Dictionary of Fortifications


Until relatively recently, there were more terms relating to fortifications than to probably any other area of military history. Confusion is easy, especially since many of the words and phrases come directly from languages other than English.

Jean-Denis Lepage has set himself the challenge of identifying and explaining terms from more than 3,000 years’ worth of defensive architecture, from the Egyptians to the present day. Thus, what he presents in this Dictionary of Fortifications is a glossary of more than 1,200 entries relating to fortifications through the ages. The watershed in the development of fortifications is undoubtedly the invention of gunpowder, something that unsurprisingly features prominently throughout the book. Arranged alphabetically, from ‘Abatis’ (a defensive obstacle made from fallen trees) to ‘Zwischenwiderstandnet’ (a German stronghold constructed to fill gaps between larger fortifications), each entry has at least a concise definition or description, although many entries take the form of longer articles, with cross-referencing allowing particular themes to be followed. The book is accompanied by more than 400 illustrations, a combination of the author’s own sketches, diagrams, plans, and maps. These are often used to explain complex concepts, proving that a picture really can paint a thousand words.

There is more to this than just the glossary, however. The book opens with a short history of fortifications from antiquity to the present day. This covers the ancient world, then the Middle Ages, followed by the transition with the arrival of gunpowder. After this comes the development of the bastioned fortress from 16th-century Italy through to its zenith during the time of the French marshal Vauban during the 17th and early 18th centuries. Next, the book considers how the increase in artillery power resulted in the development of the polygonal fortifications during the 19th century. In fortress terms, the 20th century was a period of extremes – from the trenches of the Western Front to the massive concrete engineering of the Maginot Line and the Atlantic Wall – something highlighted by the conclusion to this section.

This is followed by a summary of siege warfare, which provides a comprehensive seven-page introduction to pre-gunpowder siege methods. Finally, there is a similar introduction to the conduct of sieges following the introduction of cannon. This is shorter, and even with my own bias towards 17th-century military engineering, I found the one-page overview of sieges during the 19th and 20th centuries to be disappointingly brief.

But it is the glossary that is at the heart of the book, and the reason for buying it. The breadth of what is included is simply breathtaking, covering everything from the Temple of Ramesses III and the acropolis in ancient Greece to the Berlin Wall and the HESCO barrier of recent times. Arguably, the glossary is at its most useful when defining the seemingly complex elements of bastioned fortifications and, again, the concrete fortifications of the 20th century. Concluding the book is a comprehensive bibliography (although the absence of any titles by Christopher Duffy appears a curious oversight).

The author has a proven pedigree when it comes to writing about the history of fortifications, and has previously written several other books on the subject. His latest work is an attractive and accessible reference for anyone with an interest in defensive architecture, including castles, forts, and walled towns and cities.

So, if you don’t know your dungeon from your donjon, or your demi-lune from your demi-bastion (or even ‘what is meant by mamelon and ravelin’), then this fascinating reference is certainly for you. Even if you are more familiar with such terms, it is still a title well worth finding room for on your shelf.

Dictionary of Fortifications
Jean-Denis Lepage
Pen and Sword Books, hbk (£35.38)
ISBN 978-1399072243