The Expeditions into Palestine, 1101-5: Second and Third Battles of Ramla

The Second Battle of Ramla, 17 May, and Jaffa, 27 May 1102

The second battle of Ramla, only a few months later (17 May 1102), showed just how differently things could have gone. The primary problem seems to have been one of poor intelligence on the crusaders’ part, combined with an unsustainable level of overconfidence on the part of the king. Whereas the previous two Fatimid campaigns into southern Palestine had been well monitored by the Franks, and their movements contested by aggressive scouting, the invasion of 1102 seems to have come as a complete surprise.

Seemingly unaware of the size or location of the enemy forces, King Baldwin foolishly advanced too close to the Fatimid army with a force of just 200 Frankish knights and little or no infantry support. They were surrounded and almost totally destroyed. Thankfully for the crusaders, however, Baldwin escaped the debacle and the Egyptian military paused for several days to argue about what to do next. This allowed the Franks to muster a small army at Jaffa, and march out to confront them.

The battle was over quickly, and Christian losses were light. Frankish sources claimed that there were 3,000 Egyptian casualties which, allowing for natural exaggeration, hardly sounds like a massacre. The Fatimid cavalry had fled relatively early on, and thus left the battlefield more or less intact as they did at Ascalon three years before, while their infantry, stationed in the centre where the Frankish cavalry charges were focused, and far more vulnerable to pursuing cavalry during a rout, bore the brunt of the casualties.

The battle of Jaffa did not reflect well on the Fatimid army. They had displayed indecisiveness at the highest levels of command. This was commented on even by Muslim sources, and it allowed the crusader armies to regroup and recover. Incoherent strategy in the face of the newly gathered Frankish forces at Jaffa, neither enforcing a close siege, nor retiring to Ascalon, was also unimpressive from a command perspective.

Tactical performance was similarly weak. Despite outnumbering and outflanking the Frankish army, the Fatimids found themselves once more unable to hold the line against an aggressive crusader cavalry charge. That casualties were not higher is attributable more to the early flight of the Egyptian mounted arm and the relatively small numbers of crusader cavalry than to any great tactical skill.

Ultimately, despite the disaster at Ramla a few weeks earlier, the crusaders did not even pay the Egyptians the compliment of trying to develop a new tactical response: they just fought the battle in the same way as before, but this time with the infantry support that should have been there in the first place.

The Third Battle of Ramla, 27 August 1105

In the aftermath of their defeat outside Jaffa, the garrison at Ascalon were reduced to carrying out raids and patrols. These were useful in maintaining morale, but they could only delay the inevitable. By 1105 it was increasingly clear that if the Fatimids were not to abandon Palestine altogether, they would need to act decisively.

The Egyptians certainly knew that they needed to make changes if they wanted to break the pattern of tactical weakness that was apparent whenever they faced the Franks on the battlefield. The basic issue was that, despite numerical superiority, under most circumstances regular Fatimid troops could not withstand a charge from Frankish knights. Their cavalry on the flanks could not destroy the crusader infantry or baggage train quickly enough to stop the main body of the Egyptian army being routed, and the battle lost.

Their answer to this tactical problem was probably the correct one: try to recruit Turkic mounted archers to envelop the flanks of crusader armies more quickly and aggressively, and to destroy them before the Fatimid centre caved in. But this was easier said than done. The supply of Turkic mercenaries getting down to Egypt had largely dried up since the Egyptians first started fighting the Seljuk Turks in the eleventh century. The results on the battlefield reflected this lack.

Once attempts to establish direct recruitment of Turkic mercenaries had failed, the Fatimid government had to swallow its pride. They approached Turkic-run Damascus to provide mercenary or allied troops for their invasion of southern Palestine in 1102. Although these requests were rejected, by 1105 even the Damascenes were becoming more aware that the crusader states might pose a long- term problem to everyone. Putting their distaste of the Shi’ite regime in Egypt to one side, they were persuaded to provide mounted archers for an invasion of the kingdom of Jerusalem in 1105.

Preparations for the campaign began early in 1105, starting with negotiations with Damascus and the provisioning of the regular army. The mustering process took place in June-July 1105, with the Fatimid regulars and a large force of Bedouin gathering at Ascalon in August, and the Egyptian navy present in support.

This force, numbering about 5,000-10,000 regular cavalry and infantry, plus a similar number of irregular troops, were joined by 1,300 Turkic horse archers under the command of the Damascene general Sabura. The Egyptian infantry are described by the Franks as `Ethiopians’, suggesting, as in previous battles, that they were drawn predominantly from the Black regiments, while the regular cavalry were mainly Armenian or Arab. The crusaders thought they were facing an army approximately 15,000 strong which, including Turkic cavalry and irregulars, may not be too much of an exaggeration.

The first warning of a major attack came when the Fatimid navy began to blockade Jaffa. Realising that this presaged a full-scale invasion by land, Baldwin began to muster his forces at Jaffa, leaving only small garrisons in the other cities. By coincidence, the Franks also had their own Turkic horse archer contingent, showing how local politics and personal interests could cut across seemingly intractable religious lines. These light cavalry were provided by a disgruntled son of the previous Damascene ruler, eager to get Frankish support so that he could retake what he saw as his inheritance. Though his Turkic contingent was smaller than that provided by the Damascenes for the Egyptian army, it may at least have gone some way towards counteracting the impact of the Fatimids’ new Turkic allies.

Baldwin was not going to repeat the secular or spiritual mistakes he had made at Ramla three years earlier: this time he gathered all his resources carefully. Leaving behind a garrison of 300 men, he marched his army out of Jaffa on Friday, 25 August, and moved down to Ramla. He arrived there on Saturday, 26 August, and waited for the arrival of the patriarch of Jerusalem, who was en route with temporal help in the form of 150 extra infantry and the crusaders’ spiritual weapon of last resort, the True Cross.

In the meantime, the Fatimid army had moved up from Ascalon, and camped at Ibelin, just a few miles from Ramla. Battle was deferred by the Christians until the following day, to maximise the spiritual benefits of fighting on the Lord’s day. On the morning of Sunday, 27 August, the army of the Latin Kingdom received the blessing of the patriarch and celebrated mass with the True Cross. The Franks then advanced towards Ibelin. The Fatimid army, warned by scouts of their approach, likewise set off to meet them halfway.

Baldwin organised the army into five divisions. He himself gathered a force of 160 cavalry and kept them with him as a mounted reserve. Fulcher of Chartres, who may have been with the army and certainly had the chance to discuss the battle with many participants, describes the size of the Frankish forces as being about 500 knights and 2,000 infantry. He also mentions an unspecified number of other mounted troops, which may be a reference to the small contingent of Turkic mounted archers and to the early use of Turcopoles.

After the battle, the Franks came to believe, presumably on the basis of discussions with high- ranking prisoners, that the original Egyptian battle plan had been to move towards Ramla with the smaller part of their forces, thereby pinning the crusader field army. The main Egyptian army, meanwhile, was to proceed towards Jaffa, where it would link up with the Fatimid navy, cut the crusaders’ supply lines, and put the city under siege. This was an ambitious plan, probably far too ambitious in light of the recent track record of the Fatimid army, but not entirely irrational given their superiority in numbers. The advance of the crusader army on the morning of 27 August pre-empted any ideas of such strategic sophistication, however, and the two armies met between their respective camps at Ibelin and Ramla.

The sequence of events in the battle itself is confused, though a couple of features seem clear. The Franks charged into the centre of the Egyptian line in the usual manner, smashing into its leaders, capturing several senior emirs and causing severe casualties to the `Ethiopian’ infantry posted there. The Turkic light cavalry, although only a relatively small part of the Egyptian army, seem to have been disproportionately effective, outflanking and surrounding parts of the crusader army. Tellingly, not only were the Turkic troops described as excellent archers but, once they had finished softening up their Frankish adversaries with missile weapons, they were not afraid to move in with swords and take the fighting to close quarters. It was only the vigorous actions of the reserve cavalry division commanded by King Baldwin himself that kept them at bay long enough for the main body of the Egyptian army to be routed, ensuring that the Turkic cavalry had no option but to break off the engagement.

Casualties on the Egyptian side were heavy, and included the commander of the garrison at Ascalon, Jamal al- Mulk. Although one of al- Afdal’s sons was in at least nominal command of the expedition, Jamal al- Mulk and other regular army commanders had a very significant role to play in the leadership of the army. The emirs of Arsuf and Acre were also captured, suggesting that the Egyptian centre had been hit hardest, and had broken.

The religious, ethnic and political factionalism that was rife within the Egyptian army always degraded its cohesion and effectiveness. This was played out to the extreme at the point where decisions were being made as to whether to rally or to rout, whether to opt for fight or flight. Interests quickly diverged. The Sunni Turkic horse archers left the rest of the army and rushed back towards Damascene territory. The Bedouin irregulars, ethnically and culturally distinct from the other groups, were fighting for booty and cash payments: they had little motivation to stay. The Armenian cavalry seem to have fled back to Ascalon. The Black infantry regiments were on their own: slow and isolated, they took the brunt of the casualties.

On the Christian side, losses were significant but not heavy: Albert of Aachen claimed that there were 100 fatalities, with only one eminent knight, Reinard of Verdun, among them. Fulcher of Chartres wrote that there were only 60 killed in the entire Frankish army. Muslim sources, on the other hand, suggested that Christian casualties were of the same order as their own. Given the disproportionate number of casualties that are sustained in the rout phase of a battle, this does not seem likely, though there is no reason to doubt that the battle was intense and bloody for both armies.

The battle was a hard- fought but conclusive defeat for the Egyptian army. Once again, the Fatimid forces seemed to have had everything in place. They had a large naval contingent to support them and to blockade Jaffa. A significant number of high- quality Turkic horse archers had joined the ranks. They outnumbered their enemy. And they were a well-provisioned regular army, supported by numerous irregular cavalry and volunteers, fighting on a battlefield they knew well. It must have felt as though, despite their every effort, it was still never enough. Morale plummeted. Significantly, this was the last Fatimid field army to enter Palestine for almost two decades.

What went wrong? As always, one gets the impression of an army which lacked energy and coordination at a strategic level, and which did not have the élan to compensate for this on the battlefield. The crusaders, in this as in most of their encounters with the Egyptian army, seem to have held the initiative at the critical points of the battle: disrupting the Egyptian plans to move the majority of their army towards Jaffa, and pinning the centre of their army with repeated and devastating heavy cavalry charges to which they seem to have had little response.

The Turkic mounted archers were a very welcome addition for the Fatimids, but they were merely temporary allies and, given their limited numbers and the presence in the crusader army of other Turkic archers and possibly Turcopoles, they could not make a battle- winning difference. The Fatimids never solved the issue of how to deal with a Frankish heavy cavalry charge. The lack of a solution to this fundamental problem was militarily debilitating.

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The Expeditions into Palestine, 1101-5: First Battle of Ramla

In 1099 the systemic problems within the Fatimid military had been compounded by complacency and diplomatic failure: Frankish intentions had been consistently misread, with catastrophic consequences. As a result, the disaster at Ascalon could be explained away as the result of a very particular situation: an event rather than a trend, triggered by a combination of bad luck and poor intelligence. Whilst clearly not the best start to the task of recovering Palestine from the crusaders, this initial failure could be attributed to unique circumstances.

The Fatimid army and navy therefore embarked upon a series of campaigns into the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in the first decade of the twelfth century, with major invasions taking place in 1101, 1102 and 1105, alongside a series of increasingly large- scale raids. The first of these invasions, in the summer of 1101, looked particularly promising.

The First Battle of Ramla, 7 September 1101

Within a few months of the victory at Ascalon, the situation facing the Christians had deteriorated very significantly. One of the members of the army later wrote that they were mystified as to why the Muslims even permitted their state to exist. Baldwin I, who became king after the death of Godfrey in July 1100, faced an almost ridiculously bleak future. There was no army to speak of. A few small and scattered garrisons tried to hold on to Jerusalem, Jaffa and a couple of other settlements. But the field army, the troops available for mobile defence, was little more than a retinue. In total, including garrisons and policing contingents, the kingdom of Jerusalem could at one point muster only 300 cavalry and 300 infantry.

By the summer of 1101 it was clear to the Fatimid military that circumstances were now far more favourable. The spring and autumn sea passages back to Europe had been full of crusaders returning home. The poor performance of the Egyptian cavalry at Ascalon was being addressed by a programme of reforms, and the infantry regiments lost in battle were being replaced.

Once again, the Fatimid army seems to have taken about two months to muster and deploy in southern Palestine. Troops began to gather in late March or early April. By the end of May the main body of the army had arrived in Ascalon and began sending patrols north towards Jaffa, and eastwards towards Jerusalem. King Baldwin rapidly gathered whatever troops he could and moved down towards Ramla to block any potential Egyptian advance further north. Neither side marched straight to battle. The Frankish force was too small to confront the Egyptian army directly and they feared being drawn into battle close to Ascalon, where they might be surrounded by the enemy’s superior numbers.

The main body of the Fatimid army, perhaps awaiting further reinforcements or, as the crusaders optimistically thought, too nervous to advance, remained in the vicinity of Ascalon. For almost a month (24 May-17 June 1101), the stand- off continued. Some of the Egyptian irregular troops, perhaps disappointed at the lack of plunder, started to drift off. In the case of the Bedouin, it may even be that some of them offered their services to the crusaders. Certainly, Fulcher of Chartres, a participant in many of these events, was well aware of desertions from the Egyptian army, and ascribed at least some of these to supply problems on their side.

