Ottoman Naval Development

In the fourteenth century, the illustrious historiographer, Ibn Khaldin recorded a prediction:

The inhabitants of the Maghreb have it on the authority of the books of predictions that the Muslims will yet have to make a successful attack against the Christians and conquer the lands of the European Christians beyond the sea. This, it is said, will take place by sea.

This prophesy was realized in the early sixteenth century in the form of the Ottoman navy. Nonetheless, the Ottomans have yet to be granted their place in world history as a seaborne empire. This is nowhere more apparent than in depictions of the reign of Bayezid II ( 148 1- 1512). Traditional historiography has characterized the reign of Bayezid as consisting of two halves: before and after the death of his brother Cem. The first half is dominated by Bayezid’s struggle to eliminate his brother, the challenger to the throne. Cem, whose unsuccessful bid for the Ottoman sultanate was supported by the Mamluk sultan Qa’it Bay, died in 1495. Bayezid’s reign after Cem’s death has been portrayed as a less than illustrious period of quiet consolidation. If, however, the second half of Bayezid’s reign is viewed as a period during which a powerful navy was built up, a navy capable of defending and supplying an empire extending far beyond the bounds of Anatolia, then the peaceful characterization of this period becomes somewhat less believable. Bayezid’s navy was used to suppress piracy, protect commodities shipping, and intimidate his enemies, present or potential. Ottoman naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean fostered the establishment of cordial Ottoman-Venetian trading relations, permitted the subordination of the Mamluk kingdoms (through naval and artillery aid) prior to the Ottoman conquest of Cairo, and allowed for a significant challenge to Portuguese seapower in the Indian Ocean. Seapower was both physical and rhetorical. The threat of the Ottoman navy was used by many states throughout the Mediterranean to gain diplomatic leverage. Nor was the Ottoman navy, as traditional historiography would have it, little more than a group of state subsidized corsairs. Seapower was a vehicle for developing Ottoman trading interests, securing the Ottoman coasts, and supporting the transport and provisioning activities required for Ottoman territorial expansion.

It was at the turn of the sixteenth century that the Ottomans firmly and decisively set out to use seapower as an avenue to “world” hegemony. Naval development began in earnest under Mehmed II. It continued under Bayezid who ordered “ships agile as sea serpents (naheng ahang gemiler)” constructed to fight the Venetians. The reign of Selim was a period during which the military and naval capabilities built up during Bayezid’s reign were utilized and expanded. The conquest of Cairo provided, in part, the revenue and the imperial ethos. Anatolia provided the construction materials and the infantrymen. Upon this foundation Selim was building a most formidable navy, and planning greater naval conquests at the time of his death. The only obstacle in his path was the shortage of skilled sailors. These aspirations became operational on a grand scale with an eastward expansion which halted only at the Indian Ocean in the reign of Selim’s son Suleiman.

After the campaign season of 1502, Sultan Bayezid launched both a major naval reorganization and a broad scale troop mobilization. This troop mobilization in the fall and winter of that year was a direct result of the military success and diplomatic challenge of Ismail Safavi in Iran. The naval reorganization was attributed by Venetian sources to the sultan’s wrath over the Venetian victory that year at Santa Maura. The overall victory in the Ottoman-Venetian wars, however, went decisively to the Ottomans and, by fall of 1502, negotiations were underway for a treaty which would leave Venice without Modon and Coron and liable for a ten thousand ducat annual indemnity to the Porte. Hence, the causes for Bayezid’s naval buildup must be sought elsewhere than in mere vengeance for the defeat at Santa Maura. These causes include the intentions to expand Ottoman Levantine possessions, to punish Rhodes for its attacks on Muslim shipping, and to provide naval support for Ottoman campaigns against the Mamluk and Safavid territories. Short years later a fourth cause was added: the provision of direct naval assistance to the Mamluks against the Portuguese in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

First, the Ottomans needed a navy revamped to fcus outside the Aegean and the Mediterranean. This navy was then directed to purposes of defense and expansion that later proceeded outward in concentric circles; the territorial conquests mirrored the spheres of Ottoman economic interest in the Aegean, Mediterranean, Red Sea, and eventually the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. Vigorous shipbuilding activity was underway in the Ottoman arsenals during the wars with Venice from 1499 to 1503. Sadeddin mentions the preparation of a fleet of three hundred ships in the first year of the war. A German knight, Arnold von Harff, claimed, with considerable exaggeration, that he saw that same year eight hundred Turkish war galleys and countless other vessels in the harbor at Istanbul. Bayezid called in the entire Ottoman armada for repairs in the winter of 1500-1501 and ordered the preparation of for hundred ships including two hundred galleys mounted with large cannon, fifty heavy galleys, and for hundred fifty of the smaller galiots and fustas. This work took place at selected sites, with the armada at Midilli alone numbering some one hundred twenty vessels including forty galleys early in 1502. The sultan requisitioned laborers for the fleet, especially carpenters and caulkers, as well as building materials from Chios, a “request” that the Christian administration of the island could not afford to refuse.

This construction cannot be explained only as a requirement of the combat with Venice. By fall of 1502, it was apparent that a peace treaty was in the offing. In the intervening years before the conquest of Cairo in 1517, Venice and the Ottomans were at peace. Their naval relations, though characterized by a healthy distrust, were generally amicable. Yet, just as the peace treaty set aside the threat from the Porte’s primary opponent in the Mediterranean, Bayezid began a policy of naval expansion which would ultimately make the Ottomans the dominant naval power in the region. During this same time-, the French and Spanish were contenders for naval power in the western Mediterranean, the Portuguese gained control of the Indian Ocean, and the Rhodians remained an insistent, if essentially insignificant, naval threat of the Anatolian coast. Although the Spanish would become a formidable sea power, their success in the western Mediterranean was arguably a function of the direction-east-that the sultan chose for the utilization of his navy.

The Ottoman naval reorganization begun in the fall of 1502 was a three-stage operation. It involved the repair of the fleet, the dismantling of some ships for reconstruction and the building of entirely new ships. Reconstruction efforts were directed at the largest ships which were either taken apart or sold to private entrepreneurs. Materials from the ships, which were taken apart, were used to build heavy and light galleys. These efforts were aimed at producing lighter, more maneuverable ships, which were not only more adaptable to joint naval actions but were also less likely to be captured.

While these efforts were underway Bayezid ordered the mobilization of sixty to seventy thousand men, both oarsmen and sailors. This number is more than even a fleet of three hundred ships could utilize; however, it indicates that the Venetian authors of the reports were impressed with the sultan’s levy of seamen. The high number may also be an indication of the divergence between the number of sailors and oarsmen levied and the actual numbers who showed up. In order to finance the naval expansion, Bayezid combined a number of sources of income. He obtained some revenue from the sale of the largest ships. He ordered each of his sons to provide for the construction of six heavy galleys, and a number of his sancak begs to finance three light galleys each. In addition, the merchants of Salonica (both Greeks and Turks) were ordered to pay a tithe and to finance mariners. The fact that only the merchants of Salonica are mentioned as paying the special naval levy does not mean that it was limited to this city alone. There is, however, a certain logic to the idea of levies on the coastal merchants. They were likely to be engaged in commerce supplied by shipping along the Anatolian coast, from the Aegean islands, and across the Mediterranean from Beirut and Alexandria. This shipping was susceptible to corsair raiding especially on the part of the Rhodians. If the naval expansion was aimed, in part, at the protection of Ottoman shipping, then the merchants who profited from it were a likely source of revenue. The bulk of the financing for the fleet, however, came from the imperial treasury supplemented by the special levies such as the oarsman tax (kürekҫi akҫesi).

By the end of the year 1503, the Ottomans had an impressive array of ships at their disposal . In his report to the Venetian Senate, the returning bailo of Istanbul, Andrea Gritti, gave a detailed account of the Ottoman fleet and its activities. Gritti counted the Galata fleet as including thirty light galleys, twelve galleys bastarda, two galeazza (unnavigable), and some assorted fustas and gripos. At Gallipoli there were sixty galleys and fustas. Three of these galleys, with thirty, twenty-six, and twenty-two banks of oars respectively, had been constructed by an Italian shipbuilder named Andrea Dere. At Avlonya in the Adriatic the Ottomans had eleven galleys which had been seized during the war and nine fustas (mostly in bad order) . At Volissa on the west side of Chios were an additional eight heavy galleys and thirteen light galleys. Gritti’s account does not include estimates of naval forces at other Ottoman ports such as Macri and Samsun, but it is clear that Bayezid had a large fleet at his disposal which had not been retired at the end of the war.

The shipbuilder Dere is again mentioned in Leonardo Loredano’s report to the Venetian Senate in March 1507. His story illustrates the continuation of shipbuilding activity, gives some insight into the training of the Ottoman sea captains, and emphasizes the competition among states for skilled craftsmen. The sultan’s shipwright told Loredano that he had prospered while in the Ottoman service. He indicated, however, that he might consider leaving Istanbul if Venice came up with a sufficiently lucrative offer. This was especially so because Dere’s superior, the kapudan (captain-general of the Ottoman fleet) Daud Pasha, had died. When Daud was alive, Dere recalled, he would call his shipbuilder to his room and go over navigation charts with him, asking all about the Aegean ports, especially about Zara (a Venetian possession) and its defenses. After hearing this story, Loredano suggested that Venice would be well advised to try to persuade Dere to return to Italy, before the Ottoman navy benefited even further from his knowledge. Good shipwrights were a prized commodity in any case in the Mediterranean, even if they were not possessed of tactical information. In the end, however, Dere, saying that he had served the sultan for many years, seemed content enough to stay where he was.

Lack of a sufficient naval opponent and the expense of keeping large fleets manned insured that much of the Ottoman armada was demobilized at any given time. In the winter, the Ottoman fleet in the Bosphorus, consisting of one hundred twenty or so vessels, was beached and guarded by a large number of sentries. Meanwhile, however, the Ottomans had not ceased to manufacture great numbers of cannon, both iron and bronze, as well as other types of naval munitions. This production was facilitated by a large number of artillery masters at Istanbul working, according to Loredano, continuously. The Porte was able to produce sufficient artillery to arm its own expanding navy and to create a surplus as well. This surplus, in turn, would allow the Ottomans to provide cannon for the Mamluk fleet being prepared at Suez to challenge the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean. While the bulk of the Ottoman armada remained demobilized in various naval stations, small fleets could be mobilized as needed for the various objectives of the state. Significant among these objectives was the protection of Ottoman commodities shipping through defense of the Anatolian coastal areas. Rumors persisted throughout the Mediterranean after 1503 that the Ottomans intended to launch an armada. But the Ottomans launched no major fleet offensive until 1515. During this time of relative peace, however, fleets of from fifteen to forty vessels were kept regularly cruising in the Aegean. These fleets provided transport, security against corsairs for Ottoman shipping, and general coastal defense. They were also used for commercial purposes and for special diplomatic missions.

Piracy was endemic in sixteenth-century seas, and the newly constructed Ottoman fleet seems to have been used primarily against corsairs. Piratic acts combined with a grain shortage prompted Bayezid in 1504 to send out eight armed galleys and fustas to prevent smuggling and the seizure of grain ships by pirates. These ships were instructed to punish Kara Durmuş, a corsair, who had acquired a small fleet in the course of the Venetian wars and was now operating in the waters near Chios, apparently under the patronage of the sancak beg of Manissa, Celal Beg. Kara Durmuş, with a fleet of twenty-two fustas, a brigantine and a galiota, was interfering with Ottoman shipping and raiding the Anatolian coasts. This number of vessels seems large for a single corsair, although most of the ships were the small and maneuverable fustas which could be operated in close to shore. Kara Durmuş may have formed loose and temporary alliances with other small-time corsairs, who united for defensive purposes during some raiding activities while at other times pursuing their interests individually. In 1505, a fleet, numbering fourteen to eighteen ships, under the command of Kemal Reis, a hero of the Ottoman-Venetian wars, was mobilized and charged with the task of pursuing Kara Durmuş and preventing corsairing activities based on Rhodes. This use of Ottoman vessels in patrolling activity suggests that a uniform definition of “navy” is inadequate to explain the nature of naval action in the sixteenth century. Visions of large-scale sea battles and of shipboard Muslim crusaders must give way to a more mundane version of Levantine sea power.



