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

Christians and Muslims have fought since the very century that Islam was founded. From the Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries to the Crusades, the Ottoman conquests, and British imperialism, the power has gone back and forth in this centuries-long clash of cultures. Westerners often learn of the early Crusades to the Holy Land, but few learn about the Arab conquests into Spain and the defense of Christian Europe by Charles Martel or the biggest naval battle of the Renaissance at Lepanto that kept the Ottomans from Mediterranean Domination.

Discussing the conflict between the two cultures/religions today is still a tense subject that we won’t get close to now, but the ferocity of conflict was undeniable during the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the frantic defense of Europe by the collection of smaller Christian countries. A great deal of hate and cruelty was found through the centuries of genius commanders, epic battles and last stands known as the Ottoman Wars.

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

1389: Battle of Kosovo

Except for the taking of Constantinople, there may not be a better example of the grim hopelessness of facing Ottoman conquerors than the Battle of Kosovo. The Ottomans had been pressing into Europe for some time and began to encroach on Serbia and Kosovo. Soon the Sultan Murad I led an army of 30,000 to invade Kosovo. The Serbians gathered an army of up to 30,000, probably less, to defend under Prince Lazar. The two armies met at Kosovo Field on June 15, 1389.

The battle began with the numerous Ottoman archers peppering the Serbian cavalry, who soon decided to charge in several wedge formations. The charges were wildly successful at first, but soon became bogged down in an Ottoman infantry counterattack. The battle lines constantly shifted as a slow Ottoman push weakened one section while renewed Serbian cavalry charges broke through other sections.

Prince Lazar was either killed in the fighting or captured and later killed. Also, during the battle, a Serbian cavalry charge broke all the way through to the Sultan and a lone knight cut Murad down. Another source says that a solo knight of high standing went to defect to Murad personally and then decided to slay Murad on the spot, himself being killed by bodyguards soon after.

Holy Wars: 6 Key Turning Points in the Ottoman Wars Against Europe
A painting of Murad’s alleged killer, Miloš Obilić. Wikipedia

The Battle was technically a draw as both sides retreated with utterly decimated armies and killed commanders. The difference was that the Ottomans were already a worldwide juggernaut, quite able to field another 30,000-man army, but the Serbs had given the battle their all, in terms of manpower.

Murad’s son, Bayezid, killed his brother immediately after hearing the news of his father’s death so he wouldn’t have to worry about rivals to the throne. The Serbs were so weak after the battle that regions gradually capitulated and became allies or vassals of the Ottomans as they had no more strength to fight on.

The battle showed that even in victory, small nations had little hope of standing against the might of the Ottomans. This was a lesson that Europe would soon learn and the Ottomans would face various European conglomerations for most of their time in European conquests.

Holy Wars: 6 Key Turning Points in the Ottoman Wars Against Europe
Christian Knights charging stake-lined Ottoman lines outside Nicopolis. Wikipedia

1396: Battle of Nicopolis

After the Battle of Kosovo, the Ottomans surrounded Constantinople in Europe and pushed all the way to Hungary. The Ottomans had taken Nicopolis from the Bulgarians in 1393 and now sat at the south bank of the mighty Danube River. This river served as a border between Christendom and Islam and Islam threatened to spill over so Pope Boniface IX called a crusade. A combined force of 10 Christian nations, from France and England to Genoa and the Knights Hospitaller gathered an army of perhaps 20,000 men with the goal of taking back Nicopolis before moving further to attack Ottoman territory.

The overconfident Crusaders brought no siege equipment to take Nicopolis and settled in for a leisurely siege. They did not expect the might of the Ottoman army to make it to them anytime soon. They were very wrong, however, as an army of 20-25,000 headed by the Sultan Bayezid met the Crusaders outside of the city within two weeks.

Holy Wars: 6 Key Turning Points in the Ottoman Wars Against Europe
A rough outline of the battle. Wikipedia

The Crusaders apparently panicked and promptly slaughtered the 1,000 or so prisoners they had gathered on their campaign so far. Before the main Ottoman force arrived, a clever Crusader commander executed a perfect ambush on about 1,000 more Turks, raising the morale and confidence of the crusaders.