The crusader forces were not a regular army, however, and, like many of the Muslim forces, could not be kept in the field indefinitely. Manpower in the kingdom was stretched so thinly that many of the men needed to return to their lands, if only to carry out repairs to the fortifications of the newly captured towns such as Arsuf and Caesarea. For the important Galilean contingent of knights from Tiberias, the need to return to protect the eastern frontiers from the army of Damascus was also pressing. So on 17 June the Frankish army was forced to disperse, first retiring back to Jaffa to resupply and make contingency plans for how best to proceed, and then going their separate ways.

The long- distance stand- off between the Fatimids and the embryonic Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem continued for another two months (roughly from 17 June to 25 August 1101). By the end of the summer Baldwin was back in the capital, when news arrived that the Egyptian army was finally on the move. He mustered his troops around 25 August in Jerusalem, and they then marched down to Jaffa. He garrisoned the port as best he could, trying to create a refuge in the event that things did not go well on the battlefield. Tellingly, the royal family were moved there too. This was certainly prudent, but it was also the action of a commander whose limited forces gave an acute sense of the consequences and likelihood of failure.

As always, it is impossible to be definitive about the size of the opposing armies. On the crusaders’ part, it is clear that manpower was short. Short to the point of desperation. Fulcher, who was with the army when it mustered, said that the urgency of the situation was such that Baldwin required every man who had a squire to make him into a knight, and to arm him accordingly. Even once this was done, however, the numbers were pitiful. It was estimated that the Frankish army consisted of no more than 260 knights and 900 infantry. Contingents from the coastal towns of Caesarea and Haifa were gathered. In the event of disaster all hope clearly rested on the ability of Jaffa to hold out. Duke Godfrey had improved its fortifications shortly before his death and reserves were concentrated there as a final fallback position. It was never fully articulated, but the focus on the ports meant that there was an implicit understanding that a full- scale evacuation back to Europe, or to the northern crusader states, might become necessary. Planning was in place to abandon the entire kingdom.

The size of the Egyptian army is more problematic. Fulcher, who saw the army arrayed, and later experienced it at far closer quarters than he wanted to, estimated that it consisted of 11,000 cavalry and 21,000 infantry. This seems somewhat on the high side, but other Christian sources give even more implausible estimates, ranging from between 40,000 to 200,000 men. The Muslim sources are silent on the size of the Fatimid army, possibly because of embarrassment, given the outcome of the battle. Fulcher’s estimate of cavalry numbers is perhaps broadly realistic, as they seem to have taken relatively few casualties at Ascalon. The army was certainly large given that this was their big opportunity to avenge that defeat and retake Palestine before reinforcements for the crusaders could arrive from Europe. Whatever the exact numbers, the Franks were very significantly outnumbered, probably even more than when they faced the Egyptians in 1099.

We are not entirely sure who commanded the Egyptian force. One Muslim chronicler calls him al- Qawwasi, `the archer’, while two others call him al- Tawasi, `the eunuch’ (hardly inspiring but not quite as depressing as it sounds to modern ears: it could also mean `first class cavalryman’ at the time). As we have seen, with an unusual sense of gallows humour, the Damascus chronicle implausibly refers to him as al- Qawamisi (`General Disastrous’). Whatever his name, the Egyptian commander eventually realised that the crusaders were not going to be enticed into attacking him near Ascalon. He blinked first. He realised that he had to do something with the large force he had been given, and was acutely aware that feeding such an army into the autumn and winter was going to pose significant logistical problems, given the limited naval facilities offered by the port of Ascalon. Perhaps the earlier desertions had continued or even worsened.

Either way, the Egyptian army started to move slowly out onto the plains around Ramla at the end of August. On 6 September the crusader army left Jaffa and marched out towards them. The Fatimids were a substantial force and were not manoeuvring at speed. Maybe they thought that the tiny Frankish army would not want to meet them in the field. Or perhaps, given that their two most likely eventual targets were the cities of Jaffa and Jerusalem, they had heavy siege equipment in the baggage train, slowing down the army as a whole.

Before battle was joined, King Baldwin gave a speech to the troops. Normally, surviving pre- battle speeches from the classical or medieval periods are little more than homilies: the kinds of thing that appeal more to the clerics who write them, or make them up, than to the scared and adrenaline- filled soldiers they are supposed to be aimed at. In this case, however, there is a faint echo of reality in our record of the speech, an attempt to show genuine camaraderie with the men he was leading into battle, and a roughness of style that might ring true. The usual religious exhortations are relatively brief but focused on the things uppermost in men’s minds at that moment: if you die, you will be blessed and the Kingdom of Heaven awaits; if you live, you will have everlasting glory. His short speech ended with an all too plausible message from one soldier to another, tinged with a stiff dose of sardonic humour. `And remember, if you feel like running,’ he is reported to have said, `France is a very long way away.’ Fulcher, who was there at the time, dryly commented that after he had finished, `we all agreed with him’.

The three divisions of cavalry which constituted the front line of the crusader forces charged the centre of the Fatimid army in waves, or at least in echelon. Their impact was hindered by two factors. The Egyptians’ superior numbers in the centre enabled them to absorb the initial shock and also meant that they were deployed on a wider frontage, allowing a natural outflanking process to take place once the first impetus of the charge was over. Fulcher describes his dismay at the sheer weight of numbers on the Muslim side and the way in which they `swarmed’ over the Christian cavalry like `a mass of birds’.

This was the moment when the knights had to justify all their privileges and social status. The first unit of Frankish cavalry was led by a nobleman called Bervold. He and his men crashed into the Fatimid lines but the initial impact was held. Bervold was killed. His contingent was almost wiped out. One knight escaped but even he had lost a hand in the fracas. The second wave charged in, led by Geldemar Carpinel, who had recently been given Haifa and so was presumably leading his retinue and the local contingent. They too were quickly overwhelmed, however, and almost completely destroyed. Geldemar was killed, together with most of his men. Only two knights, named William and Erkengold, managed to escape.

The Galilean contingent was next in, led by their young lord, Hugh of Tiberias. They charged again into the centre of the Egyptian line. Hugh seemed to be making some headway but eventually he and his troops were also ground down. The attack stalled. Unlike the first two waves, Hugh and a few survivors of his division were in a fit state to withdraw as a unit, but they had been severely mauled.

This was the critical point of the battle. The Fatimid centre had been temporarily weakened, but their flanks were still strong and two of the three vanguard units of the Frankish army had been all but wiped out. Baldwin’s choice was to either try to gather the remnants of the army together for a fighting retreat back to Jaffa; or to gamble all on a final charge on the centre of the Egyptian line, hoping that it would break and take the rest of the army with it. Baldwin decided on the latter. Higher risk but high reward. And a fighting retreat against an enemy with superior numbers was certainly full of risk too.

The True Cross was in the rear division of the army, carried by a certain Bishop Gerard and an elite guard of ten armoured soldiers. Baldwin paused to make a (presumably extremely brief) confession to the bishop and to take what he probably thought would be his last Holy Communion in front of the True Cross.

He had kept the two last cavalry units with him in reserve. The first of these, the contingent from Jerusalem, were ordered to charge once more into the centre of the Fatimid line, presumably through the wreckage of the three previous Frankish cavalry units. As the Jerusalem contingent began to falter, Baldwin personally led his last remaining cavalry reserve into the fray, a final throw of the dice. In a scene of suspiciously high drama, he rode on his famous charger, Gazelle, towards the leaders of the Egyptian army, hoping, as Alexander the Great had done at Gaugamela and as Robert of Normandy had done at Ascalon, that their death or flight would cause the entire enemy army to collapse.

Baldwin charged at one of the Egyptian commanders and ran him and his horse through with his lance. The blow was so severe, we are told, that the white pennant at the tip of Baldwin’s lance lodged in the dying emir’s stomach. This all sounds far too choreographed and dramatic to be realistic. And yet, bizarrely, there seems to be an element of truth to all this. Several Muslim accounts mention that al- Qawwasi (or al- Qawamisi, `General Disastrous’) died in the centre of the Egyptian army towards the end of the battle, as he fell from his horse. The death of its commander, coming after the intense fighting between the Egyptian centre and the successive Frankish cavalry charges, was enough to push the core of the Fatimid forces into rout.

There was some pursuit of the defeated Egyptians, even as far as the outskirts of Ascalon. Given the scale of the Frankish casualties, however, particularly among the knights, much of this pursuit must have been undertaken by the mounted sergeants and other light cavalry while the infantry moved to pick off enemy stragglers on foot, and the walking wounded.

Some apologists for the Fatimid army have tried, unconvincingly, to claim the battle as a draw. The Muslim sources which they use to support this thesis are confused and vague, but even they admit that the Frankish forces crashed into the centre of the Muslim army and killed its commander. After two years’ preparation, on ground of their own choosing and with vastly superior numbers, the Fatimid army still failed to beat the Franks.

From a Frankish perspective, it was clearly a strategic success, albeit a hard-won battle on the day. Manpower in the crusader states would never be at such a low point again. Settlers and pilgrims were starting to arrive, and relationships with the local Christian communities were being strengthened. If the Fatimids were ever going to recapture Palestine, this was arguably their best opportunity.

It was also a tactical victory for the crusaders, at least in the technical sense of the term. They had killed the enemy general, routed the main Fatimid army and remained in possession of the field. On the ground, however, it can hardly have felt like that. Of the 260 knights who had started the battle, 80 were dead by its end and few of the survivors were still in a fit state to fight. If wounded are also included (and these are usually more numerous than fatalities in a victorious army, as the wounded are less likely to be killed in the aftermath of battle), the majority of the crusader heavy cavalry must have been casualties.

So, if this was victory, it was clear that the crusaders could not afford too many more like that. On the day itself, as Fulcher said, `no one knew the outcome of the battle’. But Baldwin would never have been able to disperse his troops for two or three months in the face of a Turkic army: they were far more aggressive and effective than the Fatimid cavalry. With an Egyptian army he felt able to do so. The Franks had eventually prevailed, they had survived, and their military resources would continue to grow.

The Armed Might of the Crusaders

We shall not understand the Crusaders until we realize that they were different from us. They were closer to the earth, and the smells of the earth. They were closer to the brute facts of the earth; very often they were near starvation. For the most part they were peasants with a peasant’s knowledge of the seasons and the rituals of the Church. They believed with a firm and intimate faith, with a medieval directness, and a rough-hewn stubbornness, that it was in their power to safeguard forever the Holy Sepulchre, which they regarded as the place of the Resurrection, offering the promise of eternal life. They knew that Christ died and rose again in the flesh; that they belonged to the kingdom of Christ; to him, they owed their ultimate allegiance.

The most enviable Crusaders were the knights, who were often only two generations removed from the peasantry. With their grooms and esquires, and their pompous trappings, they were the elite of the army, always on parade. Their horses were much heavier than those of the Saracens. Well-trained and strictly disciplined, the Crusaders were armored front-line troops with sufficient weight and power to punch holes in the enemy lines and then to wheel back and punch more holes. Their weapons were lances, which sometimes reached the length of ten feet, and a heavy double-edged sword, which they carried in a scabbard on the left side. The sword was used for hand-to-hand fighting; the lance possessed a wider range and flexibility.

From neck to waist, and from thighs to feet, knights were enclosed in chain mail made of iron links on a foundation of leather. They wore very sharp spurs and round shields with iron rims and iron bosses. Their helmets were round, flat-topped boxes of steel covering the whole head, with slits in front of the eyes and perforations in front of the mouth and nose. They were intended to look terrifying.

Once established in the Holy Land, the Crusaders had three main armies. There was the army in the service of the king, and there were the auxiliary armies of the Templars and the Hospitallers. These auxiliary armies, which became enormously powerful, grew up haphazardly, yet there were times when they became the real rulers of the kingdom.

The Order of the Knights of the Temple was a military order founded by Hugh of Payens, a knight from Champagne. He appears to have been sweet-tempered, totally dedicated, and ruthless on behalf of the Faith. The Knights of the Temple were soldiers of Christ, ascetic almost to fanaticism, single-minded to the exclusion of all ideas except the worship of God and the annihilation of the Saracens. In 1118, Hugh of Payens with nine other knights sought the permission of Baldwin I to found the order. The king of Jerusalem was so delighted with the idea that he gave them part of the royal palace believed to be the Temple of Solomon. This became their headquarters and from then on they were known as Templars.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the Templars was to safeguard the lives of the pilgrims who flocked to Jerusalem and other holy places. But from the beginning, Hugh of Payens appears to have had a larger aim. The Templars quickly became an independent fighting arm of the Church, having allegiance only to the pope and the grand master. They were armed monks, priestly swordbearers, chivalrous only on behalf of God, shock troops to be thrown into every righteous battle. Their courage became legendary.

Safeguarding the comings and goings of pilgrims was difficult. How difficult we learn from the Anglo-Saxon traveler Saewulf who came to Jerusalem in 1102 and left this account of the tortuous road that leads up from the coast to Jerusalem:

. . . the Saracens . . . lie in wait in mountain caves to surprise the Christians, watching both day and night to pounce on those who came in small numbers and were therefore less capable of resistance or those who were worn out with fatigue and therefore lagged behind their companions. At one moment you can see them everywhere, at another moment they are invisible, and everyone who travels in this region has observed this. . . .

Saewulf, with his Anglo-Saxon companions, arrived at a time when the Kingdom of Jerusalem had only just come into existence, when the government was still disorderly and inefficient, and when it was impossible to spare soldiers to police the road. Because the government could not guarantee the safety of the pilgrims, hundreds died even before they saw Jerusalem’s golden gates.

At first, the Templars enjoyed a modest organization. Over the course of two centuries a vast body of rules and regulations would come into existence, legislating for every possible eventuality, but at the beginning they were merely monks on horseback, armed with swords and lances, sometimes so poor that two would ride on a single horse.