The bombardment of the Turkish forts. Original illustration published by H W Wilson, British journalist and naval historian, editor of The Great War: The Standard History of the All-Europe Conflict, a popular part series published by the Amalgamated Press in 13 volumes, 1914 to 1919.

Liman von Sanders, the German officer commanding Turkish Fifth Army, which defended Gallipoli and the Straits against the Allied landings of 25 April, generally anticipated the Allied landing sites quite accurately. However, one other area, Bulair/Saros, at the neck of the Gallipoli peninsula, particularly attracted his attention. This turned out not to be an Allied landing site, but the capture and interrogation of a British naval officer just before the Allied landings helped focus Liman von Sanders’ attention on Bulair/Saros from 25 to 28 April.

Following the end of Allied naval attempts to force the Straits on 18 March, Turkish attention turned naturally to defence against the possibility of Allied landings on either side of the Straits. On 24 March 1915 Liman von Sanders, a German cavalry officer, Inspector of the Turkish Army, commander of the pre-war German military mission to update the Turkish army and commander of Turkish forces in the Caucasus in 1914, was chosen to command Fifth Army, defending Gallipoli and the Asian shore area. Already in January 1915, von Sanders had outlined his ideas for a defensive system. His first point was that the present defensive structure, set up by Enver Pasa, Supreme Military Commander in Istanbul, scattered the Turkish divisions too widely. This was feasible against small landings, but, ‘Against landings of large troop formations, our divisions must be much more concentrated in order to be able to attack the enemy in strength during or after landing.’ This was easily remedied, but here, though, was the central problem, where would the Allies land?

Liman von Sanders suggested three possible landing sites, all based on the assumption that the Allies would land so as to attack Turkish batteries and fortifications from the rear. Starting firstly with the Asian shore, he predicted a landing at either Besike Bay or Kum Kale (where the French landing did actually take place), in order to attack the strong Turkish batteries and fortifications along the Straits’ shore from the rear. Liman von Sanders argued for a defensive counterattack as the enemy troops moved inland from Kum Kale and crossed the Mendere River. Also, 3 and 11 Turkish Divisions were to be combined in a corps stationed at Erenkeui, where they could go in any direction, according to the Allied landing site. Officers were to be stationed where they could judge whether the landings were a feint or a serious operation. Mines were to be laid at Kum Kale, which was to be defended by one battalion. Bridges over the Mendere River were to be prepared for demolition. (As it turned out, the French did not reach the Mendere River, partly because their landing was a feint. On the other hand, the Turkish 3 Division did little, and actually used the Mendere River as a means of protecting themselves!) Secondly, Liman von Sanders turned his attention to what he called the European shore. Here, he predicted landings at either Seddulbahir (Helles) or Gaba Tepe, or both simultaneously, ‘in order to advance against the batteries from the rear.’ The 9 Division was to be moved closer to the middle of the sector, and 19 Division was to be stationed at Maidos. In this sector, Liman von Sanders was prescient, because Helles was the site of the main Allied landing, while Gaba Tepe was just south of the intended Anzac landing site of Brighton Beach. Finally, thirdly, Liman von Sanders identified the Saros/Bulair area. He suggested two aims of a potential Allied landing in this area. One was the rather difficult Allied task of covering the ground necessary to cross the isthmus and disable the Turkish batteries on the Sea of Marmora side. The other was to totally cut off Turkish troops on the peninsula by simply capturing the narrow neck of the isthmus. Without actually saying so, Liman von Sanders revealed his particular bias toward the Saros/Bulair area by assigning three divisions to guard it, 4 and 5 Turkish Divisions, which could be amalgamated, and 7 Division.

This emphasis on the Bulair/Saros area is at variance with Liman von Sanders’ later memoirs, where he claimed that he saw the Asiatic area as the greatest danger, then Seddulbahir, then Gaba Tepe, and last, Bulair/ Saros. But he was quite correct in his memoirs when he identified intelligence reports and rumours out of Turkish embassies or consulates in such places as Athens, Sofia and Bucharest, which gave information on British and French forces preparing to land. Turkish archives actually reveal a bewildering variety of alleged Allied plans. For example, on 22 March it was reported from sources in Italy that a combined Russian, French, British plan was underway. Russians would land on the Black Sea coast, and the French would land an African division at Saros. The British army from Egypt would land near Izmir. The Allied navy would also attack. The aim was the capture of Istanbul. On the same day, the Turkish military attaché in Rome focussed on French intervention. This report said that about 40,000 French would land, including colonial troops from Mauritania and Senegal. The commander was to be General d’Amade. Indian troops and Australians would also arrive from Egypt. Altogether, the force amounted to some 80,000 troops, which the military attaché thought exaggerated. (He was not so far out, since about 75,000 Allied troops did take part in the April landings. And he was correct about d’Amade and the French colonial troops.)

With these various Turkish reports, and many others, it is not surprising that Liman von Sanders was unsure about Allied intentions. Yet, curiously, although his predictions as to where the Allies would land had all been based on the idea that the Allies were aiming to capture or demolish Turkish batteries and forts from the rear, Liman von Sanders was remarkably accurate in forecasting Allied plans, which actually had other reasons behind their choice of landing sites. There was one exception, however, to Liman von Sanders’ accurate predictions, which he tried to play down in later years, and this was the Saros/Bulair area. One probable reason for this emphasis in Liman von Sanders’ mind, was a remarkable incident that took place on 17 April, just eight days before the 25 April Allied landings. On this day, the British submarine E 15, commanded by Capt. T.S. Brodie, tried to run the Straits to get into the Sea of Marmora. The submarine first hit one of the Turkish nets, and then was caught in a strong eddy off Kephez Point, and ran aground on a sandbank. As luck would have it, this was just by the Turkish Dardanos battery, which lost no time in shelling the submarine. One shell hit the conning tower and cut the unfortunate Brodie in half, plus six other crew were killed during the shelling, and the submarine filled with thick smoke. The rest of the crew surrendered, and were taken into captivity, including a certain Lt Palmer. This individual, who was an officer in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, had been the British vice consul at Chanak. After hostilities broke out, Palmer apparently arrived in Athens in early March 1915 to report on the location of Turkish guns in the Straits. Palmer then joined the staff of de Robeck at Gallipoli as an Intelligence Officer. Wishing to see active service, Palmer volunteered to serve on E 15 as an Intelligence officer. After Palmer’s capture, he was interrogated by Col. Djevad Bey, commanding the Straits Forts. Djevad Bey then sent a lengthy cipher to the Supreme Command in Istanbul on 20 April, with the results of Palmer’s interrogation.

Since this cipher message containing Palmer’s interrogation is of critical significance, as it occurred just five days before the Allied landings of 25 April, it is given in full:

Palmer, who was the Consul at Chanak, was captured and made a prisoner of war. He was accused of being a spy for the Allied powers. Also a certificate was found in the submarine showing that Palmer was a reserve officer. But we did not tell him that we had found this certificate. Palmer was told that he was accused of being a spy, and that is why he might be executed. Because no soldier wants to give information openly, Palmer wanted to talk privately. So I promised him that he would be regarded as a prisoner of war. Then, he agreed to give us information. I asked him about the Allied attack that was planned. He said that a British attack would be made against the Dardanelles with a force of 100,000 men, landing under the command of Gen. Hamilton. According to Palmer’s statement, the Allies planned to land at Gaba Tepe. But as soon as they found out that the Turks had learnt of this attack, they changed their plans concerning Gaba Tepe and Seddulbahir [Helles]. Also they did not think that their landing at Seddulbahir would be successful. Consequently, they decided to land in the Gulf of Saros, and in the region of the northern part of the Peninsula. Previously, they had planned to attack Gaba Tepe, Seddulbahir and even Besike. To support their attacks in these regions, they needed the support of their navy. In fact, they planned to make these attacks last Monday [presumably 12 April: the original date for the landings was 14 April], but they have now given up this plan. He does not have any information about the new attack plan. This information has been given by the ex-consul on the condition that his life be spared under this agreement. Please do not give the origins of this information, in order to ensure his safety. I have sent the prisoner of war [Palmer], and his goods that have been taken from the submarine, with this cipher. I beg you to accept him as a prisoner of war.

20 April 1915, the Commander of the Forts, Col. Djevad.

The next day, the Supreme Command in Istanbul, obviously interested in what might be a real Intelligence coup, wanted Palmer to identify the threatened northern area. Djevad Bey replied: ‘The name of the region which is around the Gulf of Saros as mentioned by the ex-consul that I wrote in the cipher, is the region between Imbros and Karacali on the northern coast of the Gulf [of Saros]. 21 April 1915.’

It would seem that Palmer had to think quickly on his feet during this interrogation. On the one hand, he certainly did not want to be shot, but on the other hand, he did not want to give away the real Allied landing sites, which he certainly knew, having been an Intelligence officer on de Robeck’s staff. So he adopted the risky strategy of giving the actual Allied landing sites, but then suggesting these had been cancelled due to a security leak. In their place, Palmer directed Turkish attention north to Saros/Bulair as the new Allied landing area. In his further explanation of what the northern region consisted of, Palmer gave a vague answer, although it did include the Anzac landing zone. As for the 100,000 Allied troops that would land, Palmer probably did not know the exact Allied figure, otherwise the logical solution would have been to minimize the number of Allied troops, in order to cause Turkish over-confidence. On the other hand, Palmer may just have been unable to think quickly enough on the question of numbers, or he did not think the question of numbers was significant. (Ironically, the actual number of Allied soldiers involved in the landings was in fact discovered by Fifth Army through a Turkish wireless intercept on 25 April.) Nevertheless, the timing of Palmer’s capture and interrogation was extremely critical – just five days before the Allied landings on 25 April, although he did not give away this information. Now the question was: would the Supreme Command, and especially Liman von Sanders, be taken in by the Bulair/Saros disinformation from Palmer?

Documents in the Turkish archives do not definitely answer this question, but one message on 22 April, and correspondence between Fifth Army and Supreme Command on 20 April, show that the information was at least disseminated. Other messages suggest a considerable focus on the Saros/Bulair region. For example, Fifth Army reported on 25 April that Allied ships were in Saros, and that help was needed. The next day, 26 April, Fifth Army urgently requested more ammunition for the Saros area. On the other hand, while the Turkish Official History mentions Palmer, it does so without emphasis, and does not claim an Intelligence coup. It is also the case that Liman von Sanders does not mention Palmer in his memoirs. Yet a significant first hand observer of Liman von Sanders at his GHQ on 25 April and following days, Capt. Carl Mühlmann, describes in detail how Liman von Sanders focussed on the Saros/Bulair region to an unusual degree over the next four days.

Mühlmann awoke early on Sunday 25 April, to the sound of gunfire. He was at Liman von Sanders’ GHQ at the town of Gelibolu, when a staff officer rushed in with news of landings at Seddulbahir and Ari Burnu (Anzac), as well as of a transport flotilla in the Gulf of Saros. (This was part of an Allied feint by Hamilton at Bulair/Saros.) Liman von Sanders immediately alerted 4 Division to march to Bulair. Mühlmann takes up the story:

Unfortunately, L[iman] was somewhat nervous and instead of centralizing all telephone connections and remaining at the choke point – GHQ – he swung up on his horse and, accompanied by the two of us [Mühlmann and another staff officer] rode up to the heights near Bulair. Unfortunately, this meant that all reports were delayed 1–2 hours and the entire traffic between us and GHQ was made much more difficult…

Admittedly Bulair was the nearest danger zone to the German GHQ at the town of Gelibolu, but Liman von Sanders could also have headed toward Ari Burnu, or to Maidos, as a more central location to the known landings of Ari Burnu and Seddulbahir. In fact, while Liman von Sanders’ party was at Bulair, news of the Kum Kale French landing came in. Esat Pasa, GOC Turkish III Corps asked permission to move his HQ to Maidos, and this was granted. Yet Liman von Sanders continued to focus on Bulair.

