October 7, 1571 — Considered by many to have been the most important naval engagement in human history, the Battle of Lepanto was fought on this day. It saved the Christian West from defeat by the Ottoman Turks.
In the encounter, which lasted about five hours, more than 30,000 Muslim Turks and 8,000 Christians were slain. Not until the First World War would the world again witness such carnage in a single day’s fighting. The battle was also remarkable as the last and greatest engagement with oar-propelled vessels.
The conflict between Muslims and Christians had been raging since the year 622 when Mohammed set out from Medina to conquer the Christian world for Allah. Within 100 years every Christian capital of the Middle East had been pillaged.
Michael Novak, writing for the Catholic Education Resource Center, reported that “a long line of great warrior sultans sponsored Turkish advances in shipbuilding, gunnery, military organisation and training.
“By the mid-1550s they had conceived of a long-term offensive, a pincers movement first by sea and then by land, to conquer the whole northern shore of the Mediterranean. Their ultimate aim was to take all Italy, then all Europe.”
Novak wrote that the Muslims, stung by an earlier surprise defeat in Malta, had ratcheted up the savagery of their attacks on the coastal villages of Italy, Sicily, Dalmatia and Greece.
He explained: “Three or four Muslim galleys would offload hundreds of marines. They would sweep through a village and tie all its healthy men together for shipment out to become galley slaves.
“Then they would march away many of its women and young boys and girls for shipment to Eastern harems. All the elderly would be gathered into the village church where they would be beheaded, and sometimes cut into little pieces, to strike terror into other villages.
“The Muslims believed that future victims would lose heart and swiftly surrender when Muslim raiders arrived. Over three centuries, the number of European captives kidnapped from villages and beaches climbed into the hundreds of thousands.”
Against this background, the galley fleet of the Holy League was formed – a coalition of the Republic of Venice, the Papacy, Spain (including Naples, Sicily and Sardinia), and the Republic of Genoa. It had a fleet of 316 vessels.
Against them was ranged the Turkish fleet of 245 ships. The two sides met at dawn off the west coast of Greece.
The legendary Don Juan of Austria was in command of the Christian fleet. Aged only 24, the dashing illegitimate son of retired Holy Roman Emperor Charles V gave the order to attack as the fleets approached each other. Urged by his admirals towards caution, Don Juan allegedly told them: “Gentlemen, this is not the time to discuss, but to fight.”
The Christian ships – galleons, frigates, galleys and the new galleasses – were heavily armed with cannon and it was this superior firepower that proved decisive.
For centuries, galleys were the ubiquitous warships. Usually with multiple banks of oars, they could carry large numbers of soldiers who would spring into action during close engagements.
And with a ram on the front, they could knock holes in their opponents’ hulls, sinking them. By the time of Lepanto the Christians had replaced rams at the front of galleys with cannons.
They also successfully deployed the latest technological weapon – the galleass – a high-sided sailing vessel less wieldy than the galley and which carried more cannons.
Together with these and superior gunnery, Don Juan turned the Turks back, smashing their fleet. Enemy galleys were sunk before the soldiers on board could join the battle.
One Turkish commander is said to have fallen to his knees when his galley was boarded and offered to pay handsomely for his life. The response of a contemptuous Spanish soldier was to slice off the Turk’s head as he knelt and then display it on his pike.
The Battle of Lepanto destroyed the myth of Turkish invincibility created earlier by Suleiman the Magnificent who reigned from 1520 to 1566.
And, as historian HW Crocker noted: “Not only was the battle lost for the Turk, but so were 170 of his galleys and 33,000 men killed, wounded, or captured. About 12,000 Christian galley slaves were liberated.
“Lost was a generation of experienced Ottoman bowmen and seamen; and though a mighty fleet could, and indeed was, rebuilt, the threat of the Ottoman Turks dominating the Mediterranean was finished.”
Summing up in 2009, the BBC reported in a documentary: “The Ottoman Empire reached its height under Suleiman the Magnificent when it expanded to cover the Balkans and Hungary, and reached the gates of Vienna.
“The Empire began to decline after being defeated at the Battle of Lepanto when it lost almost its entire navy. It declined further during the next centuries, and was effectively finished off by the First World War and the Balkan Wars.
“One legacy of the Islamic Ottoman Empire is the robust secularism of modern Turkey.”
Published: September 12, 2019