Hugh of Payens infused the Templars with the energy of chastity and obedience. No women might enter the Temple; they were not permitted to embrace any woman, not even their sisters or their mothers. A lamp burned in their dormitories all night; their breeches were tightly laced; they were never permitted to see each other naked. They were permitted no privacy, and letters addressed to individual Templars had to be read aloud in the presence of the grand master or a chaplain. They never shaved their beards. Their spartan lives were directed toward the single end of protecting the pilgrims and the Kingdom of Jerusalem by killing the enemy.

Since they were obedient only to the pope, who was far away, they often acted independently of the king of Jerusalem. They became sophisticated soldiers, administrators, builders of castles, and owners of vast estates, not only in the Holy Land but all over Europe, for kings and princes and common people soon recognized that they possessed to an extraordinary degree the military power to secure the safety of the kingdom. They possessed, too, a vast intelligence system, sometimes working in close association with the royal government, but sometimes against it. Their own spies reported regularly from Cairo, Baghdad, Aleppo, and the other Arab capitals of the Middle East.

The headquarters of the Templars still stands in Jerusalem, for the building then known as the Temple was in fact the al-Aqsa Mosque, believed by Christians to be on the site of the Temple of Solomon. In these spacious quarters with their underground stables lived the grand master, the marshal, and the high command. Reverence was paid to the grand master as the representative of the pope. The master of the Templars was often a man who had entered the order as a youth and had spent his whole life in it. He knew no other world and was interested only in the advancement of the Templars at all costs, and if it was necessary for him to form a temporary alliance with the Saracens, he would do so without a qualm. The Templars always had the best intelligence system in the Holy Land, and very often the Saracens learned what they wanted to know through the Templars. Those hard and silent men, wearing voluminous white cloaks derived from the Cistercian robe, adorned with a large blood-red cross, played dangerous games. They brought the Crusaders some of their greatest triumphs and some of their greatest defeats.

The second army belonged to the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St. John. They were known as Hospitallers and wore a red eight-pointed cross on their black mantles. They, too, arose from humble beginnings and learned to exercise kingly powers. About the year 1070, some citizens of Amalfi established a hostel for poor pilgrims in Jerusalem, with the permission of the Egyptian governor of the city. When the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem, the master was a certain Gerard, a Benedictine priest, who escaped or was expelled from the city before its conquest. He provided the Crusaders with valuable information and was soon in the good graces of the new rulers, who endowed his hostel and encouraged his work in every way. The Church assumed control of the hostel. Like the Templars, the Hospitallers owed obedience to the pope.

When Raymond of Le Puy became the new master, around 1118, the order changed direction. In Raymond’s view it was not enough that the order should care for pilgrims; it must also defend them. The rule of the Hospitallers was less strict than the rule of the Templars. The Hospitallers were steadier, less adventurous, more somber. The Templars had a glitter about them while the Hospitallers seemed almost colorless. The Hospitaller army was much smaller than the Templar army and never attained the popularity of the Templars; it was also much poorer. These two rival orders vied for honor and renown. They often clashed, but when they moved in unison they performed marvelously.

Soon the orders became proud and imperious, and since the king was also likely to be proud and imperious, there were continual disputes and quarrels. In theory, they were independent of the king, owing allegiance only to Rome. In fact, the masters of the two orders had their places in the royal council chamber, and no important act was decided upon without their agreement. More and more, as the wars continued, it appeared that the kingdom was ruled by a triumvirate: the king, and the masters of the Temple and the Hospital.

Fort St. Elmo 1565 Part I

Fort St. Elmo.

 

Map of Grand Harbor

Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Sultan, had ordered that no action be taken without consulting Turgut Reis. Turgut still had not arrived. Some thought that he was not coming at all—he was old, and strange things happen at sea. There was no reason to hold up all operations on his account. Spain was a formidable power, more so now that they were not distracted by wars in the Lowlands and against France. They were quite capable of launching a relief force to trouble this siege, and intelligence suggested that, under the guidance of the new and capable viceroy, they were in the process of doing so. Best then to get on with the operation and hope that Turgut would show up sooner rather than later.

The leading commanders gathered in Mustapha’s tent to decide what to do next.

In theory there should have been little to discuss. The strategy had been laid out months earlier in Constantinople, aided by a scale model of Grand Harbor built on the report of two Muslim spies posing as fishermen. The plan was to take out Fort St. Elmo and so control the eastern-facing deep waters and the secure bay of the Grand Harbor, better protected than Marsaxlokk from the spring’s strong gregale winds that could sweep down from the northeast. In so doing, the Ottomans could maintain a supply base close to the army’s center of operations, thus simplifying the demands of logistics. All future matériel arriving from Constantinople or North Africa would not have to be hauled the eight miles overland from Marsaxlokk, a wearisome task at best, and a dangerous task so long as there were Christian marauders about—as, in fact, there were until the very end.

Mustapha had his own ideas. A veteran of wars in Hungary and Persia, Mustapha was accustomed to long marches over rough terrain—what was an eight-mile trek to him? Concede Grand Harbor to the knights, he thought, and St. Elmo becomes a Christian liability, a place they would have to defend while the bulk of Muslim soldiers were wearing down the main objectives elsewhere. His proposed order of operations was for Piali Pasha to take ten thousand men and ten guns and seize the lightly defended capital of Mdina at the center of the island. This would be both a psychological blow to the Maltese and a boost for his own men, and it would serve to protect the army’s rear from Mdina’s cavalry raiders and any possible Spanish relief forces. Once Mdina was taken, he could then attack the bulk of the enemy’s forces at Birgu and Senglea, and finally, almost as an afterthought, seize the island of Gozo. His vision went further, offshore and into Piali’s area of authority. He suggested a new disposition for the fleet, that it be divided into three parts: one to blockade Grand Harbor, one to remain in Marsaxlokk, and one to patrol the channel between Malta and Sicily.

It did not go down well. Piali Pasha reminded the council that his responsibility was to meet the needs of the sultan’s “powerful and invincible armada” and to guard the island from any Christian warships. (After his attempt to swindle Suleiman out of some ransom after Djerba, he was also on his best behavior.) Piali wanted the eastern-facing deep waters and secure bay of the Grand Harbor. To get this, they would need to take out the defensive Fort St. Elmo. The council, many of them navy men, concurred with Piali.

Compelled against his better judgment to target Fort St. Elmo, Mustapha wanted to know how long it would take to capture the place, and he sent out engineers skilled in this kind of calculation to make an estimate. They got as close as they dared, and came back with a mixture of good news and bad. The good news was that the shortcomings Don Garcia had criticized were all in place. The bad news was that the stony ground, while suitable for trenches, was useless for digging mines. As to siege artillery, that was simply a matter of getting cannon down the steep length of Mount Sciberras and into position opposite the fort. The engineers were confident that the Ottoman army, fresh from their voyage and ready for a fight, would be able to bring down the walls and take the fort in under five days. With luck, they might be able to present the first victory of the campaign to Turgut when he eventually arrived.

Mustapha gave in. His May 23 report to Suleiman notes the divided opinions and the final proposed course of action; it does not, interestingly, indicate what he thought.

Balbi describes this squabble in some detail, based on the gossip of two more renegades who had, they claimed, stood guard outside the tent. (In camps famed for their silence, shouting commanders were presumably easy to hear.) Gossip or not, an overjoyed Valette reacted swiftly. His spies in Constantinople had reported that St. Elmo was to be the first target, but he could not be sure. Initially he had entrusted its defense to the aging and unwell Fr. Broglio and a small contingent of Spanish foot. From his command center in Fort St. Angelo, he now ordered the French knight Pierre de Massuez-Vercoirin (aka Colonel Mas) and two hundred of his men, as well as sixty-five volunteers from the knights, dispatched to bolster the three hundred and thirty-five soldiers already in Fort St. Elmo. He cautioned them, however, to make self-preservation their priority, to not engage the enemy in any unnecessary skirmishes.

#

Now certain that the first target was to be Fort St. Elmo, Valette had all the civilians who had taken refuge there brought over to Birgu. The boats that carried this last group out of harm’s way returned with powder, lead, rope, incendiaries, hardtack, wine, cheese, lard, oil, and vinegar for the five hundred men inside. He also ordered Colonel Mas and 150 of his men to swell the ranks.

If Valette expected caution from the men at St. Elmo, he had sadly misjudged them. Inspired by the knowledge that Ottoman siege guns were being towed down the peninsula, Colonel Mas and Captain La Cerda led a number of their men out of the fort and headed for the enemy. The ensuing fight, the last direct fighting they were to enjoy for some time, was a short and spirited affair, but the handful of men killed on both sides did not materially slow Mustapha’s progress.

It appears, however, to have prompted him to position sharpshooters within range of Fort St. Elmo. Janissaries were notorious for the efficiency of their snipers, “most excellent marksmen.” These men could lie in wait for hours at a time in the hope of blowing the head off anyone who, from curiosity, might peek over the top of the parapet, however briefly. From that time on, the Christian defenders were trapped inside the fort, with only the sound of Muslim sappers digging trenches outside the fort and enemy gun carriages moving closer and closer.

The defenders, however, were able to fire cannon from seaward facing cavalier cannon fire that was supplemented by Valette’s men across the water at Fort St. Angelo. The footsoldiers might feel superfluous in such circumstances. These were experienced warriors who knew what went into a proper fort, and Fort St. Elmo was not the best example of the military architect’s art. Personal bravery notwithstanding, the men of Fort St. Elmo could calculate odds as well as any Ottoman engineer, and they knew the power of the wall-smashing guns that in a day or so would be brought to bear.

On May 24, Mustapha was ready. His guns were set in three ranks facing the landward side of St. Elmo. Defensive gabions, boxes filled with cotton, now created a wall through which ten guns capable of firing eight-pound balls poked out toward the fort. A second tranche that boasted two culverins, guns capable of lobbing sixty-pound shot, backed them up. Finally, on the rise overlooking the fort was one of the so-called basilisks, its vast cyclopean eye staring down on St. Elmo, a huge weapon capable of throwing a stone ball of a hundred and sixty pounds. More guns would follow, and from different emplacements, but these would do for now. Sacks of powder were shoved down the bronze gullets, with stone balls lifted in as a chaser. Engineers sighted targets and adjusted angles of fire. Each gunner prepared his slow match and blew the tip into a bright orange glow, loose sparks flying off and crackling as they expired. Mustapha himself stood behind them, waited until all was ready, and then gave the order to fire. The artillerymen lowered the linstocks to the touchholes, and in a storm of sound, fire, and smoke, the first volleys slammed into the walls of Fort St. Elmo.

The effect was devastating, so powerful that even in Birgu the houses shook. The infantry huddled inside the fort, unable even to watch the enemy. Throughout the day, Turkish artillery smashed against the walls, pulverizing and knocking off chunks of stonework and beginning to fill the ditch. Of necessity, trained soldiers became journeyman masons of the crudest sort, reduced to reinforcing the walls as the ground shook and stonework crumbled, their swords and guns and all thoughts of fighting now shelved. Men such as La Cerda could only seethe at this misuse of their talents.

The Christians of St. Elmo were not, however, fighting completely alone. Valette had ordered the guns on Fort St. Angelo to fire on the Ottoman sappers and cannon, and they did so with good effect. One of these shots dislodged a stone that struck Piali Pasha’s head and knocked him senseless. He was unconscious for about an hour, prompting rumors about his death—premature, as it happened. He had, they said afterward, his turban to thank for his life. Mustapha’s reaction to this news is unrecorded.

The entire day passed in ponderous rolling thunder of cannon fire, smoke, and dust quivering in midair. The very ground trembled in response to this pummeling. Finally, night fell, the cannon ceased, and the men at St. Elmo considered the situation. It was clear to them that the fort could not hold up under this kind of abuse, and since the defenders could not even fight back, the best option, the only option, was to abandon the fort entirely, return to Fort St. Angelo, and bolster the fighting force there.

If someone was to suggest this course of action to as stern a man as Valette, best that it be a reputable commander who was not a member of the Order of St. John. The job went to Captain La Cerda.

On the night of May 24–25, La Cerda slipped into a small boat and under a moonless sky was rowed across to Fort St. Angelo. Valette was there to greet him and in a public square asked him how matters stood at St. Elmo. The grand master presumably expected a bluff-and-hearty answer to the effect that they were holding their own and eager to fight. He got the opposite. La Cerda answered that matters were exceedingly bad.

It was a straightforward, honest, and heartfelt answer, but as the chronicler put it, one that “he should have kept secret and in chambers, so as not to frighten the populace.” He was quickly hustled into the council room before he could blurt out anything more. The grand council sat in tall back benches on either side of the room, unsteady candlelight wavered over the stones and wood, and the commanders asked him to explain himself. La Cerda didn’t hesitate. Fort St. Elmo was, he said, “a sick man in need of medicine.” Its walls could not hold, and the soldiers, his soldiers, were being condemned to die without hope of fighting back. Let the place be mined and abandoned so that Turks could enter and be blown up in the process. Let the Christians rejoin their fellows at Senglea and Birgu, and let the real fight begin.

The council might not have expected good news, but this kind of talk, this early on in the campaign, was a shock, the more so given the source. La Cerda was no raw recruit who flinched at the first sound of gunfire. He was a veteran of the 1543 siege of Tlemcen, on the Barbary coast, in which battle he had been wounded in his shoulder. His actions on Malta so far had been aggressive, even rash, but undeniably brave. Given his position and experience, his word must carry some weight, both with the council and with his own men.

