Mehmed II

The capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Army, under the command Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II on 29th May 1453. With this conquest Ottomans became an Empire and one of the most powerful empires. After the Constantinople conquest, 21 years old Ottoman Sultan II. Mehmed also took the title “The Conqueror”, which was added to his name.

Built just before the 1453 siege of Byzantine Constantinople, Rumeli Hisarı (the Rumelian castle) on the European shore of the Bophorus was used along with the Anadolu Hisarı (the Anatolian castle) to seal off the city from the straights and deny it any possible relief.

Mehmed II (Mehmed Fatih; Mehmet II; Mehemmed II) (b. 1432-d. 1481) (r. 1444-1446; 1451-1481) Ottoman sultan Mehmed II was the fourth son of Murad II (r. 1421-44; 1446-51) and the seventh Ottoman ruler, whose first reign covered the period from 1444 to 1446 and whose second reign spanned three decades, from 1451 to 1481. Mehmed was born on March 30, 1432 in Edirne, which was then the Ottoman capital. The name and ethnicity of his mother have been the subject of much fruitless speculation but her identity remains unknown; she must in any case have been of non-Muslim slave origin. Mehmed’s early years are equally obscure. According to some sources, in 1434 he was sent with his mother to Amasya, where Mehmed’s half-brother Ahmed Çelebi (1420-37, the eldest son of Murad II) was governor, and where Murad’s second son, Alaeddin Ali Çelebi (b. 1425?-43), also appears to have been in Mehmed’s retinue. When Ahmed Çelebi died suddenly in 1437, the five-year-old Mehmed became the provincial governor of Amasya and Alaeddin Ali Çelebi was sent to govern Manisa, in western Anatolia. Two years later, in 1439, both princes were brought to Edirne for their circumcision, after which Murad had his sons switch positions, sending Mehmed to Manisa and Alaeddin Ali to Amasya. It is widely believed that Alaeddin Ali, who participated with his father in a successful campaign against Ibrahim Bey, the ruler of Karaman, was the sultan’s favorite, but in the spring of 1443, shortly after the campaign against Ibrahim Bey, Alaeddin Çelebi was assassinated. While the episode is shrouded in mystery, some historians believe the assassination was the result of an order from Murad; others suggest it was a consequence of political infighting among the sultan’s leading men. Regardless of its cause, the death of Alaeddin Çelebi left nine-year-old Mehmed as the sole living heir of Murad II. In July 1443 Murad brought his son from Manisa to Edirne to reside at court and gain experience in affairs of state.

In the later months of 1443 a crusading army, which had left the Hungarian capital of Buda, advanced deep into the Balkans and was finally halted by the Ottoman army in a bitter winter battle between Sofia (capital of present-day Bulgaria) and Edirne in December. Although hostilities were terminated in June 1444 by a 10-year truce signed by Murad at Edirne, to be ratified later by the king of Hungary, the truce was soon broken by Hungary under papal dispensation and an even larger crusading army was assembled and began its march toward Ottoman territory. Already engaged in another military campaign against Ibrahim Bey of Karaman in Anatolia, Murad II swiftly defeated the Karamanids, returned by forced march to Edirne, and went on with his army to confront and defeat the crusaders at the Battle of Varna (November 10, 1444).

In Edirne, the sultan had left the 12-year-old Mehmed as regent of the state’s Balkan territories. At this time Mehmed was under the tutelage of his father’s chief vizier, Çandarli Halil Pasha, and his kadiasker (army judge), Molla Hüsrev. During this period the young regent was exposed to several crises, including the death of the leader of the radical Hurufiyya Sufi movement who gained many adherents as well as the protection of Prince Mehmed himself before being proscribed by the authorities and executed. During the same period, a Janissary revolt ended in the burning of the market quarter and the attempted destruction of one of Mehmed’s special advisors, Sihabeddin Pasha, a man of the devsirme, or child levy. When Murad returned from fighting the crusaders in late November or early December 1444, he abdicated in favor of his young son, retiring to Manisa and leaving Mehmed to rule as sultan under the tutelage of Çandarli Halil Pasha and Molla Hüsrev.

Mehmed’s first reign as sultan was as troubled and difficult as had been his earlier regency; little more than 18 months after his enthronment and accession ceremony Mehmed was deposed and packed off to Manisa and Murad II resumed the sultanate. It is not clear why Murad was recalled to Edirne by Halil Pasha. It may have been that Mehmed was planning an offensive against Constantinople which would have been supported by men of the devsirme while being vehemently opposed by Çandarli Halil Pasha; it may have been that the Janissaries were unhappy with Mehmed. Despite being deposed, Mehmed continued to work with his father, taking part with him in military campaigns in 1448 against a further Hungarian invasion (the second Battle of Kosovo, October 1448) and again in 1450 in Albania. He seems to have ruled western Anatolia intermittently from Manisa as a virtual fiefdom, from which he undertook naval campaigns against Venetian possessions in the Aegean.

When Murad II died at Edirne in February 1451, Mehmed was once again in Manisa. His second reign began when he acceded to the throne in Edirne on February 18, 1451, confirming all his father’s ministers in their posts, including Çandarli Halil as grand vizier, and ordering the judicial murder of the youngest son of Murad II, then an infant, in an act that historians have seen as the initiation of the so-called Ottoman “law of fratricide,” although considerable doubt remains on this point. Mehmed was now 19, marked by the traumatic experiences of his childhood and youth, and determined to exercise absolute authority as sultan.

The first months of his reign were apparently tranquil: existing truces with Serbia, Venice, and lesser Aegean and Balkan entities were renewed, a three-year truce was negotiated with Hungary, and particular assurances of Mehmed’s benevolence were accorded to the Byzantine Empire, leaving Mehmed free to warn off Ibrahim Bey of Karaman from his pretensions to Ottoman territory in Anatolia. Soon, however, the situation changed and the determining features of Mehmed’s reign began to manifest themselves: a sharp increase in state expenditure; lavish buildings works, including a vast new palace complex at Edirne; and an aggressive foreign policy, manifested first against the Byzantine Empire and signaled by the construction in 1452 of the fortress of Rumeli Hisari on the European shore of the Bosporus, effectively blockading the Straits and isolating the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. Mehmed spent the autumn of 1452 and spring of 1453 in Edirne planning the final conquest of Constantinople. He ordered the casting of huge siege guns, assembled land and sea forces, and moved a vast array of soldiers and equipment from Edirne to the land walls of the Byzantine capital.

Mehmed left Edirne late in March 1453 and began to besiege Constantinople on April 6. The siege lasted 54 days, the outcome remaining uncertain until the final storming of the city walls on May 29, after which Mehmed gave the city over to his soldiers for three days of pillaging. Mehmed entered the city later on May 29 and proceeded to the famed metropolitan church of Hagia Sophia which he transformed into a Muslim mosque, called Aya Sofya. Most of the surviving population of the city were enslaved and deported. The Byzantine Empire was now effectively at an end, and Constantinople was renamed Istanbul. The conquest of Constantinople also marked the end of the old, paternalistic Ottoman state of Murad II. Within a brief time Çandarli Halil Pasha, whose attitude toward the siege had been equivocal at best, was dismissed and later executed. He was replaced as grand vizier by Zaganos Pasha, a product of the devsirme, whose more aggressive attitudes would henceforth dominate the affairs of the sultanate.

By the conquest of Constantinople Mehmed had realized an Islamic ambition that dated back to the first sieges of the city by the Arabs in the mid-seventh century. The Ottoman state was now an empire, controlling the “two lands” (Anatolia and Rumelia) and the “two seas” (the Black Sea and the Aegean). Mehmed himself was henceforth known by the sobriquet “Fatih,” or “the Conqueror,” arrogating to himself not only the Muslim title of sultan, first claimed by Bayezid I (r. 1389-1402), but two additional titles implying universal sovereignty, the old Turkish title of Khaqan and the Roman-Byzantine title of Qaysar (Caesar). It is in the light of his self-image as world-ruler and his ambitions for universal monarchy, contrasted with the practical limitations on the realization of that policy, that the complex record of Mehmed’s activities during his almost 30-year reign can be best understood.

In the first place, Istanbul was rapidly restored to its historic position as a true imperial capital. The city was progressively redeveloped and was repopulated by successive waves of forced immigration from newly conquered areas. Moreover, Mehmed rebuilt the city through the development of new residential and mercantile quarters grouped around a mosque complex or a market. Edirne was quickly abandoned by Mehmed as an imperial residence in favor of new palaces built within the walls of Istanbul, the first being the so-called Old Palace and the second being the New Palace, better known as the Topkapi Palace, built at the furthest extremity of the city, overlooking the confluence of the Bosporus, the Golden Horn, and the Sea of Marmara.

Secondly, the almost continuous warfare that marked Mehmed’s reign can be seen as an attempt to expand Ottoman territory by the elimination or neutralization of all competing polities, Muslim as well as Christian, that stood in the way of the realization of his imperial ambitions. The remaining fragments of territory where Byzantine rule still endured were rapidly absorbed by Mehmed’s burgeoning empire. Most of the Balkan states that still formed part of the Christian Orthodox world were also incorporated by a combination of warfare and diplomacy (Serbia, 1457; Bosnia, 1461-63), while Venetian possessions in the east came under sustained Ottoman attack with the Ottoman-Venetian war of 1463-79 and the capture of Negroponte in 1470. North of the Danube River, the Ottomans were still not strong enough to take Belgrade (although they besieged it unsuccessfully in 1456) or to do more than ravage Hungarian territory by ceaseless razzias intended to preempt any hostile presence on the lower Danube. The Balkan territories of Wallachia and Moldavia remained a military danger zone for the Ottoman armies and an area of abiding contention. Conversely, toward the end of his reign Mehmed was able to eradicate the Genoese trading colonies in the Crimea and to bring the Giray dynasty, the Crimean Khanate, into a vassal relationship (1478), thus controlling territories on all sides of the Black Sea, which for almost three centuries was given the sobriquet of the “Ottoman lake.”

In Anatolia, Mehmed went on to control most of the remaining Muslim dynasties, employing a combination of strategies that included forced annexation and dynastic marriages. These dynasties were themselves largely of Turkoman origin, such as the Isfendiyarid in northern Anatolia, with its valuable Black Sea port of Sinop and its copper mines in the vicinity of Kastamonu. Karaman, long a thorn in the Ottomans’ side, was neutralized in 1468 and re-annexed in 1474; the eastern Anatolian Turkoman confederacy of the Akkoyunlu (or “White Sheep” Turkomans), led by Uzun Hasan, proved more difficult to subdue, but the confederacy was much diminished by Mehmed’s 1473 victory over Uzun Hasan in the Battle of Tercan (Otluk-beli).

In the latter years of Mehmed’s reign, when he was already in poor health, the practical limitations of his policies became more apparent. Success had brought its own problems, including confrontations with the Egyptian Mamluk Empire and with Hungary, which would not be solved in the Ottomans’ favor until the reign of Mehmed’s grandson, Selim I (r. 1512-20). There is no doubt also that Mehmed harbored a deep desire to conquer Italy and to bring Rome, as well as Constantinople, under his domination, but an expedition mounted against southern Italy in 1480 was a disastrous failure, and the Ottoman bridgehead at Otranto was abandoned the following year, after Mehmed’s death. Likewise, a complex amphibious operation in the same year against the crusading Knights of St John and their island fortress of Rhodes was a costly failure.

While Mehmed Fatih is known primarily for his military successes, especially for the conquest of Constantinople, and for his impressive role in expanding the Ottoman Empire, there were other important aspects of his long reign. Mehmed’s attempts to build up a unified and centralized empire strained the state’s finances, forcing several devaluations of the Ottoman currency and requiring the extension of the state’s monopolistic and unpopular tax-farming system. Through these measures, and despite vast and continuous military expenditure, the state treasury still contained some three and a half million ducats of ready money at the time of the sultan’s death. At the same time, these actions and the frequent confiscation of private lands by the state alienated most of the old Ottoman landed families and society at large, creating strong social discontent.

