The Fall of Constantinople 29th May 1453 – A Dying Empire in the Light of the Crescent Moon

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
The Siege of Constantinople Board Game from Strategy and Tactics

Many years ago there was a time when the future seemed more predictable and despite the turbulent times, certainties could be relied upon. Labour Prime Minister “Sunny Jim” Callaghan was mishandling the country, the Trade Unions were making the country ungovernable, and I had been placed on 12 hours’ notice to move, to ride shotgun or rather pickaxe handle in the cab of RAF fuel bowsers, to deliver essential supplies to keep the country running. This included the London Air Traffic Centre at West Drayton, the RAF hospitals (Halton, Ely, Nocton Hall and Wroughton if my memory serves me) and the QRA airfields. As it was a declared state of emergency, the MT drivers had orders to drive through any pickets that tried to stop the bowsers and their trusty sidekicks had been trained to deliver a jab to the face of any of Moss Evans’s strong-arm boys trying to force entry into the cabs. Moss Evens had taken over from Jack Jones as head of the TGWU earlier in 1978.

Just the singlies mind you. The married men had their families, so the singlies bore the brunt of this Operation Deny Christmas. The RAF had plenty of fuel bowsers then, operated by RAF personnel and not Serco and the Buccaneers, Victors and Vulcans were still flogging their tired airframes across Nevada, astonishing the Americans on Exercise Red Flag. The RAF had initially turned down the Buccaneer, hitching their star to the wrong wagon, the TSR2.  But that’s another story for another day.  Christmas on the base wouldn’t be too bad, as long as there was plenty of beer in the NAAFI and food.  If we ran out we could always deliver our own, because beer was an essential supply and there was a state of emergency.  If the truth were known, we were rather looking forward to it.

To pass the hurry-up and wait, a group of like-minded souls, not unlike Mark Edge’s Non-conventionals, were very much into board gaming and a marvellous US company, Simulations Publications published a magazine called Strategy and Tactics. Each issue contained an article relating to a very interesting period of military history and more importantly for we Non-conventionals, each issue came with a game. These issues were as alluring and addictive as Penthouse and Mayfair, but in the cerebral rather than the carnal sense. Two games have lodged firmly in my memory, Veracruz being one (a piece for another day) and the Siege of Constantinople. It was a fairly complex game, but interesting because just like the real historical event, the game was no foregone conclusion.

A link to the Strategy and Tactics magazine series is here Please note that unlike the game reviewer, none of us smoked pipes or supported such a magnificent beard, because of the need to wear S6 respirators for our annual soiree into the CS Gas Chamber and the week-long TACEVALS.

The End of the Byzantine Empire

There are posters on this site that are far more qualified to detail the decline of the Byzantine Empire than I. Apart from brief background information, these essays will concentrate on the military campaign leading up to and during the fall of Constantinople, and draw parallels to the perilous state this country finds itself in today.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
The Byzantine Empire by courtesy of MapMaster

Constantinople had been the imperial capital of the Byzantine Empire since 330, under the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. Because of its vital, strategic position later between the Christian west and the Muslim east from the 7th century, the city had been besieged many times and was captured once by the Crusaders during the Forth Crusade in 1204. The Crusaders established an unstable Latin state in and around the city and the remaining empire splintered into Byzantine successor states, which fought the Latin state and among themselves for the Byzantine throne.

Constantinople was reconquered from the Latins in 1261, but it was weakened and found itself constantly at war, fighting off Latins, Bulgarians, Serbians and the Ottoman Turks. In 1346 and 1349 plague killed half the inhabitants of Constantinople and by 1453 the city was a series of walled villages, surrounded by fields, contained within the fifth-century Theodosian walls. The empire was exhausted and had shrunk to a few square miles outside the city walls. There was also the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara the Peloponnese territory of the Despotate of the Morea and the Empire of Trebizond on the coast of the Black Sea.

There had been centuries of war and enmity between the Eastern and Western Christian churches and successive popes remained committed to establishing authority over the Eastern Church. Latent ethnic hatred between Greeks and Italians, stemming from the events of the Massacre of the Latins in 1182 by the Greeks and the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Latins, played a significant role in fermenting distrust between the two churches. An attempted Union failed, greatly annoying Pope Nicholas V and the hierarchy of the Roman church.

In the summer of 1452, when the threat from the Ottoman Empire had become imminent, Constantine wrote to the Pope, promising to implement the Union, which was declared valid by a less than enthusiastic imperial court on 12 December 1452. Although he was eager for an advantage, Pope Nicholas V did not have the influence the Byzantines thought he had over the Western kings and princes, some of whom were wary of increasing Papal control, and these had not the wherewithal to contribute to the effort, especially in light of the weakened state of France and England from the Hundred Years’ War, Spain, being in the final part of the Reconquista, the internecine fighting in the German Principalities, and Hungary and Poland’s defeat at the Battle of Varna of 1444.

Although some troops did arrive from the mercantile city-states in the north of Italy, the Western contribution was not adequate to counterbalance Ottoman strength. Some Western individuals, however, came to help defend the city on their own account. Cardinal Isidore, funded by the pope, arrived in 1452 with 200 archers. One of these was an accomplished soldier from Genoa, Giovanni Giustiniani Longo, who arrived with 400 men from Genoa and 300 men from Genoese Chios, in January 1453. As a specialist in defending walled cities, he was immediately given the overall command of the defence of the land walls by the emperor. Around the same time, the captains of the Venetian ships that happened to be present in the Golden Horn offered their services to the Emperor, barring contrary orders from Venice, and Pope Nicholas undertook to send three ships laden with provisions, which set sail near the end of March.

The Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II and the Ottoman Army

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Sultan Mehmed II by Gentile Bellini

Sultan Mehmed II succeeded his father in 1451, when he was just nineteen years old. Many of the European courts assumed that the young Ottoman ruler would not seriously challenge Christian hegemony in the Balkans and the Aegean, due to Mehmed’s friendly overtures to the European envoys at his new court. Mehmed’s mild words were not matched by actions. In early 1452, work began on the construction of a second fortress (Rumeli hisarı) on the Bosporus, on the European side several miles north of Constantinople. This fortress was set directly across the strait on the Asian side from the Anadolu Hisarı fortress, built by his great-grandfather Bayezid I. This pair of fortresses ensured complete control of sea traffic on the Bosporus and defended against attack by the Genoese colonies on the Black Sea coast to the north. This new fortress, was called Boğazkesen, which means ‘strait-blocker’ or ‘throat-cutter’, to emphasize its strategic position.

Some historians have attempted to portray Sultan Mehmed as some kind of pink and fluffy, noble tyrant, a lover of poetry and huge supporter and patron of the arts, both Christian and Islamic. There is no end to the “oh, but whataboutary” with the attempts to misrepresent the crusades. Mehmed was simply a man of his time, no worse than the many authoritarians of the time and certainly no better than Vlad III Prince of Wallachia, who had two of Mehmed’s envoys impaled when they demanded that Vlad paid homage to Sultan Mehmed II. However despite his young age, Mehmed was an intelligent man who had a shrewd insight into military strategy. Despite the weakened state of the Byzantine Empire, Mehmed knew that Constantinople was a festering sore on the crossroads of the Ottoman Empire. It could be an excellent forward mounting base for any future military operations by the Christians against the Ottoman Empire and was regarded as: The “bone in the throat of Allah.” It was an abomination and it had to be conquered.

The Ottomans regarded the Balkans “The Lands of the Romans,” in much the same way as the Conquistadores had regarded America. The land and its peoples were ripe for conquest and conversion, but by the mid-15th century the Ottoman elite was divided between those who wish for religiously inspired frontier war and those who favoured a new military and administrative centralisation.

The only major land power facing the Ottomans was Hungary and in 1444 the Ottoman Empire had almost been cut in two by a major naval and land crusade. The Byzantine Despot of the Morea the future Emperor Constantine the IX, had advanced north into Ottoman and vassal lands and for Mehmet II, this was a personal humiliation. The Ottomans would defeat the Hungarians at Varna and forced the Byzantines back to Morea, when Mehmet’s father Murad II came out of voluntary retirement.

The professional soldiers of the Ottoman army mainly consisted of sapahi cavalry and Kapi Kulu troops of slave or prisoner-of-war origin. At least half of the sapahi cavalry were Christian, while the Kapi Kulu troops were elite, expensive to recruit and maintain and included the Janissary infantry that formed the palace guard. The bulk of the Ottoman infantry were not Janissaries, but were irregular light infantry armed with bows and having had minimal training. These were summoned for the campaign along with the akinci frontier light cavalry, also summoned rather than having volunteered. A significant element of Mehmed’s army was comprised of Christian Voynuq auxiliaries from Rumelia, which included Slavs and Romanian speaking Valchs.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Ottoman troops

The Ottomans used sophisticated tactics during the siege, but it was their skill of employing artillery, as well as their ability to combine naval and ground forces to achieve a common goal, made them a formidable fighting force. The organisation and command structure of the Ottoman forces was unambiguous, unified under the Sultan’s control. A particular rank of junior officers, the cavuses, had a specific role to play, which was to report directly to the Sultan on the state of the men but also the officers. As a result of this unique command structure, the Ottoman army was exceptionally well-disciplined.

Firearms had been spreading across the Balkans and into Ottoman territory since the 1370s. By using Christian expertise, the Ottoman army had become the most advanced in the Islamic world in the use of firearms. The armourers with the gun and carriage corps, formed part of the palace army and artillery experts and gun makers were imported from abroad. There was a thriving black-market flow of guns from Italy into the Ottoman Empire and the huge barrels of the Ottoman bombards were manufactured in Edirne by Orban the master Hungarian gunmaker while the Ottoman armourers were still making barrels from bronze or staves and hoops of iron. But the Ottomans embraced the technology and were masters of ballistics. They had also copied the engineering technology of their Hungarian foes. The Ottoman army consisted of some 50,000 – 80,000 light infantry, 5,000 – 10,000 Janissaries, 1,500 Serb cavalry and various cannon and bombards.

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Left Venetian Galleass and right Ottoman Galley

The Ottoman fleet had been virtually wiped out by the Venetians outside Gallipoli in 1416, but they had re-built the fleet with over sixty ships. The Venetians continually underestimated the skill and assurance of the Ottoman fleet, which largely consisted of Greeks, Italians and Catalan sailors. The vessels of both sides were fast, light and manoeuvrable galleys and galleasses. The primary role of the Ottoman fleet was to transport Mehmed’s army to wherever it was needed, primarily across the Bosporus, but it would play a significant and innovative role during the siege of Constantinople.

Strategy and Tactics Magazine 1978
The fall of Constantinople – Wikipedia
The walls of Constantinople – Wikipedia
Constantinople 1463 – The end of Byzantium, Nicolle, David, Osprey Publishing 2000

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