(This was an article I wrote hoping to send in to a wargame magazine, however I took so long about it the management changed as did the content so I didn't bother sending, but I would like to put it up in case someone would like to read it)
I loved history at school and in those far off days I remember reading and learning all about the Greeks and Romans and 1066 AD, not a word about Robert the Bruce or Mel Gibson (I am Scottish) but hey, I was very young and not as cynical as I am now. I had an affinity with the Romans in particular and felt the sack of Rome in 410AD as a personal insult and the downfall of the Empire in 476 AD as a dastardly betrayal. I always felt that if I read enough perhaps all would be well, I had the same feeling about the Trojans and that damned wooden horse. Sadly, for the Trojans, there was never going to be a happy ending, but in the case of the Romans it did come true, to a point. Rome did not die in 476 AD, only a part of it did, the other part lived on, in fact it lasted almost another one thousand years.
By the late Third century AD it became obvious from an administrative and military point of view that the Roman Empire could not continue as it had done previously, several attempts were made to split the Empire into East and West with different measures of success, however in 395 AD Theodosius I, who was the last emperor to rule both halves, died and divided the Empire between his two sons, it was never to be one entity again, true some of the western regions would be reconquered, and for a time and brought back under Roman control but this would not last. What remained became known to modern scholars as the Byzantine Empire, to the peoples of the West it was simply ‘the Greeks’, to their many enemies in the East and to the Byzantines themselves they were still very much Romans. The biggest change from their past to encompass the Byzantines and that which would have an enormous effect on world history is that in 380 AD Christianity was made the Empire’s official religion, Christianity became the cement which held the Empire together, it gave new meaning to its existence and provided solace during times of extreme distress and danger. I don’t want to digress here but the importance of their religion to the Byzantines cannot be overstated and it cannot be separated from this story, everything the Byzantines did or thought devolved from their belief that their Empire was quiet simply heaven on earth. A brief example, during the Arab invasions the Byzantines suffered many defeats as they reeled from this new threat and lost their hold in North Africa, Egypt and the Middle East, God, it would seem had deserted his kingdom on earth, there had to be a reason and the reason they came up with was that despite many of the cities which had fallen to the Arabs having holy relics and icons, these icons had not saved anyone, therefore the worship of such must be bad and the lord was thus punishing them by letting the cities fall to the enemy, the resulting fracas over the worshiping or not of icons nearly destroyed the Empire from within. This is a simplistic view of the Icon controversy but you get the picture.
The beating heart of this Christian empire was its capital city, a city which in time came to outshine Rome, if not to modern man, certainly to its contemporaries, the city not only defended the new faith but the sense of superiority of its rulers and citizens, their culture and their history stretched back almost to a mythical past. In 330 AD Constantine I “The Great” made the small city of Byzantium his capital, from that moment on it was known as Constantinople. The position it occupied was superlative, it had water on three sides and a wall on the landward, it had a safe harbour on its northern edge and a stranglehold on any vessels wishing to access the Black Sea to the north or the Mediterranean to the south. It also stood on the shortest passage from east to west, so again held an iron grip on trade routes. Constantine and succeeding emperors began to put an imperial veneer on New Rome, wide avenues ran the length of the city, the Hippodrome was decorated with huge bronze statues, horses, wolves, bulls fighting crocodiles, new forums sprang up, columns, obelisks and numerous churches were built and rebuilt as the city became ever more prosperous. Then there were the walls, no other walls in history have had such an impact as the walls of Constantinople, several walls were built as the city grew and Constantine also had the seaward sides of the city protected as well as the landward, although these were never as complicated or strong as those facing west. In 408 AD the emperor Theodosius II raised new walls 1.5km to the west of Constantine’s protection, these became the famous triple walls, 6km long, with an inner wall 11m high, towers broke the battlements every 70/75m ninety-six in all, some square some octagonal, 18/20m high, the outer wall was 8.5m high with its own ninety-six towers, square or with rounded edges, the third wall bordered a large moat, 20m wide and 10m deep, this smaller palisade was a mere 1.5m high and crenulated along its length. The moat was designed with typical Roman thoroughness so that it would remain filled with water as it followed the rise and dips of the land. The wall contained many gates, civilian gates which led to the outside and military gates which allowed access to the outer defences although some military gates also gave access to the hinterland. The new walls encompassed a huge area which was never completely built over and in the main was given over to small scale agriculture, vineyards, orchards and vegetable patches. The walls were severely tested on many occasions before 1453, especially dangerous attacks were made by Avar, Slav and Persian forces in 626, by the Arabs in 717, Bulgars and Russians in 860, 920, 941 and 1043. During all these crises the triple walls and the inhabitants held firm, only in 1204 during exceptional circumstances were the sea walls breached and the city mercilessly sacked, centuries of culture put to the torch or carried off as booty, not by any of the city’s many enemies from the cold north or the arid wastes of Asia Minor but, by fellow Christians, greedy, treacherous crusaders who had taken an oath to capture Jerusalem, not to lay waste the greatest Christian city of its day, turned aside in their quest by jealous Venetians. The despicable events of 1204 deserve their own article so I will not dwell on them here, suffice to say the Byzantines retook their city from the crusaders in 1261. By then however the empire had dwindled to a shadow of its former self, by 1453 it was no more than a city state and a vassal of the Ottoman Sultan, surrounded on all sides by an extremely powerful enemy, one which it had, until now fought or bribed off, but one whose rulers could never truly be seen as conquerors, the leaders of Islam until they sat in Constantine’s city and by 1453 they were ready to make true their boast.