The Crusaders decided to have a thick center with some elite knights guarding the flanks. An early French cavalry charge was successful against the lighter Ottoman troops but was soon bogged down by rows of sharpened stakes. The French dismounted and pulled stakes before moving on. they pushed up a hill until they met a reserve Ottoman force. Far away from the main army, French knights fell or were captured left and right. When the most prominent Knights were defeated the rest of the French soon surrendered.

The main battle was a quick victory for the Ottomans; with the French gone, the Crusader’s flanks were vulnerable and the whole army weaker to the full assault of the Ottomans. Hundreds of men drowned trying to escape across the Danube and thousands were captured. Only a few hundred to maybe a few thousand escaped to safety.

Holy Wars: 6 Key Turning Points in the Ottoman Wars Against Europe
The execution of prisoners as the knights kept for ransom watched. Wikipedia

The Sultan was outraged to learn of the Crusader’s slaughter of prisoners. He kept the highest-ranking knights alive for ransom but made them watch as he slaughtered most of the captured crusaders. The Ottomans took hefty losses from the ambush and initially successful French charge, but overall it was a decisive victory. The crusade was stopped embarrassingly short of its goals and the Ottomans were in a great position to strike out even farther into Europe, but first, they had to deal with a certain triple-walled city in their backyard.

Holy Wars: 6 Key Turning Points in the Ottoman Wars Against Europe
The Ottomans and their bombards. Wikipedia

1453: Fall of Constantinople

The Fall of Constantinople was a shocking awakening for the Western Catholic world, as odd as that seems given the previous entries on this list. By the mid-15th century, the Ottoman Turks had control of everything surrounding the great city. The Byzantines had some territory in Greece and on the southeast coast of the Black Sea, all cut off by Ottoman territory.

The Romans (as the Byzantines still saw themselves as Roman) had been in existence for over 2,000 years. They still had an immense amount of pride and would not agree to any of the Ottoman attempts to gain the city through diplomacy. They had, after all, successfully defended the city’s walls many times against numerous enemies with only the debacle of the 4th Crusade. Emperor Constantine XI resolved to stand and fight with about 15-20,000 troops including civilian militia and 25 ships against Mehmed II and his 80,000 men and 70 ships.

Holy Wars: 6 Key Turning Points in the Ottoman Wars Against Europe
The once powerful Byzantine Empire looked ready to be crushed in the 15th century. Wikipedia

When the siege began, Mehmed brought game-changing weapons from the mysterious cannon designer, Orban. These massive cannons punched holes in the famous triple walls of Constantinople. Mehmed sent in his masses of troops including the handgun-armed Janissaries, but the defenders had some gunpowder too.

Primitive shotgun-like cannons were toted to new breaches in the walls and rained hot shrapnel down on the bottlenecked assault forces. The impressive walls may have crumbled before the cannons, but barrels or heaps of dirt took their place as each assault was beaten back. The patchwork dirt defenses did an excellent job of absorbing further bombardment and this discovery would lead to the impressive star forts of the Renaissance.

When Mehmed couldn’t get his ships across the heavy Byzantine chain guarding the river harbor, he ordered greased logs to be laid out on the isthmus separating the harbor and the sea. The Ottoman navy was dragged across the land and into the harbor. Mehmed impaled the captured Byzantines who tried to set the Ottoman ships on fire. In response, the Byzantines brought the Ottoman prisoners to the walls and executed them in full view of the Sultan’s army. A grim tone for the rest of the siege.

Holy Wars: 6 Key Turning Points in the Ottoman Wars Against Europe
Mehmed overseeing the transport of the fleet from the Bosphorus to the Golden Horn. Wikipedia

Mehmed eventually grew too frustrated and resolved to launch a massive assault on the city. Following fierce bombardments, the Ottoman infantry rushed the walls. The Byzantines held where they could, but an unguarded gate was left open and the elite Janissaries poured through and overwhelmed the thinly-stretched defenders. Constantine XI was said to have ridden to his death on a final charge into the enemy.

The city fell, but at a terrible cost for the Ottomans. For Mehmed, it was worth it; Constantinople would become Istanbul and the capital of the empire. Much of modern-day Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary were now under Ottoman control. The exodus of scholars and knowledge from the city likely fueled the start of the renaissance but it also made the Europeans realize that they needed to act. The fractured and smaller countries had no hope of fending off the Ottomans on their own, so massive coalitions were formed as a massive battle of ideologies was beginning to increase in intensity.

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.