How siege warfare returned
Dark histories offer insight into our dark present
The history of war is never far removed from battles for cities. Many of us, of whatever creed, were brought up on the story of the walls of Jericho tumbling after the Israelites marched around the stronghold once a day for six days, seven times on the seventh day, and then blew their trumpets. Though no archaeological evidence at Tell es-Sultan, in modern Palestine, corroborates the arresting visual image related in Joshua, Chapter 6, diggers have uncovered a range of defensive stone and brick walls dating back to 8,000 BC. It indicates that even 10,000 years ago, the ancients indulged in the odd siege when the mood took them. The biblical story also introduces us to the concept of intimidation, today fashionably called “psychological warfare”.
The much younger fortress of Troy provides insights into another city-focussed era of battles. Beneath today’s Hisarlik in northern Turkey are nine archaeological layers. Troy VIII was the alluring city of Classical and Hellenistic times, as portrayed in the Iliad, Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. The Romans took the lessons of Homeric Troy seriously and clad all their major settlements with defensive walls, as any exploration of Canterbury, Chester or York will confirm. These acted as magnets for opponents, as in Boudicca’s revolt of AD 60–61. Cities such as Colchester, London and St Albans were sacked, as much for what they represented as for their physical presence.
When the Normans arrived in their longships, they imported the concept of stone castles to control the newly conquered English. Their walled cities would be ungraded and contested scores of times over the succeeding six centuries. Henry V’s siege of Harfleur (modern Le Havre) in 1415, the beginning of the Agincourt campaign famously depicted in Shakespeare’s play, underlined the drawback of traditional sieges. They took longer and were usually far costlier than expected. Several thousand men camped in a small area with no knowledge of hygiene inevitably resulted in a high mortality rate amongst the attackers before a shot was fired.
Harfleur was also the first time an English army made use of gunpowder artillery in a siege, a technology that had trickled its way across the world from China. Powder and fuse heralded events 38 years later, when an Ottoman army shook the Christian world to its core by breaching the massive walls of Constantinople (Istanbul) after a 53-day bombardment using cannons. On Tuesday, 29 May 1453, stone finally gave way to bronze and iron, finishing the last remnant of the Roman Empire. Europe was never quite the same again. Fortress architecture started to employ breadth, using earthen ramparts and ditches, rather than height.
Strategy for urban warfare intensified during the lifetime of the French fortress engineer Vauban (1633–1707), who used landscaped terrain as well as geometrically designed defensive walls to deter would-be besiegers. When viewed from above, his fortification designs resemble starfish. So successful were his tactics that sieges, always costly and time-consuming, lessened in importance. His contemporary Marlborough recognised that on any cost-benefit analysis, Vauban had rendered sieges militarily unprofitable, restoring manoeuvre to campaigns.
Subsequent wars fought in the Napoleonic era, the Crimea, between the American North and South, and by Prussia generally reflected this return to mobility. There was the odd attritional discrepancy with the 1854–55 siege of Sevastopol, that of Petersburg in 1864–65 and Paris in 1870–71. Cities were still fought for, but usually contests were removed away from the walls, where forces could conduct wide sweeping manoeuvres, such as Leipzig in 1813 or Ypres in the Great War. As weapons grew more accurate and their munitions heavier, fortifications broadened and sank into the ground, culminating in the trenches of 1914–18. In this era, dominance of terrain became the hallmark, and it was virtually siege-free.
It was remarkable that urban warfare returned on an industrial scale during the Second World War, a time usually associated with blitzkrieg and rapid tank thrusts. This happened at Leningrad, Sevastopol and Stalingrad in the East; at Ortona and Cassino in Italy, Caen; Carentan and St Lo in Normandy; in Aachen and later assaults on Aschaffenburg and Cologne, Magdeburg, Leipzig and Berlin in 1945. Subsequent NATO doctrine for the defence of central Europe focussed on the threat of more attrition. Plans were devised to defend quite small localities, putting grit in the Soviet steamroller and making the cost of attacking Western towns and cities prohibitive.
