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The Great Siege Then and Now

  • Ben House,
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In one instance at least, I wish that Voltaire, the French atheistic philosopher, were right. He said, “Nothing is better known than the siege of Malta.” In this dark age of historical ignorance, with abysmal historic mental lapses and pandemic historic amnesia, the siege of Malta in 1565 ranks as one of the most forgotten events ever.

The island of Malta, located in the Mediterranean Sea just south of Sicily, has been a hinge upon which the tide of history has turned. In the first case, in Acts 28, Malta served as a refuge for the Apostle Paul and all his fellow ship passengers after their ship struck a reef. After the friendly Maltese saved Paul and ministered to him, God opened the door for Paul to return their kindness by preaching the gospel to them. Malta is a springboard to Italy, and from Malta Paul went to Rome where he wrote several of the New Testament epistles.

Malta again played a crucial role in World War II, over a hundred years after the British had gained control of the island in the early 1800s. Domination of the Mediterranean was a key issue in World War II. Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Vichy France controlled most of the land and territories of Europe and North Africa bordering the Mediterranean. Rommel’s Afrika Korps and his less-than-stellar Italian divisions were poised to capture Egypt and the Suez Canal. That “what-if victory” would have toppled the dominoes of the Middle East into the Axis camp, leading to an encirclement of the beleaguered Soviet Union.

Perhaps as important as the valiant campaigns of Montgomery’s Eighth Army, perhaps as heroic as the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain, the British garrison on the island of Malta kept the Axis powers from winning the war. Rommel’s tanks were left without fuel, replacement parts, and personnel, in large part because the British air and naval units striking out from Malta were sinking Axis supply ships.

In between the events of Acts 28 and World War II, Malta played its greatest role in history. Europe in 1565 was embroiled in the religiously and politically fractious Reformation. Within the inner circles of Christendom, theologians and bishops, kings and priests, Reformers and Catholics, battled with pen and sword. Critical doctrines were at stake. The rhetoric was inflamed, but the battle was for the soul of man and of Christ’s Church. While all these matters were being hammered out — not always very nicely — inside Europe, a threat loomed outside.

The threat was Islam. Under Suleiman (or Süleyman) the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottomans, Islamic forces possessed the power, the will, and the desire to conquer all of Europe. Islamic theology gave an ideological drive to the Seljuk (also called Ottoman) Turks, who from the year 1071 combined fanatical faith and military might with the ambition and will to rule. This power vanquished the once great Byzantine Empire in 1453. The fall of Constantinople broke the last barrier between the forces of Islam and the Christian West.

By the 1500s, Ottoman expansion already reached deep into Europe. The Balkan Peninsula was Ottoman territory. In 1529 the Ottoman forces were stopped only at the gates of Vienna. Under Suleiman, the Ottoman Turks added thousands of square miles to their possessions. Among his conquests was the island of Rhodes, captured in 1522. Rhodes had been defended by a holy order of monks, known as the Knights of St. John. This religious and military order dated back to the time of the Crusades. Their primary calling was hospital ministry to Christian pilgrims. These Christian nurses dropped their bedpans and bandages for the sick only when the occasion called for the sword and shield. They refrained from battle when Christian fought Christian, but took up the sword readily when the enemy was Muslim.

After a valiant and hard-fought defense of Rhodes, they were defeated, but were granted the honors of war by being allowed to leave. Emperor Charles V of Spain gave the Knights the island of Malta in 1530. Losing Rhodes and having to resettle in rocky, barren Malta was a depressing event for the warrior monks, who were now increasingly becoming relics of obsolete medieval Christendom. The spirit of nationalism of the 1500s had little regard for a military force that was united by faith and not by geographic identity.

By 1565, there were about 550 Knights on Malta, along with about 4,000 Maltese men capable of bearing arms. Suleiman recognized that possession of Malta and the final liquidation of the Knights of St. John would provide the base from which to conquer Sicily and Italy, and from there the rest of Europe.

Suleiman marshaled a force of nearly 200 ships, bearing ample arms and powder, and somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 troops. Malta was all that stood between the Islamic East and the Christian West. In a practice that European leaders have honed to perfection in the 20th and 21st centuries, the European sovereigns — narcissistic, greedily nationalistic, and strategically blind — did nothing. Francis I of France was allied to the Sultan Suleiman, even though many of the Knights were Frenchmen. (France — allied to the enemies of Europe and Christendom! France — doing nothing to stem a threat to Europe!) The German states and Elizabethan England were entangled in internal matters, and the only border issues were those close at hand. Spain, under Philip II, had the power and the interest to act, but sat back and watched. Philip’s Viceroy in Sicily, Don Garcia de Toledo, promised aid, but delivered it almost too late.

