As always, the Spaniards’ first reaction to a disturbance with the Indians was to try to seize the initiative. Hernando sent his brother Juan with seventy cavalrymen – virtually every horse then in Cuzco – to disperse the Indians in the Yucay valley. While riding across the plateau of rolling grassy hills that separates the valley of Cuzco from that of Yucay, they met the two Spaniards who had been with Manco. These had been beguiled by him into leaving when he continued towards Lares, and they were now returning in all innocence to Cuzco, unaware of any native rebellion. The first sight of the magnitude of the opposition came when Pizarro’s men appeared at the brow of the plateau and looked down at the beautiful valley beneath them. This is one of the loveliest views in the Andes; the river below winds across the broad flat floor of the valley, whose rocky sides rise as abruptly as the fantastic scenery in the background of a sixteenth-century painting. The slopes are tightly contoured with neat lines of Inca terraces, and above them, in the distance, the snowy peaks of the Calca and Paucartambo hills shine brilliantly in the thin air. But now the valley was filled with native troops, Manco’s own levies from the area around Cuzco. The Spaniards had to fight their way across the river, swimming their horses. The Indians retreated on to the slopes and allowed the cavalry to occupy Calca, which they found full of a great treasure of gold, silver, native women and baggage. They occupied the town for three or four days, with the natives harassing the sentries at night but making no other attempt to drive them out. The reason for this was appreciated only when a horseman from Hernando Pizarro galloped in to recall the cavalry with all possible speed; for irresistible hordes of native troops were massing on all the hills around Cuzco itself. The cavalry force was harassed continuously on the return journey, but succeeded in entering the city, to the relief of the remaining citizens.
‘As we returned we found many squadrons of warriors continuously arriving and camping in the steepest places around Cuzco to await the assembly of all [their men]. After they had all arrived, they camped on the plain as well as on the hills. So many troops came there that they covered the fields. By day they looked like a black carpet covering everything for half a league around the city of Cuzco, and by night there were so many fires that it resembled nothing less than a very clear sky filled with stars.’ This was one of the great moments of the Inca empire. With their genius for organisation, Manco’s commanders had succeeded in assembling the country’s fighting men and in arming, feeding and marching them to the investiture of the capital. All this had been done despite the fact that the empire’s communications and supply depots were disrupted, and without giving any warning to’ the astute and suspicious foreigners occupying the land. All the Spaniards were taken by surprise by the mobilisation at their gates, and were staggered by its size. Their estimates of the numbers opposing them ranged from 50,000 to 400,000, but the accepted figure by the majority of chroniclers and eyewitnesses was between 100,000 and 200,000.
The great colourful steam-roller of native levies closed in from every horizon around Cuzco. Titu Cusi wrote with pride that ‘Curiatao, Coyllas, Taipi and many other commanders entered the city from the Carmenca side … and sealed the gate with their men. Huaman-Quilcana and Curi-Hualpa entered on the Condesuyo side from the direction of Cachicachi and closed a great gap of over half a league. All were excellently equipped and in battle array. Llicllic and many other commanders entered on the Collasuyo side with an immense contingent, the largest group that took part in the siege. Anta-Aclla, Ronpa Yupanqui and many others entered on the Antisuyo side to complete the encirclement of the Spaniards.’
The native build-up around Cuzco continued for some weeks after the return of Juan Pizarro’s cavalry. The warriors had learned to respect Spanish cavalry on level ground, and they kept to the slopes. The royal general Inquill was in charge of the encircling forces, assisted by the high priest Villac Umu and a young commander Paucar Huaman. Manco maintained his headquarters at Calca.
Villac Umu pressed for an immediate attack, but Manco told him to wait until every last contingent had arrived and the attacking forces had become irresistible. He explained that it would do the Spaniards no harm to suffer confinement just as he had done: he himself would come to finish them off in due course. Villac Umu was distressed by the delay, and even Manco’s son criticised his father for it. But Manco was applying Napoleon’s dictum that the art of generalship is to come to battle with a force vastly superior to the enemy’s. He thought that his warriors’ only hope against the Spanish cavalry lay in overwhelming numbers. Villac Umu had to content himself with occupying Cuzco’s citadel, Sacsahuaman, and with destroying the irrigation canals to flood the fields around the city.
The Spaniards inside Cuzco were suffering just as much anxiety as Manco had hoped. There were only 190 Spaniards in the city, and of these only eighty were mounted. The entire burden of the fighting fell on the cavalry, for the ‘greater part of the infantry were thin and debilitated men’. Both sides agreed that a Spanish infantryman was inferior to his native counterpart, who was far more nimble at this high altitude. Hernando Pizarro divided the horsemen into three contingents commanded by Gabriel de Rojas, Hernán Ponce de León and his brother Gonzalo. He himself was Lieutenant-Governor, his brother Juan was corregidor, and Alonso Riquelme, the royal treasurer, represented the Crown.
At the outset, while the native forces were still massing, the Spaniards tried their tactic of charging out into the thick of the enemy. This met with far less success than usual. Many Indians were killed, but the crush of fighting men stopped the onrush of the horses, and once the Indians saw that the cavalry was thoroughly embroiled they turned on it with savage determination. A group of eight horsemen fighting around Hernando Pizarro saw that it was being surrounded and decided to retreat to the city. One man, Francisco Mejia, who was then alcalde or mayor of the city, was too slow. The Indians ‘blocked his horse and grabbed at him and the horse. They dragged them about a stone’s throw away from the other Spaniards, and cut the heads off [Mejia] and off his horse, which was a very handsome white horse. The Indians thus emerged from this first engagement with a distinct gain.’
This success against cavalry on level ground greatly emboldened the attackers. They moved closer to the city until they were camped right up against the houses. In the tradition of intertribal warfare, they tried to demoralise the enemy by jeering and shouting abuse and by ‘raising their bare legs at them to show how they despised them’. Such skirmishes took place every day, with great courage shown on either side but no appreciable gains.
Finally on Saturday, 6 May, the feast of St John-ante-Portam-Latinam, Manco’s men launched their main attack. They moved down the slope from the fortress and advanced along the steep, narrow lanes between Colcampata and the main square. Many of these alleys still end in long flights of steps between whitewashed houses and form one of the most picturesque corners of modern Cuzco. ‘The Indians were supporting one another most effectively, thinking that it was all over. They charged through the streets with the greatest determination and fought hand-to-hand with the Spaniards.’ They even succeeded in capturing the ancient enclosure of Cora Cora which overlooked the northern corner of the square. Hernando Pizarro appreciated its importance and had fortified it with a palisade the day before the Indian onslaught. But his infantry garrison was driven out by a dawn attack.
If the horse was the Spaniards’ most effective weapon, the sling was undoubtedly the Indians’. Its normal missile was a smooth stone about the size of a hen’s egg, but Enriquez de Guzman claimed that ‘they can hurl a huge stone with enough force to kill a horse. Its effect is almost as great as [a shot from] an arquebus. I have seen a stone shot from a sling break a sword in two when it was held in a man’s hand thirty yards away.’ In the attack on Cuzco the natives devised a deadly new use for their slingshots. They made the stones red-hot in their camp fires, wrapped them in cotton and then shot them at the thatched roofs of the city. The straw caught fire and was burning fiercely before the Spaniards could even understand how it was being done. ‘There was a strong wind that day, and as the roofs of the houses were thatch it seemed at one moment as if the city were one great sheet of flame. The Indians were shouting loudly and there was such a dense cloud of smoke that the men could neither hear nor see one another…. They were being pressed so hard by the Indians that they could scarcely defend themselves or come to grips with the enemy.’ ‘They set fire to the whole of Cuzco simultaneously and it all burned in one day, for the roofs were thatch. The smoke was so dense that the Spaniards almost suffocated: it caused them great suffering. They would never have survived had not one side of the square contained no houses and no roofs. Had the smoke and heat come at them from all sides they would have been in extreme difficulty, for both were very intense.’ Thus ended the Inca capital: stripped for Atahualpa’s ransom, ransacked by Spanish looters, and now burned by its own people.
From the captured bastion of Cora Cora the Indian slingers kept up a withering fire across the square. No Spaniard dared venture on to it. The besieged were now cornered in two buildings facing each other at the eastern end of the square. One was the great galpón or hall of Suntur Huasi, on the site of the present cathedral, and the other was Hatun Cancha, ‘the large enclosure’, where many of the conquistadores had their plots. Hernando Pizarro was in charge of one of these structures and Hernán Ponce de León of the other. No one dared to move out of them. ‘The barrage of slingshot stones coming in through the gateways was so great that it seemed like dense hail, at a time when the heavens are hailing furiously.’ ‘The city continued to burn on that and the following day. The Indian warriors became confident at the thought that the Spaniards were no longer in a position to defend themselves.’
By extraordinary chance, the thatched roof of Suntur Huasi itself did not catch fire. An incendiary projectile landed on the roof. Pedro Pizarro said that he and many others saw this happen: the roof started to burn and then went out. Titu Cusi claimed that the Spaniards had Negroes stationed on the roof to extinguish the flames. But to other Spaniards it seemed a miracle, and by the end of the century it became established as such. The seventeenth-century writer Fernando Montesinos said that the Virgin Mary appeared in a blue cloak to extinguish the flames with white blankets, while St Michael was by her side fighting off devils. This miraculous scene became a favourite subject for religious paintings and alabaster groups, and a church called the Triunfo was built to commemorate this extraordinary escape.
The Spaniards were becoming desperate. Even Manco’s son Titu Cusi felt a touch of pity for these conquerors: ‘They secretly feared that those were to be the last days of their lives. They could see no hope of relief from any direction, and did not know what to do.’ ‘The Spaniards were extremely frightened, because there were so many Indians and so few of them.’ ‘After six days of this strenuous work and danger the enemy had captured almost all the city. The Spaniards now held only the main square and a few houses around it. Many ordinary people were showing signs of exhaustion. They advised Hernando Pizarro to abandon the city and look for some way to save their lives.’ There were frequent consultations among the weary defenders. There was desperate talk of trying to break the encirclement and reach the coast via Arequipa, to the south. Others thought that they should try to survive inside Hatun Cancha, which had only one entrance. But the leaders decided that the only thing to do was to fight back, and if necessary die fighting.
In the confused street fighting the natives were resourceful and ingenious. They evolved a series of tactics to contain and harass their terrible adversaries; but they could not produce a weapon that could kill a mounted, armoured Spanish horseman. Teams of Indians dug channels to divert Cuzco’s rivers into the fields around the city, so that the horses would slip and sink into the resulting mire. Other natives dug pits and small holes to trip the horses when they ventured on to the agricultural terraces. The besiegers consolidated their advance into the city by erecting barricades in the streets: wicker screens with small openings through which the nimble warriors could advance to attack. Hernando Pizarro decided that these must be destroyed. Pedro del Barco, Diego Méndez and Francisco de Villacastín led a detachment of Spanish infantry and fifty Cañari auxiliaries in a night attack on the barricades. Horsemen covered their flanks while they worked, but the natives maintained a steady barrage from the adjoining roofs.
The flat walls of Cuzco’s houses were exposed when the thatch was burned off in the first great conflagration. The natives found that they could run along the tops of the walls, out of reach of the horsemen charging below. Pedro Pizarro recalled an episode when Alonso de Toro was leading a group of horsemen up one of the streets towards the fortress. The natives opened fire with a bombardment of stones and adobe bricks. Some Spaniards were thrown from their horses and half buried in the rubble of a wall overturned by the natives. The Spaniards were only dragged out by some Indian auxiliaries.
With inventiveness born of desperation, the natives evolved another weapon against the Christians’ horses. This was the ayllu, or bolas: three stones tied to the ends of connected lengths of llama tendons. The twirling missile tangled itself around the horses’ legs with deadly effect. The natives brought down ‘most of the horses with this device, leaving almost no one to fight. They also entangled the riders with these cords.’ Spanish infantry had to run up to disengage the helpless cavalrymen, hacking the tough cords with great difficulty.
The besieged Spaniards survived the burning roofs, sling-shots, bolas and missiles of the Inca armies. They tried to counter each new native device. As well as destroying the street barricades, Spanish working parties smashed the flumes along which the natives were diverting the streams. Others tried to dismantle agricultural terraces so that the horses could ride up them, and they filled in the pits and traps dug by the attackers. They even began to recapture parts of the city. A force of Spanish infantry recaptured the redoubt of Cora Cora after a hard battle. In another engagement some cavalry fought its way under a hail of missiles to a square at the edge of the city, where another sharp fight took place.
The brunt of the Indian attacks came down the steep hillside below Sacsahuaman and on to the spur that forms the central part of Cuzco. Villac Umu and the other besieging generals had established their headquarters within the mighty fortress. Indians attacking from it could penetrate the heart of Cuzco without having to cross the dangerous level ground on other sides of the city. Hernando Pizarro and the besieged Spaniards deeply regretted their failure to garrison this fortress. They realised that as long as it remained in enemy hands their position in the roofless buildings of the city was untenable. They decided that Sacsahuaman must be recaptured at any cost.
Sacsahuaman – local guides have learned that they can earn a larger tip by calling it ‘saxy woman’ – lies immediately above Cuzco. But the cliff above Carmenca is so steep that the fortress needed only one curtain wall on the city side. Its main defences face away from Cuzco, beyond the brow of the cliff, where the ground slopes away to a small grassy plateau. On that side the top of the cliff is defended by three massive terrace walls. They rise above one another in forbidding grey steps, casing the hillside like the flanks of an armoured dreadnought. The three terraces are built in zigzags like the teeth of great saws, four hundred yards long, with no fewer than twenty-two salient and re-entrant angles on each level. Anyone trying to scale them would have to expose a flank to the defenders. The regular diagonal shadows thrown by these indentations add to the beauty of the terraces. But the feature that makes them so amazing is the quality of the masonry and the size of some of the blocks of stone. As with most Inca terrace walls, this is polygonal masonry: the great stones interlock in a complex and intriguing pattern. The three walls now rise for almost fifty feet, and excavations by the archaeologist Luis Valcárcel showed that ten feet more were once exposed. The largest boulders are on the lowest terrace. One great stone has a height of twenty-eight feet and is calculated to weigh 361 metric tons, which makes it one of the largest blocks ever incorporated into any structure. All this leaves an impression of masterful strength and serene invincibility. In their awe, the sixteenth-century chroniclers soon exhausted the mighty buildings of Spain with which to compare Sacsahuaman.
The ninth Inca, Pachacuti, started the fortress and his successors continued the work, recruiting the many thousands of men needed to manhandle the great stones into place. Sacsahuaman was intended to be more than a simple military fortress. Virtually the entire population of the unwalled city of Cuzco could have retreated within it during a crisis. At the time of Manco’s siege the crest of the hill behind the terrace walls was covered in buildings. Valcárcel’s excavations – made to mark the four-hundredth anniversary of the Conquest – revealed the foundations of the chief structures within Sacsahuaman. These were dominated by three great towers. The first tower, called Muyu Marca, was described by Garcilaso as having been round and containing a water cistern fed by underground channels. The excavations confirmed this description: its foundations consisted of three concentric circles of wall of which the outer was seventy-five feet in diameter. The main tower, Salla Marca, stood on a rectangular base, sixty-five feet long. Pedro Sancho inspected this tower in 1534 and described it as consisting of five storeys stepped inwards. Such height would have made it the Incas’ tallest hollow structure, comparable to the so-called skyscrapers of the pre-Inca Yarivilca culture along the upper Maranon. It was built of coursed rectangular ashlars, and contained a warren of small chambers, the quarters of the garrison. Even the conscientious Sancho admitted that’ the fortress has too many rooms and towers for one person to visit them all’. He estimated that it could comfortably house a garrison of five thousand Spaniards. Garcilaso de la Vega remembered playing in the labyrinth of its corbelled subterranean galleries during his boyhood in Cuzco. He felt that the fortress of Sacsahuaman could rank among the wonders of the world – and suspected that the devil must have had a hand in its extraordinary construction.
Manco Inca and other 3 soldiers with Spanish weapons during the rebellion.
