Why were castles/fortresses effective?

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Couldn’t an enemy army just march around the castle and take all of the unfortified farmland/resources? Also couldn’t a castle just be sieged out until the defenders starve?

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>Couldn’t an enemy army just march around the castle and take all of the unfortified farmland/resources?

But if you are an army in a foreign land, you wont have time to grow your crops. You need to supply your troops. And if you leave castle in your back, nothing is easier than to disrupt your supply lines or ambush your reinforcements/troops.

> couldn’t a castle just be sieged out until the defenders starve?

Of course, that’s what happened all the time. However you can have a *lot* of supplies within the castle walls and so if the invader couldn’t capture the castle quickly enough they’d run out of time and resources. You’d optimally not campaign in the winter if you could avoid it, and you’re not going to be able to use the enemy farmland since you’re likely not going to stay in that spot for long enough. The defending population would if they are smart already have harvested whatever they could and get it in to the castle.

Castles also could store a lot of troops, which meant that if you marched around the castle and tried to keep the campaign going suddenly you had an enemy in your back that could cut off the supply line, flank you, or work together with a different army to surround you.

Additionally castles could be used to delay the enemy while you wait for backup. If you know that there is a larger army coming but they will take two weeks to get here having a big wall to defend yourself for those two weeks until the backup could come and help you fend off the invaders was a much better strategy than not having the wall.

Attackers who’re sieging a castle are vulnerable to attack themselves. If you’re sieging a castle and you can’t storm it or starve out the defenders then some force might arrive to lift the siege before it’s successful. There are loads of examples of this from history e.g. The Siege Of Orleans during the Hundred Years War.

When Julius Caesar was attacking a fortress in Gaul, he knew that a much larger force was coming to attack him and if he was caught between the fortress and the attackers, he’d be defeated, so he actually built a bigger fortress around the smaller fortress and fought off the attackers while still sieging the original fortress. The Romans didn’t get out-Civil Engineered by anyone.

If you’re holed up in a castle and nobody is coming to help you, and your attackers have time, then you’re pretty screwed.

If you march around the castle, you now have an army behind you. This is a problem.

If you try to starve them out, you could be there for months. Your army does not want to sit around for that long. You probably don’t have the supplies and even if you do it means a lot of time spent not doing anything when time is a very limited resource (professional troops will need paying, any militias you’ve called up are going to want to get back to their actual jobs ASAP and in many places it’s just not possible to keep an army marching around during winter) If any of their mates show up to help them you’re going to get caught between the castle and another army. This is also a problem.

So while you can just ignore them, and sometimes it works, often you’ve only really got three options if they don’t feel like surrendering. You can leave just enough people behind to keep them penned up (which means you now have fewer soldiers with you, and those soldiers left behind are screwed if a real army comes to help out those under siege), you can storm the castle (which is going to get a lot of your soldiers killed) or you can accept this is as far as you go and settle in for a long siege (which is still likely to get a lot of people killed. Disease and starvation are going to be very dangerous to both sides).

In reality actual siege warfare, and large scale warfare in general, tended to be the exception in the castle era. Most medieval conflicts were more like border raids. March into an undefended village, steal everything not nailed down, burn what you can’t take and leg it before the other side shows up. And try to stop them doing the same thing to your villages.

Location, location, location

Fortresses and military castles (there were many later non-fortified castles) occupied an important location. Whether it was on the hill over looking the village, on the hill overlooking the river, or on the hill overlooking the mountain pass the castle was always in a spot where it controlled the local area.

You might be able to raid the fields of the village outside the walls but that doesn’t give you much, the food stores are all located in the walled portion of the town. You want to get into the walled area? Castle can shoot you! The whole time you’re pillaging the grain stores of the town? Castle can shoot you

You could go wayyyy around the castle but most armies weren’t going out for a long time. Campaign season was March-October so if you had to spend a month marching around a castle guarding a pass then it could put you off schedule and you could be going into your siege in winter instead of fall and that is going to hurt your army.

You could try to siege the castle and starve it out but it probably has a few months of supplies. Do you? It also has friends out there. If the local lord rallies an army and rides to the castle’s aid you’re now stuck between the castle’s defenders and a new attacking army.

