Cardboard Fortresses

First part of a short story about fortresses and how to conquer them.

A Book on Fortresses (1630) by Willem HondiusSkokloster Castle

In Theory

All countries in Europe had fortresses for their protection. They were sturdy, geometrical buildings meant to deter a prospective enemy just by sheer size and the daunting prospect of attacking it. Because of this, young gentlemen of the ruling classes had to study engineering to understand the basics of warfare. To their aid they had, among many things, treatises on fortification and paper models of fortresses. They often had to construct the models themselves as a part of the training.

An Advanced Fortress Model (1650/1700) by unknownSkokloster Castle

The Challenge

One of the first lessons was to understand that to successfully siege a fortress, you had to have a considerable army at your disposal. The Austrian General Christoph von Börner calculated for a projected siege of Temeswar in 1697 that he would need 1 849 pair of oxen and 753 vehicles to transport ten 24-pund guns and ten mortars with a minimum of ammunition for the artillery alone. And that was considered too little to have the desirable effect. In his book on warfare from 1573 Leonhard Fronsberger, as another example, estimated that a force of 5 000 men (which was not unusual at a siege) required 150 000 loafs of bread each month. It required audacity, tenacity and capacity to attack a fortress. 

A Ravelin and a Gate (1650/1700) by unknownSkokloster Castle

Why was it so difficult to attack a fortress? Basically, it had to do with overcoming several obstacles in succession under enemy fire.

An Advanced Fortress Model (1650/1700) by unknownSkokloster Castle

To begin with the perimeter of the fortress area was mostly a wide stretch of barren land. As an aggressor you therefore had difficulty in disguising your movements or in hiding when the shot started coming.

A Ravelin and a Gate (1650/1700) by unknownSkokloster Castle

A bit nearer to the fortress proper the ground slanted a bit upwards (called the glacis, marked l), in the same angle that the cannons could be depressed from the fortress.

A Bastion and a Ravelin (1650/1700) by unknownSkokloster Castle

Then you had a steep slope downwards (a counterscarp revetment), about three to four metres high, into the ditch. For an infantryman on the move forwards this drop would mean that he would be totally exposed to all enemy fire, unable to retreat because of the troops following him down the slope.

Spread out along the fortress front (the scarp revetment) there were protruding bastions with gunners and sometimes walled outposts in front of the revetment (called ravelins).

Once in the ditch he could encounter one or several “cuvettes”, a v-shaped crevice about two metres deep. It is very hard to get up from a v-shaped hole deeper than yourself. The cuvette could of course be flattened out by dead bodies eventually.

When you had quieted the ravelins then you had to scale the scarp revetment, a very steep wall of stone, at least four to seven metres high, on top of which the enemy’s musketeers greeted you at the parapet. Behind them stood the cannons on the terreplein.

Detail of a Battle (1648/1652) by Matthäus MerianSkokloster Castle

In short: it was a bother to attack a fortress. And quite leathal.

The Storming of Frederik's Point (1657/1667) by Erik DahlberghSkokloster Castle

before Uncertainty 

So, why did you attack a fortress? Well, you did not have to attack a fortress. You could march around it. But that meant that the enemy might attack you in the back later on. You could make a siege and wait, hoping that the enemy would give up out of sheer boredom and starvation. But that took a heavy toll on your own troops as well. It was therefore better, sometimes, to charge and trust in God.

Credits: Story

Text: G. Sandell, Swedish Historical Museums.

Duffy, Christopher. 1975. “Fire and Stone, the Science of Fortress Warfare 1660-1860.” David & Charles Newton Abbot: London/Vancouver.

Freitag, Adam. 1631. “Arcitectura Militaria.”

“Theatrum Europaeum, part VI & VIII.” Matthäus Merian:

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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