The beleaguered Spaniards now decided that their immediate survival depended on the recapture of the fortress on the cliff above them. According to Murua, Manco’s relative and rival Pascac, who had sided with the Spaniards, gave advice about the plan of attack. It was decided that Juan Pizarro would lead fifty horsemen – the greater part of the Spaniards’ cavalry-in a desperate attempt to break through the besiegers and attack their fortress. Observers from the Indian side remembered the scene as follows:’ They spent the whole of that night on their knees and with their hands clasped [in prayer] at their mouths – for many Indians saw them. Even those on guard in the square did the same, as did many Indians who were on their side and had accompanied them from Cajamarca. On the following morning, very early, they all emerged from the church [Suntur Huasi] and mounted their horses as if they were going to fight. They started to look from side to side. While they were looking about in this way, they suddenly put spurs to their horses and at full gallop, despite the enemy, broke through the opening which had been sealed like a wall, and charged off up the hillside at breakneck speed.’ They broke through the northern Chinchaysuyo contingent under the generals Curiatao and Pusca. Juan Pizarro’s horsemen then galloped up the Jauja road, climbing the hill through Carmenca. They somehow broke and fought their way through the native barricades. Pedro Pizarro was in that contingent and recalled the dangerous ride, zigzagging up the hillside. The Indians had mined the road with pits, and the Spaniards’ native auxiliaries had to fill these in with adobes while the horsemen waited under fire from the hillside. But the Spaniards eventually struggled up on to the plateau and rode off to the north-west. The natives thought that they were making a dash for freedom, and sent runners across country to order the destruction of the Apurímac suspension bridge. But at the village of Jicatica the horsemen left the road and wheeled to the right, fought through the gullies behind the hills of Queancalla and Zenca, and reached the level plain below the terraces of Sacsahuaman. Only by this broad flanking movement were the Spaniards able to avoid the mass of obstacles that the Indians had erected on the direct routes between the city and its fortress.
The Indians had also used the few weeks since the start of the siege to defend the level ‘parade ground’ beyond Sacsahuaman with an earth barrier that the Spaniards described as a barbican. Gonzalo Pizarro and Hernán Ponce de León led one troop in repeated attacks on these outer enclosures. Some of the horses were wounded, and two Spaniards were thrown from their mounts and almost captured in the maze of rocky outcrops. ‘It was a moment when much was at stake.’ Juan Pizarro therefore attacked with all his men in support of his brother. Together they succeeded in forcing the barricades and riding into the space before the massive terrace walls. Whenever the Spaniards approached these they were greeted by a withering fire of slingshots and javelins. One of Juan Pizarro’s pages was killed by a heavy stone. It was late afternoon, and the attackers were exhausted by the day’s fierce fighting. But Juan Pizarro attempted one last charge, a frontal attack on the main gate into the fortress. This gate was defended by side walls projecting on either side, and the natives had dug a defensive pit between them. The passage leading to the gate was crowded with Indians defending the entrance or attempting to retreat from the barbican into the main fortress.
Juan Pizarro had been struck on the jaw during the previous day’s fighting in Cuzco and was unable to wear his steel helmet. As he charged towards the gate in the setting sun, he was struck on the head by a stone hurled from the salient walls. It was a mortal blow. The Governor’s younger brother, corregidor of Cuzco and tormentor of Inca Manco, was carried down to Cuzco that night in great secrecy, to prevent the natives learning of their success. He lived long enough to dictate a will, on 16 May 1536, ‘being sick in body but sound of mind’. He made his younger brother Gonzalo heir to his vast fortune, in the hope that he would found an entail, and left bequests to religious foundations and to the poor in Panama and his birthplace Trujillo. He made no mention of the native siege, and left nothing to the Indian woman from whom ‘I have received services’ and ‘who has given birth to a girl whom I do not recognise as my daughter.’ Francisco de Pancorvo recalled that ‘they buried him by night so that the Indians should not know he was dead, for he was a very brave man and the Indians were very frightened of him. But although the death of Juan Pizarro was [supposed to be] a secret, the Indians used to say “Now that Juan Pizarro is dead” just as one would say “Now that the brave are dead”. And he was indeed dead.’ Alonso Enríquez de Guzman gave a more materialistic epitaph: ‘They killed our Captain Juan Pizarro, a brother of the Governor and a young man of twenty-five who possessed a fortune of 200,000 ducats.’
On the following day the natives counter-attacked repeatedly. Large numbers of warriors tried to dislodge Gonzalo Pizarro from the hillock opposite the terraces of Sacsahuaman. ‘There was terrible confusion. Everyone was shouting and they were all entangled together, fighting for the hilltop the Spaniards had won. It looked as though the whole world was up there grappling in close combat.’ Hernando Pizarro sent twelve of his remaining horsemen up to join the critical battle – to the dismay of the few Spaniards left in Cuzco. Manco Inca sent five thousand reinforcements, and ‘the Spaniards were in a very tight situation with their arrival, for the Indians were fresh and attacked with determination.’ Below ‘in the city, the Indians mounted such a fierce attack that the Spaniards thought themselves lost a thousand times’.
But the Spaniards were about to apply European methods of siege warfare: throughout the day they had been making scaling ladders. As night fell, Hernando Pizarro himself led an infantry force to the top of the hill. Using the scaling ladders in a night assault, the Spaniards succeeded in taking the mighty terrace walls of the fortress. The natives retreated into the complex of buildings and the three great towers.
There were two individual acts of great bravery during this final stage of the assault. On the Spanish side Hernán’Sánchez of Badajoz, one of the twelve brought up by Hernando Pizarro as additional reinforcements, performed feats of prodigious panache worthy of a silent-screen hero. He climbed one of the scaling ladders under a hail of stones which he parried with his buckler, and squeezed into a window of one of the buildings. He hurled himself at the Indians inside and sent them retreating up some stairs towards the roof. He now found himself at the foot of the highest tower. Fighting round its base he came upon a thick rope that had been left dangling from the top. Commending himself to God, he sheathed his sword and started clambering up, heaving up the rope with his hands and stepping off from the smooth Inca ashlars with his feet. Half way up the Indians threw a stone ‘as big as a wine jar’ down on him, but it simply glanced off the buckler he was wearing on his back. He threw himself into one of the higher levels of the tower, suddenly appearing in the midst of its startled defenders, showed himself to the other Spaniards and encouraged them to assault the other tower.
The battle for the terraces and buildings of Sacsahuaman was hard fought. ‘When dawn came, we spent the whole of that day and the next fighting the Indians who had retreated into the two tall towers. These could only be taken through thirst, when their water supply became exhausted.’ ‘They fought hard that day and throughout the night. When the following day dawned, the Indians on the inside began to weaken, for they had exhausted their entire store of stones and arrows.’ The native commanders, Paucar Huaman and the high priest Villac Umu, felt that there were too many defenders inside the citadel, whose supplies of food and water were rapidly being exhausted. ‘After dinner one evening, almost at the hour of vespers, they emerged from the fortress with great élan, attacked their enemies and broke through them. They rushed with their men down the slope towards Zapi and climbed to Carmenca.’ Escaping through the ravine of the Tullumayo, they hurried to Manco’s camp at Calca to plead for reinforcements. If the remaining two thousand defenders could hold Sacsahuaman, a native counter-attack might trap the Spaniards against its mighty walls.
Villac Umu left the defence of Sacsahuaman to an Inca noble, an orejón who had sworn to fight to the death against the Spaniards. This officer now rallied the defenders almost single-handed, performing feats of bravery ‘worthy of any Roman’. ‘The orejón strode about like a lion from side to side of the tower on its topmost level. He repulsed any Spaniards who tried to mount with scaling ladders. And he killed any Indians who tried to surrender. He smashed their heads with the battle-axe he was carrying and hurled them from the top of the tower.’ Alone of the defenders, he possessed European steel weapons that made him the match of the attackers in hand-to-hand fighting. ‘He carried a buckler on his arm, a sword in one hand and a battle-axe in the shield hand, and wore a Spanish morrión helmet on his head.’ ‘Whenever his men told him that a Spaniard was climbing up somewhere, he rushed upon him like a lion with the sword in his hand and the shield on his arm.’ ‘He received two arrow wounds but ignored them as if he had not been touched.’ Hernando Pizarro arranged for the towers to be attacked simultaneously by three or four scaling ladders. But he ordered that the brave orejón should be captured alive. The Spaniards pressed home their attack, assisted by large contingents of native auxiliaries. As Manco’s son wrote, ‘the battle was a bloody affair for both sides, because of the many natives who were supporting the Spaniards. Among these were two of my father’s brothers called Inquill and Huaspar with many of their followers, and many Chachapoyas and Cañari Indians.’ As the native resistance crumbled, the orejón hurled his weapons down on to the attackers in a frenzy of despair. He grabbed handfuls of earth, stuffed them into his mouth and scoured his face in anguish, then covered his head with his cloak and leaped to his death from the top of the fortress, in fulfilment of his pledge to the Inca.
‘With his death the remainder of the Indians gave way, so that Hernando Pizarro and all his men were able to enter. They put all those inside the fortress to the sword-there were 1,500 of them.’ Many others flung themselves from the walls. ‘Since these were high the men who fell first died. But some of those who fell later survived because they landed on top of a great heap of dead men.’ The mass of corpses lay unburied, a prey for vultures and giant condors. The coat of arms of the city of Cuzco, granted in 1540, had ‘an orle of eight condors, which are great birds like vultures that exist in the province of Peru, in memory of the fact that when the castle was taken these birds descended to eat the natives who had died in it’.
Hernando Pizarro immediately garrisoned Sacsahuaman with a force of fifty foot-soldiers supported by Cañari auxiliaries. Pots of water and food were hurried up from the city. The high priest Villac Umu returned with reinforcements, just too late to save the citadel. He counter-attacked vigorously, and the battle for Sacsahuaman continued fiercely for three more days, but the Spaniards were not dislodged, and the battle was won by the end of May.
Both sides appreciated that the recapture of Sacsahuaman could be a turning point in the siege. The natives now had no secure base from which to invest the city, and they abandoned some of the outlying districts they had occupied. When the counter-attack on Sacsahuaman failed, the Spaniards advanced out of the citadel and pursued the demoralised natives as far as Calca. Manco and his military commanders could not understand why their vast levies had failed to capture Cuzco. His son Titu Cusi imagined a dialogue between the Inca and his commanders. Manco:’ You have disappointed me. There were so many of you and so few of them, and yet they have eluded your grasp.’ To which the generals replied, ‘We are so ashamed that we dare not look you in the face…. We do not know the reason, except that it was our mistake not to have attacked in time and yours for not giving us permission to do so.’
The generals might possibly have been right. Manco’s insistence on waiting for the entire army to assemble meant that the Indians lost the element of surprise they had preserved so brilliantly during the early mobilisation. It also meant that the professional commanders could not attack while the Spaniards had sent much of their best cavalry to investigate the Yucay valley. The hordes of native militia did not necessarily add much to the effectiveness of the native army. But Manco had clearly felt that as long as his men suffered a terrible handicap in weapons, armour and mobility, their only hope of defeating the Spaniards was by weight of numbers. The heavy, determined fighting of the first month of the siege showed that the Spaniards had no monopoly of personal bravery. Once again, it was their crushing superiority in hand-to-hand fighting and the mobility of their horses that won the day. The only arms in which the natives had parity were projectiles – slingshots, arrows, javelins and bolas – and prepared defences such as breastworks, terraces, flooding and pits. But projectiles and defences rarely succeeded in killing an armoured Spaniard, and the siege of Cuzco was a fight to the death.
Manco could also be criticised for not directing the attack on Cuzco in person. He apparently remained at his headquarters at Calca throughout the critical first month of the siege. He was using his authority and energies to effect the almost impossible feat of a simultaneous uprising throughout Peru, together with the feeding and supply of an enormous army. But the Inca’s presence was needed at Cuzco. Although there were plenty of imposing fighting men in the various contingents, the army lacked the inspiration of a leader of the stature of Chalcuchima, Quisquis or Rumiñavi.
The fall of Sacsahuaman at the end of May was by no means the end of the siege. Manco’s great army remained in close investiture of the city for a further three months. The Spaniards soon learned that the native attacks ceased for religious celebrations at every new moon. They took full advantage of each lull to destroy roofless houses, fill in enemy pits, and repair their own defences. There was fighting throughout this period, with great bravery displayed on either side.
One episode will illustrate the typical daily skirmishes. Pedro Pizarro was on guard duty with two other horsemen on one of the large agricultural terraces at the edge of Cuzco. At midday his commander, Hernán Ponce de León, came out with food and asked Pedro Pizarro to undertake another tour of duty as he had no one else to send. Pizarro duly grabbed some mouthfuls of food and rode out to another terrace to join Diego Maldonado, Juan Clemente and Francisco de la Puente on guard.
While they were chatting together, some Indian warriors approached. Maldonado rode off after them. But he had failed to see some pits the natives had prepared, and his horse fell into one. Pedro Pizarro dashed off against the Indians, avoiding the pits, and gave Maldonado and his horse, both badly injured, a chance to return to Cuzco. The Indians re-appeared to taunt the three remaining horsemen. Pizarro suggested ‘Come on, let’s drive these Indians away and try to catch some of them. Their pits are now behind us.’ The three charged off. His two companions turned half way along the terrace, and returned to their post, but Pizarro galloped on ‘impetuously lancing Indians’. At the end of the terrace the natives had prepared small holes to catch the horses’ hooves. When he tried to wheel, Pizarro’s horse caught its leg and threw him. One Indian rushed up and started to lead off the horse, but Pizarro got to his feet, went after the man and killed him with a thrust through the chest. The horse bolted, running off to join the other Spaniards. Pizarro now defended himself with his shield and sword, holding off any Indians who drew near. His companions saw his riderless horse and hurried to help him. They charged through the Indians, ‘caught me between their horses, told me to grab the stirrups, and took off at full speed for some distance. But there were so many Indians crowding around that it was useless. Wearied from all my armour and from fighting, I could not go on running. I shouted to my companions to stop as I was being throttled. I preferred to die fighting than be choked to death. So I stopped and turned to fight the Indians, and the two on their horses did the same. We could not drive off the Indians, who had become very bold at the thought that they had taken me prisoner. They all gave a great shout from every side, which was their normal practice when they captured a Spaniard or a horse. Gabriel de Rojas, who was returning to his quarters with ten horsemen, heard this shout and looked in the direction of the disturbance and the fighting. He hurried there with his men, and I was saved by his arrival, although badly wounded by the stone and spear blows inflicted by the Indians. I and my horse were saved in this way, with the help of our Lord God who gave me strength to fight and to endure the strain.’
Gabriel de Rojas received an arrow wound in one of these skirmishes: it went through his nose as far as his palate. Garcia Martin had his eye knocked out by a stone. One Cisneros dismounted, and the Indians caught him and cut off his hands and feet. ‘I can bear witness’, wrote Alonso Enriquez de Guzman, ‘ that this was the most dreadful and cruel war in the world. For between Christians and Moors there is some fellow-feeling, and it is in the interests of both sides to spare those they take alive because of their ransoms. But in this Indian war there is no such feeling on either side. They give each other the cruellest deaths they can imagine.’ Cieza de Leon echoed this. The war was ‘fierce and horrible. Some Spaniards tell that a great many Indians were burned and impaled…. But God save us from the fury of the Indians, which is something to be feared when they can give vent to it!’ The natives had no monopoly of cruelty. Hernando Pizarro ordered his men to kill any women they caught during the fighting. The idea was to deprive the fighting men of the women who did so much to serve and carry for them. ‘This was done from then onwards, and the stratagem worked admirably and caused much terror. The Indians feared to lose their wives, and the latter feared to die.’ This war on the women was thought to have been one of the chief reasons for the slackening of the siege in August 1536. On one sortie Gonzalo Pizarro encountered a contingent from the Chinchaysuyo and captured two hundred of them. ‘The right hands were cut off all these men in the middle of the square. They were then released so that they would go off. This acted as a dreadful warning to the rest.’
Such tactics added to the demoralisation of Manco’s army. The vast majority of the horde that massed on the hills around Cuzco were ordinary Indian farmers with their wives and camp followers – with few exceptions a thoroughly militia army, most of whose men had received only the rudimentary arms drill that was part of the upbringing of every Inca subject. Only part of this rabble was militarily effective, although the entire mass had to be fed. By August the farmers began drifting away to sow their crops. Their departure added to the attrition of heavy losses in every battle against the Spaniards. Weight of numbers was Manco’s only effective strategy, so the reduction of his great army meant that further operations against Cuzco might have to wait until the following year. But Cuzco was only one theatre of the national uprising. In other areas the natives were far more successful.
A medium-high oblique view of Osijek bridge, built in 1526 on the orders of Suleiman the Great, spanning the River Draba and surrounding marshes between Osijeck and the Fortress of Dada to the north. This very considerable feat of engineering earned the Turks a freedom of manoeuvre which was denied to
the Austrians. Oriented with north-north-east to top. Habsburg-Ottoman Wars (Fourth Austro-Turkish War) (1663-4).
The bridge was 7 km (4.3 miles) long and 6 metres 20 ft wide. Its strategic importance lay in the easy access it gave Ottoman troops into western Europe, notably towards Vienna. The event shown in this print was the partially successful attempt to destroy the bridge by burning by the Ban [viceregal governor under the Habsburgs] of Croatia from 1647-1664, Nicholas VII of Zrin (Miklós Zrínyi; Croatian: Nikola Zrinski, 1620-64) – the ‘Conte Nicolo di Sd’rin’ in the text of this print. The objective of this assault, made on 1 February early in the 1664 campaign season, was to impede Ottoman access to Vienna.
The bridge was destroyed by the Austrian army some twenty-two years later in 1686: see RCIN 724135.
