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  • The Ottoman EmpireDates: 1453-1923

    Political Considerations

    The Ottoman Empire, founded by Osman I (r. 1290-1326), dominated much of southeastern Europe, theMiddle East, and North Africa between the four-teenth and early twentieth centuries. Ottoman mili-tary superiority in the Balkans in the fifteenth andsixteenth centuries stemmed from the use of newmodern armaments integrating infantry and cavalrywith innovative tactics. The Ottomans borrowedmethods from their adversaries and even used Chris-tian and Jewish soldiers and officers in their cam-

    paigns. In addition to a magnificent army, they had anavy that was among the best in the Mediterraneanarea. However, one aspect of the early Ottoman suc-cess has been greatly exaggeratedthat of the Otto-mans superiority in numbers. The Ottomans rapidconquest of the Christian, Greek-speaking, EasternRoman Byzantine Empire, as well as the other Bal-kan states in the years from 1290 to 1453, came notfrom larger forces but from essentially waiting fortheir Christian rivals to destroy each other in battleand then moving in and taking over the remainingterritory. The Ottoman sultans made alliances with


    Library of Congress

    The Ottoman Turks seize Constantinople from the Byzantines in 1453 to establish the Ottoman Empire.

  • Christian states, and Turkish soldiers served as mer-cenaries in Christian armies, just as Christians foughtin the Turkish armies.

    National mythology has also greatly exaggeratedthe historical significance of key Ottoman victoriesbefore 1453, such as the defeat of the Serbs at Kosovoon June 15, 1389. In many ways the Ottomans inher-ited the Balkans by default, because the Byzantinearmy collapsed as a result of internal civil wars andexternal invasions by the Western European Chris-tian Crusaders and other neighboring Christian states.

    The decisive victory that established the Ottomandomination of the Balkans was the Siege of Constan-tinople in 1453. The Turks had prepared for this bat-tle for fifty years. According to legend, the city was tofall to a sultan bearing the name of the prophet Mu-wammad. Sultan Mehmed I (r. 1402-1421) initiallyappeared to be that man, but an internal contest forthe throne and a war against Tamerlane in the east

    made his attack on the Byzantine capital impossible.However, when his grandson Mehmed II (1432-1481) ascended the throne in 1451, both sultan andpeople were ready.

    By 1453 Constantinople had become a shadow ofits former self. The citys population, which had onceexceeded one million people, had declined to onlyseveral tens of thousands. Constantinople was nolonger a unified city but rather a series of villages be-hind walls. Mehmed II prepared his attack carefully,building fortresses on both sides of the BosporusAnadolu Hisari on the Asian side and Rumeli Hisarion the European sidethe ruins of which still stand.He strengthened the janissary corps, raising theirpay and improving the officer ranks. He constructedcauseways over the Galati hill north of the old city, sothat he could have his ships dragged up and over tothe Golden Horn, the harbor of Constantinople, cir-cumnavigating the chain and flotilla that protected

    588 Warfare in the Age of Expansion

    M e d i t e r ra n e a n S e a

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    Tripoli Egypt




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    Tripoli AlexandriaCairo



    Damascus Baghdad








    Ottoman Empire at the endof Sleymans reign

    Ottoman Empire in 1520


    Ottoman Expansion Under Sleyman the Magnificent

  • the entrance to the citys vulnerable side. Mehmedsfleet of 125 ships and an additional number ofsmaller support craft was five times larger than thatof the Greeks. With this fleet, Mehmed prevented theByzantines from bringing supplies by sea as they haddone in the past. The first Turkish troops to reach thewalls of Constantinople in April, 1453, were a fewknights, who were successfully met by the Byzantinesoldiers in a brief skirmish. Ottoman reinforcementsthen drove the Greeks back behind the walls. Mas-sive Turkish forces gathered over the next days,including cavalry, infantry, engineers, and navalforces. Most important were the cannons Mehmedhad placed at the heretofore impenetrable walls; theybegan a constant bombardment that continued forseven weeks until they finally breached the wall.

    Mehmed and his entourage of janissary soldiers,advisers, and imams, or religious leaders, took up theirpositions before the city. Mehmed offered the city ei-ther mercy if it surrendered without a fight, or pillageif it chose to fight. The Greeks chose to fight to the last.

