoman amphibious assault through the bay was expertly defended through the foresight of de Valette as he placed hidden sea-level cannons along assault route. The elite Janissaries could do nothing but drown after about 80 transport ships were sunk in the bay. As many as 800 Janissaries were killed in this attack.

In one sector the Ottomans finally broke through a wall and began an all-out assault. A raiding force of Maltese had been riding around the walls and forced a premature Ottoman retreat as the Ottomans assumed that masses of Christian reinforcements had finally arrived.

Fortify the Battlements: 6 of the Greatest Sieges in History You Need To Know
One of the surviving forts, Fort St. Angelo, also vital to the defense. Wikipedia

As the Ottomans were losing hope they launched several more desperate attempts to gain more than a foothold on the island, but they failed. The Maltese defenders were wearing thin but had hope for reinforcements and they saw the fading Ottoman spirits. When Christian reinforcements finally arrived, the Ottomans were already preparing to leave. A Christian assault for good measure inflicted great casualties on the fleeing and demoralized Ottomans and they broke the siege for good.

Though the Ottomans would still dominate the Mediterranean for several years, they would not threaten Western Europe with an invasion. The Knights of Malta were treated like heroes for defending Europe.

Fortify the Battlements: 6 of the Greatest Sieges in History You Need To Know

Siege of Szigetvár 1566: An Epic Ottoman Pyrrhic Victory

Just a year later we have an Ottoman victory in Eastern Europe; though it is one of the most bittersweet pyrrhic victories of the Renaissance. Suleiman the Magnificent had failed to take Malta but had made great strides in Eastern Europe. On one last, massive campaign to push towards Vienna, Suleiman made a stop to take Szigetvar, which he considered a minor annoyance to his campaign.

Count Nikola Zrinski thought himself more than an annoyance and prepared to give the Ottomans all they could handle with his 3,000 or so men at Szigetvar. Suleiman was prepared for much larger sieges so his army was more than enough for Szigetvar with about 200,000 men.

Fortify the Battlements: 6 of the Greatest Sieges in History You Need To Know
Zrinski preparing for battle. Wikipedia

Despite the hopelessness of the situation, Zrinski did not consider hearing negotiations. The forward troops of the Ottomans were relentlessly attacked until the main force arrived. Zrinksi’s forays outside the walls caused thousands of Ottoman losses before the siege even began.

Initial full assaults by the Ottomans were repulsed by the small garrison. A month of casual assaults made no progress, but no help was on the horizon for Zrinski either. Suleiman offered terms, but Zrinski again rejected.

When a final attack was launched Ottomans flooded the city and castle everywhere. One nasty surprise by Zrinski was a mortar turned on its side and filled with iron scraps. As Ottomans were crossing a bridge to break through a gate the defenders opened the gate and fired at point blank range, killing hundreds before being overwhelmed themselves. Zrinski died in a final charge and the Ottomans took the city.

Fortify the Battlements: 6 of the Greatest Sieges in History You Need To Know
Zrinski’s final charge. Wikipedia

Little did they know, however, that Zrinski had one final trick up his sleeve. He had lit a long fuse on the castle’s powder stores. As the thousands of Ottoman troops swarmed the castle for loot, it exploded. As many as 3,000 men were killed in this last explosion. Upwards of 20,000 Ottomans were killed in the siege and assault and the elderly Suleiman had died in his tent before the last attack. The Ottomans were forced to abandon their campaign for Vienna for another century.

Fortify the Battlements: 6 of the Greatest Sieges in History You Need To Know

Great siege of Gibraltar 1779: The British Refuse to Surrender their Sliver of the Mediterranean

Jumping all the way up to the American Revolutionary War (American War of Independence) we have one of the last great sieges of the early modern period before the 1800’s and Napoleon stole the show. All the above sieges were indeed sieges operations, taking days or months, but this is the longest, by far, at over three years.

Gibraltar is a beautiful peninsula on South of Spain that guards the entrance to the Mediterranean. It features the “Rock of Gibraltar” a massive cliff formation that gives tremendous views of the sea and the narrow land approach. The British had owned the small, isolated patch of land for 75 years when the American Revolution was at its height.

The British were deeply invested in the Americas so Spain figured that they could take the chance and take back Gibraltar as it was seen to rightfully belong to Spain. Gibraltar was a near unassailable rock, so the Spaniards set in for a long siege in 1779. About 5,000 British, Corsican and Hanoverian combined troops manned the defenses as the population gathered what food they could. The Spanish, supported by the French, had about 14,000 men and several dozen ships.

Though the Spaniards attempted several probing assaults throughout the year, the Brit’s real enemy was hunger, specifically scurvy. In the spring of 1780, the first supply fleet snuck through the Spanish blockade with food, produce, and men.

The next spring’s food fleet again slipped past the Spanish fleet and the Spanish retaliated by launching endless salvos at the unloading docks. The British fleet left, taking most of the civilians with them. The British could now hold for upwards of another year without resupply. Massive networks of tunnels painstakingly carved into the cliffs gave the British multiple firing lanes on the land side. The cannon bays were protected by solid rock and too high for the Spaniards to retaliate effectively. These cave networks are still a breathtaking site today.

Fortify the Battlements: 6 of the Greatest Sieges in History You Need To Know
The massive rock of Gibraltar made for an interesting dynamic in a siege. Pinterest

As the Spaniards realized the futility of starvation tactics, they decided to inch their lines forward. The night before a major planned assault the British decided to take the initiative and rushed from the rock in the dead of night in a surprise attack.

The attack sent many of the Spaniards fleeing, leaving dozens of pristine artillery pieces for the Brits. With an impending counterattack, the British couldn’t take these guns, so they spiked them before running back to the rock. Spiking a gun meant hammering a thin nail into the hole used to light the powder. A simple tactic, but it was nearly impossible to remove without destroying the cannon.

Fortify the Battlements: 6 of the Greatest Sieges in History You Need To Know
a sketch of the fortifications done during the early years of the siege. Wikipedia

The grand assault was delayed by this attack, but was restarted a few days later. On September 13th, 1782, the Spaniards and French attacked from the sea. They had constructed several gunboats, floating artillery platforms, to breach some of the sea walls.

Seeing these massive and easy targets, the British used red-hot cannonballs and fired them at these ships. This caused several fires and many of the ships sank. The British were greatly aided by an invention developed during the first years of the siege, a cannon mount that would allow a cannon to be aimed downwards for the first time in history.

The great assault failed horribly and soon after another supply fleet arrived. The Spanish would keep up the siege for a few more months before finally giving up. Facing American rebels in a war that became bigger than the British could imagine, Gibraltar finally seemed ripe for the taking. All of Spain sits in Gibraltar’s backyard, but it could not be conquered.

Gibraltar would be immensely important in the next centuries of British warfare. During WWII, Gibraltar was essential to the Allied war effort. Countless bombings, assaults, and covert options failed to capture or weaken the tiny but mighty British base, and it was a common naval rally point during the war.