Altogether, it is difficult to arrive at a balanced account of Mehmed’s reign. His complex personality has been endlessly discussed but still defies satisfactory analysis. Mehmed seems to have been affected by both the perils and humiliations of his early years and possibly by the influence of what may be termed the “war party” at the outset of his reign. Attempts to describe him as a renaissance figure and a free thinker must be viewed with some misgivings in light of his preoccupation with enforcing strict religious orthodoxy. The darker aspects of his nature continue to defy analysis; although these are well documented, they stand in contrast to the historical picture we have of both his father, Murad II, and his son, Sultan Bayezid II (r. 1481-1512).

Mehmed II died on May 3, 1481 while encamped with his army on the first stages of a campaign in Anatolia, possibly directed against Rhodes or the Mamluk Empire. There is substantial circumstantial evidence that Mehmed was poisoned, possibly at the behest of his eldest son and successor, Bayezid. Mehmed’s death unleashed a short-lived but violent Janissary revolt and then a lengthy succession struggle between Bayezid and his brother Cem, who long contended for the throne. Although Bayezid immediately reversed many of his father’s fiscal and military policies, Mehmed’s reign was one of undeniable achievement, the conquest of Constantinople and its subsequent transformation being foremost amongst his accomplishments.

Further reading: Franz Babinger, Mehmed the Conqueror and His Time, translated by Ralph Manheim, edited by William C. Hickman (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1978), a work to be used with caution, and read in conjunction with Halil Inalcik, “Mehmed the Conqueror (1432-1481) and His Time,” Speculum, xxv (1960), 408-427, reprinted in Halil Inalcik, Essays in Ottoman History (Istanbul: Eren, 1998), 87-110; Michael Doukas, The Decline and Fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks, trans. H. J. Magoulias (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1975); Colin Heywood, “Mehmed II and the Historians: The Reception of Babinger’s Mehmed der Eroberer during Half a Century” (to appear in Turcica, 2009); Halil Inalcik, “The Policy of Mehmed II towards the Greek Population of Istanbul,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 23-24 (1969-70), 231-249; Kritovoulos, History of Mehmed the Conqueror, trans. C. T. Riggs (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1954); Bernard Lewis et al., The Fall of Constantinople: A Symposium Held at the School of Oriental and African Studies 29 May 1953 (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1955); Julian Raby, “A Sultan of Paradox: Mehmed the Conqueror as a Patron of the Arts.” The Oxford Art Journal, 6, no. 1 (1982), 3-8; Steven Runciman, The Fall of Constantinople (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965); Tursun Beg, The History of Mehmed the Conqueror, edited and translated by Halil Inalcik and Rhoads Murphey (Minneapolis: Bibliotheka Islamica, 1978).

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The Threat to Vienna 1683 I

In February 1683 Quartermaster-General Haslingen drew up a complete list of Leopold’s troops and of the areas in which they were stationed. He counted seventy companies in Bohemia, forty-five in Moravia, and forty-eight in Silesia—with a complement, in theory, of 7,600 foot and 10,000 cuirassiers and dragoons. There were seventy-five companies in western Hungary and thirty-eight in Upper Hungary, although a comparison with another of his memoranda seems to show that he was here counting some regiments and companies twice over; nor could he, or anyone else, rely on the estimates of men serving in the various types of Hungarian militia. In the Inner Austrian lands (Styria, Carinthia and Carniola) Haslingen enumerated forty-three companies—5,600 foot and 1,200 horse; in Upper and Lower Austria forty companies—4,000 foot and 1,600 horse; and in the empire eighty companies of foot and one of horse—16,400 men. His figures for the number of companies were correct (except, no doubt, for Hungary); but on the premise that the full complement in foot and mounted companies was 200 and 80 men respectively, the grand totals of 44,800 infantry and 17,600 cavalry were no more than the roughest of guides to the size of the whole Habsburg force. They much exceeded the actual number of effective soldiers. However, the quartermaster could soon hope to add to it the bands of irregulars to be raised by Magyar magnates, three mounted regiments which Prince Lubomirski was commissioned to bring from Poland, and also the new regiments of the patentees nominated by Leopold during the winter.

The immediate problem, for the War Council, was to decide how many men could be safely moved east from the empire, in spite of Louis XIV’s aggressive policy, in order to reinforce the contingents sent south from the Bohemian lands, building up by this concentration the strongest possible force in Hungary to oppose the Turks. The decision involved some of the best regiments at Leopold’s disposal; it had also to take into account the treaty recently agreed with Max Emmanuel of Bavaria, which obliged the Emperor to leave 15,000 men always available for the defence of the Empire. In fact, about 7,500 infantry from the old regiments were finally ordered to march from the western front to a rendezvous at Kittsee, near Pressburg, to join there the great majority of the regiments recently quartered in Bohemia and the various Austrian duchies. In due course, 5,000 men from the new regiments were also available for the campaign in Hungary.

It was soon realised that one miscalculation had already been made. The troops, especially those in the Empire, took much longer than expected to make the long journey to the eastern front, and the date for the rendezvous at Kittsee had to be altered from 21 April to 6 May. Sixteen days were thus lost, and the chance of taking the initiative before the Turks could arrive dwindled fast.

Another difficult point was the appointment of a commander in the field. Leopold, unlike his father, unlike such militant contemporary rulers as Max Emmanuel and William of Orange or John Sobieski, never imagined himself a victorious commanding general. He had always to choose a deputy, after taking into account the ticklish animosities of the military and political grandees of his court. In the last war against France, Montecuccoli, by combining the presidency of the War Council with the supreme command in the field, had caused them the greatest offence. Enemies and critics of Baden, the new President, were determined to deny him the same monopoly of power and they relied on the pledge, previously given by Leopold, to appoint Charles of Lorraine commander-in-chief if war broke out again. This could not bind the Emperor. Circumstances alter cases, Charles had often been ill in recent years, while Herman of Baden certainly disliked and perhaps under-estimated him. In 1683, in spite of counter-intrigues, Lorraine’s party at the court persevered and finally triumphed, so that he was instructed to be in Vienna by 10 April in order to discuss the strategy of the coming campaign.

He duly arrived from Innsbruck and a council of war was held on 21 April. It took a great many decisions in detail, but the guiding proposal was to place the field army in the centre of the frontier through Hungary, around Komárom. The council wanted to leave General Schultz with a strong independent force farther north, on the River Váh; and to ensure that the lower part of the Mur valley far to the south (which guards the approaches to Graz) was firmly held by troops from Styria and Croatia. The gaps between were assigned mainly to the Magyars, under Esterházy along the lower Váh, and under Batthyány along the line of the Rába. Lorraine’s command of the field-army was publicly announced on 21 April.

By the beginning of May troops were arriving at the rendezvous, a flat plain round the village of Kittsee, near the southern shore of the Danube where the last spurs of the Leitha hills die away opposite Pressburg. While Lorraine himself rode east to inspect the position at Györ, his officers remained behind to supervise the assembling of regiments which were coming in from the north and west. It was rainy, windy weather which damaged a pontoon-bridge leading across to the town. The officers felt perturbed by the shortness of forage, they grumbled hard at the lateness of the spring, but enjoyed plenty of leisure to discuss uncertain news filtering through about the entry of the Ottoman army into Hungary, or alleged difficulties in the Habsburg negotiation with Poland. In Vienna the Emperor prepared to come to Pressburg. So did courtiers, foreign ambassadors, fine ladies and sightseers. Splendid ceremonial tents were made ready for the review. Then Lorraine returned from his tour of inspection, apparently satisfied by what he saw at Györ and elsewhere along the border. The Magyars appeared, led by the Palatine Paul Esterházy. They were only 500 or 600 at first, not the 6,000 promised, but a few days later their number increased to 2,000. About 32,000 men—21,000 foot and 10,800 horse and dragoons—were finally and elaborately assembled for a grand parade on 6 May when the Emperor crossed over from Pressburg to spend nine slow and crowded hours on the triple ceremony of a solemn Mass, an inspection of the troops, and a state banquet.

It was a brave show that day; but the summer campaign of the Habsburg army proved a dismal failure, due largely to the paralysis of the command. Lorraine, as the general in the field, was required to consult with his council of officers, and the Emperor in Vienna, and the War Council which was dominated by Herman of Baden. The personal rivalry of Baden and Lorraine remained intense, and they differed over the whole strategy to be followed in the period (of uncertain duration) before the Turkish army reached the Austrian frontier. Exasperated by the general unwillingness of many high-ranking officers to accept his proposals with any cordiality, Lorraine fell ill with worry and exhaustion. The theatre of war was a complete novelty to him—apart from one campaign in Hungary twenty years earlier—and his touch was very uncertain, as if he did not realise the distances involved or even the ordinary difficulties of transport in this waterlogged area. His main idea was clear-cut: an aggressive march eastwards, followed by the capture of an important point held by the Turks, stood a chance of compelling the Turkish grand army to spend the rest of the summer and autumn in trying to recover what they had just lost. A powerful attack of this kind, at an early date, appeared to him the one possible method of defending the Austrian lands; there is no hint that he ever gave the defence of Hungary a thought, except as an aid to the protection of more westerly areas. The target which he suggested, at the conference held in Kittsee on 7 May—with Baden and nine senior officers present—was Esztergom on the south bank of the Danube, or alternatively Neuhäusel which lies well to the north of the river. Both were important Ottoman citadels. The argument in favour of an aggressive start was duly marshalled. It would raise the Emperor’s reputation if a force were put into the field before the Turks were ready, and thereby strengthen his bargaining power in the Empire and in Poland; it would increase Turkish dissatisfaction with the Grand Vezir; and ‘fix’ the enemy, compelling him to concentrate on the recapture of a lost position in the coming campaign. Baden apparently demurred. Most of the officers agreed to the course proposed by Lorraine, although they preferred the idea of an attack on Neuhäusel—which was separated from the approaching Ottoman army by the Danube—to an attack on Esztergom. It was finally decided to move the troops eastwards to Györ and to Komárom, the outermost Habsburg fortress, and then to reconnoitre in the direction of Esztergom, subject always to the Emperor’s approval.

During the next fortnight the army, split into sections in order to ease a shortage of forage everywhere, marched and rode slowly across the enormous plain. By 19 May the infantry reached the outskirts of Györ, and on the next day continued on the route to Komárom. Camps were set along the right bank of the river. Lorraine himself reconnoitred Esztergom while waiting for munitions and artillery. He held firmly to his project of an attack, even though he felt disconcerted by his officers’ grumbling, by the indecisive instructions received from Vienna, and contradictory reports about the speed and direction of the Turkish advance. In spite of the council of officers, who met on 26 May and loudly opposed the move on Esztergom, Lorraine held firm and shortly afterwards ordered the troops to march. They had already left the camp on 31 May when Lorraine returned from a further reconnaissance and countermanded the order. His reason for this was apparently a disturbing message from Styria, that the Grand Vezir had already crossed the bridge at Osijek, so that a further advance by the Habsburg forces looked exposed to an early attack in open country against overwhelming odds. Lorraine was in despair when he got back to his base. Then, temporarily, the position seemed to alter. Less alarming intelligence reached him about the pace of the Turkish advance, and he received a letter from Leopold encouraging him to persevere with an attack on some Turkish stronghold before the main body of the enemy arrived on the scene. But Lorraine dithered, and his faithful secretary Le Bègue began to think that a return to the duchy of Lorraine on terms imposed by Louis XIV would be a better fate than the infuriating perplexities of supreme command in Hungary. On 2 (or possibly 3) June the general proposed, for the last time, an assault on Esztergom. The officers protested and he began to reconsider the alternative of an assault on Neuhäusel; this the officers, somewhat grudgingly, approved.