How did Valette react? Accounts differ. However displeased the grand master might have been, the chroniclers Balbi and Cirni record a relatively temperate response. The encyclopedic Bosio, however, writes that Valette was scathing. He thanked La Cerda for his report. Did the men in the fort truly have no confidence in their abilities? Very well, they were free to go. Valette did not wish to have anyone in whom he could have no confidence, and clearly he could have no confidence in them. He would replace the men now in the fort with better men, braver men, men headed by Valette himself.

It may have been stage anger or the real thing, but regardless, the threat had its intended effect. The council protested that as grand master he must not leave. If more soldiers were required at St. Elmo, they could be found. Valette agreed in the end and called up Lieutenant Medrano, a subordinate to Captain Miranda (who was recovering from an illness at Messina) and ordered him to take his company of two hundred men across to Fort St. Elmo. Proving that good things come to those in whom Valette did have confidence, the grand master also promoted him to captain.

Not to be outdone by the Spanish volunteers, a French knight, Captain Gaspard de La Motte, stepped forward and offered to take a number of his own men to bolster the defenders of Fort St. Elmo. Would Valette agree?

He would. Ardent men, he said, were exactly what was needed. To top off the rebuke to La Cerda and any others at Fort St. Elmo who thought the place not worth defending, Valette also offered some sixty pressed convicts (forzati) their freedom if they would agree to act as ferrymen for the soldiers.

The sky was still dark. Captain Medrano, La Motte, and two hundred fresh troops (along with the humiliated La Cerda) embarked stealthily into the small crafts and under the last sliver of the old moon crossed the waters back to the crumbling fort. Valette wrote to Don Garcia that the fort’s complement was eight hundred men, though perhaps he was exaggerating a bit when he said “all were resolved to do their duty.”

If nothing else the incident demonstrates the degree to which auxiliaries, especially the Spanish soldiers like La Cerda, considered themselves to be the equals of the Order in terms of authority. Vertot, a seventeenth-century French historian for whom Valette could do no wrong, derides the Spaniard as someone “whom fear made eloquent.” The charge is ludicrous and ignores La Cerda’s logic, which in this instance was both simple and direct. He was on Malta to kill Muslims. In St. Elmo he was not killing Muslims. Better, therefore, to abandon a slaughter pen and take the fight to the enemy elsewhere. This was perhaps an admirable view, but impractical for Valette. The grand master’s was not a split command, much less command by consensus. Dissent was already a problem in the enemy camp, and Valette would not have it in his own.

And he did not let the matter drop. He quickly informed Don Garcia, who raised the matter with the king: “Juan de la Cerda and his lieutenant . . . have shown great baseness (vildad), and attempted to persuade the Grand Master to abandon the fort and mine it, because it was no longer possible to defend the place.” Don Garcia suggested that beheading would be suitable punishment, and the king, who took a minute interest in all details of his empire, did not object: “If what you say is true, that Juan de la Cerda and his lieutenant wanted to abandon Sant Telmo, you are to give orders that they be punished according to what is just.” Philip’s letter is dated July 7—it is a little touching that the king could imagine that he was addressing a situation static enough that his advice would be meaningful. Nothing further seems to have come of the matter, and as we shall see, La Cerda’s fate would be more complex than a simple execution.

#

The fight for St. Elmo, projected to take five days, was now on day nine, with no end in sight. Worse, it turned out that Turgut agreed with Mustapha’s abandoned strategy completely, and said so: “‘Of what use is it to take Saint Elmo?’ he asked. ‘Even if you had ten Saint Elmos, until you take Malta [i.e., the rest of the island], you cannot be conquerors.’ Thus having spoken, he immediately wept.” They should, he thought, have gone for Mdina and Gozo, the easy targets, the mother to the child St. Elmo.

It was too late now, though the endorsement of Mustapha’s plan, added to the soldiers killed by Piali Pasha’s guns, cannot have helped relations between Mustapha and Piali. It was best to look forward. Having received a full rundown of how matters stood, the aging Turgut immediately went out to the end of the peninsula to see firsthand what steps had been taken and what things could be improved. Turgut’s first concern was for the safety of his troops. He noted that the southward part of Sciberras was clearly visible from the walls of Fort St. Angelo. Given the expectations of a quick victory, Mustapha had had no reason to spend too much time in masking their actions. By now, however, Christian gunners from across the water had been able to calibrate their fire on sappers and artillerists, making the Muslims’ work both difficult and short. This interference had to be stopped. Turgut ordered a makeshift screen to be erected between Fort St. Angelo and the Turkish part of Sciberras. Blind the gunners to specific targets and they would be wasting shot and powder on empty space.

The men now relatively safe, Turgut turned his attention to the fort itself. A devastating bombardment was in order, and from as many directions as possible. Turgut ordered new artillery emplacements on Tigné point, the north tip of the harbor mouth. This would allow the Turks to fire on St. Elmo from three sides and force the defenders within to spread out their repairs. He was particularly interested in neutralizing the raised cavalier whose cannons faced back on the Ottoman lines at Mount Sciberras. Finally, he considered the matter of the Christians’ nocturnal relief boats. These vessels, all but invisible under the nearly moonless sky, had until now been largely unmolested. The moon, however, was waxing, and with each passing day, the Christians lost another sliver of advantage. Turgut was determined to end the fort’s cycle of slow bleeding and regular infusions, and just finish the fort off once and for all. The guns—thirty of various caliber—were to begin firing that night.

Fort St. Elmo 1565 Part II

Fort St. Elmo after the loss of the ravelin on the left.

Aleccio, Matteo Perez d’; The Siege of Malta: Siege and Bombardment of Saint Elmo, 27 May 1565; National Maritime Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-siege-of-malta-siege-and-bombardment-of-saint-elmo-27-may-1565-172495

The chroniclers considered it something of a miracle that the fort was still standing at all. One reason for its survival was distance. Large, wall-smashing guns work best at close range, a fact the Ottomans were happy to exploit. More than that and they lost significant power. Whether from reluctance to bring out the heavy guns against this smaller target, or as Hughes suggests, because the geography prevented their pulling anything up to point-blank range, Mustapha kept his largest cannon a full 180 yards from the fort. The discharges were inevitably both dramatic and loud, but they did less damage than they might have done had the guns been closer. Large cannon, moreover, took a long time to prepare. Smaller bored pieces, if not as destructive, could at least be fired and reloaded in fairly quick order. The knight Fra Girolamo Pepe Napolitano, with little else to do, lay back and counted the shots and “calculated that a day did not pass in which six or seven hundred cannonades were not fired against it.” Anthoine de Cressy claims that on one day, no less than fourteen hundred coups de canon struck the fort, and that by the end it would endure nineteen thousand. The numbers should not be too surprising. The chief object of the cannonade was to chip away a wall faster than the defenders could repair it. Strictly speaking, proper rebuilding was impractical if not impossible. The best that could be done was to buffer the edges with earth or cotton-filled gabions, crude barrels made of rush, that would absorb the blow of the next day’s cannonballs. It was a job best done at night when the sharpshooters were sleeping. Come the morning, the artilleryman’s first order of business was to sweep this padding away as quickly as possible and get back to chipping away at the stone structure itself. In addition, and depending on available material, the defenders could build a secondary wall inside the fort that would come as a surprise to anyone rushing through the breach.

However necessary all this preliminary work might be, in the end taking the fort would depend on sheer grit. Any given breach favors the defender insofar as it concentrates the attacking force. It took outstanding bravery to rush the small opening and become an easy target for prepared men. A single cannon of scattershot would cut a wide swath through the attackers. Where a few dozen men might charge, none might survive. The Muslims made these attacks over and over, and each time to no end other than filling the ditch with their dead and dying.

It is the mark of a good leader that his men want to go out of their way to impress him. Turgut had this quality. When the Janissaries demanded that they be allowed to take the breach, the corsair forbade it, commending their zeal but noting that the opening was still too small, and that if they gathered to make a charge, they would present Christian gunners and the fast-loading arquebusiers a single, concentrated, easy-to-hit target. He wanted better odds.

Not to be deterred, a squadron of Ottoman engineers set out in the predawn hours to see if there were any new weaknesses they might exploit. One place they explored was the north-facing ravelin, the heightened defensive spur that had so concerned Don Garcia de Toledo. Under the pale light of the first-quarter moon, these men scurried down to get a closer look. The ravelin loomed in the dark ahead of them. They approached, ready for the sudden pop of gunfire that would send them back into the shadows, but they heard nothing.

The reasons for this are obscure. Some have suggested that the designated sentry had nodded off or been killed by sniper fire, or that the complement of soldiers was unexpectedly small, only forty men, none of them Knights of St. John. Whatever the case, the Janissaries soon realized that this was a target ripe for the taking and wasted no time in getting word back down the line. They consulted (or not) Mustapha for instructions and were ordered (or not) to hurry up and take advantage of this rare opportunity.

Accounts of what followed are somewhat confused. What is nearly certain is that before dawn a number of Janissaries trotted back to the ravelin, threw up scaling ladders, then flowed over the sides of the ravelin and through its embrasures (low enough that a man standing on the shoulders of another man could easily get in), and started to butcher the Italian and Spanish soldiers inside. The luckier defenders awoke in the early half-light of dawn only to see their commanding officer lying dead and an ever-increasing number of highly agressive, brightly gowned, scimitar-wielding Janissaries looming above them. In a panic they scrambled up, abandoned their arms, and ran back onto the causeway toward the fort. Fortunately, the ravelin’s defenders were backed up by fifty men under the command of a Neapolitan knight Francesco di Guevara. Guevara’s men were stationed in a trench that blocked the passage between the ravelin and cavalier; and now alerted by the shrill cries of the Janissaries and the shouting of their comrades, they climbed over their barricade down the causeway toward the plank bridge (wood, easy to destroy in an emergency) to take up the fight. Arquebusiers fired on the Ottoman ranks, helping to slow the sudden incursion until more help could arrive.

Which it did in short order—the knight Vercoiran, along with his brother Colonel Mas, Captain Medrano, and the Spanish knight and bailo of Negroponte Juan d’Eguaras came out of the fort, across the drawbridge that spanned the ditch, and on through the causeway with the aim of repelling the Turks from the ravelin.

Despite their best efforts, it was too late to repel the Turks; word of the impromptu battle had quickly flowed back to the Ottoman camp, and fresh waves of exultant soldiers had rushed to join their comrades. As Guevara and his men hacked away on the narrow confines of the causeway and the wooden plank bridge that connected it to the ravelin, more and more Ottomans had been climbing into the ravelin itself. Soon an excess of Muslim troops was spilling over into the ditch, bringing their force up to the face of the ramparts themselves. Curione, writing in 1565, mentions ladders too short to top the ramparts, but even with that disappointment, the taking of the ditch, even at the cost of five hundred men, was worth it. Because of the fort’s wide angle and the lack of embrasures or crenellations, it was impossible for the Christians to cover all approaches in the ditch except from the tower, and even that had dead zones where the Ottomans could crouch next to the fort’s wall in near total safety. From here, they could both fire on the causeway and work on destroying the foundations of the fort itself. Along the causeway, the battle grew and the sun came up to illuminate the brawl, and for five hours men fought hand-to-hand, chiefly with blades.

The Christians had one advantage in the person of Fra Francesco Lanfreducci, who commanded two artillery pieces on the heights of the cavalier. By repeatedly sending scattershot into the mass of Ottoman troops, he was able to clear Ottoman soldiers from the traverse and even, temporarily at least, within the ravelin itself. A great multitude of flags had marked the Ottoman’s taking of the ravelin, but all were blown away in an instant by Lanfreducci’s guns. The attackers, however, were not to be deterred, and Lanfreducci could fire his guns only so often before they overheated to the point where they might themselves explode. Moreover, where the fighting was hand to hand, any shot the gunners let loose risked killing as many Christians as Muslims. As a final problem, early on Lanfreducci was short one of his key cannoneers, lost to a well-aimed arquebus shot.

The battle lines wavered over the morning hours, and from time to time, there was some hope that the ravelin itself might be recovered. The Ottomans, however, were already putting their own defense works—wooden fasces, earth-filled gabions, bales of wool—in place against any such attempt. Force of numbers eventually told, and the mass of Ottomans was able to push the defenders across the traverse and back toward the drawbridge that gave access to the fort itself. Guevara, wounded in his arm, and Louis Vercoirin, the brother of Colonel Mas, commanded the retreat, which was so closely engaged that the defenders were unable to raise the bridge. The Turks were on the verge of breaking through, those in front being pushed forward by the men in back, when the defenders on the parapets began to bombard them with a storm of rocks and burning pitch. The defenders also likely used trumps.

Trumps were an unpleasant weapon consisting of a metal tube strapped onto long wooden poles. The tubes were filled with a mixture of bitumen, tar, sulfur, and other incendiary material, the stuff the ancients called Greek fire, and all too similar to modern-day napalm. Once the material was ignited, the tubes became flamethrowers, particularly useful for defending narrow spaces, such as the entrance to Fort St. Elmo. Defenders would wave these against the men pressing the entrance. The weapons, once given a chance to warm up, spat out sticky gobs of burning naphtha, which clung to everything it touched. From the changed quality of the screaming, it took only a short time before the men at the back realized what was happening and fled backward, allowing their less fortunate comrades to run from the bridge and throw themselves into the dust or farther off into the water. Dust might have extinguished the matter, but water would not—according to contemporary sources, only vinegar or urine was proof against the stuff.

