Fort St. Elmo 1565 Part I

Fort St. Elmo.

 

Map of Grand Harbor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fort St. Elmo 1565 Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fort St. Elmo 1565 Part III

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

Most Illustrious and Very Reverend Monseigneur:

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

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

—Dated from St. Elmo, June 8, 1565

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

How to respond?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fort St. Elmo 1565 Part IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fight was over. It had taken four hours.

Ottoman Empire was the command of the Black Sea

Hobart Pasha

The Turkish fleet at Buyukdere

Ottoman fleet organisation during the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78)

One potential advantage possessed by the Ottoman Empire was the command of the Black Sea, and the not inconsiderable fleet that was available to exercise it. The Turks had acquired a number of vessels that would have been the envy of any navy. The most powerful of the ironclads was the Messudieh, built by Thames Iron Works and commissioned in December 1875. Of just under 9,000 tons, she was armed with twelve ten-inch muzzle-loading rifled guns and three seven-inch muzzle-loaders. On her trials she achieved a speed of just under 14 knots. She was originally to have been joined by a sister ship, launched as the Mahmoudieh but subsequently renamed Hamidieh; this vessel was, however, compulsorily purchased by the British government and entered the Royal Navy as HMS Superb. Described as ‘one of the most formidable vessels of her class afloat,’ the Messudieh had a belt of 14 inch armour plate.

In addition there were the four ironclads of the Osmanieh class, three of which were built by R Napier and Son and one by Thames Iron Works. These were of 6,400 tons, and were armed with one nine-inch muzzle-loader and 14 eight inch muzzle-loaders. Named Osmanieh, Azizieh, Orkhanie and Mahmoudieh, they were protected by a belt of 4.5 inch armour, and had a speed of 13.5 knots. There were also ten other ironclads, five wooden steam frigates, eleven wooden corvettes, two wooden gun vessels and eleven gunboats. Seven of the gunboats were armoured, and these constituted the flotilla based on the Danube.

In terms of numbers, a Daily News correspondent reckoned that Turkey had ‘one of the finest fleets in the world,’ sufficient for a comprehensive blockade of the Russian coast:

Properly watched, not a vessel ought to be allowed to escape out of a Russian port; and although there is a fine fleet of merchant steamers at its disposal, the Turks ought to be able to prevent the Russian Government from sending any supplies to its various corps d’armée except overland.

The commander of the Turkish navy was a flamboyant Englishman. Hobart Pasha, as he was known, was the son of the Earl of Buckingham. He was born in 1822, and served in the Royal Navy for over thirty years. He saw service against Russia in the Baltic during the Crimean War but later, having reached the rank of post captain, he was according to the procedure at that time obliged to remain on shore for four years to await assignment to an appropriate command. Bored with this, during the American Civil War he became an extremely successful blockade-runner, operating under the pseudonym of ‘Captain Roberts.’ After the war ended, he went on a tour of Europe, and found himself in Constantinople, where he greatly impressed the Grand Vizier, Fuad Pasha, and was as a result offered the post of Naval Adviser to the Turkish government, a post that had just become vacant on the retirement of Admiral Sir Adolphus Slade. Hobart’s acceptance of the post seriously annoyed the Admiralty, where the assignment of an officer to the post was regarded as being in the gift of the British government.

Hobart was a man of enquiring mind, and was particularly struck by the potential of the torpedo as a naval weapon. Not long before the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War, while on a visit to his home in England he had conducted experiments with torpedoes on the village pond. Hobart was a man of strong opinions, which he usually expressed with more force than tact. In command of the Turkish fleet he achieved some success off Crete during the insurgency there; but he has been described as ‘a reluctant and intolerant administrator.’

The fact that the Turkish fleet possessed so many large units owed a good deal to the personality of Sultan Abdul Aziz. Always a man of extravagant tastes, he had been hugely impressed by the British fleet which he saw in the course of a visit to England in 1867. After receiving him at Windsor, Queen Victoria took him on a fast train to Portsmouth, where she appointed him a Knight of the Garter, and where he watched the ships of her fleet pass before him. The Queen was greatly impressed by the Sultan, and wrote to her daughter, the Crown Princess of Prussia, to describe the Portsmouth visit:

Our Naval Review was a very fine sight in spite of the most awful weather – and really it was an act of great dévouement to my Oriental Brother to go out in it and to have to go in and out in of boats in a horrid swell which always frightens me so… The poor Sultan was not comfortable and had to lie down a good deal below.

In spite of the discomfort he had endured, the Sultan returned home with the conviction that he must have a fleet to be proud of. He had always been interested in naval affairs, and was convinced of the value of a strong navy. His succession to the sultanate had given him the opportunity to indulge his interests:

On tasting power he rapidly fell into extravagant ways, including spending large sums on the armed forces. Unfortunately, although he was intrigued by new technology, he was not sufficiently educated to discriminate between a practical invention and a visionary scheme, and so was prey to every projector and salesman. This weakness extended to warship procurement, and the Sultan’s whims burdened the navy with warships it did not need and could not effectively use.

Nonetheless, it did mean that in 1877 the Turks had a formidable weapon in their hands which could and should have had the effect pointed out by the correspondent of the Daily News.