Throughout the last three weeks, at almost every camp, Lorraine had received reports from Vienna which emphasised his isolation in the distant world of court politics. He attempted to brief his supporters in the capital by letter, but far too many interests there were eager for his discredit by his failure as a general. Lorraine took it as an intolerable insult that Herman of Baden, returning from a tour of inspection to Györ in the middle of May, had not even stopped to confer with him. He resented and probably exaggerated the hostility of some of Leopold’s advisers, like the Bishop of Vienna and Zinzendorf. In any case their criticism had its justification. Laymen might be pardoned for thinking that the organisation of a defensive position along the Rivers Váh and Rába was the paramount concern. Certain of the professional soldiers, Baden or Rimpler, supported them. As things turned out, these experts completely underestimated the mass and weight of the Turkish attack but Lorraine made the greater mistake of wasting time and resources for six precious weeks. He had accomplished nothing at Esztergom; then he made the troublesome crossing of the Danube at Komárom and advanced towards Neuhäusel. All went well at first, although it was realised that more heavy artillery would be needed here. The outworks were quickly taken, and troops lodged in the island immediately opposite the inner defences of the Turks; and yet once again, by 8 June Lorraine was in despair. He was embarrassed by a letter from the Emperor which advised him to remain on the defensive, without positively forbidding an assault on a Turkish strongpoint like Neuhäusel. This he countered by a reply which asked for more explicit instructions. Then, during the night of the 7th, everything went wrong. The guns which the troops had with them were not sited in accordance with Lorraine’s orders, and he inclined to think that the error was a piece of deliberate obstruction by the officers concerned. Other, heavier weapons, on their way up from Komárom got stuck in the mud, and it soon became clear that they could not be brought into action against the enemy for several days. Finally, reports suggested that Tartars and some Turkish forces were assembling in great numbers near Buda to advance towards Neuhäusel. Confused and angry discussions went on all the next day at headquarters. In the morning Lorraine was still determined to go on with the attack. General Leslie arrived and joined the council of war. He supported the other officers, until Lorraine gave way and decided to return to Komárom without waiting for further orders from Leopold. His second attempt to take the initiative, before the grand army of the enemy arrived near the scene of action, had failed utterly.

On the next day the retreat began. A camp was set on the left bank of the Neutra opposite Komárom, from which it was easy enough to raid into country beyond the frontier for essential supplies. For ten days the army rested, motionless in this central position, while Lorraine expected Kara Mustafa to show his hand by committing himself to a definite line of advance. News from stray deserters and other miscellaneous arrivals at the camp disclosed that the odds were in favour of a Turkish move towards Györ, with a slight chance that very large Turkish forces might still be sent to fight north of the Danube. On 18 May he received in audience envoys from Thököly, who were travelling towards Vienna to give Leopold formal notice that their master was ending the truce between them. Their word was not of the slightest value, but when they announced that Györ was the first Turkish objective Lorraine at last felt disposed to agree. Certainly, on the following day there are real signs that he was preparing to break camp and move his troops. On the 19th some detachments crossed the Neutra. On the 21st he sent the dragoon regiments of Castell and d’Herbeville to reinforce Schultz up in the north, and the Dieppenthal dragoons to Gúta (another small fortified post which he himself inspected). Starhemberg and Leslie set out on their way to Györ. Turkish raiders had already appeared near the now deserted camp across the Neutra, and the guns of Komárom fired warningly over the water at them.

During the next few hours a strong gale blew up suddenly and broke the pontoon bridge over the Danube. Fortunately a quick repair was possible and soon the troops of the field-army (preceded by Lorraine himself) got back to Györ.

It had become urgently necessary to settle on a plan for the proper defence of this neighbourhood. Once again, Lorraine and his friends championed a forward position. A letter written some days earlier by Le Bègue, while he was still in the Schütt, shows that they wished to place their army in the angle between the right bank of the Rába and the Danube, in front of the fortifications of Györ. They held that the defences of the town were far too weak to hold out against heavy Turkish artillery. They believed that the alternative, sponsored by both Herman of Baden and by Leslie, of keeping a great majority of the forces in a sheltered position in the Schütt, would expose Györ to the risk of immediate capture. It would dangerously uncover the left bank of the Rába and possibly Austria itself. Once on the spot Lorraine personally surveyed the ground. He did his best to hasten the palisading of the counterscarp in front of the town, still far from complete, and soon 7,000 men were at work on it. He also started to fortify the heights at some distance from the town, across the Rába, in order to prevent the enemy from beginning their siege operations uncomfortably close to the main defences, which would have shortened the time needed by the Turks to prepare a final assault. The Lorrainers lamented that so little had been done at an earlier stage; but the engineer Rimpler disagreed and felt more confident, perhaps partly because he himself was responsible for much of the spadework carried out in and around Györ since 1681; and indeed, the Turks never took the place in 1683. Moreover Rimpler and other officers could not approve the plan to place the field-army in front of the works, and after detailed discussion the command decided on a new scheme of defence. It visualised a slight enlargement of the garrison in Györ and its outposts, while the greater part of the army was stationed along the left bank of the Rába. This decision was carried out amid scenes of hectic activity between 25 and 29 June. A redoubt and other works were built, to guard the fords immediately in front of the troops. Some cavalry and dragoons moved southwards, and others northwards over the Danube (into the Schütt), to ward off any movement by skirmishers in either direction. All the time different messengers were bringing in news of the Turks’ approach, while on the 28th Lorraine himself led a cavalry raid into the countryside in front of them, in order to strip it of any supplies which the enemy could use. Soon, smoke rising over the horizon revealed the first incursions of the enemy. On the 30th, pickets of guards protecting labourers in the outworks had their first brush with advance bodies of Turks; and on the next day, 1 July, with perhaps 12,500 foot and 9,500 horse prepared for action behind the Rába, Lorraine and his officers watched vast numbers approaching them from the east.

The Italian Marsigli, who earlier drew attention to the importance of the defences above Györ, had been sent on a special mission to this area. His letters made gloomy reading ten days before the Turks appeared. The Magyars, he wrote, were utterly scornful of the Habsburg army which behaved so feebly at Esztergom and Neuhäusel. On 21 June some Tartars, already reported to be in the neighbourhood, caused panic at one small bridgehead where the Magyars on the spot refused to destroy the bridge. Marsigli himself and his troop of 200 dragoons did succeed in breaking down two other bridges over the Rába, but he warned Lorraine that there were ‘three fords’ to be watched between the marshes—his own sector—and Györ. Unfortunately, while the Magyar leaders assembled their men on the ‘island’ and Lorraine prepared to fight in and around the citadel, neither party attended to these easy crossings of the river. The discord between Batthyány and Draskovich on one side, and the Habsburg authorities (who had never examined this stretch of the frontier with thoroughness) on the other, produced a fatal fracture in the whole system of the defence; and as Marsigli was later to insist, in the great book which he wrote on Ottoman military institutions, the Tartars were absolute masters of the art of fording rivers with their horses, baggage and even with prisoners.

That night of 1 July, the Turkish camps were set on the right bank of the Rába and in front of the town, over a large area of ground which extended several miles upstream. Many other forces took up a position along the Danube and on the higher ground a little farther off. At two o’clock on the next morning Lorraine was woken, and tried to take stock of the position. As it grew light he could see the dense, irregular formation of the Turkish encampments, with large hosts of fighting men apparently getting ready for action. He roused up his own troops and put them in order of battle close to the river; batteries opened fire, attempting to drive the foremost Turks back from the edge of the water. Christian observers were guessing confusedly at the numbers of Moslems and Christian auxiliaries opposed to them: there were 80,000 there were 100,000 there were 150,000! At all events here was the enemy, looking as formidable as the most pessimistic reports had ever anticipated, with individual troops or groups testing the fordability of the Rába and riding upstream out of sight, well beyond the right wing of the Habsburg army. This crowded and confused spectacle slowly began to disclose a more regular pattern. Many Turkish or Tartar tents were struck and more men moved away to the south. The area round Györ itself was strangely still. During the afternoon these Turkish and Tartar horsemen got safely across the river, some making use of the fords, others swimming. The thin screen of Austrians from Styrum’s regiment and the Magyar or Croat forces guarding this section of the front were completely outnumbered, and the accusation of treachery levelled against Batthyány the Hungarian commander makes little sense. Neither he nor Styrum could have stopped the foe. His own men quickly preferred to surrender while Styrum’s fell back in disorder. And not much later smoke was visible a long way to the west.

Strangely enough Lorraine gave ground at once. He never seems to have considered that, for the time being at least, he could disregard a host of irregulars riding rapidly west to fire the countryside provided that the great mass of the opposing army was still in front of Györ. Indeed, he also broke up his own force into smaller pieces. Another thirteen companies were sent to stiffen the garrison, accompanied by a few aristocratic volunteers, Leslie led the main body of infantry over the Danube into the Schütt, and Lorraine himself prepared to withdraw the cavalry. Baggage and artillery moved over the Rabnitz westwards almost immediately, and the cavalry followed as evening fell. The retreat continued overnight and during the next day. There were Tartars ahead of the Habsburg regiments, and Tartars at their heels. At one moment the rearguard was mauled, so that Lorraine himself had to turn back and go to the rescue. The enemy moved quickly, with small groups of horsemen dotted over a wide area. The Habsburg troops were divided into a van, a main body, and a rear, riding west in a tighter, more compact formation. Both protagonists were taking the same route, up the Danube as far as Ungarisch-Altenburg (although the Tartars obviously circled round the town itself), where Lorraine spent the night of the 2nd. Both then ascended the winding course of the Leitha. While the Tartars or Turks roamed over the whole stretch of country between the right bank of the river and the Neusiedler See, the Habsburg commanders kept between the Leitha and Danube, and headed for Kittsee and Pressburg again. They camped for two more nights in the plain at Deutsch-Jahrndorf, waiting and hoping for the situation to clear. At first the reports from Györ suggested that Kara Mustafa was settling down to besiege the place, while Lorraine hoped to recover the district round the Neusiedler See by sending off 800 horse under Colonel Heisler in that direction. Unfortunately, news then came through that large numbers of Turkish infantry were crossing the Rába, and at the same time Lorraine heard from Leslie, who announced that he intended to withdraw westwards with all the infantry under his command unless he was given distinct orders to the contrary by 4 July. Such a step appeared to mean leaving Györ to its fate, and the message was only received at headquarters on 4 July. Too late, Lorraine replied that Leslie must stay on the Schütt. Happily Leslie took no notice and began to retreat.

Lorraine rode ahead to Kittsee for a conference with the vice-president of the War Council, Caplirs, and on the 6th most of the cavalry camped round Berg. Here the plain ends, the ground rises abruptly some thousand feet. Pressburg and the Danube lie a little way off on one side, and on the other the Leitha winds out of the Leitha hills into the plain. Lorraine was back in the landscape made familiar to many of his soldiers and officers by the rendezvous five weeks earlier; with this difference, remarked by everyone, that dust and smoke now thickened the air over the plain, dust kicked up by the moving horsemen, smoke from the fired barns and houses. Between the Leitha hills and the sharp outcrop at Berg smoother country continues in the direction of Vienna. It was a relatively narrow passage through which any sizeable invading force would have to pass, and Lorraine hoped to control it.

