“I do not forget faces. Somewhere I have seen yours – under circumstances that etched it into the back of my mind. But I am unable to recall those circumstances.”
“I was at Rhodes,” offered the German.
“Many men were at Rhodes,” snapped Suleyman.
“Aye,” agreed von Kalmbach tranquilly. “De l’Isle Adam was there.”
– Robert E. Howard, “The Shadow of the Vulture”
Gottfried von Kalmbach, the huge tawny-haired German knight of St. John, glowered pensively at the immense Turkish host drawn up against his Order. They were besieged on the island of Rhodes. The new Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman, still in his twenties, was determined to hurl the knights from their stronghold, and on his showing so far, if any man could do it, he could. Gottfried, as a German, stood with his countrymen at their post on the section of the ramparts just west of the Grand Master’s palace. The French knights had been stationed to the north. South of the Germans, and on around the fortifications, were the knights of Auvergne, Aragon, England (the English contingent the poorest of the Order, as that of France was richest) Provence, Italy, and Castile – the latter incorporating Portugal.
The knights had long been grouped in divisions (Langues) according to the tongues they spoke. Unity of language and tradition had been found good for morale. Nearly all the knights spoke more than one language, however. Gottfried, though no intellectual, had fluent French and fair English, with enough Turkish to manage a basic conversation – despite the fact that he seldom said anything more to Turks than “Yield!” or “Go to hell!”
The Order was fortunately led by a worthy Grand Master, the resolute and experienced Philippe Villiers de l’Isle Adam. His foresight had strengthened the already mighty fortifications of Rhodes, and brought a superb military engineer to the island – the Italian Gabriele Tadini, an asset beyond price to the beleaguered knights. Devout and skilful, Tadini had been admitted to the Order by de l’Isle Adam as a Knight Grand Cross, and made a Bailiff. Besides strengthening the walls and bastions in conventional ways, the inventive Tadini devised safeguards against one of the greatest dangers in any siege – tunnels dug by enemy sappers to undermine the walls.
Such tunnels in former centuries had been supported by timber baulks until the besiegers wanted to collapse them under the wall or tower they threatened. Then they had simply filled the tunnel with firewood and set it ablaze. By 1522 barrels of gunpowder had replaced firewood, to devastating effect – and the Turkish Empire, with its huge resources, could afford any amount of powder.
Tadini avoided the waste of the defenders’ strength involved in constantly digging counter-mines. He had deep, narrow shafts dug at the spots most likely to be threatened by Turkish tunnels. The main force of the sappers’ powder charge would then escape up the shaft, and the effect on the walls would be minimal.
Tadini also invented a device to detect the vibration of picks and crowbars within the earth as the enemy sappers advanced. It was simply a parchment drumhead with tiny, sensitive bells attached. Placed on the ground, it served as a reliable alarm for subterranean action. This spared the Order’s men much of the usual wearing labour and battles below the earth. They had enough to do above it.
Suleiman’s artillery began pounding the citadel at the end of July. It went on day and night without pausing, except when he commanded his infantry to assault the walls. It was perilous work, for the knights of St. John were skilled gunners also. As any new Turkish cannon emplacement found the range and began to inflict damage, the Rhodian guns were promptly trained on it and undertook to shatter it. Turkish engineers directed the labour of a multitude of slaves to raise earthworks higher than the very walls of Rhodes, but that consumed much time.
Gottfried was tireless. Conspicuous always in the hand-to-hand fighting, he was as evident when the walls had been breached or weakened, working like a giant to fill the gaps with bundles of wood or baskets of earth. (Tadini made sure these were handy when required.) Early in the siege, Suleiman concentrated his cannon fire and assaults against the post of a single langue at a time, but again and again this exposed his troops to crossfire from the posts on either side. They were slaughtered until the dry earth of Rhodes bore a carpet of their dead.
A near-disaster occurred on the 4th of September. A mine was successfully exploded under the wall of the English post, and a forty-foot section of the wall did collapse. The janissaries, the dreaded Turkish slave-infantry, charged it, raising their dreaded battle-cry. Grand Master de l’Isle Adam himself led the resistance to their attack, with the English commander, Brother Nicholas Hussey. The knights at the other posts were required – and ordered – to stay where they were lest attacks be launched against their sections of the wall also. Gottfried, with the lack of discipline for which he was notorious, crossed to the English post anyway, knocking down two men who tried to stay him. He battled beside the English knights until evening.
The other German knights joined him as two further attacks followed. It had become clear that the situation was desperate. A great mound of Turkish dead lay before that section of the fortress walls, and even the plumed janissaries could not sustain their onslaught. They fell back.
Suleiman ground his teeth over these immense losses, but his shattering artillery fire and repeated assaults slowly weakened the defences of Rhodes through August and September. On the 24th, he launched his first mass attack upon the posts of several Langues at once – against the southern ramparts, from the post of Italy on the east, by the harbour, those of Provence and England, on the south, and that of Aragon, at the south-western corner. His gunners bombarded the entire front at dawn, with an intensity that made their previous cannonades seem like lovers’ kisses. Then the Sultan’s infantry attacked, in a relentless human wave. Again the shattered, and hastily repaired, bastions of the English post were forced to bear what seemed unbearable. Again Gottfried von Kalmbach towered among the bloody chaos, roaring his family name, fighting where the fray was thickest and be damned to orders. Slipping in blood, choking on smoke and dust, he battled for six long hours hand-to-hand beside the English knights and the Provencals, until at last the Turkish soldiers fell back. Not even the scourges of their officers could force them into the breaches again. The Sultan, choking in rage, had to accept that if Rhodes fell at all, it would not be before winter arrived to make his siege even more difficult.
