War List: Significant Sieges | HistoryNet
The Siege of Paris 1870–1871

War List: Significant Sieges

By Paul D. Lockhart
Spring 2013 • MHQ Magazine

Paul D. Lockhart, professor of military history at Wright State University, picks eight of the most consequential sieges in history, which had far-reaching effects on strategy, ethics, politics, national destiny, and even French cuisine.


Leningrad 1941–1944, World War II

As a major industrial center, Leningrad was a primary target of the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union. German Army Group North, aided by Finnish troops, encircled Leningrad in September and the city held out until January 1944, when Soviet forces freed it. The 872-day siege was the most costly ever: As many as a million civilians died, and nearly as many Soviet troops. Hunger, not enemy fire, was the prime killer.


Tenochtitlan 1521, Spanish conquest of Mexico

The three-month siege of the Aztec capital (present-day Mexico City) pitted a Spanish force of around a thousand, albeit heavily bolstered by native allies, against hundreds of thousands of warriors. The crowning victory for the army under adventurer Hernán Cortés made possible the building of a Spanish empire in the New World. But the fighting was brutal even by 16th-century standards; toward the end, the Aztecs ritually sacrificed Spanish prisoners, cutting out their hearts.


Fredriksten 1718, Great Northern War

A largely forgotten clash in a largely forgotten war, the Swedish siege of this Norwegian fortress was less than two months old when Sweden’s great warrior-king Karl XII died from a gunshot to the head. The siege ended Sweden’s unlikely career as a great power, making way for the rise of Karl XII’s great rival, Tsar Peter the Great of Russia.


Malta 1565, Ottoman-Habsburg Wars

The Turkish attack on Malta, then held by the Knights Hospitaler, was unsuccessful; Christian forces held out against the overextended Ottoman attackers. But the four-month siege ranks among the most macabre in history: On one occasion, Christian cannons bombarded a Turkish camp with the heads of decapitated Turkish prisoners.


Jerusalem 1099, First Crusade

High civilian casualties are common in sieges, usually the result of starvation or disease. The ghastly toll in this case, though, was the result of deliberate slaughter. European knights—the Crusaders—besieged Jerusalem for little more than a month before they took it by storm. The atrocities of the victorious knights sullied their glory: The entire garrison and almost all the men, women, and children—Jew and Muslim alike—were put to the sword. As many as 70,000 perished.


Candia 1648–1669, Cretan War

An Ottoman army laid siege to this Venetian fortress on the island of Crete in May 1648. After many attempts, most notably by France, to relieve the garrison, Candia finally capitulated…21 years and 4 months later. The loss of life was reasonably low and the Turks granted generous terms to the vanquished, but Candia was and remains the longest siege in recorded history.


Antwerp 1584–1585, Dutch Revolt

The Spanish investment of Antwerp stands out for the sheer ingenuity of both sides. The Spanish—under the capable direction of Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma—built a giant pontoon bridge across the Scheldt River to cut off Antwerp from the sea, a major engineering feat. The Dutch garrison, in response, opened dikes to flood out the Spanish and sent fire ships to burn the pontoon bridge. None of the Dutch countermeasures was successful, and the city capitulated to Parma 13 months later.


Paris 1870–1871, Franco-Prussian War

The Prusso-German army’s victory here ended the war and led to the unification of Germany. And by stoking French hatred of Germany, it hastened the coming of World War I. Starving Parisians held out for four months, and their spirits remained unbroken. Ordinary citizens, university students, and even cultural elites like Victor Hugo manned the city walls. When provisions ran low, the city turned to unconventional fare: horses at first, then dogs, cats, and rats, and finally animals from the city zoo, including camels and elephants.

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8 Responses to War List: Significant Sieges

  1. Ron Oberman says:

    Dear Dr. Lockhart, Could you please rank and discuss where you would put thses two seiges, Battle of Stalingrad and the seige of Vickeburg I trully enjoyed reading your analysis of each seige Ron Oberman

  2. Dennis says:

    The two Sieges of Vienna and the first arab and last turkish siege of Constantinople would seem to be glaringly absent. All of these marked significant turning points in european history.

  3. Dennis says:

    Some pretty HORRIBLE distortions here.

    First, the alleged massacre in Jerusalem is in serious doubts recently due to the ‘sources’ that purported it to happen.

    Second, its kind of dubious and one sided to point out the ‘Christians firing ottoman heads from cannons’ and ignore the ottoman attrocities. Could you be a little less big-oted next time?

    Im really getting annoyed with all the anti-christian / self-deprecating christians. It seems the fashion now and you would think a LEGITIMATE historian wouldnt fall into that trap.

  4. Tom says:

    To set the record straight on the Siege of Malta, the reason Robert Valette fired the heads of Turkish prisoners at the Turks was a response to an atrocity the Turks committed. When Fort St Elmo fell, the Turks nailed their Christian prisoners to crosses (heads removed) and floated them out into the harbor towards the other Christian fort. It was an act of intimidation by the Turks. Valette sent them a message right back: we’re not intimidated. The Siege of Malta is one of the great turning points in Western civilization. A small Christian army once again beat back a Muslim army intent on conquering parts of Europe, and the heroism of the Knights of Malta, outnumbered 40 to 1, deserves more recognition.

  5. sglover says:

    Perhaps you should call them “the most curious (in a narrowly defined sense)” sieges, instead of “significant”. I mean, if the siege of Constantinople wasn’t “significant” to the next five hundred years of European history, I don’t know what was.

    • Dennis says:

      I find it a tad misinformed to think the siege and fall of Constantinople to be ‘not significant’ to European history.
      Considering Constantinople had the ability to control the link between Europe and Asia, sat on the Ottoman supply lines, acted as a base for Venetian and Genoan merchants and warship, continually plotted and allied for and against the Turks, and pretty much signaled the end of any efforts to unify the Eastern and Latin Catholic church, its pretty blind to think it was insignificant.

    • Dennis says:

      Also, considering it was the signal moment for ‘fortified cities’ to change their walls to be able to withstand cannons as well as the Russian Empire becoming fixated on the liberation of Constantinople right up to WW1, your ‘not significant for the next 500 years’ doesnt really hold water.

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