After seven years of war and the failed Siege of Vienna in 1529, the Treaty of Konstantiniyye was signed, in which John Zápolya was recognized by the Austrians as King of Hungary as an Ottoman vassal, and the Ottomans recognized Habsburg rule over Royal Hungary.
This treaty satisfied neither John Zápolya nor Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, whose armies began to skirmish along the borders. Ferdinand decided to strike a decisive blow in 1537 at John, thereby violating the treaty.
Despite the second failed attempt at capturing Vienna, the Ottoman’s and Austrians signed a peace treaty, which recognised the Kingdom of Hungary as an Ottoman vassal, as long as the Ottoman’s respected the regions of Hungary that had recognised Habsburg rule.
This peace deal did not end the war between the two rivals. The war would turn bloody again at the Siege of Osijek (1537), where Ferdinand and his massive Austrian army, which was well trained and equipped thanks to the success of his defending force at Koszeg, planned a massive blow to the Ottoman strong hold of Osijek. This attack would directly violate the treaty.
Ferdinand sent an army of 24,000 men (from Austria, Hungary, Holy Roman Empire, Bohemia, Tyrol, and Croatia) under the command of the Carniolan nobleman Johann Katzianer to take Osijek.
The siege came to nothing and because of the appearance of the Ottoman cavalry sent by the governor of Belgrade, the army had to withdraw. The Ottoman army reached the Austrians near the swamps of Gorjani, near Đakovo and Valpovo on the Drava river. The imperials were severely defeated and Katzianer fled with the cavalry and abandoned his army. The entire force was annihilated. At the Battle of Dakovo, the Austrian attempt would be futile, and faced a crushing defeat, leaving more than 25,000 Austrians dead or wounded and minimal loses to the Ottoman defensive force. Less than a year later at the Battle of Preveza, in 1538, the Ottoman army would again crush the Habsburg led coalition.
A reported 20,000 men were killed, including generals Ludwig Lodron and Pavle Bakić. Bakić’s severed head was taken to Constantinople.
Giulio de’ Medici, who finally emerged as Pope Clement VII in November 1523, was not only a tried administrator but a prelate hardened by much experience of armed conflict. As a youth in 1497 he had taken part in an attempt to restore the family to power in Florence; indeed, Guicciardini, commenting on this, remarked that he was more suited to arms than to the priesthood. He entered the crusading Order of Knights Hospitaller of St John, and joined the household of his cousin, Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, accompanying him – and unlike him, avoiding capture – at the Battle of Ravenna in 1512. After Giovanni’s accession as Leo X Giulio was promoted to the cardinalate and office of Vice-Chancellor, and – as already mentioned – served as papal legate to the army in the campaign against Francis I in Lombardy in 1515 and in the war of Urbino. He took part in crusade planning in 1517 and in the Marche campaign in 1520, and was again legate to the army in the war in Lombardy in 1521. He continued to be active under Adrian VI, and in April 1522 was credited with defeating an attempted Bentivoglio coup at Bologna. The English ambassador at Rome reported (quoted here in his own words with archaic spelling),
Cardinal de Medicis, as legat of the said citie, made soche provision… that, the armye being within, with the aid of the peple issued out and slewe diverse of ther enemys…and put the whole [French and Bentivoglio] armye to flight so that the said Citie by the wisdom and diligence of the said Cardinall is savid for the Churche.
Yet after he became pope in November 1523 Giulio was for ever stamped – thanks to contemporary writers such as Guicciardini and Giovio, who observed him closely – with the reputation of timidity and vacillation. This was the pope who in May 1527 would have to face the sack of Rome, the gravest, most terrifying and humiliating challenge of armed force faced by any pope throughout the whole history of the papal monarchy, worse than in 1084, 1112, 1303, 1413, 1494 or indeed 1798 or 1870.
It could be argued that Clement lacked several of the indispensable qualities to be an effective Renaissance pope, and could do little about it. Of these essentials, he lacked first large resources of money. Second he lacked an aspiring and dependable son, nephew or other close male relative anxious to make a career in the Church or the papal state. His second cousin Giovanni Salviati, on whom Leo had conferred the red hat in 1517, was to prove quite able as a diplomatist, but he was probably too Florentine and parentally dominated to be potentially a Machiavellian new prince. It is worth noting, however, that Machiavelli had sent him a copy of his Art of War, about which the young cardinal wrote appreciatively in September 1521, assuring the author that the defects in organisation of modern armies, including the army of the Church, could be overcome by adopting his precepts. Another second cousin, Ippolito, who would become a cardinal in 1529, was altogether too young and too headstrong to fill the role of a prince within the papal state, and even he yearned in preference for power in Florence. Third, and most important of all Clement’s deficiencies, the second Medici pope lacked fortuna.
This third deficiency was most evident from the course of war in Italy in 1524–25 between the forces of Charles V and Francis I. Having at first continued cautiously to support the imperial cause, Clement, much influenced by Gianmatteo Giberti, his former secretary now promoted to a major post (‘datarius’) in the papal chancery, wavered and switched to France. How can this fatal step be explained? The Pope had of course pro-French tendencies going far back in his career, and may have been dazzled by Francis I’s successes in Lombardy in the autumn of 1524. He may even have had hopes, in spite of its dangers, about the foolhardy expedition to the south of James Stuart, Duke of Albany, or at least wanted to avoid exposing Rome to any threat from Albany’s large army. If only that adamant Swiss, Cardinal Schiner, had still been around, maybe Clement would have been dissuaded from switching to France, but Schiner had died at Rome in December 1522, a year before his former partner in anti-French campaigns became pope. An official agreement was signed with Francis in January 1525, but the timing could not have been worse, on account of the sensational defeat and capture of Francis in the Battle of Pavia at the end of February. This left Clement, by a stroke of extraordinarily bad luck, in a position of weakness from which it would take long to recover. Giberti, falling back on the argument that it was all a miraculous demonstration of God’s will, encouraged the cardinal legate, Giovanni Salviati, to send a note of congratulation to Charles V and express the Pope’s hope that peace would follow, that this was what he had always desired. In fact, a treaty negotiated with the Emperor and signed on his behalf by Lannoy, viceroy of Naples, seemed to give Clement almost all he could want. It included the guaranteed integrity of the papal state, with Reggio and Rubiera, which had been seized again by Alfonso d’Este during the long papal vacancy in autumn 1523, handed back, and Francesco II Sforza accepted as Duke of Milan. Unfortunately for Clement, nothing was done to implement this treaty.
After the Peace of Madrid, in January 1526, when Francis I was released from captivity, and in turn proceeded to break the terms that had been agreed, Clement again needed to act decisively. In a long letter or harangue addressed to him in March Guicciardini reproached him for not being as firm and astute as he had been as a cardinal, and insisted that decisive action could still save the situation and ‘liberate the Apostolic See and Italy from this atrocious and disgraceful servitude’. The Pope should act boldly, Guicciardini complained; for instance, he should retake Reggio ‘or play some trick on Cardinal Pompeo Colonna’, who was certainly the most aggressive, pro-imperial and ambitious member of the Sacred College. He (Clement) could yet emerge as ‘the most glorious pope in two hundred years’.
For brief periods Clement appeared to muster some strength. The signing in May 1526 of the Holy League of Cognac with Francis I, an avowedly aggressive alliance, seemed to signify a new beginning. In a letter of self-justification sent to the Emperor in June 1526 the Pope was emphatic that Charles should withdraw from Italy, reproaching him for the non-fulfilment of treaty obligations and his violations of papal territory including Parma, and his forcing Clement to seek other allies and to take arms in self-defence. In July Guicciardini, now commissary general of the papal army, saw that immediate action was imperative: a rapid move to capture Milan had every chance of victory over the unpaid, unprepared, numerically inferior imperial forces in Lombardy. That this did not happen seems to have been mainly the fault of the Duke of Urbino, who first hesitated because the Swiss troops had not arrived, and then, having made in July several unsuccessful attempts to attack Milan, retreated; in August and September he lost more time, in spite of receiving French reinforcements, by carrying on the fairly pointless siege of Cremona, then held by imperial forces.
Perhaps it would have made a difference if Clement VII had appointed a resolute cardinal legate to the army and applied himself with furious vigour, as Julius II would have done, to rallying the coalition and insisting on action. The blame, it has to be repeated, falls on the Duke of Urbino, that same Francesco Maria della Rovere who had failed his uncle Julius II in 1511 and been ousted from Urbino by Leo X, only to be reinstated in his dukedom under Adrian VI and – in spite of his known resentment against the Medici for the way they had treated him – reappointed Captain of the Church by Clement. Meanwhile, as well as losing the military initiative, Clement received a crushing reply to his ‘justification’, aimed at depriving him also of the moral high ground. This reply, handed to Castiglione on 18 September 1526, took the argument back to fundamentals, even playing the Lutheran card. The Pope, the Emperor insisted, had drawn the sword that Christ ordered Peter to put up. It was beyond belief for the vicar of Christ to acquire worldly possessions at the cost of even one drop of human blood. No one was coming to attack the Holy See, so there was no need of weapons or troops.
As for Guicciardini’s suggestion to play a clever trick on Cardinal Pompeo Colonna, Clement was instead the victim of an outrageous demonstration by that overpowerful dissident, who in spite of the above assurance did come to attack the Holy See, and moreover did so in the Emperor’s name. Pompeo had nearly been elected pope himself in 1523 but was finally persuaded to switch his votes (rather reminiscent of Ascanio Sforza in 1492) in exchange for the vice-chancellorship and other compensations; his fury at Clement’s desertion of the Emperor in 1525 and signing later of the League of Cognac led him to call an armed march on Rome by the Colonna and their supporters in September 1526. Here was a cardinal – not only that, but the Vice-Chancellor of the Church, head of the whole machinery of papal government – declaring war on the Pope: it was one of the most bizarre and anarchic episodes in a long trend of violent behaviour on the part of a secularised minority in the Sacred College. According to Paolo Giovio, whose biography of Pompeo was highly partisan and stressed his love of family and military honour, 8000 knights and 3000 infantry commanded by Pompeo’s brother were involved in this expedition, with artillery drawn by buffaloes and men, helped at difficult points by Pompeo himself.63 When they reached Rome the cardinal shut himself up in his palace, leaving his followers do as much damage as they could, looting and terrifying the inhabitants of Rome, though they did not succeed in laying hands on Clement.
The Pope took his revenge on the Colonna in November 1526 with a punitive campaign worthy of Alexander VI, demolishing their fortresses and devastating their lands. According to the papal bull condemning Pompeo, which was published in February 1527, the latter’s purpose had been to seize Clement, alive or dead, and to rule as pope in his place, apparently without election by his peers, or any other of the normal formalities. It is hard to imagine how on earth Pompeo can have justified to his conscience and his confessor this treasonable presumption, or justified using force in a manner more calculated to endanger than defend the Church. Though formally deprived of his cardinalate and other offices, he was not punished for long. In fact, he was soon needed to intercede on Clement’s behalf with much more fanatical enemies than himself, and give refuge to fellow cardinals and others in danger.
Meanwhile in September 1526 the Job-like Clement had also had to bear the shock of the Turkish victory at Mohács in Hungary, and news of the loss to Christendom of that country. Like Adrian and Leo before him when such tidings of disaster arrived, Clement declared that he himself would take part in a military expedition and as vicar of Christ was prepared to lay down his life. It was no clearer than the avowals of previous popes, whether he meant by this simply to be ready for martyrdom, or was prepared even to fall in combat. A war-planning council of five cardinals was set up, but it is fairly clear that the Pope’s distractions in Italy, quite apart from his shortage of money, meant that nothing would be done.
Worse than the Colonna raid was to come in the spring of 1527, with the League of Cognac coalition not only continuing to do nothing, but even failing to protect Rome from the mainly Spanish army advancing under the Duke of Bourbon’s command and the horde of Lutheran ‘landsknechts’ under George von Frundsberg. The latter were mercenary foot soldiers, first raised by the Emperor Maximilian in the early years of the century from the south German lowlands. Less disciplined than the Alpine Swiss on whom they were supposedly modelled, landsknechts were a brutal new phenomenon in European warfare. Armed with huge pikes and swords, swaggering in feathered hats and slashed breeches, inspired by Lutheran slogans but furious for want of food and wages, Frundsberg’s undisciplined troops were a terrifying prospect for Rome, even if the Spaniards, demoralised after Bourbon’s death, proved to be equally brutal and avaricious.
For all his military experience, Clement did not strike a heroic pose as he cowered in the Castel Sant’Angelo amid the horrors of the sack and the passive experience of hearing and watching Spanish sappers undermining it; one correspondent in Rome wrote in horrified anticipation of seeing ‘a pope and a whole flock of cardinals blown into the air by fire’. Most of the cardinals, those not with the Pope in the safety of the castle, fared much worse in the terrible months of May and June 1527, suffering torture and mockery to extort from them money and valuables, not only from the landsknechts but also from the Spanish captains whom some had paid handsomely for protection. Few offered physical resistance, in spite of their well-stocked armouries, guards and military retainers. An exception may have been Cardinal Giovanni Piccolomini, who probably considered himself untouchable, having a solidly pro-imperial and pro-German family background from his great uncle Pius II onwards. Nevertheless, according to one of the most reliable accounts – a letter of Cardinal Scaramuccia Trivulzio of Como to his secretary, sent later from Civitavecchia – Piccolomini suffered twice over. After he had bought off the Spaniards, the cardinal’s palace was then assaulted by landsknechts. Since the latter were said to have kept up the attack for four hours before the cardinal surrendered, it sounds as though there was counter-fire from within, and the dead piled up on both sides. Cardinal Piccolomini was paraded through the streets, bareheaded and in a shabby garment, kicked and punched and forced to make another ransom payment, before gaining refuge with Cardinal Pompeo Colonna.
In December 1527 Clement eventually bought his escape to Orvieto, and by then could again pin some hope on relief by the forces of the League of Cognac. For a French army, led by Odette de Foix, Vicomte de Lautrec, had gained much success in Lombardy and Emilia; early in 1528 it advanced down the Adriatic coast; it won many more victories before laying siege to Naples in April. There Lautrec was deadlocked. The city, defended by imperial forces, was still holding out in August when Lautrec himself died of disease; the remnants of his army had to withdraw northwards. Once again fortuna had been cruel to the Pope. Or had the papacy met its deserts as the victim of military force, hoist by its own petard after itself sponsoring so much war and slaughter?
The debate about the sack of Rome – whether it represented scandalous sacrilege and disaster or a providential judgement of God on a corrupted body – was only just beginning. One writer in the court of Charles V, Erasmus’s friend Juan de Valdés, made a pretty clear case for the latter point of view, in a polemical dialogue that attacked the whole concept of papal war and deplored all the horrors it had perpetrated. The protagonist, called Lactancio, is answered by an apologetic archdeacon, who uses the old argument of necessary defence of the Church; at one point he concedes, ‘I agree that all those things are very cruel, but the people of Italy would look down on a pope who didn’t wage war. They would think it a great insult if a single inch of Church land were lost.’
Whether or not there was any truth in the fictitious archdeacon’s assertion, it is paradoxical that, relatively soon after Clement VII’s return to Rome in October 1528 and reconciliation with Charles V in the Treaty of Barcelona (29 June 1529), the Pope seems to have recovered more purpose than he had shown for years. Charles, not without a tinge of remorse for what had happened, now stood as guarantor of both the papal lands in Italy and of a Medici principate in Florence, to replace the popular republic that had been set up there in 1527. After the successful imperial siege of Florence (1529–30) and final overthrowal of the republic, Clement endeavoured to take a strong line with cities in the papal state that had again tried to throw off papal rule during the period of crisis. Ancona was one example. On the strength of allegations that Ancona was threatened by Turkish naval attack – allegations strongly denied by the city’s own ambassadors – he sent a force to take it in 1532, suppressed the ancient civic constitution and appointed as cardinal legate and governor Benedetto Accolti. Archbishop of Ravenna and a papal secretary since 1523, Accolti had been made a cardinal in 1527, and commanded a troop of 4000 Spanish infantry in the siege of Florence. At Ancona he supervised the building of a new fortress complete with its own gun foundry, and his government was reputedly so oppressive that he was eventually removed and put on trial under Clement’s successor. His interests appear to be neatly expressed by the inventory of his possessions, drawn up after his arrest in 1535, where scarcely any devotional objects, books or works of art are listed (one of the few exceptions was a portrait of Julius II), but several swords and daggers and six or seven handguns.
Perugia also had to be dealt with. Clement appointed as legate in Umbria his second cousin Ippolito de’ Medici, the bastard son of Giuliano, Duke of Nemours, who had been raised to the purple at the age of eighteen in January 1529. The purpose of his legation was to dispossess Malatesta Baglioni of Perugia, who was then serving the republic of Florence as military commander against the besieging imperial and papal army. Ippolito never went there, and delegated the administration to a series of vice-legates, the first of whom in 1529–30 was Ennio Filonardi, Bishop of Veroli, but the condition of Perugia deteriorated and reached a point of crisis under Clement’s successor.