The attacks stopped entirely at about half past noon. The ravelin was now firmly in Ottoman hands, as was the greater part of the ditch. The cost to the Ottomans had been high—five hundred men killed on this day, and as many as two thousand killed since the assaults on St. Elmo had begun (a figure received from runaways). The defenders had lost about twenty knights, and sixty soldiers were killed and many more wounded.

Valette ordered boats to bring the dead and wounded back to Fort St. Angelo, and it is a testimony to Turgut’s effectiveness that not one of these vessels escaped unhit. Valette sent Coppier over to determine if the ravelin could be retaken. The answer was immediate and negative. Worse, Coppier had to inform Valette that the Turks were already hoisting goatskin sandbags onto the ravelin in order to raise its heights above the walls of St. Elmo. Balbi, in describing the action, laments the failure of Fort St. Elmo’s design, even going so far as to defend La Cerda’s objections.

Mustapha was happy to report this success back to Constantinople and put it down as a matter of careful preparation rather than luck. For Valette, the day’s failure had to be particularly bad news, and not something he would wish to report to Don Garcia, the ravelin’s chief proponent. The situation was all the more galling since the ravelin’s commander was a corporal in La Cerda’s company—the same La Cerda who had suggested the entire structure be mined, handed over to the Ottomans, and then detonated. Cirni suggests that his men, “having lost heart,” simply and dishonorably (vilmente) abandoned the ravelin as more trouble than it was worth—in effect, a strategic retreat decided on the ground without waiting for possibly inconvenient orders from on high.

If so, they paid a high price. Among the day’s wounded was a lieutenant (alferez) to La Cerda. Valette, conscientious about greeting all casualties from the fort, saw this man with the others, judged his wound insufficiently grave, and ordered him thrown into prison. The offence cannot have been too egregious, and the man’s presence must have been too valuable for him to stay in jail for long—he was released within days. But Valette had made his point about who was in charge on Malta. (Curiously, La Cerda’s own whereabouts at this time are not recorded.)

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The end was coming, but there remained the question of how it would play out. The ravelin continued to rise as the Ottoman workmen topped it with sandbags made of goatskin, and it would in due course command the parade ground. Meanwhile, Ottoman engineers were at work on a bridge to span the ditch between themselves and Fort St. Elmo. Excess galleys, superfluous as the invasion force died off, were being dismantled and reconfigured to this end. Spars were planted in the ground, supports tied in crisscross patterns to give them stability, flat planks laid horizontally on top, and dirt thrown on the whole to prevent the Christians from tossing incendiary grenades and setting the structure on fire. The passage was wide enough for eight men to advance abreast, and it looked as if it would be ready by June 5.

The night before, however, a squad of Christians stole out of the fort with buckets of pitch and began to paint the bridge’s supports. Noise, or the perhaps the smell, alerted the Ottomans still awake, and although the defenders were able to torch three of the five supports, they left the job half finished. Discovered in their task, the Christians scuttled back to the safety of the fort while Mustapha’s men did their best to put out the blaze. By daylight, the fire was out and the bridge was still standing, but sufficiently weakened so that the Ottomans did not wish to risk using it in a general assault. If the Christians had not stopped the Ottomans cold, they had at least bought themselves some more time.

By now, Broglio had lost confidence in his ability to command. Seventy years old and fat, he did not carry his age as lightly as Turgut, or Valette, or Mustapha. During his tenure at Fort St. Elmo, according to Curione, he had repeatedly told Valette that the fort was in fine shape, its men superhuman in their energy and faith. His own, however, had fallen short. He offered his resignation to the grand master, which was accepted. D’Eguaras was also in bad shape, suffering from an arrow wound to his hand. His request was to remain with his men, even if that required his taking a lesser role. Overall command of Fort St. Elmo, something of a hot potato, was ceded to Colonel Mas.

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The guns kept chipping away at the fort, the defenders kept patching it, the tally of dead and wounded on both sides increased, and the bridge lately damaged was soon almost whole again. A renegade managed to cross the lines and bring Valette welcome news from the Ottoman camp. Turgut had been ill and confined to bed for a few days. The seventy to eighty galleys that patrolled the approaches to the island were beginning to put a strain on manpower.6 Valette countered by redeploying Giovanni Vagnone and a hundred of his men from Mdina to St. Elmo, proof of his determination to hold onto the fort and keep faith with the men inside it.

By contrast, the men inside the fort were losing confidence. The dead and, worse, the scattered parts of the dead—the arms, legs, and shredded viscera—lay stinking in the hot sun, blackened and fly-covered for lack of opportunity to retrieve and bury them. Detritus from the smashed walls flowed into the ditch, lessening its usefulness as a defensive structure and setting up a pathway for the inevitable assaults. And the guns kept firing.

Miranda, Broglio, and d’Eguaras all now agreed that remaining on the peninsula was a pointless gesture, even a strategic error, a poor trade-off of brave men for an inevitable defeat. The case for holding on might have made sense earlier, but no longer. One more time Medrano crossed the night water, past gunfire that was now taking a considerable toll on Christian boats, and one more time clattered through the narrow streets to the council chambers at Fort St. Angelo. He found Valette alert—the grand master didn’t sleep a lot these days—and ready to discuss the situation. The two spoke together first in private, and Medrano was persuasive enough to get a hearing with the entire council. He gave an affecting account of the men’s gallantry and endurance.

The spirit was willing, but facts were facts. Medrano reported on the quick work of the Turkish sappers, of the ditches they were filling in, the bridge they had constructed. He described walls scarcely worthy of the name, crumbling faster than could be repaired, the heavy casualties among those making the repairs. He spoke of the wounded and exhausted men, of the frightening accuracy of the Janissary sharpshooters, of the ravelin now mounted by two cannon capable of firing into the fort, of the sudden necessity of digging trenches within the fort because there was no other place of safety. He told of the cavalier that swayed under the constant force of cannon fire, of the two remaining guns on the eastern spur (they would be knocked out and their crews killed the next day). The fort, he said, was doomed, and the men with it unless the council permitted them to return to Fort St. Angelo.

The report was all very compelling, but except in the details, it was not news; and ultimately, it was not as compelling as Valette’s need for more time. Malta was the last bastion before Sicily, the last outpost of the Order, which in his own lifetime had lost both Rhodes and Tripoli. Malta was the last chance for an international force of Christian men to show that they could come together against the expansive embrace of Islam. Just as Malta was the shield for all Europe and as such for all Christendom, Fort St. Elmo was the shield of Malta. The longer Valette could tie the Ottoman forces down on this small piece of real estate, the longer he would be able to bolster Senglea and Birgu, the longer Mdina might survive as the main supply route for information and reinforcements, and the longer Don Garcia would have to gather and launch a relief force. Valette believed that he had no choice. The job of the men at St. Elmo was to make the taking of it long, expensive, and painful to the Ottomans. He urged Medrano to go back and convince his colleagues to hold on just a little bit longer, with the cold promise that Don Garcia had promised relief soon—as indeed he had.

Valette understood what the wretches on St. Elmo were going through. As a veteran of Rhodes, who better? But however much he sympathized, he wanted these men to realize that they, and everyone else under his command, were dedicated to Malta’s preservation. The soldiers at St. Elmo might die in its blasted ruins—and in fact probably would die there. But all men must die, and few are given the chance to do so for the sake of such a greater good. Valette was firm. Fort St. Elmo must be defended to the last man.

Medrano left Fort St. Angelo in the predawn half-light and made the trip back across the bay. As he appeared on the parade ground of Fort St. Elmo, all those who could get away from their posts gathered around him, eager to hear what the council had decided. The message did not go down well. While the older officers and men accepted obedience and blood, the younger saw nothing but pigheadedness in Valette’s decision. The latter argued that the grand master was not here on the ground, facing incessant cannon fire and arquebus bullets, he had not grappled hand to hand with Janissaries and corsairs, only barely keeping the fort under a Christian flag—how could the grand master possibly appreciate what they were going through?

What they were going through was about to get a good deal worse. At daybreak, the Muslim cannons started up their usual gunpowder symphony, slowly chipping away at the walls and almost incidentally taking Christian lives. This was routine. What was not routine was the sudden crescendo of both artillery and small arms fire just as the sun hit midday, followed by the shrill ululating voices of a thousand Muslim soldiers preparing to overrun the fort en masse. The defenders could not risk a glance over the wall to see what was coming, but they could hear the enemy approach. A wave of intense loose-robed men passed over the bridge and scrambled up the unsteady slope of collapsed masonry, shouting at and cursing the men of St. Elmo; Christian arquebusiers rose just enough to lay down a heavy cross fire into the enemy’s flanks, killing those at the van and leaving a low wall of dead and dying soldiers to slow those coming behind. Christian arquebusiers worked in teams, one man at the ridge firing, a second reloading and passing up fresh guns, and so increased the rate of fire. Those Muslims who managed to stumble over their fallen comrades and loose rubble, who dodged bullets and ignored the minor scrapes or punctures, and who got to the breaches were met with a sharp, agitated hedge of steel pikes and battle-axes. One after another the Ottomans saw the expert, almost balletic, moves of grim Spanish professionals, the swift flick and twist that propelled the razor-sharp edges and hooks of those elegant weapons. An unfortunate Muslim soldier, dressed for mobility and heat rather than for personal safety, might find a hand or a foot sliced off, his face or torso flensed, maimed for life rather than launched to paradise.

And yet they pressed on. Charge followed upon charge; no Iayalar or Janissary was willing to admit defeat against such a weak defense. Each assault failed in its turn, and the slopes that led down to the ditch were painted in blood and littered with scores of dead Muslims, and a lesser number of dead Christians. Those still alive breathed in a rank mixture of burnt sulfur, sweat, blood, viscera, and human waste. The ebb and flow of repeated assaults went on for a full seven hours, a showcase of unspeakable cruelty and astonishing bravery. Balbi praises the supreme valor of the defenders, and then adds that it was equaled by that of the enemy. He singles out Juan de La Cerda, noting that the Spanish captain had received a gunshot wound, attended to it once the enemy had fallen back, and then “with great courage removed his bandage and returned to his post as soon as the alarm was sounded again.”

By the end of the day, the defenders had lost forty men; the Ottomans, five hundred.8 As exhausted soldiers on both sides prepared to settle in for the night, a Spanish renegade called out from the Turkish lines: “You have done well today, knights. But tomorrow you will have the general assault you’ve been yearning for.”

Fort St. Elmo 1565 Part III

The threat of a general assault, following on the heels of the day’s fighting and the hard line taken by Valette, proved too much for the defenders. Despite the greater number of Muslim casualties, the exhausted Christians doubted they could take another fight like today’s and saw little point in trying. Not that they feared dying; or at least, so they said. Among those who most wanted to abandon the fort was the “recently accused (poco tacciato) . . . Captain Juan de la Cerda: who nevertheless resolved to die valorously and honorably while fighting for Birgu.” The Spanish soldiers already had petitioned to abandon the place. Now for the first time, they were openly joined by fifty-three of the Knights of St. John. The members of the Order came together in the fort’s small chapel and by candlelight drafted a letter for the grand master and the council:

Most Illustrious and Very Reverend Monseigneur:

When the Turks first landed on Malta, Your Highness ordered the present knights to repair to this fortress and defend it. We have done this with fullness of spirit and to the best of our abilities and with some good outcome, as we believe Your Highness is aware. In the doing we have shirked neither fatigue nor danger. Now, however, the enemy has brought us down to such a state that we can neither injure them nor defend ourselves. They now hold the counterscarp and the ditch. They have carved steps into the very ramparts. They have built a bridge by which they can come and go at will. They have tunneled beneath the walls, leaving us to expect an explosion at any moment. They have raised the ravelin so high that it overlooks the entire fort. In consequence, our sentries are killed as quickly as they take up their positions. We are reduced to such an extent that we are no longer able to use the piazza at the center of the fort. We have lost several men there, and only the chapel provides any measure of safety at all. The soldiers are dispirited, and their officer can no longer get them to man the walls. Perfectly aware that the fort is doomed, they prepare themselves to swim for safety. We likewise see ourselves as at the end of our rope, and because we can no longer execute the obligations of the Order, we are determined, absent Your Highness’s sending us boats tonight in which we can withdraw, to rush out and die like proper knights.

Do not send further reinforcements, as they must surely die as well. This is the determined resolution of us the undersigned. We also point out to Your Highness that [Turkish] galleots have been cruising past the end of the point. Accordingly, thus resolved, we kiss your hand and keep a copy of this letter.

—Dated from St. Elmo, June 8, 1565

Fra Vitellino Vitelleschi of Corneto (modern-day Tarquinia) had the thankless task of crossing to Fort St. Angelo and delivering the letter. Balbi, ever tactful, says only that Valette was “deeply troubled” by the letter, largely because of the number of knights who signed it. Well he might have been. These were not outsiders, but brothers in faith, men sworn to obedience, and their letter was tantamount to insubordination bordering on mutiny. The threat of a quick suicidal attack might have been bluff, or might not. The signatories had no leverage (other than surrender) but the threat to cut the siege of St. Elmo short, which to Valette was unthinkable. If it was true that the Spanish soldiers were no longer willing to stand their ground, then St. Elmo might well be a lost cause.

How to respond?

The grand master had Vitalleschi wait as he wrote out his answer. First he chastised the petitioners for questioning his lawful orders and declared dishonorable the very thought of an unauthorized suicide attack on the enemy. The knights, he reminded them, were bound by vows of obedience, and he, as their superior, had determined that they would best serve the Order and their God on Fort St. Elmo.

