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Volume 13, Number 5May 1962

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The Vanishing Fortress

Not until recently did military men stop putting their faith in high, strong walls.

The gunners on the ramparts have been replaced by guides, the cannons serve as curiosities, and tourists with a yen to be part of history scribble their footnotes on crumbling walls that once echoed the sounds of battle. Yet these ruined fortifications that dot the countryside of almost every nation still grip the attention and tease the imagination. Since earliest times it has been man's conviction that the higher the walls, the safer the shelter behind them. This belief led to the surrounding of homes with wooden stockades, stone garrisons, brick castles. The ancients even attempted to girdle entire countries with high, twisting walls.

As towns spread and enemies became stronger, walls grew higher and enclosures larger. A military man on the march could not bypass a fortress without endangering his lines of supply. He could not take the fort without an overwhelming force of men and arms. Forts were constructed to house garrisons powerful enough to destroy or delay the enemy, or they were built to house a city’s whole population, as was the case with old Nineveh or Babylon.

Two of man's more celebrated fortification projects were actually walls. One rose in the East, the other in the West.

By 221 B.C. Emperor Shih Huang-ti had united all of China and wished to immortalize his achievements. Abetted by his people's age-old fear of barbaric nomads from the north, he constructed a giant bastion along his nation's borders. The Chinese called it Chang Cheng, the Wall of 10,000 Li; we know it today as the Great Wall of China.

A third of the male population was conscripted to labor on the wall. Its very size contributed to the nation's downfall, for the people relaxed their vigilance in false security and exhausted their treasury on the constant repairs that were necessary to maintain a structure of such vast dimensions. It was only in times of weakness that the Chinese hid behind it. Like all warriors, when they were strong they preferred to wage open battle rather than seek asylum behind walls.

Until recently historians believed the current Great Wall was the same antique bulwark. But it is now understood that there were two different walls and that Shih Huang-ti's wall probably disappeared by the end of the thirteenth century. The modern wall, begun about 1400 and completed 200 years later, is roughly 1,400 miles long and contains enough material to build 120 Great Pyramids. In many places the wall is 50 feet high and 25 feet thick. It seemed invincible, but only a quarter of a century after it was completed, it crumbled before the onslaught of the Manchu, a Mongol tribe that captured the entire peninsula. The Chinese had not learned a lesson from an earlier Roman undertaking.

During the first century Rome reached the height of her power, yet endured constant uprisings in Palestine, Syria, Gaul and along the Rhine. Emperor Domitian conceived the idea of a Roman Wall—a barrier around the civilized world. Three rulers—Domitian, Trajan and Hadrian—built and extended this wall until it bounded the Empire along all its frontiers in Europe, Africa and Asia.

The future of the Empire, however, depended upon the German frontier, which ran 350 miles through central Europe. Thus the Romans built a wall which started from the Rhine and ran across the Taunus mountains as far as Wurttemberg in West Germany.

The engineers of Hadrian, who became emperor in 117, executed a technical triumph when they actually straightened out the winding wall, disregarding obstacles like mountains, rivers and forests. Little is known of its dimensions, but later generations thought the partition so huge they called it the Wall of Satan. But it required so many skilled soldiers to man it that auxiliary troops were drawn from the local population—the same people the wall was supposed to keep in check. This practice eventually led to the wall's downfall in 233 when Alemanni tribes breached the bulwark and recaptured their country. As the Roman Empire declined so, too, did the art of wall fortification in the West.

Walls went out of style, but individual forts grew in importance as the order of the Roman Empire broke down and Europe divided itself into tiny, suspicious sovereignties. Local rulers compelled labor by force of arms and erected castles to defend themselves against the ambitions of other local rulers. The European landscape soon became laced with palaces, some modest, others goliaths of grim stonework.

Castle design depended largely on the whim of the ruler; only one requirement remained constant: that the walls be high and thick. Ten feet of solid masonry was not an uncommon width, and within the walls were stocked all the necessities to withstand long sieges—an armory of weapons, supplies of food, water wells. Spaced along the wall were towers from which arrows, boiling water or molten lead could be poured on the enemy in case of attack.

Sometimes there were two walls, the outer one reached only after attackers had first forced their way across 40 or 50 feet of water-filled moat. With its drawbridge up, its portcullis down and its walls manned with archers, the castle smugly challenged all comers.

For centuries men depended on such defenses for survival. Then, in the thirteenth century, the castle suddenly became vulnerable. The reason: black powder and cannon.

For a time stubborn builders resisted the fateful truth by constructing ever thicker walls. But finally in April 1862 the death knell of walled fortresses was tolled at the mouth of the Savannah River in Georgia.

There Fort Pulaski sat defiantly astride Cockspur Island in the river's mouth, its smoothbore cannons trained out to sea. Union captains could not effectively blockade Savannah without approaching the fort, yet to do so meant destruction by Confederate guns.

One morning Union General Q. A. Gillmore stood on a hill overlooking the river. Surveying the fort's defenses, he gestured at two nearby islands and told the lieutenant who stood at his side: "We'll put our cannon over there." For two days artillerymen struggled through marshes setting their batteries in place. On April 10 General Gillmore shouted: "Fire!" The cannons, rebored with spiral grooves to spin the shells as they left the barrel, ripped gaping holes in Fort Pulaski's masonry walls. Within a day the fort was surrendered. The penetrating power of the new artillery had outmoded the open fortress.

In an earlier age, fortresses had proved no more successful. "All armies prefer high ground to low," said Sun Tzu Wu in The Art of War in 500 B.C., and so history has demonstrated. But height has not always proved a friend. Troy's geographical position atop the hill of Hissarlik in modern Turkey may indeed have been a desirable location, but the rubble layers of Hissarlik reflect the city's vulnerability. They tell the tale of at least nine resurrections of the "impregnable" fortress of Troy. These archaeological strata show that even the most advantageous site cannot withstand an enemy's determination to seize another's treasure.

Forts fell for a number of reasons: they could not be adequately staffed, they could not be stocked with sufficient provisions or water, the enemy possessed weapons that proved stronger than the walls, and so forth. But many forts fell as a result of subterfuge, such as Troy and its wooden horse. One of the most bizarre examples was a New World fort, Michilmackinac, on what is now Mackinac Island in Michigan.

Originally French, the wealthy fort and trading post had been taken over by the English in 1761. Although its commander, Major George Etherington, had been warned that the local Chippewa were planning to seize the fort, he scoffed at the absurd notion that they could take a garrison as strong as his.

One day in 1763 he was approached by a peace party of Indians. Lacrosse enthusiasts, the Indians wished to stage their version of the Olympic games in honor of King George's birthday on June 4. Major Etherington saw the possibilities of sport to improve international relations.

On the day of the celebration, two Indian teams lined up outside the fort's gates. The Chippewa were matched against visiting Sauks from Green Bay. During early play, the ball was accidentally thrown over Fort Michilmackinac's walls. Major Etherington sent an enlisted man to retrieve it. A second time the ball flew out of bounds; again it was fetched. Not wanting to delay the game, Major Etherington turned to a sergeant: "Throw the fort's gates open. The Indians can then retrieve their own ball."

Once more the ball cleared the wall and team members streamed into the fort to search for it. They were followed by squaws with tomahawks concealed under their robes. The ball did not have to be thrown a fourth time.

Some forts were never designed as such. Often buildings were transformed into makeshift barricades when the fortunes of war brought battle to their doorsteps. In 1933 a hotel in Cuba and a year later a block of apartment dwellings in Vienna withstood long sieges. During the Spanish Civil War soldiers held the Alcazar mosque in Toledo for 72 days against artillery and airplanes. A belt of fortified factories on Stalingrad's outskirts barred further Nazi advance in World War II. And one of America's most famous battles took place at a Franciscan mission—the Alamo.

Following the War between the States and the introduction of the rifled cannon, permanent above-ground fortifications lost their value among military strategists. World War I was fought in trenches, World War II from foxholes. The last great fortress, the Maginot Line, which was a long continuous chain of pillboxes, trenches and tank traps, was a throwback to the Great Wall of China. Never conquered by the Germans but outflanked, this French line of defense, like its Teutonic counterpart, the Siegfried Line, fell prey to the blitzkrieg mobility of modern warfare.

The fort is now a relic of the past, the province of tourists instead of troops.

This article appeared on pages 18-20 of the May 1962 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May 1962 images.