Ippolito de’ Medici’s opportunity for greater glory came in 1532 when he was sent as papal ambassador to Charles V’s brother Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria and King of Hungary. Ippolito arrived in Ratisbon (modern Regensburg) with a retinue of five prelates, ten secretaries and an armed guard of thirty to forty gentlemen, most of whom were former military captains, and with 5000 ducats in hand with which to enrol troops. His office was extended to that of papal legate to Ferdinand’s army against the Turks in Hungary, and the Venetian ambassador reported on 1 September that he had set off by boat down the Danube accompanied by ten gunners (arquebusieri). Ippolito was described as ‘dressed like Jupiter’ – modified in a subsequent letter to ‘wearing military habit’. Unfortunately, a portrait by Titian showing him in full armour does not survive; Vasari mentions it in his life of the artist as painted at Bologna at the same time as the well-known portrait of the Cardinal in the costume of a Turkish warrior (which it seems unlikely that he was wearing on the above occasion). Ippolito intended to select horses at Vienna and proceed at once to the battlefront, but when he reached the imperial army, which was on full alert, the Turks on the other side of the river made no move. Eventually the campaign was called off and Ippolito was said to have expressed his disappointment with such rage that Ferdinand imprisoned him for a day. The Mantuan agent in Rome, Fabrizio Peregrino, whose graphic and opinionated dispatches will frequently be quoted in the following pages, heard of this episode and commented that Ippolito had wanted madly to play the part of a war captain (‘voleva pazzamente fare il capitano di guerra’). After the papal election in 1534 he quickly left the Apostolic Palace and planned to leave Rome altogether, according to Peregrino, to reduce the expense of maintaining so many military captains and bravi.
Siege of Acre 1291 – Guillaume de Clermont defending Acre from the Saracen invasion. The fall of Acre signaled the end of the Jerusalem crusades. No effective crusade was raised to recapture the Holy Land afterwards, though talk of further crusades was common enough. By 1291, other ideals had captured the interest and enthusiasm of the monarchs and nobility of Europe and even strenuous papal efforts to raise expeditions to retake the Holy Land met with little response.
William of Beaujeu came to Acre late in 1275. King Hugh would feel the effects of the Templar alliance with the Angevin lobby as he was more or less ignored by the order when they bought a small village outside of Acre without referring to him in 1276. Hugh’s distrust of the Templars was quite open and he even wrote about it, blaming both them and the Hospitallers for the state of the kingdom. But Hugh wrote from Cyprus, to which he returned on numerous occasions. When he heard that the only other rival claimant to the throne, Maria of Antioch, had sold her stake to Charles of Anjou, he must have been mortified but not surprised. Roger of San Severino, Charles’s representative, soon headed out to Acre and to the Templars’ house. He began a cosy relationship of mutual cooperation with the Templars and Hugh’s subsequent attempts to wrest control away from the Angevin camp met with failure. Hugh did, however, retaliate against the Templars in Cyprus by attacking the castle at Gastria and other Templar houses on the island.
Baibars had died in July 1277. It was a year of change in Outremer. The Muslims descended for a short while into a familiar pattern of power struggles but Baibars had left an inherently strong platform, and within a few years the Mameluke threat was once again great. But in those years the Templars became embroiled in a damaging civil war in Tripoli. Whilst they were probably only doing what they had always done by backing a strong strategy to best protect the Holy Land, their partisan involvement at a time when there was much else to worry about brought some distrust upon the order.
The Civil War in Tripoli lasted from 1277 to 1282. Bartholomew, the Bishop of Tortosa, had run Tripoli on behalf of the young Bohemond VII for a few years up to 1277, when Bohemond came of age. However, Paul of Segni, the Bishop of Tripoli, who had been at the Council of Lyons and was on good terms with William of Beaujeu, was opposed to Bartholomew. Bohemond soon fell out with his cousin and former friend Guy of Embriaco over a marriage proposal. The girl at the heart of it was a local heiress who was soon kidnapped by Guy and handed to his brother John for a bride. Bartholomew, however, had wanted her for his own nephew. Guy knew what he had done would incur the wrath of Bohemond so he ran off to the Templars and joined them. In retaliation Bohemond attacked the Templar house at Tripoli and cut down a valuable forest of theirs at Montroque. The Templar Grand Master was incensed by this action and led a protest at the walls of Tripoli and then went on to torch the castle at Botrun and besiege Nephin, which did not go to plan and cost him twelve men killed or captured by Bohemond’s men. The Templars moved back to Acre whilst Bohemond went looking for Guy. But Guy had thirty Templars with him and there was a battle between himself and Bohemond in which those Templars seem to have played a decisive part. Bohemond’s forces were badly mauled and he sued for a year’s truce. But in 1278 he was set upon again by Guy and the Templars. It was another defeat, but this time with a naval element. Bohemond’s galleys attacked the Templar castle at Sidon, the order’s own galleys having been dispersed by bad weather. Hospitaller help came to the Templars and prevented a defeat.
Guy was determined to get the upper hand over Bohemond and had designs on Tripoli itself. In 1282 Guy and his men stole into the Templar house there in a bid to take the town by surprise. But the Spanish Templar preceptor called Reddecouer was not there when they arrived. Suspecting intrigue, the men fled to the Hospitaller house but were spotted. Bohemond promised them safe conduct if they surrendered but then broke his word and had Guy and his immediate company killed and the others blinded.
Outside of Tripoli’s internal disputes events moved swiftly and ominously. Charles of Anjou was hampered in his Eastern designs by the wars of the Sicilian Vespers in 1282. The Mameluke power struggles in the wake of Baibars’s death resulted in the rise of one very capable commander called Qalawun. At around the same time as Qalawun’s star rose, Charles of Anjou died in January 1285. King Hugh’s oldest surviving son, John, reigned only very briefly and another son, Henry, succeeded as Henry II (1285–1324), coming to the East in 1286. The situation was perilous for the Franks, but the Templars had played a part in negotiating peace treaties, including one in 1282 which was to last for ten years and ten months and was to feature a ban on re-fortifications in the Tortosa region.
Qalawun, however, seems to have scented blood before these truces could expire. The Hospitaller castle at Marqab fell in 1285 and the important port at Latakia fell in 1287, the same year that Bohemond VII died. By 1289 Qalawun was at the gates of Tripoli where the Grand Master’s reputation built up during the Civil War caught up with him. The Genoese lobby had risen to prominence in the town during the turmoil following the Civil War and some envoys had left Tripoli to tell the sultan that should Genoa prevail, the trade of Alexandria might be affected. Qalawun therefore had a pretext for intervention. On hearing through informants that the Mamelukes were closing in on Tripoli, William of Beaujeu sent a message into Tripoli to warn the townsfolk, but his messenger was not believed. Another message was sent to Acre where the Templar Reddecouer’s message was this time accepted. The Templars sent a force under Geoffrey of Vendac, the Marshal. Also, the Hospitallers committed a force along with the secular troops of John of Grailly. But it was too late. On 26 April 1289 the sultan’s men stormed the walls of Tripoli and amongst the slaughtered citizens was Peter of Moncade, the Templar Commander.
King Henry had managed to organise a truce with the sultan, but when a rabble of Lombard peasants and merchants arrived at Acre in response to panicked appeals for help, they embarked on a rampage around the city slaughtering everyone they thought was Muslim and embarrassing the Frankish authorities and military orders as a result. Qalawun was angry. He insisted that the government of Acre make reparation to him for the slaughter. Nobody quite knew the identity of any of the culprits except the obvious ring leaders. William of Beaujeu suggested emptying all the city’s prisons of their Christian prisoners to give to the sultan in recompense. But the Grand Master was overruled. Qalawun had decided that Acre’s days as the capital of a shrunken Christian kingdom were numbered.
Whilst the armies of Damascus and Egypt prepared their siege engines once again, William of Beaujeu’s Muslim informant, an emir called al-Fakhri, told him that the Muslim plan was to direct an assault against Acre and not, as had been widely reported, to undertake an African expedition. Once again, as he had done at Tripoli, the Grand Master sent a warning into the city and once again he was not believed. William even sent his own envoy to Cairo to negotiate with the sultan who offered Acre respite in return for one Venetian penny per head of population. So William put this proposal before the High Court at Acre amidst apparent scenes of howling derision. The offer was rejected outright and William was hounded by the citizens as he left the hall. Once again they thought the Templars had gone to the Muslims with some underhand dealings about which they knew very little.
The Muslim preparations were slow but thorough. The sultan was no longer making Acre a secret target. He had vowed to rid the city of all Christians. But in November 1290 he died just a few miles outside the city. His son, al-Ashraf Khalil, however, had promised his dying father he would finish the job. Still, he put the assault off to the next spring. Acre’s leaders tried to make the most of the respite and sent a delegation to Cairo which included a Templar named Bartholomew Pizan, a Hospitaller and a leading figure of the town who spoke fluent Arabic. Not one of them survived. They were incarcerated by the new sultan and soon perished. Meanwhile, the sultan’s preparations continued. Siege engines large and small made their way to Acre, and tens of thousands of troops accompanied them. By 5 April 1291 they were beneath the walls. Any complacency the Templars or the townsfolk might have had was now gone. Within the walls, looking out on the vast array of the armed Muslim regiments were the Templars, Hospitallers (both stationed in the northern suburb of Montmusard), Teutonic Knights and some troops sent by King Henry along with his brother, Amalric. Edward I had also sent some men from England who had accompanied the Swiss Otto of Grandson. The Venetians and Pisans were there too. Mixed in with these were the townsfolk now called to arms, and the Italians who had so rudely precipitated the earlier riots.
King Henry had recently strengthened the walls of the city. There was a double line of outer walls and a single wall separating the main part of the town from Montmusard. The city’s castle was on this single wall near to where it met with the outer walls. Here, the double walls jut out forming a vulnerable and obvious bulge in the defensive line. The Templars found themselves facing out to the north of Montmusard looking down on the Muslim army of Hama encamped by the sea, whilst the Hospitallers faced the army of Damascus. Al-Ashraf Khalil was camped to the south opposite the Tower of the Legate.
The siege was set to last for a good while. The Christians, having control of the sea were able to bring food over from Cyprus, but they could never have enough fighting men. On 6 April the bombardment started from the sultan’s engines. Also, his engineers began preparations to undermine sections of the walls, whilst thousands of archers fired their missiles into the battlements. The defenders, however, certainly put up a fight. One Christian ship which had a catapult on board did damage to the sultan’s camp, and on 15 April William of Beaujeu conducted a daring night-time raid along with Otto of Grandson on the army of Hama’s camp. However, the tactic was not a success. In the murky darkness the Templars’ horses got their feet caught in the enemy tent’s guy ropes and were thus stricken and their riders captured. Eighteen men were lost. With a similarly disastrous night sortie made by the Hospitallers a few nights later came a decision not to repeat the tactic.
And so the siege dragged on. On 4 May King Henry came to Acre with forty ship loads of troops from Cyprus, mainly infantrymen. They numbered a little over 2,000. But even this was not enough to fully man the vast walls of Acre. Henry decided to send two knights as envoys to speak with the sultan. One was William of Cafran, a Templar, and the other was William of Villiers. They had not come with the keys to the city, they told the sultan. Al-Ashraf Khalil said he would spare the Christians if they surrendered. However, just as the envoys were about to refuse such a demand a huge stone from one of the city’s catapults landed near to where they all stood and the sultan immediately took the view that the Christians had no intention of negotiating. In fact, it was only the intervention of a level-headed emir which prevented the sultan from killing the two knights himself. The two men returned to the city empty handed.
By 8 May the Tower of King Hugh, at the tip of the bulge in the defences, was standing precariously. The Christians torched it and began to retreat. The Towers and walls from here to St Anthony’s Gate were all beginning to crumble due to the work of the Muslim engineers. A new tower built by Henry II lasted until 15 May but also began to collapse. On the morning of 16 May the Muslims poured into the breach and the defenders fell back onto the inner walls. A concerted attack against St Anthony’s Gate, situated on the inner angle of the walls near to the castle, then took place. The Templars and the Hospitallers rushed to its defence and fought bravely. But on the morning of 18 May a general assault was ordered on the entire southern stretch of the defences from St Anthony’s Gate to the shore. The Accursed Tower, at the apex of the bulge, was penetrated and the defenders fell back towards St Anthony’s Gate. Now, amidst the noise and flames, there was fighting on the streets. William of Beaujeu rushed to the defence. His Templars were joined by the Hospitallers, but the enemy were everywhere. The Templar Grand Master had not had time to properly fix his armour plates (The Templar of Tyre says he had picked up another’s armour in haste) and just as he raised his left arm he was struck in the armpit by an enemy spear. He had no shield and the weapon went through him to a ‘palm’s length’. It came through a gap where his armour plates were not joined. The Master turned towards some Italian crusaders and said ‘My Lords, I can do no more, for I am killed: see the wound here!’
The Grand Master was carried back by his men to the Templar quarter, but later died of his wounds. Now the situation was beyond hope. King Henry fled to the ships. Even the wounded Grand Master of the Hospital John of Villiers was dragged onto a ship against his better judgement. At the quayside there were scenes of chaos as people crowded to get onto small craft and sail out to the larger vessels and to safety. Amongst those who capitalised on the desperation of the women and children was a Templar sea captain, Roger of Flor.
There was murder everywhere on the streets of Acre. Women and children were either killed or enslaved. Many people fled to the only remaining part of the city in Christian hands. It was now 25 May. The Temple quarter sticks out into the sea at the south-west tip of Acre. Inside this vast complex of Templar fortifications and buildings, Peter of Sevrey, the order’s Marshal, and the remaining citizens held on for nearly a week until the sultan offered Peter safety if he and the other citizens were to sail away to Cyprus and leave him with the city. Peter agreed, and a hundred Mamelukes were allowed into the Templar quarter whilst their sultan’s banner was hoisted on high. However, these Mamelukes took to molesting the women and mistreating the boys within the area. This provoked a retaliatory attack from the Templars who could hardly allow such open abuse. The enemy banner was ripped down and the Templars slaughtered the offenders. At night Peter sent Theobald Gaudin and a few others away in their ships to Sidon. Theobald had been both a Commander and Turcopolier in the order and had a long history of around three decades in the East. Myths have formed regarding what exactly the man who would soon become the Templars’ penultimate Grand Master took with him in the hold of his ship. Legends soon arose that Theobald took the order’s treasure, but nothing is known for sure.
Al-Ashraf Khalil knew how determined the Templars were and he knew how difficult their defences were to overcome. So, he once again offered the same deal as before. Peter came out under the promise of safety but when he and his party reached the sultan’s tent they were seized and beheaded. The remaining defenders stayed resolute behind the walls. However, these walls were gradually being undermined by the industrious Muslim engineers. By 28 May they were in a state of near collapse. When they did finally disintegrate, the sultan poured men over the rubble. But there were so many of them bearing down upon the shaky structures that a whole section of the fortification came crashing down on everyone, Christian and Muslim alike. Now the sultan’s men were inside the complex, the dreadful slaughter began once again. The roof had finally caved in on Outremer. For those Templars who somehow managed to escape, things would never quite be the same again.
Sidon, Tortosa and the castle at ‘Atlit (Château Pèlerin) were all that remained in Templar control. Theobald Gaudin was elected as Grand Master at Sidon where the Templars remained for a few weeks. Then a large Mameluke army appeared at the door of the city and the Templars withdrew to the castle on the sea to the north of the harbour which is linked to the mainland by a causeway. Theobald set sail for Cyprus apparently intending to return with reinforcements. Messages soon came to the remaining Templar defenders of Sidon from Cyprus urging them to give in. When the Mamelukes began to build their own crossing towards the castle, the Templars abandoned it and sailed along the coast to Tortosa. Two great centres of Templar power remained. Here, at Tortosa, where for so long the order’s knights had held sway in the region and had struck fear into the hearts of enemies, the brothers now prepared to leave. They were gone by 3 August. Their impregnable fortress at ‘Atlit (Château Pèlerin) was never taken. It was abandoned on 14 August and subsequently the Mamelukes destroyed it. With the cities of Tyre and Beirut having already fallen, there were no Christian territories left on the mainland. There was just one tiny little island, that of Arwad (Ru’ad) off the coast from Tortosa, where the Templars would play out a final desperate scene in the great drama of the crusades in 1302 (see p. 217). Despite sending out for help to Europe from his base in Cyprus, Theobald Gaudin did not come to the Holy Land again, although he may well have managed to secure a gathering of 400 brothers at a chapter meeting in Cyprus in 1291. He died on 16 April 1292 or 1293. His successor was the last Grand Master of the order, James of Molay, about whom more has been written than any other. Molay would have a long and troubled stewardship but would show that there was still some fighting to be done. Molay’s preoccupations would eventually turn to the struggle to defend himself against King Philip IV of France, but at the beginning of his time as Grand Master, and for some years afterwards, he will have been thinking of how the Templars could once again reclaim the Holy Land for Christianity.
