Gottfried von Kalmbach — Part Nine

Gottfried was already on his way to the embrasures. He too had heard before the terrible soul-shaking shout of the charging Janizaries. Suleyman meant to waste no time on the city that barred him from helpless Europe. He meant to crush its frail walls in one storm. The bashi-bazouki, the irregulars, died like flies to screen the main advance, and over heaps of dead, the Janizaries thundered against Vienna. In the teeth of cannonade and musket volley they surged on, crossing the moats on scaling ladders laid across, bridge-like. Whole ranks went down as the Austrian guns roared …

— Robert E. Howard, “The Shadow of the Vulture”

Calling the situation of Vienna in September 1529, desperate, would be a grotesque understatement. Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent had sworn to reduce it and march over its wreckage into Europe. Its walls were weak, and its garrison was outnumbered about five to one by the soldiers and artillery of the greatest, most relentless military force in the world. Those last words are no exaggeration. Since the young Sultan Suleyman had come to the Turkish throne, he had taken Belgrade as a curtain-raiser to his reign, subdued Transylvania to his will, crushed Hungary, and hurled the formidable order of the Knights of St. John from their stronghold of Rhodes.

Now … Vienna.

Nominally, Philip the Palgrave held the highest rank, but he was only twenty-six despite his warlike courage and high heart. The real leadership lay with the tough seventy-year-old Count Nicholas Salm, seasoned, competent, and brave, with many military feats to his credit. Philip, despite his by-name of “the Contentious”, deferred to the respected old soldier without resentment.

Salm, says Howard, drove his men and the citizens with “lashing energy”. He had the city’s houses which stood too near the wall, levelled to the ground, and the wooden shingles of the roofs taken off as a precaution against fire – as dreaded in most sixteenth-century towns as it was aboard ship. He had paving stones ripped from the streets to deaden the effect of Turkish cannon-shot. Knowing the weakness of the existing city wall, he had an earthen one twenty feet high thrown up within it. The side of the city by the Danube’s bank was entrenched and palisaded. From the drawbridge to the Salz gate he built a rampart able to resist the Turkish cannon fire. The suburbs of Vienna, now deserted, were set afire to deny cover to the besiegers.

The passage in REH’s story describing this is so similar to an account by the Earl of Ellesmere (translating the German of Carl August Schimmer and others) in The Sieges of Vienna by the Turks, London 1879, that I wonder if REH had a copy. This blogger was put on the scent of that book by Jeffrey Shanks, who offered the text of his e-mail exchanges with the Ambros Castle curator on the REH Forum. REH did certainly get a lot of the historical background from The Grande Turke by Fairfax Downey (which I discovered courtesy of Patrice Louinet). Indebted to both these REH scholars.

Full details of how the troops were posted would take more space than this article allows, but in Vienna’s four main squares cavalry were stationed under Wilhelm von Roggendorf’s command, ready to move at once in any direction required. Philip the Palgrave held the Stuben quarter with a hundred cuirassiers and fourteen companies of Imperial troops. The Elend Tower had been strengthened with a rampart and mounted with the heaviest guns the defenders had, to give the Turkish flotilla on the river as much hell as possible. Elsewhere along the line of defense were von Reischach with three thousand infantry, von Vels with another three thousand and – from the Scottish Gate to the Werder Gate – two thousand Austrians and seven hundred Spaniards under von Ebersdorf.

“It was all hell and bedlam turned loose,” writes Howard, “and in the midst of it, five thousand wretched noncombatants, old men and women and children, were ruthlessly driven from the gates to shift for themselves, and their screams, as the Akinjis swooped down, maddened the people within the walls … Men on the towers recognized the dread Mikhal Oglu by the wings on his cuirass, and noted that he rode from one heap of dead to another, avidly scanning each corpse in turn, pausing to glare questioningly at the battlements.”

Gottfried von Kalmbach at that point was less worried about Mikhal Oglu than about being called upon to dig earthworks. He lumbered into a tavern and soon made himself so drunk that, as REH tells us, “ … no-one would have considered asking him to do work of any kind.”  The siege of Rhodes and the disciplines of the Order of St. John were both years behind him now. He didn’t mind fighting or risking his neck, but he objected, clearly, to the activity known in REH’s Texas as working on the blister end of a shovel.