Fortifications aren’t meant to be perfect or impenetrable. Walls alone are useless, but walls buy guards and armies time. Time to get reinforcements or slowly pick away at the enemy or just to wait for winter to starve out the besieging army.

It really depends on the situation. My favorite fort story is the Defense of Fort McHenry aka the events described in The Star Spangled Banner.

Most people don’t really know what happened at the fort and to understand it requires a bit of back story (which is my point about Fortresses being situational.)

England is at war with France. The English are winning thanks to their navy: they are blockading Frances’ ports and preventing the French from landing ground forces. But this causes two problems for America: England is taking American sailors and forcing then to join the British Navy. And, the U.S. can’t trade with France because of the blockades.

So, U.S. declares war on Britain. The British are a bit confused and don’t really want to fight the Americans, so they wait until after they defeat the French to fight the Americans (But wait! The British war with France was why the Americans declared war in the first place. If the war with France was over weren’t the reasons for war with Britain also over? Yes, but America wanted respect and wanted to take British controlled Canada.)

The Brits decide to send 6% of their military to fight the Americans. The Brits don’t really want anything except to end the war, so every time they take a city with ground forces, they steal all the alcohol, burn the city to the ground, then retreat to their boats. They did this to Washington D.C. then they move to Baltimore, which was then America’s biggest port, a key for international trade.

The Americans finally decide to actually fight back and coordinate multiple troops of men to form a coherent defense. They finally outnumber the Brits on land and American snipers kill the British commander.

The Brits, finally defeated on land, then withdraw land forces and decide to either sail into the Baltimore harbor to destroy the city by cannon or disembark troops there. But… The tide is low and Fort McHenry defends Baltimore with salvaged French cannon. The fort can sink ships. The fort also has walls much thicker than the British ship’s wooden walls and …. The fort can’t sink. The fort walls also allow the cannons some extra range because they raise the cannons up above sea level.

The British, knowing that forts don’t sink but their ships do, have a doctrine of not directly attacking land forts. So, instead, they withdraw out of the harbor and attempt to bombard the fort with long range rockets (red glare) and mortar bombs (bursting in air.)

The long range weapons are inaccurate and can’t hit the giant fort in anywhere that really matters and over 25 hours of bombardment, only four Americans are killed in the fort (random Baltimore civilians outside the fort are also killed by errant shells).

Brits give up and a poem describing the fort becomes the American National Anthem:

O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

So… Fort McHenry succeeded! But, the circumstance matters. Fort Mc Henry only succeeded because American land forces stopped the British from attacking by land, which was the original British plan. It only succeeded because British didn’t want to lose ships: a direct cannon attack on the Fort may have succeeded. It only succeeded because the Brits didn’t really care about Baltimore (they only wanted to burn it, so the American would surrender) and the Brits really didn’t want to lose ships. It only succeeded because British long range weapons ship based weapons were inaccurate in 1800s.

The Fort worked… In the given circumstances. The fort definitely wasn’t some impregnable, invincible thing, but it was one of the tools that helped Baltimore survive the War of 1812.

sure, the german word for a siege is “belagern” which basically means “camping”.
many castles were taken over by making the people inside starve.
thats why many have secret exits/tunnel entrances

Medieval governments was basically colonization by mafia like biker (ok horse) gangs. A squad of thugs would trot over to the next town and fight the locals and take over, take food, crafts, women as taxes. The Duke, or ‘don’ would live lavishly while the people barely scraped by, or starved. Walls and such defenses were more to prevent this than to fend off major armies. Larger towns with big walls would build storage rooms and cisterns for food and water, if besieged they would gather nearby residents and burn the fields, so the attacking army would have to struggle to feed the troops. Napoleon attempt to take over Russia was thwarted not by direct confrontation but by scortched earth for miles around and then picking off the hunting parties.

they were not universally effective, it depends on the era and also the place

in the east, the The Mongolians, and later the Russians who learned from them both would just build wooden palisade forts, and then just burn them down and burn all the crops whenever they were invaded, attackers were left with nothing and just ruined themselves trying to resupply in a wasteland