Italo-Turkish War (1911–1912)

Italy determined to grab Libya, the last surviving North African state under nominal Ottoman control, and use it as a buffer against further French expansion. The Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12 demonstrated the effectiveness of the Italian navy led by the reform-minded naval minister Rear Admiral P. L. Cattolica. Calling up its naval reserves, the Italian fleet bombarded the Adriatic coast at Preveza and shelled and captured the Libyan port cities of Tripoli, Tobruk and Benghazi. Moslem Arab guerrilla tactics led to an Italian naval blockade of the Libyan coast, angering France and Britain. The British-led Ottoman fleet retreated behind the Dardanelles, and in the spring of 1912 the Italian navy captured Rhodes and the Dodecanese Islands. When the Italian army overran Libya, Turkey submitted and ceded Libya, Rhodes and the Dodecanese to Italy.


PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Libya, Rhodes, and the Dodecanese Islands

DECLARATION: Italy against Turkey, September 29, 1911

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Italy wanted to establish a North African empire.

OUTCOME: Turkey ceded Libya, Rhodes, and the Dodecanese to Italy.


Italy, 50,000; Turkey, far fewer, including native Arab troops

CASUALTIES: Italy, 4,000 killed, 6,000 wounded, 2,000 died from disease; Turkey, 14,000 killed or died from disease

TREATIES: Treaty of Ouchy, October 17, 1912

At the end of the 19th century, Italy felt itself woefully behind other nations in acquiring colonial holdings. With the Ottoman Empire crumbling, Italy targeted the Turkish provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) in North Africa as prizes ripe for the picking. Italy began by sending merchants and immigrants into the region during the 1880s. By 1911, these areas had accumulated a substantial population of Italian nationals, and on September 28, 1911, the Italian government, claiming that its nationals were being abused, presented the Sublime Porte (the Ottoman government) with a 24-hour ultimatum, threatening immediate invasion. Receiving no satisfactory reply, Italy declared war and invaded North Africa the next day with 50,000 troops. Caught by surprise, the Turks could do little as Italian forces bombarded Tripoli with 10 battleships and cruisers for two days. A landing force occupied Tripoli on October 5, encountering little resistance.

As a newer state which had been forced to consolidate its own internal position and structure before expanding its horizons to a colonial empire, Italy was slightly later than the other European countries in developing its interests in Africa. But across the Mediterranean Sea from Italy lay the decaying carcass of the Ottoman Empire’s North African possessions, already the subject of intense French efforts at its western end (Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco), and slightly smaller British effort at its eastern end (Egypt). In between lay Libya, and here Italy saw the possibility of securing the important economic and political niche it ‘ desired in North Africa. On 29 September 1911, therefore, Italy declared war on Turkey.

In the shorter terms the Italians tried to distract the attention of the Turks from North Africa, its naval forces undertaking a bombardment of the Turkish base at Preveza on the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea in Epiros. For two days (29 and 30 September) the Italians maintained their effort, sinking several Turkish torpedo boats and effectively suggesting that the Italians were interested in a move east across the Adriatic rather than south across the Mediterranean. On 3 October the Italian intentions became clearer when a sustained naval bombardment was started against the major city and port of Libya.

For three days the heavy bombardment of Tripoli continued, compelling the Turkish forces to evacuate the Libyan capital and leaving it open for the Italian invasion force that began to land on 5 October. Farther to the east another force had landed and taken Tobruk on the previous clay. These initial beach-heads were a naval responsibility but an Italian army expeditionary force under General Carlo Caneva arrived on 11 October to expand Italy’s hold in their two areas as well as to occupy Benghazi, Derna, and Homs, thereby securing Italian control of Libya’s littoral. In place the Turks resisted with considerable courage but indifferent capability and the Italians were generally unmolested as they continued with their task of consolidating their initial lodgements.

For the rest of 1911 and the first half of 1912 there followed a military stalemate: the Turks were unable to respond militarily to the Italian invasion, but they inflamed the local Moslem population against the `infidel’ Italians so successfully that Caneva thought it better not to essay further advances, concentrating his efforts instead on the complete consolidation of the Libyan coastal regions. Between 16 and 19 April 1912 the Italians launched a naval feint off the Dardanelles, this persuading the Turks that the Italians intended to sail through to Constantinople and attack the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Widespread defensive measures were rushed through, but the Italians withdrew as the Turks succeeded in closing the straits.