Its overall size may be judged from the fact that its Navy List for 1876 recorded it as possessing a total of 132 vessels and 18,292 officers, seamen and marines. In building up such a force, the Turkish government had called upon the services of a number of overseas officers, whose contribution was, however, not as effective as might have been hoped, as has been pointed out by the historians of the Ottoman Navy:

The Sultan was also unfortunate in his technical advisers, most of whom were recruited in Britain. With the exception of the long serving Slade, who was mainly employed on naval staff work, and Henry S Wood, who took over command of the naval school at Heybeliarda, they were generally adventurers who were ill-equipped, or ill-disposed, to deal with the obstructionism of the navy ministry.

This was perhaps not a problem confined to the Turkish navy; the chaotic and corrupt administration and low morale of its officers and men was a more general reflection of the style and behaviour of the Turkish government.

So far as major naval units were concerned, the Russian navy could not compare with its adversary. In 1877 it possessed only seven seagoing ironclads, and six of these were in the Baltic. One, the elderly Petropavlovsk, was at Spezia in southern Italy, where she remained, taking no part in the war. In the Black Sea the Russians had not taken advantage of the removal of the Black Sea clauses to build up their naval resources to an effective level. There, they had the extraordinary and quite useless circular ironclads, the Admiral Popov and Novgorod, which if they had served any purpose at all would have been as floating forts. For the rest, Fred T Jane summarised the Russian situation:

In the Black Sea there was nothing; or rather, there was worse than nothing, a number of old tubs of no fighting value whatsoever. About twenty merchant steamers were purchased and armed, and a number of torpedo boats (launches we should call them nowadays) were sent across country by rail from St Petersburg, but practically at the outbreak, and in the early stages of the war, Russia was worse off than she would have been without a fleet at all. For the consequent forced inactivity, as in the case of the Petropavlovsk at Spezia, might be assumed to have a fatal effect on the morale of the men. Inaction soon neutralises the finest fleet, and its effects are likely enough to spread to the military in a long campaign.

Ironically, considering Hobart’s interest in torpedoes, it was to be the Russians who made most use of these weapons. Even before the war, their development of the torpedo was generally regarded as noteworthy:

In those days the torpedo was a new weapon, and though possessed by all Powers, was more associated with the name of Russia than any other. These torpedoes the Turks were supposed to be particularly afraid of, and this has been put forward as a reason for their extraordinary inactivity; actually, however, circumstances, lack of ammunition, or defects in machinery, may be considered more probable causes.

The weakness of the Russian navy in the Black Sea was principally due to the government’s reluctance to spend very much on building up an ironclad fleet there. In addition, the redevelopment of Sebastopol’s shipbuilding capacity was not, by 1877, very far advanced. The only vessels built for operation in the Black Sea after the removal of the restraints of the Treaty of Paris in 1871 had been the absurd circular ships designed by Admiral Popov. No attempt was in fact made to employ them in 1877 since they were, as Fred T Jane put it, ‘unique curios of naval architecture – nothing more.’ He described what happened on their trials:

Such mobility as they had was soon heavily discounted. On a trial cruise they went up the Dnieper very nicely for some distance, till they turned to retire. Then the current caught them, and they were carried out to sea, whirled helplessly round and round, every soul on board hopelessly incapacitated by vertigo.

It might have been expected that with such a pronounced advantage at sea, the Turks would, in the period leading up to what was seen as a virtually inevitable war, do all they could to prepare their navy for the coming struggle. Clearly the Russian strategy would be based on an invasion of Bulgaria, and the Turkish fleet would, or could, have a big part to play in resisting it. Hobart was sent to the Danube delta to advise on the situation, and when he got there was at first optimistic:

It was soon made clear to me that much could be done, in the way of defending that great estuary, had nautical experience and the splendid material of which the Turkish sailor is made of been properly utilised. But alas! I found that, contrary to the views of His Majesty the Sultan a line of action was followed showing that pigheaded obstinacy and the grossest ignorance prevailed in the councils of those who had supreme command in that great river. I found that my advice and that of competent Turkish officers, in comparatively subordinate positions like myself, was entirely ignored.

Habsburg Eastern Strategies

Prince Eugene of Savoy by Jacob van Schuppen

A meeting of the Privy Conference in 1711 concluded that “if the tsar is victorious he could throw himself into Turkish territory as far as the Danube and possibly force his way to Constantinople, an outcome much more menacing in its long-term consequences for Austria than even the most far-reaching Turkish victory.” From the early eighteenth century onward, the Habsburgs would debate three broad options for how to deal with this problem: unilateral extension of Habsburg power; cooperation with Russia to eject and supplant the Turks, and comanage the remnants of their rule; and support for the status quo and resistance to Russian encroachments. Over the century that followed, all three alternatives would be attempted in different forms and combinations. The viability of each option at given moments in time would be a function of Austria’s power position relative to that of its two eastern neighbors, and how they judged developments on this frontier to rank alongside priorities on the monarchy’s frontiers in the west and north.

