During a Gallic revolution against Rome, a Gallic army of some 80,000 men took shelter in the fortress town of Alesia, where they were besieged by some 50,000 Romans under Julius Caesar. (His army may also have included some non-combatants such as builders, wagon drivers, etc. that brought the total to 60,000 or 70,000.) Thus the Roman army was numerically inferior but qualitatively superior, having beaten the Gauls in a pitched battle at Gergovia.

Vercingetorix managed to send some cavalry through the Roman lines to seek help, (which was forthcoming), but otherwise did little to arrest the progress of the siege. Because of that fact, the Romans were able to complete a line of "circumvallation" fortifications between their lines and Alesia, and then another set of lines of "contravallation" between the OUTSIDE of their armies and the relieving forces.


One line of defense against the "mining" of a besieged city is "countermining." In this case, it would have consisted of constructing one or more trenches from Alesia perpendicular to the "circumvallation" fortifications. This would have allowed the Gauls to approach the Roman lines for hand-to-hand combat under the protection of their own trenches.

Would it have made sense for the Gauls to engage in an all-out war of attrition to disrupt the circumvallation process? They were no match for the Romans in open field, but might they have been more successful in a confined area, particularly in say, night attacks?

The purpose would NOT to break out, but to weaken the Romans vis a vis the relieving Gallic forces (of over 100,000), perhaps by trading casualties at a 2 to 1 ratio (40,000 Gauls for 20,000 Romans). And if they could set back the Romans' timetable so they could build only the inner wall but not the outer wall, might it have been worth it?

Given that the besieged Gauls were short of food other implications were 1) battlefield casualties would have meant fewer mouths to feed, and 2) the opportunity to capture some supplies from the Romans (most soldiers carried some of their own food).

Or was Vercingetorix's "better" option to wait for a battle on the "last day" before his besieged army ran out of food (as he did), even though he lost?

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    Interesting question... it is quite hypothetical though. After all, we are challenging one of the greatest military geniuses in all of human history -- Julius Caesar. :-) – Noldorin Nov 20 '11 at 1:32
  • Also, what do you mean revolution? Julius Caesar was the one who conquered all of Gaul and subdued it. It was only the beginning of Roman rule in Gaul for all but Transalpine Gaul... – Noldorin Nov 20 '11 at 1:40
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    @Noldorin: It is PRECISELY because Julius Caesar was one of the greatest military geniuses that I advocate using attrition tactics against him. (See my question about Grant vs. Robert E. Lee history.stackexchange.com/questions/805/…). If you can reduce battle to a series of "duels" (Clausewitz), even Caesar will lose if he runs out of men before you do. Maybe the issue was Grant knew he was going against Lee, but Vercingetorix didn't realize that Caesar was "Caesar." – Tom Au Nov 20 '11 at 15:05
  • Ah yes, I think you have a point there. Caesar did sort of take Gaul by storm here. Funnily enough, the Gauls had a history of practising guerilla warfare (for example when Hannibal crossed through Spain/southern France). I agree he may well have had more success using less "confrontational" tactics though. – Noldorin Nov 20 '11 at 18:52
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    It isn't clear to me that this is quite on topic. Asking what happened is history, asking what might have happened is still history. Asking what X should have done in situation Y doesn't seem to me like history. – David Thornley Nov 21 '11 at 4:15

It seems to me that most of the things you suggest Vercingetorix might have done is what he actually did. They did try to stop the circumvallation, but failed to make a noticeable impact. Once help arrived they tried to attack from both sides at once, also at night, which was close to succeeding.

Of course, everything we know about this siege comes from Julias Caesar himself, and as this almost successful attack was finally countered to a large part through Caesar's personal bravery, he might have takes some license with actual facts.... :-)

You can't exactly say that Vercingetorix tried a all out war of attrition, but it seems like a besieged city that are low on resources are doomed to lose any war attrition per definition.

See the Wikipedia article about the Battle of Alesia and "De Bello Gallico" and Other Commentaries by Julius Caesar.

