Holy Wars: 6 Key Turning Points in the Ottoman Wars Against Europe
Holy Wars: 6 Key Turning Points in the Ottoman Wars Against Europe

Holy Wars: 6 Key Turning Points in the Ottoman Wars Against Europe

William McLaughlin - July 8, 2017

Holy Wars: 6 Key Turning Points in the Ottoman Wars Against Europe
rejoicing the end of the siege. Wikipedia

1565: The Great Siege of Malta

There is a reason that the Mediterranean has been home to countless powerful empires, it’s the sea itself. Controlling the sea meant controlling trade, and though we tend to remember history through conquests, access to trade has moved history along as well. Soon after the taking of Constantinople, the Ottomans focused on picking off some of the prominent islands of the Mediterranean.

Rhodes was among the first, just off the coast of modern Turkey. The Rhodians had a valiant and victorious defense under the Knights Hospitaller in 1480, but the island was taken by overwhelming force 42 years later. The Knights moved their headquarters westward to Malta.

Holy Wars: 6 Key Turning Points in the Ottoman Wars Against Europe
Malta can be seen south of Sicily. a vitally important island in the Renaissance, it retained its importance all the way through WWII as a gatekeeper between East and West Mediterranean. Wikipedia

Malta was great for sailing with many naturally protected harbors but had little else, so the Knights became raiders and pirates. This was not seen as so dishonorable because the Knights targeted the Ottomans. Eventually, after a 1564 raid that captured dozens of high-ranking Ottomans, the Turks had enough and sent a massive fleet of about 200 ships with 40,000 infantry to the small island.

Spies in Istanbul gave the Grandmaster, Jean Parisot de Valette almost a year to prepare as the fleet assembled. Impressive forts sprung up between the harbors and the defenders looked ready, but the Ottomans had a not-so-secret weapon, Dragut. Dragut was an admiral who gained fame for victories in naval battles and coastal raids and assaults. He had raided as far as the coast of Spain and captured fortified cities in Dalmatia and Libya. Though just one part of the fleet, the Christians feared him greatly; he was known as “the drawn sword of Islam” and “the uncrowned king of the Mediterranean”.

In 1565 the Ottomans arrived to find the impressive stone forts well defended. There were about 9,000 defenders but the majority were well-trained and disciplined Knights Hospitaller. The attack began at Fort St. Elmo which occupied a peninsula dividing two important harbors.

Some of the best knights led the defense as Turkish cannons practically leveled the fort before assaults began. During the assault, a stray cannonball sent lethal shrapnel into Dragut, who soon perished. The most feared piece of the Ottoman forces was killed only a few weeks into the siege.

Over 1,500 defenders were killed as the fort was taken, but 6,000 Ottomans lost their lives in the assault, including a huge proportion of the elite Janissaries. In anger, the Ottoman commander floated the headless bodies of the knights down the harbor to the other defenders. Soon the Turkish troops were bombarded by severed heads as de Valette decapitated his Turkish prisoners and had the heads shot from the cannons, again illustrating the lack of humanity present throughout these wars.

Fighting raged for months and the other Christian nations realized the peril they would be in if the Ottomans took Malta, the gateway to the Western Mediterranean. A small 600-man relief force greatly raised the spirits of the defenders and a raid and massacre at a Turkish field hospital caused the retreat of one of the more successful Turkish assaults to that point.

Holy Wars: 6 Key Turning Points in the Ottoman Wars Against Europe
The Siege of Malta was more like a siege of several forts and urban areas. many of the newest forts were destroyed during the siege. Wikipedia

Eventually, a 6,000-man relief army arrived just as the Turks were thinking about leaving anyway; they had already lost over a quarter of their men to fighting and disease. As the Turks retreated the overzealous relief force charged and caused a massacre of the retreating Turks. As many as 35,000 Ottomans were killed, including sailors, and the small 9,000-man garrison withstood the might of the Ottomans, though many of their fortifications were destroyed.

Over 125,000 cannonballs were reportedly fired into Maltese fortifications, killing up to a third of the civilian population. This victory coupled with the death of the most feared naval leader, Dragut, gave the Christians hope that they could challenge Ottoman naval superiority in the Mediterranean, something they did a few years later at Lepanto.

Holy Wars: 6 Key Turning Points in the Ottoman Wars Against Europe
The naval battle at times resembled a land one, with multiple colliding vessels. Wikipedia

1571: Naval Battle of Lepanto

Naval battles tend to be far more decisive than land battles. The cost of the ships combined with the possibility of having them sunk or captured to aid the enemy weighed heavy on a nation’s finances. It took hundreds to crew and fight on a ship. Even in ancient times, we see casualties in the hundreds of thousands. So, when the Christian states finally prepared for a decisive blow to Ottoman power, a naval battle made the most sense.

The formation of the Holy League occurred under the call of Pope Pius V to rescue the last great fortress on Cyprus, Famagusta. Famagusta would be under siege for nearly a year as 200,000 Ottomans kept up steady bombardments and assaults against the 10,000-man Venetian garrison. A massive fleet was formed from the nations of Venice, Spain, Genoa, the Knights of Malta, the Papal States, and others.

As the fleet assembled, the Venetians at Famagusta had no choice but to surrender with promise of safe passage to Crete. The Ottoman commander had lost up to 50,000 men and his own son during the siege, however, and changed his mind on the terms. The Christians were accused of butchering Muslims and a retaliatory slaughter of the Christians began. The Venetian commander, Bragadin, was humiliated and tortured. He was skinned alive and his flayed skin was stuffed with straw and sent to the Sultan as a trophy.