Mühlmann relates that the small party reached the heights above Bulair in time to see a heavy naval bombardment of the fort there. Mühlmann already noted the limited effect of naval fire – the shell craters were immense, but did no damage unless there was a direct hit, although ‘the psychological effect is tremendous.’ Perhaps this influenced Liman von Sanders, because when evening came on 25 April, instead of returning to his GHQ at Gelibolu, Mühlmann commented: ‘to our great surprise, he [Liman] decided to spend the night out here; we could not find out why because we had no telephone line to GHQ.’ Mühlmann was sent on a mission the next day, 26 April, to Maidos with orders to concentrate 5 Division closer to Bulair, while 7 Division was sent to Seddulbahir. However, Liman von Sanders again planned to spend the entire day of 26 April on the heights above Bulair. (Meanwhile, Mühlmann was now down at Maidos, where an Allied submarine, evidently the Australian submarine AE2, fired nine torpedoes at a troop transport and missed, probably because the torpedoes failed to explode. Then AE2 surfaced and hailed a sail boat to ask directions, ‘really an incredible piece of cheek!’ noted Mühlmann. The AE2 sailed into the Sea of Marmora and, according to Mühlmann, did not sink any transports before being forced to the surface and scuttled. A Turkish message notes that the AE2 was followed by the German Capt. Merten, and fired on.) After the submarine episode, Mühlmann returned to Liman von Sanders at Bulair, and was ordered to remain there to observe, while Liman von Sanders went, on 27 April, to check on the situation at Maidos and Ari Burnu.

Mühlmann thought his sojourn at Bulair was over on 27 April, when the fleet disappeared from the Gulf of Saros. Liman von Sanders met Mühlmann at GHQ at Gelibolu and informed him that all was well at Ari Burnu, and that the French were hurled into the sea at Kum Kale, which was, of course, the planned French re-embarkation from Kum Kale. Liman von Sanders had also witnessed the shelling across the peninsula by the Queen Elizabeth of a Turkish transport, usually seen by historians as a significant blow, but Mühlmann remarked ‘Thank God, it was not loaded, and sank within one minute.’ Apparently Liman von Sanders returned from Maidos to his GHQ at Gelibolu by sea on 27 April, aboard the Barbarossa, at which a submarine fired two torpedoes and missed. This was probably the British submarine E14, and a successful torpedo attack would certainly have changed the campaign had Liman von Sanders gone down with this ship. The next day, 28 April, news came into von Sanders’ GHQ that the enemy was being reinforced at both Ari Burnu and Seddulbahir, and so, at this time, 7 Division and most of 5 Division were recalled from Bulair to move south via Maidos. This decision is at variance with Liman von Sanders’ memoirs, where he claimed to have recognized Bulair/Saros as a feint by 26 April.

However, neither Liman von Sanders nor Mühlmann were finished with Bulair. While on his way to a different task on 28 April, Mühlmann,

became despondent when, looking beyond the heights [at Bulair] I saw the transport fleet back in the Gulf of Saros. It was clear to all of us that we were only dealing with a bluff, otherwise they would have landed several days ago – in addition, the ships rode too high in the water to be fully loaded. Of course, L[iman’s] specific concern about protecting his rear at Bulair was to be expected, and therewith came the danger that I was to be left there again.

Mühlmann’s fear was only too accurate, since Liman von Sanders came up, and informed Mühlmann that he would move his HQ to Maidos, but Mühlmann was to be stationed at Bulair as Liman von Sanders’

plenipotentiary and general staff officer. I [Mühlmann] made a deeply disappointed face and explained my wish to him [to get closer to the actual war theatre]. At first, he [Liman von Sanders] did not wish to consider it, because after seeing the enemy fleet, new fears had swelled up in him. But, finally, he gave in…

Thus, it is clear that Liman von Sanders remained heavily preoccupied with the Bulair/Saros area over the period of four days between 25 and 28 April, and was still inclined to worry about this area as late as 28 April, when major Allied operations were obviously focussed at Anzac and Helles. Of course, Liman von Sanders was right to consider Saros/Bulair as a danger area, and in addition there was the Allied naval feint at Saros/ Bulair, but Liman von Sanders also appeared to show an unreasonable interest in this area. It is entirely possible that the capture and interrogation of Lt Palmer just before 25 April, with his disinformation about the Allies choosing Saros/Bulair as their main landing area, helped to confirm Liman von Sanders’ preoccupation with this zone. The documents do not specifically reveal this, but Liman von Sanders’ focus on Saros/ Bulair, and his hesitation in sending the Bulair divisions south, certainly gave the Allied landings on 25 April a breathing space they might not otherwise have expected.

Ottoman Fortunes – Battle Of Navarino

The Naval Battle of Navarino (1827). Oil painting by Garneray.

After initial negotiations failed with the Ottoman Sultanate, Britain, France, and Russia prepared to enforce the provisions of the Treaty of London through military action. In the summer of 1827, a large Ottoman-Egyptian fleet was being assembled in Alexandria for operations in the Greek theater, and Allied commanders sent a warning to Mehmet and Mahmud not to send the flotilla. The Ottoman-Egyptian leaders ignored what they believed to be meddling by the Allies into Sultanate affairs. As the fleet left Alexandria for Greece on August 5, 1827, the Ottoman leadership was finally in a position to finish off the remaining partisan rebel fighters and in putting an end to what had become known as the Greek War of Independence.

On August 20, 1827, Vice Admiral Sir Edward Codrington, commander of the Allied combined naval task force, received instructions from the Admiralty informing him that he was to impose and enforce the provisions of the London Treaty on both sides and to interdict the flow of reinforcements and supplies from Anatolia and Egypt to Ottoman forces in Greece. The application of military force against the Ottoman-Egyptian fleet, the communication stressed, should be used only as a last resort. On August 29, the Sultanate formally rejected the Treaty of London’s provisions, aimed at granting Greece autonomy while keeping the province within the empire. From September 8 to 12, 1827, the Ottoman-Egyptian fleet from Alexandria joined other Ottoman warships in Navarino Bay (present-day Pylos), located on the west coast of the Peloponnese peninsula in the Ionian Sea.

The Ottoman warships within the bay, in addition to imperial ships, were a combined force with warships from Algeria and Tunis as well as the Egyptian naval vessels. Ibrahim, Mehmet’s son and in operational command of Egyptian-Ottoman forces, was contacted by Codrington and agreed to halt fighting until he received further instructions from his father who was involved in communications with the Western allies at his headquarters in Egypt. However, on October 1, the Greek rebels continued operations against Ottoman forces that had been ordered to temporarily stand down, leading Ibrahim to disregard his agreement with Codrington and in resuming attacks against the Greeks.

On October 13, Codrington was joined off Navarino Bay by French and Russian warships. While Codrington believed his combined fleet had the necessary firepower to destroy the Ottoman ships arrayed in Navarino Bay, his instructions were to impose the provisions of the treaty peaceably if possible. Therefore, he sailed his fleet into Navarino Bay in single column with the British in the lead, followed by the French, and then the Russians. Eleven Allied ships-of-the-line (average 70 guns each) and 9 frigates and 4 smaller warships, bringing to bear nearly 1,300 guns, all sailed boldly into the bay where 70 warships of the Ottoman Empire lay at anchor with more than 2,000 cannon at the ready. Adding to the Turkish firepower were the shore batteries, which were under Ottoman control.

The Ottoman fleet had taken a horseshoe or arc formation with three lines, and the ships-of-the-line anchored in the first wave. The Allied forces had superior firepower in that their cannon aboard the ships-of-the-line were 32-pound guns, as most of the cannon available to the Turks were 24-pounders. Additionally, while the Allies possessed 11 ships-of-the-line, the Ottomans had only 3 and, while the Turks had more than 70 ships, 58 were smaller vessels such as corvettes and brigs. Further still, the Allied crews, particularly the British and the French, had extensive combat experience during the Napoleonic Wars, while most of the Ottoman crews’ only experience was in fighting smaller vessels. As if the superior firepower and superior gunnery expertise were not enough to tilt the odds in the Allies’ favor, the Ottomans’ ability to fight the Battle of Navarino was severely constrained by an additional and unforeseen development.

The Egyptian fleet present at Navarino Bay had largely been constructed or purchased with supervision by European naval officers, mostly French. The fleet had also been trained by a team of French officers under the overall direction of Captain J. M. Letellier,and these men served aboard the Egyptian-Ottoman warships as “shadow officers.” On October 19, the day before the Battle of Navarino, French Rear Admiral De Rigny, serving with the combined Allied fleet, convinced the French officers to withdraw from the Egyptian fleet. They removed themselves to a smaller vessel in the bay and attempted to provide logistical advice to the Egyptians, but the damage to morale and effectiveness was significant. Most of the Ottoman sailors had been pressed into service (essentially forced conscription), and, as the French shadow officers withdrew from their crews, one can imagine the sadness some of the officers must have felt for these unfortunate and unwitting souls as powerful naval artillery prepared to open fire at them from point-blank range as well as the anxiety and fear that must have permeated the young Egyptian and Ottoman sailors.

At 2 p.m. on October 20, 1827, British Admiral Codrington aboard his flagship, HMS Asia, led his combined fleet into Navarino Bay. The Ottoman shore batteries guarding the entrance to the bay were ordered to hold their fire while Ibrahim Pasha sent a launch to Codrington’s approaching vessel. The message from Ibrahim to Codrington was simple: “You do not have my permission to enter the bay.” Codrington returned the Ottoman launch with his reply to Ibrahim: “I have come to give orders, not take them.” Codrington continued on and, as his ships began to drop anchor at essentially point-blank range from the Ottoman fleet, a boat that had been lowered from the Allied ship Dartmouth proceeded in the direction of an Ottoman fire ship (a fire ship was a relatively small vessel loaded with flammable and combustible material in barrels mounted in the bow for use against an enemy target). The Ottomans opened fire on the approaching boat with musketry, and the exchanges escalated throughout the bay. In his communication with the Admiralty the following day, Codrington stated:

I gave orders that no guns should be fired unless guns were first fired by the Turks; and those orders were strictly observed. The three English ships were accordingly permitted to pass the batteries and to moor, as they did with great rapidity, without any act of open hostility, although there was evident preparation for it in all the Turkish ships; but upon the Dartmouth sending a boat to one of the fire vessels, Lieutenant G.W.H. Fitzroy and several of her crew were shot with musketry. This produced a defensive fire of musketry from the Dartmouth and La Syrene, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral de Rigny; that succeeded by cannon- shot at the Rear-Admiral from one of the Egyptian ships, which, of course, brought on a return, and thus very shortly thereafter the battle became general.

Following two hours of battle, all Ottoman ships-of-the-line and most of the large Ottoman and Ottoman-allied frigates had been destroyed; after two more hours of fighting, the remaining Ottoman naval vessels had been sunk, scuttled, or set on fire. While no British, French, or Russian ships had been sunk, several ships had suffered significant damage; one Allied ship-of-the-line had 180 hull breaches (pierced by enemy cannon balls), while three Russian ships-of-the-line were essentially disabled, and three British ships, including Codrington’s flagship, HMS Asia, were required to sail for England to immediately undergo repairs. The Allied fleet suffered 181 killed and 487 wounded, while the Ottoman fleet incurred losses exceeding 4,000 killed or wounded.

Word of the outcome of the battle reverberated throughout the maritime-oriented community that was Greece. People, in village after village upon hearing the news, rushed to the village squares, as church bells rang out and huge bonfires were lit on the mountain tops of the Peloponnese and Mount Parnassus in Central Greece. Demoralized Ottoman garrisons in the occupied zones made little effort to curtail the celebrations. The Battle of Navarino marked that final naval engagement between sailing ships with unarmored hulls and brandishing muzzle-loading, smooth-bore cannon. It also marked the first use in naval history of a steam-powered warship, as the relatively small Greek ship, the Karteria of the fledgling revolutionary navy, propelled by steam-powered paddles (as well as sails) made its appearance during the battle.

After suffering the devastating loss of essentially his entire navy and forced to withdraw his now unsupportable infantry from Greece, Mehmet demanded extra compensation for his losses from the Sultan. Mehmet demanded of the Sultan the Ottoman Eyalet of Syria in exchange for the loss of his navy. In Arabic, the region surrounding Syria is referred to as Bilad al-Sham (the Levant), and for centuries those in Mesopotamia, Persia, Anatolia, and Egypt sought to control it, as it possessed abundant resources as well as featuring the world’s most ancient yet developed international trading communities centered on Damascus, Aleppo, and the Mediterranean coastal cities. Moreover, from Mehmet’s perspective, possession of Syria would also provide a buffer zone against Ottoman power as well as a buffer zone against any foreign power that eventually seized control of Constantinople and Anatolia. With Egyptian military capacity based in Syria, it would also provide Mehmet with a possible staging area for direct operations against the Ottomans, should at some future time Mehmet decide to march on Constantinople.

