Przemyśl, Austria’s Bulwark in the East

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In 1914, Festung Przemyśl was among the strongest and most modern of the Austrian fortresses and played a key role in the defence of Galicia. Austria’s first attempt to fortify the city took place early in the Crimean War even though it remained neutral despite efforts to draw it into the war. The old Turkish threat had receded for decades as Russia had advanced towards the Danube. In 1853, Turkish forces fell back and the Russian forces occupied Walachia and Moldavia in 1854 and started driving into Bulgaria. The Austrian Army took up positions in Transylvania, threatening the Russians, considering the Turks to be a buffer rather than a threat. The Turks finally pushed the Russians back and the Austrians administered a neutral Walachia and Moldavia from 1854 until early 1857. During this period of rising tensions, the Austrians had to protect their relatively open frontier with Russia in Galicia. The process began with the construction of seven-sided artillery earthen positions of the FS type. By 1855, a total of nineteen of these positions were completed before construction was interrupted due to improved relations with Russia. With the passing of years, these works deteriorated and no further effort at fortification was undertaken until 1878 except for the construction of an enceinte in 1873, which dragged out into the 1880s. During the 1877 Russo-Turkish War, a number of octagonal FS type positions were placed several kilometres from the city to create a fortified camp.

In 1877, Russia again went to war with the Turks. Austria had agreed to remain neutral in exchange for being allowed to move into Bosnia-Herzegovina. At the end of the war, the Turks lost control over additional territory in the Balkans and Austria-Hungary formalized its right to occupy Bosnia-Herzegovina. Even though the Imperial Fortifications Committee had decided to fortify Przemyśl in 1868, nothing was built there until Russia threatened Galicia once more and Vienna authorized new construction. Construction of an enceinte began in 1873. Building began on nine detached earthen forts in June 1878 and most neared completion by the end of September 1878. After 1880 the army began new work that included rebuilding some of these forts as permanent structures. If a new fort built nearby replaced the old one, the old one became an earthen artillery position. These 1878 forts were on the southern fronts (southeast and southwest front) and on the northern fronts – Fort X ‘Orzechowce’ in the northwest and XIII ‘San Rideau’ in the northeast. Wooden palisades in the moat functioned as obstacles rather than Carnot Walls.

Fort VIII ‘Łętownia’ begun in 1881 was the first permanent artillery fort at Przemyśl. It was built on an old seven-sided FS-type fort from 1854 located on the western front. ‘Łętownia’ was a single-rampart artillery fort with five sides, two caponiers covering the two side ditches, and a double caponier covering the two frontal ditches. A brick wall without embrasures, not a Carnot Wall, stood at the base of the scarp to serve only as an obstacle. Late in the 1880s, Carnot Walls were no longer built. The earth-covered concrete caserne was part of the gorge wall, which also included embrasures for defensive weapons. The central courtyard was occupied by a large shelter built like the barracks and used as the main magazine. The six traverses included munitions and troop shelters adjacent to the ramps that led to the artillery positions between them. There were 120mm M-61 cannons in the open position facing the front, and 90mm M-75 guns on the flanks. Access to the caponiers was by posterns that went through the rampart. Not all of the forts followed this precise design, so each was unique in its own way.

In 1882, construction began on additional single-rampart forts, but it was not completed until 1886. The additional forts included V ‘Grochowce’, VII ‘Pralkowce’, and XII ‘Werner’. They were similar to Fort VIII, but larger. Fort V and VII were on the southwest front and XII on the northeast front. Exact details on all the forts are still being researched since some of their components were very likely incomplete, but the destruction of the forts during the war makes it difficult to know for sure.

The army planned to build several forts into the enceinte, but lack of funding prevented the realization of the project until about 1887. The forts that were eventually built were of a temporary nature, intended to deter enemy cavalry raids, and most had no caserne. During the 1880s, the wooden barracks of the forts and those of the enceinte were covered with a concrete layer. However, these positions were removed during the next decade. In 1887, the shelters used in the forts and other positions were of the Wellbach style in which curved iron sheets formed the interior leaving two open ends like a tunnel that were closed with brick walls. The larger forts included the three double-rampart forts of X ‘Orzechowce’, XI ‘Duńkowiczki’ and XIV ‘Hurko’, and the unusual Fort I ‘Salis-Soglio’ of a non-standard design created by its namesake. This large and unique fort was never outfitted with armoured turrets and had only open positions for its artillery on the ramparts. It had been intended to be the first Panzerwerk in the fortress and was to mount two large Grüson turrets with 120mm guns. However, the armour was cancelled because the War Ministry deemed it too expensive. Most of the forts built in the 1880s became Einheitsforts and became Panzerwerke when armour was added to them in the 1890s. After 1880, concrete roofs were built on all new, renovated, or rebuilt forts.

General von Brunner, Salis-Soglio’s director of fortifications at Przemyśl between 1889 and 1893, was responsible for the construction of the northwest part of the girdle of detached forts between 1892 and 1894. Most of his forts included casernes for about 300 men and some comprised traditors (flanking casemates). The gun batteries consisted of an 80mm gun with a Minimalschartenlafetten (a minimal embrasure mount) that allowed for minimum exposure of the gun, which was placed behind an armoured shield. Thus, Brunner’s Fort IX ‘Brunner’ and XIII ‘San Rideau’, built between 1892 and 1896, became the first Panzerwerke at Przemyśl. Other Panzerwerke with armoured turrets and observation cloches began to appear after these two forts. Fort XIII ‘San Rideau’ was a good example. It included a line of turrets above the caserne with an observation cloche on each end and an artillery observation cloche in the centre with three turrets for 150mm howitzers and mortars on each side of it. The ditch was protected by counterscarp casemates and there was a caponier attached to the caserne in the gorge.

On the rampart, the Panzerwerke generally included a rifle gallery with embrasures for rifles that were covered with armoured plates and sandbags between embrasures for added protection. This gallery was not a covered position although wooden planks were added for overhead protection during combat. In addition to artillery, these forts included machine-gun positions. By the turn of the century, the Austrians began adding iron fences in the gorge and in the ditch in front of caponiers and counterscarp casemates for additional protection. However, at Przemyśl, unlike some forts on the Italian Front, the fences did not cover the entire ditch where once wooden palisades had been used.

In the 1890s, infantry positions called Nahkampfort (close defence forts) were built to fill gaps between the artillery forts. In addition, nine small Panzerwerke armed with either two or four 80mm gun turrets were added. They included I/1 Łysiczka, I/2 Byków, I/5 Popowice, and I/6 Dziewieczyce in the southeast in front of Fort I. The entire complex formed the Siedlisko Group. Forts XIa and I-2, built late in the decade, are laid out according to Brunner’s designs with semicircular shape and a ‘V’-shaped ditch instead of a flat bottom. The gorge was covered by a semicircular earthwork, a centrally located two-level caserne with a combat position and a line of four 80mm gun turrets on its roof, and an observation cloche behind them. The rifle gallery was behind the turrets. Fort I-5 was similar but it had two gun turrets on each side of the block.

The larger Panzerwerke built between 1892 and 1900 included Fort IV ‘Optyń’ with four 80mm gun turrets, Fort IX ‘Brunner’, and Fort XIII ‘San Rideau’ each with three 150mm howitzers and three (four at Fort IX) 150mm mortar turrets. The double-rampart artillery forts were modernized as Panzerwerke in the last few years of the century when X Orzechowce and XI Duńkowiczki were outfitted with four 80mm gun turrets each. These two forts were the only ones at Przemyśl to receive armoured batteries and traditors. Fort IV, the last of the large forts built in 1897–1900 in the fortress girdle, had a lunette shape and included a large two-level caserne in the gorge and a gorge caponier. The barracks accommodated the 450-man garrison (including about 200 artillerymen, 230 infantrymen, and specialists and officers). A large two-level shelter and hangar for the artillery in the centre of the fort connected to the barracks. There were six positions for 150mm guns on the rampart, between the traverses. The fort had traditors – each mounting four 120mm guns – on each side of the rampart. They were located behind the rampart and peeked out of a large embrasure cut into the wall. On the two front corners of the rampart, adjacent to the traditors, there were two turrets with 80mm guns. An observation cloche stood between the turrets and the traditors. The counterscarp casemates at the two front corners mounted machine guns. Additional smaller forts were added after Fort IV.

The roofs of buildings in the last generation of forts were made of concrete poured over steel ‘I’ beams that resulted in flat ceilings rather than the arched ones made with bricks or concrete only. The infantry positions on the ramparts also included two to four positions for light field guns. In the 1900s, the army converted some of the old FS positions and older forts such as at Fort III and VI into infantry positions, some artillery emplacements. In some cases, the ramparts were strengthened with the addition of stone. In 1910, specific instructions were issued to create field fortifications to fill the gaps in the ring and link them with a continuous line of trenches. However, only two infantry strongpoints were built before the war and several after the war began. These strongpoints included wooden lined trenches and shelters designed to house forces ranging from half an infantry company to two companies.