That aspect of the Viennese siege – the digging and mining – is not treated in the greatest detail by Howard. But he mentions it during the wild drive of his narrative, in a way that does not slight its importance. He says of Sultan Suleyman:

“ … he saw his sappers burrowing like moles, driving mines and counter-mines nearer and nearer the bastions.

“Within the city there was little ease. Night and day the walls were manned. In their cellars the Viennese watched the faint vibrations of peas on drumheads that betrayed the sounds of digging in the earth that told of Turkish mines burrowing under the walls. They sank their counter-mines accordingly, and men fought no less fiercely under the earth than above.”

Undermining the walls of besieged citadels and towns, then setting off gunpowder blasts to collapse them, was standard practice. It had been attempted often at the siege of Rhodes, as Gottfried would have remembered well, but there the knights had the invaluable services of the brilliant siege engineer Gabriele Tadini. Among other devices, he had dug deep cylindrical vents at the most vulnerable points of Rhodes’ fortifications, so that the gunpowder blasts could escape upwards, doing minimal damage. And the defenses of Rhodes had been the strongest in the Mediterranean, anyway. Those of Vienna were pitiful by comparison.

Nevertheless, Suleyman did not make good his boast that he would eat his breakfast on Vienna’s ramparts on the Feast of St. Michael. The appointed day, the 29th of September, came and went. The city remained untaken. The Viennese released some prisoners and sent them to the Turkish camp, with the mocking message that they asked the Sultan’s pardon for allowing his breakfast to get cold, but to atone for it, they would continue to entertain him as best they could, with their artillery and swords! This although Suleyman had threatened to leave no Christian alive in the city, not even a child or pregnant woman, if it defied him.

Gottfried first met Red Sonya while she was providing some of that very entertainment. A Transylvanian gunner had just had hid brains blown out by a Turkish matchlock, and Sonya, heedless of risk as usual, had taken his place, in her Cordovan boots, Cossack breeches, and shirt of Turkish mail. She expressed the wish that her target could only be “Roxelana’s — ” before she blew herself flat on her own backside by firing the overcharged cannon, but she destroyed a Turkish gun-crew below the walls. Gottfried clearly fancied her from the beginning, and when he asked out of curiosity why she wished the Sultan’s favorite for her target, she answered hotly, “Because she’s my sister, the slut!”

I suspect that the bad blood between Sonya and her sister went back to their girlhood. But nobody had any time to inquire on that occasion. The Janizaries charged the wall, the most dreaded soldiers in Asia. They were European in blood, taken as tribute from conquered Christian lands while they were children, raised to serve the Sultan only, some of them clerks and administrators but most of them soldiers, forbidden to marry and dedicated to war, certain that if they died in the Sultan’s battles they would spend eternity in the Seventh Heaven of Light. Why should they not be certain?  They had been taught it from infancy. In the frenzied fighting on the wall, Gottfried and Red Sonya found themselves battling side by side, the huge German with a great two-handed sword, Sonya with a saber that flashed like lightning in her hands. For the first time, then, but not the last, she saved the big man’s life. However, when he tried to thank her, she curtly rejected his thanks and called him “dog-brother!” for good measure.

The Janizaries had been driven back. September gave way to October and the days of October went by. The Sultan still had not eaten his breakfast on the ramparts of Vienna. In each new attack Red Sonya was conspicuous as ever among the defenders, and if she fought like three men she was worth a hundred at keeping up morale. Every man who saw her, fighting on the walls with saber and spear, careless of sword-thrusts and hackbut fire alike, must have said to himself, “If a woman can bear herself like that, ‘fore God, so can I!”  As Alfred Austin wrote in his poem “The Last Redoubt”:

In the redoubt a fair form towered,

That cheered up the brave and chid the coward;

Brandishing blade with a gallant air …

According to REH, the Vizier Ibrahim called off the Janizaries at last “and bade them retire into the ruined suburbs and rest”. Then he had a message attached to an arrow shot into the city, at a spot where traitors were waiting to receive it. The Turkish cannon kept up steady fire hour after hour, but they did not stop for a renewed onslaught, and when a great store of hidden wine was discovered inside Vienna (the merchant had hoped to make a profit) the soldiers got colossally drunk. Gottfried, of course, was among the guzzlers. So was Red Sonya, crying derisively, “Nose deep in the keg!  Devil bite all topers!” before she tossed down a goblet at one gulp herself.