For those same reasons, the Sultan refused Mehmet’s demands. In response, Mehmet built a new navy, and on October 31, 1831, under Mehmet’s son, Ibrahim, Egypt invaded Syria in the opening phases of the First Turko-Egyptian War. Ibrahim’s forces quickly overran Syria except for the well-fortified port city of Acre, which required a six-month siege, before capitulating on May 27, 1832. However, the costs of the expedition required Mehmet to demand increases in fees and taxes from the Egyptian population, which created significant levels of domestic discontent with Mehmet’s leadership. In addition to the domestic front, Mehmet soon realized the discomfort of the major European powers with his actions against Constantinople. The slow dissolution of the empire was unfolding as the Europeans and Russians moved to control or liberate key pieces of empire property. However, both the Europeans and the Russians did not wish to see Mehmet enthroned as the new Ottoman Sultan with control in Egypt, the Levant, Anatolia, and the key port cities that dotted the Eastern Mediterranean coastline between Asia Minor (Turkey) and North Africa.

After the fall of the stubborn port city Acre, Ibrahim took the Egyptian army into Anatolia and defeated an Ottoman army led by Reshid Pasha at the Battle of Konya on December 21, 1832. Sultan Mahmud II realized that, should Mehmet wish it, the Egyptian army could now march largely uncontested on Constantinople. Moscow, sensing opportunity, offered Mahmud military assistance and concluded the Treaty of Hunkar Iskelesi (Unkiar Skelessi) with him on July 8, 1833, to formalize the Sultan’s acceptance. With the Russians seeking to continue their push south and in creating a greater Mediterranean presence by taking advantage of Ottoman weakness, the Treaty of Hunkar Iskelesi brought a sharp reaction from Britain and France. The treaty included a secret clause that opened the Dardanelles to Russia in time of war, while precluding its use by anyone else. Both nations negotiated the Convention of Kutahya between Mehmet and Mahmud II in May 1833, which stipulated that Mehmet would withdraw his forces from Anatolia and in return would receive Crete and the Hejaz (in Arabia) in compensation. Moreover, Ibrahim would be appointed Wali or governor of Syria in return for a yearly tribute payment to the Sultan.

Inhabitants of the Syrian Eyalet chaffed at their new Wali, uncomfortable with Egyptian policies at what they perceived to be excessive taxation, forced labor, a general disarmament of the population, and military conscription. A variety of incidents and uprisings began in 1834. On May 25, 1838, Mehmet informed the British and the French that he intended to declare independence from the Ottoman Empire and Mahmud II ordered his forces to advance into Syria. Ibrahim defeated them at the Battle of Nezib on June 24, 1839, and afterward, the Ottoman fleet defected to Mehmet. Mahmud II died almost immediately following the loss at Nezib and the defection of the Ottoman navy.

On July 15, 1840, Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia signed the Convention of London, which offered Mehmet hereditary rule in Egypt provided the North African country stayed in the Ottoman Empire and provided he withdrew from Syria and the coastal regions of Mt. Lebanon. Mehmet mistakenly believed that the French were prepared to side with Egypt and was consequently dismissive of British demands. Following this, British and Austrian naval forces blockaded the Nile Delta and shelled Beirut on September 11, 1840. On November 27, 1840, Mehmet agreed to the terms of the Convention of London and renounced claims over Crete, Syria, and the Hejaz. Also instituted in the 1841 agreement, to which France also reluctantly acquiesced, was the Anglo-Ottoman Commercial Convention of 1838, which abolished Mehmet’s monopolistic control over Egyptian domestic and foreign commerce. Further diminishing Mehmet’s power was a requirement in the agreement that compelled the reduction of the Egyptian army from more than 100,000 troops to no more than 18,000.

From 1820–1840, Ali enjoyed the continuous support of France. Following his defeats of 1840–41, Ali and his successors never recovered from the effects of the European intervention, although his grandson, Ismail (1863–79) came closest to emulating the dynasty founder. Ismail’s heavy borrowing at ruinous discounts and interest rates for his ambitious schemes of military, economic, and social modernization hastened his downfall. By the time of his dismissal in 1879, Britain and France were exercising a dual control over Egypt’s finances under the authority of a public debt commission. After mounting crises beginning with the Urabi coup d’etat in September 1881, Britain backed into the occupation of Egypt the following July, without precipitating war in Europe. For more than sixty years thereafter, Whitehall decided the fate of the Egyptian army.

From 1606 to 1826 the Ottoman Empire instituted efforts aimed at reforming its gunpowder weapons-brandishing medieval armed forces. In Persia, the problem was even more acute than that faced by Constantinople. The Shah during the time of the Qajar dynasty and continuing into the nineteenth century was forced to rely on militias that constantly required extensive negotiations as well as expensive promises all contributing to an extended mobilization process. For the Ottomans, Sultan Selim III attempted to reorganize the army (Nizam-i Cedid) in the late eighteenth century but met considerable resistance from a number of entrenched interests, most notably from the infantry units known collectively as the Janissaries. As a result of his attempts at modernization and reform, the Sultan was driven from power in 1807. His successor, Mahmud II, in November 1808, only months after becoming Sultan was faced with a revolt by the Janissaries rebelling yet again at plans toward modernizing the army. The Janissaries killed Mahmud’s “grand vizier” Mustafa Bayraktar Pasha who had been ordered to spearhead the reform efforts and to modernize the Ottoman army.

These events, coupled with the difficulties experienced by a long line of predecessors, led Mahmud II to proceed with caution in his reform efforts. Eventually, however, on June 15, 1826, during the Vaka-i Haryire or “good incident,” troops loyal to Mahmud II shelled the Janissary barracks in Constantinople, killing several thousand inside. The Janissary corps was subsequently dissolved and its provincial garrisons disbanded. The event is recorded and celebrated in Turkish history as the “auspicious event,” which overcame a key obstacle and provided the opportunity to create that which eventually became modern Turkey.

Koprulu and Vienna I

Candia under siege

The city of Candia with its fortifications, 1651

The Ottoman royal line seemed like a Juggernaut against the fractured and random genealogies of the other servants of the empire, but there were other families, all the same. The descendants of the Prophet’s sister were all known as emirs, and were entitled to wear distinctive green turbans. They were allowed to be judged, but not punished, by men. They remained, Cantemir tells us, ‘Men of the greatest Gravity, Learning and Wisdom’ until they turned forty, when they would become ‘if not quite Fools, yet they discover some sign of levity and stupidity.’ The descendants of the vizier who had concealed news of Mehmet I’s death, working his corpse like a puppet, enjoyed the title of khan, and resolutely kept away from affairs of state ‘for fear of losing everything. They have greatest honours paid them by the Sultan, who visits them twice a year, eats with them, and lets them visit him, when he will rise a little from his seat and say peace be with you, and even ask them to sit down.’

Out in the provinces lived descendants of the old chieftains who had spearheaded the invasions. As late as the nineteenth century Muslim landowners in the valley of the Vistritza, surrounded by feudal retainers, claimed that their lands had been in the possession of their ancestors for more than six hundred years, perhaps as a result of a politic change of faith. In many ulema families, traditions of learning and piety had been handed down from father to son for generations. Endowments were often managed by the descendants of the founder: the gatekeeper at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, for example, remains to this day a descendant of the Muslim appointed to the office in 1135, and may say that his family has seen the Ottomans come and go. Above all the Girays, traditional khans of the Crimean Tartars, had the blood of Genghis in their veins and were, by persistent report, heirs to the empire if the Ottoman line should fail.

Family loyalties had always existed among the kapikullari, in spite of the slave theory. Suleyman’s young Grand Vizier, Ibrahim, looked after an old Greek sailor who often arrived roaring drunk outside his house. Ibrahim would lead him home, the handsome, smooth-shaven youth, counsellor to the foremost sovereign of Islam, shepherding his drunken old father through the streets of Constantinople. People thought well of him for it, and made no effort to see in the younger man the faults of his father, for they did not hold much by heredity, having proved again and again how carefully selected men could be trained to the pitch of perfection. Family bonds could be carried too far. Suleyman’s last Grand Vizier, Sokullu, was a Serb by birth; he did much to preserve the Sultan’s mystique by keeping alive the memory of Suleyman’s grandeur through the reign of the jovial and worthless Selim the Sot, and into that of his successor; but he was an arrant nepotist, and went so far as to create a Serbian patriarchate for the benefit of a relative. People remembered this when Sokullu was assassinated in 1579 on his way to the council chamber, and they thought it on the whole a just reward.

In the seventeenth century the pressure to admit the sons of slaves into palace service became irresistible. In 1638 the boy tribute was formally abandoned, and a few years later, in the 1650s, the empire acquired a sobriquet, such as Venice – La Serenissima – enjoyed, or the possibly ironic La Humillima, ‘Most Humble’, by which the Knights of Malta chose to designate their irreducible presence in Valetta. From now on she was known as Baba Ali, or ‘High Gate’, La Sublime Porte. The new name indicated, perhaps, that the Ottomans were settling to the Mediterranean world; but it marked a shift in the balance of power, too, from the Sultan himself, the Grand Turk, to his more anonymous officials, for the Gate in question was in fact the residence of the Grand Vizier. With the boy tribute formally abandoned the way was cleared for the establishment of dynasties; and for fifty years after 1656 the government was controlled by the most famous dynasty of the lot, so sure of itself that one of its members went so far as to contemplate the destruction of the Ottoman line as a means of renovating the flagging energies of the empire.

Its founder was one of the very last tribute boys, and his career to 1656 was a traditional one. By shrewd alliances and steady service in both Constantinople and the provinces he had reached the position of governor of Tripoli. By the age of seventy-one Ahmet Koprulu was living ‘a private and stoical life at Constantinople, in expectation of even the smallest Bashalic. Indeed he enjoyed the name and honour of a Basha’, but he had few friends in the capital. He was not rich. He found it hard to keep up the retinue expected of a pasha of his rank, and avoided public appearances.

Only death could free the Kapikulu from his duty of obedience. In 1656 the summons came from the Valide Sultan Turhan, mother of the young Mehmet IV. For the past eight years, grand viziers had followed one another in rapid succession as the factions jostled for position and the office became sacrificial – fourteen grand viziers rolled over as first Kösem and then, after her murder in 1651, Turhan herself clung to the reins of power. The Venetians, in defence of Crete, were blockading the Dardanelles. Shipping was at a standstill and the link with Egypt – commands from the Porte, and grain from the Nile – was broken. On 4 March 1656 the army in Constantinople revolted over pay – further debasement of the coinage was one consequence of the political friability – and demanded the heads of thirty high officials. Turhan gave way, and the unfortunate men were hanged at the gate of the Blue Mosque.

In desperation, Turhan turned to Ahmet Koprulu. Before accepting the position of Grand Vizier, Koprulu demanded written guarantees that the Sultan would not listen to any court gossip and that no one would countermand any order he might give. Turhan surrendered her regency to him, and the young Sultan Mehmet left Constantinople for the freer atmosphere of Edirne, where he and his successors were to remain for fifty years. Koprulu promptly demonstrated his grim efficiency by executing the pasha who had abandoned Tenedos to the Venetians, suppressing the spahi revolt and purging the corps. But he also beat the Venetian fleet, broke the blockade of the Dardanelles and allowed a return to Tenedos and Limnos. The rebellious George II Rakci, Prince of Transylvania, was summarily replaced by a more amenable ruler.

Evliya Celebi’s patron, Melek Pasha, was governor of a Black Sea province at the time, and he soon received a letter. ‘It is true’, Koprulu wrote, ‘that we, were raised together in the imperial harem, and are both protégés of Sultan Murad IV. Nevertheless, be informed from this moment that if the accursed Cossacks pillage and burn any one of the villages and towns on the coast of Ozu province, I swear by God Almighty that I will give you no quarter and will pay no heed to your righteous character, but I will cut you into pieces, as a warning to the world. Be wary therefore, and guard the coasts. And exact the tribute of grain from every district, according to the imperial command, in order that you may feed the army of Islam.’

