The "Longest" Walls
People have been building walls for defensive purposes for a very long time. And some of those walls are “long”. That is, they’re lengthy, as well as tall, and, presumably, stout. Moreover some of them are also “long” in terms of their years in service, offering protection across the ages.
To note some of the “longest” walls in terms of utility, consider:
- The Great Wall of China. The “longest” of the “longest” walls, both in length and in years of service, it was begun in the Fifth Century BC, and more or less continued to function through the Sixteenth Century of the modern era, and arguably even into the Twentieth, as portions proved useful during China’s long resistance to the Japanese during the 1930 and 1940s. Not actually one continuous parapet, the “wall”, variously of stone, brick, or rammed earth, and sometimes only a simple ditch, was cleverly supplemented by natural obstacles, and arguably ran some 5,000 miles.
- The Roman Limes. Like China, the Romans also had a long frontier continuously threatened by “barbarians”, and beginning in the First Century adopted a defensive strategy that was rather similar. Long stretches of the frontier were covered by walls, of which the most famous is Hadrian’s, built about AD 122-128, which ran about 75 miles across northern Britain from sea-to-sea and remained in service until the early Fifth Century, when the Romans abandoned Britain. The “wall” parts of the limes ( “lim-és”, not like the fruit) across much of Europe, Asia, and Africa, were more often earthworks with wooden palisades and occasional stone fortresses. In desert areas long ditches were supplemented by occasional fortresses or fortified villas. Where the frontier ran along rivers such as the Rhine, Danube, Bug, and so forth, naval forces conducted regular patrols and supported occasional trans-river outposts. The total length of the limes probably approached that of the Great Wall. Portions of the limes remained in use until the collapse of the Empire in the West in the late fifth century, and much later in the East. Remnants of Trajan’s Wall in eastern Romania between the Danube and the Black Sea remained a formidable obstacle to military operations into the nineteenth century.
- Aurelian Walls at Rome. Built by the Emperor Aurelian in AD 271-275, the wall initially ran about 12 miles with 25 foot parapets, was periodically expanded and updated so that, by the end of the Empire in the West, the walls reached as high as 50 feet, with nearly 400 towers and 18 gates. Generally maintained and even expanded until early modern times (Michelangelo took the old Porta Flaminia and redesigned it to become the Porta del Popolo in the sixteenth century), Aurelian’s Wall remained in use as a defensive structure until 1870, only rarely having been breached without inside help for some 1500 years.
- Theodosian Walls of Constantinople. By the early Fifth Century the original walls provided by Constantine the Great were deemed inadequate, and a new and far more elaborate system of walls was built between about AD 404 and 412. Named after the inept Theodosius II (r. 408-450), they enclosed even more area than the older walls. The defenses comprised a wide and deep moat, behind which were three lines of walls, rising successively from 25 feet to about 35 feet, with towers up to 60 feet, stretching about five miles. Regularly maintained and updated, the walls were never breached by direct assault until the Turks brought up cannon in 1453 and smashed their way in. The Turks promptly repaired the damage, so that the walls remained the city’s primarily landward defenses until the nineteenth century.
- Danevirke. Fearing invasion by the Franks, around AD 737 the Danes initiated construction of an earthen rampart across the base of the Jutland Peninsula. With additions over the ages, it eventually reached about 18 miles in length, and rose from 12 to 20 feet, surmounted by a wooden palisade and occasional masonry defenses. It remained an important defensive system until the Schleswig-Holstein War of 1864, when it was breached by the Prussians, who later annexed the surrounding region. In World War II, the Germans considered making further use of it, but were dissuaded by archaeologists, who argued it was a treasured artifact of Aryan history.
- Offa’s Dyke. We’ve mentioned this one before, so let’s just note that in what is now western England, King Offa of Mercia (r. 757- 796), built an earthen dyke surmounted by a wooden parapet that ran about 176 miles, to help keep the Welch from raiding his kingdom. It had a six-foot ditch on the western side, and was from 25 to 60 feet high in places, and even today serves to mark much of the border between England and Wales.
While the urban walls were first and foremost defensive structures, the longer ones were not necessarily primarily for defense. The Great Wall, the Roman Walls, and Offa’s Dyke probably also served as customs barriers, bases for offensive patrolling, as well as “trip wires” to alert forces further in the rear of a hostile incursion.
Note, by the way, that this is just a sampling of the more impressive of the surprisingly numerous ancient walls that remained in service for centuries, if not millennia, such as those at Thessalonica in Greece or Chester in England.
In the summer of 1914, the USS Patterson (DD-36) was tasked with carrying the Assistant Secretary of the Navy to his summer home, on Campo Bello Island, in Canada, just north of Maine.
As the ship passed along the “stern and rockbound” coast of Maine, and approached a particularly torturous passage that would bring her to Campo Bello, the Assistant Secretary, Franklin D. Roosevelt, observed that he’d often sailed those waters, and offered to take the helm and con her safely through.
Hearing this, the ship’s skipper, Lt. Harold R. Stark, replied, somewhat testily, “No, sir! This ship is my command, and I doubt your authority to relieve me.” Stark then ran the ship through the strait at high speed, to demonstrate that naval officers were just as adept as yachtsmen in coping with treacherous waters.
Some 25 years later, Roosevelt, by then President, would appoint Stark Chief-of-Naval Operations.
FootNote: Faithful readers of CIC will perhaps recall a similar occurrence in those very same waters, involving Lt. William Halsey, the USS Flusser (DD-20), and “That Damned Yachtsman.”