The Byzantines had been fighting the Turks in one form or another from the sixth century, as time passed nomadic raids on the fringes of the empire and elsewhere in the middle east turned into permanent occupation and the Turks became a force to be reckoned with, their martial prowess re-energised militant Islam. In 1071 the Turks won the battle of Manzikert, known forever after by the Byzantines simply as ‘the Terrible Day’ due to a combination of circumstances, much of it of their own making, the after effects of the battle spelt doom for Byzantine power in Anatolia, the empire lost not only the land but the taxes, wealth and most of the manpower that had sustained its treasury and armies. As the Seljuks lost their power the Ottomans took their place, the story mirrors others, a lowly tribe of warriors inspired by the leadership of one man, Osman, the father of the Ottoman Turks, conquer all before them and set up a mighty empire. In Osman’s case like that of Genghis Khan the story is true, albeit takes time. The Ottomans may have started as ragged, nomadic raiders but they became feared adversaries and organisational geniuses, their hold on conquered lands was light and many professed that life under the Sultan was preferable to that under the Emperor or western feudalism. By the beginning of the fifteenth century the Ottoman Turks had taken over most of the remaining Byzantine lands in both Anatolia and Europe and set up their capital a mere 60km from Constantinople at Edirne (Adrianople), a city originally built by the Emperor Hadrian. Sultan Murat II had besieged the city in 1422 ostensibly because, despite everything, the Byzantines still tried to foment discord amongst their enemies by sheltering and seeking out pretenders to the Ottoman throne. Murat, like many before had to swallow his pride, the massive walls could not be forced and the Ottomans lacked a fleet to close off help from the sea. Despite their humiliation of Murat II the Byzantines knew that time was running out for them, they knew that help from any quarter was unlikely and they knew that new weaponry was beginning to make city walls redundant, no matter how strong they seemed.
The weapon which held the key to Constantinople was the cannon, its first use in the area was against the Turks besieging the city in 1396, by 1422 both sides had small bombards and artillery duels took place with the Ottomans building their own works to protect the guns and the crews. Bankrupt Constantinople did not improve its artillery after the 1422 siege but the Ottomans took advantage of the latest knowledge in cannon technology. As they conquered more territory they found the could make use of subject Christian craftsmen while their marvellously efficient logistic infrastructure could supply all the materials required for the casting of weapons and ammunition even to the extent that they could cast guns on the battlefield, something unheard of in the West. Although the Turks were eagerly receptive to the new weapon they could not have managed so well without Christian help, either from the greedy Italian merchants who sold them illegal weapons or unscrupulous gunsmiths out to make a fast buck. Constantinople’s nemesis turned out to be a Hungarian gunsmith called Orban, having failed to make his fortune within the walls he took himself to Edirne and promised the Sultan he could build a cannon which would bring them down. The Sultan set Orban to make some of the largest siege guns then known, the first and largest was some twenty-seven feet long and could fire a huge stone ball a mile. In February 1453 this monster was set on the road to Constantinople along with many other guns forged under Orban’s critical eye.
