There Would Be No More Deserters from St. Elmo

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

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“No war is more cruel and bloody than siege warfare. . . .”

The truth of this statement was to be proved over and over again during the next few months. The Turks were now so enraged by the Christians that any instinct of chivalry which might once have animated their commanders had long since disappeared. Mustapha and Piali both felt equally at fault for the long delay in front of St. Elmo; this small and relatively unimportant fort should have fallen long ago. Dragut, resigned to a long-drawn-out affair by the initial bungling of the Sultan’s commanders, had now become as adamant as the admiral and the commander-in-chief that the siege of St. Elmo should never be abandoned.

On the night of June 14 a Turkish spokesman was sent out into the ditch between the ravelin and the fort to call out to the defenders that Mustapha promised a safe passage to any who wished to leave that night. By his beard, and by the tombs of his ancestors, the Turkish commander-in-chief had sworn that any who wished to retire might now leave the fortress unmolested. It is just conceivable that, had the offer been made a few days earlier, there were those among the younger Knights and the troops who would have accepted. But, by now, they had all resolved to die where they stood. Furthermore, although they knew they could not hold out much longer, their successes had been so great that their morale was high. Merely by looking down at the mounds of corpses that fringed their beleaguered garrison they could see what their defense was costing the Turks. Mustapha’s spokesman was forced to retire under a hail of arquebus shot. There would be no more deserters from St. Elmo.

Throughout the following day the increased bombardment showed that another attack was impending. From Mount Sciberras, from Tigne, and from the re-established heavy batteries on Gallows’ Point the fire never ceased. Deafened, stunned, and tired almost beyond caring, the defenders prepared for the inevitable assault. If the bombardment was intended to demoralize them, it did not succeed. It merely served to put them on their guard and to make them all the more ready for the attack when it came. The night of the fifteenth was also broken by minor raids. The enemy had clearly grown confident and was beginning to feel that the prize lay within his hands.

La Valette, listening and watching from across the water, must have felt that the end was near. St. Elmo had already held out beyond any reasonable expectation. It might be tomorrow, or it might be the day after, but it was inconceivable that the garrison could survive much longer.

The attack began at dawn, on Saturday, June 16. The island was still damp from the night air and the headland was scented with the sea when the flares ran like fuses along the ramparts of St. Elmo. The defenders had noticed the enemy troops massing. They had heard the high voices of the mullahs calling upon the faithful to die for paradise.

One of the saintly murderous brood
To carnage and the Koran given . . .

stood on the high ravelin and cried out that in the holy war between the true believer and Christian all who fell with their faces toward the enemy would inherit the perfect world promised by the Prophet. There in that paradise were wells of clear spring water. The date palms were shady in an eternal afternoon, and the juice of the grape (forbidden to the faithful in this mortal life) would refresh them. There divinely beautiful houris would welcome such warriors to their arms, and the climax of love would last a full ten thousand years.

Vowed and devoted to their other heaven, the Christians awaited them. They heard the dull booming of the tambours and the brassy call of trumpets. They looked seaward and saw that the whole Turkish fleet had crept up during the summer night and now lay like a ring around the point. At such a moment even the bravest felt fear stick dry as a crust in their throats.

Nearly 4,000 Turkish arquebusiers spread themselves in a great curve from the water on Maramuscetto, across the dip below Mount Sciberras, over toward Grand Harbor. They opened a devastating fire on the embrasures of the fort. Ladders, scaling irons, and improvised bridges made of masts and spars were dragged down into that ditch where the bodies of so many of the flower of the Sultan’s army were already black and bursting from summer heat. Piali’s fleet opened fire as the light spread over the water. The sun, rising behind the ships, cast the shadow of their hulls and sails across the sea. Within minutes of this naval bombardment, Mustapha’s gunners on Mount Sciberras opened up with their 60-, 80-, and 160-pound shot. North and south the batteries on Tigne and Gallows’ Point began their cross fire against St. Elmo.

Huddling against the walls, taking shelter behind improvised barricades, the defenders awaited the onslaught. They had fire hoops and incendiary grenades, boiling cauldrons and trumps, piled ready by the embrasures and behind the threatened breach of the southwest wall. Only two nights before, La Valette had managed to reinforce them with a convoy of these incendiary fireworks. He had also sent further supplies of wine and bread, for St. Elmo’s bakery had been destroyed and water was running short.