Roger was the son of a German Falconer and was an enthusiastic sailor from an early age. He found service on a ship of a Templar sergeant from Marseille who had put in at Brindisi. He later joined the Templars as a sergeant himself and took the captaincy of a vessel called The Falcon, formerly a fine Genoese ship. The vessel was involved in a mixture of trade and ‘piracy’ and the order did well from it. At the fall of Acre The Falcon was in the harbour and Roger used it to rescue rich women and sailed them away with their treasure to ‘Atlit (Château Pèlerin). Although Roger gave a large amount of his proceeds to the order, there was suspicion that he pocketed much himself. His subsequent behaviour, taking The Falcon to Marseille and abandoning it, thus escaping the Grand Master’s attentions, might implicate him further, as does his new found life as a mercenary leader of the Catalan Company. Roger died serving the Byzantines in 1305.
This is an account of the epic siege of Saragossa in early 1809:
The 27th January 1809 dawned drab and dismal. There was a light mist but the cold of the Spanish winter was intense. French troops gathered in the trenches before Saragossa, chatting nervously and shaking themselves ‘like dogs’ to keep warm. Napoleon’s soldiers had been encamped before the Spanish city for two months, enduring the wearisome monotony of siege warfare, fervently hoping for a breakthrough this winter day which might finish the ordeal. But the Spanish defenders were in no mood to capitulate. The silence of the early morn was occasionally broken by the sharp crack of a sniper’s musket. Some of the bullets whistled harmlessly overhead, others thudded into the breastworks of the French trenches. Soon that noise was itself drowned when the French siege guns opened up, directing their massive roundshot against the city’s ancient defences. By ten the bulk of the French assault force had gathered. The brusque General Pierre Habert inspected his veterans, moving through the ranks, encouraging cajoling. In the centre Major Stahl and 300 voltigeurs prepared to attack a breach laboriously pounded by the heavy French siege guns. On the right a second column under Captain Guttemann formed up to assault the battery of guns on the Spanish parapet, the Palafox Battery named after their illustrious leader. A third column, commanded by Colonel Josef Chlopiski and composed of Poles from the 1st Vistula Regiment, was selected to attack the Santa Engracia convent which formed part of the city’s southern wall.
At 11.00 the gigantic French guns switched to firing into the city, sowing chaos or dismay. The defenders had virtually ceased firing, perhaps waiting for the French, perhaps too busy plugging ruined walls with sacks of earth. Then the signal the entire French army had waited for came. At noon three field guns opened fire, one after the other. The French clambered noisily out of the trenches and began to run forwards across the frosty ground. The defenders opened fire from the walls, here and there Frenchmen and Poles were hit and fell whilst the rest pushed forwards sensing victory. But before they could reach the breach Stahl’s men were hit by canister and counterattacked by a strong force of 700 Spaniards. The voltigeurs reeled back from the shock and scattered. Some ran back to the trenches others fought hand-to-hand with their assailants.
Gutteman’s column was more fortunate, bursting through the breach into Pabostre Avenue and the greatcoated-Frenchmen barricaded themselves into some of the street’s battered houses. Throwing beams across doorways and furniture against windows they then fiercely resisted as Spanish reserves counterattacked and vainly swarmed around them.
Chlopiski’s four companies also attacked with vigour but were astonished to find a second wall had been built behind the breach in the wall of the convent. Undeterred the Poles forced their way through a tiny gap in this unexpected obstacle, broke into the holy building and took on the 1,200 defenders. Baron Lejeune, a colourful engineer officer accompanying the assault, was dazed by a hit in the face by one such defender’s musket butt. Nevertheless he still managed to witness the infernal scene before being wounded again ‘by a ricocheting bullet in the shoulder, causing me tremendous pain’. Like ‘furious lions’ the Poles clawed their way through the church before breaking out into the little square behind. As the Poles began to occupy the neighbouring houses the Spanish defenders along the wall found themselves cut off and switched round to face the new threat. The 5th Light seized the critical moment, ran forward from the trenches, scaled the walls and arrived triumphant on the rampart. Supported by the 115th they pushed on to capture 15 guns and penetrate as far as the Trinitarian convent. But the cost of such progress was high: 43 dead and 136 wounded. Even so the French were within the walls. Their assault had been a success and the city, by rights, should now have capitulated. But Saragossa was no ordinary city and this was no ordinary war.
On the afternoon of Friday 4 November 1808 Napoleon Bonaparte had crossed the Pyrenees and entered the kingdom of Spain. He and a veteran army had come to restore his fortunes in that unfortunate country for his brother, king Joseph, who had found himself almost ousted from his newly-acquired kingdom by a popular revolt.
Earlier that year Napoleon, used to deciding the fate of nations and monarchs, had deposed the old Bourbon dynasty and installed Joseph on the throne. Such an act the Spanish people could not accept and, in the summer of 1808, they fought back. The French, victorious in battle against Spain’s regular forces, could never overcome popular resistance and the first year of the Peninsular War settled down into a costly, squalid conflict. Then, in July 1808, the French cause suffered a serious setback. General Dupont, commanding French conscripts, found himself surrounded at Bailen in Andalucia by Spanish regulars. To the astonishment of the Spaniards, and to the rest of Europe, he surrendered after scarcely a shot had been fired. This act of cowardice, as Napoleon saw it, sparked panic in the French administration; troops were withdrawn, the Spanish advanced, Joseph quit Madrid and the French fled northwards over the Ebro.
Napoleon was forced to act to restore French rule but such a campaign would not be easy. Spain was vast and the Spanish, already brutalised through popular resistance, were also now elated by their recent victories. Nobody quite knew whether the genius of the emperor would be enough to triumph but all were sure that more was at stake than the crown of Spain.
That November Napoleon’s moves were decisive; French veterans poured across the Ebro, stabbing at the motley Spanish field armies, routing them and pushing them back. Many of the Spaniards took to their heals or joined bands of guerrillas proclaiming liberty or death. Significantly, resistance was collecting at the Aragonese city of Saragossa, straddling the Ebro, which had earned a reputation by withstanding the French in the summer of 1808 and was now a focal point for the fugitive remnants of armies. After all if Saragossa succeeded now then Spain might just defeat the master of Europe.
On 23 November Marshal Jean Lannes smashed another poorly-led Spanish force, commanded by Francisco Castanos, victor of Bailen, at Tudela. Saragossa’s garrison was soon joined by survivors from the battle and they were feverishly impressed into strengthening the city’s defences, overseen by the energetic General José Palafox. Supplies were brought in from the surrounding countryside, troops were reviewed and armed, engineers – overseen by the talented Colonel San Genis, a native of the city – had walls and ditches repaired and houses fortified and loopholed. Barricades were thrown across streets, earthworks were dug and thousands of sacks filled with earth. The scene was set for one of history’s greatest sieges and Saragossa was readied for war to the death.
Meanwhile the French, composed of III Corps and elements of Marshal Michel Ney’s VI Corps, remained around Tudela to catch their breath and await imperial command. Such orders were not long in coming and the two marshals set off towards the city with their 25,000 men. Arriving beneath the walls and setting up camp they were disconcerted to receive further orders from Napoleon directing Ney to head for Castile, leaving Moncey’s III Corps alone to defeat an electrified city. That marshal, with just three of his four divisions, flinched from the task of fighting his way into a fortified city whilst beset by a hostile population. So, to the joy of that incredulous population, the French withdrew, retreating to Alagon to await reinforcements. Confusion shattered French morale and a devastated Alagon offered little by way of compensation. A Polish officer in III Corps, Heinrich von Brandt, recalled that ‘We camped in conditions of absolute squalor. The inhabitants had fled, the weather was atrocious – freezing northerly gales alternated with torrential downpours without respite.’
Reinforcements arrived two weeks later in the form of Marshal Adolphe Mortier’s V Corps and the siege train from Bayonne. The French, content not to be inactive, set off again hoping, perhaps, that Saragossa would cave in like so many collapsed field armies.
Palafox was convinced it wouldn’t. He had used the fortnight’s respite well and his garrison boasted 34,000 regular troops and militia as well as swiftly-organising bodies of determined civilians boosted by refugees – who had nothing to lose – from the surrounding area. His defence depended upon a series of well-defended strongpoints, many of them based on the city’s churches and monasteries, now fortified. The Saint Joseph monastery, just outside the southern wall, acted as a bastion in its own right as did the Santa Monica convent in the south east of the city and the Jesus monastery on the northern bank of the Ebro just beyond the suburbs. If the French did penetrate into the city then other substantial buildings – the University, Orphanage, Archbishop’s Palace and a score of churches and religious houses – would grind down their advance through the narrow streets and gain time for relief to arrive. There certainly seemed to be sufficient food – at least for the garrison – to enable the city to endure a three-month siege and, Palafox was sure, the necessary endurance to put up a courageous resistance.
The French began by storming Monte Torrero, an elevated position which dominated the southern side of the city. Just two hours of resistance were followed by the flight of the defenders into the city. That afternoon the understandably optimistic French attacked from the north with General Honoré Gazan’s men bursting into the suburbs. Canister, from some of the city’s 160 guns, and street-fighting cost them 700 men before they fell back.
Moncey chose this moment to inform Palafox that he should capitulate but Palafox was scathing, suggesting that the French should rather surrender to him. So General André Lacoste, the remarkable engineer officer, began work in earnest. He determined that in order to effect a breach the French should first seize the Saint Joseph monastery, just beyond the shallow Huerba stream. From there the French could reach towards the banks of the Ebro, thus communicating with Gazan, whilst also launching attacks against the Santa Engracia gate, thereby gaining access into the south of the city. Digging began on the 23rd December 1808, shivering conscripts breaking the icy ground and bemoaning their fate and the conditions they were being forced to endure. They were entirely justified for, when on the 29th, General Jean Andoche Junot arrived to replace Moncey he was shocked by what he found. He wrote to Napoleon that his III Corps was composed of too few troops to succeed and that these troops were ‘young men, exhausted by the campaign; they are virtually naked, they have no greatcoats and no boots. They fill the hospitals in their hundreds which, due to the poor conditions and the absence of staff, quickly become their tomb’. He outspokenly informed his imperial master that all reports previously sent from Saragossa were tantamount to lies. It was going to be a tough battle with no guarantee of success.
The early days of 1809 saw the French depleted still further when Moncey was ordered to march on Catalayud with General Louis Suchet’s division, depriving the besiegers of essential manpower. Still, the French were cheered by news of their army’s entry into Madrid; Palafox was swift to counter in the propaganda war with his own proclamation which boasted that he’ll ‘sweep this scum away from our walls’. Letters were even thrown into the French trenches where impressionable conscripts were sat shivering. Written in six languages it tempted the French to desert and join the defence.
But Palafox was being cautious and his apparent reluctance to risk his troops outside the walls meant that by the second week of January the first of the French siege batteries was completed and in position. On the 10th at 06.00 eight French batteries opened up on Saragossa with 32 guns, many of them giant 24-pounders which could hurl a projectile two kilometres. The Spanish suffered heavily from the shot and shell and their batteries in Saint Joseph were quickly reduced to silence. The onslaught prompted the first Spanish sortie of note, however, and at midnight a Spanish column raced for the French position. Taken in flank the Spanish were scattered and fell back, decimated. The French guns continued to fire barely uninterrupted whilst preparations are made to launch an assault against Saint Joseph. In the afternoon of the 11th French officers in the trenches agreed that the breaches seemed practicable and the Spanish suitably cowed by the bombardment. Mariano Renovales, inside the fort, described the fire as being ‘so intense that hardly a soldier could escape being hit by one projectile or another’. Troops from General Claude Grandjean’s division were now moved into position and two light guns rushed forward to open close-quarter fire against the Spanish whilst three columns of voltigeurs, led by Major Stahl and sappers, raced forward ‘only to find the ditch too deep’. Fortunately Captain Daguenet of the engineers discovered a wooden bridge the Spaniards had neglected to destroy and he and 100 hand-picked voltigeurs, managed to batter their way into the fort with axes. More French troops are rushed in and the Spanish 2nd Regiment of Valencia, suffering 30 dead and demoralised by the loss of their colonel, fled in disorder. Renovales reported to Palafox that they had abandoned ‘a position soaked in blood, covered in arms, legs and torsos’.
A few more days of bombardment followed, along with more blood-spilling, until the French felt confident that an attack on their next target – a tete de pont on the south side of the Huerba – was viable. On the evening of the 15th 40 Polish voltigeurs launched an assault. Despite the gloom Jose Garcia, a sentry, spotted the Poles running forward and the Spanish opened fire and detonated a mine for good measure. Moving at speed the Poles emerged through the smoke unharmed and stormed up their ladders and over the wall. Grim bayonet fighting followed before they flushed the defenders out and the Spanish fled into the city burning the bridge behind them.
It was progress for the French but resistance was still determined. Even so the city’s civilians were suffering enormously. Epidemics were rampant and rations much reduced. Shot and shell daily rained down on Saragossa, death and disease stalked the streets. For the besiegers life that January was almost as grim. III Corps was reduced to just 13,000 effectives and General Honoré Gazan had just 7,000. A report of the 15th January noted that the 14th Line had 1,812 men under arms and 1,128 in hospital; the 115th 1,591 and 1,618 and the Poles of the 1st Vistula Regiment 1,218 fit and 952 sick. Bands of insurgents roamed the countryside, attacking French foragers, and supplies dwindled. The dour Colonel Joseph Rogniat of the engineers noted that:
‘Our most terrible enemy, at this time was famine. We lacked meat and our soldiers were reduced to half-rations of bread many times. No village sent in requisitions and the lack of troops since Suchet’s division left means that we were not capable of sending sufficiently large detachments out to bring back food.’
Joseph Rogniat: Engineering officer who served at many major battles of the Empire. Born: November 9, 1776. Place of Birth: Saint-Priest, Isère, France. Died: May 8, 1840.
And all the time come rumours that Spanish regular forces are on their way to attempt to lift the siege. As indeed they were. General Pedro Elola had gathered 2,000 militia and was now advancing in an attempt to break through to Saragossa. News of his army ‘bringing with it 5,000 muskets’ had lifted the citizens of Saragossa. The French response was quick: General Pierre Wathier dispersed the insurgents and Gazan sent 500 men, supported by the 10th Hussars, to prevent them from rallying.
Meanwhile Lacoste pushed ahead energetically with the placing of new batteries, working closely with General Francis Dedon of the artillery. To frustrate this work 24 Spanish volunteers under Mariano Galindo sallied forth to attack battery Number 6 at 16.00 on the 21st. They crossed the Huerba and rushed at the guns before being overwhelmed or killed. It was an act of defiance typical of the besieged Aragonese.
It was at this critical juncture in the siege that the obstinate and effective Marshal Lannes arrived before Saragossa to assume command of III and V Corps. His presence, coupled with news of a successful action by Suchet’s division of V Corps, which had scattered armed peasants and taken up a position to safeguard French communications, raised French morale and they celebrated his arrival with a discharge of artillery. Palafox, on the other hand, prepared his own reception for the marshal.
At 04.00 on the 23rd a single cannon fired from the Spanish ramparts. Three Spanish battalions ‘marching in order and silence’ according to Lejeune emerged through the gloomy mist to attack the bleary-eyed defenders of Saint Joseph. Sweeping past a company of Poles and trapping them in the Aguilar house just outside the monastery’s walls. The Spanish set fire to the building but a French battalion rushed forward and managed to force the Spanish back. Whilst this sortie was being contained a second was launched against batteries 5 and 6. Fifty valiant Spaniards broke into the trenches, killed three gunners and attempted to spike two 12-pounders. A French counterattack swept down onto them, pushing the Spaniards back, recapturing the battery and taking 30 prisoners. The defeat of the sortie prompted Lannes to write to Palafox and declare that further casualties would be the victims of his imprudent obstinacy. There was no reply and so Lannes prepared his men for an all-out assault of the kind the marshal preferred.
The morning of the 26th was dominated by the monotonous rumble of 50 French guns. Four batteries concentrated on opening a breach in the wall opposite the Saint Joseph monastery whilst two strong batteries targeted Santa Engracia. Despite a thick fog, the city’s defences were battered and pounded for 18 hours. The Saragossans, as ever, took the punishment but tragedy occurred when San Genis was hit by a roundshot and killed.
The grand assault the following day was a success in as much as the French had fought their way into the city. But, far from capitulating, the Spanish had lured the French into the city’s streets. There, a new style of urban warfare could begin. As the French attempted to expand their control along the Pabostre into Del Gato Avenue they not only met resistance but also heavy counter-attacks. A fierce one on the 28th was beaten off but the struggle cost 17 men are killed and 30 wounded. Rogniat witnessed the attack and noted that ‘The enemy used a considerable number of grenades and these frightened many of our troops and wounded scores’. That same day, at 14.00, waves more Spaniards assaulted the Trinitarian convent. General Claude Rostolland was shot and wounded and the 117th Line panicked. Only through the exertions of Captain Robert could a group of grenadiers be rallied and the position saved.