At the same time there was talk of building new bridges just below Pressburg. When it became clear that Leslie had definitely begun to draw back across the Schütt, the command planned to bring his infantry over these bridges across the Danube again, in this way re-assembling the entire field-army for the defence of the area between the Leitha and Danube. It seemed possible, and it was certainly essential, to hold up the advanced units of the enemy at Berg. If his main armament moved forward, it too would have to be resisted at this point but Lorraine hoped that Kara Mustafa himself—engaged on the siege of Györ—would not push beyond the Leitha: at Ungarisch-Altenburg Habsburg detachments still guarded the bridge and the fords across it, together with large magazines of food and munitions. Much farther off, Györ was momentarily isolated. Across the Leitha and towards the Neusiedler See, an area of lesser strategic importance, the situation meanwhile looked completely out of control. Neither Leopold’s government nor his armies had any power to check the frightful course of devastation there, in the countryside once quietly ruled over by Esterházy and his peers.

The Threat to Vienna 1683 II

Kara Mustafa Pasha -Grand Vizier and Commander of Ottoman Empire

At nine o’clock, on the morning of 7 July the whole position changed with appalling suddenness. Lorraine was riding a mile or two from his headquarters when he heard that the Turks had entered Ungarisch-Altenburg in great force. The surprise was so complete that the defenders were unable to destroy the bridge and it looked as if the Grand Vezir had thrown into the campaign another 25,000 or 30,000 disciplined men, of whom the van was coming up fast, in order to attack the much smaller Habsburg concentration of cavalry and dragoons round Berg. These would be overwhelmed, allowing the enemy to strike deeply into Austria in the direction of Vienna itself. But while Lorraine and his staff discussed the new crisis, they saw large clouds of dust rising behind them far off to the west from farther up the Leitha, which suggested ominously that other Turks had already got upstream, having by-passed Leopold’s troops. It was a double disaster; and Count Auersperg set out at once to inform the court that all hopes of pinning down the main mass of the Turks in the neighbourhood of either Györ or Berg had abruptly and finally disappeared on that morning of 7 July.

The Habsburg cause fared even worse in the afternoon. Fischamend, a crossing over the small Danube tributary of the Fischa, and half-way between Berg and Vienna, was the point to which Lorraine next directed his forces; they were divided into the regiments under his own command, a rearguard under Rabatta and Taafe, and a van led by Mercy and Gondola. Ahead of the van went escorts with carts and carriages of equipment, while still farther in front were other transports containing the baggage of certain senior officers who apparently preferred to run the risk of sending their own goods forward, unprotected, as quickly as possible. Unfortunately for them, the Tartars suddenly fell on this part of the long and straggling train. Mercy and Gondola at once hurried up, drove them off and went on to Fischamend, fearing that other enemy bands would reach the fords there first. Lorraine, several miles behind and by now on relatively high ground farther east, was scanning the view and debating how to recover control of the country between his own troops and his van, when he learnt that another Turkish force (from the direction of Ungarisch-Altenburg) was assailing his rearguard. He turned back with all the men and horses he could muster, realising that he had not a minute to spare.

It is impossible to say exactly where the encounter took place, sometimes known as ‘the affair of Petronell’. It was probably close to the famous Roman site of Carnuntum in the estate of Count Traun, on undulating and thickly wooded ground not far from the Danube. The Habsburg cavalry of the rearguard, particularly Montecuccoli’s regiment and Savoy’s dragoons, was thrown into complete disarray. Lorraine, bringing up more squadrons of horse, at first utterly failed to rekindle the urge to stop and fight back. His pleas and his gestures—he even went for the men by thumping them with the butt of his pistol—effected nothing. ‘What, gentlemen,’ he is said to have exclaimed, ‘you betray the honour of the imperial arms, you’re afraid?’ The left wing resisted the enemy onrush more steadily, at last a strong counter-attack was mounted and the Turks disappeared again. They were far fewer than their opponents realised, in this sudden and confused melee of horse and rider. Perhaps thirty-five lay dead on the field and the total loss of the Habsburg troops was 100 men; but before the engagement had ended one or more officers had left for Vienna, convinced that a very large enemy force was moving irresistibly forward.

The rest of the day passed off quietly and Lorraine spent the night at Schwechat, six miles from Vienna. At least Leopold’s cavalry, if not his infantry, had been brought back safely for the defence of the capital city of the whole dominion. But a major attack was now inevitable, and cavalry could not man a fortress.

On the next day Lorraine heard that the Turks had left not more than 12,000 troops at their camp in front of Györ. The rest were marching forward. He learnt that nearly all the Magyars in western Hungary had recognised Thököly’s sovereignty. Thököly himself was at Trnava with his followers, which implied a distinct threat to Pressburg and to Vienna from the area north of the Danube. Fortunately Leslie and his infantry were already well on their way back through the Schütt to Pressburg, and Schultz had independently decided to withdraw his men westwards as quickly as possible even before he received orders to do so. In spite of these two items of good news, for Lorraine it had been twenty-four hours of repeated crises, and he was still unaware of their impact in Vienna itself.

One feature of this confusing week was the nervous response of the military command to the appearance of small hostile bands of horsemen, and to the fire and smoke perplexing its view of events in that wide plain. The civilian population reacted more sluggishly. True, many peasants were by now on the move, carrying their goods towards the walled towns or into the shelter of any buildings surrounded by walls, like the manor-houses of lords and monasteries, while the harvest stood ready in the fields but they were afraid to go out and reap it. Yet contrary rumours, that all was well, often stopped bolder folk from fearing the worst and they carried on with business as usual. We know something of wavering public opinion in the area from a journal kept by the choirmaster of Heiligenkreuz, the great and ancient Cistercian house in the Wiener Wald. On 3 July a priest came into the monastery from the monks’ parish of Podersdorf, by the shore of the Neusiedler See. He reported that the enemy was at hand, and was laughed at for his pains. His listeners believed that the Turks were in fact at Neuhäusel, a long way over on the other side of the Danube, and that the thick clouds of smoke on the eastern horizon resulted from the ordinary indiscipline of Leopold’s own troops in Hungary. The opinion of these scoffers was partly based on the confident messages of a bailiff in charge of the monastic lands (particularly the quarries) near Bruck-on-the-Leitha; but a little later the Turks captured this man, they surrounded Bruck, and the stone-cutters with their families fled to Vienna. Meanwhile tension mounted in Heiligenkreuz. On 4, 5 and 6 July more and more refugees, with their belongings, crowded into the three great courtyards of the abbey. Onlookers were amazed by the mountain of chests, which held silverware and other valuables, in the inner court. Prosperous burghers hastened up the narrow valley from Baden and Mödling. On 7 July a soothing, ill-informed message reached the chapter from the Spanish embassy in Vienna. Then on the 8th the blow fell, with authentic news of what had happened near Petronell and of panic in Vienna. The choirmaster hurriedly prepared to take his young choristers over the hills westwards.

As June had worn on, bringing no message of a Habsburg triumph against Esztergom or Neuhäusel, and gloomy reports of the Turkish advance through Hungary, popular fears increased in Vienna itself. An unceasing round of public religious ceremonies intensified them. By decree, the members of every trade and profession were required to attend for one hour a week at the service in St Stephen’s: the Emperor himself took his turn at nine o’clock on Sundays, the Danube fishermen on Thursdays at eight, and the violin-makers on Saturdays at three. By decree also, the old usage was revived of the ‘Türkenglocken’. Bells started to ring every morning through the city and the whole land of Austria, summoning all to kneel and pray for deliverance from the invader. Some of the popular preachers thundered that God chose the Moslem terror to punish, when punishment was needed; but Abraham a Sancta Clara himself preferred the great refrain which was the title of his booklet just then going through the press: ‘Up! Up! You Christians!’ calling simply for courage and action against a brutal but cowardly enemy. The entire week from 27 June to 3 July was organised by the ecclesiastical authorities as one immense petition for divine intervention. Yet if most men were devout, a few abused the clerical interest. If there were politicians who disliked the Pope, the nuncio and their allies for insisting on the Turkish peril and consequently on the need to give ground in western Europe, there were citizens who blamed the crisis on the church for persecuting uselessly in Hungary. One night they smashed the windows of the Bishop of Vienna’s palace in the Rotenturmstrasse; though, ironically, the bishop was no friend of the nuncio.

Throughout 5 and 6 July officials at court worked long and hard. The conference of ministers, War Council, Treasury, and Government of Lower Austria, were all in session. First Philip Thurn was sent post-haste to Warsaw to ask for Sobieski’s full support, now that the Turks appeared to be threatening Austria directly. Next, they tried to control the growing movement of refugees from the countryside into the city. They had strong guards set at the gates, to bar the entry of rabble elements which conceivably included traitors; the presence of Thököly’s agents in disguise was suspected, and also Frenchmen. Supplies were discussed, and the official responsible for the purchase of corn happily stated that stocks were high. At a meeting in the Bishop’s palace the clergy offered a loan to the government, but the tightness of funds still bedevilled administration as much as ever. The War Council and Treasury blandly decided to reduce their earlier estimate of military expenditure for the coming year from three million to two and a half million florins, a sleight of hand which could hardly have helped them to find the money they needed at once.

Stratmann, the new chancellor—Hocher had just died—went off to report to the Emperor on all these pressing items of business.

One point which worried the Habsburg advisers was the security of the Crown of St Stephen of Hungary. This highly important symbol of the royal authority in that country was always in safe-keeping in the castle of Pressburg; two of the most senior office-holders in Hungary were ‘Guardians of the Crown’. The political consequences, if Thököly laid hands on it, would be serious indeed. At length Leopold decided to remove the insignia of Hungarian royalty from Pressburg to Vienna. A strong escort of cavalry rode off and brought the crown to the Hofburg on 5 July. On the same day Leopold also determined to authorise preparations for the departure of his children and their staff from Vienna, while by the 7th the valuables of his Treasury—jewels, crowns (including the Crown of Hungary), sceptres, crosses and the like—were packed away on transports, ready to leave the city. There was no specific decision about the Emperor’s own departure. On the other hand, while refugees were pouring in from the east, many of the burghers and officials with their families had already left the city.

On 6 July Leopold went hunting near Mödling. He gave no sign that he contemplated flight to the safer and more distant part of his dominion, and one argument which kept the court in Vienna was certainly the Empress’s advanced pregnancy. Physicians did not consider it wise for her to travel. But women of her household had letters from their husbands, officers serving under Lorraine on his retreat from Györ, who begged them to flee as quickly as possible. Buonvisi’s account of a conversation with the Empress suggests that she herself was eager to go. The Emperor still demurred. He can hardly have failed to realise the consequences of the court’s departure on the morale of his subjects.

From two o’clock onwards in the afternoon of 7 July, one messenger after another reached the Hofburg and transformed the situation. The first, Auersperg, reported the attack on Ungarisch-Altenburg, which was enough to make most courtiers press the Emperor to leave at once. In Leopold’s antechamber Auersperg and the counsellors were soon joined by General Caprara and Colonel Montecuccoli, telling of the Turks’ sudden appearance in great strength much closer to the city, probably because they themselves had left the scene of the fighting between Petronell and Fischamend before Lorraine restored order, and anticipated his total defeat. Then Caprara’s servant, in charge of his baggage, arrived to give an account of that sudden assault on the baggage-train, at a point even closer to Vienna. The counsellors conferred and their long debate went on, while at the city-gates townsmen and incoming strangers—some of them wounded—repeated rumours based on such things as smoke seen, or shots heard, on that day and on the day before. All these persons, Auersperg, Montecuccoli, Caprara, Caprara’s servant, and the men who simply talked to other men, helped to spread the panic which seized the Emperor, his ministers, his courtiers, everyone in the palace, everyone in the Burgplatz outside and in the now crowded streets which led from here to the rest of the city. ‘The Turk is at the gates!’ was the cry; and though we know that each report of the day’s fighting had been inaccurate, the worst fears of most people then were confirmed by the cumulative effect of so many messages and rumours. All who could prepared to quit the city immediately. The Emperor, his nerves overbearing his sense of dignity, listening to the pleas of his ministers and family, decided to sanction his own retreat from what looked like the point of maximum danger, Vienna itself.

