Sakhalia NetHistory of the RailwayGraphics DivisionBaykal.esAcceptance of cookiesAcceptance of cookies

You are logged off and have no access to the contents of this section!

Please log in or register. Or you may alternatively visit the articles list to search for more content.

DISCLAIMER: This website discourages its users from submitting duplicated content. If this article contains such and you, the visitor, are the creator of the original content, please report it to the administrator of this website instead of reporting the website itself. You can send a report if you are a registered user or alternatively use the e-mail address provided at the bottom of the Privacy Policy.

Towards the modern fortification


By Sakhal

The fortification after the Middle Age

First cannons benefited more the defense of castles than their siege, due mainly to their low firepower and range. Medieval castles resisted the impacts and forced the attackers to a certain proximity, making them vulnerable to the projectiles thrown by the defenders, which being at a higher height benefited from improved range. Due to this castles in the 15th century preserved their traditional defensive structure, with the only modification of adding in their walls loopholes for arrows and artillery, but very spaced for not weakening the structure.

But the further perfectioning of the techniques for building cannons and powder put in the battlefield a superior firepower, with artillery pieces that could fire from beyond the range of the defensive weapons of the castles, using metallic projectiles that could break the walls of the medieval fortresses. The concept of castle had to be changed to adapt it to the new artillery. The tall walls of the castles were now an inconvenient because they presented an excessive target that was as well easy to collapse. The walls were lowered in height and built with sloped instead of vertical faces, which greatly increased the resistance. Walls were made thicker to resist the impacts of the enemy artillery but also the weight of their own artillery. It was important to extend the bastion - clear area that surrounded the castle - to fight the attackers farther from the castle. In the bastion were placed defensive obstacles that could be well covered by the defensive weapons of the castle.

As forementioned, height constituted a disadvantage regarding resistance, but in the other hand it was necessary to watch far in the distance and avoid the potential assaults. The only solution was to build the castle in the middle of a wide and deep moat, emerging from the ground level just the necessary for harassing the attackers. Soon it was seen that the higher height of the towers was an inconvenient for the transfer of the heavy artillery pieces and their ammunition to more compromised zones, for which reason they were built with the same height than the walls, appearing soon the polygonal fortress without towers, which would be so effective as in the past times the castles were. The battlements of the castles were no longer a protection against the new artillery and they were replaced by solid portholes, spaced and with an artillery piece each one, that warranted certain protection to the artillerymen. In the polygonal fortresses loopholes were no longer allowed in the walls, but only in checkpoints from where the soldiers fired with heavy rifles.

Towards the modern fortification


In the 17th century castles had already been turned into fortifications or strongholds. The defenses of a fortification were constituted by a wide bulwark, composed of diverse obstacles, all of them of polygonal construction to facilitate cross-fire and a deep defense. It was extremely dangerous to approach the fortifications, and for this the attackers used field loopholes, sandbags and approximation by means of parallel trenches of sap and gabion. It is notable that these trenches were not used in open combat, where everything was carried by closed formations of infantrymen, until the advent and diffusion of automatic weapons in the beginning of the 20th century.

The illustration below shows the Bastion of Vauban from the late 17th century. The slope approaching the first defensive level is called the glacis or scarp and the first level of defense where a soldier is aiming with a rifle is the counterscarp. Behind this there are a moat and a circular fort known as pillbox. Followed this a thick bastion with sloped faces that held artillery pieces. After the bastion was the main moat and the stronghold where more artillery pieces were placed and checkpoints covered the corners.

Towards the modern fortification


These two are typical layouts that were used for polygonal fortifications; the one to the left is from the 17th century and the other is from the 18th century, being simpler and more effective because it has fewer blind spots.

Towards the modern fortification


For the defense of the strongholds powerful wall rifles were developed. Because of their dimensions, conception and usage, wall rifles, used during centuries in the defense of walled cities and fortresses, are between the long infantry rifles and the small field artillery pieces. Siege to cities and military strongholds were part of any military campaign during the 17th and 18th centuries and the wall rifle played a prime role for their defense. They were heavy and long firearms of large caliber and great range, with a penetration capability that was very superior to the one of infantry rifles, from which they did not differ much in their structure. Simply their size was carefully increased and a metal support was added to their fore part to allow them to be supported in the wall. This also helped to hold the violent recoil caused by the notable powder charge. Due to not being personal weapons these rifles lacked strap rings or bayonet attachment. They were mainly aimed to the most dangerous elements in the battlefield, namely officers or artillerymen.

The rifle below was built around 1680 in Regensburg; it has a caliber of 26 millimeters, measures 1.94 meters and weighes 25 kilograms. The butt of the rifle has an artistically sculpted animal head while vegetal motifs ornament the rest. The firing trigger includes a spring to rearm it and the trigger guard is moulded to adapt to the fingers. The safety lever and the head of the hammer are missing on this particular rifle. The other rifle further below, which has the same purpose, was built around 1750 in Potsdam; it has a caliber of 23 millimeters and a length of 1.61 meters.