The Era of Mobile Field Armies: 1690s–1730s

In the opening decades of the eighteenth century, local conditions favored the first option: seeking to militarily shape the southeastern security environment to Austria’s advantage. At this early stage, Ottoman weakness, as demonstrated by the scale of Habsburg territorial gains in the previous war and recent Turkish defeats at the hands of the Russians, presented an opportunity to consolidate the monarchy’s enlarged position in the southeast. The prospects of gain seemed to outweigh the risks, either from the Ottoman military itself or Russian interference, which was foreseen but still on the horizon, and mainly restricted to the Sea of Azov and Dniester.

The strategy that evolved in response to this environment was shaped primarily by the desire to exploit areas of military advantage that Austria possessed as a result of the previous Turkish war along with its recent contests with Spain and France. Experiences in combat had revealed a considerable Habsburg tactical-technological edge over Turkish forces, rooted in the development of modern Austrian armies using Western equipment and fighting methods. As recently as 1697, Prince Eugene had demonstrated the decisive results that such forces could have against traditionally deployed Ottoman armies by inflicting a crushing defeat on the Turks at the Battle of Zenta that resulted in more than thirty thousand Ottoman casualties.

The early decades of the eighteenth century offered opportunities to repeat this victory. Ottoman forces of this period were equipped in similar fashion to their European rivals; indeed, Ottoman muskets and artillery were in some cases qualitatively superior to those found on the Habsburg side. The Habsburg edge lay in the quantity of such weapons and how they were employed tactically. The first was a by-product of advantages in the Austrian system for procuring military technology. Traditionally, the Ottoman Empire had financed its wars through plunder—a system that required continual conquest to support the growth of the military establishment. While possessing the core of a standing army, the system supporting it was unstable and contingent on victory. The development of munitions in the Ottoman Empire was tightly controlled by government, and depended on a combination of arsenals and networks of skilled artisans, the latter of which were organized by guild and dominated by the Janissary corps, an elite but conservative military body that frequently opposed innovation.

In Austria, by contrast, procurement was tied more heavily to military contractors, who had at their disposal a larger reservoir of artisanal talent, and access to the techniques and resources not only of the Erblände but also neighboring Bohemia and Italy. To this must be added the advantage of greater resources for war in Habsburg lands, which while deficient alongside many western rivals, compared favorably with the Turks. Efforts at bureaucratic centralization, and from 1714 onward, by the monarchy’s acquisition of the Italian and Dutch lands, enabled a larger tax base and more powerful standing army. By the early 1700s, Habsburg revenue was already at least double that of the Ottoman Empire, where an astonishing 80 percent of revenues collected failed to ever reach the Treasury as a result of corruption and rent seeking. Of those Ottoman funds raised for defense, a large portion went to the navy, while in Austria virtually all could be concentrated on the upgrading and upkeep of the army.

One result of these financial disparities was that while the quality of Turkish weapons may have been comparable or occasionally superior, Habsburg forces tended to go to war with both more numerous and higher-quality weapons. By the time of the Turkish wars of the early eighteenth century, Habsburg units had transitioned to the flintlock musket (Flinte), which fired faster and more reliably than previous matchlock and wheel lock pieces. The newer muskets also allowed for the widespread use of bayonets, which would not be widely used in Turkish armies for many decades. By contrast, Ottoman armies were equipped with a mixture of European and traditional weapons. The total proportion of their armies equipped with modern firearms—the Janissaries, sipahis cavalry regiments, and artillery corps—typically made up only a third of the forces available for a campaign. The bulk of the army would consist of private troops raised by the local governor and volunteer forces—both of which bore arms of varied make and quality. Although reforms in the late eighteenth century would raise these proportions and standardize weaponry, for most of this period Habsburg forces were proportionally stronger in regular troops, with Janissaries still making up less than a third of the Ottoman Army at Peterwardein in 1716. Those Turkish units that did carry muskets were equipped with an array of different types. “Their weapons,” an Austrian military memo noted, “lack a uniform caliber, causing balls to often get stuck in the breach; as a result, their supply is slow and their fire never lively.”

Another Austrian advantage was tactical, in how their weapons were used on the battlefield. Individually, Ottoman troops tended to be formidable fighters. As Archduke Charles wrote, “The Turk has a strongly constituted body: he is courageous and bold, and possesses a particular ability in the handling of his own arms. The horses of the Turkish cavalry are good; they possess a particular agility and rapidity.” Numerically, they tended to field larger armies than the Habsburgs, composed of different troop types from across the Ottoman Empire, and including everything from stock Anatolians to Persians, Egyptians, and Tatars. Their favored method of war was offensive, forming dense masses that charged headlong with Islamic banners waving and screaming, as Eugene put it, “their cursed yells of Allah! Allah! Allah!” Austrian eyewitnesses frequently commented on the unnerving effects that such chants, coming from tens of thousands of advancing Ottoman soldiers, could have on their opponents.

Despite such ferocity, Turkish armies suffered from a lack of discipline, which in turn undermined tactical handling and fire control. Ottoman attacks, though large, tended to be pell-mell and poorly coordinated. As Eugene said of the chaos in Turkish formations, “The second line [is] in the intervals of the first, and others in the third line [are] in the intervals of the second, and then, also, reserves [are thrown in] and their saphis on the wings.” A later Austrian source characterized these assaults as proceeding “without rule or order” (ohne Regel, ohne Ordnung), comparing them to the “pigs-head” (Schweinskopf) formations described in antiquity, in which the bravest fighters inevitably push to the forefront while the mass lingered behind them. In a similar vein, Archduke Charles wrote that the Turks “attack in mixed groups of all types of troops, and each isolated man abandons himself to the sentiment of his force.”