This horrible breaking of terms of surrender and brutal execution infuriated the Christians and they sent out with bad intentions. The fleet of 212 ships met the Ottoman fleet of 251 ships in the Gulf of Corinth near Patras. The Holy League ships were newer and had more guns and cannons while the Ottomans still used lots of bowmen, though they were experienced enough to match the gunpowder weapons of the day.

As battle-lines formed the wind was against the Christians, who couldn’t quite get their right flank into position before the battle formed. Fearing a wide flanking attack, the commander of the Christian right sailed away to counter such a move as the rest of the forces clashed. The Christian left was closest to the coast and skirted the shallows to get into the best positions on a ship-by-ship basis.

Holy Wars: 6 Key Turning Points in the Ottoman Wars Against Europe
Formation of the battle lines. Wikipedia

Both commanders near the coast were killed as ships smashed into each other and hand to hand fighting raged. The center was even worse as multiple ships collided together to create massive, uneven platforms for a pseudo-land battle. Sections of ships sunk as other broken vessels miraculously stayed afloat despite having half of another ship rammed through the hull.

As most Turkish ships were rowed by Christian slaves, the Christian freed these men as soon as they were able. These slaves, certainly including former soldiers, immediately joined the fighting, easily turning the tide on the tangled bunches of ships as the average ship had hundreds of rowers yearning to be free and join the fight. All was nearly won on the Christian left.

Holy Wars: 6 Key Turning Points in the Ottoman Wars Against Europe
Most representations of the battle do a good job showing the chaos of the last great oared warship battle in history. Wikipedia

The Christian right was a different story. Going further right to prevent a flank attack created a gap that the Ottoman dove into. The charge threatened to collapse the Christian center, but they barely held on. much credit was given to the Venetians in the league, fighting with unnerving ferocity considering the atrocities committed at Famagusta.

Eventually, the victories on the Christian left and the holding of the center won the battle for the Holy League. Stray Ottoman ships fought into the night, most notably those crewed by Janissaries who reportedly threw food at Christian ships when they ran out of ammunition.

The Ottomans would lose almost 200 ships and most of their experienced archers and Janissaries. The power of the Ottoman Empire was still immense, however; no Ottoman territories would be won over by the Holy League after their great victory and a new Ottoman fleet was quickly constructed. But the battle was still a crushing defeat, costing the Empire a great deal especially considering the construction of a new fleet from scratch. The victory didn’t give the Christian powers any territory but prevented any Ottoman expansion in the West for the time.

Holy Wars: 6 Key Turning Points in the Ottoman Wars Against Europe
Battle of Vienna. Wikipedia

1683: Battle of Vienna

Vienna, as Constantinople was one jewel to be collected for the Ottoman Empire, so was the great city at the eastern tip of the Alps along the mighty Danube. As Malta was a gateway to the Western Mediterranean, Vienna was the gateway to Western Europe.The Ottomans had tried to take the city twice before. Once in 1529 and again in 1532. Sitting about 1,000 miles of marching from Istanbul, Vienna proved to be quite a logistical stretch for the Ottomans.

The first siege was marred by heavy rains both during the march and the siege. Counterassaults by the European garrison cost many lives on both sides, but disease and dissension finally got the better of Suleiman the Magnificent. A siege a few years later was sidetracked in the siege of Guns, an 800-man garrison caused enough losses and headaches that Suleiman had to turn back again.

By 1683, after over 100 years of nearly constant warfare, the Ottomans were ready to take Vienna. Almost 200,000 men went marching to conquer Vienna, defended by about 15,000 men, including volunteers. A hallmark of Ottoman victories was the lack of a relief army by other Christian states. Constantinople received very little military aid, Famagusta was left on its own, and Malta withstood months of assaults that many knew was coming months in advance.

This time, a Christian coalition was prepared that gathered about 90,000 men, including many thousands of Polish heavy cavalry. After much bickering of payment, placated by loans and huge gifts of gold from the Pope, the relief army marched to the beleaguered defender’s aid. The Ottomans missed their opportunity to attack as the Christians crossed the Danube but decided on a predawn strike to hit before lines were formed.

Holy Wars: 6 Key Turning Points in the Ottoman Wars Against Europe
The Ottomans descending upon and surrounding Vienna. Wikipedia

The relief force anticipated this and countered the attack, starting the battle quite early in the day. With lines miles long, that battle ebbed and flowed all morning, with the Ottoman commander still deciding to assault Vienna. He may have sought to push back an attack from both sides before the defenders could get out of their walls, but by splitting their forces, the Ottomans lost many small villages to the advancing Christians.

The large German core of the relief army had great success against the Ottomans all day in the center and right. The Poles got to a village where they gathered about 18,000 horses for one of the largest cavalry charges in all history. The Ottomans had no hope against such a charge, especially after fighting a losing battle all day. The Ottomans broke and the Christians rode all the way into Ottoman camps.

Holy Wars: 6 Key Turning Points in the Ottoman Wars Against Europe
more advanced cannons and clouds of smoke can be seen in this image, showing how the Ottoman wars were framed by the development and advancement of gunpowder weapons. Wikipedia

Over 40,000 Ottomans were killed or captured during the siege and battle, and a plethora of loot, from riches to an abundance of pack animals such as camels, was taken by the victors. The immediate pursuit led to a few Christian victories, but dysentery ran through the ranks and halted the rest of the pursuit.

Over the next decades, the Ottomans, who had almost constantly been expanding their reach, were now losing territory as European armies reclaimed vast swaths of Hungary and other European possessions. The Ottomans would never again seriously threaten Europe and began simply managing the territory that they could still hold on to. They would hang around until WWI where unfortunate genocides and siding with the wrong warring powers led to rebellion and occupation ending in the abolishment of the Sultanate and empire in 1922.

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