The Italians’ real interest in the area was the Dodecanese islands in the southern part of the Aegean Sea and in May 1912 the Italians took Rhodes and other islands without resistance. Then in July the Italians started finally to expand their holding in Libya, cautious but well-planned moves steadily increasing the area of Italian conquest. The campaign culminated in decisive Turkish defeats at Derna and Sidi Bilal, and on 15 October the Treaty of Ouchy was signed to bring the war to a close. Turkey faced a clear threat from the imminent Balkan wars far closer to home, and after two months of negotiations the treaty conceded Italy’s possession of Libya and the islands already seized in the Aegean. Assessment of Italy’s campaign was in general unfavourable, for against indifferent opposition poorly led in areas far from home, the extraordinarily cautious Italians had been checked for a substantial period.

Having declared itself neutral, Egypt refused passage to Ottoman troops, so that Turkey had to enlist the aid of Arabs, who occupied coastal regions and brought the war to a standstill in November 1911. Italy sought to break the stalemate with the naval bombardment of Beirut and Smyrna, then followed this by occupying Rhodes, Jos, and other islands of the Dodecanese. Italian vessels bombarded Turkish fortifications protecting the Dardanelles, which forced the closure of the straits.

The Turks and their Senussi allies retreated to the interior; the Italians held their coastal enclaves and maintained a close blockade. In July 1912, Italy launched an offensive into the Libyan interior.

The toughest battle the Italians faced in Libya was not against the Turks, however, but against pro-Turkish Senussi tribal warriors, who made a fierce attack on Tripoli during October 23-26, 1911, in an attempt to retake the Libyan capital. The Italian defenders lost 382 killed and 1,158 wounded in repulsing the attack. The tribesmen lost about 1,000 killed and wounded, but were forced to withdraw.

If the Italians faced fierce “primitive” opposition, they themselves employed some very modern weapons. In addition to naval bombardment, the Italians introduced into the land war the first armored fighting vehicle. The Bianchi, a wheeled armored car, fought in Libya in 1912 with good results. The Bianchi heralded the use of armored cars and tracked vehicles-tanks-in WORLD WAR I.


The invasion of Libya was well planned. The 1884 operational plan had been updated periodically, most recently on the eve of the invasion. As it turned out, however, the plan was based on certain highly questionable assumptions.

First, it had been decided after some debate that the large Arab population of Libya was not likely to take part in the fighting against Italian forces and could safely be ignored. The assumption, shortly to be proved erroneous, was that the Arabs, oppressed as they were by their Turkish overlords, would welcome Italian “liberation”, or at the very least remain neutral. The idea that the Arabs might make common cause with the Turks on religious grounds seems to have been dismissed by the Italian general staff.

Secondly, it was assumed by the planners that Turkish opposition would not be heavy. Italy’s military attaché in Istanbul assured Rome that Turkey was already heavily committed in the Near East and in the Balkans and would not be in a position to offer much resistance in Libya. Intelligence reports indicated that there were only 5,000-6,000 Turkish troops in Libya, most of them in Tripoli, the capital. It was expected that this handful of troops would resist just long enough to uphold their honour and would then march off for home through Egypt. The possibility that the Turks might, instead, retreat into the desert and wage a guerrilla war does not seem to have been discussed.

The army learned in early September 1911 that the invasion of Libya was going ahead and began making the necessary preparations. Orders were drafted and efforts made to assemble the matériel necessary to equip an expeditionary force. Troops were called up on 23 September and two days later the navy was mobilized. On 27 September an ultimatum was presented to the Turks, giving them 24 hours to turn over the Libyan coastal region, Cyrenaica and Tripoli and its environs, to Italy. The Turks refused, and the Libyan War of 1911-12 was on.

An Italian expeditionary force of just under 45,000 men set sail for the shores of Tripoli under the command of General Carlo Caneva. Tripoli, however, was already in Italian hands when the soldiers arrived, having fallen almost without a struggle to a landing brigade of sailors and marines. The main task of the army over the next two weeks was to secure the city of Tripoli against the possibility of a Turkish counterattack. Although the Turkish garrison had disappeared before the first Italian troops landed, and it could be assumed that they had fled the country, no chances were taken. The oasis surrounding Tripoli was occupied and a defence perimeter 5 km-deep drawn around it. To the west and south, where the oasis faded into desert, trenches were dug and barbed wire strung. To the east, however, the Italian positions fronted onto an Arab quarter called Sciara Sciat, and here no attempt was made to erect defences. During this initial period of the occupation every effort was made to convince Italy and the rest of the world of the truth of one of the assumptions underlying the invasion, that the Arabs of Libya welcomed deliverance from their Turkish oppressors. Relations between the expeditionary force and the local population were described as a “happy partnership”.