By contrast, by the early eighteenth century, Habsburg armies were drilled to fight based on the western European model, in synchronized fashion by unit. From long experience on European battlefields, the infantry was trained to deliver controlled volleys on command. The resulting discipline translated into a tactical advantage that allowed Austrian armies, if well handled, to sustain rates of fire capable of repelling or even massacring massed charges of the kind favored by the Turks. “As the effort of several Turks acts neither to the same end, nor in the same manner,” Charles noted, “they always fall against an enemy who opposes against them a unified mass acting cohesively. They rout with the same disorder and the same rapidity as they came up.”

The question of how to maximize these advantages against the Turks was intensely studied by Habsburg military men. In Sulle Battaglie, Montecuccoli advised Austrian commanders to abandon the defensive methods used on western battlefields and adopt an aggressive, tactically offensive mind-set. “If one had to do battle with the Turk,” he wrote,

  1. Pike battalions have to be extended frontally, more than has ever been the case before, so that the enemy cannot easily enclose them with his half-moon order.
  2. Cavalry is intermingled with the infantry behind and opposite the intervals so that the foe … would be exposed on both sides to the salvoes of the musketry.
  3. One should advance directly against the Turk with one’s line of battle, and one should not expect him to attack because, not being well-furnished with short-rage, defensive weapons, he does not readily involve himself in a melee or willingly collide with his adversary…. Using the wings of his half-moon formation, it is also easy for him to approach and retire laterally….
  4. Squadrons are constituted more massively than is ordinarily the case.
  5. One stations a certain number of battalions and squadrons along the flanks of the battle line in order to guarantee security.

Prince Eugene would adopt and expand on this template in later years, systematizing fire control, introducing uniform regimental drill, placing greater emphasis on the speed of deployment for plains warfare, and adopting defensive formations to allow small units greater flexibility in movement across broken terrain.

The overarching goal of Austrian tactics in the south was to bring their greater firepower to bear while making provisions for the safety of flanks, which Turkish cavalry were expert at attacking. To account for Ottoman speed, Austrian commanders were to form their units in square formations not unlike those later used by colonial European forces against indigenous armies in Africa. As Charles observed,

The suppleness and rapidity of their horses permit their cavalry to profit from all openings in front or in flank and penetrate there. To give them no chance of doing it, one should thus form the infantry in square … and not to put into lines anything save the cavalry which is equally rapid as their cavalry…. [Commanders should] form several squares, each one of two or three battalions strength at most. These squares constitute lines of battle as much in march as in position. One forms in the end some of these squares in checkerboard fashion, and from it one derives the great benefit of being able to mutually defend and support each other.

So great was the risk of Turkish cavalry penetrating the flanks of these squares that Austrian units were to “camp and march always in squares,” and when possible, protect these formations with chevaux-de-frises or so-called Spanish Riders—lances several yards long fitted with boar spears—to provide a thick hedge and keep irregular cavalry at bay while reloading. As a further precaution, Austrian forces in the south were typically given a higher complement of cavalry (at times approaching 50 percent of field armies).

EUGENE’S OFFENSIVES

It was with these techniques that Habsburg forces took the field against the Turks in 1716. Leading them was the fifty-two-year-old Prince Eugene of Savoy. Raised among the French nobility and court of Louis XIV, Eugene had been rejected from the French Army and forced to leave Paris after a romantic controversy involving his mother and the king. Small in stature, he was a tenacious, creative, and offensive-minded general whose motto in war was “seize who can.” A veteran of the Turkish wars, Eugene’s first combat experience had been as a twenty-year-old volunteer pursuing the Turks alongside the Polish hussars at the siege of Vienna in 1683, for which Leopold I had awarded him a regiment of dragoons. By the time of the 1716 war, Eugene was a seasoned senior field commander who had successfully led the armies of Austria and the Holy Roman Empire in three wars and more than a dozen major battles.

The immediate cause of the war was a conflict between the Ottoman Empire and Venice, the latter of which was bound by defensive alliance to Austria. Strategically, however, the incident offered a rare opportunity to strengthen Habsburg security in the southeast at a moment when Austria’s armies were not tied up in fighting in western theaters. Eugene’s war aims, as outlined by the Privy Conference, were twofold. First, he was to secure Habsburg control of the Danube down to Vidin, thus closing the Banat salient and restricting the Turks to a second line of fortresses at Giugiu-Babadag-Ismail, and by doing so, impose a diplomatic settlement making Wallachia and Moldavia de facto buffer states. As the emperor communicated to him, it was critical to establish these provinces as client states (unser tributär erhalten).