He then softened, if only a little. Proud men, after all, can be pushed only so far, and if even his own knights had reached this extreme, how much worse must it be for the others? Valette was willing to demonstrate good faith and hoped that it would buy him at least a little more time. He determined to send over three senior knights—from Spain, Don Francisco Ruys de Medina; from France, Antoine de la Roche; and from Italy, Costantino Castriota—and have them make a full and impartial evaluation of the situation. Any further decisions, whether to remain or to retreat, would follow from their reports, which he expected before sunrise. It was one more delay, which is the least Valette wanted, and by calling their judgment into question, he might cause the knights to reconsider whether things were quite as bad as they thought.

At three that morning, the boat carrying the trio of knights bumped up against the rocks below St. Elmo, and Vitalleschi led the way up the steps to the fort. What they found was a low-rimmed crater filled with a confusion of unexpected activity. The signatories had been so confident of their case that they were already shutting down their operation. Despite the disapproval of Colonel Mas (whose alleged feelings did not seem to translate into any effective action), the defenders of St. Elmo were breaking swords and arquebuses, and tipping cannon shot into the sea. All leftover gunpowder they planned on using, as La Cerda had long ago suggested, to blow up what remained of the fort, preferably while a large number of Turks were inside it.

The soldiers stopped long enough to hear Valette’s short message. They were not pleased. Filthy, tired, wounded, insulted, and clearly sensing prevarication, they said no, there was nothing to discuss. Repeated requests, from the most blunt to the most reserved, had failed to move Valette and his council, yet a blind man could see that the fort was beyond hope. Let the envoys discover what the defenders of Fort St. Elmo had endured these past weeks and see for themselves if the demands were reasonable.

The three knights were then led past the dust-covered, truculent men who defended scarcely maintainable posts. By starlight, these envoys saw the broken walls, the shattered cavalier, and peered at the lost ravelin; from over the wall they heard the sounds of Ottoman spades thudding into the hard ground, pushing the enemy ominously closer. The three knights quickly came to their conclusions. The Spaniard agreed that there was no hope and that immediate withdrawal was the best course. The Provençal gave it a few more days, but in essence agreed.

Castriota, the Italian who on an earlier trip to St. Elmo had declared the ravelin hopelessly lost, was made of sterner stuff. A middle-aged, collateral descendent of the Albanian hero Skanderbeg, he had probably seen more action than any other man present, serving and suffering wounds in the Italian wars of Charles V (Capodorso, Turin, and Naples). He had come late to the Order (1561), “hounded by the court, a stranger to my family, abandoned by my friends,” after a multifaceted career as a soldier, diplomat, and perhaps a spy. Under the pen name of Filonico Alicarnasseo, he had also made a name for himself as a noted literary scholar (his treatise De Cavaglieria, coincidentally was dedicated to Don Pedro de Toledo, father of Don Garcia de Toledo). Given his background and his possession of a “robust and ferocious mind,” it was logical that he should have been chosen as one of this small party. He was the last to speak, and it would have been better if he had kept silent.

Things were not, he said, nearly so bad as some had claimed. True, the outer defense works were lost and the main walls were in terrible shape, and the men were tired and clearly strained. But there was all around them an abundance of stone and masonry. The soldiers might build a secondary wall behind the breaches, a curtain from which they could continue the fight for a good while longer. Abandoning the fort just now would be unnecessary, even foolish, and he could not in good conscience advise the council otherwise. He went further. He said that, should Valette put him in charge, he would be able to hold out at the very least until Don Garcia himself arrived.

It took a brave or foolish man to say such things in such circumstances, and if Castriota’s summing up was an insult to the foot soldiers, it was a slap at the commanders as well. The mood turned ugly, and the men began to shout. Had this interloper not seen how small the fort actually was, how useless the materials he expected them to use? Had he experienced the terror of Ottoman guns, of Janissary arquebusiers, of a wild-eyed Iayalar assault? The more hard-hearted, or just sarcastic, suggested that Castriota should spend a full day there to get a true sense of just how things stood. “Since you claim it possible, you can stay and show us the means and together we can defend [the fort] to the death.”

Castriota claimed obedience to his warrant and said that Valette had ordered him back that same night. In response, an angry Colonel Mas ordered the gate that led to the water’s edge be closed. Ruys de Medina and Antoine de la Roche, the two dissenting knights, pointed out that it was only Castriota who proposed holding on, and the Council must surely favor the opinions of two men against the one.

The impasse was suddenly broken when the chapel bells began to ring, the signal for all men to report to their stations. Remarkably, like trained border collies, they all did so. Soldiers ran into the far dark corners of the outer walls, alert to whatever might be coming, and in an instant the parade ground was entirely cleared.

It was d’Eguaras who had sounded the alarm, not because there was an actual attack, but because he saw the distraction as the only way to break the standoff. The last thing he wanted was a knock-down, drag-out fight between his men and a trio of de facto diplomats. Having scattered the mob, he came from the chapel and urged the envoys to go down the steps to their long boat immediately and return to Valette to describe all they had seen.

One more time, the council met to hear testimony and debate the destiny of Fort St. Elmo. Valette was unmoving. The fort would be defended. He would use shame, anger, guile, ridicule, and whatever else he could to keep men there and fighting. In this instance, he was backed up by Castriota, who took the occasion to do a little grandstanding. The Italian repeated his belief that the fort could be maintained, and further requested that he and his company be allowed to return to the peninsula to fight, even if others would not.

Dawn brought new surprises. A swimmer arrived from Fort St. Elmo, carrying a cow horn sealed with wax, inside which was mail. The letter was from the rebellious knights, their demands for pulling out now replaced by demands for more men and more equipment.

The explanation for this turnabout was simple. On hearing about the knights’ petition the night before, senior members of the various langues had dispatched letters of their own to their countrymen at Fort St. Elmo, chastising the rebels for the shame they brought to the individual langue and to their fellow knights. If knights of the Order of St. John could not be counted on for obedience and bravery up to death if required, what could be expected of other men? What did this kind of disobedience say to the outsiders, the Spanish and Italian soldiers who had volunteered to join them in defense of an island and an Order not their own?

If the point needed to be underscored, the senior men also had informed the defenders of St. Elmo of Castriota’s offer to return to St. Elmo with five hundred men. They added that his was not simply an offer to fight to the end, but to do so as the overall commander of all forces within the fort, an offer that the grand master could all too easily be expected to accept. For the knights, the dishonor was too great. They would as soon stay alone and die as the brave men that they were.

But Valette, having regained the upper hand over the men on St. Elmo, was not going to let go easily. In a communiqué laced with regret, he informed the knights still at St. Elmo that he was relieving them of their post. That such once-brave men should have lost heart was unfortunate, the more so as this was in violation of their vows. If, however, any knight on St. Elmo wished to leave, Valette would not stand in his way. Indeed, he would prefer not to have anyone there on whom he could not rely, and as there were four or more eager volunteers for every soldier currently at the besieged fort, it would be no great hardship to fill the gaps. He announced that he was granting Castriota his request, and that the gentleman had already raised his banner, sounded his drum, and inducted volunteers. The bishop of Malta had promised another two thousand ducats to encourage new recruits. It seemed that Castriota’s common soldiers would do for money, the bishop’s money, what certain knights of St. John would not do for honor.

The letter was delivered by Don Melchior de Monserrat, who had been making trips back and forth between the forts for some time now, and who had some credibility with these men that Castriota did not. He and Miranda—who had received a separate letter from Valette reminding him of the confidence the grand master had in him—both exhorted the defenders to remain, and the spoken and written words, combined, had their intended effect. Word of their capitulation spread throughout Fort St. Angelo and Birgu. The men had come back into line, discipline and determination had been restored. Valette had won. More supplies and a hundred more soldiers were now readied and could come across; Castriota, clearly unwelcome at Fort St. Elmo, was reassigned, no longer expected to defend St. Elmo. The wounded Broglio needed replacing, however, and Valette asked Monserrat to take command of the fort, to which Monserrat, who had repeatedly said that the fort should not be abandoned, agreed.

To help consolidate the soldiers’ new determination to stay and fight, Monserrat took along the Capuchin monk Friar Robert of Eboli, a man with a talent for fire-breathing rhetoric. This peculiar cleric, for nearly ten years a slave in Tripoli after being kidnapped by a nephew of Turgut, had been living in Malta only a year, but seems to have become an institution. On the second day of the siege, he had taken it upon himself to embark on a forty-hours’ adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, a first on Malta, and greatly comforting to the island’s inhabitants.

He now stood before the half-dead men in the dust of the ruins and, with the power of the truly inspired, made his sermon “uplift, confirm, and renew the spirits of the said knights with spiritual consolation.” His rhetoric had moved two newly converted Jews (Valette had recently allowed Jews back on the island) to come “to die in the faith of Christ.” For his work during the siege, his presence was considered as providential. He stayed on at St. Elmo, going from man to man at each station, crucifix in hand, encouraging, comforting, as needed until the night of June 13, at which time the friar accompanied the exhausted Broglio back to Birgu. Fort St. Elmo would endure for a little while longer.

At least one modern scholar suggests that there is an element of wishful thinking in this story. He notes that the men on St. Elmo were in no position to get back to Birgu without Valette’s cooperation, and that the grand master’s dispatching fresh volunteers was simply a means of defusing the situation. Men will, of course, volunteer to join their comrades in hopeless causes if the emotional draw is sufficient.

On June 10, the sixteenth day of the siege, Mustapha had scheduled a night assault on St. Elmo. Surprise was not part of the plan—rather, he intended to stretch the enemy both physically and emotionally before the men attacked. Bombardments lasted into the third night watch, at which point Mustapha judged the Christians sufficiently exhausted. He halted the cannon and sent his men forward into the darkness with scaling ladders.

The downside of his plan was that the defenders were all wide awake and clearly prepared for the attack. Here Balbi mentions fire hoops for the first time. These were wooden rings curved to a diameter large enough to encircle three men. A length of cloth infused with pitch and other accelerants was wrapped around the wood. More cotton, more pitch, and so on until the item was about as thick as a man’s leg. When a heavy press of soldiers appeared on the far side of the wall, the hoops were set alight and tossed horizontally in a murderous game of ring toss. The Turks and their allies were in the habit of wearing loose cotton, which, in the torrid heat of a Maltese summer, was far more comfortable than the leather jerkins and steel plate armor that the Christians wore, but which burned readily. Balbi attributes the greatest number of Muslim casualties to this device.

Whatever advantage Mustapha might have had by timing his assault at night was obviated by the extensive use of fire on both sides. Indeed, the gunners in St. Angelo and the other positions were able to lay their guns by the light of the enemy’s fires. It was not just the hoops that turned night into day. The defenders lit torches, while the Janissaries hurled sachetti, friable clay pots filled with Greek fire that were intended to break on Christian armor and roast the enemy alive. In preparation for these, the defenders had filled a number of deep tubs with water.

By dawn the fight was over. More than fifteen hundred Ottomans were dead, and only sixty Christians. The only activity that morning was a massive cannonade that lasted from dawn till noon.

Turgut had been kept busy as well. Some time earlier, cavalry under Coppier had managed to disrupt his gun battery at Point Tigné. Within a day, he replaced four heavy guns on that point and manned them with enough soldiers to ward off any further attack. Valette countered with new gun emplacements at Fort St. Angelo, and he was able to take out a number of enemy batteries on Mt. Sciberras before they were removed to less vulnerable positions. He also sent over another one hundred and fifty soldiers to St. Elmo, and more ammunition, baskets, mattresses, and rope.

The situation inside the Turkish camps was becoming grim. A Janissary was captured outside the capital city. The man reported that casualties were unexpectedly high and had included Curtogli, aga of the Janissaries, killed by cannon fire while observing St. Elmo from the forward trenches. Six vessels carried Ottoman casualties to Tripoli, and it was common knowledge that the wounded were not recovering as they should. Illness, most likely dysentery, was rampant, and biscuit rations for the laborers were now down to ten ounces a day. There was more talk of friction between the pashas and the Janissaries, a notably independent sort, who could not have been pleased with the loss of their commander. For their part, the pashas could only note that in over two weeks these elite troops had failed to take a fort in a siege that was supposed to have required no more than five days.

Fort St. Elmo 1565 Part IV

On June 12, Ottoman soldiers managed to grab a prisoner, who gave them the encouraging news that a cannonball had destroyed the bakers’ oven inside Fort St. Elmo, forcing the defenders to rely on Fort St. Angelo for bread. This intelligence was improved upon by a Spanish deserter, a piper, who informed Mustapha that, given the fort’s architecture, they needed to raise the ravelin just a little bit more to have total command of its interior piazza. Mustapha thanked the piper but, having been deceived before, assured him that if his report proved untrue, the man could expect the same bastinado treatment that had been meted out to La Rivière. While sappers redoubled their efforts on the ravelin, the piper had time to consider the various fates that threatened him. Should Mustapha be dissatisfied with the ravelin, the Ottoman camp might not be the best place for him; returning to St. Elmo, however, was out of the question. He slipped off again, this time to Mdina, where he presented himself as an escaped slave. Alas for him, he was recognized, and so, after some time on the rack, was the lie. Governor Mesquita turned him over to the citizens, who tied him to a horse’s tail and then stoned him to death.

Perhaps the sudden disappearance of the piper caused Mustapha to try to reason with his enemy. On June 14, a trumpet sounded, a white flag went up, and a herald trotted over from the Ottoman lines and offered parley, an offer the defenders refused. The herald withdrew. A little later, the defenders heard an Italian voice call out from the trenches, informing them that Mustapha would graciously allow the Christians to sleep that night and that anyone inside the fort was free to leave in peace. If they continued to resist, however, the Ottoman soldiers would cut them to pieces. In response, the Christians let loose a volley in the Italian’s general direction, which ended any further talk of surrender.