On 23 October, this illusion was rudely shattered. A joint force of Turks and Arabs launched attacks all along the Italian defence perimeter. The main thrust, however, hit the part of the line which was weakest, the unfortified section opposite the Arab quarter of Sciara Sciat. After fierce fighting, the attackers were beaten back, but not before some 250 Italian soldiers captured at Sciara Sciat were taken to a Muslim cemetery and killed. While the Turkish and Arab dead numbered thousands, Italian losses were also unacceptably high: 500 dead and 200 wounded.

Having chosen to believe that the Arabs were estranged from their Turkish overlords, the joint Turkish-Arab assault took the Italian high command completely by surprise. The other ranks, who had been told that they had nothing to fear from the Arabs, were shocked and outraged at what had happened.

Officers and men were ignorant of Arabs and Berbers, and saw in their resistance to conquest and fearlessness of death evidence of their bestialita. Panic, and a desire to inflict reprisals on a native populace which had apparently betrayed them, led to a brief orgy of summary executions in which hundreds – perhaps thousands – of Arabs were shot.

The Italian reprisals stirred international protests. In order to avoid the possibility of outside intervention and a settlement by arbitration which would surely fall far short of Italian goals, the Giolitti government was now forced to escalate the war. Troop levels were increased, until Italy had nearly 100,000 men in Libya. Plans were made to occupy the rest of Tripolitania, which would be officially placed under the Italian flag, and to occupy Turkish islands in the Aegean and blockade the Turkish mainland. The campaign into the Tripolitanian interior was launched, towns were taken, but the anticipated enemy capitulation failed to take place.

The rest of the war was a stalemate in the desert between an Italian army that lacked the resources and will power to carry the fight into the interior, and a Turkish-Arab force that held the initiative but was too weak to break through the Italian defences. On the sea, the Italian navy tried to lure the Turkish fleet out of the Dardanelles into a general engagement, and, when this failed, contented itself with occupying a number of Turkish islands, including Rhodes.

Fortunately for Italy, the Turks were in an even tighter spot than she was. Their troops in the Libyan desert had not been paid for months, and were falling sick and running short of water. Besides, Turkey had a number of looming crises in the Balkans to contend with. In Lausanne in the summer of 1912, peace terms were finally agreed. Italy was given Libya and agreed to leave the Aegean islands once Turkish troops had departed from North Africa. Since the Turks did not evacuate their troops from Libya until the end of the First World War, Italy held on to the Aegean islands.

Italy had survived what would soon be known as Phase One of the war in Libya; she had not won a victory. Her army had failed to defeat the enemy in the field, even though it was equipped with the latest military hardware, including aircraft. And while the Turks had submitted to the loss of Libya – officially, at least – the Libyan people themselves were unwilling to accept a transfer to a new set of masters, especially Christian ones. The guerrilla warfare in the desert was resumed despite the Lausanne accords, and would continue on well into the interwar period.

Part of the problem for Italy was the difficulty of getting her conscript army to adjust to fighting an anti-guerrilla war in the desert. No training for this kind of warfare had been provided before the troops left; common soldiers had been given only a fleeting and inaccurate idea of the nature of the population they would find in Libya and the enemy they would have to fight. As far as transporting the army to Libya, the planning had been handled well enough, but once the troops had come ashore, it seems to have foundered. Having confidently assumed that the Turks would simply melt away and that the Arab population would be friendly, the general staff had made no further operational plans.

The war was costly both in lives and money. Some 4,000 Italian soldiers died in combat, from wounds or disease; another 5,000 were wounded. The war cost just over one billion lire – about half of Italy’s total annual revenue. The Libyan adventure drained the nation’s defence forces at home of men, rations, ammunition, horses and other supplies. Almost all the infantry machine gun sections ended up in Africa. When the First World War broke out, there were still 50,000 Italian troops in Libya. “Before 1911 Italy had been militarily weak on one continent”, wrote John Gooch, “after 1912 she was weak in two”.


