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How people in antiquity waged underground wars, or the rules of correct undermining
How people in antiquity waged underground wars, or the rules of correct undermining

The war at all times for most people was a tragic and very bloody event. And for the peoples and territories participating in it, a real hell. However, in hoary antiquity, people also practiced underground battles, which at times were much more terrible than armed skirmishes on land or sea. Poisonous fumes, smoke, fumes, attacks by wasps and hornets, dagger strikes in the reflections of torchlight - all these were experienced by those who fought underground wars.

How it all started

Historians believe that humanity began to fight underground from the time when one of the tribes, fleeing the attack of the other, took refuge in a cave. Having filled up the entrance with trunks, tree branches and thorny bushes. The attackers, obviously not wanting to climb directly through the obstacles on the defenders' spears, began to look for other passages and dig trenches in the ground.

Primitive tribes often fought among themselves for caves

Human civilization developed, and fortification moved forward with it. Slave labor made it possible for the peoples to build grandiose fortifications. So, during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar, the walls of Babylon reached a height of 25 meters. Their thickness at the base in some places was 30 m, and at the very top of the wall a pair of Babylonian war chariots could freely disperse.

Along with this, the then siege weapons for the destruction of fortress walls were still very far from being perfect. This forced the military leaders to use other tactics of capturing cities - sieges in order to starve the defenders and the population with hunger, assaults using ladders, or earth engineering works.

Engravings of underground fortifications

Images of the excavations during the storming of cities began to appear already in ancient Egyptian drawings and bas-reliefs about 1, 2 thousand years before our era. For the first time, they described in detail such military tactics in their manuscripts dating back to 900 BC. e., the Assyrians, who had separate units of excavators in their troops.

In addition to the construction of temporary camps and the construction of earthen ramparts around them, their duties also included laying mines under enemy positions. Naturally, the term "mine" itself, like the actual explosives, appeared much later. However, underground passages under the walls of enemy cities began to be dug long before the Europeans thought of laying barrels of gunpowder in these tunnels and blowing them up underground.

Fortification and underground engineering

The first specialized military detachments of excavators consisted of either hired workers or slaves. These detachments were led by engineers. The whole process went like this: the workers with the help of hoes and spades dug a narrow passage in the ground. To prevent the tunnel from collapsing, it was reinforced from the inside with logs or boards.

Underground construction in the Middle Ages

It happened that such underground manholes were built with arrows several flights long, going far beyond the walls into the depths of the city itself. It was such long tunnels, from which the attackers emerged in the center of the besieged cities, that helped the Persians to take Chalcedonia in the 6th century. And a century later, and the Romans during the storming of Veii and Fiden.

For all its simplicity and efficiency, this method of capturing cities could not be generally accepted or universal. The main "opponents" of the storming men sometimes became not the defending townspeople, but the structure of the soil or its relief.In addition, numerical armed detachments could not pass through the narrow tunnel, and the attacking fighters had to get out to the surface inside a foreign city one by one.

Underground War, 17th century engraving

In the event of an assault on a large city, which has a numerical military garrison inside and many armed local residents, such a tactic was most likely doomed to failure. Even if the tunnel allowed several attackers to simultaneously get to the surface. The numerical advantage of those who were on the surface completely neutralized the surprise effect of the attacking side.

This circumstance eventually forced to radically change the purpose of the mines. Now tunnels began to be dug exclusively under the base of the walls of the besieged city. Thus, the engineers caused them to collapse, which allowed the main attacking forces to attack the defenders through the resulting gaps.

You need to start digging from a safe place

The attackers began to dig the first trenches most often from those places that were not visible by the defenders of the settlement. It could be a ravine or a steep bank of the river, along which the "target" was placed further. However, quite often the attackers did not have time to dig such long tunnels.

Construction of a tunnel to the castle

The most rational thing was to start digging in the immediate vicinity of the sections of the walls that were planned to collapse. But the defenders are unlikely to calmly watch this process. Clouds of arrows or a hail of stones fell on the diggers from the walls of the besieged city. To protect engineers and sappers, special siege sheds and shelters were invented.

The first description of such a structure is given in his works of the 4th century. BC NS. the ancient Greek author Aeneas the Tactician. According to his "instructions", first of all, it was necessary to tie the shafts of 2 carts in such a position that they, being directed along each side of the carriage, would rise upwards with the same level of inclination. Further, on top of the erected structure, either wicker or wooden shields were placed, which, in turn, were coated with a thick layer of clay.

