Barbary Rovers: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The Knights of St. John—II

The Knights now took their places in the forts they had to defend against the vast Turkish power. These forts were three in number. Fort St. Michael and Fort St. Angelo lay near the Burg, the town, which was the stronghold of the Order. The Burg lay to the east of the Marsa, the great harbour of Malta, and on the other side of the harbour, at the end of a rocky promontory, stood the third fortress, the outlying fort of St. Elmo.

When the Turks arrived, Mustapha, the general in command of the troops, resolved to attack St. Elmo first and take it, before going on to assail the forts which guarded the town. Piáli, the admiral of the fleet, did not agree with him. He thought that Fort St. Michael should be assaulted at once. He pointed out that even should St. Elmo be taken, it was only an outlying position, quite apart from the town, and brought them no nearer their object, the seizing of the Burg, the stronghold of the Religion.

Fortunately for the Knights, Dragut was not there. He had been delayed on his voyage to Malta, and he and his Corsairs did not arrive till a fortnight after the Ottoman fleet. Had he been there, Fort St. Elmo would never have been attacked. The great leader always struck at the heart of his foe, and he would have assailed the forts covering the town. As it was, Mustapha had his own way. He landed his troops, threw up batteries on the land side of the fort, manned them with cannon, and had begun to play upon the walls of the fortress before Dragut arrived on the 2nd of June.

Dragut saw at once the mistake that had been made. To assail St. Elmo was to give the Knights time, and time was very precious to them. They were looking for an army of relief from Spain, and the longer the Turks spent before the outlying fort, the nearer drew the moment when the reinforcements would arrive. But for all that, Dragut did not abandon the attack on St. Elmo. Now that it had begun, it must go on. To retire from its walls would look like defeat: it would give heart to the Knights and dispirit the Turks. So Dragut drove the siege forward with the utmost fury, feeling certain that he could destroy the little fort in a few days. The fort was small and its garrison was few: it was held by sixty Knights and about four hundred soldiers; but they were picked men, and they boldly faced the Turkish hosts, intent only upon selling their lives dearly, and holding the foe as long as possible before their walls.

Before long Dragut began to see that this small but dauntless garrison would not be easily driven out of the fort. They worked unceasingly to make good the ravages of his cannonade. He beat down a wall only to find that the breach had been made in vain. A new wall had risen behind it, and the cannonade must begin anew. He hurled a storming party against the gate, and in a tremendous battle of three hours the Turks gained an outwork but no more. So fearful was the Moslem onset that the Knights sent word to the Grand Master that it would be impossible to resist another such attack. La Valette replied that they must withstand it; that St. Elmo must be held till the reinforcements arrived; that he would come himself and head the defence, if need be. Upon receiving this answer the stubborn garrison turned anew to their task.

Dragut now planned to cross the deep moat, the fosse which ran round the walls of the fort. He built a bridge, and he built it in a sailor's fashion. For he fetched up from his ships a number of great spars, and laid them side by side across the yawning gulf. A body of Janissaries, the flower of Turkish soldiery, rushed to the attack, and they were met by a counter-assault of mail-clad knights wielding their huge two-handed swords. For five hours there was a mighty hand-to-hand combat on Dragut's bridge, but even the Janissaries could not stand before the finest swords of the Religion, and the Turks were hurled back for the moment with terrible slaughter. But the combat was soon renewed, and attack after attack was stubbornly delivered and as stubbornly withstood. The Turkish cannonade was unceasing. Day by day the heavy shot beat down wall and parapet until the fort was hammered to pieces, and still the Knights clung to the shapeless mass of stone, and held their post among the ruins. The Turks had suffered dreadful loss, and so had the Order. But time and again the Grand Master sent fresh bodies of troops across the harbour to St. Elmo, and thus reinforced the garrison. Mustapha had been so certain that he would soon seize St. Elmo, that he had not entirely surrounded the place with his trenches, and through the gap he had left, La Valette could send knights and soldiers into the fort.

Knight of Malta


Dragut resolved to stop them. He set his engineers to work, and brought his trenches down to the water's edge, so that none could pass to St. Elmo. A useful piece of work, but the besiegers paid an immense price for it: none other than the loss of their greatest leader. Dragut was shot while giving orders to his men in the trenches, and was carried off to his tent mortally wounded. The fate of St. Elmo was now sealed. Mustapha launched fresh assaults against the little garrison, and for every Turk that fell, ten fresh men sprang forward to take his place; the place of a fallen Christian remained empty. The final assault was delivered on the morning of the 24th of June. The day before there had been a fierce combat, and but few of the garrison had survived, and these felt that the end was at hand. All gathered in the trench where they knew the last rush would come. The sick, the wounded, the maimed had crept there; some were too weak to stand and were seated by their comrades in chairs, but each held his drawn sword and craved but to strike one last blow at the Infidel.

In poured the Turks. By sheer force of numbers they bore down the Christians, and, ere long, not a knight, not a soldier was left alive. They were slain to the last man, dying as hard as they could on that soil which they had defended to the last drop of their blood. St. Elmo had fallen. Dragut heard the news as he lay dying, and rejoiced. But it had been a costly victory. More than eight thousand Turks had been slain before the walls, and this was but a small outlying fort, while the greater forts still stood, grim and frowning, across the harbour. "If the child has cost us so dear, what will the parent cost?" said Mustapha, the Turkish general.

