Thursday, July 04, 2013

Book Review (#12 of 2013) The Great Seige: Malta 1565 by Ernle Bradford

The Seige of Malta is probably the greatest war story you've never heard. It is definitely one the greatest, most important battles in European history. There's a lot of fascinating history in this book. Bradford has basically devoted his life to the subject, and I'm amazed at how much detailed history exists about this period. It would make a good movie.

Suleiman the Magnificent is elderly and the Ottoman Empire at its height-- having been stopped at Vienna but still recording victories in Eastern Europe and on the Mediterranean. Europe is struggling, the Reformation is changing it internally and several kingdoms are struggling financially.

Malta is the official property of the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. This Order is quite fascinating, having been established to build hospitals and provide medical services, the group evolved as pilgrims going to Palestine ("The Holy Land") became increasingly under attack by Muslims and pirates with ties to Muslims. The rites of passage and organization of the Order was fascinating to learn in itself-- people in the 21st Century just can't fathom the conditions of naval warfare, prisons, and slavery in the 1500s much less the ideas of chivalry and honor that bound clans together back then. 

The Knights become very effective raiders, plundering many Ottoman ships and being a thorn in the Emperor's side-- so Suleiman scouts it out and makes a decision to take the island. Capturing it would give him a foothold to launch attacks into Sicily, Italy, and Spain-- something terrifying to the Europeans. The Emperor summons overwhelming force and his advisors estimate the island can be taken in mere days. The Best of the Best of Ottoman warriors are described by Bradford.

Grand Master de Vallette is the Knights' fearless leader and hero. Himself elderly, he is a veteran of warfare and Ottoman slavery. He organizes the defense of the island's force of 6,000 or so against 20-40,000 Ottoman warriors. The Ottoman forces make some initial, very costly, mistakes. The Knights defend the fort of St. Elmo to the last man, killing Ottomans at the rate of 7 to 1. The Turks' best and most revered leader, Turgut Reis, dies early in the fighting. Several other forts remain, and the Knights hold out while waiting for help from the rest of Europe.

Malta was sort of the Leningrad or the Alamo of its day, with wide implications. What was supposed to end in days stretches from May to late August, until finally a large relief force arrives from Sicily after the Ottomans' morale is broken and their ranks are decimated by battles and disease. The Ottomans retreat in disgrace and Suleiman dies the following year. It's the beginning of the long decline of the Ottoman empire.

The Order apparently kept detailed records, but Bradford seems to draw on Turkish/Ottoman sources well also. I enjoyed learning the Ottoman history as much as the European side, which is why I was eager to read this book. I give it 4.5 stars out of 5. Bradford seems to have a slight bias writing for the Knights, so that cost him half a star.

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