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  • Fair point. But my point would that the besieged force that was doomed anyway, should basically sacrifice itself in favor of the relieving force (except for a handful of men needed to hold Alesia). 1) To increase the ratio of relievers to Roman defenders 2) to exhaust the Roman army and 3) to hinder the "vallation" process at all costs to help the relievers. "Best" case, 50,000 Alesian defenders traded for 25,000 Romans, leaving the Romans 1 to 5 against the relieving force. the Alesians would have 30,000 left hold the city. – Tom Au Nov 20 '11 at 14:46
  • @TomAu - is there a good estimate on the actual casualty ratios in the fighting there for individual episodes? E.g is 1:2 ratio a realistic expectation? Also, did Vercingetorix know the approximate size of relief force? – DVK Nov 20 '11 at 15:11
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    @TomAu: Sacrificing itself to stop the vallation might have actually exhausted the force to the point that they no longer could have held the city, thereby helping the Romans. There is a balance there, and the only one who has any idea of where that balance lay is Vercingetorix and we can't ask him. :-) It does seem unlikely to me that the besieged force would have been able to stop the external fortification to be built if the internal wall was finished, and they reasonably must have known that stopping the internal fortifications was absolutely necessary, so they probably did all they could. – Lennart Regebro Nov 20 '11 at 19:17
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    Added point - internal division. If those inside Alesia represented Vercingetorix's personal power base, and the relieving force were allies, he may have felt it necessary to keep his own force reasonably intact, lest he lose all influence amongst other Gauls in the aftermath of victory. – Guy F-W Sep 25 '12 at 14:35
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    @LennartRegebro: have read most of Bello Gallici, and my impression throughout it was that the Gauls simply had no comprehension of the capabilities of Roman engineering. Vercingetorix holed up in Alesia because he, and his army, believed it to be totally impregnable because it was too big to lay siege to. They knew it would take 30 days to raise Gaul, and failed to collect sufficient additional stores before Caesar built the initial workings of the inner wall because they knew it to be unnecessary. – Pieter Geerkens Nov 24 '17 at 2:42

Some comments from others (in addition to the answer) shed light on why Vercingetorix failed. One was that Caesar was a "genius." It is is precisely for this reason that Vercingetorix should have used attrition tactics. Caesar will outmaneuver your army in open field. Your best chance of winning is to use your superior numbers to engage in "knife fights."

The same person pointed out that it was not a "rebellion." True enough, from the Gallic point of view. But the Romans regarded Gaul as their province, and treated Vercingetorix like a "rebel." ("Gallia est in tre partes divida.")

Ulysses S. Grant waged a successful war of attrition because he knew 1) he was fighting the "great" Robert E. Lee, and 2) he was fighting "slavery." Does Grant's use of attrition tactic support his reputation as a general?

(The Gauls had no idea that they would be slaves of the Romans for 500 years; they treated it as another "tribal" war.) Hence, they appeared to lack the "do or die" mentality need to fight a war of attrition.

Then, we have the modern example of Stalingrad. At that battle, the Russians deliberately moved their trenches as close as possible to the Germans' to nullify the latter's initial superiority in "heavy weapons," tanks and planes. They would stage nightly grenade attacks to exhaust the Germans, and send "raiders" behind the German lines to steal food and water or at least "spoil" it for the Germans. German commanders initially criticized the Russians for "wasting lives" (more Russians than Germans were "caught" in these fights), but later admitted that these attacks exhausted and demoralized their remaining troops. Of course, the Russians knew that "slavery" (or worse) was in store for them if they didn't win.

One clear thing that Vercingtorix probably should have done was to "countermine," that is, dig one or more trenches from the city to the Roman lines. He probably feared Roman retaliation, but should have welcomed it, because his men could have fought the enemy on far more even terms in the trenches than in the open field at any given time. This would also have had two important effects on the "last day" of the battle:

1) The besieged soldiers could start their "breakout" from positions already in place, rather than having to approach the Roman lines without the protection of trenches.

2) They would have signalled the relieving force the best place to break in. As it were, the relieving force approached from the northwest, their "natural" direction, which also featured the best defensive terrain (for the Romans). Which is a major reason the Gauls lost.

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    Countermining is digging an underground tunnel to intersect another tunnel operated by the besiegers. Way beyond the abilities of the Gauls. Also the entire building of parallels and approach trenches are from about 1500-1750 years later. Without skilled men, all this would do is put Gauls in range of Roman artillery to be picked off one by one. – Oldcat Jan 7 '14 at 1:16
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    @Oldcat: Caesar's genius is not so evident in the construction of the double circumvallation - any Roman commander could have done it - but in the conceiving of completing a double circumvallation in just 30 days. How does one know, in advance, that 25 miles of circumvallation (10-12 foot palisade fronted by 8 foot spiked ditch) is possible in just 30 days? That is true genius. – Pieter Geerkens Nov 20 at 21:23
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    @Oldcat: Also re countermining - the Gauls would have been unable to even contemplate countermining, as they were elevated on a hill well above the inner-most Roman walls; plus they were constrained on a meager diet and a far too short timeline. – Pieter Geerkens Nov 20 at 21:25

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