The Ottoman army which set out to besiege Constantinople was a mixture of highly trained regulars and huge numbers of enthusiastic levies eager for their share of the city’s mythical wealth. The hard core of regular troops consisted of the elite Janissaries and household cavalry backed up by their supporting tail of artillerymen, armourers, bombardiers, miners and fully functioning logistic branch. By far the larger number of troops were supplied by conscription and these came from every corner of the Ottoman state, when not needed for fighting these men supplied the muscle to build roads, fortifications and carry out the day to day duties of an army on campaign: they were also expendable. As ever with medieval numbering we cannot be sure of the actual size of the force which arrived before the walls of Constantinople, the Ottomans themselves put the numbers at 80,000, the defeated of course exaggerated this to 700,000, there are other sources which claim the Byzantines were outnumbered by 20-1, this would mean an army of around 160,000, which, when you look at the logistic tail and usual hangers on servicing the front line troops may be nearer the mark for this unique enterprise. As this vast array was being gathered, the Turks began to extinguish any Byzantine outposts along the route and a vanguard was within striking distance of the city should the Emperor try to interfere with the Ottoman preparations. The Sultan himself set out with the main body of his army on Friday the 23rd March, 1453, a holy day and hopefully an auspicious one on which to begin his great campaign. On the 2nd April, the day after Easter Sunday the Turks arrived, it took several days for the whole army to be deployed and the defenders could only look on in horror.
The Sultan leading this Islamic crusade was Mehmed II, the son of Sultan Murat II, left as Murat’s only realistic heir at eleven after a series of mysterious murders got rid of the more popular opposition, he had loosely held the reins of power once before, as a boy from 1444 to 1446 when Murat tried to abdicate and retire, circumstances did not allow this and he would live in his father’s shadow until he became Sultan in 1451 when Murat died. Mehmed II was to become one or perhaps the greatest Ottoman Sultan, not only did he conquer the festering cancer of Constantinople, he also brought Serbia, the Morea, Wallachia, Bosnia and Albania amongst others into the Ottoman fold, earning his sobriquet ‘the Conqueror’. He was not only a warrior but an educated man who could speak six languages and liked to spend time with scholars and religious experts.
The man whose city he had come to take, Constantine XI Palaiologos, was a typical 15th century Byzantine nobleman, his mother was Serbian and his father had Italian blood, a living example of the Greek requirement to open up their city and their families to new blood, nonetheless he signed documents as ‘Constantine Palaiologos, in Christ true Emperor and Autocrat of the Romans’. Constantine had military experience from his time as Despot of Morea and when his brother, the emperor John VIII died it had been the support of Murat II which allowed him to become Emperor in Constantinople. Despite the fact that the Byzantine Emperor by now had become merely one of many vassals of the Sultan and his city in hock to Italian and Turkish merchants the ‘Empire’ could not have looked to a better man in its last desperate days. He was a soldier, commanded loyalty, and had a strong sense of history, and even more importantly he managed to hold together his ragtag army and their headstrong mercenary allies.
Constantine’s army was the complete opposite of that of his enemy’s, from a possible populace of 60,000 only around 5,000 natives could be found to man the walls, even as the danger grew and word came of Mehmed’s plans Constantine had to use all his persuasive powers in order to have the defences repaired and money raised for arms. Pleas had gone out to the rest of Christendom but had been ignored in the main part, however some of the Italian merchants resident across the Golden Horn in Galata tried to walk a thin line by helping Constantine and not upsetting Mehmed. The Genoese in particular sent a welcome contingent of around 700 veterans under the command of Giovanni Giustiniani Longo, a small amount of Catalans led by Don Francisco of Toledo also arrived, smaller groups too arrived throughout the months prior to the arrival of the Turks, but these were adventurers or men of conscience determined that the city should not fall to the infidels. George Sphrantzes a citizen put it succinctly when he wrote ‘We had received as much aid from Rome as had been sent to us by the sultan of Cairo’.
Between the 2nd and 6th April, when the Sultan himself arrived, the Turks dug a ditch 250 yards distance from the walls, the earth collected was raised as a rampart and screens erected atop this, effectively hiding the besiegers at the front, behind this the huge Ottoman encampment sprawled for miles. Along the entire line of the city’s defences two positions were recognised as vulnerable, albeit they had never been broken in several hundred years of conflict. The first was an area almost in the middle of the Theodosian Walls which allowed the entrance of the river Lycus and was called the Mesoteichion, this section was lower than the rest of the defences and allowed a larger number of cannon on both sides of the small river valley to concentrate on one part of the walls, it was here that Constantine placed himself. The second weakness was the final northern section where the walls had been expanded, in typical Byzantine fashion, to protect a holy shrine as it became obvious that the Virgin herself could not or would not interfere with people burning it down. This area did not have triple walls, but nonetheless had significant defences which again had never been breached. It was against these two points that Mehmed concentrated his artillery and his main efforts.
