Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Decisive Battles: Lepanto 1571

October is a busy month for human carnage; so many battles to choose from. I've chosen four, based on my highly idiosyncratic criteria. To wit, they need to have exceedingly long-term consequences to human history beyond that limited in effect to a nation or local region or in time to a constricted span. So, for example, I'm not going to talk about the Battle of Gaugamela, fought on the First of October, 331BC. Although the battle effectively ended the Achmenaed period of Persian history and opened the East to the Macedonian Empire of Alexander, the Hellenic period in central Eurasia and the Middle East was overwritten starting with the rise of Islam four hundred years later and largely completed (in Asia) by the Mongols. Gaugamela WAS a decisive battle, but one whose effects are very muted today.

Likewise the Battle of Sekigahara, Keichō 5 (October 21, 1600AD in Western style) was a crucially decisive battle; it effectively ended the Sengoku jidai, the "Warring States period" that had been Japan's War of the Roses, by establishing the Tokugawa Shogunate. During this time much of what we now think of as Japanese culture was riven into the national soul. In a sense, Sekigahara is the first step that leads to Pearl Harbor. BUT...that's a very long road, and for the most part the battle is decisive only to Japan and the Japanese.

The four are, in chronological order; the Syracuse campaign (autumn, 413BC), Hastings (1066), this battle, and Saratoga, 1777. Lepanto is a singularity by being both a purely naval engagement as well as the only "East-West" conflict of the four.

Lepanto Date: October 7, 1571Forces Engaged:
"Holy League" (Confederation of Christian polities including Spain, the Papal States, the Italian city-states Venice, Genoa, the Duchy of Savoy and the Knights Hospitaller of Malta) 212 vessels, 41,000 troops including 28,000 marines under Don John of Austria

Ottoman Empire: 270-285 vessels, 48,000 troops including 34,000 marines under Ottoman Kaptan-ı Derya Ali Paşa.

The Situation:

Lepanto bookends one side of the "Clash of Civilizations" period of European history that is marked on the earlier end by the 8th Century Battle of Tours. Over the intervening twelve hundred years the Christian and feudal West struggled against the Islamic and tribal (and later dynastic) forces out of the Middle East and North Africa. This period is entirely too complex to summarize in a couple of paragraphs; suffice to say that the Caliphate (and its successor states) contended on and off over this period with a hodgepodge of Christian entities, ranging from the immense and powerful Byzantine Empire through the various feudal kingdoms of Europe to the Crusader States and such strategic irritants as the religious orders of knighthood on Cyprus and Malta.

By the 16th Century the main combatants were, from the East, the Ottoman Empire. The largest and most successful inheritor of the Caliphate, the Ottomans were the product of a fusion of the Mamluk military skill we've seen before and Turkish hardheaded political cunning. They won the Long War against the Byzantines, destroying the last "Roman Emperor" when Constantinople became Istanbul. Their control of the land and sea in the eastern Med ended crusading as a hobby for idle and homicidal Westerners. Even when not actively campaigning against the Western powers the Ottomans remained a danger ever present to the east of the heart of Europe. The Ottoman military was, in 1571, a truly existential threat to all the European polities.In the West, the situation was much more chaotic. Polities ranged from the sublime Holy Roman Empire (three lies for the price of one, my father used to describe it) and the Hapsburg principalities of Austria and Spain, through the tough little city-states of Italy such as Savoy, Venice and Genoa, all the way down to anachronisms like the religious states such as Malta, Cyprus and the Papal dominions.The European weakness at the time was faction; the French, for example, at the time of Lepanto had an agreement with the Satanic Enemies of Christendom (i.e. the Ottomans) against Hapsburg Spain. Their hatred of the Near Enemy made a deal with the existential Islamic foe thinkable...

So the situation in 1571 was the same as it had been in the preceding century; the professional Ottoman military remained a sword pointed at Europe. The Europeans felt themselves to be on the defensive but were as often divided as united and unable to effectively employ their rising technical innovation.

Perhaps the single most significant change in the geopolitical situation between the East and West was the death of the great Sultan Suleiman (called "The Magnificent")

in 1566 and the accession of his son Selim II (called "The Sot"), the George W. Bush of his era only hornier and drunker.