There followed a day and a night of sporadic raids, cannon volleys, the sound of shouts and music that sometimes preceded attacks, but often did not. Mustapha’s technique was that of a picador at a bullfight: the administration of modest irritants to keep the defenders off balance, sleep deprived, and confused. There was little the commanders at St. Elmo could do other than petition Valette for more men, more ammunition, and more supplies. He complied and loaded the night boats with the fire hoops and powder and biscuits and ammunition needed to defend the fort. That these small convoys were able to make their nightly runs was a significant failure on the part of the Ottomans, and lack of moonlight notwithstanding, we can only conjecture why they were allowed to proceed. Once arrived, these goods were shifted to points where the fighting, once it came, would be fiercest.

The real attack came on June 16. Two hours before sunrise, the defenders of St. Elmo could hear the Ottoman mullahs addressing the gathered Muslim force and the full chorus of the soldiers’ response. The pattern of call and response, measured by the slowly rising light to the east, seemed interminable, but the meaning was clear—the soldiers were cleansing themselves of sin and preparing themselves for death. Then silence, as the four thousand men carrying arquebuses padded to their stations. Having called up the dawn, the Ottomans ringed the fort at the counterscarp, west, southwest, and south, facing into the rising sun that at dawn would silhouette anyone who looked over the walls. They were also girding themselves mentally for the fight. They knew how tough the Christians were.

Defenders lined the cracked rim of the fort in a regular pattern—three soldiers, then a knight, three more soldiers, another knight, and so forth. Monserrat, Miranda, and d’Eguaras commanded three bodies of reserves, stationed in the piazza and ready for deployment wherever the enemy threat proved greatest. Support staff prepared wine-soaked bread to refresh the hungry and thirsty—and to comfort the wounded and dying. Guns, pikes, swords, grenades, and stones all lay within easy reach of the men on the front. Fra Roberto da Eboli had returned to the fort and was in his element: “If God is with us, who will be against us? . . . recall the ancient kings of Israel, Joshua, Gideon, Samson, Jefte, Delbora, Jehosaphat, Ezekiel, the brothers Maccabee whose zeal and valor you, sacred knights, must now emulate. . . . In this most sacred sign of the cross we shall prevail.” Not far away, Mustapha reminded his own men that Muslim prisoners inside the dungeons of Fort St. Angelo were counting on them: “Perhaps you have not heard the cries and entreaties of captives from that fortress, people joined to you by blood and bound by hardest chains, enduring a life sadder than death itself, immersed as they are in squalor and sorrow?”

Then the artillery barrage began. This time Piali Pasha had brought gun-mounted galleys to fire in concert with the land batteries. Cannon fired from the ravelin, from all platforms, and from ships offshore, throwing “around a thousand shots with such force that not only the Maltese, but also the neighboring Sicilians were dumbstruck with horror.” The bombardment stopped an hour later, as suddenly as it had begun, leaving the men’s ears ringing. A few of the defenders snatched glances over the rubble to see what was coming next. The farsighted could make out Mustapha, upright, determined, the green standard fringed with horse tails significant of the rank given to him by Suleiman himself. He stepped forward the better to be seen and drew his scimitar from its scabbard. The roar of eight thousand Muslims filled the air. The assault was on.

The Iayalars, religious fanatics, came first, “dressed in the skins of wild animals and the feathers of birds of prey” and with “blue tattoos of various characters on their faces.” A good number of these alarming men managed to cross the ditch and scrabble up the loose rubble toward the breach, where they were stymied by an “infinity of caltrops,” sharp spikes welded in such a fashion that one point will always face upward and impale the foot of anyone unlucky enough to walk on it. While the Iayalars contended with this new hazard, Christian arquebusiers rose up and fired into their ranks, killing many outright, wounding others, but failing to turn the tide.

Soon enough the fighting drew closer, as guns gave way to pikes and halberds, then swords, stones, and finally knives, poniards, and fists. Fortune seemed to favor the Muslims; a westerly breeze drove smoke from incendiaries into the defenders’ eyes, and more fortunate still, as the Iayalars had filled the breach, the entire store of the Christians’ firepots somehow ignited, exploded, and covered those nearby in flaming pitch. Christians and Muslims alike screamed, ran, rolled on the ground, and threw themselves into the water barrels or the sea.

Their bravery notwithstanding, the Iayalars, exhausted, withdrew soon after this incident. Mustapha now sent in his dervishes. This new strain of religious fanatic made their way over the dead and dying bodies of their coreligionists and took up the fight in a dry fog of powder smoke and the increasingly scorching heat of Malta’s July sun. The Christians managed to push the enemy back down to the counterscarp and would have pushed farther if Monserrat had not ordered them to remain in the relative safety of the fort. Zeal was all well and good, but the numbers were against them, and Monserrat wanted his men to prepare for the third wave of attackers. It was the turn of the spahis. Another charge at the breach, another failure to take it. Mustapha now turned to the warhorses of his army, the Janissaries.

The Janissaries targeted the post of Colonel Mas. Valette, watching from Fort St. Angelo, saw the attackers bringing scaling ladders to the wall, and ordered his gunners to shoot them down. Precision was wanting. Their first volley landed too far to the right and killed a mixture of the enemy and eight Christians, “putting with this misstep the fort in greatest danger of being lost.” Frantic signaling had the artillerists correct the error. Their next shot was better. Twenty Turks died, but no Christians. The remaining Muslims were few enough for the men at St. Elmo to push back successfully with pikes and trumps.

The next wave included a crew heading specifically for the cavalier. Burning hoops repelled some, and a good number were seen rushing down to the water to extinguish the burning gelatin that clung to their flesh. For seven hours “spears, torches and stones flew from all sides,” until Mustapha and Turgut finally called it quits. The defenders, once they realized they had bought another day, jeered at the retreating Muslims and heard the cries taken up by their comrades across the water in Fort St. Angelo. Mustapha’s report to Suleiman was philosophical. He wrote that he had suspended operations “because all things are tied to their destiny and marks of victory are unavoidable.”

Regrettably for him, destiny in this case had decreed a thousand Turks and only a hundred and fifty Christians should lie dead on the edge of the fort. Two Muslim standards, one belonging to Turgut, the other to Mustapha Pasha, were now in Christian hands. The battle had exhausted both sides, and veterans of the fight believed that the Turks would have been able to take the fort if they had made just one more assault. Balbi writes, in a left-handed compliment, that convicts, oarsmen, and even the Maltese fought “as if [they] were [men] of superior reputation,” persona de mayor estima.

Among the dead was Medrano, having received a bullet through the head as he seized one of the Muslim standards. Miranda had led the final counterattack and was wounded (broken leg) but not, according to him at least, incapacitated; he ordered that a chair be brought up and positioned near the big guns. Let the enemy come again—the Spaniard would stay with his men. He could, he noted, fire an arquebus from a sitting position and even kill with a sword if his enemy had the nerve to approach. Other defenders, burned, cut, maimed, of lesser birth and therefore of whom less was expected, did not stay. These, along with Medrano’s body, were ferried back to Birgu; senior among them was the badly wounded Juan de La Cerda. The force was down to some three hundred men.

Outside the battle zone, the Ottomans were on the move. They had now struck camp at the village of Zeitun, their halfway point between Marsaxlokk and Mt. Sciberras, and burned the remains—they would soon be settled closer to the fighting and bring their ships into Grand Harbor. The endgame was under way. St. Elmo would be annihilated shortly.

Valette would no longer order any more men into Fort St. Elmo, though he would accept volunteers. Three hundred men of Birgu and thirty knights stepped forward and presented themselves for service across the water. They were targeted by Turgut’s sharpshooters on Tigné, whom Valette had Coppier chase away until the boats could make it across. On June 17, Valette reported these events to Don Garcia in terms meant to encourage him to get on with sending some aid. The entire Ottoman fleet, he said, had moved from Marsaxlokk at night so “we should not see his weakness” and from “fear of your fleet,” thus leaving Marsaxlokk free for any Spanish relief force. Bombardment of Fort St. Elmo had slackened, morale was high even though supplies were low, and Valette was certain that just a few more men, even just the two triremes of the Order now in Messina, would be enough to hold the fort indefinitely. “Our safety lies in your hands; after that, our hope remains in God.”

The siege was in its twenty-fourth day. The Ottomans kept up a desultory bombardment of six guns on the southern spur, but spent the better part of their day in recovering and burning their dead. As the smoke rose and then bent back and covered the island, Mustapha and his lieutenants considered why Fort St. Elmo had not yet fallen. Exasperated at the tenacity of the enemy and eager to get the operation over with, he was ready to listen to all sides. Theories were fielded, argued, weighed, and finally reduced to three. First, the Christian gun on the fort’s eastern flank was disrupting any mass attacks on the right side. It must be taken out. Second, the guns on Fort St. Angelo had found their range and were interfering with operations on the southern side of Sciberras peninsula. They must be neutralized. And finally, the steady flow of fresh troops from Fort St. Angelo kept the defensive manpower at an insuperable level.

This last point was key, and Turgut had already begun to address it. In addition to his cannons, Turgut had placed sharpshooters on the peninsula of Tigné. Men without pity, they fired on the small boats bringing the dead and wounded back to Birgu.

#

Turgut and the Ottoman high command began the morning with a tour of the various trouble spots with a view toward improving offensive capabilities. They also reconsidered the terrain. Turgut ordered that the counterscarp of the ditch facing St. Angelo be extended down to where the relief boats from Birgu entered Fort St. Elmo. The project had been more trouble than it was worth back when the siege was estimated at five days, but reality was forcing their hand. Sappers were already pushing the Turkish trenches forward, and sharpshooters should be able to fire not just on the skiffs that ferried men across the water, but at the subterranean entrance to Fort St. Elmo. Other sappers completed the curtain wall that hid the Turks from the guns of St. Angelo.

Turgut and Mustapha and their staffs, all dressed in the brightest robes possible, were inspecting the new arrangements. Balbi writes the Turgut was dissatisfied with a Turkish gunner who was aiming his cannon too high. He told the man to lower it. Still too high. He ordered him to it lower still more, but this final time the trajectory was too low, with disastrous consequences. The ball glanced against a trench and chipped off a stone that ricocheted back and hit Turgut in the temple. Turgut’s turban absorbed some of the shock, possibly preventing him from being killed outright, but the shock was severe. Blood flowed out of his mouth, perhaps even his ear and eye, and he lost the power of speech. Staff officers, appalled, quickly covered the still breathing Turgut and carried him back to Mustapha’s own tent at the Marsa, worried that news of his injury might spread and alarm the men. Ever the professional, Mustapha continued the inspection, and with his remaining staff oversaw the emplacement of four new guns aimed at the watery route to Fort St. Angelo.

#

News of Turgut’s injury marked the beginning of a small winning streak for the Christians. The day after the corsair was hit, Grugno, the knight in charge of the cavalier, was able to lay cannon fire into knots of the enemy and kill the aga (commanding officer) of Turkish ordnance. The Ottomans’ reaction to this—piercing howls of grief—encouraged Grugno to strike out at other brightly uniformed men. To do so, he had to expose himself more than was strictly prudent. A Muslim sharpshooter soon winged him, and he was sent back to the infirmary at Birgu, replaced by a Fortunio Escudero, a knight of Navarre who was even more troublesome than his predecessor. The Muslims eventually trained thirty-four guns on the cavalier, he had become such a nuisance.

There was some encouragement for the Ottomans as well. On the evening of that same day, across the waters they heard a massive explosion, the more surprising as they had not been firing in that direction. A cloud of dust and smoke hung over the area, and only later did they learn that it had been the powder mill at Fort St. Angelo. Two kantars—about a hundred kilos—of powder were lost along with ten workers. The Turks cheered the display “with their bestial voices,” which Valette answered with a volley of cannon fire across the waters. Fra Sir Oliver Starkey was appointed to investigate the matter (possibly Valette was handing the Englishman a vote of confidence; before the siege, he had been charged with accepting bribes). He determined that the explosion was accidental, but it was unnerving nevertheless, and that much powder was hard to lose. Valette sent word to Mdina asking them to make up the shortfall and to provide some twenty-three more kantars besides. With St. Elmo nearly ready to fall, he would need them.

Turkish guns surrounded the fort and kept firing the entire day, though almost to no purpose—at some points the bombardment had reached bedrock, and only the ditch lay between Christian and Turk, a ditch the Ottomans were doing their best to fill up with brush and rubble and whatever else came to hand. As the inevitable climax approached, the defenders of Fort St. Elmo seemed to have fallen into a calm acceptance of what was to come, which in turn encouraged daring and insouciance. The night of June 19, Pietro di Forli had himself lowered into the ditch, where he hoped to torch the bridge. He could not—the Ottomans had packed it with wet dirt (terra ben bagnata) and its defenders soon noticed him and began to shoot. Di Forli managed to return to the fort, where his companions followed up his efforts by dismantling a section of wall and firing chain shot at the bridge. This turned out to be a waste of powder, as they were unable to depress the angle of fire enough to actually hit the structure. However futile these efforts were, they at least gave proof that these men had by no means lost their spirit.

By now the space between Fort St. Elmo and Fort St. Angelo had become a watery no-man’s-land, but somehow Ramon Fortuyn, the knight sometimes credited with the invention of fire hoops, was able to cross over from Fort St. Angelo without incident to get a sense of how things stood. Miranda, more or less in charge despite himself, seemed a little surprised to see him and assured Fortuyn that it would be simple cruelty to send more men to die. Those remaining officers on St. Elmo—d’Eguaras, Monserrat—all said the same. Fortuyn would better serve the island by returning to St. Angelo and readying himself for the fight that would soon begin again at Birgu. All that remained was prayer. Accordingly, Fortuyn went back to Fort St. Angelo along with two Muslim standards captured in the last assault, standards that he ceremoniously presented to Faderigo de Toledo as a proxy for Don Garcia and King Philip.

