The Folly of Building Impenetrable Fortresses and Great Walls
Updated: Apr 12, 2021
Golconda fort is one of the most impregnable forts from a design point of view. Located in Hyderabad in southern India, it was the capital of the Qutb Shahi dynasty in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was built by the Kakatiya rulers of the Deccan in the twelfth century, and has housed the Bahamani kingdom in the fourteenth century as well. Located on top of a granite hill, the fort seems unconquerable and would have seemed even more so in the medieval times. The colossal gates of the fort are at the end of a topsy turvy pathway to ensure that an elephant cannot get the required run up to ram against it with force. A large wall stands a few feet away from the gate preventing the provision of a ramp needed to attack. There is not enough space to muster enough force to strike against the gate to bring it down. The iron-spiked gate just would not break. Neither a human ram, a massive trunk of tree, or an elephant could bring the gate down. And if someone were brave enough to get up to the hill and arrive its gates, there would be enough arsenal, canon, stones and other incendiary material that would come showering down the gates and from the lofty walls of the Golconda.
A mere handclap below the entrance reverberates and can be heard in the innermost enclaves of the fort. An enemy at the gate would alert the royal family residing inside and spur the royal household to double down on their guard and even plan an escape through secret tunnels. The water channels inside the fort are designed in a way that it can withstand an awfully drawn-out siege. Every feature of the fort, right from galleries, the pavilions, and the palaces are built with a strict consideration to security. It is easy to imagine that a royal household or a king living in the fort would consider themselves invincible.
In January 1587 the Qutb Shahi ruler, Abul Hasan Qutb Shah refused to surrender to the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and resolved to face the Mughal siege by fortifying himself inside the Golconda. Aurangzeb unleashing the Mughal war machinery to conquer the Golconda is said to have utilized matchlocks, grenades, about a hundred cannons, and many of his most able generals to conquer the Golconda. An eight-month siege led to no avail and the Mughals saw famine, lack of supplies and the passing away of two of the most able Mughal commanders - Kilich Khan Khwaja Abid Siddiqi and Gaziuddin Khan Siddiqi Bahadur Firuz Jang.
The siege lasted for eight months. Sarandaz Khan, a Qutub Shahi official accepted a bribe from the Mughals and led them in through a secret backdoor. As the Mughal army stormed in, Abul Hasan Qutb Shah was taken by surprise and was imprisoned by Aurangzeb. With the eventual death of Abul Hasan Qutb Shah also known as the Tana Shah, the century and a half old Qutb Shahi dynasty came to an end.
The Maginot Line was impervious. Named after the French Minister of War André Maginot, it was a formidable line of defense built in the 1930s to thwart a German attack. With 22 humungous underground fortresses, 36 smaller fortresses, blockhouses, bunkers, and railway lines, it was modern marvel – a great wall. “The fact that certain modern fortresses had held out against German artillery during World War I, as well as the admitted saving in military manpower, induced France to build the celebrated Maginot Line as a permanent defense against German attack” (Britannica Encyclopedia). The line covered the French-German frontier along the Rhine river, and was extended along the French borders with Switzerland, Luxemburg, and Italy.
It was an ultramodern series of fortifications built over a decade, with air-conditioned areas for troops, recreation areas, storehouses, and even underground rails ensuring efficient deployment of resources. Built of concrete and steel, the fort walls were impenetrable for modern bullets or explosives. It was adorned with soldiers with machine guns in strategic posts who could easily take on the attackers. The French Military experts considered it a work of genius and this triumph of military engineering put France in a comfortable position of being a secure global power.
The hunch that guided the French diplomats was that Germany could again turn aggressive despite its defeat in the first world war and while the British Empire and the United States (an associate power) helped the allied victory, it would be hard to persuade them another time should France need backup in the face of German aggression.
To quote Rudolh Chelminski, “It was settled then: France would protect future generations behind a wall of high technology. The deputies gave Maginot a huge budget for a five-year building program. Inevitably, there were cost overruns and revisions, and it was necessary to extend the ambitious project year by year. Final touches on the Maginot Line, the so-called Great Wall of France, were still being completed in 1939 when war was declared.