Construction on the existing forts continued into the early twentieth century. Forts II, III, and VI were among the last to be rebuilt and modernized. By 1914, the Przemyśl was, if not the largest, at least one of the most important and modern fortresses in the Empire.

Constantinople Prepares for Siege

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Winters on the Bosphorus can be surprisingly severe, as the Arabs had discovered during the siege of 717. The site of the city, jutting out into the straits, leaves it exposed to fierce squalls hurtling down from the Black Sea on the north wind. A particularly dank and sub-zero cold penetrates to the marrow of the bones; weeks of cheerless rain can churn the streets into mud and prompt flash floods down the steep lanes; sudden snowstorms arise as if from nowhere to obliterate the Asian shore half a mile away then vanish as quickly as they have come; there are long still days of muffling fog when an eerie silence seems to hold the city in an iron grasp, choking the clappers in church bells and deadening the sound of hooves in the public squares, as if the horses were shod in boots of felt. The winter of 1452–53 seems to have afflicted the citizens with particularly desolate and unstable weather. People observed ‘unusual and strange earthquakes and shakings of the earth, and from the heavens thunder and lightning and awful thunderbolts and flashing in the sky, mighty winds, floods, pelting rain and torrential downpours’. It did not improve the overall mood. No flotillas of Christian ships came to fulfil the promises of union. The city gates remained firmly closed and the supply of food from the Black Sea dried up under the sultan’s throttle. The common people spent their days listening to the words of their Orthodox priests, drinking unwatered wine in the taverns and praying to the icon of the Virgin to protect the city, as it had in the Arab sieges. A hysterical concern for the purity of their souls seized the people, doubtless influenced by the fulminations of Gennadios. It was considered sinful to have attended a liturgy celebrated by a unionist or to have received communion from a priest who was present at the service of union, even if he were simply a bystander to the rites. Constantine was jeered as he rode in the streets.

Despite this unpromising atmosphere, the emperor made what plans he could for the city’s defence. He dispatched envoys to buy food from the Aegean islands and beyond: ‘wheat, wine, olive oil, dried figs, chick peas, barley and other pulses’. Work was put in hand to repair neglected sections of the defences – both the land and sea walls. There was a shortage of good stone and no possibility of obtaining more from quarries outside the city. Materials were scrounged from ruined buildings and abandoned churches; even old tombstones were pressed into service. The ditch was cleared out in front of the land wall and it appears that despite their reservations, Constantine was successful in persuading the populace to participate in this work. Money was raised by public collection from individuals and from the churches and monasteries to pay for food and arms. All the available weapons in the city – of which there were far too few – were called in and redistributed. Armed garrisons were dispatched to the few fortified strongholds still held by Byzantium beyond its own walls: at Selymbria and Epibatos on the north shore of the Marmara, Therapia on the Bosphorus beyond the Throat Cutter, and to the largest of the Princes’ Islands. In a final gesture of impotent defiance, Constantine sent galleys to raid Ottoman coastal villages on the Sea of Marmara. Captives were taken and sold in the city as slaves. ‘And from this the Turks were roused to great anger against the Greeks, and swore that they would bring misfortune on them.’

The only other bright spot for Constantine during this period was the arrival of a straggle of Italian ships that he was able to persuade – or forcibly detain – to take part in the city’s defence. On 2 December a large Venetian transport galley from Kaffa on the Black Sea, under the command of one Giacomo Coco, managed to trick its way past the guns at the Throat Cutter by pretending that it had already paid its customs dues further upstream. As it approached the castle the men on board began to salute the Ottoman gunners ‘as friends, greeting them and sounding the trumpets and making cheerful sounds. And by the third salute that our men made, they had got away from the castle, and the water took them on towards Constantinople.’ At the same time news of the true state of affairs had reached the Venetians and Genoese from their representatives in the city and the Republics stirred themselves into tardy activity. After the sinking of Rizzo’s ship, the Venetian Senate ordered its Vice-captain of the Gulf, Gabriel Trevisano, to Constantinople to accompany its merchant convoys back from the Black Sea. Among the Venetians who came at this time was one Nicolo Barbaro, a ship’s doctor, who was to write the most lucid diary of the months ahead.

Within the Venetian colony in the city, concern was growing. The Venetian bailey, Minotto, an enterprising and resolute man, was desperate to keep three great merchant galleys and Trevisano’s two light galleys for the defence of the city. At a meeting with the emperor, Trevisano and the other captains on 14 December he begged them to stay ‘firstly for the love of God, then for the honour of Christianity and the honour of our Signoria of Venice’. After lengthy negotiations the ships’ masters, to their credit, agreed to remain, though not without considerable wrangling over whether they could have their cargo on board or should keep it in the city as surety of their good faith. Constantine was suspicious that once the cargo was loaded, the masters would depart; it was only after swearing to the emperor personally that they were allowed to load their bales of silk, copper, wax and other stuffs. Constantine’s fears were not unfounded: on the night of 26 February one of the Venetian ships and six from the city of Candia on Crete slipped their anchors and fled before a stiff north-easterly wind. ‘With these ships there escaped many persons of substance, about 700 in all, and these ships got safely away to Tenedos, without being captured by the Turkish armada.’

This dispiriting event was offset by one other positive contribution. The appeals of the Genoese podesta at Galata had elicited a concrete offer of help. On about 26 January two large galleons arrived loaded ‘with many excellent devices and machines for war, and outstanding soldiers, who were both brave and confident’. The spectacle of these ships entering the imperial harbour with ‘four hundred men in full armour’ on deck made an immediate impression on both the populace and the emperor. Their leader was a professional soldier connected to one of the great families of the republic, Giovanni Giustiniani Longo, a highly experienced commander who had prepared this expedition at his own initiative and cost. He brought 700 well-armed men in all, 400 recruited from Genoa, another 300 from Rhodes and the Genoese island of Chios, the power base of the Giustiniani family. Constantine was quick to realize the value of this man and offered him the island of Lemnos if the Ottoman menace should be repulsed. Giustiniani was to play a fateful role in the defence of the city in the weeks ahead. A straggle of other soldiers came. Three Genoese brothers, Antonio, Paolo and Troilo Bocchiardo brought a small band of men. The Catalans supplied a contingent and a Castilian nobleman, Don Francisco of Toledo, answered the call. Otherwise the appeal to Christendom had brought nothing but disharmony. A sense of betrayal ran through the city. ‘We had received as much aid from Rome as had been sent to us by the sultan of Cairo,’ George Sphrantzes recalled bitterly.

With the arrival of the Genoese contingent the preparations for a siege were carried forward with greater urgency. Giustiniani, who was ‘an expert in the art of wall fighting’, appraised the city’s defences with a cool eye and took appropriate measures. Under his direction, during February and March they ‘dredged the fosse and repaired and built up the walls, restoring the battlements, refortifying inner and outer towers and strengthening the whole wall – both the landward and seaward sectors’.

Despite their dilapidated condition, the city still possessed formidable fortifications. Among all the many explanations for the longevity of Byzantium, the impregnable defences of its capital city remain a cardinal factor. No city in the world owed as much to its site as Constantinople. Of the twelve miles of its perimeter, eight were ringed by sea. On the south side, the city was fringed by the Sea of Marmara, whose swift currents and unexpected storms made any sea-borne landing a risky undertaking. In a thousand years no aggressor ever seriously attempted an attack at this point. The seashore was guarded by a single unbroken wall at least fifty feet above the shoreline interspersed with a chain of 188 towers and a number of small defended harbours. The threat to this wall came not from ships but from the ceaseless action of the waves undermining its foundations. At times nature was more brutal still: in the bitter winter of 764 the sea walls were crushed by ice floes that rode up over the parapets. The whole length of the Marmara wall was studded with marble inscriptions commemorating the repairs of successive emperors. The sea ran strongly round this shoreline as far as the tip of the Acropolis point, before turning north into the calmer waters of the Golden Horn. The Horn itself provided an excellent sheltered anchorage for the imperial fleet; 110 towers commanded a single wall along this stretch with numerous water gates and two substantial harbours, but the defences were always considered vulnerable. It was here that the Venetians had driven their ships up on the foreshore during the Fourth Crusade, overtopping the ramparts and storming the city. In order to block the mouth of the Horn in times of war, the defenders had been in the habit, since the Arab siege of 717, of drawing a boom across the entrance of the Horn. This took the form of a 300-yard chain, consisting of massive cast-iron links each twenty inches long that were supported on sturdy wooden floats. With the good will of the Genoese, the chain could then be secured to a tower on the sea wall of Galata on the far side. During the winter months both chain and floats were prepared against the possibility of a naval attack.