A siege canopy on an engraving from the Poliorketikon, a treatise by Justus Lipsius on the Roman army, 1596

After drying, such a mechanism could be easily moved on wheels to any point where it was planned to start digging. Under a thick clay barrier, the engineers and excavators were no longer afraid of the arrows and spears of the besieged defenders of the city. Consequently, they could calmly proceed with the direct digging of the tunnel.

Over the years, the method of breaking down city walls with the help of digging has been greatly improved. Water could be directed into the tunnels dug (if there was a river or lake nearby), which quickly eroded the soil and collapsed the walls. Also, huge bonfires were made from resin bales or barrels in ready-made underground corridors right under the foundations of the walls. The fire burned out the supporting structures, and the wall collapsed under its own weight and the onslaught of ramming machines.

Underground defense

Of course, the defenders of the besieged city expected the attackers to dig holes. And they prepared in advance to repel underground attacks. The simplest method of countermeasures was to dig several counter-digging trenches. In them, special armed detachments, on watch, were waiting for the enemy to appear.

To detect the approach of enemy earthworks, copper vessels with water were placed in the "counter tunnels". The appearance of ripples on its surface meant that the enemy's diggers were already close. So the defenders could mobilize and suddenly attack the enemy themselves.

Traces of the siege of the city of Dura Europos on the Euphrates River in 254. The attacking Persians dug an underground passage under the walls, the defending Romans dug their own from the city Photo:

The besieged were armed with several more tactics of countering the land engineering work of the attackers. So, after the discovery of the tunnel, a hole was made on top of it, into which the defenders poured boiling oil or tar, with the help of furs they blew poisonous sulfur smoke from the braziers. Sometimes besieged inhabitants threw wasps or bees' nests into enemy underground galleries.

Often counter-digging caused significant losses of the attackers not only in manpower, but also in military equipment.History knows several similar examples. So, in 304 BC. NS. during the siege of Rhodes, the defenders of the city dug a large-scale tunnel under the positions of the attackers. As a result of the subsequent planned collapse of the beams and ceilings, the battering ram and the siege tower of the attackers collapsed into the resulting failure. So the offensive was thwarted.

Underground construction by the defenders of Rhodes

There was also a "passive defense" strategy against enemy mines. Inside the city, opposite the section of the wall where the attackers planned to dig, the defenders dug a deep ditch. An additional shaft was erected from the excavated land behind the ditch. Thus, after the collapse of a section of the wall, the attackers found themselves not inside the city, but in front of another line of fortifications.

Underground battles

If attackers and defenders met face to face in the tunnels underground, a real hell began. The tightness of the underground galleries did not allow the soldiers to carry and fight with their usual weapons - spears, swords and shields. Even the armor was often not worn due to the constraint of movement and the reduced "maneuverability" of the soldier in the tightness of the tunnels.

Underground Wars. Medieval drawing

Enemies pounced on each other with short daggers and knives in the light of dim torches. A real massacre began, in which tens and hundreds of soldiers were killed on both sides. Quite often, such an underground attack ended in nothing - the corpses of those killed and dying of wounds completely blocked the passage in the underground gallery.

Such tunnels most often turned into mass graves. The attackers proceeded to dig a new tunnel, and the old one, littered with corpses, was simply covered with earth. Naturally, the defenders of the city on the other side of the walls did the same. Modern archaeologists often find similar tunnels with mountains of skeletons.

From miners to sappers

From the time of Ancient Rome to the 15th century, special military units of excavators participated in all major military campaigns, which can be called the prototype of modern engineering troops. Most often they were formed on a contract basis from free master miners or overseers from mines together with their subordinates - slaves.

Undermining and laying explosives under the castle tower

Such "contract soldiers" received good money, because their work was truly deadly. Even if we discard the option of a sudden collapse of the tunnel, the "sappers" underground could expect other situations that would cost them their lives. First of all, these are armed "counter-terrorist" detachments of defenders, who, upon finding a tunnel and enemy diggers in it, immediately dealt with the latter. In addition, quite often it was the "sappers" who were the first to take on "countermeasures" from the defenders - hot tar, poisonous gases, or the same wasps thrown into the tunnel.

At the same time, the contribution of engineers with excavators to some victories can hardly be overestimated. The most outstanding battles of the Middle Ages, in which the "sappers" were directly or indirectly involved in the victory, were the siege of Turkish Nicea by the crusaders and the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman troops in 1453.

Fall of Constantinople

The newest history of diggers began after the invention of gunpowder by mankind. Since the 17th century, gradually "engineers" begin to become real "sappers" in the understanding of this military profession, which is familiar to modern laymen. They no longer build tunnels and tunnels, but they still continue to "dig in the ground." Stuffing it with explosives, lethal for the enemy troops.

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