He held a final conference at six o’clock in his private apartment. The decision to go at once was formally announced and it remained to choose the route to follow. The direct road to Linz over the Wiener Wald was proposed and rejected; the Turks would threaten it too quickly. Flight northwards to Prague, or south-west into the hilly country by Heiligenkreuz and so round to Linz, was considered. The counsellors at length advised the Emperor to cross the Danube, and then to move upstream along the farther bank towards Upper Austria.

The bustle and confusion in the Burg and the Burgplatz were by this time tremendous. The doors of the palace were left wide open, and every kind of wagon and cart or coach was being crammed with every kind of necessity and valuable which could be moved. The less fortunate, who owned or who could find no horses, made ready to walk. In the town the government tried to get each householder to send a man to work on the fortifications. It tried to requisition all the boats on the river, with their boatmen, and to send them down the Danube in order to meet the infantry regiments marching westwards from the Schutt. The conscripted labourers who had been working in Vienna downed their tools, and fled. Coming the other way population from the outskirts packed into the city as never before, if only to pass the night in the security of the streets. Then, at about eight o’clock in the evening the Emperor left the Hofburg. A not very orderly procession made its way out of the Burg-gate, round the city wall to the Canal, through Leopoldstadt, and over the Danube. Later still the dowager Empress Eleanor, whose staff had hardly recovered from the toil and annoyance of bringing her possessions into the city from the ‘Favorita’, her palace in Leopoldstadt, set out with a great transport to the west by way of Klosterneuburg on the south side of the river.

Sleep and Vienna were strangers that night. Men and women sorted out their goods, put one part in cellars (the cellars of the city figure conspicuously in the legends of the siege) and one part in packages for their flight to the west. They hammered and corded. Yet several hours after Leopold’s departure, a despatch arrived from Lorraine which gave a more consoling picture of the whole position: the Habsburg cavalry was now in good order again, approaching Vienna fast, with the main Turkish force at least some days’ march behind it. (This news caught up with Leopold in the course of the night.) Encouraged, at three o’clock in the morning Herman of Baden called a meeting to announce the Emperor’s instruction for the government of Vienna in the immediate future. Present were the burgomaster Liebenberg, the syndic, and other municipal councillors; also Daun the acting military commander, and Colonel Serenyi, an old and very senior officer who was in the city more by chance than because of any proper posting. Baden gave notice that Starhemberg had been given the supreme command. Administration was placed in the hands of a Collegium—a select committee of two soldiers (Caplirs, the experienced vice-president of the Habsburg War Council, and Starhemberg) and three civilians (the Marshal of the Estates of Lower Austria, an official of the Government of Lower Austria, and Belchamps of the Treasury). Caplirs was to preside over it. Baden also declared that a section of the War Council would be left behind in the city to handle ordinary military business; and Caplirs would direct it. The municipality was to cooperate with Starhemberg, the Collegium and War Council in all matters. Supplies were sufficient to stand a siege. In response, the burgomaster solemnly promised to do his best. But neither Starhemberg nor Caplirs had as yet reached Vienna, and in these dark minutes of the early morning no one could visualise clearly how these arrangements would work in practice.

In fact, confirmed and elaborated by a message from Leopold some days later, they effectively met the emergency of the next three months. They gave the military the necessary powers, but permitted some civilians to share in the discussion of urgent problems. Even so the municipality of Vienna was not directly represented in the two highest committees responsible for the public safety. Caplirs had to harmonise the different and sometimes conflicting interests civil and military. On the one hand he directed the personnel of the War Council and collaborated with Starhemberg. On the other, he dealt with the burghers, who inevitably tended to find themselves overwhelmed by the emergency, and their rights disregarded. The whole administrative structure, apparently, depended on the coordinating ability of Caplirs in spite of his age and inveterate pessimism. Partly owing to the shortage of good evidence, historians have differed over his merits during the crisis. He certainly returned to Vienna very unwillingly on 10 July, no doubt sighing for his new palace and picture gallery hundreds of miles away in the peaceful woods of northern Bohemia, the most recent rewards of a long and successful career. But he soon set to work; if Starhemberg was much the more militant and forceful character, he grumblingly did his best to help him.

Later in the morning of 8 July the burgomaster held a council of his own. The city fathers had a desperately heavy day in front of them, trying to organise the burghers, many of whom were making every effort to lock up and get out. They wanted to bring into the city a large amount of timber still stacked outside the New-gate; to redistribute the reserves of grain into stores of more equal size; and to arrange for guards at various points. But above all, for the most obvious reasons, an immediate increase in the numbers of men at work on the fortifications was required. While the burgher companies of militia were ordered to assemble at one o’clock outside the town hall, a summons went out to the rest of the male population to attend in the square ‘Am Hof’ at three o’clock, outside the civic armoury. Here Nicholas Hocke, the syndic, mounted the steps of the building. In a powerful speech he tried to stir up enthusiasm for the good cause, pointing out that ordinary employment would necessarily be interrupted or suspended during the coming crisis. He offered decent wages to all who went to work on the fortifications of the city. Not far off, in the Bishop’s palace the Vicar-General was telling the clergy that they also must take their turn at the works. Soon afterwards the sound of drum and trumpet was heard; and Lorraine’s cavalry appeared, riding past the city-walls, and over the Canal through Leopoldstadt, to an encampment on the Danube islands. In the evening, both Lorraine and Starhemberg entered Vienna, and almost their first recorded action tightened the pressure on the townsfolk. They threatened the use of force unless sufficient numbers were ready and present for duty, on the defence-works, at four o’clock the next morning.

At dawn the burgomaster himself was there, shouldering a spade. Hocke enrolled the workers. Starhemberg demanded another 500 within twenty-four hours; and more workers were brought in during the day. For almost a week the burghers, the casual labourers, the substitutes paid by burghers who preferred to avoid this strenuous drudgery, the soldiers detailed for the same duty by Starhemberg as they reached the city, and members of the City Guard all made great efforts. In spite of gloomy comments from some experienced observers, they managed to get the bastions, the moat and counterscarp into reasonable condition. At this stage, what was essential were improved earthworks and adequate timbering. By digging hard under competent direction it proved possible to buttress weak patches in the stone revetments of the curtain-wall and the bastions, and to deepen the moat. New palisades now shored up the counterscarp, and a fairly usable ‘covered way’ along it protected the outermost position which the garrison would have to try and hold. In the moat—separating the counterscarp from the walls and bastions—excavation was still needed. Additional barricades were set up in various parts of it, while at other points new wooden bridges were built to link bastions to ravelins, and ravelins to the counterscarp.

Important conferences were held on 9 and 10 July; Starhemberg and Lorraine elaborated their plans. It was then for Starhemberg to settle details with Breuner of the commissariat and Belchamps of the Treasury. He told the first that soon they could count on a garrison of 10,000 troops, together with the City Guard and the civilian companies; and that they must be ready to face a siege lasting four months. Happily, food was not a difficult problem. The officials of the commissariat confirmed that there were stores of grain in the city large enough to feed a force of this size until November.

On the next day, the 10th, finance was discussed, a much more difficult matter. Starhemberg insisted that the punctual payment of the soldiers throughout the period of siege, and generous treatment of labour squads in the works, were absolutely essential if the Turks were to be resisted with any chance of success; but he was told that only 30,000 florins remained in the military treasury, none of which could be spared for pay. It was calculated that the wages of the troops alone would amount to 40,000 florins a month. But Belchamps had been looking into the question, and was earlier in touch with the Hungarian Bishop of Kalocza, George Széchényi, who had lent a large sum to the government in 1682. In 1683 he brought his funds to Vienna for safe-keeping, and then sought refuge farther west when the Turks advanced, but before leaving the city he agreed to place 61,000 florins at Belchamps’s disposal. On 9 July Prince Ferdinand Schwarzenberg, having reached Vienna after Leopold’s departure, offered a loan of 50,000 florins and 1,000 measures of wine, which he had in his vaults. He then left the city. His negotiation was not with Belchamps in the first instance, but with his friend Kollonics, the Bishop of Wiener-Neustadt, who was determined to remain behind and fight for Church and Emperor.

A Knight of St John who did not forget the bravery of his youth when he served in Crete, Kollonics felt little sympathy for anyone hesitating to make sacrifices at this critical hour. So, a few days later, he turned his attention to the property of the Primate of Hungary; for the Archbishop of Esztergom, George Szelepcsényi, had brought to his Vienna residence, No. 14 in the Himmelpfortgasse, between 70,000 and 80,000 florins in money, together with ecclesiastical plate, crosses and similar precious objects which were later valued at over 400,000 florins. The Archbishop himself took refuge in Moravia. On 19 and 20 July, after the siege began, the administration impounded his assets. By melting down a part of the treasure, the mint in Vienna solved the purely financial problem for the duration of the siege. It seems probable, although there is no direct evidence to prove the point, that Belchamps knew well enough that a few outstandingly wealthy individuals had deposited money and plate in the city for safekeeping earlier in the year. For various reasons, lack of transport or lack of instructions, these could not be removed fast enough, when it abruptly and unexpectedly became clear that Vienna was not (as it had been, up to date) the surest refuge within hundreds of miles. But the size of these sums belonging to a nobleman like Schwarzenberg, or to clerics like the Hungarian episcopate, when compared with the poverty of the government, is very remarkable.

Money without manpower was useless. Lorraine and Starhemberg had immediately agreed that the infantry regiments marching up the Danube from Pressburg should move at once into Vienna. On 10 July, troops of the vanguard first appeared. More arrived on the following day, and on the 13th the mass of Leslie’s command completed their long journey from Györ; the great majority of his infantry regiments were sent over the river with the utmost despatch. Early that day, therefore, Starhemberg commanded 5,000 men. By evening he had some 11,000. The prospects were at least less dismal than the week before, when the Turks were expected to invest or storm a city held by no more than the ghost of a garrison.

Yet the foremost Ottoman raiders now appeared, and in the distance the smoke of burning villages in the neighbourhood rose skywards. Starhemberg did not dare delay in performing one of his most disagreeable duties: the speedy and forcible clearing of the glacis. Since earlier demolition orders had not been obeyed, he began—on 13 July—to burn down everything in the area outside the counterscarp which would obviously hamper the garrison. Most of all he wanted to clear the ground west of the city, where suburbs came closest to the moat. More smoke rose skywards. The sparks flew. They flew over the walls as far as the roof of the Schotten monastery by the Schottengate, where a fire broke out in the afternoon of Wednesday, the 14th; and it almost altered the course of history. The wind blew sparks against the neighbouring buildings, an inn, and from the inn to a wall of the Arsenal, where supplies of every kind were stored, including 1,800 barrels of powder. Nearby, other powder magazines adjoined the New-gate. If the defence-works here were seriously damaged by explosion, or the stores lost, resistance to the Turks was hardly thinkable. The flames moved along a wooden gallery into the Arsenal. Townsmen and soldiers gathered, there was a muddle about keys which could not be found, but soldiers broke through a door and cleared the points of greatest danger. A hysterical mob, looking on, smelt treason at once and lynched two suspects, a poor lunatic and a boy wearing woman’s clothes. It also destroyed the baggage which an inoffensive mining official from Hungary, then in Vienna, was trying to get out of a second inn near the Arsenal; and it panicked at the sight of a flag flying unaccountably from a roof close to the fire, fearing some kind of a signal to the enemy. More effectively, the wind then veered. Flames swept towards and into aristocratic properties on the other side, away from the Arsenal, and proceeded to burn out the Auersperg palace where the ruins went on smouldering for days. The crisis had passed before the arrival of the Turks; but the danger of yet more fires, set off by Turkish bombs or by traitors and spies inside the walls, was to be a constant nightmare in Vienna later on.