The base of the triangle of the city’s site on the westward side was protected by the four-mile land wall, the so-called wall of Theodosius, which ran across the grain of the land from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn and sealed off Constantinople from any conventional land-borne assault. Many of the most significant events in the history of the city had been played out along this extraordinary structure. It almost matched the city itself in longevity, and projected a sense of legendary immutability within the Mediterranean world. For many approaching Constantinople across the flat Thracian plains as a trader or pilgrim, an ambassador from a Balkan court or a plundering army with pretensions to conquest, the first sight of Constantinople at its apogee would be the ominous prospect of the land walls riding the gentle undulations of the landscape from horizon to horizon in a regular unbroken succession of ramparts and towers. In the sunlight the limestone walls create a facade of brilliant white, banded with horizontal running seams of ruby red Roman brick, and arrow slits similarly arched; the towers – square, hexagonal, octagonal, occasionally circular – are so close together that, as one crusader put it, ‘a seven-year-old boy could toss an apple from one turret to the next’. They rise up in successive tiers to the summit of the inner wall where the eagle banners of the emperor flutter proudly in the wind. At intervals the eye can pick out the darkness of a heavily guarded entrance to the city through which men and animals vanish in times of peace, and at the western end, close to the Sea of Marmara, a gateway panelled with flat plates of gold and decorated with statues of marble and bronze shines in the sun. This is the Golden Gate, the great ceremonial archway flanked by two massive towers of polished marble through which, in the heyday of Byzantium, emperors returned in triumph with the visible tokens of their victories: conquered kings walking in chains, recaptured sacred relics, elephants, outlandishly dressed barbarian slaves, carts piled high with booty and the whole might of the imperial army. By 1453 the gold and many of the decorations had gone but the structure was still an impressive monument to Roman glory.

The man responsible for the land wall, built to define the mature limits of the city, was not the boy Emperor Theodosius after whom it is named, but a leading statesman of the early fifth century, Anthemius, ‘one of the wisest men of the age’, for whose far-sightedness the city would owe a limitless debt of gratitude. The first line of the walls built in 413 deterred Attila the Hun, ‘the scourge of God’, from making an attack on the city in 447. When it collapsed under a severe earthquake the same year with Attila ravaging Thrace not far away, the whole population responded to the crisis. Sixteen thousand citizens totally rebuilt the wall in an astonishing two months, not just restoring Athemius’s original structure, but adding an outer wall with a further string of interspaced towers, a protecting breastwork and a brick-lined moat – the fosse – to create a formidable barrier of extraordinary complexity. The city was now protected on this side by a chain of 192 towers in a defensive system that comprised five separate zones, 200 feet wide and 100 feet high from the bed of the moat to the top of the tower. The achievement was recorded with a suitably boastful inscription: ‘In less than two months, Constantine triumphantly set up these strong walls. Scarcely could Pallas have built so quickly so strong a citadel.’

In its mature form, the Theodosian wall summarized all the accumulated wisdom of Graeco-Roman military engineering about defending a city before the age of gunpowder. The heart of the system remained the inner wall constructed by Anthemius: a core of concrete faced on both sides by limestone blocks quarried nearby, with brick courses inserted to bind the structure more firmly. Its fighting ramparts were protected by battlements and reached by flights of steps. In line with Roman practice, the towers were not bound to the walls, ensuring that the two structures could each settle at their own rate without breaking apart. The towers themselves rose to a height of sixty feet and consisted of two chambers with a flat roof on which engines to hurl rocks and Greek fire could be placed. Here the sentinels scanned the horizon unceasingly, keeping themselves awake at night by calling out to each other down the line. The inner wall was forty feet high; the outer one was lower, about twenty-seven feet high, and had correspondingly lower towers that interspaced those on the inner wall. The two walls were separated by a terrace sixty feet wide, where the troops defending the outer wall massed, ready to engage the enemy at close quarters. Below the outer wall another terrace sixty feet wide provided a clear killing field for any aggressor who made it over the moat. The brick-lined moat itself was another sixty-feet-wide obstacle, surmounted by a wall on the inner side; it remains unclear whether it was in parts flooded in 1453 or simply comprised a dry ditch. The depth and complexity of the system, the stoutness of its walls and the height from which it commanded its field of fire rendered the Theodosian wall virtually impregnable to an army equipped with the conventional resources of siege warfare in the Middle Ages.

Along its length the land wall was pierced by a succession of gates. Some gave access to the surrounding countryside via bridges over the moat, which would be destroyed in the run-up to a siege; others, the military gates, allowed connection between the different layers of the walls and were used to move troops about within the system. The wall also contained a number of posterns – small subsidiary doorways – but the Byzantines were always aware of the danger these sally ports posed for the security of their city and managed them rigorously. In general the two sets of gates alternated along the length of the wall, with the military gates being referred to by number while the public gates were named. There was the Gate of the Spring, named after a holy spring outside the city, the Gate of the Wooden Circus, the Gate of the Military Boot Makers, the Gate of the Silver Lake. Some spawned multiple names as associations were forgotten and new ones created. The Third Military Gate was also referred to as the Gate of the Reds, after a circus faction in the early city, while the Gate of Charisius, a leader of the blue faction, was also called the Cemetery Gate. And into the structure were built some remarkable monuments that expressed the contradictions of Byzantium. Towards the Golden Horn the imperial palace of Blachernae nestled behind the wall, a building said once to be of such beauty that foreign visitors could find no words to describe it; adjoining it, the dank and dismal prison of Anemas, a dungeon of sinister reputation, scene of some of the most ghastly moments in Byzantine history. Here John V blinded both his son and his three-year-old grandson, and from here one of Byzantium’s most notorious emperors, Andronikos the Terrible, already horribly mutilated, was led out on a mangy camel amongst taunting crowds to the Hippodrome, where he was strung upside down between two columns and mockingly slaughtered.

The continuous life of the wall was so long that a deep accretion of history, myth and half-forgotten association attached to the various sectors. There was hardly a place that had not witnessed some dramatic moment in the city’s history – scenes of terrible treachery, miraculous deliverance and death. Through the Golden Gate Heraclius brought the True Cross in 628; the Gate of the Spring saw the stoning of the unpopular Emperor Nicephorus Phocas by an enraged mob in 967 and the restoration of the Orthodox emperors after Latin rule in 1261 when the gate was opened from within by sympathizers. The dying Emperor Theodosius II was carried through the Fifth Military Gate in 450 following a fall from his horse in the valley outside, while the Gate of the Wooden Circus was blocked up in the twelfth century after a prophecy that the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa would use it to capture the city.

Next to St Sophia itself no structure expressed the psychic life of the city’s people as powerfully as the walls. If the church was their vision of heaven, the wall was their shield against the battering of hostile forces, under the personal protection of the Virgin herself. During sieges the constant prayers and the procession of her sacred relics along the ramparts were considered by the faithful to be generally more crucial than mere military preparations. A powerful spiritual forcefield surrounded such actions. Her robe, housed at the nearby church at Blachernae, was accorded more credit for seeing off the Avars in 626 and the Russians in 860 than military engineering. People saw visions of guardian angels on the ramparts and emperors inserted marble crosses and prayers into the outward facing walls. Near the centre point of the wall there is a simple talisman that expresses Constantinople’s deepest fear. It says: ‘O Christ God, preserve your city undisturbed and free from war. Conquer the fury of the enemies.’

At the same time, the practical maintenance of the walls was the one essential public work for the city, in which every citizen was required to help, without exemption. Whatever the state of the Byzantine economy money was always found to patch up the wall. It was sufficiently important to have its own special officials under the overall authority of the impressively named ‘Count of the Walls’. As time and earthquakes shattered towers and crumbled masonry, running repairs were marked by a wealth of commemorative marble inscriptions set into the stonework. They span the centuries from the first reconstruction in 447 to a total renovation of the outer wall in 1433. One of the last dated repairs before the siege expresses the co-operation of divine and human agencies in the maintenance of the city’s shield. It reads: ‘This God-protected gate of the life-giving spring was restored with the co-operation and at the expense of Manuel Bryennius Leontari, in the reign of the most pious sovereigns John and Maria Palaeologi in the month of May 1438.’