While tactically offensive, Eugene’s overarching strategic objective was defensive: to round off and buy breathing room for the territories acquired in the previous war. This was particularly important with regard to the final, as-yet-unconquered part of Hungary, the Banat, without which strategic communications between Habsburg possessions in Croatia and Transylvania were severed. In the ensuing campaign, Eugene inflicted crushing defeats on the Turks. Going into the war less than two years after the conclusion of the Spanish succession struggle, he was able to draw on a large reservoir of seasoned veterans from campaigns in Italy and Germany. Using the Danube as a supply artery, he bypassed Belgrade, a major Ottoman fortress holding the key to southeastern lines of communication, and instead chose to seek out and destroy the main Ottoman army. This he intercepted in late summer at Peterwardein under the personal command of the grand vizier, and despite possessing numerically inferior forces, inflicted a decisive defeat from which barely a third of the Turkish Army escaped. In the months that followed, he consolidated this victory by taking Ottoman fortresses at Timisoara, in the Banat, and most notably, in Belgrade.

Eugene’s military victories would not have been possible without prior Habs burg diplomacy. The key to his victories was the ability to concentrate Austria’s limited military forces, which had only occurred because Austria did not have to worry about maintaining large troop concentrations on other frontiers while fighting in the south. This was made possible by preparatory diplomacy, which had begun years before the war, when Habsburg diplomats worked to ensure that a war in this theater would not occur until the timing was militarily favorable to the monarchy.

The foundation to this diplomacy had been efforts to prevent the breakout of conflict too early—most notably, at the high point of the Spanish succession war, when Charles XII invaded Saxony with forty thousand troops, raising the threat of intervention to support Silesian Protestants or even alongside Protestant Hungarian rebels against Vienna. With the Erblände naked to attack from this quarter, Joseph I used what amounted to preemptive appeasement at Altranstädt to buy peace with Charles by recognizing Sweden’s candidate to the Polish throne, ceding German land and even making concessions to the Protestants in Silesia in exchange for avoiding Austrian entanglement in the Great Northern War. The following year a similar problem loomed in the south, when tensions with the Porte threatened to open a new front in the war after several Ottoman merchants were killed in a border incident at Kecskemet. Faced with the prospect of a Turkish declaration of war at a moment when Habsburg forces were pinned down on the Po and Rhine, Joseph I used a combination of bribery at the sultan’s court and compensation for Turkish damages to buy peace. Again in 1709, the passage of Sweden’s Charles XII into Ottoman protection following his defeat by the Russians threatened to bring the Turks into the war. This time Austria responded by rallying its western allies against the Swedes, issuing a war threat to Turkey and creating a new northern corps under Eugene to deter attack. In both instances, the Habsburgs were able to avoid war with the Ottomans at an inconvenient moment for their broader strategic interests.

A similar mixture of accommodation and force had been used to ensure that Eugene would not have to worry during his campaigns about problems from the Hungarians. From 1703 to 1711, Magyar kuruc raiders under the rebel prince Rákóczi had waged a relentless irregular war against Austrian positions in Hungary, momentarily even threatening the Habsburg capital.39 In order to concentrate force in the western theater, Austrian diplomats in 1706 brokered a temporary armistice that allowed Eugene to focus attention on his operations in Italy, without granting the scale of constitutional concessions sought by the rebels. After achieving victory in the west, the Habsburgs were able to use a “surge” of cavalry into Hungary to defeat the rebels and force a favorable peace. The resulting Treaty of Szatmar (1711) was a showpiece of Habsburg diplomacy, mixing threats (as Joseph I said when threatened by a resumption of kuruc raids, “tell them bluntly that we ‘could do even worse’ ”) and magnanimity with pardons for rebel leaders and a guarantee of Hungary’s historic liberties. This peace proved durable. As a result, by the time Eugene began preparing for military operations four years later, he was not troubled by the prospect of Hungarian uprisings along his lines of communication and was even able to employ former kuruc rebels in his army.

These earlier preparations helped make possible a sharp, successful war. Charles VI had explicitly requested that the campaign be short, instructing Eugene to achieve a “quick and glorious peace”—partly to avoid creating an opening for crises (groβe Unruhen) on other frontiers, and partly to ensure that any lands won could be secured rapidly and without foreign interference (ohne Mediation). The need for a speedy outcome was heightened by growing signs of conflict in Italy, where Spain’s Philip V sought to take advantage of Austria’s distraction in the Balkans to launch an attack on Sicily. As the Turkish war drew to a close, the Spanish challenge was forcing Eugene to siphon off regiments from the Balkans, leading him to lament that “two wars cannot be waged with one army.” While Eugene used the opening of negotiations with the Turks at Passarowitz to consolidate Austria’s new gains in the southeast and free up military resources for the west, Charles struck an agreement with Britain and France renouncing his claims to the Spanish throne in exchange for military cooperation against Philip. These measures helped to avoid a protracted two-front emergency. As negotiations wrapped up with the Ottomans, Charles rejoiced to Eugene that “our hands are now free to deal with those who want to chew on us [elsewhere].”

The physical scale of Eugene’s victory over the Turks was immense. In the concluding Peace of Passarowitz, Austria absorbed, uti possidetis, all the ground that its armies held at the time that hostilities ceased, or a total of some thirty thousand square miles of new territory. The addition of these large spaces bolstered Habsburg security in the southeast. Per Eugene’s advice to “expand following the lay of the land,” Austria absorbed the Banat, closing the gap between its defenses in Croatia-Slavonia and Transylvania. The war also enhanced the size and status of the monarchy’s regional buffers, placing northern Serbia and Little Wallachia under Habsburg rule, while designating Wallachia, Moldavia, and Poland under Article I as intermediary bodies: “Distinguished and separated as anciently by the Mountains, in such manner that the Limits of the ancient Confines may be unchangeably observed on all sides.”