… French military engineers must have actually had fun imagining the perfect modern fortress… Might some of the Germans infiltrate through the machine-gun fire and approach the outside walls, crawling where no one could see them? No problem: a little hand-operated launcher rather like a mail chute would deliver grenades out to the other side, ploop-bang.
Might the enemy somehow get past the door into the passageway? Then they would be mowed down by machine guns in a bunker—a bunker within a fortress! —set into the wall a few meters farther back. Might they pass the bunker? If worst came to worst, the passageway was mined so the push of a button could collapse the tunnel with a single explosion. Might they still come on, in spite of it all? Well, the men could evacuate through the secret emergency exit, a special little tunnel leading to a vertical escape shaft. It is a jewel of ingenuity, this emergency exit, the perfect symbol for the cunning attention to detail that went into the conception of the Maginot Line.”
The hunch of the French diplomats was correct, the Germans did strike back for vengeance. However, they were wrong about the direction from which the Germans would attack. In May 1940, General Heinz Guderian the architect of the German Army’s blitzkrieg, commandeered tanks to attack France through the Belgian border – that little swath of the French border that was left uncovered by the wall and from where the enemy was least expected to attack. “They (the Germans) simply followed the normal civilian roads down through the forest … Facing the swiftmoving invaders, some 40 French divisions were immobilized within the Maginot Line or as “interval” troops protecting it from without, while another 30 or so divisions were stretched out along the border from Montmédy, where the Line ended, to the Channel … Out in the open where armies clashed, it was a wipeout. Out-maneuvered, outgunned and outflanked, French field forces suffered a humiliating rout.”
The fortresses that dotted the Maginot line took a long time to be penetrated by the Germans. The Germans were only able to break through the wall with Operation Tiger, well after the fall of Paris. France fell before its defensive wall went down.
Arthur Waldron in his book “The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth” has outlined three phases of the Ming Dynasty’s defense policy to safeguard its Ordos region from attacks led by the Mongols and other steppe tribes – “(1) before 1449, characterized by an open frontier; (2) from 1449 to the 1540s, a period of alternating offensive and defensive strategies; and (3) after the late 1540s, when wall building became increasingly important to defense”. According to Waldon, the Ming had until 1449 behaved like the earlier Chinese dynasties and dealt with the steppe overlords with a frontal attack until the Tumu crisis of 1449 when the Ming Emperor Zhengtong was captured by Oirat ruler of the North Yuan, Esen Taishi’s forces. The emperor was let go off after four years when Taishi was not able to negotiate a ransom from Zhentong’s brother (who was now the Ming Emperor). Post the Tumu crisis, the strategy towards the steppe nomads turned defensive over the years – something that was criticized in the Chinese nobility, according to Waldron. The Mings became the greatest wall builders among all dynasties that had hitherto ruled China.
Waldron observes that other strategies were available to the Ming emperor - such as total annexation of the steppe territory, continued military campaigning, diplomacy, diversion of southern resources to build forces in the north where the Mongols harassed the Ming empire, and even accommodation. Yet, over the years the consensus among competing political interests in the Ming court converged around building walls as a defensive frontier. Many historians including Waldron have argued that the defensive wall strategy was the least effective strategy and the offensive strategies were the most effective that had been tried since the Yuan dynasty period. “The Ming was the extreme case in its cultural exclusiveness and the weakness of contacts with northern peoples”. Evidence suggests that the Mongols were systematically excluded from the Chinese society and their tribute was also denied on multiple occasions by the Ming Emperor. Indeed, it was the cultural wall in addition to the physical one that reduced the Ming’s understanding of the foreigners.
It was a foreign dynasty – the Manchus – that deposed the Ming. “Walls in the northeast were designed to counter the Manchus.” Yet the Manchus crossed the Shanhai pass and penetrated the Great Wall in 1642. In the April of 1644, the Manchus breached the walls of Beijing and the Ming emperor hanged himself on a tree outside the forbidden city. Another empire fell under the weight of the walls it constructed for its survival.
It is not unusual for societies and people to cave themselves in behind secured walls, fortresses, kith and kin, or echo chambers of like-minded individuals. The greater the wall of defense, the more impregnable the fortress, the greater is the sense of security. And the greater the sense of security, the lesser the concern for keeping secure. The lesser the concern for keeping secure, the blunter the strategic instinct – and that causes the downfall of societies, peoples, and empires.
