I want to return to something that I wrote about a fair while ago, but which still intrigues me. The argument I put forward then was that wargaming, as a hobby, is unbalanced, because far more sieges were conducted than open battles and, as a consequence, many battles were, in fact, fought as a consequence of sieges.
Now, of course, I am not quite so naive as to think that I can get away with such a sweeping statement as that in the company of blog readers here gathered, but I do think it does stand some further examination. That examination is probably more to do with strategy than tactics and politics than wargames, but it still might just give us pause for a little though.
If we consider a war, then, mostly, wars are not about creating battles. One side or the other might consider a battle to be advantageous in its present situation. Thus Edward III tried to provoke the French to battle when it was certainly to his tactical advantage. Winning a battle can change the whole course of a war, as both Edward and Henry V found. Similarly, losing a battle can alter the complexion of a war, as the Swedes found at Poltava. This does not necessarily mean that the war is won and lost, but the whole, so to speak, momentum of the campaign. The war, the political situation is changed.
It is a fairly similar situation with sieges. The successful conclusion of a siege means that a general can point to a concrete success. Rather like a soccer manager who can indicate to the club owner some silverware, a successful siege-winning general can be fairly sure of keeping his job. Additionally, if we consider strategy, then most places that are besieged, at least in any considerable strength and with any significant tenacity, tend to be strategically important. Or at least, they become so; besieged cities can become political symbols as well as physical locations. Think of Stalingrad or Magdeburg. Would Stalingrad have been quite so important if it had been called, say, the Russian equivalent of ‘Smithville’?
The winning or losing of a siege, then, can have important military, political and symbolic consequences. For Magdeburg, even though the siege was lost and the place pillaged and burnt, that very fact was used as a rallying call for the Protestant cause, and played a part in bringing the Swedish state into the Thirty Years War. Of course, it is arguable that Gustavus would have got involved anyway, but even if the siege was not a proximate cause of it, it certainly was used for propaganda. The most important outcome of a military action is not necessarily in the strategic context.
Now, one of the things I wanted to claim (and which must be, of course, nuanced) is that battles and sieges often go together. In the English Civil War, for example, both battles of Newbury were related to sieges (Gloucester and Donnington Castle, respectively). A lot of the manoeuvring before Naseby was also to do with sieges, threats of sieges and the storming of cities (Chester, Oxford and Leicester). In fact, it is arguable that only when the New Model Army was freed from the responsibility of undertaking and relieving sieges that a decisive battle could be fought and the endless local actions, aimed at and around local garrisons could be bought to an end.
The point about garrisons is, of course, that they can control the local countryside and passing major routes. Armies tend to stick to roads. While they could, in theory, strike off across country, the progress they would make, let alone the loss of heavy equipment, supplies and the chance of getting lost mitigate against doing so, at least until a battlefield is chosen. Thus a garrison on a major route can cause all sorts of problems to the other side. Thus, while Basing House had a relatively small garrison of, I think, around 300 men, its capture was a major prize of the 1645 campaign because it opened up a major road to the west from London. If we consider that trade was important for raising taxes, and it was the taxes that paid the New Model Army, then we can start to see that even fairly modest forces could make a fair sized difference.
Of course, it could be argued that the ECW, being a civil war, was a special case. To some extent that is true, but you only have to look a t, say, Belgium and the Franco-German border to see the same sort of issues at stake. The fortresses at least could provide early warning of attack, and, by careful positioning, provide delay to any invader and a magazine to the defending forces. Again, while these places could be avoided or masked, they did control the flow of the campaign and proved to be, in some cases, important symbols for success of failure.
Sieges, however, from a wargaming perspective, are simply overlooked. They lack the glamour, the heroism, the pageantry of battles. We prefer to see our armies lined up ready to fearlessly pursue desperate deeds of derring do. We do not, usually, accept that our infantry, at least, tended to spend most of their time digging trenches and up to their knees in mud. A siege is not, in a word, romantic, not matter how important it is, nor how interesting or exciting the activities within a siege might be.
Perhaps one reason for this is that we often ignore the campaign context of our games. We might play single battles. We might run a narrative campaign, but our narrative still tends towards the romantic battle rather than the dour and pragmatic siege. Perhaps, too, we do not have rule sets for sieges which enable them to be concluded in a reasonable time. The Hyboria campaign abstracted them into a dice roll or two. This may be the only sensible way of proceeding, but it does seem to me to be a shame, given the importance of sieges to history.