|The city and its defenders.|
While their huge siege guns were arriving and having to be put into position, a long, tiring job, the first tentative moves against the city were made, an assault by expendable irregulars to test the defenders mettle was easily beaten back. These same expendables were sent forward time and time again to fill in the great moat under constant harassing fire losing a great many men in the effort. Sallies by the Italians disrupted this work for a time, but in the end it was inevitable that the moat would be filled and the loss of experienced men was simply not worth the effort, in future the Turks would be met behind the outer wall. The defenders had to suffer not only the great siege guns, but these were backed up by many smaller weapons and traditional wooden siege engines also fired missiles into and over the walls, at this time it would have been the greatest artillery bombardment ever known and a great psychological burden on the Christians. Despite this gaps were repaired during the night, hides, tapestries and woollen bales were hung to disperse the force of the balls and even a kind of armoured coating of chalk and brick dust was tried, counter-battery fire was also attempted but this was ineffective, the ancient walls crumbled under the recoil and at times the inferior cast weapons exploded. The Ottomans also suffered from this problem, the sustained six day initial bombardment caused many cannon to develop cracks and many had to be repaired with iron hoops, legend has it this did not save Orban, who continued in fear of Mehmed to fire his huge siege gun despite it cracking and was killed when it exploded. Nevertheless a gap was made in the Lycus valley, Giustiniani, a ‘wall fighting’ expert, constructed a makeshift defence with stakes and rubble from the damaged areas, this even helped against the cannonballs as they sank into the soft earth of the palisade rather than shattering against stone.
As well as bringing artillery to the city in large numbers for the first time, Mehmed also brought a navy, up until now the Turks had neglected ships and most often relied on the very people defending large parts of the walls, the Italians. These merchant fleets for hire at least once saved the Ottoman state by ferrying troops across the Bosphorus in time to turn the tide of war on the European side, the relations between everyone concerned at the siege truly was Byzantine. The Turks brought approximately 140 ships to Constantinople, some large war galleys and transports but most of the fleet consisted of much smaller warships, built along the same lines as their enemies. The Byzantines on the other hand had a motley collection of ships in the Golden Horn, mainly merchant ships belonging to the great Italian merchant cities, high sided sailing ships along with ten native galleys, sad remnants of a once mighty Byzantine navy. These ships would defend the Golden Horn and this would enable the sea walls of that section of the city to be lightly held, helping in this endeavour was a huge chain stretched across the entrance to the Horn, this defence had stopped many hostile fleets over the centuries. To ensure the chain held ten large ships were anchored in front of the boom, with another seventeen held in reserve behind it. All in all there were thirty-seven ships against the Ottoman fleet, however these ships were manned by some of the finest sailors in the world at that time and the position of the defence meant the Turks could not use their large numbers to advantage. Not long after their arrival Admiral Baltaoglu was ordered to force the harbour entrance, the Turks charged the line of tall Christian ships but found the disadvantage of being lower in the water too much of an obstacle, especially so fighting against experienced mariners used to warfare at sea. The Turks retreated leaving the defence shaken but still intact. The Turks got another lesson in seamanship a few days later on 20th when three Genoese and one Byzantine merchant hove in sight carrying a consignment of food, Baltaoglu set his whole fleet at the quartet, content that numbers alone would tell. Mehmed himself could watch the event unfold as did the citizens who crammed the sea walls, desperate for relief but fearful at the odds. On a choppy sea and using the wind the small fleet easily brushed aside the galleys as the latter tried desperately to keep station and board against a hail of missiles raining down from the high sides of the carracks. Just as the merchants were about to make their turn into the horn the wind dropped, soon each ship was surrounded by galleys and for two hours they managed to hold off sustained attempts by the Turks to board, the Imperial transport was especially targeted and looked like being taken when the Genoese used their superior seamanship to go alongside and lash all the Christian ships together into one large floating fortress. After another hour of desperate fighting the wind again rose and this propelled the ships through the cordon of galleys and into the safety of the Horn. Needless to say this action allowed Byzantine morale to soar, a public humiliation in front of all infuriated Mehmed, Baltaoglu was sentenced to be impaled despite the brave man’s actions during the battle, Mehmed feigned mercy and reduced this to one hundred lashes, the loss of all rank and possessions and banishment to obscurity.