Selim provided the Ottomans with bottom-of-the-barrel leadership at what couldn't have been a more critical time.

The Campaign: The goals of the Lepanto Campaign are unclear. What we can say with some authority is that the Ottoman Sultan (or his vizier, who was his Secretary of Defense - Selim had no taste for warfare) wanted an expedition to the western Mediterranean.

Pat Kinross says in his work "Ottoman Centuries" that Selim should have sent his fleet to aid the Morisco Revolt in Spain; this sounds fantastically optimistic to me, and the likely result would have been the envelopment and destruction of the Ottoman force. The actual course of the Ottoman fleet took it to Cyprus, where a successful invasion ensured the Turkish possession of the island into the 20th Century. The most likely course of action intended by the Ottomans was a grand tactical raid along the Ionian and the Italian coastline.

The Holy League force assembled at Messina in Sicily in July and August, moving east to encounter the Ottomans in the Gulf of Patras, a chokepoint in the east-west waterway through the Ionian peninsula

The Sources: Well documented in both Ottoman and western archives. By the 16th Century military professionalism had developed the "after action report" to provide tactical context to the logistical details of ships taken, sunk, damaged and men killed, wounded, captured or missing.

The Engagement: Lepanto is both beginning and ending. It is the end of the long, long tradition of Mediterannean galley warfare. After Lepanto the heavy naval gun made ramming - especially the ramming technique typified by the long, light-timbered classical galley - nautical suicide. That naval artillery was just beginning in 1571, but the performance of the "galleasses" - upgunned galleys with a heavier spread of sail and fewer oars - pointed out that these intermediate forms were just a stop on the way to the true cannon-armed man-o-war.The two fleets formed up in the traditional line abreast of a galley fight, the Holy League vessels in four divisions (Left, Center, Right and Reserve) facing east, the Ottomans similarly arrayed (but with a much smaller reserve) to the west. A combination of tactical disjunction and technical mismatch separated the League Right and Center divisions, into which the Ottomans attacked with their usual skill. The Ottoman Right also turned the League Left. But all this maneuvering, so crucial on land, was a bagatelle at sea. The bottom line was:

1. The League's cannon armed galleasses devastated the Ottoman galleys, which had no reply - in fact, the accounts claim that the Turks thought the galleasses were merchant cogs and concentrated on them, performing the naval equivalent of throwing themselves on the grenade. League reports claim that galleass cannon fire sunk some dozens of the 50 to 70 Ottoman vessels sunk.

2. The Spanish tercios proved as lethal on water as they were on land. When Ottoman marines met Spanish marines, Ottomans died. Their Ottoman equals, the Jannissaries, were underrepresented at Lepanto and the Ottomans suffered for it.

3. The Ottoman commander, Ali Pasha, was criticized at the time and has been since for allowing his force to spread out and fight single ship duels rather than acting in concert for mutual support. I find this somewhat risible, since the League "formation" was fairly notional, with Andrea Doria haring off south with the League Right and exposing the League Center, and the reality that the Ottomans had run head-on (so to speak) with the gunpowder era of naval warfare which they were, simply, not prepared for.

In the end, the Ottoman fleet was smashed. Ali Pasha's head ended up on a pike, the League captured over 100 of the Ottoman vessels and sank another 50 or so. As many as 15,000 Ottomans were killed or drowned. League losses were notional.

The Outcome: Strategic Christian victory.

The Impact: At least one historian has said that "after Lepanto the pendulum swung back the other way and the wealth began to flow from East to West, a pattern that continues to this day" an called it "as a 'crucial turning point in the ongoing conflict between the Middle East and Europe...".

Curiously, although the Ottomans at the time and most historians since consider Lepanto one of the major turning points in the East-West struggle along with the failed Ottoman Siege of Vienna in 1529, the immediate consequences were less spectacular. The Ottomans rebuilt their fleet within one year! They also recognized the cause of their defeat: the rebuilt Navy included eight large galleasses. The Holy League fell apart after the peace treaty of 1573 was concluded on Ottoman terms, and the Turkish fleets continued to romp across the Med well into the 1580s. Indeed - the Ottoman pressure on Eastern Europe continued for more than a century, until the final defeat at the gates of Vienna in 1683.