Perhaps no defensive structure summarizes the truth of siege warfare in the ancient and medieval world as clearly as the walls of Constantinople. The city lived under siege for almost all its life; its defences reflected the deepest character and history of the place, its mixture of confidence and fatalism, divine inspiration and practical skill, longevity and conservatism. Like the city itself, the walls were always there, and for anyone in the eastern Mediterranean, it was assumed they always would be. The structure of the defences was mature in the fifth century and changed little thereafter; the building techniques were conservative, harking back to practices of the Greeks and Romans. They had no particular reason to evolve because siege warfare itself remained static. The basic techniques and equipment – blockade, mining and escalade, the use of battering rams, catapults, towers, tunnels and ladders – these were largely unchanging for longer than anyone could recall. The advantage always lay with the defender; in the case of Constantinople its coastal position increased that weighting. None of the armies camped before the land walls had ever succeeded in effecting an entry through the multiple defensive layers, while the city always took prudent measures as a matter of state policy to keep its cisterns brimming and its granaries full. The Avars came with an impressive array of stone-throwing machinery but their looping trajectory made them far too puny to breach the walls. The Arabs froze to death in the cold. The Bulgar Khan Krum tried magic – he performed human sacrifices and sprinkled his troops with seawater. Even its enemies came to believe that Constantinople was under divine protection. Only the Byzantines themselves were ever successful in taking their own city from the land, and always by treachery: the messy final centuries of civil war produced a handful of instances where gates were flung open at night, usually with inside help.

There were just two places where the land wall could be considered potentially weak. In the central section the ground sloped down a long valley to the Lycus River and then up the other side. As the wall followed the downward slope, its towers no longer commanded the high ground and were effectively below the level occupied by a besieging army on the hill beyond. Furthermore the river itself, which was ducted into the city through a culvert, made it impossible to dig a deep moat at this point. Nearly all besieging armies had identified this area as vulnerable, and though none had succeeded, it provided attackers with a vestige of hope. A second anomaly in the defences existed at the northern end. The regular procession of the triple wall was suddenly interrupted as it approached the Golden Horn. The line took an abrupt right-angle turn outwards to include an extra bulge of land; for 400 yards, until it reached the water, the wall became a patchwork structure of different-shaped bastions and sectors, which, though stoutly built on a rocky outcrop, was largely only one line deep and for much of its length unmoated. This was a later addition undertaken to include the sacred shrine of the Virgin at Blachernae. Originally the church had been outside the walls. With a typical Byzantine logic it had been held initially that the protection of the Virgin was sufficient to safeguard the church. After the Avars nearly burned it in 626 – the shrine was saved by the Virgin herself – the line of the wall was altered to include the church, and the palace of Blachernae was also built in this small bight of land. Both these perceived weak spots had been keenly appraised by Mehmet when he reconnoitred in the summer of 1452. The right-angle turn where the two walls joined was to receive particular attention.

As they patched up their walls under Giustiniani’s direction and paraded the sacred icons on the ramparts, the people of the city could be pardoned for expressing confidence in their protective powers. Immutable, forbidding and indestructible, they had proved time and again that a small force could keep a huge army at bay until its willpower collapsed under the logistical burden of siege, or dysentery or the disaffection of the men. If the walls were decayed in places, they were still basically sound. Brocquière found even the vulnerable right angle to be protected by ‘a good and high wall’ when he came in the 1430s. The defenders however were unaware that they were preparing for conflict on the cusp of a technological revolution that would profoundly change the rules of siege warfare.

Flak towers: then and now

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The construction of Flaktürme (Flak towers) in major cities began in response to the first bombs falling on Berlin in August 1940. Flak tower complexes consisted of a G-Tower (Gefechtsturm, Combat tower) and an L-Tower (Leitturm, Lead tower). In total eight of these complexes were completed: in Berlin (3), Hamburg (2) and Vienna (3). Another 14 were planned, potentially extending coverage to Bremen and Munich, and increasing the defences in Berlin and Hamburg, but none of these were begun. While the towers in Berlin have been drastically reduced in stature due to post-war demilitarisation, those in Hamburg and Vienna still dominate the cityscapes, standing out against their surroundings. That several of the towers still stand today, and those which have been destroyed required enormous amounts of explosives post-WWII, bears testimony to their amazing strength as air raid shelters. However, their use as armed defences is questionable. Were they actually expensive ‘white elephants’ in that respect? The towers were designed to be architectural landmarks as well as defences – the former requirement eventually absorbing incredible amounts of money at a time when it could have been better spent elsewhere. Hitler wanted them to become monuments resembling medieval castles in peacetime, once his war had been won. He even drew some initial sketches himself. Thus, the towers would fit into his grand plan for Germania and beyond.

As the Soviets entered Berlin, the guns of Flakturm III (Humbolthain) were directed downward with the intention of preventing Red Army tanks from reaching Alexandraplatz. The walls of the towers still bear the pockmarks of returned artillery fire, all of which merely grazed the surface of the reinforced concrete walls. The roof of the G-Tower was 3.5 m thick, not only to resist a direct hit, but also to withstand the recoil force of the 128 mm guns standing above it. It was only after WWII, the tower then standing within the French Sector of Berlin, that attempts were made to blow- up the four-turreted juggernaut as part of the demilitarization. Placing explosives only under the southern turrets, so as to avoid blowing the tower onto the railway lines to the north, two attempts only managed to destroy that half. The force of these explosions can be seen today. Exposed steel strengthening rods within the tower show that the northern half of the tower was shifted a metre northwards but still remained standing sturdily! Flakturm I (the ‘Berlin zoo tower’) was destroyed by the British, but four attempts were needed.

Although designed to hold 15,000 civilians, in addition to the technical equipment and personnel, as many as 30,000 people arrived at Flakturm III during air raids, so it became extremely packed inside. In April 2004, the remaining part of this tower was opened to the public. More than 1,400m3 of rubble has been moved to date, taking over 8,000 hours. Entry to the tower is permitted only by tours guided by the Berlin Underworlds Association, Berliner Unterwelten e. V. Despite safeguarding citizens and treasures (Flakturm I held valuable historic artefacts including the bust of Nefertiti), the crews of the towers scored few direct ‘kills’. For example, Flakturm III apparently only scored 32 aircraft shot down from its completion in April 1942 to the end of the war (though this does not include secondary effects).

Site R

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One of the portals to Site R.

Raven Rock Mountain Complex

One of the largest bunkers built during the Cold War would belong not to the White House or FEMA, but rather to the Department of Defense. DoD’s alternate Pentagon is east of Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania, in an underground facility called ‘Site R’. In official jargon, the base is known as the Alternate National Military Command Center but unofficially it is dubbed ‘Harry’s Hole’ after Harry Truman, the President who ordered its construction. Site R is a poorly kept secret since a large amount of information can be found about it on the Internet and it is mentioned in several books on the Cold War.

The ANMCC was built in a mountain called Raven Rock by Parsons Brinckerhoff, a world-renowned New York engineering firm with much experience in large-scale projects (including Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado). As part of its planning, the firm sent engineers to Sweden, Germany and France to visit other underground works and to incorporate some of their techniques into it. Construction began in 1951 and by 1954, the complex was in operation. It is also known as the Alternate Joint Communications Center.

Overall, Site R measures 265,000sq ft and consists of a series of buildings inside caverns that include the same types of rooms as found in other bunkers such as dorms, offices, operation centres and dining facilities. Along with offices for the Secretary of Defense, all three major armed services have their emergency operations centres there. Site R has communications connections with several other COG installations in the Washington area, along with several military facilities in the United States, Canada and Europe. It is fully able to dispatch Emergency Action Messages to nuclear forces should the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon be obliterated. The complex’s power room consists of six 1,000kW generators, and the water reservoir can hold millions of gallons. The base is so large it even has its own chapel, barber shop and convenience store. In the 1960s, it was hardened to withstand 140psi of pressure. Upon its opening, it was made a lodger unit of Fort Ritchie but with the Fort’s closure in 1997, it is now a sub-unit of Fort Detrick. Most of the personnel reside at Fort Detrick and are shuttled in by bus daily.

n the 1980s, 350 were said to work at Site R, but with the end of the Cold War, this number was reduced after it stopped operating on a twenty-four-hour basis. Many of those who work there belong to the US Army’s 1111th Signal Battalion, whose motto of ‘Masters of the Rock’ gives a clear idea of the kind of installation they work in. Other staff include naval, Air Force and Marine Corps personnel, along with sundry civilians. The ANMCC is fully connected to Mount Weather as the latter was designed to serve as backup to the former if it was destroyed.

From access roads, one sees only fences and an antenna on top of Raven Rock. There are absolutely no signs announcing Site R’s presence, save a small green one by Route 116 describing a small building nearby as ‘Site R Wastewater Treatment Plant’. A sign by the rear exit on Cove Hollow Road identifies it as the AJCC and warns that persons making sketches or taking photographs will be detained. In some places, Cold War secrecy is alive and well.

The Confederate Defenses at Mobile Bay

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A Union attack on Mobile Bay and its defenses was a huge undertaking. Triangular in shape, the bay was about thirty miles long—about eight miles wide at the upper end and just over twenty near the mouth. The entrance to the bay, however, was only three miles wide and most of this length toward the western side was extremely shallow. The only deep channel passed on the eastern side of the bay’s mouth by Mobile Point, guarded by Fort Morgan. Once passing this point the trip to Mobile required navigating as many as forty miles because the channel was “so thoroughly obstructed and fastened up as to render the track as crooked as the tortuous course of a serpent.”