Meanwhile back on the walls a couple of days previously on the evening of the 18th April, possibly on the same day as the naval attack on the chain, the guns fell silent and in the darkness the Turks launched their first serious assault on the Mesoteichion. The attack came as a surprise to Constantine and he had the city bells rung in alarm, swarms of Turks grappled with the well armoured men-at-arms on the palisade while others, under heavy fire from crossbows, handguns and small cannon attempted to pull down the defences and set the wood alight. After a grim four hours of hand to hand combat the Turks retreated and the exhausted defenders tried to catch some rest. The bombardment immediately began again. A few days later another large breach had been made in the walls near St. Romanus Gate, most felt sure that a major assault on this gap would be the end of the city, however, Mehmed was several miles away in conference with his advisers and staff and such was the Turkish system of command no one dared to order an attack. Giustiniani and his men once again repaired a breach with earth filled barrels, stakes and a new ditch, all under heavy missile fire.
After all this Mehmed felt pressured into doing something, he had hoped for a quick end to the siege, there was now a danger of disease crippling his army, their morale may have taken a knock from the failed assault and naval defeats, and for all he knew a relief fleet may be on its way to save this most Christian city. No one knows who came up with the next move in the game or the mechanics of how it was achieved, but all, Turk and Christian alike agree that it helped change the course of the war. On the morning of 22nd April seventy Turkish galleys entered the Golden Horn, not through the defence at the boom, but well to the rear, having been taken overland, uphill around Galata and deposited in a creek which allowed entrance to the great harbour. Constantine now had to find men to defend a large portion of the sea walls and his naval commanders, now caught between two Ottoman fleets, knew they had to do something quickly or be caught like rats in a trap. Master Giacomo Coco a Venetian, came up with a plan, a small task force of two large galleys, two ‘armoured’ merchantmen and two fustae filled with Greek Fire and other easily lit material would attack at night and burn the Turkish squadron. Unfortunately the Genoese felt left out of such a prestigious attack and demanded to be part of it, for four days they prepared their ships, a dangerous delay, the Turks could have been warned at any time. On the 28th April, in the dark just before dawn the small assault force set sail, perhaps upset at the Genoese participation and delay Coco broke ranks and sped at the anchored Turks, his fustae was soon holed by cannon fire and rapidly sank taking Coco and his crew with it. Confusion now reigned and as one of the larger galleys started to limp home the others followed. The two large merchantmen, anchored close to the Ottomans as a floating reserve and rallying point now found themselves at the mercy of the Turkish ships and shore batteries as the day got lighter, again a ferocious hand to hand battle took place and once again the high sides of the carracks just gave the defenders the edge, after an hour or so the merchantmen also limped back to join the others at the boom. Some forty survivors of Giacomo Coco’s galley were impaled along the shore within sight of the city walls, in retaliation Turkish prisoners were now hung from the ramparts. The stalemate in the Horn was eventually broken when the Turks began firing mortars over Galata and on to the Christian ships, the Genoese in Galata complained to the Sultan but they were ignored, the ships had to heave to under Galata’s walls and from that moment were rendered ineffective to the defence of Constantinople.
Mehmed also increased the pressure on the land walls, more guns were brought to bear on the Mesoteichion area and another large assault was attempted at the end of April. Once again this attack was halted but casualties had been heavy on both sides, but the cost was much more to Constantine’s as his reserves were now almost nonexistent due to having to spread his men around the Golden Horn defences. By early May the situation inside the city was tenuous, the many factions now began blaming each other for any mistakes and every setback at the walls, food was running out and soldiers were deserting the walls to try and find some. Constantine was urged to escape but refused, in desperation a ship was disguised as a Turkish man-of-war and attempted to break out and contact a relieving force, if such there was and tell them to hurry. On the 7th May another huge attack was launched, again directed at the weakened defences in the Lycus valley, and once again after furious hand to hand fighting the line once again held firm, but only just, it was becoming harder and harder to man the temporary barricades against a seemingly in exhaustive supply of Turkish troops. Not only had the defenders to fight back each assault, afterwards there were always repairs to be made for the next wave, and all of this under increased bombardment. On the night of 12/13th May Mehmed changed tactics and threw an attack at the point where the triple walls merged into the single wall around the Palace of Blachernae where his guns had made a breach, it looks like this area was now defended by Greek troops as most of the seasoned Italians were now needed at the Mesotiecheon. The Greeks held for a time but the Turks eventually got in, it was only the arrival of the Emperor himself with his retinue and the seemingly indestructible Giustiniani which held them in check, the Byzantines rallied and returned to hunt down the surviving Turks in the narrow streets around the palace complex. The attackers were expelled but again at great cost, and the breach repaired, but it seemed that the writing was on the wall, each new attack was more ferocious than the last and every time it became harder and harder to hold the line with fewer and fewer men. All this time the Ottoman fleet continued to attempt to breach the chain, despite all their attempts each sortie ended in failure, so much so that eventually by mid May the Turks at sea gave up their efforts, nonetheless the Christian sailors could never let down their guard and stood to arms throughout the remainder of the siege, they did manage, after long acrimonious discussions and pleading from Constantine to send some of their number to the defence of the walls.