The first campaign in which military aeroplanes were employed was the war between Italy and Turkey in Libya in 1911-12. An Air Flotilla of the Italian army, consisting of nine aeroplanes, 11 pilots and 30 mechanics, was despatched by sea to Tripoli in October 1911. In August 1911 the Italian Army manoeuvres had shown a potential for aircraft in general reconnaissance roles, and on 25 September came an order to mobilise the Italian Special Army Corps and, more significantly. an Air Flotilla. On that date the Flotilla comprised a total of nine aeroplanes-two Bleriot XI monoplanes, two Henry Farman biplanes, three Nieuport monoplanes, and two Etrich Taubes-manned by five first-line pilots, six reserve pilots and 30 airmen for all forms of technical maintenance. All nine machines were immediately dismantled, crated and sent by sea to Libya, arriving in the Bay of Tripoli on 15 October. With minimum facilities available, the crated aircraft were put ashore and transported to a suitable flying ground nearby, where assembly commenced almost immediately. The first aeroplane was completed by 21 October.

On their arrival the aeroplanes were uncrated and assembled, the first being ready for action within a week. On 23 October a Bleriot XI monoplane, piloted by Capitano Carlos Piazza, the Air Flotilla’s commander, made a reconnaissance flight over advancing Turkish forces. This was the first sortie by a military aeroplane in wartime.

Further reconnaissance flights followed and the Air Flotilla’s military usefulness was increased by using the aeroplanes to observe artillery fire and to correct the gunners’ aim by dropping them messages. On the initiative of Capitano Piazza, one of the Bleriots was fitted with a plate camera for aerial photography. In November a second air unit was despatched from Italy and this established itself at Benghazi. Its commander, Capitano Marengo, distinguished himself in May 1912 by making the first night reconnaissance flight. His only night-flying aid was a torch attached to his flying helmet.

The great innovation of the Libyan Campaign was aerial bombing, which was first tried during a raid on the Tanguira Oasis on 1 November 1911. By February 1912 the early hand-held bombs had been replaced by a bomb cell fitted to each machine which could release up to ten bombs individually or in salvoes. Opposition to the Italian aeroplanes was confined to ground-fire, but the only fatal casualty among the Italian airmen was the result of a flying accident rather than enemy action. By the end of the conflict the aeroplane had been convincingly demonstrated as a weapon of war.

The Scramble for Africa triggered a succession of Islamic-inspired revolts against European imperialism. When Italy invaded Libya in 1911, the Ottoman Empire stirred its nominal Muslim subjects into a fierce jihad. Here, Libyan Muslims swear an oath of fidelity to the Ottomans.

Despite the Senussi resistance, the Ottoman forces were simply overwhelmed. Moreover, the Sublime Porte was reeling in the aftershock of the recently concluded YOUNG TURKS’ REVOLT from 1908 to 1909. Therefore, the Ottoman government concluded the Treaty of Ouchy on October 17, 1912, by which the Turks ceded Libya, Rhodes, and the Dodecanese to Italy.

Further reading: Denis Mack Smith, Italy, a Modern History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969); Rachel Simon, Libya between Ottomanism and Nationalism: The Ottoman Involvement in Libya during the War with Italy 1911-1919 (Berlin: K. Schwarz, 1987).


Belgrade 1717

Eugene of Savoy at the Battle of Belgrade by Johann Gottfried Auerbach. Eugene crowned his career with the battle of Belgrade, after which he retired as the most successful general of the Austrian Habsburgs.

National Trust; (c) Chirk Castle; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

There is no doubt that the blood which is going to flow on both sides will fall like a curse upon you, your children and your children’s children until the last judgment. GRAND VIZIER SILAHDAR ALI PASHA TO EUGENE OF SAVOY, APRIL 1716.

The Austrian defeat of the Ottomans in the Battle of Belgrade on August 16, 1717, led to the Ottoman cession of their portion of Hungary and much of Serbia. Ottoman military fortunes, in decline following the Ottoman rebuff before Vienna in 1683, revived in 1712 when the Ottomans defeated Russian czar Peter the Great’s army on the Pruth River. With the large force mobilized against Russia still available, Grand Vizier Damad Ali decided to wage war against Venice, a long-standing Ottoman enemy, that was then in decline and seemingly without allies.