Gottfried, goaded by her insults and drunk as a fiddler’s bitch, roared that he would go from the city and engage the Turks “ – if never a man follow me!”  And eight thousand did, though Wulf Hagen tried to stop them by talking sense in a desperate bellow. They brushed him aside. By sheer luck they made their sortie at just the time a mine was detonated by the vital Karnthner Gate. In Howard’s words, “ … a terrific explosion rent the din, and a portion of the wall … seemed to detach itself and rise into the air.”

The besieged, under Roggendorf, had taken all the advance precautions they could against that sort of occurrence. They worked constantly to detect Turkish mines and counter them; they also braced their walls with posts and beams so that even if charges were successfully set off, the wreckage would topple outwards and block any breaches. Despite all this the Karthner explosion might have been a disaster, for the Turkish infantry were ready to charge on the instant. By blessed luck eight thousand drunken madmen, led by the drunkest and maddest of all, burst out of the city and met the Turkish onslaught at the right moment. They caught the Janizaries with their ranks still half-formed, and though much outnumbered, they hacked their way through the fanatical slave-soldiers. “The suburbs became a shambles,” Howard writes, “where battling men, slashing and hewing at one another, stumbled on mangled bodies and severed limbs.”  He adds that “Salm gave thanks for that drunken sortie. But for it, the Janizaries would have been pouring through the breach before the dust settled.”

Although the Viennese madmen had driven back the Janizaries – a thing seldom known – Suleyman’s light horsemen rode to cut them off and slaughter them. Blind recklessness turned to fear, and they ran for the drawbridge to enter the city again. Captain Wulf Hagen and his retainers, cold sober, stood at the head of the drawbridge and held it while the drunkards streamed back into Vienna. Gottfried von Kalmbach, weary, weighed down by his mail, was floundering in the moat with Turks close behind him when Red Sonya rescued him for a second time, blowing the brains out of the foremost Turk with her pistol and urging Gottfried up the muddy bank. By the skin of their teeth they made it through the gate. Gottfried, dazed and still drunk, thought to ask breathlessly where Wulf Hagen was, and Sonya answered tersely, “Lying dead among twenty dead Turks.”

Lord Ellesmere’s translation of Schimmer confirms this as having happened about the 8th of October. Although he does not describe events exactly as Howard does, he reports, “ … the encouragement from the garrison on the walls, and the example of a brave commander, Wulf Hagen, were unavailing to check the torrent. Hagen himself, with a few brave men who remained about him, was surrounded and beheaded.”

Gottfried asks Sonya why she pulled him out of the moat. She describes him as a great oaf and tells him she can see he needs a wise person “to keep life in that hulking frame.”  Gottfried, shaking with reaction, says, “But I thought you despised me!” to which she replies in exasperation, “Well, a woman can change her mind, can’t she?”

But greater matters than this reckless by-play and notable instance of fool’s luck needed looking into. That too-timely blast that wrecked part of the wall by the vital gate had been suspicious from the first; later investigation showed that particular mine had been tunneled from inside the city, from a secret cellar, and a heavy load of powder placed in it, perhaps by as few as two men. There were traitors within Vienna – and traitors with resources. An intense, furious search began. God help the bastards if we find them, was the general chorus of the seekers.

The scheme had been Grand Vizier Ibrahim’s. His master the Sultan was as displeased by its failure as the garrison of Vienna with the attempt. “Have done with thine intrigues,” he barked, on one of the few occasions he was short with his boyhood friend and, now they were both adults, his chief administrator. “Where craft has failed, sheer force shall prevail.”

The defenders expected nothing else. “While the soldiers stood to their arms,” writes Schimmer, as translated by Ellesmere, “the citizens of both sexes, and of all classes, ages, and professions, spiritual as well as lay, were at work without cessation, removing rubbish, digging new entrenchments, throwing up works, strengthening the ramparts, and filling up the breaches. Many so engaged were wounded by the enemy’s various missiles.”

Then they could only wait.

Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part SixPart Seven, Part Eight, Part Ten, Part Eleven