The French continued methodically and on the 29th 90 Poles from the 2nd Vistula regiment were readied to assault the Santa Monica convent. Led forwards by 10 sappers, the Poles were showered by missiles thrown from neighbouring houses and were forced to scurry for cover. Alternate tactics to the all out charge are employed instead. A small charge blasted an entrance into a house next to convent and French troops quickly filled the building. From there they broke down the wall and swept into the convent’s garden, fighting their way among the cloisters. Captain Hardi at the head of 100 grenadiers finally managed to get into the church, wounding General Pedro Villacampa on the way.
Progress was also slow up Santa Engracia Avenue as each house had to be taken by assault. Sappers under Major Breuille placed five barrels of powder in the cellar of one house which was holding out against the odds, blocking the doors and windows and lighting the fuse. The blast brought down six houses but as the rubble and dust prevented progress; the sappers determined to use less powder in future. Charges are now to be sufficient to blow in walls to allow assault troops to quickly push through a breach.
Elsewhere 150 Frenchmen in the Trinitarian convent faced a particularly brutal attack when the monk Iago Sas led hundreds of Spanish forwards through the streets whilst snipers fanned out over the roofs overlooking the convent. The Spanish predictably attempted to smash down the convent’s door with an axe but sacks of earth placed behind the door prevented them from breaking in. Instead they brought up a gun but the gunners are shot down by the voltigeurs of the 50th Line. At 19.00 a second, smaller attack followed but it too failed, leaving a dozen Spaniards sprawling in the street.
But the French weren’t always successful in their own assaults. It was tough going as Brandt recalled:
‘We knew that in order not to be killed, or to diminish that risk, we would have to take each and every one of these houses converted into redoubts and where death lurked in the cellars, behind doors and shutters – in fact, everywhere. When we broke into a house we had to make an immediate and thorough inspection from the cellar to the rooftop. Experience taught us that sudden and determined resistance could well be a trick. Often as we were securing one floor we would be shot at from point blank range from the floor above through loopholes in the floorboards. All the nooks and crannies of these old-fashioned houses aided such deadly ambushes. We also had to maintain a good watch on the rooftops. With their light sandals, the Aragonese could move with the ease of and as silently as a cat and were thus able to make surprise incursions well behind the front line. We would be sitting peacefully around a fire, in a house occupied for some days, when suddenly shots would come through some window just as though they had come from the sky itself.’
Rogniat confessed in his journal that
‘The energy with which the enemy defends himself is incredible; the taking of each house necessitates an assault and these fanatics don’t only fight from house to house but from floor to floor or from room to room.’
Lejeune, too, stressed the difficulties encountered by the ordinary soldiers now finding themselves pitted against a determined enemy contesting every pile of rubble. The strain of life in the trenches was literally exhausting the French:
‘Engineer officers directed the men to spread out along a line and get digging, throwing the earth forwards whilst maintaining as much silence as possible otherwise the enemy would show us with canister. The troops hurry, despite the fatigue brought on by so many nights of such work, hoping to get some rest. And when they sleep even cannon fire can’t wake them. But they are not free from danger. There are enemy sorties, bombs, grenades and bullets to fear; the enemy send up shells to illuminate the area and allow marksmen to pick us off. There are stones fired into the air by mortars which come hurtling down, crushing all. Even so the soldiers sleep on perhaps not believing that this sleep might, for them, prove eternal.’
Far from being beaten, the Spanish acting en masse or individually seemed in their element, keeping the French on their toes, turning the besiegers into the besieged. French troops in houses could find themselves shot at through floors or ceilings. Those in a supposedly secure area might find themselves ambushed and watch as their assailants made off over the roofs of the houses. Mines, artillery, snipers all took a terrible toll on both sides and many questioned how much longer both sides could persist in this awful battle of attrition?
February began rudely when at 05.00 on the morning of the 1st a mine was detonated under the Augustinian church; grenadiers of the 44th Line surprised the dazed garrison and flushed them out. The Spanish recovered quickly and counter-attacked, a deadly battle flared up around the altar. French reserves were rushed in and tipped the battle in France’s favour. A few defenders found themselves trapped in the bell-tower and they made the most of the opportunity by throwing grenades down on the French below. A second counter-attack by 8,000 Spaniards frees the trapped men and allows them to escape.
The 1st of February also saw the death of General Lacoste. Lejeune saw it happen.
‘Lacoste had told me to detonate my mines two minutes after I head his mines go off. When the moment came we lit the fuse and ten or a dozen houses were blown into the air followed by a deep boom. It took some time for the dust to settle but no sooner than it had then Prost ran forward followed by the Polish assault party. Lacoste and Valaze arrived just as they went into the attack and we all clambered up onto the ruins of a house in order to get a better view. We cheered on the Poles but our shouts attracted attention from the Spanish hiding behind walls and peeking through gaps and hole. They opened fire hitting Lalobe and General Lacoste; the former died instantly but Lacoste followed him a few hours later.’
Colonel Rogniat assumed command of the engineers but he himself was wounded in the hand the following day.
The French continued to grind through the city. Some progress had been around Pabostre, and even some houses on the Quemada Avenue had been occupied, but the attackers failed to properly secure them. Ever watchful for an opportunity the Spaniards launched an attack and swept the French right back into the Pabostre. Palafox was quick to proclaim a victory but, the next day, the French were back in the rubble-strewn Quemada Avenue and pushing towards the Hospital of the Orphans. It was there that they met more determined resistance. Lieutenant Brenne, leading one attack, was wounded three times before his troops were finally repelled. An attack against the Jerusalem convent was also attempted; breaking into the church French voltigeurs were floored by Spanish fire coming from behind a loopholed wall. Working their way round, they outflanked the position, took revenge and secured the convent.
Another tactic called for the use of mines. With such infernal machines, charged with 500 pounds of powder, the French sappers successfully blasted their way along the Oleta Avenue and, for the first time, the besieging army reached the city’s main thoroughfare – the Coso, which runs along the length of the city. But virtually all the troops they had available were employed in securing their enclaves within the city wall and in battling to advance through the rubble and dust; too few could be spared for more offensive operations. Lannes hastily instructed Gazan to apply pressure on Saragossa’s northern bank but that general’s first attempted ended badly. The French, climbing out of trenches ankle-deep in freezing water, rushed forward but were picked off by Spanish marksmen on the roof of the Jesus convent.
Lannes did what he could to maintain the momentum, switching assaults from one quarter to another, keeping the Aragonese stretched and under fire. Nevertheless, it was proving difficult to become properly established on the Coso, let alone move beyond it. Brandt recalled that
‘our entire division took place in the assault on the Coso. Above the continual bickering of musketry the groans of much larger explosions could be heard – sometimes the booming of cannon and sometimes a mine going off. I was busy in the Coso with a detachment of some fifty men, setting up a barricade. Grenadiers, posted above us in the windows of neighbouring houses, covered this work, which was designed to protect a communications trench which ran from one side of the street to the other. Suddenly our ears were almost shattered by the familiar whistling and roaring noise of an exploding mine. A neighbouring house collapsed and unmasked a Spanish battery which blasted us with grape at point blank range. Miraculously, only three men were hit but the rest ran for it as quick as they could.’
Fortuitously, Gazan was not put off by his initial repulse and the general continued to launch attack after attack. Lejeune witnessed the decisive one: ‘200 grenadiers and 300 voltigeurs throw themselves forward in a number of columns and break into the Jesus convent. 400 Spaniards, demoralised by the bombardment, don’t wait to defend themselves. They turn tail and we seize control’. It’s an all too unusual success. Mostly, French officers such as Rogniat are convinced that ‘the only way to defeat such obstinate defenders is to kill them’. Want and disease are doing part of the job for them. Some 500 inhabitants are dying per day and lie unburied in the streets. Survivors cower in cellars or arcades or lurk in Saragossa’s shadowy streets. Shells rain down, fires spark into life among the city’s ruined buildings; smoke shrouds the infernal scene. And slowly, ever so slowly, the French increase their control over the city.
An unprecedented 3,000-pound mine was carefully placed under the St Francis monastery. The fuses were lit and Lejeune was there to see the explosion and to watch the subsequent attack go in:
‘Brave Colonel Dupeyroux with his regiment and Valaze and his engineers were waiting in the ruins of the hospital for the signal. Breuille detonated the mine and it blew in part of the convent’s walls. The bell-tower, which we had expected to see collapse, remained standing. Although the dust still billowed in choking clouds Valaze and his troops swept into the building, flushing out the defenders with the bayonet. The assault was so brilliant that Palafox called the entire garrison to arms, fearing that we would break into the very centre of the city. We had hoped that Spanish resistance would collapse with shock but our attack seemed instead to rather provoke their ire.’
Despite the blast the fighting in the church was savage. Spaniards and French, mingled together, fought their way down the nave and up the stairs of the bell-tower. Refusing to surrender the Spanish were thrown down to their deaths. Masters of the tower the French took time to look down on the smoking city, seeing the barricades across streets and gallows in public squares. Their success has led to a state of alarm across the city, the tocsins dolefully sound out, drums are beaten, and as many men as are available are mustered in the central market place. Palafox hesitated to launch an attack but instead issued a proclamation; among other things he promised to hunt down defeatists and that ‘our friends in America’ are ‘preparing enormous sums for the repair’ of the city’s buildings. Just as well, the St Francis monastery, for one, has been written off by the fighting:
‘The explosion had not only destroyed a large part of the building but also many of the cellars in which families had been sheltering in order to avoid the bombardment; in addition more than 400 defenders, including an entire company of grenadiers from the Regiment of Valencia had been blown to smithereens. The gardens and the surrounding land were a horror to behold, strewn with masses of human remains. It was impossible to make a step without standing on something.’
The area around the University was much the same. The French are still determined to take it, the Spanish to defend it as Brandt recalled
‘the first attack on the University buildings failed due to the fact that the miners had not been able to place their galleries close enough under the walls, the result being that the explosion failed to make a breach and our columns were exposed to a galling fire from which they fell back with the loss of about forty men’.
Recovering quickly, a 12-pdr gun was brought up along with a mortar to complete the breach but Lieutenant Vecten, directing these guns, was picked off by a sniper. The 12-pdr opened up but the defenders plugged gabions and sandbags into the breach making it impossible to use.
Such tenacious resistance in part stemmed from despair but also from rumours that a large relief force had gathered at Lerida under Palafox’s two brothers. Some 12,000 men were on the march and Lannes was now forced to strip Gazan of troops and march north to defeat this last attempt to break through. For many in the garrison it seemed one promise too many; a company of Swiss mercenaries, fighting for the Spanish, took their chance and desert to the French. More drama followed when 100 desperate citizens broke out of the city and approached the French lines asking to be taken prisoner; the French commanders cleverly turned this to their advantage by issuing them with bread and sending them back into Saragossa to spread the word that the French will treat the citizens honourably and, more importantly, feed them.
Spanish morale deteriorated further when the promised relief did not arrive. On the 16th Lannes received a letter from Paris promising everything he might need to prosecute the siege: reinforcements, supplies, soldiers’ pay for January and surgeons. The scales, it seemed, were slowly swinging the French way.
Still the defenders were fighting back, contesting every house, every garden. A particular problem was sniper fire. Artillery and engineer officers were favoured targets. On the 17th, Lannes, having driven the Spanish field army off, returned to be almost hit by a sniper. Furious he scaled up the bell-tower of the Jesus convent and had fifteen loaded muskets brought up. He fired them off but was soon targeted by a Spanish cannon; a roundshot killed Captain Lepot right next to the Marshal.
The next day – almost in retaliation – the French opened up a massive bombardment at 08.00; 52 guns pulverised the Archbishop’s Palace and cathedral. Gazan’s men launched three columns forwards in an attack on the shattered Lazarus monastery. Two failed outright but the third broke into the monastery’s church and on towards the bridge over the swift Ebro. This dramatic move cut off a considerable number of Spaniards on the northern bank and whilst some 300 forced their way across the bridge, and others jumped into boats and fled across the river, still more surrendered and 2,500 become French prisoners. Colonel Dode of the engineers capitalised on the French success by having the entrance to the bridge quickly barred and fortified.
Just as the Spanish were surrendering on the northern bank a massive detonation was heard from the centre of the city. Having put in a series of attacks, and ensuring that the buildings are packed with defenders, the French detonate a huge mine planted in the University cellar. Resistance was so dazed by the ensuing explosion that Polish and French attackers not only broke into the gutted compound but were able to push on as far as the Trinity church. The next morning the French detonated a mine under that sacred building, occupied it and captured two guns. This progress pushed a deep wedge into the Spanish position and Palafox, by now seriously ill, felt he can do little about it. No relief force was forthcoming, nothing more could be done. Few others seemed to want to shoulder the awful responsibility of resisting against such odds and so the Spanish general finally took it upon himself to send one of his aides to Lannes to ask for a cease-fire. Lannes rejected the proposal and, to underline his words, formed a powerful battery close by the bridge over the Ebro. Palafox resigned in response and left his command to a Junta of 40 notables; they deliberated throughout the night to the tune of detonating mines and thundering artillery.
Fearing popular hatred, and hardly daring to whisper the word surrender, the Junta was divided. Epidemics were killing 500 people a day. The French were stubbornly, if slowly, ploughing their way through the rubble and their noose grew tighter and tighter. They summoned up the courage, for it took courage to surrender after such a siege, to despatch a second messenger to Lannes, asking for a suspension of hostilities. At 16.00 the marshal ordered the artillery to stop firing and sent an officer into the city demanding surrender within two hours. Lannes revealed that he had prepared six mines, all of 3,000 pounds, beneath the Coso. The Junta bowed its head to the inevitable and accepted Lannes’ terms.
The day of glory, if it could be called such, was long in coming. On the morning of Tuesday the 21st February 1809 the Spanish garrison marched out of the Portillo gate and piled their arms before marching off into captivity. Brandt watched
‘After about an hour the vanguard of the famous defenders of Saragossa began to appear. Not long after we witnessed the arrival of the rest of the army: a strange collection composed of humanity of all shades and conditions. A few were in uniform but most were dressed like peasants. Most of them were of such non-military bearing that our men were saying aloud that we should never have had so much trouble in beating such a rabble.’
There were just 8,500 of them. A few thousand more were flushed out from hiding in the following few days. The city was a horror to behold. The narrow streets were choked with dead, heaps of ashes and rubble. Makeshift hospitals were clogged with the dead and dying, as are cellars and houses – anywhere, in fact, where the populace had attempted to shelter from the 32,700 shells and roundshot fired into the city. The central market place resembled a cemetery, the cathedral a charnel house. The French army camped outside the city for fear of epidemics, counting their loses. Lannes had lost 3,000 dead and 15,000 in hospital, mostly dying. A heavy loss but as nothing compared to that of the Spaniards – a staggering 53,873 dead according to the city authorities.
Aragon’s capital had undergone a holocaust quite unlike any city had ever seen, a siege ‘extraordinary and terrible’ according to Rogniat. Nothing quite like it would be seen again until Stalingrad. The city’s surrender seemed to break resistance in Aragon, four years of occupation followed. But the example of Saragossa to the rest of Spain was inspirational and it was with immense pride that the Spanish recalled the siege. Outside of Spain, Saragossa earned Spain almost universal praise and not only from those countries at war, or soon to be at war, with France. Europe caught its breath that February as French power had been stretched to its limit by one gallant city.
Although it would be Spanish gallantry that would be remembered the siege had been a heroic feat for the French as well; Lejeune wrote that 13,000 men had braved hunger, fatigue and danger to force 100,000 citizens to capitulate. But the victory came at a terrible cost in morale. Outwardly laughing off Spanish resistance and fanaticism, French martial confidence was shaken to its core by the siege of Saragossa. How could they, the liberators of Europe, be so despised as to provoke such resistance? How many more Saragossas would be needed to pacify such a country? Questions such as these weighed heavily on the hitherto enthusiastic soldiers of Napoleon’s empire. There could be no glory for them in Spain.
Far away in Paris, Napoleon heard of the surrender on the 27th February but he had already turned his back on the peninsula and was already planning to march his legions against Austria. He, for one, wouldn’t be returning to Spain but would entrust his generals to find what glory they could in war-torn Iberia.
Small magnate retinues or “warbands” that fought for glory and plunder, then, can hardly have provided an adequate basis for the 6th-century Frankish armies that fought over fortifications on equal terms with their neighbors. The size of armies is the first issue. The individual siege not only required overwhelming force on the part of the besiegers, but in many cases, several sieges were conducted at the same time, while other forces protected supply routes, garrisoned forts and cities, raided enemy territory, and shielded against relieving armies. Gregory provides many interesting figures for late 6th century Merovingian armies, most ranging from garrison forces of 300 professional troops guarding the gates of Tours, around 4,000 for garrisoning a number of fortifications on the Visigothic border, to field armies numbering 10-15,000 on a single campaign. Bachrach has used the latter numbers to extrapolate individual field armies on the scale of 20,000 men during serious inter-kingdom conflicts, but this is beyond what many scholars are willing to accept, and many opt for much lower numbers.