In 1714 the Ottomans retook the Morea (southernmost Greece) from the Venetians; many Greeks welcomed the Ottomans as liberators, which made the task easier. Damad Ali miscalculated the reaction of Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, however. Charles signed a defensive alliance with Venice to oppose the Ottomans. The Ottoman army then headed north, crossing the Sava River and moving up the south bank of the Danube to Peterwardein (present-day Novi Sad). The Habsburg leadership, awed by the size of the Ottoman force and Damad Ali’s success in the Morea, was divided on the course to follow.

A number of Habsburg generals opposed a pitched battle and instead advocated a war of attrition. The brilliant Habsburg general Prince Eugene of Savoy carried the day, however. He respected the Ottoman soldiers for their bravery in assault but also recognized their weaknesses: antiquated weaponry, an inability to adjust to unforeseen tactics by the opposing side, and a tendency to panic in a reverse. Eugene urged an immediate offensive. The Austrians therefore marched to Peterwardein.

Damad Ali arrived there with 150,000 men to find Eugene with 60,000 Austrians drawn up to meet him. The battle occurred on August 5, 1716. The Janissaries (the Ottoman elite force) gained an immediate advantage in an attack on the Habsburg infantry in the center of the line. Eugene countered from the flanks, breaking the Ottoman formation with a heavy cavalry charge. Damad Ali galloped forward on horseback to try to rally his fleeing troops, but he was struck in the forehead by a bullet and mortally wounded. The Ottomans reportedly lost 6,000 men killed and a large number of wounded. The Austrians also secured all 140 Ottoman artillery pieces.

Following up his victory at Peterwardein, in August Eugene laid siege to Temesvar (Timiscoara), the last remaining Ottoman stronghold in Hungary. The Ottomans had controlled it since the days of Suleiman the Magnificent. Temesvar surrendered after only five weeks. This was the prelude to the siege of Belgrade the next year, which Eugene undertook with some 70,000 men.

Held by some 30,000 soldiers, Belgrade was the strongest Ottoman post in the Balkans. As Eugene prepared his forces for an assault on Belgrade, an Ottoman army estimated at 200,000 men under the Grand Vizier Khahil Pasha arrived on the scene. Eugene was outnumbered more than 3 to 1, and his position seemed critical. Ottoman overconfidence, however, and their failure to launch an immediate attack worked to his advantage.

On August 16, 1717, while elements of his forces repelled a sortie by the Belgrade garrison, Eugene took the remainder and, in a daring move that caught the Ottomans by surprise, stormed their main lines. Eugene was wounded in the attack (his 13th and last battle wound) but remained on the field.

Maurice de Saxe famously describes a battalion of Imperial infantry getting cut up by Ottoman cavalry at Belgrade in 1717:

“… At the battle of Belgrade (August 16, 1717), I saw two battalions cut to pieces in an instant. This is how it happened. A battalion of Neuperg’s and another of Lorraine’s were on a hill we call the battery. At the moment when a gust of wind dissipated the fog which kept us from distinguishing anything, I saw the troops on the crest of the hill, separated from the rest of our army. Prince Eugene, at the same time discovering a detachment of cavalry in motion on the side of the hill, asked me if I could distinguish what they were. I answered that they were 30 or 40 Turks. He said: “Those men are enveloped,” speaking of the two battalions. However, I could perceive no sign of their being attacked, not being able to see what was on the other side of the hill. I hastened there at a gallop. The instant I arrived the two battalions raised their arms and fired a general discharge at thirty paces against the main body of the attacking Turks. The fire and melee’ were simultaneous, and the two battalions did not have time to flee for every man was cut to pieces on the spot. The only persons who escaped were M. Neuperg, who, fortunately for him, was on a horse, an ensign with his flag who clung to my horse’s mane and bothered me not a little, and two or three soldiers.

At this moment Prince Eugene came up, almost alone, being attended only by his body guard, and the Turks retired for reasons unknown to me… … Some cavalry and infantry arriving, M. Neuperg requested a detachment to collect the clothing. Sentries were posted at the four corners of the ground occupied by the dead of the two battalions, and their clothes, hats, shoes, etc., were collected in heaps. During this ceremony, I had curiosity enough to count the dead; I found only thirty-two Turks killed by the general discharge of the two battalions–which has not increased my regard for infantry fire.”