For this attack — the attack that Mustapha felt sure would deliver the fortress to him — the Janizaries were held back in reserve. In their place, and for the first assault wave, he sent in the Iayalars. They were a fanatical corps, without the Janizaries’ iron training as soldiers but with a complete disregard for life — their own or any other. Maddened by hashish, the Iayalars were a fervid sect of Moslems, deriving their blind courage from a blend of religion and hemp. Like the berserkers of the North, the Iayalars induced a deliberate frenzy which made them oblivious to everything but the lust to kill. They were “picked men, clothed with the skins of wild beasts, and having as head covering gilded steel helmets. The surface of their skin-tunics was enriched with varying designs and characters in silver. They were armed with the round shield and scimitar . . .”

In a frenzied wave, seeing only the line of the battlements before them and paradise beyond, the Iayalars came down for the assault. The pupils of their eyes were like needles, their salivaed lips held only one word: “Allah!”

On the lips of the Maltese was also the word “Alla,” for in their language the Chrisitan god was called the same. Behind the ramparts, and in the breach of the southwestern side, the Knights, the Spanish soldiers, and the Maltese waited.

“In many, nay, in most campaigns, personal feeling enters but little into the contest . . . At Malta the element of actual personal individual hatred was the mainspring by which the combatants on both sides were moved: each regarded the other as an infidel, the slaying of whom was the sacrifice most acceptable to the God they worshipped.” If the concept of a jihad, or holy war, had originated with the Moslems, it was something that the Christians had also adopted many centuries before. The horror, and the implacable nature of the wars of religion, was not only that the soldiers on each side believed heaven awaited them if they fell in battle, they also believed that they owed it to their adversaries to send them to hell.

Beaten back by the defenders’ fire, the Iayalars retired, leaving the ditch filled with bodies. They were followed by a horde of Dervishes. Mustapha was keeping back his crack troops until “the religious” had laid a gangway to St. Elmo with their corpses. At the last, he looked toward the Janizaries and gave the order for the pride of Islam to advance. It was two days since the lieutenant-aga, the general of their corps, had been killed by a cannon ball fired from St. Angelo. Now was the time for the “invincible ones” to redeem his death with Christian blood. Sons of Greeks, Bulgarians, Austrians, and Slavs, these converts to Islam swept forward and on up to the breached walls. Time and again though they charged, they too faltered and broke before the defenders’ fire.

The deadliest toll was taken by a small battery on the southern side of the fort. From this angle the gunners were able to enfilade the advancing enemy. Despite the Turkish shot directed against them, they maintained their murderous rate of fire all day. St. Angelo, too, aided the defenders. The gunners on the high cavalier of the fortress kept sweeping the ranks of the Moslems with a long traversing fire. The cannon blew great black holes in the white surge of the advancing enemy.

Throughout the action both Dragut and Mustapha Pasha stood in full view on the ravelin and supervised the attacks. Dragut was busy everywhere. With his own hands the old corsair laid the guns, advised the master gunners, and directed the bombardment. While Janizary or Iayalar attacked in one section, Dragut made sure that, in the area where there were no Moslem troops, the shot fell thick and fast. The minute and assault weakened and the troops withdrew, he shifted target and kept up an unrelenting bombardment against the weak positions. St. Elmo was like a rock lashed by a hurricane.

It was not until night fell that the attack was called off. It seemed incredible to Turk and Christian alike that so small a fort could have resisted so long. One hundred and fifty of the garrison were dead and many more wounded, but the Moslem casualties littered the whole ground in front of the scarred and tottering walls. A roll call made this same night showed that the Sultan’s forces had lost over 4,000 men in the past three weeks, nearly 1,000 of them in that one day’s attack.

The gallant De Medran was among the dead of St. Elmo. Pepe di Ruvo (the Knight who had calculated the number of shots fired against the fort during the siege) was also killed. De Miranda had been seriously wounded. If June 16 was a victory it was a Pyrrhic one. Small though the losses of the defenders were, they could not afford them. The time was not far distant when Dragut’s battery on Gallows’ Point would prevent any reinforcements reaching them. The moment that happened, all was lost.

For the first time since the beginning of the siege, La Valette refused to order any more men or Knights to reinforce St. Elmo. He called for volunteers. Thirty Knights and 300 soldiers and Maltese from Birgu came forward. They offered themselves for certain death.

— Ernle Bradford

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, History, Philosophy and Religion and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to There Would Be No More Deserters from St. Elmo

  1. Anonymous says:

    After reading this, I went out and looked across the harbor at Fort St Elmo and the fortress-city Valletta (which, it should be said, was constructed after the siege).

    Like

  2. slumlord says:

    Balls. Fucking balls.

    We are all pussies compared to such men.

    Like

  3. DN Poolside says:

    Fantastic excerpt.

    Like

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