As well as the bombardments and assaults, Mehmed also employed miners, these began operations in May and surprised the defenders, who had thought the walls rested on rock, counter operations were put in the hands of Johann or John the German who, in actual fact was a Scotsman whose real name was John Grant, Grant luckily was a mining expert and his exertions, tunnelling to meet the invaders, using explosives and Greek Fire to burn them and early warning efforts, water containers behind the walls, were all productive in beating back the Turkish efforts. I always spare a thought here to wonder how a Scotsman came to find himself fighting underground in this epic struggle, what adventures had brought him to Constantinople and what happened to him afterwards. Another of Mehmed’s ingenious ideas was a huge siege tower designed to advance and fill up the ditches as it rolled along thus making it easier for the advancing waves of infantry, this diabolical contraption was defeated by rolling barrels of gunpowder at it and once it had been halted and a fire started, the ensuing flames were quickly fed with further barrels containing pitch.
On the forty-eight day of the siege, the boat which had went looking for a relief fleet bravely returned with the news that no one was coming.
By the end of May it was obvious to everyone that the end was near, Mehmed could not continue to sit before the city for ever, summer was coming and the heat would bring disease and despair, he had risked his reputation and there were always hostile elements willing to take the place of a disgraced or weak Sultan. His army had hoped for a share in the spoils of the fabled city but all they had found was death in the teeth of a stubborn and heroic resistance, his Navy, despite stopping the fire ships had usually been humiliated in their encounters with the more experienced Italians. Mehmed took two days to organise what he hoped would be his final assault, everything possible was done to give his troops heart and the edge they needed, but in the end the plan merely called for his whole army to be thrown at the defences wave after wave until the defenders cracked, either the city would fall or Mehmed would have to retreat. Inside the city, they knew something was up, people had one eye on escape and contingency plans were made by those with money or contacts with the masters whose ships remained. Constantine and his allies would have to repel the next assault or die, overtures to surrender the city had been rejected, therefore should the Turks succeed, the obligatory three days of sack would follow and it did not bode well for the survivors. Even at their eleventh hour the defenders could not agree, arguments between the differing religious groups, Orthodox and Catholic, between Byzantine and Italian soldiers about what to do and how to do it threatened the need to stand firm for one last time. Constantine rose above all this and pleaded, praised and bullied each and every group to take their place in the defence, he spoke to everyone who would listen on the morning of the 28th during religious processions intended to uplift the flagging morale within the walls. Having made such preparations as possible Constantine moved his headquarters to the Lycus valley, joining him was the redoubtable Giustiniani, recovering from a wound he had received while rebuilding the ruined palisade during a bombardment when a stone had gone through his armour and hit him in the chest. The defenders by now had been reduced to around 4,000 men who had to defend twelve miles of wall, half of this number now stood with the Emperor in the path of Mehmed’s coming steamroller attack.
Able to watch the Ottoman preparations from their vantage points on the walls the defenders knew that the final battle was approaching, not wanting to be caught unawares as they had been Constantine and Giustiniani marched through the large inner wall and took up position behind their makeshift barricade, the cream of the defence stood with them, perhaps 2,000 men, Italians, Spanish, Greeks and others caught in the city at the wrong time or here to perform a duty against the enemies of Christ. With the knowledge of the importance of the next battle the defenders made the desperate decision to lock the gates and portals behind the men on the outer walls, only the most trusted leaders held the keys. No doubt this had two objectives the first to make the men fight harder and the second that if they were overwhelmed the Turks would still not be able to enter the city. The anxious men on the walls and at the stockades rested during the afternoon and evening of the 28th. Mehmed and his generals had been busy all day with troop dispositions, making sure enough gunpowder and ammunition was available and expressing his wish that all attacks were to be carried out with the aim once and for all to bring the city to its knees. This time all the forces under his command would be thrown in at the same time, army and navy, the vast numbers of irregulars would be in the van, cannon fodder to exhaust the defenders by dying in large numbers, soaking up as much punishment as possible before better armed and more seasoned troops took their turn at the front. Attacks were to be launched large and small on any area showing weakness to keep reinforcements away from the action in the Lycus valley.