Commanding the Confederate naval forces afloat at Mobile was Admiral Franklin Buchanan, a native of Baltimore, Maryland. Entering the navy as a midshipman in 1815, his long and impressive naval career had seen him rise to become one of the most senior officers in the United States Navy in 1861. Obtaining the rank of captain in 1855, he had served many years at sea, had helped establish the US Naval Academy, and had commanded the Washington Navy Yard. In April 1861, he thought that his home state of Maryland would secede and offered his resignation. When he realized the state was to remain in the Union, he tried to withdraw his resignation, but Gideon Welles refused and dismissed him from the service.

Initially, Buchanan served in the Confederate Bureau of Orders and Detail. His senior rank, though, allowed him to become the commanding officer of the ironclad CSS Virginia. Aggressive by nature, he attacked the blockading vessels at Hampton Roads, sinking both the frigate Congress and the sloop Cumberland. A bullet wound prevented him from commanding the ironclad the next day when she fought the Monitor. He spent two months in a hospital recovering. In August 1862, he received a promotion to the rank of admiral. Now the most senior officer in the Confederate navy, he received command of the naval forces at Mobile and the Naval District of the Gulf. A close friend wrote that the admiral had a ruddy complexion, “high forehead, fringed with snow-white hair,” an aquiline nose, thin lips, and steel-blue eyes.

The defenses of Mobile grew stronger daily under Buchanan’s watchful eyes. Yet a lack of materials and building facilities continued to hamper his efforts to build a formidable naval force. When the Union forces attacked, Buchanan would be hard-pressed to defend the bay. The Confederate naval leadership believed that ironclads were the only warships that could defend Mobile from a Union naval attack, and efforts to build ironclads began in both Montgomery and Selma.

In mid-1863, the Confederates began building the Nashville in Montgomery. She was a departure from most ironclad designs because she had paddle wheels. With a limited amount of armor, Buchanan decided to divert armor from this vessel to others. The need to cover the paddle wheels almost insured that the Nashville would never serve as designed. As with most Confederate ironclads, she suffered from slow speed and was worm-eaten and unseaworthy. Due to her lack of armor, she never served in any capacity other than as a floating battery.

The Confederates began the war with ambitious plans to build four ironclads in the industrial center of Selma. Only three were ever completed. In February 1863, the builders launched the Tuscaloosa and Huntsville. They had a similar design as the Albemarle in North Carolina, but they had defective machinery, making them only useful as floating batteries and unable to venture far into the bay. The third ironclad built in Selma was the Tennessee.

The Tennessee proved a formidable warship—about 217 feet long with a beam of 48 feet. Her builders placed five inches of armor on her sides, one layer of 1-inch plates, and two layers of 2-inch-thick armor. Three layers of 2-inch iron-plate armor protected the forward shield, and the armored casemate had sides at a thirty-three-degree angle, which extended six feet below the waterline. Her armament consisted of four 6.4-inch rifled guns in broadside and a 7-inch rifled gun at each end. They could pivot the guns pointing forward and aft through the sides, giving the warship a four-gun broadside. A “formidable” prow gave the Tennessee an extra weapon.

Despite the strength of this ironclad, she also had a number of weaknesses. The power plant was underpowered because the gears designed to convert her side-wheel riverboat engines to turn screws proved inefficient. Thus she could make only five knots at full steam. An additional flaw was the design to lower her heavy gun shutters over the ports after firing. A direct hit on these shutters could jam them closed. The most crucial flaw was the connection between the helm mechanism and the rudder. The chains that connected the two ran in open channels above the afterdeck and lay exposed to gunfire. Concerned about this, Buchanan had one-inch thick “sheet iron” placed over the groove to protect the chains.

After launching the Tennessee in Selma, the greatest initial challenge was to get her down the Alabama River and over the Dog River Bar. The Dog River Bar was a mud flat that extended from Mobile fifteen miles out into the Bay and had only nine feet of water over it at high tide. The ironclad had a draft of thirteen feet before the additional weight of provisions, coal, stores, and ammunition went on board.

Steamers towed the Tennessee down the Alabama River, into the Mobile River, and down the Spanish River, all to avoid the shallowest points. After grounding several times she arrived at the Dog River Bar. Initially, the authorities tried to use lighters and flats and passed heavy timbers through the ironclad’s ports to lift her. They gave up after several days of useless attempts and realized they would have to float her over the barrier. To do this, the Confederates built “sectional docks” called camels. They built six camels, designed to fasten to the ironclads with chains, three to a side. Unfortunately, two of the camels burned before they arrived, and their replacements would take time to construct, delaying her passage over the bar by two months. Once the camels were lashed in place and the water pumped out of them, they raised the Tennessee just enough to get her over the bar.

On 18 May, the Tennessee floated over the Dog River Bar and into Mobile Bay. Carpenters immediately began removing the camels while the crew loaded provisions, ammunition, stores, and coal. Jefferson Davis had pressured Buchanan to act against the Union naval forces immediately. In February he wrote Buchanan “to strike the enemy before he established himself on the Bay with his land forces.” Buchanan hoped to attack the fleet as soon as he could get his ship ready.

On 22 May, Buchanan hoisted his flag on the ironclad. The admiral addressed the crew, and they gave him three cheers. The men cleared the decks and greased the casemate in preparation to sortie on the blockaders. On the twenty-third Buchanan signaled his fleet to get underway, but the weather was too rough to get outside. The next day the ship was aground when the crew raised anchor, and Buchanan canceled the attack—believing that any surprise was lost.

Farragut learned that the Tennessee was over the bar. He expected “Buck” to come out at any time. Percival Drayton wrote that he feared she will “come out on a bender any fine night in company with a few of the like evil disposed.” Farragut had formulated tactical plans in case the Tennessee attacked. The blockaders to the east, including the Richmond, were to attack on the flank and prevent the ironclad from getting back into the bay. The heavy ships were to keep as close together as possible and to ram her abaft the casemate and to fire on her when only a few yards distant. He directed commanding officers to concentrate their gunfire at the waterline and to fire grapeshot into the gun ports whenever they opened. The Brooklyn and the warships to the westward were to attack on the alternate flank.

The floating defenses of Mobile included nearly every type of naval weapon, including floating batteries, torpedo boats, and submarines. Neither of the latter two was available when the Union attacked. The other warships that Buchanan had under his command were a motley collection. By the summer of 1864, the side-wheel towboat Baltic was nearly worthless. Workmen converted her into a ram, but her armor went to help protect the Nashville. There were three steam gunboats, the Selma, Morgan, and Gaines. The Selma was the ex-packet side-wheel steamer Florida. She had a lightly protected upper deck covered with 3/8-inch iron plate. Two inches of iron plate lay on her sides over the machinery spaces. She carried four guns, all in pivot. The Morgan, built as a warship, carried six guns: two 32-pounder rifles and two 32-pounder smoothbores in broadside; a 7-inch Brooke rifle, pivot-mounted forward; and a 6.4-inch Brooke rifle in pivot-mounted aft. Two inches of armor protected her machinery and magazine spaces. The Gaines, also a side-wheel sister of the Morgan, carried the same armament as the Morgan and had 2-inch iron plate on her sides like the Morgan. These gunboats, however, were no match for the larger and better-armed Union combatants they would encounter.

The other defenses of Mobile were the result of three years of diligent work. The fortifications protected two areas: the head of the bay near the city and the entrance to the bay. Farragut concerned himself with those protecting the entrance. Forts Gaines and Morgan protected the main channel into the bay, and Fort Powell guarded Grant’s Pass.

Brigadier General Richard Lucian Page commanded the lower defenses of Mobile, which guarded the seacoast. Born in Virginia, he became a midshipman in 1824. His naval career spanned thirty-seven years in the United States Navy and many years at sea around the world. He spent three tours of duty as an ordnance officer. He resigned his commission in 1861 after the state of Virginia seceded from the Union. Appointed a commander in the Virginia Navy, he served at the Norfolk Navy Yard as inspector of ordnance. He later commanded forces afloat at Savannah, and then, as a captain, oversaw the ordnance and naval construction bureau at Charlotte, North Carolina. On 1 March 1864 he received a promotion to brigadier general to command the outer defenses at Mobile Bay.

The Confederate leadership could not have chosen a man with better qualifications. His understanding of naval matters and ordnance was a perfect match for commanding these defenses. Page was a strict disciplinarian, and contemporaries described him as a “tall stately man.” One observer claimed he “looked to be about seven feet high.” His white hair and whiskers gave him a dignified appearance, and his erect bearing earned him the nickname “ramrod.”

