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The Siege of Constantinople One Month On

May 9, 2010

The siege of Constantinople has now been in place for just over one month. We left the story when we discussed the development of the Sultan’s artillery under the Hungarian, Urban (which would prove crucial to the final Fall of the city), and the initial assaults by the Ottomans.

Life for those living inside the besieged city, and for those attacking them would have developed a routine, just as we have in our lives; except that this was a life or death situation for all.

So what has been taking place during these first crucial weeks?

The Charisius Gate in the Walls of Constantinople

After his earlier unsuccessful attack by cannon on the Charisius Gate, the Sultan decided to concentrate his fire on just one or two places to achieve a greater effect. Remember some of his cannon were so large they could only fire a round every few hours. He needed what modern commanders would call ‘concentration of effort’. When all cannon were in place the bombardment then continued unabated until the night before the Fall. That was for forty eight days. Just think what it would have been like to live with the threat of cannon firing at your home all the time. Given that the citizens of Constantinople had never experienced this before, you have to recognise how amazing the human spirit is to adapt so quickly in a fight for survival.

By mid-April the Ottomans had captured two small forts outside of the walls, Therpia and Studius. All the survivors were impaled, some in sight of the city.

The bombardment brought successes. The walls were breached in many places but were immediately patched up by the defenders. On the night of the 18th of April the Ottomans launched a surprise attack. Barbaro’s account tells us that the fighting lasted for over four hours. The Turks lost two hundred men, whilst not one defender died. It must have been slow work. Night fighting is extremely difficult and hazardous. The Turks must have struggled to direct their attack and control their men, whilst the defenders had the advantage of steady fighting positions on the walls (or at least what was left of them).

The story then moved on to some interesting naval battles; control of the straits was vital for both sides. The Ottoman admiral, Baltoglu (a convert from the former Bulgarian principality of Karvuna), sent his ships against the massive chain that guarded the Golden Horn, but they were successfully repulsed by the taller Byzantine ships. This is interesting as the English navy under Drake when fighting the Spanish Armada suffered from the same problem; the cannon on the smaller English ships could not achieve the elevation required. Drake found ways of turning this to his advantage, but the Turks who could hardly be described as a maritime power at this point in time always seemed to struggle.

Their inexperienced seamanship was exposed again when three Genoese galleys and a Byzantine transport laden with a cargo of corn from Sicily outran the blockade. It was the superior seamanship, and a bit of luck with the winds, that enabled these ships to run the blockade, offering a significant morale boost the beleaguered citizens. This small victory must have cheered them up a lot. You can imagine those that saw the exasperated Sultan riding his horse into the water to shout his instructions at Baltoglu and his sailors, but to no avail, probably had a laugh; when so oppressed you take it when you can. This story reminds me of Xerxes’ anger and frustration  watching the battle of Salamis (September 29, 480 BC). You can read a narrative account of this battle between the Baltoglu and the grain transports in an extract on Roger Crowley’s website for his book Constantinople: The Last Great Siege (US title: 1453)

However, these setbacks were just setbacks and not defeats. The Ottomans had proven themselves soldiers of the highest order. It would be some time before they mastered the sea, but master it they did. In the meantime, they did gain access for their navy to the Golden Horn. How they did this is a story not of naval tactics but of ingenuity and determination. But that is one for another day.

Related article:

The Siege of Constantinople Has Begun!

The Siege: One of History’s Most Important Recruitment Decisions

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