The general conclusion seems to be that Lepanto a) helped impoverish the Ottoman treasury by forcing a complete reconstruction of the fleet, and b) killed too many Ottoman sailors that, in the long term, started the Ottoman naval forces on their long decline. What is worth considering here is the "political" context in which Lepanto occurred.

The Sublime Porte had been blessed with outstanding leadership under Suleiman. His only failing had been personal - his affection for his wife, Hürrem Sultan or "Roxana", blinded him to the damage she was doing to the Ottoman succession. She engineered his murder of his most promising son, Mustafa, and placed her own disappointing progeny in line for the sultanate. Selim we've mentioned; his successor, the atrocious Murad III, was outstanding only for the employment of his wedding tackle said to be responsible for 103 children by something like 1,200 harem houris.

The next 50 years were notable for sultans remarkable only for their mediocrity, while the European powers were unifying and taking advantage of an increasingly wide technical and tactical seperation between the Christian and the Islamic worlds that resonates to this day.

Touchline Tattles: Lepanto has proved a weirdly iconic date in Western history, inspiring poems and paintingsand religious devotion from the day the last galley foundered in the wine-dark Aegean Sea until today.
"Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight for ever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade....
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)"
G.K. Chesterton


Ael said...

Lepanto also demonstrated the need for technical excellence and an organized bureaucracy. Those ships (and the men fighting them) were insanely expensive.
Furthermore, a ruler couldn't throw them all on the shore during peace and still expect a navy when war came.

Given the obvious value of a navy (and the requisite cash flow to sustain them), national institutions (and nationalism itself) were given a powerful boost. Kings and merchant towns were winners, feudal lords were losers.

Lisa said...

What a wonderful analysis, thank you.

Military tactics not being my strong suit, I am fascinated by the psychology. How could the wise Suleiman be so blind to his Roxane and her feeble Selim? This is not the first time in history of such things. "When a Man Loves a Woman"... Some say men love more deeply than women (when they do.)

FDChief said...

ael: Good point. Until the 16th and 17th Centuries the Ottomans had the immense advantage of a professional, meritocratic civil service and a trained military force that no individual European principality (let alone the bizarre artifacts like the religious orders of knighthood) could match. But competition with and imitation of the Ottoman system gradually produced similar professional organizations like the politicomilitary bureacracies of the Hapsburgs and true nation-states in France, Spain, Austria...while the Ottomans degerated into a corrupt and inefficient slough run from the harem in Topkapi.

Lisa: I couldn't agree more. We tend to forget, in our accounts of dry history texts, that "history" was the current events of the day, and that loves and hates, jealousies and camraderies made it then as they do now.

I've always had a sort of wry affection for Suleiman and his "Roxana". I don't know if it's a question of the depth of love. He very obviously truly loved her. And I suspect that she must have loved him to the degree her position allowed. But that was just it: he was free to give or withhold his affection without reservation. She was terribly boxed in by her position and the lethal rivalries of the harem. Nothing I can think of shows the toxicity and fallacy of the notion of a "harem" than the lengths she was forced to go to knowing that if Mustafa ascended to the cadi her children would be murdered. Their story is really a tragedy, and in that in an absolute monarchy a tragedy for the rulers is often a tragedy for the ruled, beyond just a "Chuck and Di" palace soap opera.

Lisa said...

"she must have loved him to the degree her position allowed" --

well, that is the crux of the biscuit. Women have tended to maneuver to best advantage while operating within various constrictions. Perhaps that is why men, if they love, love more freely and with less design.

Excellent point that the tragedy in an absolute monarchy has far-reaching repercussions. It will be the same with our own Selim, GWB, and his (un)constitutional monarchy, the unitary executivehood.

mike said...

Odd that the Ottomans used a fleet of under-gunned galleys. Consider that just a century earlier they had breached the fortifications of Constantinople with what was at that time the greatest artillery train in the world. Their siege guns included a super bombard that threw a cannon ball of 800 pounds. Not bad for the 15th Century!

But siege guns are probably not the best choice to mount on a platform that pitches and rolls. And the Ottoman were basically a continental land power. They saw the requirement for sea power but were never comfortable with it. They basically depended on their Greek subjects from the Aegean and Ionian littorals for expertise in naval warfare.