The plans to defend the entrance to Mobile Bay began shortly after the War of 1812. Construction of a masonry star-shaped fort on the eastern side of the channel at Mobile Point began in 1819. Named after Revolutionary War Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, construction of this fort was complete in 1834. The massive pentagonal bastioned work could mount 118 guns and garrison nine hundred men in wartime. The Confederates took possession of the fort on 5 January 1861 and continued strengthening the fort’s defenses. They cleared the trees and growth for nearly three miles on the east side of the fort and added trenches and breastworks beyond the brick walls. They also constructed a brick fortification called Battery Bragg about one mile away from the fort near the Gulf, and Battery Gee farther eastward. By the fall of 1864, Fort Morgan mounted forty-six guns, most of them 32-pounders, 10-inch Columbiads, and 7-inch and 8-inch Brooke rifles. The guns directly guarding the channel, however, were only seven in number. They included two 32-pounders, four 10-inch Columbiads, and one 8-inch Brooke rifle.

Fort Gaines defended the western shore of the channel. This fort lay on the eastern end of Dauphin Island, three nautical miles from Fort Morgan. Construction on the fort began in 1821, but it was never completed. In 1853, the fort’s plans were completely changed and then named in honor of Edmund Pendleton Gaines, a War of 1812 general best known for arresting Aaron Burr. Seized by the state on the same day as Fort Morgan, this five-sided fort was largely complete by the outbreak of the Civil War and the Confederates modified it only slightly. Made of brick with 5-foot-thick walls, it mounted thirty guns, three of which were Columbiads and the rest 32- and 42-pounders. This fort, however, was so distant from the channel that it could not fire effectively on warships passing into the bay.

Fort Powell guarded Grant’s Pass, the channel between Cedar Point and Little Dauphin Island. Heavily armed deep-draft ships could not approach this fort due to the shallow water. Its six heavy guns also kept smaller warships at bay. When Union warships bombarded this fortification in February, the incident convinced the Confederates that an attack on Mobile was imminent and all the fortifications around Mobile were improved.

The Confederate static defenses were an important component of the fortifications. The obstructions and torpedoes that guarded the channel kept the Union navy from easily entering the bay. The obstructions consisted of a line of piles stretching from the shallow part of the channel near Fort Gaines, to within five hundred yards of Mobile Point. They could not easily obstruct the deepest part of the channel, which reached from over twenty to sixty-five feet in places. In January 1864 the Confederates did place a floating rope obstruction in the main channel. They found this obstruction difficult to maintain and realized an enemy could easily remove it. Farragut later reported finding a raft designed to “fill the opening” in the channel.

In the spring of 1863, the Confederates began planting torpedoes at Mobile. They initially placed these weapons in Grant’s Pass, and the Confederate leadership considered putting them in the main ship channel as well. By October 1863, there were thirty at the edge of the main ship channel, and by June 1864, they had eighty-six torpedoes planted. By July, the Confederates had three rows of torpedoes numbering 180. On 3 August, when the Union attack was imminent, they sent over fifty additional torpedoes out to the mouth of the bay placed them in the channel.

The Confederates knew the limitations of these weapons. Being near the channel, heavy weather could detach them from their moorings, making them a hazard to their own vessels. At one point, a drifting torpedo floated down on the Tennessee, but a quick-thinking marine fired and sank it twenty feet from the ironclad. The Confederates also had learned from the faulty torpedoes they had planted near Fort Powell. The failure of these weapons to explode as the Union vessels passed back and forth over them in February, showed that they only had a limited lifespan.

British Tangier

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On a foggy Wednesday in June 1661 an English war fleet of seventeen vessels, commanded by the Earl of Sandwich in the Royal James, weighed anchor in the Downs and headed out into the Channel. The earl’s official instructions were to sail to Algiers and to find the best means of persuading the Algerians to desist from searching English vessels and removing goods and persons from them. He could either negotiate a new treaty, or “fight with, kill and slay, sink, burn or destroy the persons, fleets, ships and vessels belonging to the said town or government of the town of Algiers.”

Sandwich arrived in the Bay of Algiers at the end of July and presented his demands to the governor, Isma’il Pasha, who refused point-blank to agree to any treaty which didn’t allow his men to search English shipping. This was the signal for an apparently inconclusive exchange of fire between the fleet and the town, after which the earl moved out of range and waited for a favorable wind so he could send his fireships into the harbor. It didn’t come, and after a week of watching helplessly as Algerian troops strengthened the boom across the harbor, reinforced their forts, and mounted more guns, the fleet sailed away again.

But Sandwich had other business. One of his objectives was to visit Lisbon to arrange for the evacuation of Portuguese subjects from Tangier. Another was to monitor the movements of a Dutch fleet under Michiel de Ruyter which was also in the Mediterranean, also with the publicly declared purpose of suppressing the Algerian corsairs. (At one time or another every maritime power in Western Europe used the corsairs as an excuse to justify its navy’s presence in the Mediterranean.) With half an eye on that Dutch fleet, Sandwich was told to put in at Tangier and to ensure that nothing untoward happened before the English governor could arrive to take possession. Henry Mordaunt, Earl of Peterborough, was appointed to that post in September, and Sandwich anchored in the Bay of Tangier on Thursday, October 10, to await his arrival.

By the beginning of January 1662 there was still no sign of Peterborough. Sandwich, who had spent the winter in the bay, watching and occasionally pursuing Turks as they passed through the Straits, was getting anxious. It wasn’t the Dutch who worried him but the threat from Abd Allah al-Ghailan’s Moors, and on January 4 he wrote to the Portuguese governor, Don Luis de Almeida, with an offer of 400 men to help with the defense of the town. The offer was refused.

Eight days later the mayor of Tangier took 140 mounted soldiers—the town’s entire contingent of horse—on a particularly ill-judged raid deep into the hostile countryside beyond the network of trenches and forts which divided the Portuguese from the Moors. The raiders rounded up 400 cattle and a smaller number of camels and horses, and captured thirty-five women and girls before turning for home. Six miles from the gates of Tangier they were ambushed by one hundred angry Moors armed with muskets. The mayor was shot in the head in the first volley, at which his men forgot their booty and ran. Al-Ghailan’s men killed another fifty-one Portuguese in the chase that followed, which continued right up to the gates of the town.

Beleaguered and in desperate need of reinforcements, Don Luis had second thoughts about the Earl of Sandwich’s offer, and within days the 400 English seamen had been put ashore, armed with muskets, pikes, swords, and bandoliers. They stood sentry around the town and manned the walls day and night. Sometimes, when they caught sight of Moors in the fields, they fired a volley or two of small shot, “to put them in fear and let them know that the town was well manned.”8 This went on for several weeks, with the earl torn between relief “that now I have between 3 and 400 men in the town and castles, and the command of all the strengths and magazines,”9 and anxiety that reinforcements might not arrive until it was too late.

Finally, at noon on Wednesday, January 29, 1662, Lord Peterborough’s fleet sailed into the Bay of Tangier, bringing with it 2,000 horse and 500 foot. Peterborough took formal possession of the town the next day, and Don Luis de Almeida presented him with the keys to the gates, a pair of silver spurs, and a problem which would afflict the English for the next two decades.

Wenceslaus Hollar made his drawings of Tangier when he visited the town in the autumn of 1669 with Henry Howard, who was on a diplomatic mission to Morocco. By this time it had achieved a semblance of normality, but it had been a struggle. The Portuguese had carried away everything that wasn’t nailed down when they left—and even some things that were, including doors, windows, and floors. So large parts of the town were remodeled or rebuilt after the English moved in. The bulk of the population, which fluctuated between 1,800 and 2,600 men, women, and children, consisted of British soldiers and their families. There was also a fair number of quarrymen and engineers who were working on the building of the harbor; most were from Yorkshire and had also brought their families with them. And there was a community of around 600 English, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and Italian merchants, attracted by Charles II’s decision in 1662 to make Tangier a free port. (Fairly free, at least: merchants plying the East Indies trade were barred, as were ships from English plantations in the Americas.)

Houses were generally low, after the Spanish fashion, with walls of stone and mud, low-pitched roofs of tile, and interior walls and ceilings paneled with pine planks. The officers and senior officials had rather grander homes, but almost everyone had a little garden full of sweet herbs and shady orange trees. Vines were trained to run up pillars and along lattices of reeds, and they were heavy with grapes in the hot summers. Of the various Catholic churches which had served the town under the Portuguese, only two survived: the “Cathedral,” a plain aisled building without steeple or bells, about thirty yards square with ten side chapels, which belonged to the Dominicans; and St. Jago’s, which had been turned into an Anglican church, rededicated to Charles the Martyr (the king’s father, Charles I), and “very well filled on Sundays.” Some of the old Portuguese street names were retained—Terreiro do Contrato, Escada Grande, Rua Nabo. Others were newly invented reminders of home: Butcher Row, Cannon Street, Salisbury Court, even Pye Corner. A pavilion which stood between the town walls and the outer defenses, “where the ladies, the officers, and the better sort of people do refresh and divert themselves with wine, fruits, and a very pretty bowling-base,” was called “Whitehall.” The quarries just along the coast, where the North Yorkshire stonemasons had their base, was “Whitby.”