Starhemberg very properly ordered the municipality to requisition cellars for the storage of powder. It took over a number of crypts or cellars under churches and convents for this purpose.

On the same day, the 14th, Lorraine began pulling his cavalry out of Leopoldstadt and the islands. Breaking down the bridges as they went, they crossed right over the Danube and took up a new position on the north bank. Only the final bridge was left intact, guarded by a small force. Leslie’s infantry continued to move into the city. Stores, coming downstream by boat and raft, were still being unloaded by townsmen and units of the garrison.

BEERSHEBA I

Ottoman defences

Positions of forces at dusk on October 31, 1917, during the Battle of Beersheba at the time of the charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade.

British forces are shown in red, Turkish forces are shown in blue. The position reached by the regiments of the 4th Light Horse Brigade after the attack is shown in pale red. Note: there is no evidence that the 4th Light Horse Regiment crossed the Wadi Saba during their attack, nor that the 60th Division attacked south of the Wadi Saba. The Australian Mounted Division headquarters is shown where the Anzac Mounted Division headquarters moved to, after the capture of Tel el Saba. Neither the Gullett map nor Bou’s map locates the headquarters of Anzac Mounted Division, Australian Mounted Division and Desert Mounted Corps at Kashim Zanna despite numerous sources placing them there. [Preston 1921 pp. 25–6, Powles 1922 pp. 136–7, Hill 1978 p. 126]

The final preparations for the attack on Beersheba began in the middle of October 1917. The last branch lines of the railways running east were laid as quickly and as late as possible, while supply dumps and hospitals were also delayed until the last possible moment. On 22 October, Allenby issued his final orders. It had been thought that a week would suffice for moving the divisions involved, but this was extended to ten days. Troops would only move at night, and an average speed of 1mph had to be allowed for, given the difficulties of navigating in the dark across ground that was broken with wadis and nullahs, and offered little in the way of definite landmarks. Some brigade columns ended up using a system of setting up lamps at intervals, between which the troops would march. The two cavalry divisions aimed deep into the desert south of Beersheba – the Australian Mounted Division to Khalasa and the A&NZ Mounted Division to Bir Asluj. Both divisions, like the infantry that moved through positions closer to the front lines south-west of Beersheba, moved in stages as brigades, so as not to over-tax the water supplies at any one place. In preparation for the offensive, nine officers and 117 other ranks were left behind by each infantry battalion, to form a cadre to either provide reinforcements, or for the battalion to be re-formed around if casualties were catastrophic.

Engineers worked hard to develop these water sources as rapidly as possible, and supplemented some of them by connecting them to the pipeline system. The springs at Shellal were connected to the pipeline, so that water came to it all the way from the Sweet Water Canal outside Cairo, while the pipe-head and springs had equipment installed that could fill some 2,000 ‘fanatis’ (large, metal jerrycan-like containers which could be carried, one on each side, by camels) with 25,000 gallons per hour. Supply dumps were also rapidly thrown up. It was intended to place dumps containing everything the army would need for the first week of the offensive as close to the front lines as possible, and along its entire length. XXI Corps, holding the line opposite Gaza, would need these supplies just as desperately as the more isolated Desert Mounted and XX Corps, despite being nearer the railway system. To give the two eastern corps as much support as possible, XXI Corps’ transport was stripped away and sent to their aid, leaving the corps essentially immobile from 8 October. Three motor transport companies totalling some 130–140 vehicles were also brought up from Cairo, despite their limited use in the rough desert terrain, while 134 of the more useful Holt’s tractors were also used. These heavy caterpillar-tracked vehicles were more adept at crossing rough ground, although they did it slowly and noisily, and were useful for hauling ammunition in bulk.

Camel companies would form the backbone of the mobile supply system. Some 32,000 were deployed with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force [EEF]. For now, XX Corps had 20,000 of them – 8,000 attached directly to the divisions to carry their own stores when they moved, and 12,000 under the direction of the Corps HQ for forming supply convoys. XXI Corps and the Desert Mounted Corps each had 6,000 camels for their own use, to carry food, water and ammunition. Eventually, of the four infantry divisions of XX Corps (10th, 53rd, 60th and 74th), three had three echelons of transport, and the fourth had two, while the Desert Mounted Corps also had three. Each echelon carried a day’s worth of supplies for each division, and the three echelons would, in theory, create a continuous chain of convoys moving between the advancing divisions and their supply dumps.

This activity could not and did not go unnoticed, and in the early hours of 27 October the Ottomans pushed out a large reconnaissance west of Beersheba. This operation was actually carried out in considerable force – the 125th (OT) Regiment of the 16th (OT) Division towards the ridge of El Buggar, and elements of the 3rd (OT) Cavalry Division and 27th (OT) Infantry Division slightly to the east. It struck against an extended piquet-line of British cavalry provided by the 8th Mounted Brigade, screening the movements of the 53rd (Welsh) Division, and strung out in a line along El Buggar ridge and then across several hills known as Points 720, 630 and 510. The right of the line was held by the 1st County of London (Middlesex) Yeomanry, the left by the 3rd County of London Yeomanry, with the City of London Yeomanry in reserve behind. The line was 19km (12 miles) long, and held by isolated posts of one or two troops (thirty to sixty men) at key points. The advancing Ottoman formations broke over these scattered posts at 4.15 a.m. on 27 October, supported in places with artillery fire. On Point 720 Major Alexander Lafone, commanding ‘B’ Squadron, 1st County of London Yeomanry, had only two of his troops with him, but still managed to hold off several charges by the Ottomans throughout the morning. At 10.10 a.m. he managed to send a final message to his headquarters that: ‘My casualties are heavy. Twelve stretcher-bearers required. I shall hold on to the last as I cannot get my wounded away.’ In fact, he managed to move most of his wounded – which was most of his men – down into trenches behind the crest of the hill, covering their retreat with the remaining three unwounded men. Soon after 11 a.m. another wave of Ottomans attacked and, seeing the hopelessness of the situation, Lafone ordered his remaining men to fall back, apparently stepping out into the open to meet the charge on his own. The post, and Lafone, fell. He would receive a posthumous Victoria Cross for his ‘conspicuous bravery, leadership and self-sacrifice’.

Attempts by the brigade reserves to relieve the various posts failed, although they did, with artillery support from the Hants Battery RHA, stem the Ottoman advance. Late in the day the 3rd ALH Brigade and 158th Brigade arrived to counter-attack and the line of outposts was reoccupied. Both sides would claim inflated enemy numbers and casualties, but the 8th Mounted Brigade suffered ten officers and sixty-nine other ranks killed or wounded (against ‘200’ claimed by the Ottomans); of these, ‘B’ Squadron, 1st County of London Yeomanry suffered two officers and eight other ranks killed, ten wounded and eight missing. The Ottomans recorded one officer and nine men killed, and around forty wounded, but had failed in their aim of clarifying the numbers and intent of the forces moving across their front. While an attack on Beersheba still remained the likely answer, the true question – whether this was to be the main British thrust or merely the diversion – was as unanswered as before.

On the same day, a massive British bombardment of the Gaza defences began.

To prepare for the coming attack, the III (OT) Corps commander, Colonel Ismat Bey, did all that he could to defend his post. Beersheba was a new town, although on very ancient foundations. It was the site of the Wells of Abraham, the very reason why it was being fought over and the source of its name. Sometimes rendered as Bir Es Saba, Bir Saba, or some variation on those spellings, the name meant ‘The Seven Wells’, and the source of the water was the Wadi Saba, which runs down from the north-east to a point 3.2km (2 miles) east of the town, where it joins several smaller wadis near the mound of Tel Saba. It then runs west, past the southern edge of Beersheba. In recent centuries it had been a small village existing on trade with the nomadic Bedouin tribes of the Negev desert to the south, but at the turn of the twentieth century the Ottomans decided to develop it into an administrative centre for the Negev region. A railway, a governor’s residence (now the Negev Art Museum), a mosque and other building had been built as a nucleus for the new town, and parks were laid out around them. This central area was widely spaced out, and the houses and commercial premises that grew around them were also well dispersed. By August 1916, when Swedish explorer Sven Hadin visited the town as Djemal Pasha’s guest, it had become something of a model town, albeit still on the inhospitable side:

Until the war broke out, Bir es-Seba – or ‘The Seven Wells’ – was a miserable hole; now it has suddenly become an important base … When the worst heat was over, the colonel and the government surveyor, Dr Schmucher, took me on a tour of the town, which is springing forth out of the desert at an American pace. We visited various buildings on the base, the electric stations, the factories and workshops, the printing office, the bazaar, the hotel, the parks and gardens – which of course have not yet grown much – and the ice factory – the most beneficial establishment in this heat. Then we visited the agricultural school, the motor-driven pumping plants, the immense reservoirs, at which water is distributed to camels, horses, asses, and mules. Finally we visited the hospital, in which 400 sick were lying at the time, cared for by Austrian physicians and nurses. Bir es-Seba’s climate, while not exactly unhealthy, is very unpleasant. The region is very windy, the desert sandy, the soil broken up because of the heavy traffic, and no vegetation offers protection from the suffocating dust clouds that roll from all sides into the burning hot streets.

Ismat Bey threw out forward defences around 3–4km from the centre of the town in an arc running from the south to the west, covering the most likely lines of approach for the British. He added further defences at Tel Saba, which dominated the approaches from the otherwise flat east and south-east. All of these defences had been seen and plotted by British reconnaissance, although a smaller crescent of trenches, closer in and to the south of the town just below the Wadi Saba, had not. To man these positions, Ismat Bey had ten battalions of infantry (seven from the 27th (OT) Infantry Division and three from the 16th (OT) Infantry Division), two cavalry regiments from the 3rd (OT) Cavalry Division, a reserve of one infantry battalion and one cavalry regiment, and an assortment of support troops – engineers, searchlights, signallers and a mobile bakery. This gave a total fighting strength (i.e. riflemen and cavalry sabres, as opposed to supporting clerks, cooks, herdsmen, etc.) of somewhere less than 5,000 men. For heavy weapons, he had just five batteries of four field guns each, although between his various regiments and battalions he could muster some fifty-six machine guns. To provide enough troops to man his defences, he was forced to deploy his cavalry as infantry rather than maintaining them as a mobile reserve, a decision that would be heavily criticised by Kress von Kressenstein later. For his own part, the German was still convinced that there was not enough water to sustain a serious British attack on Beersheba.

The British had found the water, though, and by dawn on 30 October all was ready. At Bir Asluj (where the water supply was shorter than expected), 38km (24 miles) south of Beersheba was the A&NZ Mounted Division and the headquarters of the Desert Mounted Corps. At Khalasa, 48km (30 miles) south-east of Beersheba, was the Australian Mounted Division, while the Yeomanry Mounted Division was detached to Shellal, covering the gap between XX and XXI Corps. The 7th Mounted Brigade, still independent and under Allenby’s direct control, was at Bir El Esani. At dusk on 30 October, having drunk their fill, the two Mounted Divisions would strike out on long flanking marches to the east of Beersheba; the A&NZ Mounted Division would be east and north-east of the town for the attack, and the Australian Mounted Division to the south-east. The 7th Mounted Brigade would remain to the south, ready to support the main infantry assault.

This assault would be launched by the 60th and 74th Divisions. The former spent the night at Abu Ghalyun, and the latter at Khan Khasif, which still placed them some 16 or 19km (10 or 12 miles) from their starting points for the following day. The 60th Division would attack Beersheba from the south, and the 74th from the south-east. The 53rd Division was slightly further west, applying pressure to the Gaza–Beersheba road, while the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade (with two battalions of the 158th Brigade, 53rd Division) covered the gap between them and the 74th Division. The 10th Division was held back in reserve. Between the cavalry and infantry divisions, the British fighting strength was over 40,000 men.