Fortuyn’s report clearly disturbed Valette, and the grand master followed up the next night by dispatching a second emissary, the Chevalier de Boisbreton, along with an Italian brother Ambrogio Pegullo. A dangerous trip—the moon was just past full and the Turks were vigilant. Fra Ambrogio’s head was taken off by a cannonball. Boisbreton’s arrival must have stirred new, if unreasonable, hope within these men—why else had he been sent if not with good news? But nothing had really changed. The fort, they agreed, might be able to hold off one more Muslim assault, but no more. If they did hold off such an attack, and no help arrived from Sicily, it would be best to evacuate the fort at that time.

This was wishful thinking at best. Boisbreton managed to bring the news back to Valette, but only barely. Turgut’s engineers finally had extended their trenches to command the grotto from which Fort St. Elmo anchored its lifeline to Fort St. Angelo. By the same token, it would be impossible to get enough boats to ferry the men in St. Elmo safely across the water. In Turgut’s words, Fort St. Elmo, the child of Birgu, was now cut off from the mother’s milk and must soon fall and die.

June 20 also appears to be the last day that anyone in the Order had enough leisure to compose a daily situation report.

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June 21, the feast of Corpus Christi. Soldiers, civilians, and men, women, and children lined the streets of Birgu. Inside the Church of St. Lawrence, the priest intoned the liturgy, raised the monstrance containing the host above his head, and then solemnly carried it into the daylight and through the streets—a demonstration to the faithful that God was not confined to the inside of a church but was everywhere with them. Valette and other knights, trading the red-and-white cloaks of martyrdom for the black-and-white of devotion, raised the poles to hold the canopy that shielded the container from the sun or rain. At the conclusion, Valette, “carrying his staff, served food to thirteen poor men,” as did others of the Order, replaying the message of love and charity at the core of the Order’s mission. To the sound of distant cannon fire, the procession trod the narrow stone streets among the people of Birgu, solemn, but with a care for current dangers—the route deliberately avoided those areas most at risk of Ottoman artillery.

Across the water, Ottoman forces had managed to create a breach on the scarp walls of the cavalier and hurried to exploit this bonanza. Quickly erecting a barricade against the gunfire and fire hoops of the Christians above them, they brought up four or five small culverines (capable of firing sixty-pound balls) and began to fire down into the central piazza. It took the men inside a few minutes to realize what had happened, and when they did, they fired back with small arms. When that failed to discourage the enemy, Monserrat ordered one of the few remaining cannons wheeled about. The gunners knew their business. They stuffed the barrels with scrap iron and stone, fired on the tower, and silenced the enemy position—at least, for the time being.

The end, however, was getting near. The sun went down, and as the exhausted Christians lay and waited, the cool night air carried the sounds from the Ottoman army of “the same prayers, rituals, and acts of superstition and false religion that had been heard the night before the previous assault.” There was no sleep, and so the defenders made the best use they could of the dark. Fifteen men under the Rhodian Pietro Miraglia (emulating the Italian Pietro da Forli) slipped into the ditch and attempted (unsuccessfully) to set the Ottomans’ bridge on fire before being chased back to the fort. The rest of the night was spent listening to the enemy’s prayers and chants as both sides prepared for the morning.

The attack came just after dawn and on every side. The Ottomans threw scaling ladders against the walls and were met by flying sacchetti, gunfire, trumps, and pikes. For six hours of repeated assaults, they chipped away at the defenders, never quite getting the upper hand. Several times the Ottomans planted their standards on the parapet, and each time the Christians pulled the banners down. On one occasion, the Muslims succeeded in mounting a portion of the wall, only to find that the siege cannon had left the masonry so unstable that it collapsed under their weight, throwing them down into the ditch below. From across the water, the guns on St. Angelo fired on the wooden bridge leading to the post of Colonel Mas. This was welcome help to the Christians inside the fort, who were running low on powder and soon forced to defend the breaches with steel.

Janissaries had also retaken their position near the cavalier and were again firing into the fort proper. Monserrat ordered the same gun that was so successful the day before to prevail again. For Monserrat it was a personal victory, and his last. Seconds later a bullet struck him in the chest, killing him instantly. The still-living were saved the trouble of burial when moments later cannon fire brought down a wall on his remains. After the siege was over, survivors “dug through the ruins of the fort and found his body, fully armed, his hands joined as if still in prayer to God.”

With Monserrat gone, rumors spread among the foot soldiers that d’Eguaras, Miranda, and Colonel Mas, all three of whom had not been seen since the last assault, had also been killed. This was easy to disprove. The three were all badly wounded, struck by bullets, arrows, and artificial fire, but still alive, or half-alive. They dragged themselves into view to encourage their men and to restore some sense of order. Mas and Miranda returned to their places on the line; d’Eguaras returned to his command post at the center of the piazza. Those still alive had neither the time nor the energy to bury the dead. Instead, they stacked the bodies against the walls to bolster the defenses. Even this gruesome expedience might delay the enemy and cost them a few more casualties, which was some consolation to the survivors.

Seven hours after the assault had begun, five hundred Christians lay dead, one hundred others wounded. They comprised the last of the fort, and yet, against all logic, the Turks still fell short of victory. Balbi claims that all Christian officers were now killed. The men waited in what is described as a day as hot as any fire. The next attack could come at any time, on any side, on all sides. Anyone not utterly incapable was at his post, weapon in hand. Mustapha toyed with these men, launching a series of feints, so many that no one bothered to keep a tally. Nightfall provided welcome relief from the sun at least, and time enough to tend their wounds, many of them serious.

All stocks of gunpowder were now empty, and the surviving defenders were forced to scavenge the powder horns of their dead comrades. They were able to get out one last communication to Fort St. Angelo. A single light swift boat shot out from the grotto under St. Elmo and managed to elude ten heavier Muslim craft. As backup, an unnamed Maltese swimmer followed suit, navigating a good part of his trip underwater. They reported that in St. Elmo “almost none healthy remained, and of those who were still healthy, all were exhausted, all soiled and stained by the blood, brains, marrow, and viscera of the dead colleagues and the enemy they had killed.” That the defenders would have only cold steel to fight with—Cirni refers to picks and spades—was almost an afterthought.

Men trapped in situations that must end in certain death can inspire a strange envy in outsiders. Having heard the last testimony from the fort, of its remaining defenders with their broken weapons, a large number of knights, soldiers, and citizens stepped forward to join the chosen few certain to die the next day. Romegas himself volunteered to lead them. Valette, who had masked his emotions with bluff heartiness and further talk of Don Garcia’s imminent arrival, refused to allow it. He did, however, agree that they might carry supplies to the beleaguered men, the first supplies in three days.

In the event, it didn’t matter. The moon was full and the Ottomans were on highest alert; and while a lone swift boat might, with some luck, successfully dart its way through, there was no hope of five cargo-laden boats lumbering over the water between St. Angelo and St. Elmo in safety. Piali Pasha, already humiliated by the last vessel out of St. Elmo, was in no mood to let another one back into the fort, and now led the flotilla to prevent any action in person. Romegas, outnumbered sixteen to one and target of a furious storm of cannon fire, gunfire, and arrows, chose to return back to Fort St. Angelo.

The chosen few remaining at Fort St. Elmo were now utterly alone. Without hope for victory, for rescue, or for mercy, they could only prepare themselves for a good death. “Seeing that all hope of survival was broken, being already certain, clear, and secure that they were to be taken and killed, and their fate delayed only so far as the hour of dawn; with great contrition they confessed to one another, asking forgiveness of God for their sins, and with his Divine Majesty, they devoutly reconciled themselves with no Sacraments other than a shared fraternal and devout embrace.”

Along with the soldiers, two friars, Pierre Vigneron and Alonso de Zembrana, one French, one Spanish, remained at St. Elmo. The two had tasks of their own to fulfill before sunrise. They entered the chapel, which now served as a hospital for the most grievously wounded, and delivered what last rites they could. This accomplished, the two brothers prised up a large paving stone and, putting it to one side, dug a hole in the earth below. Into this cavity they laid the gold and silver chalices and candlesticks and a reliquary containing a bone of St. John the Baptist. With the stone back in place, they proceeded to gather all remaining sacred objects—the tapestries that covered the walls, the wooden crosses and cloth vestments, the sacred books. All these they carried out of the chapel, piled up in the center of the fort, and set on fire. The Turks took this as a signal fire calling for help.

The pair made the circuit of the fort. They took confession from and conferred absolution on all those who remained alive in Fort St. Elmo in anticipation of imminent death. Then they, too, waited for the dawn.

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June 23 was the eve of the feast of St. John the Baptist. Fort St. Elmo had held out for twenty-nine days, and the Ottomans were impatient to be done with it. Throughout the night, their thirty-six heavy guns fired from three points on land and several of Piali’s ships on the water, illuminating both the sky and the fort and proving if nothing else that they still had a vast amount of ordnance to waste. Dawn broke. The Muslim soldiers on Sciberras gazed up at the smoking ruins and saw the white-and-red crossed flag still flying, still defiant. Presently they made themselves ready for what would have to be the final assault. Across the water, the men at Fort St. Angelo, all too aware of what was coming and helpless to stop it, stood and watched the final act play out.

Inside St. Elmo scarcely sixty men remained, scattered among the breaches and placed in the remains of the cavalier, outnumbered by the dead, who lay where they had fallen. Few of those left alive had escaped injury; all were determined to hold on to the last instant. The captains were focused on a hard fight, a good death.

One more time the kettledrums pounded, brass horns shrilled, men shouted, and the order to advance was given. Mustapha reported to the sultan that his troops, “shouting ‘Allah, Allah!’ and accompanied by the souls of the martyred,” began to charge the walls. Janissaries, spahis, and their corsair allies, impatient for victory, crossed over the rubbish pit of stone, earth, and broken weaponry, climbed over the corpses, scrambled up the incline toward the breaches, and braved a single, weak volley from inside the fort.

If they expected the job to be easy, they were disappointed. The first Muslims into the breach were met with a hedge of sharp steel, pikes, swords, lances, and a hail of stones. An hour passed, and although men on both sides fell, the fort did not. Another hour passed, and the attackers fell back, re-formed, came forward again, and again were held off by the stubborn Christian line. Both sides licked their wounds and dragged their dead away. From time to time there followed small diversionary attacks of no particular consequence, each a prelude to the next general assault.

When the final assault came, the first Janissaries to cross the rise found, to their astonishment, Captain Miranda, strapped into a chair and gripping a pike. The commander was maimed and bandaged, but still possessed of the soldier’s skills of thrust and parry. Even now in a position of weakness he managed to slash and gut a handful of enemy soldiers before his fellow Christians were able to repel the attackers one more time. The Muslims, however, managed a final parting shot that killed Miranda.

Command now devolved on d’Eguaras. His leg had been shattered, and so he too was confined to a chair. Seeing how the number of his men had dwindled, he thought to improve the odds by consolidating his remaining forces. He ordered the gunners on the cavalier to fall back and join their comrades inside the fort. This move was a boon for the Muslims, who quickly moved to fill the cavalier with sharpshooters. From its heights they could look down inside the shattered fort and signal to their comrades just how diluted the Christian force truly was. All tactical advantage now lay with Mustapha. Marksmen on the ravelin and on the cavalier could fire down on the Christians from the rear while Muslim infantry could attack from the front and flanks. (Oddly, Balbi says that the Muslims confined themselves to throwing stones.)

A little past eleven that morning, the final assault began. Janissaries, corsairs, and anyone else who wanted to be in at the kill, drew their blades and overtopped the crumbling edge of the fort and poured into the main piazza. The area soon resembled a Roman amphitheater in the final stages of a gladiators’ show, a confused mass of desperate men fighting in separate brawls “in which there ran rivers of blood from the multitude of the dead and the wounded on all sides.” D’Eguaras was among the first to die. Knocked from his chair, he managed to raise his sword and limp toward four Janissaries. One of the four brought a scimitar down on his neck and severed his head, which Mustapha would later order stuck on the end of a pike.

With their comrades gone, not wishing to survive them, unable to see beyond the moment or to hope for a life in this world, the remaining Christians lashed out with a superhuman fury at any Muslim who came within reach. At the door of the chapel, Chevalier Paolo Avogadro swung a broad sword with both hands and soon created a half-circle of Muslim dead around him. It took a volley of arquebus fire to put an end to this slaughter, and the dying knight collapsed on top of the pile of men he himself had killed.

The few small fights were winding down as force of numbers made good the Ottoman effort to leave no man standing. Colonel Mas, last of the commanders and also confined to a chair, swung a two-handed sword until he was himself cut down. Fortunio Escudero, last gunner on the cavalier, headed a small group of soldiers wielding broadswords on the crest of the fort, clearly visible from across the water at Fort St. Angelo, until he and they too succumbed to greater Muslim numbers. Official reckoning was now only minutes away. Mehmed ben Mustafa, who had captured La Rivière on the first day of the invasion, had the honor of seizing the knights’ ragged banner for his general as well, after which he “entered the bastion of the infidels and chopped off some heads.” The end was marked when a wounded knight, Frederico Lanfreducci, went to his post at the marina and gave the final agreed-upon smoke signal (una fumata) that the fort was lost. Moments later he was taken prisoner, becoming one of nine Christian survivors captured in Fort St. Elmo’s last battle. A handful of Maltese, able swimmers, were able to escape.

The fight was over. It had taken four hours.