Melek had suffered a brief spell as Grand Vizier himself. Consequently he was not at all offended by the tone of the letter, it rather buoyed him up. Koprulu, he reminded Evliya, ‘is not like other Grand Viziers. He has seen much of the hot and cold of fate, suffered much from poverty and penury, distresses and vicissitudes, has gained much experience from campaigning and he knows the way of the world. True he is wrathful and contentious. If he can get rid of the segban vermin in the Anatolian provinces, restore the currency, remove the arrears, and undertake overland campaigns – then I am certain that he will bring order to the Ottoman state. For as you know,’ Melek added mildly, ‘breaches have occurred here and there in this Ottoman state.’

In 1665 Koprulu sent the first ever Ottoman ambassador to Vienna, marching into the infidel city under a forest of standards and banners, to the sound of kettledrums and to the consternation of the people. Koprulu was convinced that the breaches could be repaired if only the empire could recapture the military manner, which Koprulu, and others, saw as the real cause of the empire’s former success.

In the 1640s when Sultan Ibrahim launched his crazed search for ambergris, and furs, two men in the empire dared to cross him. One was a judge in Pera who, dressed as a dervish, declared: ‘You may do three things: kill me – and I shall die a martyr; banish me – there have been earthquakes here recently; or fire me – but I resign.’ The other was a soldier, a janissary colonel adored by his 500 men, who had served in the longest and most bitter siege, of Candia, the capital of Crete, that the Ottomans ever conducted. Black Murad was met off the boat by a treasury official demanding amber, furs and money. He rolled his eyes, ‘bloodshot with wrath’. ‘I have brought nothing back from Candia but gunpowder and lead,’ he thundered. ‘Sables and amber are things I know only by name. Money have I none and, if I am to give it to you, I must first beg or borrow it.’ He escaped a ruse to murder him, and was apparently instrumental in the deposition of the Sultan.

Men like these were Koprulu’s natural allies. Many of the abuses he attacked so vigorously were symptomatic of changes over which he had no control, but the terrible old man took them for the cause, and went about rooting them out with murderous energy and application. He was remembered, not as subtle or farsighted, but as a stern traditionalist, whose notions of reform were fierce and corrective. Fiscally rigorous, he controlled expenditure and regularised tax income so that the soldiers received their pay in full, and even on time, and when he died, at eighty-five, in 1669, the empire’s books were very nearly balanced.

The Venetians in 1644 had allowed a Maltese fleet with Ottoman prizes to anchor off the southern shore of Crete. They had received a boy captured by the Knights of Malta on board the flagship of the pilgrimage fleet, supposed by the knights to be the Sultan’s son.* Ibrahim, mad as ever, was all for going against Malta; but his advisers suggested Crete itself, to be taken by surprise. Venetian apologies for the error were graciously received, and a fleet which left the Dardanelles on 30 April 1645 sailed with the avowed object of taking Malta from the knights. Surprise was a dependable weapon in the Ottoman arsenal; when once asked where the army was headed, Mehmet II himself had replied: ‘If a hair of my beard knew my schemes, I would pluck it out.’

The Venetians were old hands at the game, and not easily duped. For over two hundred years they had been shuffling diplomacy with war, and in the slow war of attrition they seldom overplayed their hand. They had beefed up the Cretan garrisons, and raised the militia. The Ottomans soon overran the entire island nonetheless, reaching the walls of Candia in July 1645. Here the Venetians resolved to make a stand; and they stood so redoubtably that a generation passed without the Ottomans being able to take the citadel. In 1648 a Venetian fleet imposed a blockade on the Dardanelles. The military humiliation which called forth Ahmet Koprulu also sealed Sultan Ibrahim’s fate. ‘Traitor!’ he cried to the men who came to announce his deposition. ‘Am I not your Padishah?’ ‘Thou art not Padishah, for as much as thou hast set justice and holiness at nought, and hast ruined the world. Thou hast squandered thy years in folly and debauchery; the treasures of the realm in vanities; and corruption and cruelty have governed the world in thy place. You have made yourself unworthy, by leaving the path in which your ancestors walked,’ their leader retorted. Several days before the fatwa allowing Ibrahim’s execution was issued by the Mufti, a few hours before sunset on 8 August 1648, the principal dignitaries of the empire paid homage to Sultan Mehmet IV – a few admitted at a time lest a crowd should frighten the eight-year-old boy.

The Candian siege dragged on, through the minority of the new Sultan, the appointment of Ahmet Koprulu in 1656, and the succession of his son as Grand Vizier. Fazil Ahmet, ‘Breaker of the Bells of the straying and blasphemous nations’, reined back the ferocity of his father’s rule, and gave the empire a decade of wise and mild leadership; he was able to spend three years between 1666 and 1669 personally conducting the siege, and running the empire at the same time. The Venetians had chosen to make Crete the proving ground for Venice’s desire to maintain the status of a great power, but when, in desperation, they tried to buy the Ottomans off, Fazil Ahmet answered curtly: ‘We are not moneydealers. We make war to win Crete.’

The beleaguered garrison hung on until their citadel was a termite nest. Volunteers came from all over Christendom; the Turks pressed the assault with brilliant engineering – a skill in which they excelled, until they forgot it entirely, and had to be retaught by the French in the nineteenth century the principles of parallel trenches which they themselves had invented. In the last three years of the war, 30,000 Turks and 12,000 Venetians were killed. There were 56 assaults and 96 sorties; both sides exploded exactly 1,364 mines each. But on 6 September 1669 Morosini – destined to be known as Morosini the Peloponnesian for his reconquest of the Greek peninsula – surrendered on honourable terms, and Crete became Ottoman.

It was, however, one of the last extensions of Ottoman power: the very last, perhaps, in the settled world. To the north, in that vastness of the expiring steppe north of the Black Sea, Poland, Russia and the empire struggled to master the Cossacks, and to enfold Podolia and the Ukraine in their own dominions; and here the Ottomans seemed at first successful. By 1676 they had forced the Poles, under their king, Jan Sobieski, to cede the entire region; the great fortress of Kaminiec was theirs, and the horsetails were planted in the black earth of the Ukraine; but Fazil Ahmet died three days after the treaty was signed. The Cossacks of the steppe brought their flirtation with the Ottomans to an end, more impressed with the efficiency of Russian arms. The vizierate passed to a protégé of the Koprulu family, Kara Mustafa, ‘Black Mustafa’, whose face had been disfigured in a city fire.

In June 1683 the war train paraded through the streets of Edirne, then headed upriver to Sofia and Belgrade. Carried along with it was the Sultan, Mehmet IV, a man more familiar with the pleasures of the chase than the arts of war. At Belgrade he stopped to hunt while his great army pressed on up the Danube, into the heart of Central Europe, under the command of Kara Mustafa, a man, in the words of a near contemporary, ‘no less valiant than wise; warlike and ambitious’. A Hungarian rebel had called for Ottoman aid; the Habsburgs seemed suspiciously eager for peace.

Kara Mustafa made the fateful decision at the outset of the campaign not to name his destination. Austria and Poland hurriedly promised to aid each other in the event of an attack. As soon as Ottoman troops crossed into Habsburg territory, the emperor requested Polish assistance.

In Vienna there was pandemonium. A Habsburg army sent forward to engage the Turks had rapidly retreated in the face of what seemed like a tidal wave of men. Perhaps a quarter of a million Ottoman soldiers had been amassed for this extraordinary campaign; and with them – around and before them, swelling their ranks and fanning out with terrifying effect – rode the Tartars who had joined the army of their overlord from their distant home in the Crimea. Everyone feared them, the Turks no less than the Christians; they looked after their own interests.

Koprulu and Vienna II

Battle of Vienna 1683

News of the Turkish advance reached Vienna in garbled bulletins. Early reports of what was in fact a skirmish at the rear of the retreating Austrian army which had required the intervention of its commander, the Duke of Lorraine, came out as news of a ghastly rout. People began packing. The Emperor Leopold was very prone to take the advice of the last person he had spoken to; he now tried to determine whether his imperial duty was to remain in the city and risk the enemy, or to retire. When he was finally pressed to leave with the imperial family on 7 July, the royal party found itself sneaking along between the night-fires of Tartar encampments.

The city’s fortifications had been improved over the years, but not urgently; now stocks of grain in the city were examined, the crown jewels were removed for safe keeping, and the fortifications were reinforced by teams of city burghers and labourers. Money to pay the troops and men in the city was raised partly from loans made by departing grandees, partly by sequestering the assets of the Primate of Hungary, who was living safely elsewhere. On 13 July the city commander, Stahremberg, had the glacis, or outer wall, cleared of houses which had grown up around it over the years, in defiance of the law, in order to give the attackers no cover.

He was just in time. By the next day, Kara Mustafa was encamped before the city. Behind the glorious order of the camp, the magnificence of the tents themselves, and the quiet industry of the men, lay a brilliant feat of organisation, perfected over centuries; established now with such finality that to the men on Vienna’s walls it seemed as if the Turks meant to erect another city beside it. Vienna had taken a thousand years to grow; the Ottomans eclipsed it in two days. Kara Mustafa had a garden planted in front of his own quarters – a succession of tents, of silk and cotton, strewn with rich carpets, with lobby tents and sleeping tents and latrines and public meeting rooms, as gorgeous as any palace.

Immediately, the Turks began digging towards deep trenches, often roofed in timber and earth, which allowed them to approach the walls under cover. This digging made the siege memorable: the methodical extension, inch by inch, of a network of tunnels and trenches. The besieging army had very little artillery, and none heavy enough to penetrate the defensive walls: because the walls would have to be breached for an assault to succeed, all depended on laying mines. Meanwhile the Turks’ light cannon fired on the city. Stahremberg escaped serious injury when he was hit on the head by a piece of stone. The paving stones inside the city were dug up, partly to soften the effect of cannon balls falling in the street, and partly to help repair the walls. Yet even in these desperate circumstances, when it seemed the fate of Christendom hung in the balance, the commander found himself having to warn Viennese women from stealing out of the city and trading bread for vegetables with the Turkish soldiers.

To deal with the Turkish mines, the defenders resorted to furious sallies, in which a group of soldiers would rush out and attempt to damage as much of the enemy earthworks as possible. The classic response, though, was to countermine, and the defenders in this case had to invent the science for themselves, taking warfare away from noise and light and into the quiet bowels of the earth: listening for the sound of digging; making their own tunnels, hoping to break into the enemy tunnels – ghastly hand-to-hand fights in tight little holes underground. It was then, according to legend, that the city bakers saved Vienna: for early one morning, standing beside their bread ovens, they heard the tell-tale noise of Turkish tunnellers, and alerted the defence in the nick of time; which feat they commemorated by baking little crescent buns, or croissants.

And for those above ground, the waiting. On 12 August an eerie hush fell over the city and the camp; both sides waiting, listening. Early that afternoon there was a huge uprush of earth and stone as a Turkish mine silently laid beneath the outer moat threw up a huge causeway against the ravelin wall, up which fifty men could march abreast. Soon Turkish standards were planted on the wall. The fall of Vienna could not be long in coming.

Away from the city, Tartar and Turkish horsemen harried the countryside. The Austrians sent frantic pleas to the Polish king, Jan Sobieski, and to the German princes. Some of the princes struck good bargains – the Habsburgs, in effect, bought their troops, and saved them the expense of keeping standing armies at home. The Elector of Saxony made the mistake of promising aid before negotiating terms, and never forgave himself. In Poland, Jan Sobieski began a weary round of bargaining with his overmighty nobility, many of whom were in the pay of France, which viewed the storm breaking around its old Habsburg enemy with profound and scarcely Christian satisfaction.

As summer turned to autumn, the Christian coalition slowly came together: agonisingly slowly for the people of Vienna, who had been left with no means of communicating with the outside world – no system of flags or fires had been established before the Turks cut the lines of communication with the court and the army. But meanwhile the inaction of the Grand Vizier became curiously apparent. The outer walls were breached; the inner walls were crumbling; now, if ever, was the time for the blood-curdling general assault that Ottoman troops were accustomed to make as soon as a breach appeared: when eager volunteers would fling themselves forward, wear down the enemy’s defences, and, martyring themselves in their hundreds, provide a slippery footing for the fresh professional troops who closed in for the kill. Nothing of the sort was happening now; always the eerie, slow, methodical trenching and mining.