The town was dominated by a vast Portuguese citadel which glowered down from a hill to the northwest of the residential district and occupied almost a third of the entire area within the walls. Reinforced and partly rebuilt by the English soon after they arrived, its lower ward ran down to the bay and was used as a parade ground for the garrison. The seaward perimeter was guarded by a little fortified blockhouse and magazine, renamed York Castle, which dated from before the Portuguese occupation and was once a refuge for pirates.

The Upper Castle was much grander. It contained the governor’s house—a Portuguese dungeon which had been transformed into a “noble, large and commodious” Restoration mansion, with formal gardens and spectacular views out over the Straits. Ranged against the ramparts of the Upper Castle were storehouses for munitions and provisions, and a neat row of officers’ houses lay behind the governor’s. To the west, a heavily fortified gatehouse and lookout post named Peterborough Tower, after the town’s first English governor, opened onto a broken, hilly no-man’s-land.

The governorship was not a passport to success in the world. The Earl of Peterborough was recalled to England after eleven months in office, amidst allegations of corruption and incompetence. (He foolishly took home with him the only plan of the wells and springs that supplied Tangier with fresh water, which had been given to him by Don Luis—and, even more foolishly, he lost it.) Peterborough’s successor as governor, the Earl of Teviot, managed a year in the post before he was killed in a Moorish ambush. During a bout of diarrhea the Earl of Middleton, who took up the governorship in 1668, got up in the middle of the night to hunt for a candle, fell over his sleeping manservant, and broke his arm; he died two days later. The Earl of Inchiquin was recalled in disgrace after allowing the Moors to overrun the outer defenses, although he managed to calm the king’s anger by giving him a pair of ostriches. The Earl of Ossory fell into a fit of depression when he heard of his appointment as governor, and succumbed to a fever before he could even leave England. One lieutenant governor was killed in action against the Moors; another died of dysentery, the “bloody flux.”

In spite of his short tenure in office, the Earl of Teviot was the most successful of the nine governors who tried to rule Tangiers during England’s struggle to maintain its Barbary Coast outpost. A professional soldier and ex-governor of Dunkirk (which Charles II sold to Louis XIV in 1662), he arrived in the colony on May Day 1663 and immediately set about reviewing the garrison and opening peace talks with Abd Allah al-Ghailan. These proved unfruitful—al-Ghailan responded that “the Mahometan law prohibited them to suffer the Christians to build any fortifications in Africa”—and against a background of constant skirmishing Teviot began a network of redoubts, outworks, and trenches which extended as a buffer for nearly half a mile beyond the walls.

There would eventually be thirteen forts—Anne, Belasyse, Bridges, Cambridge, Charles, Fountain, Giles, Henrietta, James, Kendal, Monmouth, Pole, and Pond. Most were clustered to the south of the town, and only 200 or 300 yards beyond the walls; they were meant to do no more than slow down an enemy advance. But the two biggest, Henrietta and Charles, were more formidable affairs, heavy bastioned blockhouses big enough to hold garrisons of 150 men. Charles Fort, which was built on a hill 600 yards from the town—a spot from which the Moors had liked to keep an eye on comings and goings in the town—carried enough victuals and ammunition to withstand a six-month siege and was armed with thirteen heavy guns.

Henrietta Fort stood on a neighboring hill about 300 yards away. Dogs guarded the outer perimeters, and snares and spiked balls were placed in the communicating trenches to slow down the Moors, who usually went barefooted. The earl ordered that the long grass beyond the lines should be cut short so that snipers had no cover, and each night he went out himself to set ambushes “to prevent surprisals, it being the Moors’ custom to plant their ambuscade a little before day.”

Stories of Teviot’s courage began to circulate inside and outside the walls, and he did his best to live up to them. Within days of his arrival at Tangier he ordered his men to open the city gates, and then rode out—alone—to reconnoiter the ground, “marking the best grass for hay, and the fittest places to essay a fortification.” His sense of honor earned respect: when two of al-Ghailan’s men were killed in a skirmish one Sunday morning, he ordered their bodies to be shrouded in white linen, placed on biers, and covered with flowers. Then he rode out under a white flag with his troops in formation until he reached the Moors’ lines, where he ceremoniously handed over their dead. By the spring of 1664 the Moors were saying that he was the Devil, that he had ships which could fly in the air and guns which fired without human intervention, that “he never sleeps but leaning against some part of the works; and that having scaped so many dangers . . . it is in vain to resist and impossible to worst him.”

Teviot’s charmed life came to a sudden end on May 3, 1664, a year and two days after his arrival in Tangier and exactly two years after a force under Major William Fiennes had been massacred during a minor sortie against al-Ghailan’s men. Warning his men to take special care on the anniversary of the day when “so many brave Englishmen were knocked on the head by the Moors,” the earl took a party of 400 horse to cut down a wood which the enemy used as cover about a mile and a half out of town; and although his scouts reported that there was no enemy activity in the area, his scouts were wrong. The party rode straight into an ambush and only thirty men made it back.

The earl was not one of them. In London, they said it was little short of a miracle he had survived so long: “Every day he did commit himself to more probable danger than this.”

Siege of Rochester Castle I

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Rochester Castle

On 11 October 1215, a crack troop of a hundred knights arrived at the gates of Rochester Castle and demanded to be admitted. The constable of the castle, Sir Reginald de Cornhill, did not hesitate, for he had been expecting them. The drawbridge was lowered, the doors swung open, and the horsemen swept inside.

These men were rebels, come into Kent on a highly dangerous mission. Earlier in the year, along with scores of other noblemen, they had seized control of London in defiance of their king. In recent days, however, they had started to sense that the tide was turning against them, and had therefore decided to take action. Selected by their fellows as the bravest and most skilled in arms, they had ridden south-east to open up a second front. If London was to hold out, they knew they had to distract the king, and draw his fire away from the capital.

Their plan, in this respect, was brilliantly successful. Two days later, a royal army drew up outside the walls of Rochester. King John had arrived.

John was the youngest son of Henry II, and the runt of his father’s litter. He is familiar to all of us as the bad guy from the Robin Hood stories – the snivelling villain who betrayed his elder brother, ‘Good’ King Richard the Lionheart, and made a grab for the English throne. It will hardly surprise most people to learn that this picture of John is a caricature – the Robin Hood legends originated long after the king was dead. Nevertheless, even if we scrape off all the mud that has been flung at John over the centuries, he still emerges as a highly unpleasant individual, and a man unsuited to the business of ruling. Contemporaries might not have recognized the hideous, depraved monster of legend, but they would have acknowledged the basic truth of the matter – John was a Bad King.

To find out what people really thought about King John, we have to leave the stories of Robin Hood, and turn instead to another piece of writing, very different but no less famous. In 1215, shortly before they set off to seize Rochester Castle, John’s enemies compiled a list of complaints about him, and presented it to the king in the hope of persuading him to behave better in the future. The list was drawn up in the form of a charter and, because it was so long, the charter itself was very big. People soon started referring to it simply as the Big Charter; or, in Latin, Magna Carta.

So, by looking at Magna Carta, we can work out why people were annoyed with King John. What aggravated them most, it seems, was the way in which he constantly helped himself to their cash; the first clauses of the Charter are all concerned with limiting the king’s ability to extort money. In 1204, five years into his reign, John had suffered a major military and political disaster when he lost Normandy, Anjou and Poitou to the king of France. These provinces had formed the heart of John’s empire, and trying to get them back had kept him busy for the past ten years. Ultimately, however, by plotting his recovery, John was paving the way to his own downfall. The cost of building an alliance to strike back against the French king was enormous, especially because it was John’s misfortune to rule at a time when inflation was causing prices (of mercenaries, for example) to soar. With increasing frequency, John passed the costs on to his English subjects, imposing ever greater and more frequent taxes, fining them large sums of money for trivial offences, and demanding huge amounts of cash in return for nothing more than his grace and favour. Very quickly, John managed to create a situation where the people who didn’t want him in charge outnumbered those who did – a dangerous scenario for any political leader.

In some respects, however, the rebellion that the king faced in 1215 was not entirely his own fault. Both his father and his brother had governed England in much the same fashion, expanding their power at the expense of the power of their barons. One very visible way of measuring their success is by looking at their castles. At the start of Henry II’s reign in 1154, only around 20 per cent of all castles in the country were royal. The two decades before Henry’s accession had seen a proliferation of private castles (mostly motte and baileys) built without the king’s consent. One of Henry’s first actions as king was to order (and, where necessary, to compel) the destruction of such fortifications. Moreover, Henry and his sons, as we have seen, built new castles – big, impressive stone towers like Newcastle, Scarborough, Orford, and Odiham. By the time of John’s death, the ratio of royal castles to baronial ones had altered drastically; almost half the castles in England were in royal hands. Castles, therefore, provide a good index of the king’s power against the power of his barons.