Towards the modern fortification


Towards the modern fortification


The fortification approaching the 20th century

Much before 1870 the system of polygonal bastion suffered from a certain unbalance with the evolution of artillery. Albeit, as had happened two centuries ago, in the beginning such evolution benefited more the strongholds than the attackers, because the heavy steel rifled cannons were hard to transport, maneuver and emplace, being much more efficient in the fixed emplacements in the fortifications. However, the extraordinary ranges acquired by the modern field artillery forced to think in a new system of fortification, for the traditional bastion was excessively vulnerable. It was required to build defenses increasingly farther from the defended site, to keep at a safe distance the enemy artillery. Since the construction of a continuous enclosure two kilometers around the stronghold resulted very expensive, it was used instead a network of forts, separated but distributed in such a way that they could cover with their fire all the perimeter that was meant to be defended.

This idea of separated forts rapidly prospered and before ending the 19th century they were profusely used, either for protecting strongholds or frontier perimeters, in similarity to the medieval castles. But the constant progress of artillery and explosives put in evidence the defects of the new tactic. In 1904 the Russian forts at Port Arthur did not withstand the fire from the 280-millimeter howitzers of the Japanese. The problem was not in the concept of separated forts, but in the inadequate protection of each of them. For such reason it was reinforced the theory of trench redoubt, which following with the idea of separated forts, advocated the usage of low defenses enclosed in a wired perimeter, covered by a six meters deep moat, used this as well for protecting artillery pieces, machine gun nests and headquarters, apart from structures built in reinforced concrete and steel. The diffusion of this kind of fortification provoked as reaction the apparition of field artillery pieces of huge caliber, which could be moved and emplaced only by means of great efforts and across great difficulties. Such scarce mobility could have been the cause, at a strategical level, of the failure of the German offensive in 1914. The graphic below shows a belt of trench redoubts, protecting a main stronghold, the plan view of one of those redoubts and the cross section of the same. The complex of fortifications in the example is characteristic from the early 20th century and comprises several kilometers in extension.

Towards the modern fortification


The machine gun was one of the revolutions during the First World War; despite it had already quite a history, it was in this war when it reached a massive diffusion. The one depicted in the illustrations below is the French Hotchkiss Model 1914, obviously one of the most modern of its time. Unlike earlier machine guns, this one adopted a mechanism for taking the explosion gases from the barrel and was refrigerated by air; it was reliable, solid and precise, remaining in service until the Second World War. Machine gun nests were one of the essential elements in the modern fortifications, for their high volume of fire could keep at bay an infantry assault. Together with flamethrowers and gases, machine guns were one of the most demoralizing elements for the infantrymen during the First World War, when many signs of the modern war abruptly appeared.

Towards the modern fortification


Towards the modern fortification


Fortifications adopted as well the upper protection, this is, thick ceilings made of reinforced concrete that were resistant enough to withstand howitzers and mortars. Strongholds were all composed of casemates and other structures built with thick reinforced concrete surfaces. Another aspect of the newfortifications was the inclusion of naval artillery, which in the beginning of the 20th century was already very well developed, due to the need of piercing thick steel armor plates at long distances. Since naval guns were structurally equivalent to the fixed artillery pieces placed in fortresses, the artillery turrets scrapped from old battleships were well suited to be installed in certain fortifications. But in the most important fortifications, special retractable artillery turrets were used, like the one depicted in the illustration below. The turret only emerged when the cannon was ready to fire, remaining the rest of the time retracted. When the French retook their fortresses in Verdun in 1916 they saw that this type of artillery mountings had suffered minimal damage from the German shells; but the fall of these and many other strongholds two years before had put in doubt the true effectiveness of those fortifications considered as impregnable.

Towards the modern fortification


The outwitted fortification

The Second World War started, specially regarding the material aspect, where the First World War ended: artillery, rifles, uniforms, transmissions, aircraft, tanks, etc... were the same but including the logical progress of the technics. But at a strategical level, the ones that were more convinced of this continuity were the French, who assumed that the next conflict would be one of positions and attrition. Because of this they trusted completely in the fortified line that they had built in the borderline with Germany, the famous Maginot Line. The Germans possessed as well, in front of the Maginot Line, their own fortified line, the Siegfried Line, which was however of lesser importance. The Maginot Line started to be built in 1927, taking its name from Andre Maginot, who then occupied the Ministry of War. The gigantic construction consisted of a series of fortifications, almost all underground. In the surface, defenses consisted of casemates made of reinforced concrete and steel, trenches, anti-tank obstacles, barb wires and minefields. In the inside everything was perfectly organized for giving service to the fortified line, as can be seen in the graphic below. Theoretically impregnable, such affirmation was never proved, since the Germans surrounded it through Belgium during the Blitzkrieg, but it is certain that they would have suffered great difficulties if they had tried to frontally attack it. In the other hand, the Siegfried Line had a limited role in the defense of Germany in the late stages of the war, after the Allied landings in Normandy.

Towards the modern fortification


Categories: Engineering - Industrial Revolution - 20th Century - [General] - [General]

E-mail:

Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2014-10-24


This article has been seen/reloaded times since 2017-03-05 (or since publishing date).

This article has been voted 0 times.

You are logged off and have no access to the contents of this section!