But Mustapha did not delay. He formed his plans at once for a new siege, carried his troops and artillery across the harbour, sat down before Fort St. Michael, and by the 5th of July his batteries were playing on the fortress. He also tried to assault the town from the water. Upon one side of the Burg lay a deep inlet called the Harbour of the Galleys, because it was there that the galleys lay in winter. Mustapha aimed at sending a fleet of gunboats into the Harbour of the Galleys to fire upon the town and the fortifications from that side.

[Illustration] from Barbary Rovers by John Finnemore


Now the mouth of the harbour was barred by a stout chain drawn from shore to shore, and this must be severed before the gunboats could sail in. A band of daring Turks swam to the barrier, each man carrying an axe, and they strove to cut the boom. Then out swam a shoal of defenders, mostly Maltese, with sword in teeth, and attacked the Turks. There was a sharp and strange fight in the water and on the boom, and in the end the Turks were driven off and the defence was kept unbroken.

The fighting had been desperate before St. Elmo: it was thrice more desperate before St. Michael. The assailants marched upon the bastions at several points in order to divide the Christian forces. They hurled themselves upon the wall in strong columns, and planted scaling ladders against the parapets. At each ladder the combat was furious. Up the ladders swarmed the splendid Janissaries, the chosen troops selected to head the assault. Few reached the top. Upon the walls stood the Knights and hurled down masses of masonry torn loose by the Turkish cannonade. The great blocks of stone broke the ladders, dashed to the ground the stubborn climbers, and rolled among the throng below.

On came fresh masses of the foe and new ladders were planted, and the escalade began once more. No slaughter could damp the courage of the fiery Moslems, and they swarmed up to the wall in hundreds. But none could pass it. The huge swords of the Knights swept away line after line of the assailants. The great blades beat down the lighter scimitar, and shore their way clean through steel cap and coat-of-mail, and smote the splendid soldiery of the Sultan with terrible destruction. The Janissaries were supported by a great band of Corsair troops. Upon these the Knights sallied and cut them in pieces. The Corsairs fled towards the harbour, but fled in vain. So confident had they been of victory that they had dismissed their ships, and they were driven pell-mell into the sea, where they were slain or drowned in great droves. The reddened waves were dotted with drums and flags, and turbans which had floated from the heads of the drowning Moslems.

Ten such assaults as this were delivered, and the Christian defenders had to keep watch and ward night and day. They never knew at what moment a great array might pour down upon them, and in spite of every precaution they were, more than once, nearly taken by surprise. For instance, the Turks planned a great assault at midday on the 2nd of August. At that burning hour of noon in a southern island such as Malta, midday is quieter than midnight. Every one seeks shelter from the fierce beams of the raging sun, and takes the siesta, the midday rest, which the climate demands. All that sultry morning Mustapha annoyed the defenders with cannon shots and threats which kept them alert and busy. Then he drew off, and the weary Knights set their sentries and lay down to sleep.

At the hour of noon, Mustapha sent six thousand chosen troops against a bastion which had been beaten into ruins by his artillery, and he knew that the breach had not been repaired. The Turks marched at full speed and in perfect silence. Their vanguard was almost at the breach when the sentry discovered their presence. He shouted an alarm, and two Knights and three men-at-arms darted into the breach, and there encountered an advance party of twenty-six Janissaries. There was a furious battle, but the Janissaries could not force an entrance. Fifteen of their number fell before the five heroes who held the passage, and then forces came up from either side and the fight became general. For four long hours the combat raged in the fierce heat, till both sides were worn out; but the Turks retreated with heavy loss, and the fort was saved.

Five days later the Moslems again assailed the shattered defences with the might of their whole army. So tremendous was the stress that every defender was called upon to repel the almost victorious assault. The Grand Master himself laid aside his baton of command, seized pike and sword, and fought in the front of battle like a man-at-arms. For eight hours the struggle went on. Six times the Turks were driven back, six times they were reinforced with fresh troops and returned to the attack. But the Christians had no reserves and were all but worn out. At the last moment two hundred of their cavalry fell on the rear of the Turks and caused a timely diversion. The Turks feared it was the vanguard of the Spanish army expected so long. They retired, and the fort was saved as by a miracle.

Again and again Mustapha hurled his Janissaries on the little garrison, now sadly reduced in numbers. But the Grand Master with the few defenders left under his command managed to resist every effort, until after long, long waiting the Spanish army of relief landed on the island. The Turks heard that the reinforcements numbered but six thousand men, and marched against them. But the new-comers, fresh and full of fight, smote the Turks hip and thigh, and drove them, with terrible slaughter, to their galleys. The attack upon Malta had failed. Mustapha retired, taking with him less than one-fourth of the splendid army he had landed before St. Elmo.

Defense of Fort St. Michael


"No more moving sight can be imagined than the meeting of the new-come brethren of the Order and their comrades of St. Michael's Fort. The worn remnant of the garrison, all told, was scarcely six hundred strong, and hardly a man was without a wound. The Grand Master and his few surviving Knights looked like phantoms from another world, so pale and grisly were they, faint from their wounds, their hair and beard unkempt, their armour stained and neglected, as men must look who had hardly slept without their weapons for more than three memorable months. As they saw these gaunt heroes the rescuers burst into tears; strangers clasped hands and wept together with the same overpowering emotion that mastered relievers and relieved when Havelock and Colin Campbell led the Highlanders into Lucknow. Never surely had men deserved more nobly the homage of mankind. In all history there is no record of such a siege, of such a disproportion of the forces, of such a glorious outcome. The Knights of Malta live for ever among the heroes of all time."