    After the fall of Constantinople the Ottomans con-tinued to expand throughout the Muslim world in theNear East and North Africa. At the height of the em-pire under the sultan Sleyman I the Magnificent(1494 or 1495-1566) the European boundariesreached beyond the Danube River to the gates of Vi-enna. Sleymans failure to take the Habsburg capitalowed as much to the limitations of Ottoman militarytactics, especially the definition of its campaigns byannual sorties lasting only from the spring to the fall,as it did to the defense of the Vien-nese. Sleyman also fought and lostto the naval forces of King Philip IIof Spain (1527-1598) in the Medi-terranean at the celebrated Battle ofLepanto (1571).

    After Sleyman the Ottoman Em-pire went into a decline. Succeedingsultans rarely left their palaces andplaced state matters in the hands oftheir ministers, most of whom wereChristian slaves taken in the childtax from Balkan families. The Otto-mans fought against Austria, Poland,the Papacy, and other European

    states for control of the Danubian plain for two hun-dred years. However, they found a European ally inFrance. In the late seventeenth century the grand vi-ziers of the Albanian Kprl family arrested thedecline of the Ottoman Empire and spearheaded a re-vival of its former power. However, in 1664 at Szent-gotthrd, on the Austrian-Hungarian border, the Ot-tomans suffered their first loss of land to the Christianpowers. After the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) theimproved European armies surpassed the Turkisharmy in organization, tactics, training, armament,and even leadership. The Turks, whose advancedtechniques and equipment had previously been theirstrong points, now found themselves falling behindtheir adversaries in these areas.

    The Ottomans failure to take Vienna in a secondattempt (1683) began the loss of their territory to theEuropean powers. In the eighteenth century the em-pire lost wars and land to both Austria and Russia.Inside the empire local warlords carved out virtuallyindependent fiefdoms throughout the imperial prov-inces. The sultans personal authority in reality didnot extend beyond Constantinople. The grand janis-sary corps, which had gained the right to marry, wereless an effective fighting force than a collection of si-necures. In 1792 Sultan Selim III (1761-1808) turnedto France, the empires old ally, for assistance inmodernizing Ottoman armed forces, creating a mod-ern corps in addition to the janissaries. However, theFrench Revolution (1789-1799) and the NapoleonicWars (1793-1815) interrupted the partnership. The

    The Ottoman Empire 589

    Turning Points1453 With use of large cannons, the Turks capture Constantinople from

    the Byzantines, establishing the Ottoman Empire.1571 The Battle of Lepanto II, fought between the Ottoman Turks and

    the Christian forces of Don Juan de Austria, is the last majornaval battle to be waged with galleys.

    1792 Modern French military techniques and arms are introduced intoTurkey.

    1826 The janissary corps are destroyed and the Turkish army ismodernized.

    1923 The Treaty of Lausanne creates the Republic of Turkey, bringingthe Ottoman Empire to its official end.

  • empire suffered from internal revolutions, such asthose by the Serbs and the Greeks, and from uprisingsby warlords and rogue pashas such as Ali Pala (1741-1822), known as the Lion of Janina, in modern Alba-nia, as well as wars with Russia and Persia. In a janis-sary revolt in 1806 Selim was dethroned and killed.His successor, Sultan Mahmud II (1785-1839), be-lieved that the defeat of Napoleon would guaranteeOttoman territory at the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), but when the Greek uprising of 1821 split theEuropean alliance, Mahmud found himself at waragainst the combined forces of Russia, France, andEngland. In 1826, in order to modernize his forces, hedid away with the janissaries.

    Mahmuds successor, Abdlmecid I (1823-1861),allied himself to the powers by promising reforms in

    the treatment of his non-Muslim subjects. In the1830s and 1840s the powers protected Abdlmecidfrom a vassal revolt. In the 1850s England andFrance joined Abdlmecid in the victorious CrimeanWar (1853-1856) against Russia. However, in 1877Russia again went to war against the Turks to aid aBalkan uprising. Although the Russians defeated theTurks and liberated the Christian states of the region,England, Turkeys ally, prevented the Russian troopsfrom taking Istanbul.

    In the early twentieth century the Young TurkRevolution brought constitutional government andmore westernization to the empire. However, Turkeylost wars to Italy (1911) and to a coalition of Balkanstates (1912-1913), only managing to r


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