My first naval entry and its a big’un.
Name: The Battle of Lepanto
The War: Part of the interminable Ottoman-Habsburg Wars and the Ottoman-Venetian Wars
When: 7 October 1571
Where: The Gulf of Patras in the Ionian Sea, off Greece. Lepanto was the port that the Ottoman fleet sailed from in the nearby Gulf of Corinth (then the Gulf of Lepanto). The port is known today as Naupactus (Lepanto being an Italian designation).
Force/Commanders: 208 ships (202 galleys and 6 galleasses) of the Holy League (Spain, Venice, the Papal States, Genoa, Savoy, Knights of Malta, Naples, Sicily, Tuscany, Parma and Urbino) with around 23’000 soldiers (also of various nations) under the overall command of Don Juan de Austria against 251 ships (206 galleys, and 45 galliots) of the Ottoman Empire with around 32’000 soldiers under Ali Pasha.
“If I win the battle, I promise you your liberty. If the day is yours, then God has given it to you.”
-Ali Pasha to his enslaved Christian rowers.
“There is no paradise for cowards.”
-Don Juan De Austria to his rowers.
“The Imperial fleet encountered the fleet of the wretched infidels and the will of God turned another way.”
-Unnamed Muslim Chronicler
The Holy League was formed by Pope Pius V in 1571 with the aim of challenging Ottoman dominance of the Mediterranean. The Muslim Empire had recently added Cyprus to its holdings and was looking more and more outward, from the Italian mainland to further conquests in Eastern Europe.
The League was a mishmash of Kingdoms, City States and Knightly Orders which all contributed a certain amount of ships, placed under the overall command of Don Juan de Austria, the bastard brother of the King of Spain. The ships assembled off Messina in Sicily before sailing to meet the Ottoman fleet in the Gulf of Patras.
Both fleets drew up in a similar battle order: three divisions, north, centre and south with a small reserve behind.
It was the Ottomans who made the first moves pushing ahead to engage some of the larger vessels in the Holy League fleet, thinking them to be vulnerable merchant ships. They were mistaken: they were actually heavily armed galleasses which were able to broadside the attackers. The first of two crucial advantages of the Catholic countries now came into to play: more guns. Much of the Ottoman fleet suffered in this opening engagement and the Muslim line in the North was badly damaged.
The battle devolved into flank and counter flank maneuvers. The opposing centre lines clashed head on while in the south the Ottomans had the better of the exchanges. With the ships packed so close across the Gulf, the second advantage of the Holy League could now be used: their better quality of fighting men, employed in a marine role. Spanish, Germans and Croatians, they began widescale boarding and firing of Muslin vessels. The Ottomans had limited success of their own in that regard but could not hold back the more experienced European soldiers (The famous Janissary Corps was largely absent).
The defining moment was the commitment of the League’s reserve, larger and more crucial than its Ottoman counterpart. In the North, the galleasses played havoc with the Ottomans, the centre was advancing, and even the south had turned the tide. Soon, Spanish troops were boarding the Ottoman flagship. On the third attempt, they captured it, beheading the Ottoman commander, Pasha Ali, in the process.
The display of their dead commanders head shattered what was left of the Ottoman morale and a full scale retreat of the remaining vessels, around 20% of the fleet, began. The Holy League, having lost 50 ships of their own and distracted by the capture of over a hundred Muslim vessels, did not pursue immediately.
Why It’s Decisive – Impact On That War
In the long-term not much, but in its immediate context, gigantic. It was a thunderbolt to the European-Ottoman wars. Muslim naval power was destroyed. It would take them decades to reassert naval authority, even though much of their fleet was replaced relatively quickly. The sailors and soldiers they lost could not be.
The Holy League all but ended following the battle, its main purpose achieved. Plans to try to seize Istanbul came to nothing due to disunity in the ranks of the its members. It was a feat in itself that the Catholics were able to overcome such fractures even for one day.
The Ottoman wars dragged on for centuries. Some would claim they are still being fought today.
Lepanto is correctly venerated as the last great battle of rowed ships, the naval method that had, thus far, dominated Mediterranean warfare. Never again would such numbers be employed. It was now the age of sail, a period that would last until the mid 19th century.
The Christians employed large amounts of handheld gunpowder weapons as well as larger artillery, against the Ottomans composite bowmen. The results were one-sided to the extreme. It was the last major engagements between arrow and shot and a better advertisement for the new weapon is hard to find.
The Venetian galleasses, larger ships capable of devastating cannon assaults, became the new model of naval excellence, soon copied by the resurgent Ottoman fleet.
In terms of tactics, broadsides were soon to become the norm in naval warfare, the hectic mash of oar-driven ships being too chaotic for more modern thinkers.
Pretty important. No large-scale territorial changes were involved in the result (in fact, a treaty two years later recognised Ottoman control of Cyprus) but the historical importance is more of a mental one. For generations Muslims had been able to best their Christian counterparts to the west. The Caliphate conquests, the failure of the Crusades, the loss of Constantinople, the advances towards Vienna, the Christian victory at Lepanto is crucial just for showing that the Ottomans could be beaten. It was inspiration for Europe to follow, a rejection of supposed Ottoman invincibility at sea.
More concretely, Turkish advances in the Mediterranean largely ceased, their focus returning to land based conquests in North Africa. Ottoman designs on Eastern Europe also took a hit, their high water mark in the continent soon to be reached.
It has been suggested that Ottoman plans for an attack on mainland Italy may also have been indefinitely postponed due to the result of Lepanto but this is mostly speculation.
But certainly, an Ottoman victory would have handed them the Mediterranean on a plate. Every coast, from Portugal to Croatia, would have been fair game.
In National Consciousness
Lepanto remains a celebrated victory of Christian Europe over the Muslim East. The Papal States, of course, lead the way in its commemoration with many fine visual depictions of the battle to be seen in the Vatican museums. As to be expected, the result of the fight is put down to divine will and the Catholic feast day of “Our Lady of the Rosary” (first Sunday in October) see’s its beginnings with the fest of “Our Lady of Victory” as the Blessed Virgin is credited with the outcome.
Lepanto remains a watershed moment in the military history of the sea, the political structure of Europe and the religious clash between east and west.
For more of NFBs Decisive Battles check out the index here.