Passarowitz was a high-water mark for Habsburg power in the Balkans. But it would not last. In the years that followed, Austria’s ability to shape the southern frontier through unilateral military action evaporated as a result of two changes—one military in nature, the other geopolitical.

First, Eugene died. The extent to which Austria’s spectacular battlefield victories had been the result of the prince’s talents became dramatically apparent when the next Austro-Turkish war broke out in 1737–39. The parallels with the 1716–18 war are striking. As before, Habsburg officials favored the timing for military action because of the recent end of a conflict in the west (the Polish succession war) and thus recent relative quiescence on other fronts.

As their predecessors had done prior to 1716, Habsburg diplomats successfully labored to create the conditions for an exclusive focus on the Balkan frontier before going to war. Also like the previous war, Habsburg forces set out to win a short war using mobile field armies. Echoing its earlier instructions to Eugene, the Privy Conference insisted that “the war last but one campaigning season.” And as before, the strategic goal was largely defensive: to consolidate and round off Austria’s holdings along the central Danube axis while expanding Austrian influence in the buffer territories of Wallachia and Moldavia.

Battle of Belgrade

Without Eugene at the helm, though, Austria quickly found that it was no longer able to rely on rapid strikes to secure its security objectives in the southeast. Poorly led and suffering from the years of neglected military spending that Eugene had so often predicted would lead to catastrophe, Habsburg forces suffered defeats at Banja Luka and Belgrade. In the ensuing Treaty of Belgrade (1739), Austria was forced to disgorge most of its gains from Passarowitz. While using many of the same tactics as in the previous war, Habsburg generalship was weaker, the army had lost its fighting edge, and the Ottomans themselves had incorporated lessons from past wars, adopting improved technology in both small arms and artillery with the help of foreign military advisers.

The second, far-larger change to conditions in the southeast, however, came as a result of geopolitical developments elsewhere. In the year after the war ended, Austria was invaded from the north by the armies of Frederick II of Prussia, setting off what would become an almost forty-year life-or-death struggle for the Habsburg Monarchy.

CHRISTIANITY AND ISLAM IN AN AGE OF RELIGIOUS CONTENTION

By 1550, the threat to Christendom from the Ottomans was real, their advance into European lands inexorable. With energy and creativity they cemented their hold on the Hungarian plain around military and governing centres (sanjaklar), which they established to control the Danube and its associated watercourses. The capture of Belgrade in 1521 was followed by the collapse of Hungary in 1526. Buda was pillaged by the Turks in 1526, besieged in 1529 and then finally occupied permanently in 1541. Esztergom was besieged six times before it finally fell to the Ottomans in 1543, to become the front-line fortress and frontier sanjak. Meanwhile, Temesvár was conquered in 1552, thereby broadening and consolidating the Ottoman footprint north of the Balkans. The Turks adapted to local customs as the price for cementing their hegemony. The post-conquest cadastral surveys in central Hungary allocated local resources to support material infrastructure locally in order to make good their claims that they were not a predatory regime. There were tax exemptions and compensation for civilian populations most affected by Ottoman garrisons, paid for from central funds or transfers from the Egyptian treasury.

Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania were unstable, porous, multi-cultural and religiously diverse overlordships where the success of those in authority depended on how they brokered their acceptance with the various local groups, and played off their neighbours against one another. The Ottomans understood how to exploit local grievances and disputes to keep local rulers loyal to them. They embraced Wallachia as a quasi-independent protectorate. It was occupied by garrisons but never subjected to a cadastral survey, nor was its land granted out as prebends (timar) to reward Ottoman cavalry (sipahis) or serving officers in the imperial army (janissaries). That served as the pattern for Moldavia as well, where a failed attempt by local nobles to recover their independence from Ottoman rule in 1538 signalled its more permanent absorption into Ottoman overlordship.

Transylvania was more complex. It was the densely wooded region to the east of Hungary, whose scattered population was divided into Hungarian (Magyar) nobles and peasants to the west, Turkish peasants and Slavs to the east, Lutheran German immigrants in small towns, and self-governing communities of Szekler forest folk. The princes (voivodes) of Transylvania could not hope to defend their lands against an outright attack by any of their larger neighbours (Poles, Habsburgs, Turks). Their countrymen could raise cavalry on a voluntary basis, but only for the summer months. They needed a protector. But opinions were divided in Transylvania as to where that protection should come from. Around 1550, some (especially in western Transylvania) looked to the Habsburg archduke, and later emperor, Ferdinand I. Others supported John Sigismund Zápolya, a remnant of the Jagiellon dynasty through his mother. He was twice elected king of Hungary (1540–51 and 1556–71), mainly thanks to the protection of the Ottomans.