At one-thirty on the morning of 29th April all hell let loose, Turkish musicians filled the air with a cacophony of sound and the great guns opened up, in contrast the massed ranks moved forward in silence, once within range missiles and shot flew in both directions, then with a great shout the Turks ran for the barricades. Mehmed did not have portals to lock but he did use his military police and Janissaries to encourage the rabble from retreating, death found them both in front and in the rear. After two hours of relentless combat the irregulars were allowed to withdraw, but they had done their job. Next into the fray was Mehmed’s Anatolian troops, heavily armoured, disciplined and fanatical, another two hours of hellish combat ensued, over all cannonballs still continued to hit the walls, one such caused a breach in the stockade and for the first time the Turks poured into the defences, the city bells rung warnings while religious leaders cried for God’s help, the heavily armoured Christians despite everything managed to seal off the penetration and kill any who were left behind. It was now half-past five and they had been in continuous combat for four hours. Elsewhere along the perimeter the attacks had not been as serious and had all been repulsed, but this meant it was never safe enough to send more men to the Mesoteichion. An enraged Mehmed now brought forward his last remaining reserve, his own bodyguard troops and Janissaries, he is also reputed to have led them to the front himself, the better to keep an eye on them and also an admission that this attack had to succeed or he might possibly have to lift the siege. More savage hand to hand fighting ensued, the Ottomans seeking to win the city for their Sultan and the Italians and Greeks fighting alongside the magnificent examples of their Emperor and Guistiniani. Just at the very moment when they sensed that the pendulum of battle had swung back in their favour the desperate men fighting to protect Constantinople were dealt a wickedly cruel hand by Fate.
Further along the walls by the Blacharnae Palace the defenders had been making sallies against half hearted assaults, on returning from one of these raids the Circus Gate had been left open, a large group of Turks noticed the open postern and made their way inside and up on to the wall, surprising the defenders there, what actually happened is unclear, but the outcome was that the Christian standards there were ripped down and replaced, albeit it temporarily by Moslem colours. At about the same time back on the palisade Giustiniani suffered a grievous wound, again the details are lost to us but he was either hit by a crossbow bolt, lead shot or stabbed in a weak spot of his armour or, no matter how ridiculous it might sound, some believed he was deliberately felled from behind. What really mattered was that the up until now implacable Italian had had enough, and who could blame him, almost fifty days of stress and combat and now he had suffered two wounds in less than twenty-four hours, he asked his men to take him back to his ship, it was a fatal decision. Despite Constantine’s entreaties that he stay and add his presence to the defenders Giustiniani’s officers were determined that their leader needed medical attention. Constantine handed them a key. With an escape route opened and their leader gone, the remaining Genoese bolted for the door and safety. The loss of resolve atop the barricade was noticed and the Turks swept forward with renewed vigour, soon the small islands of defenders were swamped by the sheer numbers of the enemy as they were bypassed and the rush went for the walls, at this crucial juncture the Moslem banners flying above the Circus Gate were seen, and they were not seen being hauled down, if indeed they were. It was the end, the courage which had protected the city for so long had ran out. For the remaining defenders on the outer walls and stockades there was no escape, only one gate had been opened and the great press of men ensured that not many would make it through. Somewhere in the midst of all this slaughter and confusion the last Emperor of Byzantium went down surrounded by his most faithful retainers, no one actually saw Constantine fall although many stories of his end surfaced later, I think it is fair to say after his conduct throughout the campaign that his personal bravery was beyond question and that he did indeed die fighting in the crush atop the palisade or with his back to the walls. Quickly the Fifth Military Gate, the Charisian and the Gate of St. Romanus succumbed to the Ottoman tide, this of course enabled more and more troops inside the walls, panic and fear spread throughout the city, those defenders who could flee had a terrifying journey of up to three miles in parts to gain their ships if they were Italians or rich enough to have a contingency plan, otherwise like many citizens they still put their faith in God and congregated in the city’s many churches hoping for divine intervention. Needless to say that didn’t happen.
