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A blog about writing, reading, art, and history

Battle scenes, part 1.3: Defense of Kel Fimmaril, siege warfare


In writing First Empress, I have to constantly remind myself that not all of my readers will have studied military history with the depth that I have—and of those who have, not all have studied Ancient Greek warfare as extensively. While I have a good understanding of the differences between a xiphos (short sword mainly for stabbing) and a kopis (short sword mainly for slashing), I can’t assume that all of my readers will have the same knowledge. Thankfully, there’s an old literary device where an author explains potentially unfamiliar information to readers by having an experienced character explain it to an unexperienced character (historical novelist Patrick O’Brien was a master of this technique).

As the technology level of the story is similar to Ancient Greece during the Persian and Peloponnesian War eras, sinew-powered artillery such as ballistae and catapults have not been invented just yet. Because of this, the only ways past an enemy’s walls were to climb over with ropes and ladders or to undermine them with sappers. To illustrate this, I included a short conversation about siege warfare in the first scene from chapter 2. We find Queen Viarraluca and her top officers as well as Ronnius, her steward, discussing plans for the upcoming invasion by the city of Andivel.

“Sixteen days, minimum,” Viarra gave the total. “We have at least until then to prepare for an invasion. General Derron, is there any possibility that they’ll use any strategy other than a protracted siege?”

“As in, could they bring in enough soldiers to storm the walls and sack the city?” Derron shook his head. “No, not really. Even if they could spare that many troops without leaving their city basically undefended, it would be a costly victory, and just not cost-effective logistically.”

“Good, I agree,” the queen nodded. “We’ll make preparations for a siege, then.”

“I’m sorry, you’ll have to explain this to me,” Captain Vola shook her head. “My people are mostly nomadic and know little of siege warfare.”

“Heavy walls like ours present a fairly formidable obstacle for even a large invading army,” Ronnius explained to the cavalry captain. “Walls and cities are an entirely different environment from open field where often all you need is a bigger army to win. There are two basic methods for capturing a walled city, you can either storm it or starve it.”

“The rule of thumb for storming a city is to have at least twice the number of soldiers as your enemy,” General Derron added. “Even once you get past the walls—either by using ladders or sappers—you still have to deal with the urban fighting.”

“Sapping is where you dig under someone’s wall to undermine its foundation and make it collapse,” Ronnius added for Vola’s benefit.

“And once inside the walls, a determined citizenry can put up a brutal and bloody resistance,” Derron continued. “Not only will you have to deal with hoplites using streets, doorways, and alleys as chokepoints and ambuscades, you also end up with women and children on top of buildings, throwing bricks, stones, and roof tiles on your head. This tends to require a massive number of soldiers to pull off.”

“And the collateral damage is ghastly,” Viarra agreed. “The other option is to starve the city. You surround the city with too strong an army for them to best in the field, then wait for them to exhaust their food stores. You essentially force them to surrender because they’ve gotten too hungry to fight.”

“And if the city relies on an external water source, you can dam it up and divert it from the city, which tends to make people surrender faster,” Ronnius put in. “The downside to a siege is that it can take weeks, months, or even over a year for a prepared city to use up their food stores. Meanwhile, it keeps your army in one place and gives the enemy time for reinforcements or other outside help to arrive. And you have to have a way to keep your own soldiers fed.”

Vola shook her head. “This is why people should live in tents,” she commented drily.

For further discussion, see my previous posts discussing the politics and soldiers involved in the battle.


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