Kara Mustafa has been roundly criticised ever since for this slowness to attack. Perhaps he was over-confident of victory; certainly he is said to have disbelieved reports of a meeting between Lorraine and the King of Poland, with their armies a few days’ march away. If Kara Mustafa had been a better general, or Stahremberg less energetic, or Sobieski less chivalrous, or if the French had rattled their sabres on the Rhine with a little more vigour to pin down the German princes, Vienna would have become an Ottoman bridgehead from which to soften and break down the resistance of Central Europe. When the King of Poland did see the Ottoman camp he wrote that ‘the general of an army, who had neither thought of entrenching himself nor concentrating his forces, but lies encamped as if we were hundreds of miles from him, is predestined to be beaten’.

The Grand Vizier seems to have believed that the city was on the point of surrender. A city stormed, according to Muslim law, was to be given over to plunder for three days and nights before authority stepped in – to take possession of the ruins. A city which surrendered, however, was inviolate, and everything in it belonged to the state. The Grand Vizier doubtless hoped to bring the wealth and revenues of Vienna and its dependencies into the service of the sultan, rather than squandering them on the soldiers and inheriting a desert. Meanwhile, however, the Christian allies were moving up, presenting poor Emperor Leopold with yet another difficult decision. Should he head the army? Would it not be better to avoid riding amongst all these warlike princes and remain, instead, imperially aloof? As ever, unable to make either decision, he took both at once, and so dithered on the Danube, halfway between Vienna and his new headquarters at Passau. It didn’t matter: the German armies were already ahead of him. By early September they had begun taking possession of the heights north and west of the city, from which the Christian troops could survey both the spires of Vienna and the gorgeous pavilions of the Turkish encampment.

On 4 September, a mine blew a big hole in the inner wall of the city; whole lengths began crumbling. Belated assaults were launched with increasing ferocity upon these breaches; but overnight the citizens did their best to repair the holes, and fought back with equal ferocity, although the effects of the siege were beginning to tell. Butcher’s meat had run out; vegetables were scarce; families sat down to donkey and cat. The elderly and weak began dying, and disease stalked the unpaved streets. Even Stahremberg fell ill.

Kara Mustafa should never have allowed the enemy to occupy the ridges surrounding his camp virtually unopposed, and he ought to have spared some of his sappers for digging trenches around the camp, to help break a cavalry charge and to give his own musketeers cover. Perhaps he relied on the broken ground, the endless dips and hollows and ravines which broke the hillsides.

On the night of the eleventh, the Germans were in position to the north of the city, with the Danube to their left. In the morning the battle began, the German infantry advancing from one ridge to the next in the wake of their big guns. Co-ordination was difficult. Whole companies of men vanished for hours on end into some ravine, and horsemen and infantry became hopelessly entangled.

The Turks put up an improvised but furious resistance, and the battle raged until noon, when a sort of lull occurred, occasioned partly by the expectation of the Poles’ arrival on the Christian right wing. At one o’clock a shout of triumph – or relief – came from the German wing as they saw the Poles emerge onto the plain through a narrow defile, and make their way forward against stiff Turkish opposition.

There was a brief discussion among the Christian commanders over whether the battle should be pressed today, or not; everyone was for going on. ‘I am an old man,’ said one Saxon general, ‘and I want comfy quarters in Vienna tonight.’

He got them: the Turkish camp, suddenly stormed, collapsed. Kara Mustafa himself fled, with most of his money and the sacred standard of the Prophet. The hapless sappers in the trenches turned to find themselves assailed from the rear. Sobieski at the head of the Polish army broke into the camp while the German regiments strove to catch up: Sobieski and his men secured most of the booty of that day. Never had a Turkish camp been so suddenly overthrown.

The besieging army was routed and chased down the Danube all the way to Belgrade, and the Ottomans suffered their first decisive loss of territory to a Christian foe. Kara Mustafa must have hoped to reach his sovereign in Belgrade, in order to explain the débácle to Sultan Mehmet in person. It was a bitter blow to learn that the Sultan had already departed for Edirne. Less than noble in defeat, Kara Mustafa blamed, and executed, scores of his own officers. It was from Edirne, a few weeks later, that an imperial messenger reached the Grand Vizier. Kara Mustafa did not wait to read the command. ‘Am I to die?’ he asked. ‘It must be so,’ the messengers replied. ‘So be it,’ he said, and washed his hands. Then he bowed his head for the strangler’s bowstring.

Kara Mustafa’s head, as custom required, was delivered to the Sultan in a velvet bag.

The Koprulu family, though, survived the disgrace, and two more scions of the dynasty were to be invested in office. The last to hold the vizierate, Amdjazade Huseyin Pasha, died in 1703, ill and despondent: he had cut unnecessary taxes and drastically reduced the numbers of palace men and janissaries on the payroll, combing the timar registers for irregularities; he had managed to steady the currency; but he left office beset by enemies who gathered around the Grand Mufti himself.

Hereditary rank was no substitute for the stern-minded meritocracy of former years. The Koprulu line had already grown degenerate when the bookish and etiolated Nuuman Koprulu became obsessed with a fly he imagined had settled on the end of his nose, ‘which indeed flew away when he scared it, but returned again immediately to the same place’. All Constantinople’s physicians made efforts to cure him of the delusion, but it was Le Duc, a French physician, who solemnly agreed that he saw the fly, and made the pasha take a few ‘innocent juleps, under the name of purging and opening medicines; at last, he drew a knife gently along his nose, as if he was going to cut off the fly, and then shewed him a dead fly which he had kept in his hand for that purpose: whereupon Nuuman Pasha immediately cried out “this is the very fly which has so long plagued me”: and thus he was perfectly cured.’

An inordinate number of places preserve the memory of the Turkish wars, like bladderwrack left by a receding tide. In Austria you may hear the Türkenglocken, peals which once were rung to warn of an impending akinci raid. In German museums you may find the whips and scourges by which wandering men allayed the Great Fear. In Transylvania, churches are built like fortresses, and it was the custom, well into this century, for every local family to deposit, each year, a flitch of bacon or sack of flour in the storerooms built within the walls, against the possibility of a Tartar raid.

Kosovo was so often a theatre of war that even now it rumbles with discontent, and the Albanians who moved or returned there after the great exodus of Serbs to Austria in the seventeenth century retain a prickly and dangerous hostility to the Serbs who govern them now. Men in the Serbian army that passed through in 1911 stooped to unlace their boots, and crossed it barefoot so not to disturb the souls of their fallen forebears. A huge pile of masonry, approached by 234 steps, now sits atop the pass at Sumla in Bulgaria, to commemorate the passage of Soviet armies in the spring of 1944; but its purpose was to evoke the memory of Russian armies in the autumn of 1779, when Diebitsch avoided the pass and wound his way around almost to Edirne, with a force that everyone supposed, from its martial confidence as much as anything, to amount to 100,000 men, so that the Turks sued for a disastrous peace whose terms gave rise to the Crimean War half a century later, while in fact Diebitsch led an army of perhaps 13,000, wasted by disease.

Often the scene of battle is softly commemorated, by people who have long since forgotten the terror of the day: in St Gotthard, the battle of 1674 is remembered in a café sign; and Vienna 1683, the great lost opportunity for Ottoman arms, is remembered in a croissant: the head of the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa, who besieged the city, lies somewhere in the vaults of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where it used to be displayed on a cushion, in a cabinet, before curators in our lily-livered age chose to hide it from the public gaze.

The sixteen years of war which followed the reverse at Vienna were full of military disasters for the Ottoman Empire. The Austrian armies expelled the Ottomans from Hungary. Venetian troops, led by that Morosini who had surrendered nobly at Candia, took the Peloponnese. In 1687 a defeat at the hands of the Austrians at Mohacs, the scene of Suleyman’s great victory in the previous century, rebounded on the pleasure-loving Sultan Mehmet IV, who was deposed in favour of another Suleyman, his brother. On 20 August 1688 the citadel at Belgrade surrendered to the Austrians; Nis a year later; and in this crisis, with the enemy circling for a push into the heart of the Balkans, the Ottomans rallied under a new Grand Vizier, brother to Fazil Ahmet, Fazil Mustafa. He managed to push the Austrians out of Serbia, but he died gloriously (if ineptly), sword in hand, at the battle of Peterwaradin in 1691. Suleyman II had died that year; his successor Ahmet II was to die of grief and shame in 1695; and at last, in 1699, the belligerents accepted a peace, mediated by the English ambassador to the Porte.

The treaty of Karlowitz was signed on the general principle of ‘uti possidetis’: that matters should be fixed as they stood. The Habsburg emperor was recognised as sovereign of Transylvania, and most of Hungary. Poland recovered Podolia and her fortress at Kaminiec. Venice retained the Peloponnese, and made gains in Dalmatia. Russia was a reluctant party to the peace: she kept the Sea of Azov behind the ear of the Crimea, and lands north, which she had seized in 1696. The empire which barely a generation earlier had challenged Vienna lost half its European dominions at a stroke; and what perhaps was worse, her cover was blown, her weakness revealed, and her importance, in the world’s eyes, was now almost wholly diplomatic.

Naval Battles – Siege of Constantinople 1453 Part I


In early April, while the big guns were busy pounding the land walls, Sultan Mehmet began to deploy the fleet, his other new weapon, for the first time. He had been quick to grasp a fact obvious to all potential besiegers from the time of the Arabs onwards – that without firm control of the sea an attempt on the city was likely to fail. His father Murat had come to the siege of 1422 with no ability to strangle Byzantine sea-lanes – the Ottoman fleet had been caught and destroyed at Gallipoli by the Venetians six years earlier. Without a blockade of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles the city could be easily resupplied by the Greek cities of the Black Sea or by Christian sympathizers from the Mediterranean basin. It was with this in mind that the Throat Cutter had been built and equipped with heavy guns in the summer of 1452. No ship could henceforth pass up or down the Bosphorus into the Black Sea unexamined.

At the same time he had set to work repairing and strengthening the navy. During the winter of 1452 an ambitious programme of shipbuilding work was undertaken at the Ottoman naval base at Gallipoli and probably at Sinop on the Black Sea and other shipyards on the Aegean coast. According to Kritovoulos, Mehmet ‘thought that the fleet would be more influential in the siege and the fighting ahead than the army’, and gave great personal attention to this work. The empire had acquired an experienced resource of shipwrights, sailors and pilots, both of Greek and Italian origin, as it rolled up the coasts of the Black Sea and Mediterranean, and this skilled manpower could be brought into play in naval reconstruction. Mehmet also had access to the substantial natural resources essential to naval endeavour: timber and hemp, cloth for sails, cast iron for anchors and nails, pitch and tallow for caulking and greasing hulls. These materials were sourced widely from within the empire and beyond. It was the logistical skill of Mehmet to bring together all these resources for war.

As with cannon, the Ottomans were swift to adopt the ships of their Christian enemies. The key fighting vessel of the Mediterranean Middle Ages was the oared galley, the natural successor of the Roman and Greek galleys of classical antiquity, a vessel that dominated the Mediterranean in evolving forms from the start of the Bronze Age until the seventeenth century, and whose basic shape, echoed on Minoan seals, Egyptian papyri and the pottery of classical Greece, was to be as central to the sea’s history as the vine and the olive tree. By the late Middle Ages the prototype war galley was long, fast and very lean, typically perhaps 100 feet in length, under twelve feet in width with a raised prow or spur at the front to act as a fighting platform or boarding bridge onto enemy ships. The tactics of naval warfare were hardly distinguishable from those on land. The galleys would be packed with a complement of fighting men who, after an initial discharge of missiles, would attempt to storm the opposing vessel in vicious hand-to-hand combat.

The galley itself was startlingly low in the water. To maximize the mechanical advantage of the oars, a laden war galley might have clearance above the water of two feet. It could be powered by sail, but it was the oars that gave the galley its punch and flex in battle. The rowers were arranged in a single tier, above deck – which left them horribly exposed in battle – and usually two or three to a side on a single bench; each man worked an individual oar whose length was determined by his place on the bench. Conditions were cramped; galley rowing meant operating an oar in the seat space of a modern passenger plane so that the basic rowing motion, where sideways space was at a premium, involved the oarsman pushing the oar straight forward with his elbows kept in and rising up out of his seat in the process, then dropping back into it. Not surprisingly galley rowing required skilled crews able to row in perfect time – and considerable muscle power to work an oar up to thirty feet long weighing some 100 pounds. The war galley was bred for speed and manoeuvrability in battle; a galley with a well-greased keel could maintain a dash speed of seven and a half knots for twenty minutes under human power. The demand to row for longer than an hour quickly tired the crew.