The last day of the Byzantine Empire was a horrible mixture of slaughter, greed, rape and murder as well as bravery. Some pockets of resistance found themselves alone on the walls and fought on until overwhelmed, the Catalans for instance and a small force of Cretans, these latter proved such a thorn to remove that they were granted leave to sail if only they surrendered, which they promptly did. Prince Orhan, an Ottoman pretender given the protection of the city and whose retainers had held the area around the harbour of Eleuthierii threw himself from the battlements knowing he would receive no mercy from Mehmed. Many of the Genoese and Venetians managed to make it to the ships waiting in the Horn, although some did not manage to make it through the crowds onto the waiting ships. The Italians were lucky in that the Ottoman sailors ran their ships onto the shore so that they could participate in looting the legendary wealth within, thus presenting them with an avenue of escape. Not very many Greek soldiers survived, their numbers had been few to start with and most perished alongside their Emperor. For the citizens the only future was the slave markets of the Turkish state, tens of thousands suffered this fate leaving the city almost deserted. Mehmed held ‘the Red Apple’ at last, but the reality of a bankrupt city state decaying behind its famous walls must also have come as a shock as no doubt did the energy with which it was defended.
I had the good fortune to at last visit the city back in 2007, my first impression as we drove along the Sea of Marmara from the airport and passed through a gap in the walls was the sheer size of the old city, the three mile drive to our hotel seemed to take ages, I also understood how there could have been large areas of agricultural land within the walls, there was an enormous amount of room. Our hotel was a short walk from the hub of Byzantine Constantinople, we were close to the Forums of Theodosius and Constantine and a five minute walk took us to the remains of the Hippodrome, a large open area where you can still get a sense of the outline of the original building. The view from the Topkapi palace on a beautiful sunny day over the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn takes your breath away and you can see at once why the city became Constantine’s capital. You can sit on a rooftop restaurant, look towards the Galata Tower then turn you gaze to where the Theodosian Walls should be, only to find that they are indeed miles away and not visible even from such a height. I am not religious but have found myself in great religious buildings from Mexico City to India, but entering Hagia Sophia you are simply awestruck at the architecture and the sense of history overwhelms you, to walk in the footsteps of Emperors and marvel at Varangian runes carved by bored guards on the balustrade was for me a real treat. But, what of the walls I hear you ask, well, they are pretty much a non event for the Turks or the modern city dwellers, I asked several people in the hotel and at the reception area how to get to them and met nothing but blank stares. We, I was accompanied by my son, eventually threw caution to the wind and jumped in a taxi and with some wild gesticulating and pointing to a guide book we arrived at the southern point near the Marble Tower where we had entered the city. There is a fairly good rebuilt section of the wall in this area north of the road and we started our walk there, we passed the Golden Gate and did not get to see it as there were trees and encampments around it with no noticeable path. The old moat is now covered in vegetable gardens and we were not brave enough to walk amongst them. The area in front of the walls is still fairly open albeit it a busy road runs alongside them, now and again you can look at the various gates and every so often there are restored parts of the walls but this is all pretty haphazard and has not been done very professionally, but it does give you an idea of just how grand and imposing the walls were, and indeed still are. We got as far as we could, just far enough to look down into the Lycus valley and the area where the city was breached, we did not have time to go any further. Behind the walls you make your way the best you can through what might be private ground or business compounds, there really is nothing to direct you or inform you of where you are or what you are looking at. On the morning before leaving we took a tram back up to the walls, got off at the wrong stop and walked back through a rather daunting underground market, I did manage this time to stand on the outer wall, look down at the Mesoteicheon and let my mind try and conjure the scene in the lull before the storm and what it looked like late on the 28th May. I still have a wish to stand atop the inner wall, and maybe one day I will manage it.
How do you wargame such an epic campaign, well I suppose the good news is that all you really need to do is model the assaults on the Mesoteicheon as this was the epicentre of the defence and the only realistic place to break in. It would consist of a lot of missile fire and hand to hand combat with a lot of emphasis on leadership and troop quality, especially for the Christians. I think you have to fight the notion that you are dealing with the late 16thC, possibly due to the use of guns and cannon and exotic words like Janissaries, Ottomans, bashi-bazouks etc. but the time period is actually in alignment with the beginning of the Wars of the Roses, so any European men-at-arms will do for the Byzantines, I don’t doubt the same applies for the Ottomans, Arabs, Turks even Indian figures might work. Before I end, if this article has caught your interest then I cannot recommend highly enough ‘Constantinople: The Last Great Siege, 1453” I have only scratched the surface of the great siege but Roger Crowley, the author, puts you on the walls.