Charles Hennessey of the 2/15th London Regiment (also known as the 2nd Civil Service Rifles) was briefed by his commanding officer at the assembly point:

From this we learned exactly how the various British Divisions were disposed along the front from Gaza on the extreme left, to where we were on the extreme right. We were also shown a number of aerial photos of the Turkish trenches, and were told to make a particular study of the ones it was ‘C’ Company’s business to deal with.

Following this cosy chat we were each issued with 2 Mills Bombs, an extra bandolier of ammunition, and a couple of aeroplane flares. It now appeared that the Battalion was on the extreme right of the British line; that the only troops on our right were a few squadrons of London Yeomanry; and, as we had already been told, that our Company was to form the first wave of the attack on Beersheba.

One night only was spent at the Assembly Point, and the following evening ‘C’ Company moved off to take up a position in a ‘wadi’, which we learned was to be our jumping off point. Our soda water bottles had been filled with tea and rum the day before, and dire were the penalties threatened if we drank any of it if permission hadn’t been given. The march to our ‘wadi’ began after dark and word was passed that there was to be no smoking, and no talking or other noise, in case the Turks should hear us. What a hope! Of course Johnny Turk could hear us coming. The loud clanking of our equipment could have been heard for miles.

At dusk on 30 October the desert seemed to come alive as tens of thousands of men, horses and vehicles rose out of their daytime cover and began the advance on Beersheba. Captain Ashton of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers was with the 53rd Division:

The noise of tractors bringing up guns was overpowering, as if the whole British Army was on the move, and sounded like the roar of London traffic from a little way off. The whole plain behind us hummed with mechanical noises, and I marvelled that the enemy in their trenches could not hear it. They afterwards told us they were taken by surprise, but it is indeed hard to believe.

The night was bitterly cold, but marching kept the men warm. When the units began to reach their allotted positions in the early hours the real suffering began. Hennessey:

Around midnight we filed into a shallow wadi and were told to make ourselves comfortable till dawn. It soon became very cold, and we missed our greatcoats which had been left behind in our packs. We were also short of our tunics as we’d been told we should be carrying out the attack in our shirt sleeves. There certainly seemed a lot of people who were determined to make the war as difficult for us as possible. Taking it all round it was a dreary time waiting in the dark and cold for the arrival of dawn.

For Gunner J.W. Gough of the Royal Field Artillery, waiting was also the hardest part:

3 a.m.: We have now been in our position for an hour or so, it is very cold hands quite numb. Laying tel. wires etc. here. Bty is opening fire on enemy at 7 am. 6.15 a.m.: Bty ready for action & lined on target – only awaiting orders from Hdqrs. All the men are tired & hungry after travelling and digging etc. Hostile planes are about, we’re not spotted – yet. I am detailed to repeat orders from B.C. to B.L. by megaphone. I’d gladly accept a cup of tea or anything warm before we ‘raise the curtain’ – with I trust, a splendid ‘debut’ for Johnnie Turk.

The curtain was to be raised by the 60th Division. In front of the Ottoman line to the south of Beersheba stood a hill, known at the time as Point 1069, although it was later renamed Point 1070. Point 1069 gave good views over the Ottomans lines, the British positions, and the surrounding landscape. It had to be taken before the general attack could go forward, and responsibility for this fell on General Shea, commanding 60th Division. He was given free rein as to judging when the preliminary bombardment had cut the wire, and so when to send his men in. This was not an easy call to make. The guns designated for the barrage on Point 1069 opened fire at 5.55 a.m. Over a hundred guns [1] concentrated on a 4,500yd front, and after an hour so much dust had been raised by the explosions that nobody could tell what the state of the wire was. The barrage was suspended for half an hour or more to let the dust settle, but even then the view was unclear. In the end Brigadier General De Costa, commanding 181st Brigade, who would be making the assault, requested and received permission from Shea to resume the bombardment while he moved his force forward behind its cover. An intensification of the barrage was planned for 8.20 a.m., to last ten minutes, by which time his brigade were only 460m (500yds) from their objectives on the crest of the point. Wire-cutting parties went forward under the cover of the barrage, which was landing in some places just 27m (30yds) ahead of them, and made gaps or widened existing holes. At 8.30 a.m. the 2/22nd London Regiment stormed the point. The following day, Colonel A.D. ‘Bosky’ Borton, commanding the 2/22nd, wrote home to his father, with slight variation on the official reports:

The eyes of many were on us, and we ‘did them proud’ … We worked our way up to about 500 yds. of the enemy and lay ‘doggo’ while our Artillery tried to cut gaps in the wire. This however they could not do as well as each shell raised such an awful dust that observation was impossible and we had to lie up for two hours under a very heavy fire in the open. It was darned trying, but the men were too wonderful. Our casualties during this time was pretty high – about 15%. The Brigadier then got a message out to me to know whether we could go without the gaps being cut?

It was the one thing that I had been hoping for, as I felt that no was wire was going to stop us. I was very lucky, as owing to my having had to shove all my 4 companies into the line, I was able to hand over my Battalion HQ to my Adjutant and go with the men. I’d got a flag with the Queen’s badge on it, in my pocket, and … I tied it to my walking stick and away we went. I’ve never felt so damned proud in my life. The Flag was a surprise to the men and tickled them to death! We got in practically without loss, we cut the wire 25 yards behind our own barrage. This of course meant a few hits from our own guns, but not a soul in the trenches dared show his head, and the moment the guns lifted we were into them with bomb and bayonet and scuppered the whole garrison.

As Borton led his men on, the 2/24th Londons swung around the flank and cut the Point off from the Ottoman forces to the north. The 2/23rd Londons then came up to support the 2/22nd and extend their line, while the 2/21st remained behind in reserve. Once the Londoners burst through the wire it was all over in a matter of minutes, with ninety prisoners and Point 1069 being taken.

The way was now clear for the 60th and 74th Divisions to advance on the main Ottoman line. The 74th had already marched as close to the Ottoman lines as possible, suffering from artillery and long-range machine-gun fire as they did so. Their path lay across a series of low rises, and as the columns crossed the crest of each they stood out stark against the skyline as easy targets. This fire pushed the right-hand unit, 231st Brigade, further right, and the left-hand unit, 230th Brigade, had to extend their own line to cover the growing gap between them. Despite these problems, by 10.40 a.m. the 231st Brigade had advanced to within 460m (500yds) of the Ottoman lines, while 230th Brigade was held at around 820m (900yds) out. Meanwhile, 60th Division paused, and had breakfast.

With guns having been hauled up onto the point to support the attack, the barrage was restarted. Again, it fell to Shea to decide when the wire was suitably cut for the two divisions to advance, and at 11.40 a.m. he consulted General Girdwood, the commander of 74th Division. Girdwood’s view of the Ottoman wire was also obscured by dust, but he assured Shea that his men would find a way regardless. Shea passed this up the chain of command to Chetwode, who authorised the attack to start at 12.15 p.m. William Hendry of the 2/14th London Regiment (London Scottish) recalled:

Then an order came to make a meal, in which we soon consumed our bottle of rum, as it was a cold night. We then said good-bye to the desert. Our machine gunners took up their covering positions, then our guns started to bark, pouring shells on a hill on our left which had to be taken before we could advance. Suddenly a rocket burst in the air, which was the signal that the hill had been captured, and over the top of the hill we went, with the din of our machine gun bullets and shells whizzing over head. We dropped down like lightning into the wadi below and up again we went hard for the Turk’s trenches. The barbed wire was well cut by our shells and all we found was a few killed and wounded. According to a doctor we captured the men had flown along the trenches to be taken prisoners by the trousered regiment, as they did not want to be captured by the skirted devils as called us, they were given to understand we took no prisoners. Well we advanced to a position as arranged and soon got to work with picks and shovels digging in, as bullets were still coming at us from the direction of Beersheba.

[1] Consisting of seventy-six 18-pounders, twenty 4.5in howitzers, four 3.7in howitzers, eight 60-pounders, eight 6in howitzers, and some 4.5in howitzers designated for counter-battery fire as and when the Ottoman artillery revealed their positions.

BEERSHEBA II

The town of Beersheba in Palestine, 1917. Captured by Australian light horse on 31 October 1917 during the First World War.

By 1 p.m., the 60th Division (less the 2/22nd Londons, digging in on Point 1069) had taken all of their objectives, about a mile and a half beyond the Ottoman trenches. The 74th Division had been delayed by having to send forward wire-cutting parties, but were able to declare their own objectives achieved only moments later. Acting Corporal John Collins of the 25th Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers took a leading role in the attack, and was one of the first to enter the Ottoman trenches and engage the enemy hand to hand. During the 74th Division’s long march under fire he had repeatedly risked himself to rescue the wounded and bring them back under cover, and after the final assault he led a Lewis gun section out beyond the objective, giving covering fire for his unit as it consolidated its position and reorganised their scattered men. For his ‘conspicuous bravery, resource and leadership’ throughout the day, he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Over all, resistance had been lighter than expected. Although well sited, the Ottoman lines were thinly held, and once the British infantry had closed to bayonet range the 67th and 81st (OT) Infantry Regiments had been unable to resist the weight of numbers thrown against them. As the final assault started, as many Ottoman units as possible were withdrawn in good order back towards the town, and for the moment no British pursuit was mounted. After their night march and morning’s action, the troops badly needed to rest, quite apart from the need to re-form themselves after the advance. On top of this, it had been decided that the Desert Mounted Corps should be the ones to actually take the town, as they would be in greater need of the water. In fact, only the 230th Brigade of the 74th Division would see any further action, at dusk as they advanced north to cut the Beersheba to Tel el Fara road. At 9.40 p.m. the divisional commanders received news that the town had fallen into British hands at 7.40 p.m.

While the infantry had been coming on from the south-west, the cavalry had attacked from the east. Theirs had been a long ride to get into position, and Lieutenant Briscoe Moore of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles found that:

The early morning hours of darkness are the most trying, for then vitality is at its lowest and fatigued bodies ache all over. Then comes the first lightening of the eastern sky, and the new day dawns with a cheering influence, which is increased as the next halt gives the opportunity for a hurried ‘boil-up’ of tea; after which things seem not so bad after all to the dust-smothered and unshaven warriors.

The A&NZ Mounted Division had advanced to the north-east of Beersheba. The New Zealand Mounted Rifles (NZMR) Brigade had turned towards the eastern side of the town, with the 1st ALH Brigade slightly behind them in reserve. Meanwhile, the 2nd ALH Brigade carried on north and pushed back the 3rd (OT) Cavalry Division, capturing the Ottoman post on Tel el Sakaty at noon, and from there cut the Hebron road by 1 p.m. This road would later also be cut much further north, about 32km (20 miles) north-east of Beersheba, by a small but heavily armed party of about seventy cameliers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Newcombe of the Royal Engineers. Newcombe had already established a reputation for daring independent action with the Sharifian forces in Arabia, and on the night before the attack he had led his force out of Bir Asluj as far north as they could reach. Armed with ten heavy machine guns and a number of Lewis guns, his men established themselves across the Hebron road late on 31 October and proceeded to create as much noise and destruction as possible, attacking passing convoys and cutting the telegraph lines. He had hoped to attract local tribesmen to rise up and aid him, but was disappointed in this. Even still, his force held out until 2 November, created much confusion (giving the Ottomans the impression that the British intended to advance on Hebron) and drew off small but significant Ottoman forces to deal with him. Eventually the force was overwhelmed after taking 50 per cent casualties. Newcombe was taken to Constantinople as a prisoner, although he would rapidly escape with the aid of a French lady whom he later married, and lived free in the city for the best part of a year. This amazing character deserves to be better known.