I think a major fallout of Lepanto was overconfidence and overreach by Spain. Less than two decades later, Phillip II sent a fleet to England that included many of the same naval allies from the Holy League at Lepanto. Most of the Tercios on board drowned - or if their ships later wrecked on shore - they were robbed, stripped and murdered by Scots and Irish looters.

Much has been said about the divine wind. But it was Brit seamanship, ship design, longer-range ship cannon, and fire-ships that bested the Armada. I am sure the Ottomans (like the Spanish after the Armada) had much to say about wind or fate or somesuch defeating them at Lepanto.

FDChief said...

Lisa: "Women have tended to maneuver to best advantage while operating within various constrictions." Ouch! I have to agree - but am ashamed to admit that us Y-chromosome types have a lot to answer for...

Strange how the whole GWB farrago has played out without a smidgen of romance and only the horrific gorgon figure of Barbara Bush as the female power player. Another reason to loathe the loyal Bushies.

mike: I think a lot of it had to do with the fact, despite being more thought of as a land power, that the Ottomans had never lost a sea battle since the 15th Century. They and their Barbary allies were a caution at sea, and like all winners, they stood pat with what they knew. It was the long-whipped Europeans who needed a new paradigm and boy, did they find it!

Same-same with Spain ten years later. They sent the best technical and tactical organization that they had - the galleys and galeasses that had done so well at Lepanto. But the Brits had been pioneering a whole NEW paradigm: the all-heavy-gun all-sailing ship. This was forced on them by the heavy weather in the North Atlantic rather than by design, and if the Armada had caught them off Sardinia rather than in the Channel in October...well, they didn't, and we know the rest.

Lisa said...

Alas, the gorgon Babs Bush...nary a whit of femininity to be seen there. I always thought HW to be the femme in that pair bond.

The jockeying for power is perhaps a forever thing--the "I Love Lucy" syndrome. It is either overt or covert. I hold out that there are bondings of love which transcend such pettiness, but they are rare.

FDChief said...

Lisa: "I hold out that there are bondings of love which transcend such pettiness, but they are rare."

Indeed. I have loved some magnificent women, but never have I found a love completely free of power-struggles. I would own the fault myself, save for I suspect, as you say, that those of us capable of loving without competing are rare and old souls, indeed...

mike said...

Chief -

Again you are stretching my synapses. I need to dust off my copy of Don Quixote. Didn't Cervantes allude to a renegade Spanish or Italian admiral in the services of the Sultan? Amazing that many of the Ottoman captains and admirals started out as privateers or Barbary pirates. Sounds very much like Hawkins, Frobisher, Drake and Raleigh. Too bad that Ali Pasha was more of a land soldier and not a former privateer.

Regarding the 'what if' of the Armada catching the Brits off Sardinia rather than in the Channel in October, you are undoubtedly right about the possibility of the table being turned in that case. But I believe that would be more due to the logistics tail and lack of close allies in the area, and have nothing to do with the weather and sea state in the Mediterranean. The English ships would have prevailed even in a bathtub. They had better mobility, like the Ottomans had with their rowed galleys prior to Lepanto. And with the deeper keels and lower castles on the upper deck of the English ships they made a more stable gun platform. They deliberately armed them with longer range cannon because at shorter range they were at the mercy of the devastating downward sweep of fire from the towers of the Spanish ships which would have raked their decks from above.

The galleons of the Armada made bigger targets. They were magnificently decorated, but unwieldly. Drake compared them to "gaudy women great with child". They lumbered along at an average speed of about two knots. They too carried long range guns but were not mobile enough to use them effectively. Calm weather and seas would have made no difference.

FDChief said...

mike: the difference would have been, I think, that the Spanish had the only vessels capable of moving in a calm. They could have rowed their galleys and galeasses to a point where the English couldn't hit them (at an angle to teh bow or stern, say) and used the bow chasers to hammer away.

But I think in the larger sense, you're right: the English were on to the path to the true line-of-battleship. The Spanish had turned into the cul-de-sac of the galleass and the galleon. Armada was pretty much over before the fleets even met...