While it was the Mughal army that mounted pressure on the Golconda fort, it was not its military might alone but a combination of espionage, intelligence, and the ability to bribe the key officials of the Qutb Shahi ruler, that led to the fall of the impenetrable fortress. It was a back-door entry not a frontal attack that won the day for the Mughals. It was also an unexpected backdoor assault not a frontal attack through the Maginot line that paved the way for the German conquest of France. There is some wisdom in insecurity or some folly in a sense of sanctuary.
The problem goes way beyond overconfidence or a false sense of security. There are at least two more lessons to be had. First, is the argument for a balance between one’s total strength and the number of resources allocated towards defense. When a disproportionate number of resources are allocated towards defenses, especially a single set of defensive tactics, it weighs down heavily on the entire system. It is almost like keeping all the eggs in one strategic basket. To keep a country viable, it takes good economics, public morale, good diplomacy, strong intelligence, along with effective defensive, deterrent, and offensive forces. A balance between these resources is also an important allocational component. You can’t save a sinking ship by filling up on one hole excessively, when the ship has been perforated all over. To maintain buoyancy of a nation, a balance of internal resource allocation becomes critical. The weakest link may just be that one resource that is falling out of balance.
The second lesson is a related one – in addition to balance, most battles are about maintaining parity on all factors or frontiers where battle can take place (defense, offence, intelligence, morale, economy, technology etc.) while being on a lookout and maintaining advantage over the factors which may be hitherto on the periphery of the strategic priorities. These are the often ignored “dimensions of viability” that suddenly become all important and if not mastered in time become an Achilles heel for the nation. For example, a nation well prepared with an air force, navy, and an army can be caught off-guard and thrown off balance by the opponent’s advantage gained through a cyber attack or a bio-attack.
All that the enemy has to do is to ignore the strong defenses and attack a point or give battle in a terrain/dimension, that can get the system off balance. The lack of any one of the multitude of factors such as - economics, public morale, good diplomacy, strong intelligence, along with effective defensive, deterrent, and offensive forces – can be sufficient on its own but not necessary for the downfall. To use another metaphor, one could fall sick and catch a fever because of a multitude of reasons, each sufficient and none necessary on its own. These could include exposure to inhospitable weather, food poisoning, nervousness, exhaustion out of many other factors. One is enough to give you a high fever. Therefore, there is always a race, a lookout to learn about these newer “dimensions of viability” or “dimensions of vulnerabilities”.
If one is to put both these lessons together in addition to the lesson of not being overconfident, it becomes clear that growth, balance, and a tad bit of insecurity are necessary attributes for survival and viability.
Quad is a security grouping between India, the United States, Australia, and Japan to pose a counterweight to China in the Asia pacific. If Quad turns out to be promising, as it seems it will, the group of four countries will have to make strategic decisions towards China. Will it build a great diplomacy wall against China? Or will it keep an open border policy and counter by engaging with China? The threat from China’s assertion today is akin to that the Ming Dynasty faced from the Mongols. With the combined might of the navies of the four countries, and the Indian control over the Strait of Malacca (which accounts for the passage of a quarter of the world’s traded goods) through the Andaman and Nicobar Islands may offer the Quad a sure sense of security and may pose as an effective counterweight to the Chinese “string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean.
Yet, the key to success of the Quad will not be to become complaisant once a strong strategic presence is established – which is still far away – but to engage with China, preferably without escalation. Further, it will be important for the grouping to explore other potential “dimensions of vulnerability” and “dimensions of viability”, and build combined strength on those areas that may fall outside of the obvious dimensions of security while building enough presence to achieve parity on the already ascertained dimensions such as technology, naval strength, trade route dominance etc. Perhaps the lingering of a tad bit of insecurity may turn out to be a fool proof strategy after the initial euphoria of the success of the Quad as a grouping, which seems imminent.
 “Wayback Machine.” https://web.archive.org/web/20071202110359/http://www.dushkin.com/text-data/articles/23427/23427.pdf  Ibid  https://www.jstor.org/stable/2719176?seq=2#metadata_info_tab_contents  Ibid.  Sinvany, “Wrath of the Khans: Ming Border Policy, 1368-1574.”