It takes an objective writer to concentrate on his period and not be influenced by contemporary warfare. Although Russian military records had been opened to Antony Beevor when researching his Stalingrad (1998) and later Berlin (2002), subsequent writers such as Mungo Melvin, Prit Buttar and Iain MacGregor have found themselves in a race against time as the archives of the East slowly closed and Russia under Putin began to weaponize its history. The study of conflict is not just tanks and tankards. It is as much about earth and archives, but luck went against General Melvin when access to the terrain of his Sevastopol’s Wars: Crimea from Potemkin to Putin was barred just before publication of his work in 2017. By then, siege warfare was ringing in his ears, with renewed experience of urban strife in Iraq at Baghdad, Basra and Fallujah.
Ukrainians have enlisted patriotism, whilst their attackers have nothing
John Erickson analysed the Soviet response to Barbarossa in his Road to Stalingrad (1975) and Road to Berlin (1983). Since 1989 David Glanz has published many works studying Soviet doctrine of the wartime and later eras. They faced the same challenge as the landmark Thames Television series World at War (1975). Due to Russia’s suspicion of the West, knowledge of the Eastern Front was imbalanced in favour of Germany. Like Beevor, Chris Bellamy’s Absolute War (2007) benefitted from the brief window when gates to Moscow’s military archives opened, albeit slowly and partially. Then, as the doors swung shut, Iain MacGregor and Prit Buttar also found themselves rushing to publish their works. Meanwhile the Russian Federation absorbed first Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea from 2014, then attacked cities like Kharkiv, Mariupol and Kyiv in 2022.
Only the most disciplined of contemporary readers can ignore the parallels with today’s war of attrition in the East when reading MacGregor’s Stalingrad and Buttar’s Leningrad, though neither could have foreseen the outbreak of fresh urban fights when writing their books. Mr Putin’s creeping campaign into Ukraine has returned the world’s spotlight to operations in the built-up areas of these bloodlands. It is tempting to observe that today’s warriors would not recognise the level of violence of their forebears, but the narratives in both books reveal they would. Yes, the Russians still loot and pillage in combat.
Battle then and now is an affair of cigarettes and conscripts fed into reluctant battle, relying on hammers and shovels as much as hand grenades and sub-machine-guns to prevail. The poor medical aid, hunger and fatigue are still there, but the ideological glue is not. In the 1940s, it was the defence of the Motherland that inspired terrified Soviet soldiers. Today, it is the Ukrainians who have enlisted patriotism, whilst their attackers have nothing — just the vain ambition of their leader in the Kremlin. The will to resist at Mariupol and Bakhmut is foreshadowed by the grim determination shown at Leningrad and Stalingrad. All of the historical drawbacks of urban war resurfaced in these two sieges: their attritional nature for attacker and defender; the way they brought mobility to a shuddering halt; above all, the suffering of civilians, who became the target.
Buttar is a former army doctor, self-taught in Russian and German, with 12 books on the Eastern Front in both world wars under his belt. All are excellent credentials to tackle this famous siege. His 450-page study is the first good account since The 900 Days, Harrison Salisbury’s 1969 work which brought Leningrad’s struggle to Western eyes. Buttar notes Peter the Great’s “Window on the West” was never going to be voluntarily abandoned. Apart from bearing Lenin’s name (the oblast still does, though the city itself is again St Petersburg), it was the site of the Russian Revolution in 1917. For politics as much as strategy, this fortress port was always going to be a target for the extermination of its people and their culture. Leningrad’s fate would be a metaphor for the wider subjugation of the USSR to Nazi Germany.
Perhaps his hobby of astronomy is responsible for Buttar’s eye for detail. He offers value for money with his galaxy of letters and diaries, wrung out of various archives that readers will not have encountered before. He has an understanding of minutiae that tell a greater story: Dimity Shostakovich composing his 7th Symphony through the air raids, announcing “My music is my weapon … We are battling for our culture.” Malnutrition and fatigue stalking the ranks of his musicians and listeners, the former too weak to hold their instruments, both described as “ghosts”. An artisan demanding to be paid with cats, not money. “I have eaten five already.” Serving in Bosnia, I recall accounts of hunger in Sarajevo, at 1,425 days, the longest siege of modern times. In Leningrad, Buttar introduces us to Food Commissioner Dmitry Vasilyevich Pavlov and his struggles to keep the population alive via wholly inadequate supplies arriving by air and sea. Ammunition and war-making took priority over life-saving.