The Austrians won through the boldness of his assault and the superb discipline of their infantry, which advanced with colors flying and drums beating despite Ottoman artillery fire. Holding their fire until they were but a short distance from the Ottoman lines, the Austrians launched a bayonet charge that broke up the Janissaries and produced victory. Ottoman casualties were estimated at 20,000 men, while the Austrians suffered only 2,000 casualties. Five days later, on August 21, Belgrade surrendered to the Austrians.

As their main army retreated south, their other force abandoned the siege of Corfu, releasing pressure on the Venetians. Realizing it was now too late to attack Belgrade, Eugene turned northeast to besiege Timisoara, capital of the Banat and last Turkish enclave north of the Danube. Though an attempt to storm the place on Charles’s birthday (1 October) failed, the garrison surrendered two weeks later after a relief force disintegrated en route through desertion. By the end of the year, the imperialists had overrun most of Wallachia west of the river Olt (Aluta)-the so-called Olteria or Little Wallachia.

Though a successful campaign, it was now obvious that the Austrians had seriously underestimated Ottoman strength, but it was decided to continue the war the following year to consolidate the gains. The arrival of Bavarian and other reinforcements brought Eugene’s army up to 100,000, strong enough to attempt the siege of Belgrade, and, assisted by the Danube Flotilla, the city was completely cut off and subjected to a regular siege. However, Eugene was running out of supplies as an Ottoman relief force approached in August. A lucky shot detonated the city’s largest magazine on the 14th, killing 3,000 of the defenders. Realizing that a sortie was now unlikely, Eugene sallied forth from his trenches with 60,000 men to surprise the Turks in the early morning mist. Fortified by drink and keeping close together, the imperialists poured devastating musketry into the disordered Turkish ranks, routing them and sealing the garrison’s fate. With the fall of Belgrade on 18 August, the Turkish position in Northern Serbia collapsed and the Habsburg frontier advanced south of the Danube to reach the fullest extent achieved during the Great Turkish War.

Charles had no intention of going any further. The Austrians were already beginning to doubt the wisdom of pushing deeper into the Balkan wastelands, and it was clear the Turks desired peace. This was very welcome given that Rakoczi had just arrived in Edirne, raising the spectre of renewed trouble in Hungary. Meanwhile the Turks were suspected of trying to reach a rapprochement with the tsar, and Spain had launched its attempt to recover its lost Italian possessions. Following long negotiations with Anglo-Dutch mediation, peace was concluded at Passarowitz (Pozarevac) on 27 July 1717, confirming Austria’s recent gains. It was not a moment too soon. Austrian units were already departing for Italy, while five days later, the emperor concluded the Quadruple Alliance with France, Britain and the Dutch, thus committing himself to the war with Spain.

The short successful war considerably extended Habsburg territory, indicating that Austria was now a major European power and raising the emperor’s prestige in the Reich. Prince Eugene was a genuine folk hero, and even other generals became household names.

The Battle of Belgrade was a watershed. After the Battle of Belgrade they were firmly on the defensive, no longer expanding in Europe but merely seeking to retain conquered territory.


The fall of Constantinople in 1453 (only 3 years before the Ottoman siege at Belgrade) sent panic and fear throughout Europe and the Christian world. The loss of Constantinople was regarded as a calamitous setback for Christian Europe and the crusades. The victorious Sultan Mehmet II, encouraged by his momentous victory at Constantinople, began an advance into the Balkans and northward in the hopes of defeating Hungary and reaching Western Europe. Mehmed II would take Serbia in 1454-55; and the following year with an army estimated to be 70,000 strong (other historians have estimated that Mehmed’s army may have been between 100,000-300,000 men), he launched what would be a long and arduous march to Belgrade.

Belgrade (Nándorfehérvár) was a key stronghold of the southern defense system of medieval Hungary. The epic battle between the Ottoman Empire and Hungary would come to significantly influence the subsequent history of Europe and the spread of Ottoman domination in the Balkans. János (John) Hunyadi, an influential and famous Hungarian military commander, politician and noble, took the responsibility for coordinating and controlling the defensive operations along the southern borders of Hungary (a position he was appointed to in 1441). Hunyadi, knowing of the Ottoman advance in the Balkans, left 7,000 of his soldiers in Belgrade to build and strengthen its defensive capabilities in May of 1456. In the buildup to the Ottoman siege, John of Capistrano, a Franciscan monk appointed by the pope to recruit as many troops as it was possible, crisscrossed the Kingdom of Hungary and Western European powers to raise a volunteer force. By June, 1456 Capistrano’s army and the Hungarian forces (numbering approximately 45,000-50,000 in total) arrived in Belgrade and began to take up their defensive positions north of the city.

