Military History has many examples of where the few stood against the many. The few often paying the ultimate price and dying to the last man.
Perhaps the most famous few against the many is the 300 hundred Spartans and 700 Thespians facing thousands of Persians at Thermopylae in 480 BC.
But the other day I found a few against the many story I was totally unfamiliar with. I read about it in a book I got at a used book store. The title is The Enemy at the Gate-Hapsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe by Andrew Wheatcroft.
I’ve had a long-standing interest in Ottoman conquests in Europe that began with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The fall of Constantinople ended the Byzantine (eastern Roman) Empire and heralded 200+ years of the Ottomans pushing well into Europe.
The Ottoman threat finally abated after they failed to take the Hapsburg Capitol of Vienna in 1683. The Enemy at the Gate is a history of the Ottoman conquests in Europe in summary form. The emphasis of the book is on the turning point when the Ottoman’s failed to take Vienna and the Holy Roman Empire began a reconquest of Hungary.
The few against the many story that Wheatcroft documents is an incident that occurred in 1566 when the Ottomans were trying to take a Holy Roman fortress and town in Croatia called Szigetvar, a fortress that had withstood a prior Ottoman attack ten years prior. The Ottoman Turks were persistent if anything
The governor of Szigetvar was Miklos Zrinyi. The garrison of the town and the fortress totaled 2,500 men. A demand to surrender from the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman was met with taunts and insults.
It would be hard to underestimate the hatred that both sides felt for the other in the power struggle between the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans. Atrocities of the most horrific imaginable were common on both sides and yet at times a surrender could mean freedom and mercy.
In this case Miklos and his men would expect no quarter nor would they give it.
The unique feature of Szigetvar is that it was built on three islands on a lake. The first island was called the new town, the middle island the old town and on the last island sat the fortress itself, a final refuge should the first two islands fall.
The summer of 1566 was brutally hot and the lake was largely dried out thus depriving the Croat and Hungarian defenders of their best defense.
Ottoman engineers filled in the wet spots with brushwood and stormed new town but it cost them 3000 dead compared to 300 dead suffered by the defenders. The remaining defenders escaped to the old town over a causeway.
The Turks then stormed the old town but it took ten assaults to capture it. Losses were again heavy but man power was something the Ottomans rarely lacked. The defenders however were now down to 300 fighting men the other 2200 having already perished. The 300 retreated into the fortress with their wives and children.
Zrinyi knew it was over and it would be only a matter of time before the Turks stormed the fortress and killed them all. The sultan, perhaps admiring their bravery or not wanting to lose more men offered the defenders good terms (good terms probably meant they would not be sold into slavery like some many other Christian captives) of surrender but the 300 refused.
What they did instead was remarkable.
They agreed that they would not allow their wives and children to fall into the hands of the Turks (it meant death or slavery at the least). The men agreed they would kill their own wives and children and then sell their own lives as dearly as possible.
On the 33rd day of the siege Zrinyi and his remaining soldiers launched a a surprise attack on the Turkish Janissaries (Turk elite infantry) who got caught on the causeway between the two islands and slaughtered them.
The epic charge did not take long as Zrinyi was hit immediately by two musket balls. Within minutes all but three of his men were killed or wounded. The Janissaries put Zrinyi’s head on lance, entered through the gate of the fortress and crowded into the square.
A young woman who had hidden herself in the magazine (gun powder store) fired the powder within blowing the entire fortress to pieces along with 3,000 Janissaries.
The Ottomans who recognized courage when they saw it recorded the whole thing in The Ottoman Chronicle of the Svigetvar Campaign.
The Enemy at the Gate-Hapsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe by Andrew Wheatcroft is a compelling read of the epic struggle between the Islamic east and the Christian west that did not abate until late in the 18th Century when both declining empires learned to get along and actually become allies in the Great War of 1914.
- The Weird Phenomenon of Ottoman Empire Nostalgia (powerlineblog.com)