East Roman estimates of Frankish strength provide a useful check on these numbers. Diplomatic correspondence shows that in 538, Justinian asked for a Frankish mercenary division of 3,000 men from Theudebert of Austrasia when the Romans were hard pressed in Liguria. The Romans only had 1,000 men in the whole province at the time, and 300 were besieged at Milan along with her citizens. The force requested was only a fraction of the troops available to the Austrasian king, as it was to be sent as an auxiliary force to serve under Roman command, in solacium Bregantini patricii, who was in charge of the local defenders at Milan. It was not an army that would operate independently during joint operations, as in the late 6th century: the Romans only needed to strengthen their garrisons in Liguria until reinforcements could arrive, and did not want to give the Franks the opportunity to exploit the situation. This is nevertheless what happened. Theudebert politely excused himself to Justinian for the current campaigning season, blaming the late arrival of the Roman ambassador. However, he surreptitiously had 10,000 Burgundians join the Goths at Milan, and openly sent his own army the next year.
Procopius provides the highly improbable 100,000 men for Theudebert’s army in 539, but it nevertheless destroyed an Ostrogothic as well as a Roman army in the course of a single day. It must have been quite large to take on such a challenge with confidence and win so spectacularly. Since the Roman army that had moved into the area at the time numbered close to 10,000 men, and the Goths were presumably as numerous, we can estimate that the Franks matched them combined, i. e. forming a total of 20,000.
Agathias claims that an army of 75,000 men invaded Italy in the 550s, and 30,000 of them were defeated by Narses at Volturno in 554. This force appears far too large at first, but an inspection of Frankish activities shows that it was actually on a similar order of magnitude. If Agathias’ figure of the Roman army at Volturno, 18,000 men, is correct, the Frankish army was about the same size or slightly smaller, i. e. 15-20,000 men. Leutharis’ army would have been about the same size or smaller. Thus perhaps about 30,000 men for the whole raiding force would be a reasonable estimate (which is given by Agathias as the number of Franks at Volturno), but this may have included some Goths who joined on the way. There were still enough Frankish troops in the north to hold fortifications; a smaller force of around 10,000 would suffice including some Gothic and other local assistance. A reasonable, conservative estimate of the Frankish force, then, would be 30,000 soldiers from north of the Alps, including a large number of Alaman clients. These were in addition assisted by (a guesstimate of) up to 10,000 local Italian troops of indeterminate nature such as Goths and disaffected Italians.
Finally, considering the extensive regional responsibility and large personal military resources of the Frankish duces, the Frankish army that was sent to aid the Romans in 590 under 20 duces could hardly have numbered less than 20,000 men. In light of these rather consistent numbers, we must conclude that the Austrasian Franks could raise expeditionary armies in the range of 20-30,000 men across the Alps without excessively taxing royal resources. It is impossible to say whether these numbers included the camp followers who helped with logistics and construction, or whether such individuals came in addition. That would of course add to the grand total. Hazarding to guess that the very large figures given in East Roman sources were in fact sober diplomatic estimates of the total potential manpower resources of one or more of the Merovingian kingdoms at different times.
While such numbers explain the extent of Frankish activities in Italy, they are in serious conflict with much current historiography, and beg two important questions: on what basis were they raised, and how were they supplied? The Frankish armies of Clovis and his sons were dominated by professional troops settled between the Rhine and the Loire, who were the direct descendants of Roman legions, in large part of Frankish stock, as well as other categories such as laeti and federates. For reasons of supply and political control, they were widely distributed on estates belonging to the Merovingian ruling families and their close allies. While opulent villa centers were abandoned in the 5th century in northern Gaul, this may only indicate a shift in patterns of exploitation that were related to the needs of the army, similar to common 5th century developments in (informal) East Roman and (formal) Visigothic military organization, where estates had a significant role. In fact, Aetius had a strong position in northern Gaul due to his great estates there, and after his successor Aegidius broke with Rome in 461, all fiscal lands would have fallen under local military control. He also had to maintain large forces on the Loire in order to face his Roman enemies and their Visigothic allies. Personal wealth combined with former fiscal lands provided much of the power of the lesser rulers Syagrius, Paul, Arbogast and Childeric in the late 5th century.
When the latter’s son, Clovis, gained full control over the north, he also gained all of these resources, in addition to at least some elements of the traditional form of taxation for remaining land. 81 Direct taxation by the government is in fact well attested throughout most of the 6th century, especially in the Loire and Seine valleys-indicative of the distribution of troops requiring support-and was only gradually suppressed and became obsolete by the early 7th century. Within this framework, Roman unit structure survived in recognizable form in the early 6th century. Procopius’ famous description of recognizably Roman units in the Frankish army confirms that the Merovingians were also quite conservative in their military administration. The soldiers who served the early Merovingians were nevertheless called Franks, and had tax exempt status in return for their military service. A “Roman” in Salian law was whoever still paid taxes, but in the course of the 6th century, the extension of military service among “Romans” and complications caused by property acquisition by “Franks” blurred the distinction, and Frankish identity (and military service associated with tax exempt status) became universal north of the Loire. The Merovingians also absorbed Visigothic and Burgundian military organization, and in the course of the 6th century gained control over a wide belt of client kingdoms east of the Rhine and along the upper Danube (Thuringians, Alamans, Saxons) that added to their potential manpower.
At a certain point in the early 6th century, trusted officers and cadet lines of the Merovingian dynasty began to organize these Franks within the framework of their personal households, but the process is highly obscure. We have an early example in Sigisvult, a royal relative who was sent to garrison Clermont (524) with his familia. Otherwise, the transition from a tax-based army to an estate-based conglomeration of military followings is hard to trace, and can only be established with the hindsight provided by Gregory of Tours, whose information is most detailed for the last decades of the 6th century. This process, and the constant divisions and reshuffling of territory of the divided Frankish kingdom, resulted in the structure familiar from the later 6th century. Within the royal household(s), by far the largest and most widespread, there was a distinction between at least two categories of royal troops, analogous to the doryphoroi and hypaspistai in East Roman military followings. Some of these were called antrustiones, of higher status, while the bulk of soldiers in the king’s obsequium were simply called pueri regis, “the king’s boys.” Both were maintained by the households of the kings and their families (i. e. living off the proceeds of any one of a large number of estates, or taxes still collected). To ease the supply situation outside the campaigning season, they were probably settled or garrisoned in very small groups such as those attested in contemporary Egypt. The troops within the royal household were administered by his maior domus, who took direct control during regencies and became more prominent during the 7th century.
Royal troops in outlying districts were led by regional military commanders, duces, who “bear a close resemblance to the duces found at this same time in Lombard and Byzantine Italy or Visigothic Spain.” In the north and east, the duces led fixed districts (e. g. Champagne, Burgundy) that probably reflect late or sub-Roman military organization; otherwise, their commands could fluctuate depending on changes in the political geography or served as extensions of the royal household. The early duces may in fact have had humble backgrounds as officers in the early Merovingian military establishment or the royal household (cf. the high prevalence of Germanic names among them), but soon became synonymous with the high aristocracy. When not in charge of a division of the royal household troops, late-6th-century duces with estates of their own had substantial military followings in their own right, which may have numbered several hundred men. This came in addition to their official commands, which included subordinate counts, who were in charge of the civitas and its military resources. Counts are normally believed to be of “Roman” origins and also had their own followings, which may also have numbered in the hundreds. Aquitaine and the immediately surrounding civitates preserved a military organization that was taken over from the kingdom of Toulouse, strongly based on private military followings. During the 6th century but probably a survival from the gradual transition to Visigothic rule a century earlier, troops were organized civitas by civitas due to the political divisions of the day. Merovingian kings often only held scattered city territories in the south and southwest, and regional commands were only created when a large number of cities could be grouped together.
The exact composition of individual Merovingian armies is often difficult to determine, as in most cases they are only referred to as an exercitus, army, of a region or kingdom. At a lower level, Gregory refers to the homines, men, of a particular civitas. A close analysis of the narrative sources reveals that the lower-level civitas-organization had two tiers. The largest group consisted of able-bodied poor civilian men (pauperes), organized by the landowners or royal officers upon whom they depended. This group was essential for logistical purposes and could also provide extra manpower for defending cities and fortifications, but did not normally fight. The revolt of Munderic at Vitry in 524 was accompanied by throngs of the common people, presumably his personal dependants mobilized in this fashion. The (far) narrower group, and the basis for expeditionary forces, was formed by professional troops, homines proper, who served in the retinues of local magnates, sometimes supported on campaign by sections of the general “militia” for logistical purposes. Gregory gives us a hint of this composite structure: when Guntram ordered the homines of various cities to attack the Bretons in 584, most of the men of Tours seem to have taken part (such as the troops under the count’s authority). However, the `poor citizens’ (pauperes) and the `young men’ (iuvenes) of the cathedral failed to show up for the campaign, citing the traditional exemption from expeditionary duty. The “young men” were clearly the military members of Gregory’s familia, while the pauperes provided support functions. Merovingian armies, then, consisted of conglomerations of military followings and divisions of the royal household troops.
The retinues of bishops and lay magnates are mostly extras and props in Gregory’s drama (they were the ones who actually exercised “aristocratic” violence), but they accompanied their lords in all their affairs, and are thus ubiquitous in all his writings. They were hence a large and important social group. They must be regarded as professional, full-time soldiers, because they never seem to be involved in any other sort of business; indeed, they seem to have been more engaged in fighting (due to internal conflicts and aristocratic feuds) than most Roman soldiers normally were. In the narrative and legal literature, they go under a vast array of names, including pueri, vassi, satellites, antrustiones for individuals, but as groups were known as trustis, contubernium, obsequium, familia. The size of such followings is in most cases difficult to gauge, but as we have seen, several hundred seems to have been normal for the most powerful dukes and counts; in effect, they were the same size as the military followings of East Roman generals, but far more ubiquitous because all magnates, officeholders and most bishops had such followings.
According to Halsall, large armies were impossible to sustain because few cities in Gaul had more than 5,000 inhabitants, and many villages only around 50. What is often forgotten in such arguments, however, is that a very large number of these villages belonged to much larger estate complexes, whose cultivators paid dues and/or performed services for their lord (cf. thepauperes), depending on the nature of the estate organization. The diversity of the estate economy, even in northern Gaul, is clear from two documents from the early 6th century: the testament of St. Remigius and the Pactus Legis Salicae. Remigius willed his personal property, which at his death consisted of the portions of four estates and other scattered holdings inherited from his father, a typical medium-range northern Gallic landowner of the mid-5th century. It is sometimes pointed out that Remigius’ holdings were rather small, but as a cleric, he may already have disposed of much of his property long before the will was drawn up, and at any rate it was only a portion of a substantially larger complex that still functioned, but had been shared with his relatives. It will be recalled that Genovefa kept Paris (490) supplied from her estates for over ten years; similar logistical abilities were common around 500. The Pactus Legis Salicae confirms the image of a medium-sized, but quite diversified estate economy in northern Gaul, which only became more complex and largescale the further south one looks, and far better attested in the 7th century.
Since soldiers were dependents of a lord, they were supplied through the estate structure of their patrons in peacetime. However, on campaigns, it was the personnel and agricultural surplus from villages and estates near the marching route that provided for an army’s logistical needs. Foodstuffs could be assembled in advance, and were levied from the general population as a tax. This was immensely unpopular, at least in Gregory’s presentation, but seems to have been fairly routine in the 6th century. The vast throng accompanying princess Rigunth (4,000 of the “common people” plus her personal escort and the retinues of prominent officers who accompanied her) was supplied at depots. An alternative was to shift produce from the royal, aristocratic and ecclesiastic estates whose forces were directly involved in a specific campaign (and presented as the proper alternative by Gregory) instead of burdening them on the people, who had immense labor obligations anyway. There is good evidence that foodstuffs were prepared in advance for ambassadors and their retinues according to detailed lists, ordering what should be stored in specific quantities at specific locations. Estate managers had assembling and shifting supplies as their regular daily business, and are known to have supplied cities in preparation for sieges (Convenae 585). Since troops were scattered in small numbers and only occasionally brought together for specific purposes, such as hunts, valuable for training, or publicae actiones to provide security and enforce the law (or, of course, squabble with political rivals), the logistical operations were quite simple considering the scale of estate organization, and rarely noticed by any texts. On a larger scale, armies were preceded by officials who went about collecting necessary foodstuffs, which could be deposited in granaries; from the tone in Gregory, it seems clear that they were zealous going about their business. A final alternative, however, was to buy supplies.
Early Frankish engineering was much more sophisticated than commonly thought, and was possible thanks to the ability to organize labor on a massive scale. The Franks were quite adept at building field fortifications, such as the one built at Volturno, or in Burgundy for stopping Saxon and Lombard invasions. They could also bridge rivers, a particularly difficult task that required highly trained specialists in the East Roman Empire. Civil engineering was quite substantial; the course of rivers were diverted on several occasions, one known example to protect the city from being undermined by the current, the other to provide extra protection during a siege. There was clearly an ability to build stone fortifications; thus bishop Nicetius of Trier had a heavily fortified residence built in the mid-6th century, while Gregory of Tours marveled at the fortifications of Dijon. Chilperic, when threatened with an invasion by his brother in 584, ordered his magnates to repair city walls and bring their relatives and movable goods inside. He recognized that their lands and immovable goods risked being destroyed during an enemy invasion, and therefore guaranteed that they would be reimbursed for any losses. There was thus an obligation to repair city walls on the part of the landowners, who could again draw upon their dependants to perform these tasks. It was also in their self-interest, since power struggles among magnate factions often involved military action.
Indeed, Merovingian kings had the same mechanisms available as Valentinian III, Theoderic and Anastasios to impose burdens of military logistics. The well-known labor requirements that descended from ancient munera had become the traditional seigneurial obligations of the dependant agricultural population, mobilized by their patrons on royal orders. While the “Franks” vociferously protested against taxation, providing military and logistical service was not an issue. As demonstrated by 7th-century immunities granted to monasteries, common obligations required by the king, administered through his officers and landowning subjects, included transportation and bridge-building. Civitates and castella are specifically mentioned as places where such labor was normally called out. No immunities were given for repairs of fortifications, however. The exact method of organizing repairs must have been the assignment of pedaturae to the landowners in question, as was the case with Ostrogothic possessores or East Roman social units and corporate bodies. Although labor obligations were also universal, in e. g. Roman Mesopotamia and Ostrogothic Gaul, as we have seen, extraordinary burdens or expenses were sometimes defrayed through tax relief or cash payments. The decline of direct taxation in Gaul meant that magnates had to shoulder far larger military burdens in the form of retinues, expeditionary service, and garrison troops whenever called upon, as well as routinely supplying labor for logistics and engineering. Thus, while military service and the burden of repair was mandatory on landowners (and apparently not an issue), Chilperic had to make sure that they would support him even if their estates were being ravaged. If they risked losing their economic basis, a negotiated settlement with his rival would soon become more attractive, as we saw above.
During the Merovingian era, most cities still had economic activities useful for military purposes, and were also the homes of at least part of the familiae of kings, bishops, counts and sometimes other magnates. Where their craftsmen and specialists actually resided is more problematic and probably varied from case to case. As early as the Pactus Legis Salicae, the Franks highly valued their dependent labor: not only were there detailed punishments for stealing or damaging a wide range of crops and livestock, it also lays down heavy fines for the theft of skilled slaves. Indeed, the range of craftsmen available and degree of specialization under the Merovingians is rarely addressed by military historians, whatever their views, but they are in fact quite ubiquitous in the original sources, while recent archaeological surveys show that their skills in many key crafts were neither inferior to, nor more narrowly distributed than, those of Roman craftsmen.
All of these groups have actual or potential military applications, and could be summoned at will by their lords whenever their services were needed. A certain number of craftsmen joined any major expedition as camp followers to perform various tasks as need arose, forming a specialized segment of the pauperes (noted earlier in this section). Thus Mummolus had his servant faber (probably one of several-he was only mentioned by Gregory for being so huge) brought from Avignon (583) to Convenae (585). In addition to destructive traps, the defense may also have involved artillery. Bishop Nicetius of Trier’s large fortified estate center was defended by a ballista. These were complex machines requiring specialist operation (tekhnitai or ballist(r)arioi in Greek sources), and unless imported from East Rome, they were trained in a local tradition. It just so happens that Mummolus had been commander of a region that had extremely strong Roman traditions, and that craftsmen there could maintain military skills over several generations. We can recall the artifex at Vienne in 500 who played a vital role during the siege. Nicetius, in turn, was bishop in the region that had one of the highest concentrations of Roman arsenals and fabricae during the early 5th century, and where selfconsciously Roman officers were still active until at least 480. It is possible that Franks had picked up ballista-operating skills on an Italian expedition. If this is the case, it reveals that once in Gaul, the experts would have to be maintained by a magnate’s household, which basically proves its suitability as a valuable form of military infrastructure. Indeed, in the Epistulae Austrasiacae there is preserved a letter from bishop Rufus of Turin to Nicetius, explaining how he finally has the opportunity to send the portitores artifices that Nicetius asked for. The combination of terms seems to be highly unusual, but they were presumably boat (barge) builders, as Nicetius’ estates were on navigable Rhine tributaries. Another explanation is that military skills survived along with military organization, and was gradually reorganized according to political developments, with more and more of the logistics and resource allocation devolving on great magnates in return for tax exemptions and immunities.
