War of words – ‘SIEGE’

with Marc DeSantis

Viking Ships besieging Paris.

A ‘siege’ is the ringing of an enemy stronghold with military forces to prevent anyone, or anything, from getting either in or out, so as to accomplish its capture. Sieges tended to be long, frustrating, inglorious, and thus especially bitter affairs.

Famous sieges include the ill-fated Athenian expedition against Syracuse (415-413 BC); Julius Caesar’s investment of Alesia in 52 BC, in which the Roman conqueror was both besieger and the besieged; the Viking siege of Paris in AD 845; the Soviet entrapment of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad during the winter of 1942-43; and the Viet Minh’s 1954 encirclement of the French at Dien Bien Phu.

‘Siege’ derives from the Old French sege and had appeared in English by the 14th century. Geoffrey Chaucer, in his poem The Legend of Good Women (c 1385), wrote of Ariadne ‘That nysus doughtyr stod up-on the wal/And of the sege saw the maner al.’

A strongly defensive mindset may be labelled a ‘siege mentality.’ One may ‘besiege’ a place; a besieger may also ‘lay siege’ to it. An abandoned siege may be said to have been ‘raised’.

The term need not be used solely in relation to military matters. ‘Love stood the siege, and would not yield his breast,’ wrote John Dryden in his 1700 poem Theodore and Honoria. A bout of illness also might be likened to it. ‘She is weakened by a long siege of bronchitis,’ wrote author Raymond Chandler of his wife in a 1952 letter.

The foremost European practitioner of siege warfare was assuredly Marshal Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707). Ably serving King Louis XIV of France for decades, Vauban had a hand in either designing or altering around 160 fortifications and was noted for his own meticulous conduct of sieges.