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Military engineering is concerned with the design, construction, and operation of offensive, defensive, and logistical structures in the course of warfare. These structures include forts and barricades, bridges, and trenches. An engineer’s job might be to design and construct such objects, or to find a way to demolish them. Military engineers have been important participants in armed conflict from antiquity to the present.
- Early Military Engineering
- Trenches and Bridges
- Vauban’s Fortifications
- World War I
- World War II
- The Present Day
Military engineering involves both construction and destruction. It is concerned with aiding troops to move about the battlefield, destroying enemy fieldworks, denying areas to the enemy, and providing defense works of substance. The military engineer has grown in importance through the ages, but has always been an important part of any army that was more than a mob of marauders.
Early Military Engineering
The Romans were among the first to make use of purposely deployed military engineers. One of the most impressive feats of military engineering in antiquity was Julius Caesar’s bridge across the Rhine River. Roman engineers constructed a bridge spanning the Rhine at Koblenz, Germany, where the river is 366 meters wide and varies in depth from about 2 to 8 meters. It is reported that the bridge was completed in only ten days from the start. The achievement was remarkable.
Modern readers, however, should not be astonished that such feats were possible, and in such a short time. Military engineering was, even in antiquity, highly sophisticated. The ancient world had a great deal of experience in building with wood and stone, as is witnessed by the survival of the pyramids and Roman buildings throughout Europe. Ancient sites in the Middle East and the Far East, and in Central and South America, prove quite conclusively that these ancient builders not only knew how to build, but they also knew how to make things last.
The Great Wall of China remains a monument to military engineering. Designed to protect the northern borders of China from marauding invaders, the earth and stone wall was built, rebuilt, and maintained by successive dynasties beginning more than two millennia ago. Similar elaborate structures, such as the Aztec causeway system or the Inca’s network of roads, might not have been built exclusively for military purposes, but they did prove useful when those civilizations or empires came under attack. The use of timber for defensive walls is reported throughout antiquity, and military engineers soon learned to build them strong enough to deter all but the most professional armies; naturally, anything that can be built can be knocked down, and opposing military engineers soon developed methods of firing wooden walls to create access points for assaulting troops. Artillery of course was an additional source of destructive power, and was used to create holes in defenses.
The Assyrians were masters of the art of fortification, which was known in the Middle East even before 1000 BCE, but they were also good at knocking things down. They developed siege towers and battering rams. The siege towers dominated enemy walls, allowing troops to climb the defenses and get in; battering rams simply knocked holes in gates or walls, for the same purpose. The Japanese also built and relied on an extensive system of fortresses of wood and stone; with many of the well-known castles of the sixteenth century evolving from wooden structures of earlier centuries. Ancient and medieval armies sometimes fought in the field, but they often confronted each other when one side was firmly ensconced within the defensive walls of a city or a castle. Caesar at Alesia (now known as Alise-Ste-Reine, near the source of the Seine River in France) used military engineering to great effect: he built an inner defensive wall around the defended town to keep the Alesians in, and then built another defensive wall around his troops, to keep any relieving force out. All construction was of wood, and the resulting walls were models of effectiveness that even today stand as examples of how to construct defensive walls.
Sieges created work opportunities for two groups of specialist troops. Artillerymen pounded the walls and defenses with their artillery (both early tension- and gravity-powered artillery and later guns) and engineers were employed within to construct and maintain the defenses, and outside to destroy them. Tunneling and mining became part of military engineering, and tunnels would be dug beneath towers with the tunnel supported by massive timbers to prevent cave-ins. Once complete the tunnel was then filled with timber and fired. The resulting failure of the previously installed supporting timbers would often bring the defensive work down, and examples of the results can be seen today in many European castles.
Even on the plains military engineering had an important part to play in open combat. It is thought that people took to riding horseback in Eurasia possibly as early as 4000 BCE. Just when horses were harnessed for war is unclear, but is thought that at least four to five thousand years ago horsepower was used to devastating effect against foot soldiers by coupling horses to two-wheeled chariots armed with a driver and a bowman or swordsman. Particularly important in terms of military engineering was the development of spoke-wheeled chariots around 2000 BCE.
Another particularly significant development in the evolution of military engineering was the gunpowder revolution (from around the thirteenth century on); both in respect to harnessing the explosive power of gunpowder and in terms of defending against it.
Trenches and Bridges
Another aspect of military engineering was the construction of trenches, or saps. To approach a well-defended town or castle assaulting troops needed cover, often already cleared away by the defenders. So trenches were dug, which got nearer and nearer to the target until the walls and defenses were within arrow or artillery range. Naturally the walls still needed breaching before troops could get in, but the engineers had that problem solved once they could get up to the foot of the walls.
River crossing has already been mentioned; it is important to move troops freely across the battlefield, and when maneuvering they must be able to get across rivers. Bridging works to supplement existing bridges, or to replace them if they have been destroyed, is an important task for the military engineer today as well as yesterday. Speed is of the essence, for a quickly built crossing can often gain time and provide the element of surprise always needed by attacking forces, and even by a retreating force. The importance of the Rhine bridges during World War II are a case in point: with the bridges intact the Allies could advance quickly; without them they had the task of building new bridges under fire.
The Russians developed a bridging technique that confounded the Germans. Often Russian armor and vehicles were known to have crossed a river where there was no known bridge. Careful observation finally provided the answer: the Russians were building, under cover of darkness, bridges that were six inches under the water. This allowed them to move their tanks across the rivers to the complete surprise of the Germans. Engineers can come up with surprising solutions on occasions.
Military defensive engineering was of particular importance once firearms and guns appeared on the battlefield. The French were masters of the defensive art, and Sébastien Le Prestre, Marshal Vauban (1633– 1707), was the master of the art of siege-craft and fortification. Sieges had been part of military activity from the first moment that humans built walls and watchtowers, but Vauban made a science of what previously had been an art. In the attack the Vauban system prescribed an approach to the defenses by means of a series of trenches, first to bring the siege artillery within range, and then to get the infantry, archers, and engineers close to the base of the walls. The engineers then prepared fascines (bundles of wood) to fill in ditches and moats, and assault towers or mines to overcome the defenses of the outer walls. Often a further siege was necessary when the defenders had secondary defenses within the main walls.
Vauban also found time to create a system of defense: this was based on walls that were angled so that artillery shot and shells would have the least effect, as well as wide wall bases and countermining to defeat the enemy miners. As defense against attacking infantry Vauban’s walls were pierced with firing loopholes (slots cut through the walls that were narrow on the outside, but wide enough on the inside to allow the firer room to move and use his weapon), and traps were built into which attacking infantry would be forced, after which they would be fired on by cannon emplaced within the secondary walls of the defenses.
World War I
During World War I men disappeared into trenches after the first few months and then spent over three years fruitlessly trying to prove that the machine gun, artillery, and barbed wire could not stop a determined attack.
The infantry of the time were well trained in digging, as infantry have been since time began, but they were transformed into military engineers when the movement stopped. The Germans had outrun their supply lines, and both sides were exhausted by the early fighting and the punishing marches they were forced to undertake. The defenders, essentially the French and the British, had their backs to the wall when they decided to dig in to make a last stand before Paris. The Germans dug in as well, to try to get some rest before the final push. And that is how things stood for nearly four years.
Trench systems were of unbelievable complexity. There were three parallel lines of trenches (very similar to Vauban’s system) with communication trenches running between them. In the front line, however, where shelling was most frequent, the trenches were often knee deep in water and mud, and in perpetual need of work to shore up cave-ins. British and French trenches were built in a less permanent way than those of the Germans, because the French and British were always planning to advance from their positions. The Germans were more methodical, and built much deeper, better underground living quarters, which were meant to be shell proof.
World War I was an example of siege-craft fought with more modern weapons. Rifle fire was far less effective than machine-gun and artillery fire, and the defender always had the advantage until tactics changed in the spring of 1918. Even the much vaunted tanks were incapable of making the necessary breakthrough because the engineers could not fill every shell hole in the battlefield, nor make every remaining bridge capable of supporting a tank.
World War II
World War II saw military engineering develop its repertoire still further, and many of the techniques of that war still work today, albeit with even more sophisticated equipment. There were concrete bunkers to be built (the French Maginot Line and the German West Wall being two enormously expensive and extensive static defense systems), and the means to defeat them to be considered. There were portable bridges to be designed, which could be quickly erected across waterways where bridges had been destroyed (the British Bailey bridge is the prime example of this). Engineers also started to become specialist assault troops: the Germans included pioniere (or field engineers) in their frontline troops, and the record of their achievements includes many assaults on Vauban-style forts, which were reduced by means of demolition charges and flamethrowers. In World War I the Vauban forts withstood months of shelling, as shown by the battle of Verdun.
An early example of specialist engineer operations in World War II was the German glider-borne attack on the Belgian fort at Eben Emael, which obstructed the planned German advance across Belgium when the invasion of the West began on 10 May 1940. Landing on the roof of the fort, the German engineers disabled all the gun emplacements with shaped charges that had good concrete-defeating power.
Engineers were employed on every front in World War II, including in the Pacific War against the Japanese, where specialist engineering equipment, such as bulldozers, was often needed to supplement flamethrowers and demolition charges to defeat the defending bunker or “foxhole” positions. Throughout the war engineers both destroyed obstacles and built them, and they also built many airfields right behind the front lines.
More specialist engineering equipment was designed and used on D-Day, 6 June 1944, when Allied forces under General Dwight D. Eisenhower landed on the Normandy beaches to start the western push on Germany. Swimming tanks, anti-bunker tanks, and flamethrower tanks all arrived on the beachhead at the same time as the infantry, and they were fundamental in enabling the British and Canadian forces to get through the first line of defenses and start inland. Surprisingly, the majority of this equipment was, although offered, not taken up by the American forces, who suffered their absence to some extent.
The Present Day
Military engineering is a special form of soldiering, and a fundamentally important one. Infantry cannot carry the engineering equipment needed to perform the tasks of the engineer, nor are they trained to do so. Modern engineer units are fully mobile, often carried in armored personnel carriers together with their specialist equipment. Field engineers today have enormous horsepower at their command, from tree-cutting power saws to fully tracked bulldozers and mine-clearing tanks. They can still both build things and blow them up, but far fewer people can now do the same job that took thousands to do only sixty years ago.
One task for which engineers receive little notice but that demands the admiration and respect of all is clearing booby-traps and mines. In conflicts in Africa, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and many other areas of the world undetectable plastic, wood, or cardboard antipersonnel mines were strewn about the countryside with no regard for the future. These mines are now maiming and killing thousands of innocents, and it is the field engineers who are doing the slow and extremely dangerous job of clearing these areas. As in other arenas of military engineering, there is a good chance that it was military engineers who designed these mines.
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