MacGregor introduces us to a different Pavlov, Junior Sergeant Yakov Pavlov, whose defence of a house in central Stalingrad is the Lighthouse of the narrative. Just as Buttar uses Shostakovich to illustrate the wider suffering, MacGregor notes how the defence of Pavlov’s house became a symbol of Stalingrad’s dogged stand, even during the battle. Here was another city to be defended or destroyed at all costs, not just because of its location as a gateway to the oil-rich lands of the Caucasus, but because of the name it bore. The story of Stalingrad in general and Pavlov in particular were mythologised throughout the Soviet era. It was only after 1991 that Russian historians began to question the official narrative.
Both Leningrad and Stalingrad were conflicts of such epic scale that the only way to make them relatable is to pick out small incidents and representative participants. Called “Tsaritsyn” until 1925, its name was changed from Stalingrad to Volgograd in 1961 by Nikita Khrushchev, who had been a commissar during the city’s defence. Today as part of Putin’s attempts to again portray Stalin as a great war leader, hoping some of the magic will rub off on him, the city is renamed Stalingrad on six days each year, commemorating past triumphs. MacGregor was lucky to gain access to Volgograd’s Panorama Museum along with an interpreter, for his research was conducted in the winter of 2019 as the pandemic loomed across the world. He realised the treasure it contained when told, “No one ever comes to our archives, not even Antony Beevor!”
MacGregor’s background is in book publishing. Having worked with Max Hastings, Simon Schama and Michael Wood, he shares their fascination for oral history. On his arrival, he was faced with hundreds of musty school exercise books and folders containing letters, photographs and diagrams, stacked in several piles. The temperatures in which he had to work provided a very authentic Stalingrad atmosphere, which comes across from his pages.
It is a battle known through several films, non-fiction works and gritty novels, such as Theodore Pliever’s 1948 anti-war Stalingrad. MacGregor strips back this varnish and notes it was not only Stalin’s name that was at risk in 1942, but the city’s manufacturing plants and population of half a million, swollen to double by refugees. Sited on the west bank of the Volga, two kilometres wide, the river was at the Russian defenders’ backs, hence the desperation of their resistance. We meet the Ukrainian Jew and journalist Vasily Grossman (author of Life and Fate, published posthumously in 1980) and the city’s grizzle-faced ruthless Commandant, General Vasily Chuikov, who announced, “Any populated area can be turned into a fortress, and can grind down the enemy ten times better than a garrison.” MacGregor notes that Pavlov of the Lighthouse was wounded early on and evacuated. However, the ethnic mix of his men encompassed all Russia. They defended against overwhelming German opposition for two months, though it was Pavlov who was decorated and paraded everywhere as a hero of the Soviet Union.
Some of Pavlov’s opponents were men of Germany’s 71st Infantry Division. MacGregor was given access to the unpublished recollections and letters by the family of their commander, Friedrich Roske. A Great War veteran, dedicated and competent, this officer volunteered to command the elite 194th Infantry Regiment. Promoted on the suicide of his general (who with two other generals and two colonels simply walked into No Man’s Land armed with rifles and were cut down), Major General Roske would officiate at the surrender of General Paulus. The war in the East was nuanced for many Wehrmacht officers. “Despite his willingness to enter front-line combat, to his wife Roske he had secretly questioned the sense of Barbarossa in the first place,” MacGregor tells us.
Both books are important new interpretations of these two famous battles. They prove there is always more to learn from assiduous study of archives and that new material will always surface. With the politics of the current Russian regime, there are unlikely to be more new analyses of Stalingrad or Leningrad for some time, apart from misleading contributions from Mr Putin’s own historians. It will take us time to make sense of city fights in the current Ukraine–Russian war. Buttar’s Leningrad and MacGregor’s Stalingrad are also to be recommended for their insights which prove that, ever since Jericho and Troy, Constantinople, Harfleur and Cassino, mankind has defended its most important settlements with utmost ruthlessness. Civilians suffer the most, as they will continue to do in a drone-infested future.
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