Hunyadi was able to maintain his pre-eminent position for several years to a considerable degree due to the ever-present Ottoman menace. The defeat of Kosovo Polje was followed by a pause in hostilities. Sultan Murad, who had business to look after elsewhere, signed a treaty with the Hungarians in 1450 and this was confirmed by his successor, Mehmed II (1451-1481). However, it was soon apparent that the accession of Mehmed meant the beginning of a new phase of Ottoman expansion, which was to be much more successful than the previous ones. The first waves of this resurgent military threat soon reached Hungary. Constantinople fell in 1453, and Mehmed immediately transferred his residence from Adrianople to the newly conquered city. In 1454, when the peace of Oradea expired, he attacked Serbia and laid siege to Smederevo, Brankovi.’s capital. In the following year he renewed his attack, this time occupying the whole of Serbia with the exception of Smederevo. As the expedition of 1456 was to be directed against Belgrade, it was not surprising that Hunyadi would once again be pushed to the forefront of events as the potential saviour of the kingdom. His reputation may have been shaken by his defeats since 1444, but he was indisputably the only man capable of successfully opposing the Ottomans.

The preparations for a counter-attack began as early as 1453. Immediately after the fall of Constantinople, Pope Nicholas V proclaimed a crusade. The war against the Ottomans frequently emerged as a subject for discussion at the imperial diets in Germany in 1454-1455, although no definitive decision was made. Not surprisingly, Hungary was swept by a wave of panic, and the diet that assembled in January 1454 at Buda consented to large-scale measures in order to mobilise a national army. It proclaimed the general levy of the nobility, and renewed the institution of the militia portalis. Four cavalrymen and two archers were to be equipped by every 100 peasant holdings, a demand that surpassed all previous recruiting measures. But the projected offensive never took place; all that happened was that in the autumn of 1454 Hunyadi marched into Serbia at the head of a small army and defeated the forces left behind by the sultan at Krusevac. Planning continued in 1455 and the diet levied an extraordinary tax, but that was all that took place. The cause of the anti-Ottoman war was given renewed impetus by the new Pope, Calixtus III (1455-1458), who tried to mobilize the whole power of the Church in order to launch a new crusade. Although the princes of Europe turned a deaf ear to the Pope’s request, he nevertheless aroused enthusiasm among the common people in several places. He received much help from the Franciscans, who deployed the skills of their popular preachers in the service of the `holy war’. As a result of their unremitting zeal, by the summer of 1456 a huge crusading army, consisting mainly of Germans and Bohemians, had assembled in the area around Vienna, ready to march against the `infidels’.

However, this host never confronted the sultan, who began the siege of Belgrade on 4 July with an army which modern scholars have put at 60,000 to 70,000 men. Hunyadi, assisted by the Franciscan Giovanni da Capestrano, had successfully organised the castle’s defence and had assembled a significant army in the vicinity. In the region of 25-30,000 crusaders, `peasants, craftsmen and poor people’, rallied to Hunyadi’s camp under the influence of Capestrano’s impressive sermons.

One of Belgrade’s greatest advantages was its geographic location at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. Mehmet would similarly take advantage of Belgrade’s position by sailing over 200 ships up the Danube river with canons, supplies, siege weapons and equipment. The Ottomans would even establish founderies in Serbia to build and manufacture canons to support the siege. Legend has it that the bells of Constantinople were melted and used to manufacture the canons used against Belgrade in 1456. With the Ottoman forces firmly in control of the river at this stage, the Ottomans blocked Belgrade off from the Danube with a chain of ships, moored upstream of the castle, and began placing their heavy guns outside the western walls of the fortress. The bombardment of the fortress would began in July. Hunyadi however anticipated this tactical move by Mehmed’s forces, and devised a cunning attack to retake control of the river.

On July 13, 1456, a Hungarian fleet of vastly inferior vessels broke the line of the Turkish fleet with the assistance of the fortress commander, Mihaly Szilágyi. Both Hunyadi and Szilágyi (who was Hunyadi’s brother-in-law), had river units that were anchored on the Sava River west of Belgrade and further north on the Danube – and therefore out of reach by the Ottoman forces. Both commander’s led a two-fronted attack against Mehmed II and defeated the Ottoman river armada. With the defeat of the Ottoman fleet, the Hungarians had control of the Danube again meaning the supply of needed reinforcements to Belgrade could be provided uninhibited. Hunyadi could then join his forces, camped about 30 kilometres north of Belgrade, with Szilágyi to increase the defensive capability of the fortress.