German soldiers take cover on the battered concrete face of Fort Maxim Gorky below the burning armored cupola with its two 12-inch naval guns, now crippled and askew. At battle’s end, shattered chunks of the fort’s concrete bulwark testify to the fierceness of the attack. When resistance ended, the Germans found only fifty Russian survivors, all severely wounded, in the bowels of the stronghold.
The fortress of Sevastopol on the Crimea with its ring of forts and coastal batteries covered a circumference of about 10 to 12 km. Six heavy coastal batteries, two located north of Severnaja Bay, reinforced other coastal positions such as three old coastal forts on the north side of the position and three on the south side. Coastal Battery Shiskov, completed in 1912, mounted four 120-mm guns on pivots mounted on concrete platforms. Naval Battery Mamaschai (Coast Battery #10), completed in 1930 and one of the newer positions, mounted four 203-mm guns with gun shields on an open concrete platform similar to most of the other coastal batteries. Coast Battery #18, completed in 1917, and Coast Battery #19, completed in 1924, mounted four 152-mm guns each, and Coast Battery #3, two 130-mm guns. Fourteen new or reconditioned old forts, most of them north of the bay, and 3,600 concrete and earthen positions supported by about 350 km of trenches and thousands of land mines, completed the fortress in early 1942. Trenches and tunnels linked many of the positions. In the Sapun Mountains, at the base of the peninsula where Sevastapol was located, natural and man-made caves in the high, almost perpendicular, bluffs of the Tshornaya River were turned into formidable defenses.
In addition, the Maxim Gorky I and II (Coast Batteries #30 and #35), each had a pair of gun turrets: the first with twin gun turrets located east of Ljabimorka (north of the bay) and the second with a set of similar turrets situated on the south-western end of the peninsula where Sevastopol stood. Battery Strelitzka mounted six 254-mm guns. Fort Stalin and Fort Lenin included a battery of four 76.2 anti-aircraft guns. Other forts, such as Fort Volga, served as infantry positions. Finally, the old strong point of Malakoff was turned into an artillery and infantry position with two 130-mm guns with shields. Besides the normal anti-infantry and anti-tank obstacles, the Soviets employed a “flame ditch,” a concrete lined ditch where fuel funneled through a pipe was ignited, creating a fire barrier.
Although it was not actually a coastal defense sector, the isthmus linking the Crimea to the mainland was defended by the Perekop Line, consisting of permanent works forming two continuous lines. In the low lying treeless plain, every rise over 10 meters dominated the area. The 15 km wide northern belt included the outpost of Perekop. The main defensive area, the 400 year old Tartar Trench, cut through the isthmus and served as a moat supported by two dams. The ditch was about 9.0 meters deep, 20 meters wide and was filled with water. The southern position, which crossed the isthmus taking advantage of the local lakes and canals, was supported further to the south by the Tshetarlyk River. Numerous bunkers covered barriers of steel anti-tank rail obstacles, tank traps, and mine fields. Unlike many of the positions on the border, these were already camouflaged and difficult to detect.
Coast Artillery: Range (meters)
355.6-mm (14´´) 31,000
305-mm (12´´) 24,600 to 42,000
203-mm (8´´) (German) 33,500
181-mm*152-mm (6´´) 14,000 to 18,000
130-mm* (5.1´´) 19,600 to 25,400
105-mm and 152-mm (old weapons) 15,000 to 18.000
75-mm (3´´)(French Canet) 8,000
*These may be the weapons identified as 185-mm and 132-mm weapons by Germans.
152-mm Howitzer 1938 12,400
122-mm Howitzer 1938 12,100
107-mm Cannon 1940 M-60 17,450
76.2-mm Cannon 1936 13,500
45-mm Anti-Tank 1932, 1937 4,670 to 8,800
120-mm 1938 5,700 to 6,000
82-mm Mortar 1936 3,100
50-mm Mortar 1940 800
7.62-mm Light Machine Gun(Maxim 1910)
76.2-mm Light Machine Gun (Degtiarev 1928)
*Sources are inconsistent with regard to the figures and the type of shell used
According to German documents, the so-called 76.2-mm Fortress Cannon on a special ball mount in a gun casemate, replaced the older 76.2-mm gun used in fortifications and had a faster rate of fire. The mount included a funnel that carried the used shell into the fossé in front of the gun position. The older gun positions on the Stalin Line did not have this type of funnel, but included an embrasure cover that dropped in front of the gun.
The mortars and most of the artillery were placed in field fortifications made of earth and logs. Many of these positions were probably not prepared until after the invasion in 1941.
In addition to these weapons, there were also small flame throwers, static weapons buried into the ground with only their nozzles exposed and ignited electrically or by trip wire. They were placed in front of the defensive position or among the obstacles. According to German sources, the Soviets used a 1941 design, which means that it is not likely that they were in the Stalin Line. However, they may have been placed in other positions such as the Minsk to Moscow highway or the Mozhaisk Line.
World War II
The Germans, who invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, were not fully aware of the defensive positions that faced them. They estimated that 40% were completed, but had no drawings showing exact locations or composition of Russian installations, except for those located right on the border.
The staff of the German 8th and 29th Divisions had little knowledge of the condition or existence of Russian fortifications behind the Popily and Niemen Rivers. They planned to deal with any fortifications they encountered with massed artillery bombardment from twenty-nine heavy batteries, including eleven 210-mm mortar batteries.
The Germans easily overran the first bunkers, which were empty, poorly camouflaged, exposed in open terrain, and devoid of obstacles. The Germans smashed the bunker embrasures with anti-tank guns and destroyed many with flame throwers and demolition charges. The 8th Division quickly overcame most opposition on its front with these methods. Grodno fell on June 23 after all the bunkers in front of it had been eliminated. The 28th Division simply bypassed many Russian fortifications at Dorgun on the first day and moved to the Niemen. This division was later ordered to take the strongest border defenses in the area, the Sopockinie fortifications, which it had previously bypassed. After bitter fighting, Sopockinie was taken on June 24. Troops in a three-level bunker resisted for seven hours in the face of the German troops and engineers who detonated several hundred kilograms of explosives. The Germans attributed their success to insufficient Soviet troops in the area and to the incomplete state of the defenses, which lacked obstacles, minefields, and camouflage.
The old fortress of Brest-Litovsk, located on four islands with wide moats and old walls, was put back into service by the Russians soon after they occupied it in 1939. The German 45th Division attacked it, supported by huge 210-mm howitzers and two 600-min mortars. After a river assault, the German troops encircled it, but it took them seven days of intense fighting to take the citadel, since they had under-estimated the strength of the old works.
Further to the south, the Germans attacked the Sokal defenses on the Bug River where the Soviets had completed and camouflaged many of the bunkers. On the first day, the Germans methodically eliminated each position, leaving an engineer battalion behind to complete the work the next day. On June 25 twenty two- and three-level bunkers, which were still incomplete, went back into action. Even though they lacked camouflage, they managed to resist for a considerable time. One of the bunkers with a cloche proved particularly difficult to disable. The Germans used demolition charges to eliminate many of them. The procedure required engineers to advance under cover of flame-throwers and place demolition charges in the ventilation shafts, blasting the entrances.
The URs of Kiev gave stiff resistance from July to August 1941 with the city of Kiev holding off several assaults until August. Further north on other parts of the Stalin Line, many of the URs such as Slutsk, were little more than skeletons, of little use to the Soviets despite Zhukov’s pre-invasion efforts.
The defenses on the Dniestr extended up to 10 km in depth. Along the east bank of the Dniestr the Germans encountered elements of the old Stalin Line. The defenses near the river lacked an outpost line. Two- and three-embrasure light bunkers for machine guns and a few gun emplacements, stood 400 to 2,000 meters apart in the Yampol sector (UR of Novogrod-Volynski) and were reinforced by field fortifications.
Elements of the German Eleventh Army in pursuit of Soviet troops retreating from the Pruth River, encountered these works in mid-July. Two infantry divisions attacked across the defended river crossings on July 18 at Cosauti and General Poetash. The Germans successfully forced a crossing at both points. Assault engineers eliminated the bunkers at Porohy with the use of flame-throwers and pole charges placed against the embrasures. Heavy explosive charges reduced the remaining bunkers. Russian troops continued to fight desperately even when out flanked and in a hopeless position, not knowing that the high command had already sacrificed them before the invasion began. German reports indicate that the Soviets reoccupied abandoned positions in places where local resistance was strong. In some instances, however, the troops turned out to be raw recruits forced to defend bunkers unfamiliar to them and they surrendered quickly.
A heavily fortified area of the Stalin Line at Dubossary, containing many bunkers, artillery batteries, and other supporting positions, finally fell at the end of July. German engineers and infantrymen, supported by anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, engaged in close combat, finally overcoming Soviet resistance.
In September, the Germans penetrated the position they called the Leningrad Line and struggled on. The Mozhaisk Line, the defenses in front of Moscow, was still incomplete and fell quickly in October. For the most part, the Soviets failed to use effectively the fortifications between the border and Moscow, partly because most were incomplete and not fully manned. Odessa, which had only field fortifications and no permanent landward fortifications, resisted until November 1941.
After the Germans overran the Perekop Line on the isthmus leading into the Crimea in October 1941, it was only a matter of time before Sevastopol fell. It held out for twenty-eight days in a battle that ended in July 1942. At Sevastopol the Germans deployed their super heavy artillery, including the 800-mm rail gun Dora, to destroy key points like Maxim Gorky I. On June 6, heavy German guns and mortars fired on Maxim Gorky I and scored direct hits that destroyed one of the gun turrets and damaged the other. Additional artillery fire and air bombardment failed to eliminate the Maxim Gorky damaged turret, which was finally put out of action by assault engineers on June 17. The battle for the battery continued as the Russians fought from its battered positions until July 1. The 800-mm monster rail gun inflicted little damage beside landing three rounds on Fort Stalin on June 5, and fifteen rounds on Fort Molotov on the next day. German heavy artillery concentrated on Fort Stalin on June 11-12. The four 76.2-mm guns of the fort had special shelters and remained in action until June 13 when an infantry assault finally took the fort. By early July, the Germans had fired over a million rounds. They had taken over 3,500 fortified positions, 7 armored forts, 38 bunkers built into the rock, 118 bunkers of reinforced concrete, and another 740 built of earth and stone. On July 4, after taking the Sapun positions, and the final assault that took Maxim Gorky II, the campaign against the last major pre-war fortified position came to a close. Soviet methods of fortifications began to change as the war progressed.
The German Siege 1942
Between 2 and 6 June, the Eleventh Army fired a total of 42,595 rounds equivalent to 2,449 tons of munitions. Some nine per cent of Eleventh Army’s ammunition stockpile was expended in the preparation phase. German divisional artillery fired 19,750 rounds of 105mm and 5,300 rounds of 150mm ammunition in the five-day bombardment. Infantry guns fired another 4,200 rounds of 75mm and 150mm ammunition, plus 5,300 81mm mortar rounds. The corps-level Nebelwerfer battalions remained silent during this phase, not firing a single rocket. Two-thirds of the super heavy artillery rounds fired in the prep phase were from the four 240mm H39 howitzers and 16 305mm Skoda mortars.
The heaviest weapons, the Karl mortars and ‘Dora’, only played a minor role in the opening bombardment. One Karl mortar fired two registration rounds on 2 June, but the battalion then was not committed until 6 June. After an immense engineering effort, ‘Dora’ was finally installed at Bakhchysaray 25km north-east of Sevastopol and was ready for firing on 5 June. At 0535hrs, ‘Dora’ fired one of its 7-ton shells at Fort Maxim Gorky I’s Bastion I, and then proceeded to lob eight rounds at the minor Coastal Battery 2 near the harbour entrance. Accuracy was poor, with most rounds missing by 300m or more. Six rounds were then fired at Fort Stalin, with the closest round landing within 35-40m of the target and most impacting 130-260m away. On 6 June, ‘Dora’ opened fire in the evening and fired seven rounds at Fort Molotov; one round struck within 80m of the target, three rounds within 165-210m, one round within 310m, one round 500m off and one round 615m off. ‘Dora’ was then directed against a cleverly camouflaged ammunition dump named White Cliff on the northern side of Severnaya Bay and fired nine rounds with no effect.
It was more difficult for the Germans to employ the clumsy and shortrange Karl system, but on the late afternoon of 6 June the men of the 1st Battery/833rd Heavy Artillery Battalion were able to manoeuvre the 600mm mortar known as ‘Thor’ up onto a hill just 1,200m from the nearest Soviet positions of the 95th Rifle Division. From this location, ‘Thor’ had a clear line of sight to Fort Maxim Gorky I 3,700m to the south, and at 1700hrs it started lobbing 16 of its 2-ton concrete-piercing shells at the target. One of the shells hit Turret No. 2, severely damaging the weapon and causing casualties among the crew. ‘Thor’ was less effective against Bastion I, which contained the fort’s communications and range-finding equipment, but a Stuka attack succeeded in knocking out the cable trunk. All told, Coastal Battery 30 suffered about 40 casualties among its 290 naval gunners during the air and artillery bombardment, but neither ‘Thor’ nor ‘Dora’ had succeeded in destroying the installation.
Although the use of super-heavy weapons such as the Karl mortars and ‘Dora’ may have undermined the morale of the Soviet troops on the receiving end of multi-ton shells, these weapons actually failed to make a significant contribution commensurate with their cost. Primary responsibility must rest with General der Artillerie Zuckertort, the commander of the 306th Army Artillery Command, who violated the cardinal rule of artillery support in that he allowed these expensive weapons to fire too few rounds at too many targets, resulting in none of them actually being destroyed. ‘Dora’ had only 48 rounds available but Zuckertort used them against eight different targets, including only nine rounds against the primary target of Fort Maxim Gorky I. Furthermore, the super-heavy artillery of 420mm or larger all ran out of ammunition early in the offensive and it was the less-celebrated Czech-made 305mm mortars and 240mm howitzers that made the greater contribution and continued to fire from the first day of the offensive to the last.
The Soviets held back most of their artillery during the period 2-6 June because of limited ammunition supplies and concern about exposing their few heavy weapons to enemy counterbattery fire or Stuka attack. At the start of June, the SOR had about 200-300 rounds for each of its howitzers and 600-700 rounds for each mortar. Yet Soviet observers were vigilant and when they could confirm the location of a German artillery unit, they would call upon a few designated ‘sniper batteries’ that could shoot and then re-position. During the period 2-6 June, the Soviets destroyed three German artillery pieces, including a precious 280mm howitzer.
On 7 June 1942, after five days of bombardment, the Soviets expected an imminent ground assault. On the evening of 6 June around 2300hrs, Soviet artillery supporting Defensive Sectors III and IV began shooting harassing fires against suspected German troop assembly areas. In spite of this, at 0315hrs the 306th Army Artillery Command began a massive one-hour ‘destruction fire’, concentrating on the area between Haccius Ridge and Trapez. Both ‘Odin’ and ‘Thor’ joined the bombardment, firing a total of 54 rounds against Coastal Battery 30’s turrets [ Maxim Gorky I] and Bastion I, as well as against targets around Belbek. Infantry guns and mortars fired for effect against the front-line trenches in the Belbek Valley, while Nebelwerfer hit the second-line positions and 305mm mortars worked over key targets such as the Olberg. Unlike the previous five days, the German artillery fired at nearly maximum rates of fire and did not pause to assess damage. The effect on the forward Soviet positions around the Stellenberg (Hill 124) was stunning as infantry fighting positions were pounded mercilessly. Long-range guns went after targets in the Soviet rear, particularly reserves and known artillery positions. The Soviet 7th Naval Infantry Brigade, sitting in reserve well behind the line, was particularly hard hit and lost most of the 200 replacements that had just arrived to a combined air and artillery attack. However, ‘Dora’ continued to waste rounds firing against the White Cliff ammunition dump – which prompted an angry rebuke directly from Hitler to stop misusing the weapon against such targets. Although the Germans claimed that ‘Dora’ destroyed the dump – a claim that may be exaggerated – it is clear that it had failed to neutralize Fort Maxim Gorky I, which continued to fire periodically throughout 7 June.