Rivalry between John Sigismund and Ferdinand was also fomented by religious differences. Transylvania had become a haven for Reformed Protestant proselytizing and, in due course, for Unitarians. The beliefs of the latter seemed to offer the possibilities of syncretism between Christianity and Islam. That appealed to many groups in eastern Transylvania, especially the Szeklers, for whom Islam was a close and not-so-feared neighbour. The Ottomans played on those differences to establish their hegemony while allowing the local Diet to elect its own princes and exacting no hostages or tribute. In Transylvania, a neo-Calvinist prince ruled with Ottoman blessing. Under Turkish aegis, Latin-rite Christians, Calvinists, Lutherans and Unitarians had a recognized place in Transylvanian life, while Orthodox Christians were tolerated. As with the frontiers between Protestant and Catholic Christianity, so those between Christianity and Islam were nowhere as neat as the proponents of Crusade and Holy War on either side would have liked them to be.

The Ottoman empire was (somewhat like the pre-Christian Roman empire) an amalgam of cultures and traditions which its expansion fostered. Islam provided its foundational legitimacy. The sultans conceived of themselves and their social order as Muslim and their state as an Islamic one. Yet, by 1550 the empire spread over three continents and embraced 15 million people. The Ottomans learned how to match the protection of the House of Islam with the practicalities of ruling diverse peoples. Ottoman religious and military élites maintained the primacy of Islamic law but were flexible about how they did so. The interpreters of Islamic law (müftis) presided over mosques and religious schools (medresses). They were independent of the regime and could be the focus of opposition to it. But they were trained in the Sunni Hanafi school of Islamic law, which offered justifications for religious syncretism in terms of the eventual conversion of those who were not originally of the faith. By contrast, those who administered the Islamic law locally (kadis) were appointed by the state, priest-magistrates who drew upon Sultanic law as well as local customs and traditions, while seeking to interpret them within the framework of their understanding of Islamic law (the Shariah). At the same time, Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Jewish communities all had their own courts within the empire, and judged people in accordance with their own laws. Genoese, Venetian (and then, later, French, English and Dutch) residents were also allowed their own courts in the trading centres of the empire. Even within the House of Islam, the Ottomans accorded space and legitimacy to the dervish orders. Christians, Jews and Armenians of talent found their way into Ottoman military and administrative élites.

While religious dissent had initially encouraged Christendom to define itself as a belief-community through the exclusion of those who did not subscribe to its beliefs, the Ottoman empire was able to expand in the same period on a basis of qualified inclusion. So although European lands had few Muslims in their midst the Ottoman empire embraced a mixture of Christians of different traditions. The majority of its Balkan subjects were (with the exception of some parts of Albania and Bosnia) Christians. There were minority Christian populations in Anatolia and concentrations of Christians in Middle Eastern mountain regions which had traditionally served as refuges (Mount Lebanon, Sasun and the Tur Abdin). Many Christians in the Ottoman empire acknowledged their allegiance to either the Greek Orthodox patriarch, or the Apostolic Armenian patriarch, both located in the Ottoman capital. Both Church hierarchies were recognized by the Ottoman bureaucracy. But there were many Christians in the Asian and African provinces of the Ottoman empire who were neither Orthodox nor Armenian – Copts, Jacobites, Maronites and Nestorians.

From the later sixteenth century onwards, the globalizing Christian ambitions of Catholic Christianity sponsored attempts by European missionaries from the later sixteenth century onwards to make common cause with these Asian and African Christians and to wean the Orthodox and Armenian faithful to the Latin cause. Their objective was to form a ‘Uniate’ Church (that is, one in communion in Rome) as had occurred in the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands among the Orthodox faithful after 1595. In the Ottoman empire, however, such efforts backfired – not least because Ottoman officials, reluctant to intervene in what they regarded as Christian quarrels of no concern to them, endorsed the rival authorities of the two patriarchies. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the contentions over religion in Constantinople were focused around protecting Catholic missionaries (attempts led by the French monarchy) from hostility originating, in most part, not from Muslims but from the Orthodox and Apostolic Armenian patriarchs.

Western Christendom’s ideologues talked up the need to respond to the Ottoman threat with a Crusade against the Infidel, ignoring the reality that the Ottoman empire was a pluralist entity in which Christianity had an acknowledged place. In a parallel fashion, Islamic religious leaders periodically proclaimed the need for a Holy War (ghâzá), while Ottoman rulers simultaneously sought to retain the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional basis of the empire. Like Christian princes in the West, however, the sultans had to respond to the popular expectations for spiritual renewal in their midst as well as pressures for a greater degree of religious orthodoxy and state-sponsored confessional identity. In both Christian Europe and Ottoman Islam there were mutual and contradictory pressures – some for confrontation and others for coexistence. The resulting ambivalence explains the ebb and flow in the relationships between Europe and the Porte: mutual tensions, followed by renewed and contingent accommodation.

Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean constituted a particular focus for Christendom’s fears. That was where it was most readily understood within an eschatological context. The prophecies of Joachim of Fiore from the years of Christendom’s crusading fervour taught that the Turks were a manifestation of the Antichrist whose final overthrow would signal the End Time. They were joined by other prophetic proclamations with their origins in the last years of Byzantium. In Venice, Florence and elsewhere in Italy, such writings were more widely diffused in print, and given credence in the years of heightened tension from the Turkish menace. As the Ottoman siege of Cyprus unfolded in 1570 so the Brescian alchemist Giovanni Battista Nazari published one of several works to appear from Venetian presses that year predicting that the Venetian Lion, the Imperial Eagle and the Papal Lamb would together slaughter the Turkish Dragon. Equivalent prophecies circulated in the Muslim Mediterranean world as it approached its own millennium (1591–2 in the Christian calendar). One of the most widely distributed predictions within Christendom (appearing in twenty-three printed editions in the years from 1552 to 1600) was that the Ottomans would capture ‘the red apple’, interpreted in the West as the city of Rome.

The Mediterranean was the heart of an economic world straddling continents and civilizations. Its urban centres and hinterlands were linked by patterns of exchange which were both collaborative and competitive. What went on at one end of the Mediterranean was rapidly known, talked about and emulated at the other. Intermediary groups (Armenians, Jews, Moriscos, Christians who had converted to Islam either voluntarily or by coercion and others) served as conduits of information across religious and cultural divides. Venice, Europe’s great entrepôt with the East, had a guild of official translators (dragomen) who acted as intermediaries with the Ottoman empire. These intermediaries relayed Christian and Muslim prophetic voices in the Mediterranean echo-chamber, each urging on the anxieties of the other. One sign of the waning of Crusade was the decreasing economic and cultural influence of the intermediary Mediterranean trading diasporas in the seventeenth century, and the shift in the centre of gravity of Europe’s eschatological and millennial speculation. By the 1620s it had moved away from the Mediterranean and the fear of the Turk, to be relocated in the hands of Protestant interpreters in the upheavals of central Europe.

The Ottoman military conquest of Syria and Mamluk Egypt in 1517 was followed by the acknowledgement of Ottoman suzerainty by the Arab advocates of Holy War in the Maghreb and the corsair states along the North African coast. The latter’s licensed depredations on Christian shipping were the way whereby the Ottomans sustained their overlordship along the shoreline of the southern Mediterranean at little cost to local populations. They also acquired a naval competence with which to challenge successfully the combined maritime strength of Venice and the Habsburgs in the second Ottoman-Venetian War (1537–9). As a result, the Ottomans established their pre-eminence in the Aegean and over the majority of the eastern Adriatic coast. Just as the Ottomans exploited local frustrations against the incompetent Mamluks, so they were adept at fomenting Greek Orthodox resentments of their Latin Catholic overlords in the Aegean islands to establish their hegemony. By 1550, Ottoman naval forces were never more than a day or so away from a port and supplies for their galleys in the eastern Mediterranean. That gave them a considerable advantage over the navies of Christendom when the latter ventured on long-range expeditions east of Malta.

The Ottomans were well informed about the religion and politics of Christendom, thanks to the Jews, converted Moriscos and Christians in their service. The Muslim empire’s westward expansion depended on exploiting Christian divisions and rivalries. By 1550, however, it was reaching the strategic limits dictated by the geography of its land supply-lines. Ottoman military maps tell the story of how important these were, as do their ambitious projects to link the Don and Volga rivers (first conceived in 1563), to build a Suez canal (1568) and another linking the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara through the Sakarya river (begun in 1591). No amount of local outsourcing to supply the strategically placed outpost garrisons could replace the need to march men and equipment to the campaign front line. Equally, the materials and crews to man their Mediterranean fleets were not summoned out of thin air. They required logistic planning and forethought. Even more important in limiting Ottoman expansion to the west was the reality that the further they penetrated into the core of European land-space the more they encountered peoples who were acculturated not to accept Muslim rule and prepared to resist it.

Nor was the Islamic world itself immune to religious division. Developments here, as in other aspects of the Middle East, bear comparison with those in the West. In 1501, the Grand Master of the Safaviyeh Order, a Sufi group of mystics from what is now northwest Iran, proclaimed himself Shah (‘king’) Ismail in Azerbaijan and Iran and established his capital in Tabriz. Claiming to be the direct male descendant of the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, he succeeded in imposing Shi’ism as the religion of what coalesced under his authority and that of his successors as the Persian Safavid empire. Thousands of Shi’a adherents (fundamentally divergent from Sunni Islam) were massacred by the Ottomans in Asia Minor in an effort to repress the heresy in the first half of the sixteenth century, while the supporters of Ismail desecrated Sunni graves and sought to advance Shi’ism by military means, regarding the shah as both a religious leader and a military chieftain.

The periodic wars that broke out between the Ottomans and Safavid Persia in the sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth centuries took resources and focus away from Ottoman expansion to the west, which in turn further opened the door to a coexistence with Europe. With the Portuguese (and later the Dutch) holding sway in the Indian Ocean and hovering at the entrance to the Red Sea, the possibility that Europe would make common cause with the Safavid rulers of Persia was a constant preoccupation in Constantinople. Further Islamic dissent also appeared in the sixteenth century from the Saadi, an Arab dynasty located in southern Morocco, whose members claimed to be (like the Safavid) directly descended from the Prophet’s family. At the Ottoman Porte, as in the capitals of Europe, the relationships between East and West came to be seen in terms of global strategic imperatives rather than a Crusade.