The continued Ottoman siege against Belgrade proved insufficient to deal a deciding blow to Hunyadi’s forces. Hunyadi was compelled to lead a defensive fight due to the lack of enough calvary forces to attack the Ottomans full-out. After almost ten days of unsuccessful sieges, on July 21, 1456 Mehmed ordered a full attack on the fortress. By the night of July 21 so many Ottoman attackers had been killed that chaos broke out among Mehmed’s ranks. The next morning (July 22, 1456) Hunyadi rode out of the stronghold with a small contingent and entered into hand to hand fighting with Medmed’s tired and beleaguered army. The Sultan sent 6,000 fresh troops into combat, but these troops could not defeat Hunyadi. Mehmed’s army experienced casualties in excess of 50,000 men and, after the Sultan himself became wounded in battle, ordered a general retreat to Sofia in Bulgaria.

The sultan withdrew with the remnants of his army and with memories that prevented him and his successors from launching an attack of the same dimensions for 65 years. News of this resounding victory soon reached the West. The day on which the Pope received the news, 6 August, the day of the Lord’s Transfiguration, was declared a general feast throughout the Christian world. He had previously ordered that all the bells should be rung at noon to encourage the soldiers, but his bull was not published until after the battle, and thus the tradition, which continues in Hungary to this day, is generally thought to be commemorative of the victory itself.

The victory presented an excellent opportunity for a counter-attack, especially in view of the fact that considerable forces were gathering in the heart of Hungary. But no offensive took place, because the crusaders were already on the edge of open revolt. Anger against the `powerful’, who had kept themselves far from the battle, had already been growing during the fighting. Agitation became so intense after the victory that Hunyadi and Capestrano decided to disband the army. Both of them soon died, however. On 11 August, Hunyadi fell victim to the plague that had broken out in the crusaders’ camp, and Capestrano followed him to the grave on 23 October.

Hunyadi was succeeded by his elder son, the 23 year-old Ladislaus. He seems to have inherited his father’s ambition and slyness, but apparently not his talent. Within a couple of days he found himself in conflict with the king and Cilli, who demanded that the castles and revenues that had been held by Hunyadi should be handed over. Cilli had himself appointed captain general of the realm. Together with the king, and at the head of the foreign crusaders who had recently arrived, he marched southwards with the aim of taking possession of Belgrade and the other stipulated fortresses. To preserve his position, the young Hunyadi decided upon an extremely hazardous course of action. At the assembly of Futog he feigned submission and then enticed his opponents into the castle of Belgrade. There, on 9 November 1456, he had Ulrich murdered by his henchmen, and made himself master of the king’s person. Hunyadi had himself appointed captain general, then took the king to Timisoara. Before being set free, the king was made to swear that the death of Count Cilli would never be avenged.

Ladislaus Hunyadi seems to have seriously miscalculated the possible consequences of his actions. The unprecedented murder turned everyone but his most determined followers against him: not only John Hunyadi’s enemies, like Garai, but also his friends and supporters, like Ujlaki and Orszag, agreed that Ladislaus should be bridled. Paying for perfidy with perfidy, they soon made their opponent believe that he had nothing to fear; and the king too showed himself a master of deception. On 14 March 1457, when Ladislaus was staying at Buda with his brother Matthias, both were arrested, together with their supporters. The royal council, functioning now in its capacity as supreme court, convicted the Hunyadi brothers of high treason, and on 16 March Ladislaus was beheaded in St George’s square in Buda. His supporters were pardoned, but Matthias was held by the king, who immediately left Hungary for Bohemia. The retaliation failed to bring about the desired consolidation, however. Hunyadi’s partisans, in possession of his family’s immense and still intact resources, reacted with open revolt. It was led by Matthias’s mother, Elisabeth Szilagyi, together with her brother, Michael, while the royal troops were commanded by Ujlaki and Jiskra. Fierce but indecisive fighting continued for months, and was ended only by the news of Ladislaus V’s premature death in Prague on 23 November 1457. Since the king had no lawful heir, the kingdom was once again left without a ruler.

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).

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.


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.


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.