It is evident that the rebels brought long-term grievances such as this to the negotiating table in 1215, because John tried to address them in Magna Carta.

‘If anyone has been dispossessed without legal judgement from his lands or his castles by us,’ the king said, ‘we will immediately restore them to him.’

But John went on to add that his subjects should make allowances for anyone who had been similarly dispossessed ‘by King Henry our father, or King Richard our brother’. Such hair-splitting, however, ignored the basic truth of the matter, which was that Henry and Richard were simply better kings than John. They were skilled warriors, while he was condemned for his cowardice. Although he proved a capable administrator (John could be dynamic and efficient when it came to collecting taxes), he was a bad manager, unfit to command the loyalties of his leading subjects, unable to check or channel their ambitions, and uneven in his distribution of rewards. Most of all, John was just an unpleasant guy. He sniggered when people talked to him. He didn’t keep his word. He was tight-fisted and untrusting. He even seduced the wives and daughters of some of his barons. Henry and Richard might have acted unfairly from time to time, but overall people liked them; almost nobody liked John.

It was John’s personality, in the end, that doomed Magna Carta to failure. There was little point in persuading John to make such an elaborate promise, because he was bound to try and wriggle out of it. Sure enough, no sooner had negotiations ended than the king was writing to the Pope, explaining how the Charter had been forced out of him, and asking for it to be condemned. By the time the Pope wrote back, however, John’s opponents had already worked out for themselves that Magna Carta was not worth the parchment it was written on. The king would never keep his promises, and they had no way of compelling him to do so. They too abandoned the Charter as a solution, in favour of the much simpler plan of offering John’s crown to someone else. By the autumn of that year, both the king and the rebels were openly preparing for war.

This war was eventually fought right across the country. The South-East of England, however, and especially Kent, was the most important arena of conflict, because both parties were seeking assistance from the Continent. The rebels, for their part, had decided to offer the crown of England to Prince Louis, eldest son of the king of France. They had already made overtures to him in the course of the summer, and were hoping he would soon arrive and stake his claim in person, bringing with him much-needed reinforcements. John, meanwhile, was also looking across the Channel for help, but in his case from Flemish mercenaries. The king had recently despatched his recruiting agents overseas, and was hovering anxiously on the south coast, trying to secure the loyalty of the Channel ports, and waiting for his soldiers of fortune to arrive.

In such circumstances, control of Rochester Castle, which stood at the point where the main road to London crossed the River Medway, became all-important. John understood this as well as anyone, and for this reason had been trying to get his hands on the castle since the start of May, when the rebellion against him had first raised its head. The king had already written to the Archbishop of Cantebury twice, asking, in the nicest possible way, if he would mind instructing his constable to surrender the great tower into the hands of royal representatives. Both times, however, the request fell on deaf ears. The archbishop was one of John’s leading critics and, realizing only too well what the king’s intentions were, had promptly done nothing. Likewise, there was no love lost between the king and Rochester’s constable, Sir Reginald de Cornhill. He was one of the hundreds who were heavily in debt to the Crown, and John had recently deprived him of his job as Sheriff of Kent. Cornhill’s response was probably more decisive; the likelihood is that he got a message through to the rebels in London, pledging his support, and expressing his willingness to help them.

When they realized that Rochester was theirs for the taking, the rebels in London formulated their plan. A detachment of knights would be sent to occupy the castle and hold it against John, and the man to lead it would be Sir William de Albini. Sir William is quite a dark horse: we don’t have a great deal of information about him. Of course, the fact that he was chosen (or volunteered) to lead the mission indicates that he must have been a skilled and respected warrior. One contemporary writer calls him ‘a man with strong spirit, and an expert in matters of war’. More puzzling is the fact that he does not seem to have had any of the personal grudges harboured by John’s other opponents. On the one hand, he was clearly one of the leaders of the rebellion: back in the summer he had been named as one of the twenty-five men who were to enforce Magna Carta. On the other hand, Albini only joined the other rebels a week before the Charter was drafted. Whatever his own motivation for taking up arms against his king, in the weeks that followed there was no doubt about the strength of his commitment to the rebel cause.

Albini and his companions arrived at Rochester on a Sunday. On entering the castle, they found to their alarm that the storerooms were badly provisioned. Not only were they short on weapons and ammunition; there was, more worryingly, an almost total lack of food. They quickly set about remedying the situation, plundering the city of Rochester for supplies. In the event, however, their foraging operation only lasted forty-eight hours. By Tuesday, John and his army were outside the castle gates.

In such circumstances, we might not necessarily expect there to have been much of a fight. Just because one side in a dispute occupies a castle, and the other side turns up outside with an army, it does not automatically follow that a siege must take place. The defenders inside a castle might peer over their battlements at a colossal army, rapidly calculate the odds, and conclude that surrender is in their own best interests. Likewise, in many cases the prospective besieger will roll up with his army, assess the defences to be far too strong to break, and move on to take easier, softer targets. In this dispute, however, with each side playing for the highest stakes, and Rochester being so crucial to their respective plans, the king and his enemies exhibited an uncommon degree of determination. The rebels in the castle, in spite of their poor provisions, decided they were going to tighten their belts and stick it out. King John, pitching his camp outside the castle, looked up at the mighty walls of Rochester, and vowed he was going to break them. The scene was set for a monumental siege.

Ralph of Coggeshall, provides us with an account of the preliminary encounter between John and the rebels. The king’s aim on arriving in Rochester was to destroy the bridge over the Medway, in order to cut off his enemies from their confederates in London. On the first attempt he failed; his men moved up the river in boats, setting fire to the bridge from underneath, but a force of sixty rebels beat them back and extinguished the flames. On their second attempt, however, the king’s men had the best of the struggle. The bridge was destroyed, and the rebels fell back to the castle.

This kind of reporting is invaluable, and some of the additional details that Ralph provides are no less compelling (he tells us, for instance, in the shocked tones that only an outraged monk can muster, how John’s men stabled their horses in Rochester Cathedral).

For the first time in English history, however, we do not have to rely entirely on writers like Ralph. From the start of John’s reign, we have another (and in some respects even better) source of information. When John came to the throne in 1199, the kings of England had long been in the habit of sending out dozens of written orders to their deputies on a daily basis. But John made an important innovation: he instructed his clerks to keep copies. Every letter the king composed was dutifully transcribed by his chancery staff on to large parchment rolls, and these rolls are still with us today, preserved in the National Archives. The beauty of this is that every letter is dated and located. Even if John’s orders were humdrum, we can still use them to track the king wherever and whenever he travelled. We know, for example, that on 11 October the king was at Ospringe, and that by 12 October he had reached Gillingham. His first order at Rochester was given on 13 October, and on the following day, he wrote to the men of Canterbury.

‘We order you,’ he said, ‘just as you love us, and as soon as you see this letter, to make by day and night all the pickaxes that you can. Every blacksmith in your city should stop all other work in order to make [them]… and you should send them to us at Rochester with all speed.’

From the outset, it seems, John was planning on breaking into Rochester Castle by force.

In the early thirteenth century, siege warfare was a fine art with a long history, and a wide range of options were available to an attacker. Certain avenues, however, were closed to John, because the tower at Rochester had been deliberately designed to foil them. The fact that the entrance was situated on the first floor, and protected by its forebuilding, ruled out the possibility of using a battering ram. Equally, the tower’s enormous height precluded any thoughts of scaling the walls with ladders, or the wheeled wooden towers known as belfries. Built of stone and roofed in lead, the building was going to be all but impervious to fire. Faced with such an obstacle, many commanders would have settled down and waited for the defenders to run out of food. John, however, had neither the time nor the temperament for such a leisurely approach, and embarked on the more dangerous option of trying to smash his way in. But simply getting close enough to land a blow on the castle was going to be enormously risky. We know for a fact that the men inside had crossbows.

Crossbows had been around since at least the middle of the eleventh century, and were probably introduced to England (along with cavalry and castles) at the time of the Norman Conquest. In some respects, they were less efficient killing machines than conventional longbows, in that their rate of ‘fire’ was considerably slower. To use a longbow (the simplest kind of bow imaginable), an archer had only to draw back the bowstring to his ear with one hand before releasing it; with a crossbow, the same procedure was more complicated. The weapon was primed by pointing it nose to the ground, placing a foot in the stirrup and drawing back the bow with both hands – a practice known as ‘spanning’. When the bowstring was fully drawn, it engaged with a nut which held it in position. The weapon was then loaded by dropping a bolt or ‘quarrel’ into the groove on top, and perhaps securing it in place with a dab of beeswax.