Mustafa Pasha, the Sultan’s brother-in-law, who had commanded the Turkish attack, incurred Suleiman’s wrath for his failure. The Sultan sentenced him to death. Other senior officers pleaded with Suleiman for mercy, and finally he granted it, sparing Mustafa’s life. He was exceptionally lucky. Ottoman Sultans, when they ordered a city taken, did not listen to excuses. But Mustafa was replaced by Ahmed Pasha, an experienced siege engineer.
Ahmed was apparently the Ottoman equivalent of Tadini. With him in charge, the Turks concentrated on undermining the walls while subjecting them to a continuous barrage from the Sultan’s cannon. As the walls of Rhodes generally rested on solid rock, and the tunnels driven by Ahmed’s sappers had strangely regular intervals between them, it is possible he had found the ancient Greek culverts of Rhodes, and taken advantage of them. Neither Tadini nor de l’Isle Adam could call upon outside resources. The Turkish army could … the resources of the greatest empire in the known world. But the Turks were flagging too.
The knights had superb artillerymen of their own. Suleiman had lost many precious cannon and valuable gun crews. The Turks raised massive earthworks opposite the posts of England and Aragon, until, finally, they overtopped the walls of Rhodes in that section. Suleiman had his remaining heavy cannon concentrated there, firing constantly down into the city to make a wide breach. The knights and their workmen toiled like maniacs to repair the breaches; the Turkish gunners opened them again.
Gabriele Tadini saw that those Turkish guns were almost the last of Suleiman’s heavy cannon. He proposed a desperate action, which was approved, and led two hundred knights on their battle chargers out through the no-man’s land between the battered walls of Rhodes and the enemy guns. They were committed to destroy them or die.
Gottfried von Kalmbach was among them. They charged the thousand Azabs (the equivalent of marines) guarding the Sultan’s batteries, in a terrible mass of flesh and steel, tipped with lance-heads. First they skewered the Azabs and rode them down, then finished the slaughter with their huge two-handed broadswords. The cannon had been aimed at the fortress walls and could not be aligned to blast the charging knights in time. Now, cutting down the gun crews, the knights set fire to the wooden gun-limbers. As their supports burned, the huge cannon rolled down into the ditches and lay there, useless. Gottfried rode back to the fortress with his comrades, roaring his great laughter.
Tens of thousands of Turkish soldiers lay dead around the citadel of Rhodes – literally. Not one had entered it, yet. Disease was spreading in the Turkish camp. Even the indomitable janissaries, the men whose only purpose was war for the glory of the Sultan and Islam, were gloomy and discouraged. Late in September, after two months’ arduous and bloody siege, the Knights of St. John still held out.
They could not hold out much longer, though. The fearful Turkish barrage had sorely reduced the bastions of England and Aragon. The janissaries charged the weak spots again, and again, and again, each time being hurled back, the bastions being lost, regained, lost again and then regained. Men on both sides wondered how human flesh and blood could stand it. October came, wore on in gore, death and agony, and gave way to November. Autumn had gone now, and winter had arrived. Cold gales and rain added to the Turks’ misery. Disease increased. Sickness, as always in any protracted campaign, killed more soldiers than the enemies’ weapons.
Immense as the odds against them were, the knights might not have been forced to yield, and the Sultan might have had to withdraw in failure and shame. But every besieged fortress has its traitor, and Rhodes was no exception. An appalling discovery was made towards the end. The Grand Chancellor of the Order, Andrea d’Amaral, had been smuggling information to the Turkish camp throughout the siege. He had betrayed the weak points of the defenses, and given information about the knights’ inner councils. His motive may have been rivalry and pride. He had been eager for the position of Grand Master, and sorely disappointed when de l’Isle Adam was chosen instead. He was brought before the council of the knights and condemned.
He and his manservant, who had aided him, were executed on the 5th of November.
Finally, in December, the Sultan made a greater concession than he had remotely conceived he would, when the siege began. If de l’Isle Adam would surrender Rhodes, he, all his knights and soldiers, the mercenaries, the citizens, would be spared and allowed to depart unmolested. Otherwise – no quarter. The citadel was in ruins, the knights and people alike, starving.
The Grand Master accepted.
The knights took their sacred relics, including a piece of the True Cross, and exchanged the red cloaks they wore in battle for the black ones that distinguished them in normal times. Then they left Rhodes, under Suleiman’s safe conduct. The island had been their stronghold for two hundred years, ever since the loss of Acre in the early fourteenth century. Now it was lost. No Christian monarch in Europe had sent a force to break the siege and succour the knights.
Gottfried got colossally drunk in his grief. That was nothing new, and he never needed the excuse of anguish. While drunk, however, he overheard two Portuguese knights cursing the Grand Master for his execution of d’Amaral. They were claiming he had trumped up the charges to excuse his loss of the fortress. Gottfried von Kalmbach rose to his feet, roaring, and called them perjured liars.
The result was a ferocious brawl. Gottfried seriously wounded one of his adversaries, and killed the other. That was the end of his career in the Order. His reasons for getting into the fight hardly mattered; it was one more instance of his notorious drunken indiscipline, and one too many, especially at that time. Before the end of January, 1523, Gottfried was thrown out of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. He went his way unrepentant, a vagabond hell-raiser on the ancient soil of Sicily.
But Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent had not seen the last of him.
Read Part One, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven