A History Lesson in How to Penetrate Defenses Effectively

In 1314 the King of Scotland, Robert the Bruce, defeated Edward II’s army at Bannockburn. For the English garrison of Stirling Castle, this was the cue to deliver on a bargain they’d made with Bruce the year before; if their king failed to break the Scottish siege of Stirling, they would surrender the castle. The 14th century was a brutal time but an honorable one, and the English troops duly marched out of the castle and handed it over to the Scots. Bruce immediately ordered his men to completely demolish it.

That order puzzles a lot of historians. After all, Stirling Castle was (and is) the second-strongest fortress in Scotland – only the massive citadel of Edinburgh is larger. Perched on a high rock, Stirling’s walls overlook a strategic river crossing that connects the north and south of Scotland. The castle was important. Bruce had decided that it was, in fact, too important – the very existence of the fortress gave the English a reason to hold Stirling, and perhaps if there was no castle they would lose interest in the town.

Robert the Bruce might have had a point, but very few people agreed with him. When his own grandson became king, he built a royal palace on the rock at Stirling, and soon a new castle began to rise to protect it. After the United Kingdom was founded in 1707, it was taken over by the British Army who expanded and modernized it into the grim gunpowder-era bastion, bristling with cannons and infested with concealed ambush positions that tourists wander through today.

Stirling Castle hasn’t fired a shot in anger since 1746. That year, the Jacobite rebels besieged the fortress in an attempt to drive government forces out of Scotland. The bemused garrison watched them for a while then, when they got bored, opened fire. The Jacobites were quickly blasted from their positions by the massive gun batteries high above them, and the siege’s disintegration hastened the collapse of the whole doomed rebellion.

Stirling Castle ScotlandThe thing is, the Jacobites didn’t really need Stirling Castle. By the mid-18th century, there were plenty of bridges across central Scotland’s rivers, and Stirling was no longer the key to the kingdom. The British troops in the castle could have been bypassed and ignored. Instead, the rebels tried to take both of Scotland’s great castles; taking neither, they started to look like failures and supporters began to desert their cause.

Looking back through military history, the Jacobites are far from the only people to make this mistake. Hannibal’s Carthaginian army besieged Rome more or less because it was there, not because capturing it mattered – they didn’t have the equipment to break through its defenses, and anyway they could have easily starved the defenders out by destroying the surrounding farms. Instead, they camped in front of the city walls while disease weakened their army and, in the hills of central Italy, new recruits swelled the ranks of Rome’s legions. We remember Hannibal as a bold general and strategic genius, but let’s not forget that in the end he died a fugitive while Rome rose to dominate the ancient world.

Throughout the centuries, armies have squandered men and resources besieging fortresses that could have easily been sealed off and left to wither. The British at Toulouse in 1814; the Germans at Verdun in 1916; the US Marines at the Citadel in Hue in 1968. There’s a strange magnetism about enemy defenses that draws commanders in to attack – which of course is just what the defenders want. The Soviets recognized this in the 1930s and wrote radical new doctrine that emphasized bypassing strongpoints, but history records that they stormed German fortresses at Stalingrad, Kuban, the Seelow Heights, Berlin… Modern NATO doctrine preaches the same principles, but again and again western troops assault the Iraqi Republican Guard, Tora Bora or some other fortified area.

If you’re a commander, and your enemy is in a strong defensive position, you’re going to have to shift him out of it. It’s at this point most of us start counting how many smoke grenades we have left and issuing orders for an attack, but maybe we should stop and think for a bit longer. Robert the Bruce got the English out of Stirling Castle without throwing his men against its walls – and those walls were a lot easier to demolish without their defenders. Next time you’re looking at a dug-in enemy, look for a way to destroy him without attacking him directly. Your troops will thank you for it.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

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