The A&NZ Division then began to advance in towards Beersheba at shortly before 9 a.m., and the NZMR Brigade and the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade (attached from the Australian Mounted Division) were told off to attack the dominating height of Tel el Saba. Around 300m (1,000ft) high at the time, the tel sat at the convergence of two wadis, and these would provide the key to taking the position (as well as a source for a small amount of water for the horses). They provided the only decent cover in the area and led directly to the tel, but even so, it would prove a tough nut to crack. A battalion of the 48th (OT) Infantry Regiment was well dug in, with machine-gun and artillery support, and excellent fields of fire. The Auckland Regiment NZMR was first into action, supported by the Somerset Battery RHA. Their 11th Squadron rode along the wadi bed to about a mile from the tel before dismounting and beginning to advance on foot, coming under heavy machine-gun fire from the tel, and from a smaller hill slightly to the east of it. The other two squadrons – the 3rd and 4th – managed to close to about 800m (875yds) from the tel before being forced to dismount in the wadi. The Canterbury Regiment NZMR came up on their right flank, while the Somerset Battery opened fire from around 3.2km (2 miles) away, at which range their fire was too inaccurate to be very effective. The 3rd ALH Brigade advanced on their left, and at 10 a.m. the 1st ALH Brigade was also committed to the attack. An hour later the Inverness Battery RHA added their fire to the barrage, and under the cover of this the Somerset Battery advanced, halving their own range and improving their accuracy. This battery was being directed by the commander of the Auckland Regiment, and the regimental history records that, after this move:

No time was lost in correcting the range of the guns, a signaller with flags passing on the messages given to him orally by the Auckland colonel. It was only a matter of minutes before several changes in the range were flagged back, and the shells were bursting right over the machine-gun emplacements of the enemy. ‘That’s the stuff to give ’em,’ ejaculated Lieutenant-Colonel McCarroll as he saw the goodly sight.

Immediately this remark was sent back as a message by Lieutenant Hatrick, who doubtless had his tongue in his cheek as he did so. After the fight the battery commander, an Imperial* officer, inquired who sent this message. ‘I could not find it in my book of signals,’ he said, ‘but I would like to say that we understood it perfectly, don’t you know.’

As the barrage gained effectiveness, the attack moved closer in short dashes under galling machine-gun fire. New Zealand and Australian troopers converged on the tel from the north, east and south, and at 2.40 p.m. the smaller hill was captured, along with sixty Ottoman soldiers and two machine guns that were turned onto the tel. With this additional covering fire, the Aucklands rose for a final dash. Briscoe Moore recorded:

The line then commenced to move forward, first one part advancing covered by the fire of the others, then another section. The ground, being more or less broken, afforded fairly good cover, but the Turkish artillery made good shooting and put over many good bursts of shrapnel which whipped the ground amongst the advancing New Zealanders into myriad spurts of dust. The engagement thus developed until the attacking line was perhaps two or three hundred yards from the Turks, when heavy fire was exchanged from both sides. Then the New Zealanders charged with fixed bayonets, pushing the attack home with great determination as they mounted the rising ground towards the enemy. The sight of the cold steel coming upon them was evidently too much for the morale of the Turks, for their fire died down as our panting men approached their trenches, and those that did not bolt soon surrendered. Thus was another victory added to the record of the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade.

The Ottoman forces had already begun to withdraw towards the town as the final assault swept over the tel at 3 p.m., but even so seventy prisoners and two machine guns were captured. The way now lay clear for the advance into Beersheba itself.

However, time was beginning to become an issue. The remains of the Ottoman forces were consolidating in the town, and were in a position to easily blown the wells should either wing of the British attack resume its advance. Meanwhile, dusk was approaching, only two hours away. The next move had to be not only decisive, but also swift, and Chauvel turned to his last uncommitted cavalry formation, the Australian Mounted Division under Major General Henry Hodgson. A brief consultation followed. The 5th Mounted Brigade was probably best suited to make a mounted charge into the town; they were equipped with swords and trained for fighting from the saddle. However, they were several miles away, and with time of the essence it was decided to use Brigadier General William Grant’s 4th ALH Brigade instead. Although unsaddled and dispersed, they were close at hand and well rested having seen no action yet during the day. Although no water had been found for the horses, some feed had been issued to them. At 3.45 p.m. Grant ordered his men saddle up and form up, and called his senior officers together for a briefing. They would have to cross several miles of open ground, swept by artillery and machine-gun fire, and then tackle a crescent-shaped system of trenches just south of the Wadi Saba. This system consisted of several lines of trenches, but thankfully had no barbed wire protecting them.

At 4.30 p.m. his forces were ready. The 4th ALH Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel Murray Bourchier) were on the right, with the 12th ALH Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel Donald Cameron) on the left. Each was drawn up in three lines, each of a single squadron, with their headquarters, signallers and ambulances behind. Within each line, each trooper was spaced at about 4 or 5m (4 or 5yds) from his neighbours, so that a single burst of machine-gun fire or shell would not cause too many casualties. The gaps between the squadrons was 300m (330yds), giving plenty of time for the riders coming up behind to swerve around any fallen men or horses in front of them. Behind the two leading regiments, the 11th ALH Regiment was held in reserve. The 5th and 7th Mounted Brigades were also ordered to come up with all haste to support the attack, while the Notts Battery RHA and ‘A’ Battery HAC provided covering fire.

As the advance started, two German aircraft swept out of the sky to bomb and strafe the advancing ranks, but with little effect. Instead, the advancing squadrons, beginning at the walk, sped up into a trot. Artillery, long-range machine-gun and rifle fire was now falling among them, but the advance remained steady and sedate, making sure that the formations remained together for maximum impact. Closer to the enemy, they broke into a canter, and finally a gallop for the last few hundred metres. The fire of all calibres was heavy and intensive now, but the Australians had two advantages: the dust thrown up by their horses’ hooves, and the speed of their advance. As panic and urgency gripped the Ottoman defenders, many forgot to adjust the sights of their weapons. These had been set high initially for the long-range fire, but as the troopers got closer many forgot to lower their sights, sending their bullets and shells high over the Australians’ heads. According to one study, most of the weapons recovered after the charge still had their sights set at 800m (875yds). However, enough accurate fire was being laid down, and the horsemen faced additional dangers from steep-sided wadis, rifle-pits and trenches, all of which could easily disable a horse. Sergeant Charles Doherty charged with the 12th ALH:

As the long line with the 12th on the left swung into position, the rattle from enemy musketry gradually increased in volume … After progressing about three quarters of a mile our pace became terrific – we were galloping towards a strongly held, crescent shaped redoubt of greater length than our own line. In face of this intense fire, which now included frequent salvos from field artillery, the now maddened horses, straining their hearts to bursting point, had to cross cavernous wadies whose precipitous banks seemed to defy our progress. The crescent redoubt – like a long, sinuous, smoking serpent – was taking a fearful toll of men and horses, but the line remained unwavering and resolute. As we neared the trenches that were belching forth death, horse and rider steeled themselves for the plunge over excavated pitfalls and through that tearing rain of lead.

Trooper J. ‘Chook’ Fowler, in one of the following lines, captured the confusion of the charge:

The level country near the trenches was deep in dust. This was one of the worst features of the Palestine Front, for six months each year without rain. The horses in front stirred up the dust and we could see only a few yards, our eyes almost filled with dust, and filling the mouth.

The artillery fire had been heavy for a while. Many shells passed over our heads, and then the machine-gun and rifle fire became fierce as we came in closer to the trenches some of the Turks must have incorrectly ranged the sights on their rifles, as many bullets went overhead … The machine-gun fire was now very heavy. I felt something hit my haversack and trousers and later, on inspection, I found a hole through my haversack and two holes in my trousers. One bullet left a black mark along my thigh. Some horses and riders were now falling near me. All my five senses were working overtime, and a ‘sixth sense’ came into action; call it the ‘sense of survival’ or common sense. This said, ‘If you want to survive, keep moving, keep moving,’ etc. So I urged my horse along, and it wasn’t hard to do so as he was as anxious as I was to get past those trenches … No horseman ever crouched closer to his mount than I did. Suddenly through the dust, I saw the trenches, very wide with sand bags in front; I doubt if my horse could have jumped them with the load he was carrying, and after galloping two miles. The trench was full of Turks with rifle and fixed bayonets, and hand grenades. I heard many grenades crash and ping-g-g-g-g over the noise of rifle and machine-gun fire. About 20 yards to my left, I could just see as a blur through the dust some horses and men of the 12th Regiment passing through a narrow opening in the trenches. I turned my horse and raced along that trench. I had a bird’s eye view of the Turks below me throwing hand grenades etc. but in a flash we were through with nothing between us and Beersheba, and the sound of machine guns and grenades behind.

The 4th ALH met the thicker sections of trenches and became embroiled in clearing them, using their bayonets as swords or dismounting to clear the trenches hand-to-hand. It was hard, grim work but many of the Ottoman defenders were stunned by the suddenness and brutality of the attack. The 12th ALH met with less resistance and fewer trenches; parts of their leading squadron dismounted to clear those they encountered while the two following squadrons sped on into the town. At 4 p.m. Ismat Bey had ordered a general withdrawal of the forces in Beersheba, and the effect of the Australians, even if now in small, scattered groups, erupting through the streets was immense. Ismat Bey barely escaped, while most of his staff and the papers in his headquarters were captured. The Australians rounded up over a thousand prisoners, and captured nine field guns and three machine guns. The 11th ALH, coming up behind, carried on through the town and pushed the last Ottomans out of the northern parts. Ismat Bey was only able to stop the retreat and begin re-forming his men some 8 or 9.5km (5 or 6 miles) north of Beersheba, although it took days to properly re-establish his corps.

Beersheba had fallen. A few demolition charges had been set off by the Ottomans, but the wells were taken largely intact, but unfortunately proved not to as prolific as thought. Barely enough was found to water the mounted divisions, and over the next two days the cavalry and infantry carried out small, limited attacks north and east of the town to secure further sources. The infantry had to remain reliant on water convoys from the rear. In the town, the work to clear up after the battle began. Patrick Hamilton helped to collect and treat the wounded:

In the operating tent our medical officers worked steadily and almost in silence. Continuous skilled surgery hour after hour. Anaesthetics, pain killing injections, swabs, sutures, tubes in gaping wounds, antiseptic dressings, expert bandaging. The medical orderlies did a fine job assisting.

Stretcher bearers were standing by for the change-over. Two on either side lift the stretcher clear of the stands, and replace with the next patient all within two minutes. The pace never slackened!

Here, out in the field at night, surgical work of the first order was performed. This was the 4th Light Horse Field Ambulance at work! About 2 a.m., after six hours of dedicated work by all hands, the last of our 45 wounded was put through. All patients by now were bedded down under canvas and made as comfortable as possible. Most slept through sheer exhaustion or under drugs. We arranged shifts and lay down on the hard ground fully clothed for a few hours’ rest.

In total, over 1,500 prisoners had been taken. During its charge on the town, the 4th ALH Brigade had suffered surprisingly light casualties – two officers and twenty-nine men killed, and four officers and twenty-eight men wounded. The 60th Division had suffered three officers and sixty-seven men killed, and thirteen officers and 358 men wounded. On the Ottoman side, the III (OT) Corps had been almost destroyed, although they had no reason to feel ashamed. While accusations and recriminations flew between the corps and Kress von Kressenstein, with the fact that the corps had a high proportion of Arab troops being often cited as a reason for its ‘poor’ performance, they had in fact behaved admirably. The Ottoman lines had held against great odds and heavy attacks through most of the day, longer than the British had thought they would. It was only the late, desperate charge of the 4th ALH Brigade that had finally shattered their lines.

With Beersheba taken, attention now turned to the western end of the line, and the great fortress town of Gaza.

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.”