For all its pace on a calm sea, the galley suffered from extraordinary disadvantages. The low freeboard rendered it surprisingly unseaworthy, even in the short choppy seas of the Mediterranean, so that galley sailing tended to be confined to the summer months and dictated a preference for hugging the coast to making long journeys over open water. Galley fleets were not infrequently swamped by unseasonal storms. The sails were only useful with the wind full astern, and the oars themselves were useless against any strong headwind. In addition the requirement for speed had created a hull that was fragile and so low in the water as to be at a serious disadvantage when attacking a high-sided vessel, such as a merchant sailing ship or one of the taller Venetian great galleys. The galley’s strengths and weaknesses were to be severely tested in the struggle for the city.

Mehmet had assembled a substantial fleet. He repaired and recaulked older vessels and built a number of new triremes – galleys with oars grouped in threes – as well as smaller scaled-down raiding galleys, ‘long ships, fast and fully decked, with thirty to fifty rowers’, which Europeans called fustae. He appears to have supervised much of this work himself, choosing ‘skilled seamen from all the Asian and European coasts – oarsmen with particular skills, deckhands, helmsmen, commanders of triremes, captains and admirals, and the other ships’ crews’. Some of this fleet was already in the Bosphorus in March, ferrying troops across the straits, but it was not until the start of April that the main force could be assembled at Gallipoli under his appointed admiral Baltaoglu, ‘a great man, a skilful admiral experienced in sea warfare’. It was the first time in seven sieges that the Ottomans had brought a fleet to the city. It was a crucial development.

Gallipoli, ‘homeland of defenders of the faith’, was a talismanic city for the Ottomans and an auspicious point of departure. It was here that they had gained their first foothold in Europe in 1354 after a fortuitous earthquake. The fleet, fired with zeal for holy war and the enterprise of conquest, started out from the Dardanelles and began to work its way up the Sea of Marmara. The crews apparently set out ‘with cries and cheering and the singing of rowing chants, encouraging each other with shouts’. In practice the enthusiasm may have been more muted: a substantial portion of the rowing force were in all likelihood Christians working under compulsion. According to a later chronicler ‘the wind of divine help pushed them forward’, but the reality must have been different. By now the prevailing wind was blowing from the north so the passage up the Marmara had to made against wind and current. The 120 miles to Constantinople presented a hard slog for the galleys. News of their progress preceded them up the sea-lane with a mixture of astonishment and panic. As with his army Mehmet understood the psychological value of superior numbers. It was the impression of a sea covered with oars and masts that appalled the watching Greek villages along the coast. The most reliable estimates of the Ottoman navy were made by experienced Christian seafarers, such Giacomo Tetaldi and Nicolo Barbaro, rather than by more impressionable landlubbers. Between them they estimated a fleet of something between twelve and eighteen full war galleys composed of a mixture of triremes and biremes, then seventy to eighty smaller fustae, about twenty-five parandaria – heavy transport barges – and a number of light brigantines and other small message boats, a force of about 140 boats in all. It was an awesome sight to glimpse over the curve of the western horizon.

Word of Mehmet’s impressive naval preparations reached the city long before his ships, so that the defenders had time to draw up their naval plans with care. On 2 April they closed the Golden Horn with the great chain to create a secure anchorage for their ships and to seal off the puny sea walls from attack. It was a practice embedded deep in the history of the city. As early as 717 a chain had been strung across the strait to hamper besieging Muslim navies. On 6 April, according to Barbaro, ‘we put ready for battle the three galleys from Tana and the two narrow galleys’, and their crews then progressed the length of the land wall in a show of military strength. On the 9th all the naval resources available to the defenders in the harbour were organized and made ready. It was a mixed collection of craft, brought together for a range of motives. There were ships from the Italian city-states and their colonies – Venice, Genoa, Ancona and Crete – as well as a Catalan ship, one from Provence, and ten Byzantine craft. There were galleys of various sizes including the three ‘great galleys’, the bulk carriers of Italian maritime trade, slower than conventional war galleys but stoutly built with higher sides, and two ‘narrow galleys’, slender hulled and low in the water. The majority of the vessels at anchor in the Golden Horn in early April 1453 were merchant sailing ships – high-sided, sail-driven ‘round ships’ – carracks with high poops and sterns, stoutly timbered and masted. In theory none of these were fighting ships, but in the dangerous, pirate-threatened waters of the Mediterranean, the distinction was a fine one. Their height and the vantage points of their decks and crow’s nests gave them natural advantages over low-slung war galleys if supplied with weapons and skilled troops. At this snapshot moment in the history of naval warfare the sailing ship could often hold its own against the most determined attack. Galley-mounted guns were in their infancy; they were too small and mounted too low to threaten a carrack. It was to be another fifty years before the Venetians devised an effective ship-killing gun that could be mounted on a galley. Furthermore, the sailors from Venice and Genoa in particular, who depended totally on their prowess at sea for survival and prosperity, approached all maritime matters with supreme confidence. They made their plans accordingly.

On 9 April therefore, they drew their ten largest merchantmen up in front of the boom ‘in close array and with bows forward’. Barbaro faithfully recorded their captains and the size of each one, ranging from that of Zorzi Doria of Genoa, ‘2,500 botte’, to one of ‘600 botte’; three he named: the Filomati and Guro of Candia, the Gataloxa of Genoa. Alongside these were stationed the stoutest of the galleys. The ships, which were ‘well armed and in excellent order, as if they wanted to join battle, and all equally good’, spanned the length of the boom from the city to Galata on the other side. In the inner harbour a further seventeen square-rigged merchantmen were kept in reserve, together with more galleys, including five of the emperor’s which were probably disarmed to provide a concentration of equipment at the boom. A few surplus ships were scuttled to lessen the risk of being hit by cannon and spreading fire, the waking nightmare of mariners in a closely packed fleet. Secure in both their defences and their nautical skill, with cannon positioned on the foreshore as an extra assurance, the captains sat to await the arrival of the Ottoman fleet. They had perhaps thirty-seven ships in total against an armada of 140, on paper a huge discrepancy, but the Italian seafarers understood the critical issues in sea warfare. Ship handling was a craft skill dependent on well-trained crews, so that the outcome of naval encounters rested less on numbers than on experience, determination and the random luck of winds and currents. ‘Seeing that we had such an impressive fleet, we felt ourselves confidently secure against the fleet of the infidel Turks,’ recorded Barbaro smugly, betraying a consistent Venetian tendency to underestimate Ottoman maritime skills.

The Ottoman fleet was finally sighted on 12 April at about one o’clock in the afternoon, battling up against the north wind. Doubtless the sea walls were crowded with watching citizens as the horizon slowly filled with masts. The fleet came rowing on ‘with determination’, but seeing the Christian ships drawn up at the boom in line of battle, it went over to the other side of the strait, lining the opposite shore. It made a strong impression on those watching and deepened the city’s gloom, hearing the ‘eager cries and the sound of castanets and tambourines, with which they filled our fleet and those in the city with fear’. Later in the afternoon, the whole fleet moved two miles further up the Bosphorus to a small harbour on the European shore called by the Greeks the Double Columns, now the site of the Dolmabache Palace. The size and power of the warlike fleet had undoubtedly dented the confidence of even the Italians, because the ships at the boom stood to arms all that day and into the night ‘waiting hour after hour in case they came to attack our fleet’, but nothing happened. It was to be the start of an attritional game of cat and mouse. To minimize the risk of being surprised, two men were stationed permanently on the town walls of neutral Galata from which vantage point the fleet at the Double Columns further up the Bosphorus could be closely watched. At any sign of movement along the straits by even a single ship, a man hurried back down the streets of Galata to the Horn to alert Aluvixe Diedo the harbour commander. The battle trumpet was sounded and those on the ships stood immediately to arms. In this state of nervy apprehension they waited day and night, rocking gently at anchor in the calm waters of the Horn.

Mehmet had three clear objectives for his new fleet: to blockade the city, to attempt to force a way into the Horn, and to oppose any relieving fleet that might sail up the Marmara. Initially Baltaoglu did nothing more than send out patrols round the waters of the city specifically to prevent ships entering or leaving the two small harbours on the Marmara side of the city. At about the same time a further detachment of ships came from the Black Sea laden with cannon balls and other munitions for the army. The arrival of these supplies seemed to precipitate a new cycle of activity in the Ottoman camp.

Impatient to tighten his stranglehold on the city, Mehmet ordered Baltaoglu to make an attempt on the boom. If the Ottomans could force their way into the Horn, Constantine would be compelled to strip the land wall of much-needed defenders to guard the shoreline. Both sides had made careful preparations for this moment. Doubtless at the instigation of Mehmet, whose appetite for artillery innovations was boundless, the Ottomans loaded small cannon onto their galleys. They packed the fighting beaks with heavy infantry and provisioned the vessels with stocks of weapons: stone cannon balls, arrows, javelins and inflammable material. The lookouts on the Galata walls closely observed these preparations, so that Lucas Notaras, the commander of the Byzantine ships, had ample time to prepare the big merchant carracks and galleys with men and ammunition.

Probably on 18 April, at the same time as the first major assault on the land walls at the St Romanus Gate, Baltaoglu launched the new navy’s first attack. Putting out in force from the Double Columns, the fleet rounded the point and advanced at speed towards the boom. They rowed hard at the steady line of tall ships anchored in front of the chain, with the crews encouraging each other with shouts and battle cries. They came on to within a bowshot, then slowed and released a volley of fire from bows and cannon; stone balls, metal bolts and flaming arrows whistled across the water and swept the enemy decks. After the initial salvoes, they came on again towards the anchored ships. As they clashed, the Ottomans attempted the standard boarding procedures of close engagement. Grappling hooks and ladders were thrown up as they tried to scale the sides of the taller ships; attempts were made to slash the merchantmen’s anchor cables. A hail of javelins, pikes and spears was hurled at the defenders. The ferocity of the assault was unquestionable but the advantage of battle lay with the higher and more stoutly built carracks. Stone balls from the ship-mounted cannon of the Ottoman galleys were too small to inflict damage on the sturdy wooden hulls, and the sea-borne soldiers were attacking from below, like troops trying to storm the land walls from the bottom of a ditch. The sailors and marines on board the Christian ships could hurl down missiles from the bow and stern platforms and from higher up in the crow’s nests. Volleys of gads – iron javelins with stabilizing fins – arrows and stones were rained down on the undefended attackers scrabbling at the sides of the ships, ‘wounding many, and killing a considerable number too’. The merchantmen were practised and equipped for close combat at sea; jars of water were at hand to extinguish incendiary devices and simple rope hoists extending from their masts allowed them to swing out heavy stones clear from the sides of the ships and drop them onto the fragile shells of the swarming long boats, ‘and inflicted considerable damage in this way’. The struggle to capture and to protect the chain was intense, but eventually the Christians started to prevail. They manage to turn the flank of the galley fleet. Fearing humiliation Baltaoglu withdrew his ships and sailed back to the Double Columns.

The first round of naval warfare had gone to the defenders. They understood their ships well and a basic fact of naval warfare: that a well-prepared merchantman could hold its own against a swarm of low-lying galleys if the crew were disciplined and well equipped. Mehmet’s hopes for artillery power had not been met at sea. The guns that could be mounted on light-framed galleys were too small to be effective against the stout sides of sailing ships, and the conditions of operation – the difficulty both of preventing the powder absorbing atmospheric moisture at sea and of aiming effectively on a pitching deck – further decreased the chances of success. By the morning of 19 April, Mehmet’s troops had been repulsed by both land and sea, while the spirits of the defenders remained undaunted. The lengthening timeframe of the siege increased Mehmet’s impatience day by day – and the possibility of aid from the West.

Naval Battles – Siege of Constantinople 1453 Part II


The Ottoman Turks transport their fleet overland into the Golden Horn.


Map of Constantinople and the dispositions of the defenders and the besiegers.

For Emperor Constantine a successful defence of the city depended on relief from Christian Europe. The endless round of diplomatic missions that preceded the siege had all been undertaken to beg or borrow men and resources for the cause of Christendom. Daily the population looked in the direction of the setting sun for another fleet – a squadron of Venetian or Genoese war galleys, their beaked prows surging up the Marmara to the beating of drums, the rallying of war trumpets, the lion flags of St Marks or the gonfalons of Genoa cracking in the salt wind. But the sea remained ominously empty.

