In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Urban Warfare

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks on Urban Geography and City History
  • Anthologies
  • Ancient Urban Warfare
  • Medieval Urban Warfare
  • Early Modern Urban Warfare
  • Cities and Warfare into the 21st Century
  • Specialized Studies and Selected Journal Articles
  • Specialized Urban Tactics and Weapons
  • The Military in Urban Riots and Civil Disturbances
  • Selected Doctrinal Works

Military History Urban Warfare
Louis DiMarco
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 February 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0171


Urban warfare is a complex form of warfare whose uniqueness has always been recognized but whose importance was not emphasized by post-Napoleonic armies until the late 20th century. The study of warfare by military professionals, from the period of Napoleon forward, emphasized the idea of battle on open terrain, unrestricted by the presence of large noncombatant populations and significant man-made terrain. Armies since the era of Napoleon have generally ignored the necessity and the decisiveness of combat to seize and control cities. For the most part, actual warfare validated this appreciation of warfare with some notable exceptions such as the siege of Vicksburg in the American Civil War and the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. However, a closer, more nuanced study of the history of warfare indicates that urban warfare, most commonly taking the form of siege operations until the 20th century, was the dominant form of warfare for most of military history. For most of military history, the decisive battle in the open field was much less common than the systematic attack and defense of fortified cities. It is only during and after the Napoleonic period where the quest for decisive battle in the open dominated military operations. The dominance of open field battle lasted until approximately World War II when battle to control cities, urban warfare, reasserted its decisiveness in war. Since World War II, urban warfare has become increasingly dominant and increasingly decisive. This is due to a variety of factors including the search by less powerful armies for an asymmetric advantage among the urban population and landscape, the increased emphasis on revolutionary (insurgency) warfare, and dramatic global population demographic shifts from rural to urban geography.

General Overviews

There are several works that tackle the issue of urban warfare in a comprehensive way. None of them, however, is the definitive study. A very complete work is the classic Viollet-le-Duc 2000, but it suffers from being written as a fictional account and not addressing modern urban operations. The most comprehensive in terms of time is Davis 2001, which covers the spectrum from ancient military operations to capture cities to the siege of Sarajevo in 1999. Comprehensive in terms of analysis of modern operations is DiMarco 2012, which examines the evolution of urban warfare from 1942 to 2007 in Iraq by looking at the evolution of urban operations since World War II through the lens of nine detailed case studies, and includes an essay on the evolution of urban warfare to the modern era. Spiller 2001 is a more general examination of the urban environment in warfare, without a detailed focus on any specific operation. Ashworth 1991 is similar to Spiller 2001, with a greater historical focus and less focus on contemporary operations. Finally, Bell 1966 is a very narrow focus on operations during World War II and immediately after. Overall, there is not a lot of single-author works comprehensively looking at the subject of urban warfare through the course of military history. This reflects an underappreciation on the part of historians and military affairs writers of urban operations as a unique type of military operation. It also reflects the general lack of specialization in the area of warfare in cities until very recently.

  • Ashworth, Gregory J. War and the City. New York: Routledge, 1991.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203409633

    A general look of urban warfare focused primarily on the Early Modern period. Its great weakness is the lack of any focus on contemporary operations.

  • Bell, J. Bowyer. Besieged: Seven Cities under Siege. Philadelphia: Chilton, 1966.

    This book is interesting because it covers some subjects that others do not. It also extends the idea of urban warfare into what US Army doctrine calls stability operations. The time period covered by the book is relatively short.

  • Davis, Paul K. Besieged: 100 Great Sieges from Jericho to Sarajevo. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2001.

    A solid survey of the great military sieges through the course of military history. The only work that covers operations to capture cities from the ancient to the modern. Its weakness is that such a broad overview lacks detail for any one specific operation or time period.

  • Dewar, Michael. War in the Streets: The Story of Urban Combat from Calais to Khafji. New York: Sterling, 1992.

    Useful as an introduction to the subject, but overly focused on the World War II British experience and lacks detail and focus.

  • DiMarco, Louis. Concrete Hell: Urban Warfare from Stalingrad to Iraq. Oxford: Osprey, 2012.

    A comprehensive look at urban warfare from World War II through the US-Iraq War. Heavily focused on tactical and operational approaches to urban warfare. Does a solid job of identifying and connecting historical trends to contemporary and future urban warfare.

  • Spiller, Roger. Sharp Corners: Urban Operations at Century’s End. Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute, 2001.

    This work is a survey of the importance of cities to military operations and a general description of their physical characteristics and military significance. It does not make an attempt to do specific battle analysis.

  • Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène. Annals of a Fortress: Twenty-Two Centuries of Siege Warfare. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2000.

    Originally published in English in 1875, this is a classic work describing the fictional history of a fortress as it evolved from ancient times to the late 19th century. The author describes the structural geographic changes made to the fortress over time as illustration of the evolution of both city design and military fortifications. The work ends with a discussion of fortifications and siege operations in the Franco-Prussian War.

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