By Professor Daniel Moran
Last updated 2011-02-17
Star bastions were an architectural response to the advent of firearms. Guns first appeared in Europe after 1300, and over the next four centuries they gradually transformed the conduct of war in the open field.
They increased the striking power of infantry, and placed a premium on training and discipline, without which these complex and inaccurate weapons could not be used effectively. They also constituted an entirely new military branch, the artillery, whose most important early application lay in breaching the walls that surrounded the cities and towns of Europe.
The curtain walls of a medieval castle were intended to repel direct assault by infantry. They were easily collapsed by the fire of even primitive artillery. Star bastions were constructed on different principles. Their walls were low and thick, easily scaled but difficult to approach.
They sloped inward to deflect the force of incoming round-shot, while affording a stable platform for the defenders' own guns. Their sharply angled perimeters, surrounded by a glacis (a sloping bank) cleared of natural cover, were designed to create overlapping fields of enfilading fire, so that attackers would be beaten off before the bastion could be reached.
The reduction of such fortresses was the central tactical problem for European armies from the Renaissance to the 18th century. Their methods, which depended on elaborate systems of converging approach trenches, were intensely laborious and time consuming, and perhaps difficult for outsiders to visualise. This may be why the engraving portrays the besieging French force deployed in parade ground squares, rather than as it must have been, crouching beneath its own earthworks to avoid the fire of the British guns.
However obtained, victories in siege warfare were hard won. When Port Mahón finally capitulated, the Duc de Richelieu ordered his cook to prepare something special by way of celebration. The result, named for the famous victory, was that immortal condiment, Sauce Mayonnaise.
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