In effect the fate of the city hung on the complex internal politics of the Italian city-states. As early as the end of 1451 Constantine had sent messengers to Venice to report that the city would fall without help. The matter had been debated by the Venetian Senate at length; it was the subject of prevarication in Genoa; in Rome the Pope was concerned but required evidence that the union of the churches had been fully implemented. In any case he lacked practical resources to intervene without the Venetians. Genoa and Venice eyed each other in cold commercial rivalry and did nothing.

Constantine’s appeal to the West rested on notions that were religious and medieval but they were directed at states whose motivations were economic – and surprisingly modern. The Venetians were largely indifferent to whether the Byzantines were unionists or not and had little appetite for the role of defenders of the faith. They were hard-nosed traders, preoccupied with commercial agreements, the security of their sea routes and the calculation of interest. They worried about pirates more than theology, about commodities rather than creeds. Their merchants studied the price of what could be bought and sold – wheat, fur, slaves, wine and gold – the supply of manpower for the galley fleets and the pattern of Mediterranean winds. They lived by trade and the sea, by discount, profit margins and ready coin. The doge was on excellent terms with the sultan and trade with Edirne was profitable; furthermore Constantine had considerably damaged Venetian interests in the Peloponnese in the previous twenty years.

It was in this spirit that in August 1452 a minority of senators actually voted to abandon Constantinople to its fate. The lack of concern was modified the following spring as reports trickled in of the throttling of trade routes to the Black Sea and the sinking of Venetian ships. On 19 February the Senate decided to prepare a fleet of two armed transports and fifteen galleys to sail on 8 April. The organization of the expedition was entrusted to Alviso Longo with cautious instructions that included a helpful diktat to avoid confrontation with the Ottomans in the straits. He finally departed on 19 April, one day after the first major assault on the walls. Others made similarly uncoordinated efforts. On 13 April the government of the Republic of Genoa invited its citizens, merchants and officials ‘in the East, in the Black Sea and in Syria’ to help with all means the Emperor of Constantinople and Demetrios, despot of the Morea. Five days earlier it had been authorizing loans to arm ships against the Venetians. At about the same time the Pope had written to the Venetian Senate informing them of his desire to get up five galleys, on loan from the Venetians, for the relief of the city. The Venetians, ever sticklers for a debt, accepted the commission in principle but wrote back reminding the papacy that the cost of galleys for the failed crusade of Varna in 1444 was still outstanding.

Pope Nicholas had however already undertaken one prompt initiative at his own expense. Fearful of the fate of Constantinople, in March he hired three Genoese merchant ships, provisioned them with food, men and weapons, and dispatched them to the city. By the start of April they had reached the Genoese island of Chios off the Anatolian coast but could proceed no further. The north wind that impeded the Ottoman fleet held the Genoese at Chios for a fortnight. On 15 April the wind shifted to the south and the ships set sail. By the 19th they had reached the Dardanelles where they fell in with a heavy imperial transport, laden with a cargo of corn the emperor had purchased from Sicily and commanded by an Italian, Francesco Lecanella. They swept up the Dardanelles and passed the Ottoman naval base at Gallipoli unopposed – the entire fleet had decamped to the Double Columns. The ships were in all likelihood similar to those that had seen off the Ottomans at the boom a few days previously: high-sided sail-powered vessels, probably carracks, described by the Ottoman chronicler Tursun Bey as ‘cogs’. On the swell of the south wind they made rapid time up the Marmara so that by the morning of 20 April the crews could make out the great dome of St Sophia forming on their eastern horizon.

The look-out for a relieving fleet was a constant obsession in the city. The ships were seen at about ten in the morning and the Genoese flags – a red cross on a white background – identified. The news caused an instant stir among the people. Almost simultaneously the ships were also sighted by Ottoman naval patrols and word was sent to Mehmet in his camp at Maltepe. He galloped down to the Double Columns to deliver clear and peremptory orders to Baltaoglu. Doubtless stung by the failure of his fleet at the boom and the reversal at the land walls, Mehmet’s message to commander and fleet was unequivocal; ‘either to take the sailing ships and bring them to him or never to come back alive’. The galley fleet was hurriedly made ready with a full complement of rowers and crammed with crack troops – heavy infantry, bowmen and Janissaries from his personal bodyguard. Light cannon were again loaded on board, as well as incendiary materials and ‘many other weapons: round and rectangular shields, helmets, breast plates, missiles and javelins and long spears, and other things useful for this kind of battle’. The fleet set out down the Bosphorus to confront the intruders. Success was imperative for morale, but this second naval battle was to be fought further out in the straits where the vagaries of the Bosphorus’s extraordinary winds and local currents were less predictable and the demands on ships could be exacting. The Genoese merchantmen were battering up the straits with the wind astern. The Ottoman fleet, unable to use their sails against the wind, lowered them as they rowed downstream against a choppy sea.

By early afternoon the four ships were off the south-east of the city, keeping a steady course for the tower of Demetrios the Great, a prominent landmark on the city’s Acropolis, and well out from the shore, ready to make the turning manoeuvre into the mouth of the Horn. The huge disparity in numbers filled Baltaoglu’s men ‘with ambition and hope of success’. They came on steadily, ‘with a great sounding of castanets and cries towards the four ships, rowing fast, like men wanting victory’. The sound of beating drums and the braying of zornas spread across the water as the galley fleet closed in. With the masts and oars of a hundred ships converging on the four merchantmen, the outcome seemed inevitable. The population of the city crowded to the walls, onto the roofs of houses or to the Sphendone of the Hippodrome, anywhere that had a wide view of the Marmara and the entrance of the Bosphorus. On the other side of the Horn, beyond the walls of Galata, Mehmet and his retinue watched from the vantage point of an opposing hill. Each side looked on with a mixture of hope and anxiety as Baltaoglu’s trireme drew near to the lead ship. From the poop he peremptorily ordered them to lower their sails. The Genoese kept their course and Baltaoglu commanded his fleet to lie to and rake the carracks with fire. Stone shot whistled through the air; bolts, javelins and incendiary arrows were poured up at the ships from all directions but the Genoese did not waver. Again the advantage was with the taller ships: ‘they fought from high up, and indeed from the yardarms and the wooden turrets they hurled down arrows, javelins and stones’. The weight of the sea made it hard for the galleys to steady their aim or to manoeuvre accurately around the carracks still surging forward with the south wind in their sails. The fight developed into a running skirmish, with the Ottoman troops struggling to get close enough in the choppy sea to board or to fire the sails, the Genoese flinging a hail of missiles from their castellated poops.

The small convoy of tall ships reached the point of the Acropolis unscathed and was ready to make the turn into the safety of the Horn when disaster struck. The wind suddenly dropped. The sails hung lifeless from the masts, and the ships, almost within touching distance of the city walls, lost all headway and started to drift helplessly on a perverse counter-current across the open mouth of the Horn and towards Mehmet and his watching army on the Galata shore. At once the balance shifted from the ships with sails to the galleys with oars. Baltaoglu gathered his larger vessels around the merchantmen at a slight distance and again pelted them with missiles, but with no greater effect than before. The cannon were too light and too low in the water to damage the hulls or disable the masts. The Christian crews were able to put out any fires with barrels of water. Seeing the failure of raking fire, the admiral ‘shouted in a commanding voice’ and ordered the fleet to close in and board.

The swarm of galleys and long boats converged on the cumbersome and disabled carracks. The sea congealed into a struggling mass of interlocking masts and hulls that looked, according to the chronicler Doukas, ‘like dry land’. Baltaoglu rammed the beak of his trireme into the stern of the imperial galley, the largest and least heavily armed of the Christian ships. Ottoman infantry poured up the boarding bridges trying to get onto the ships with grappling hooks and ladders, to smash their hulls with axes, to set fire to them with flaming torches. Some climbed up anchor cables and ropes; others hurled lances and javelins up at the wooden ramparts. At close quarters the struggle developed into a serious of vicious hand-to-hand encounters. From above, the defenders, protected by good armour, smashed the heads of their assailants with clubs as they emerged over the ships’ sides, cut off scrabbling hands with cutlasses, hurled javelins, spears, pikes and stones down on the seething mass below. From higher up in the yardarms and crow’s nests ‘they threw missiles from their terrible catapults and a rain of stones hurled down on the close-packed Turkish fleet’. Crossbowmen picked off chosen targets with well-aimed bolts and crewmen deployed cranes to hoist and drop weighty stones and barrels of water through the light hulls of the longboats, damaging and sinking many. The air was a confused mass of sounds: shouts and cries, the roaring of cannon, the splash of armoured men falling backwards into the water, the snapping of oars, the shattering of stone on wood, steel on steel, the whistling of arrows falling so fast ‘that the oars couldn’t be pushed down into the water’, the sound of blades on flesh, of crackling fire and human pain. ‘There was great shouting and confusion on all sides as they encouraged each other’, recorded Kritovoulos, ‘hitting and being hit, slaughtering and being slaughtered, pushing and being pushed, swearing, cursing, threatening, moaning – it was a terrible din.’

For two hours the Ottoman fleet grappled with its intractable foe in the heat of battle. Its soldiers and sailors fought bravely and with extraordinary passion, ‘like demons’, recorded Archbishop Leonard begrudgingly. Gradually, and despite heavy losses, the weight of numbers started to tell. One ship was surrounded by five triremes, another by thirty long boats, a third by forty barges filled with soldiers, like swarms of ants trying to down a huge beetle. When one long boat fell back exhausted or was sunk, leaving its armoured soldiers to be swept off in the current or clinging to spars, fresh boats rowed forward to tear at their prey. Baltaoglu’s trireme clung tenaciously to the heavier and less well-armed imperial transport, which ‘defended itself brilliantly, with its captain Francesco Lecanella rushing to help’. In time, however it became apparent to the captains of the Genoese ships that the transport would be taken without swift intervention. Somehow they managed to bring their ships up alongside in a practised manoeuvre and lash the four vessels together, so that they seemed to move, according to an observer, like four towers rising up among the swarming seething confusion of the grappling Ottoman fleet from a surface of wood so dense that ‘the water could hardly be seen’.

The spectators thronging the city walls and the ships within the boom watched helplessly as the matted raft of ships drifted slowly under the point of the Acropolis and towards the Galata shore. As the battle drew closer, Mehmet galloped down onto the foreshore, shouting excited instructions, threats and encouragement to his valiantly struggling men, then urging his horse into the shallow water in his desire to command the engagement. Baltaoglu was close enough now to hear and ignore his sultan’s bellowed instructions. The sun was setting. The battle had been raging for three hours. It seemed certain that Ottomans must win ‘for they took it in turns to fight, relieving each other, fresh men taking the places of the wounded or killed’. Sooner or later the supply of Christian missiles must give out and their energy would falter. And then something happened to shift the balance back again so suddenly that the watching Christians saw in it only the hand of God. The south wind picked up. Slowly the great square sails of the four towered carracks stirred and swelled and the ships started to moved forward again in a block, impelled by the irresistible momentum of the wind. Gathering speed, they crashed through the surrounding wall of frail galleys and surged towards the mouth of the Horn. Mehmet shouted curses at his commander and ships ‘and tore his garments in his fury’ but by now night was falling and it was too late to pursue the ships further. Beside himself with rage at the humiliation of the spectacle, Mehmet ordered the fleet to withdraw to the Double Columns.

In the moonless dark, two Venetian galleys were dispatched from behind the boom, sounding two or three trumpets on each galley and with the men shouting wildly to convince their enemies that a force of ‘at least twenty galleys’ was putting to sea and to discourage any further pursuit. The galleys towed the sailing ships into the harbour to the ringing of church bells and the cheering of the citizens. Mehmet was ‘stunned. In silence, he whipped up his horse and rode away.’

The immediate consequences of the naval engagement in the Bosphorus were profound. A few short hours had tipped the psychological balance of the siege sharply and unexpectedly back to the defenders. The spring sea had provided a huge auditorium for the public humiliation of the Ottoman fleet, watched both by the Greek population thronging the walls and the right wing of the army with Mehmet on the shore opposite.

It was obvious to both sides that the massive new fleet, which had so stunned the Christians when it first appeared in the Straits, could not match the experience of Western seamanship. It had been thwarted by superior skill and equipment, the innate limitations of war galleys – and not a little luck. Without secure control of the sea, the struggle to subdue the city would be hard fought, whatever the sultan’s guns might achieve at the land walls.