The military battle that ensued at Malta fulfills all the drama and vicissitudes of war that has lured historians, poets, filmmakers, and armchair soldiers from Homer’s time to our own. As Robert E. Lee said, “It is well that war is so terrible lest we grow too fond of it.” The battle for Malta had no lack of the blood, gore, and carnage of war, with the heroism and superhuman actions of men in warfare as well.

The initial key to the defense of Malta was the fortress of St. Elmo. The Turks anticipated capturing it in a few days time, with a minimal cost. In the end, it took over 30 days and 8,000 Muslim dead before the Turks could raise their banners over this one fortress. After that, the Knights and Maltese still held two well-defended peninsulas from which they were never removed.

The great Christian hero of this story was Grand Master Jean Parisot de La Valette. The capital of Malta is now named after him. Seventy years old at the time, he was, in the words of Ernle Bradford, “that rarest of human beings, a completely single-minded man.” He had endured and survived the siege of Rhodes, naval battles with the Turks, the miseries of being a slave in a Turkish galley ship, and physical wounds from battle. His rhetoric in wartime was like that of Churchill; his religious zeal like that of Cromwell; his strategic and tactical gifts like those of R.E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson; his personal bravery and example to the men like that of Washington.

Like all commanders in wartime, La Valette took actions that cause the more prissy historians (to borrow a term from R.J. Rushdoony) to blanch and faint. When the decapitated bodies of four brave Knights were nailed to crosses and sent across the channel to the shore defended by the Knights, La Valette retaliated quickly. He had his Turkish prisoners beheaded and then fired their heads from his cannons into the enemy camp. This action sent a message of defiance to the Turks, but also told his own men that this fight was to the death. There would be no exit strategy.

When the Turks sent a miserable underling to La Valette to offer surrender terms, La Valette coldly responded, “Hang him.” The messenger begged for his life. La Valette showed him a huge ditch on the edge of the Knight’s defensive perimeter. “Tell your master that this is the only territory that I will give him. There lies the land which he may have for his own — provided only that he fills it with the bodies of his Janissaries.” At this point, the poor messenger “dirtied his breeches.”

Not only did the Knights fight bravely for their faith and their island, the native Maltese, little noticed in the chronicles of the battle, earned their own laurels for courage and dedication. Along with the image of the Knights clad in their full armor of bygone eras, one must picture the hardy Maltese swimmers, stripped to the buff, dashing into the water with knives in the mouths, going after the Turks who were attempting to dismantle the offshore defenses.

In time, help came from Sicily. But by then, the Turkish juggernaut had already been blunted, with that enemy having been bled white, ravaged by death and disease, and broken in morale. The Turkish fleet limped back to Istanbul with the miserable news of their defeat to present to the sultan.

The book The Great Siege, by Ernle Bradford, is a brilliant account of this battle. Too many good episodes and details have been left out of my account. Bradford’s book is currently out-of-print, but readily findable in the used book market. Another Bradford book, The Knights of the Order, tells the story of the Knights from their beginnings to the battle of Rhodes, with a brief account of Malta.

The Great Siege and Us

The Western world seems not to understand history and the nature of real war.

The Christian West has been victimized by shame over our past, particularly the Crusades. After all, we are told, Middle Eastern people are still angry over the Crusades. Poor Muslims, poor Arabs, poor Middle Easterners — all victims of bad white European Christendom.

Before you order your “sackcloth and ashes kit” off the Web, you might better rethink and restudy the Crusades. Also, we need to consider the fact that Islamic forces threatened the future of European Christendom in the early 700s, until turned back by Charles Martel and the Franks. Then when the Ottoman Turks combined Islamic fanaticism with military power in the 11th century, they threatened the future of Europe again. It was the defense of Malta and the later sea battle of Lepanto, celebrated in G.K. Chesterton’s poem, which halted this Islamic threat in the 1600s.

This militaristic Islamic ideology is still around. Islam is a worldview; it is dominion oriented; it is fanatical; it rests on the concept of jihad, or holy war. What modern Islam lacks is military and political power. Victor Davis Hanson’s monumental work Carnage and Culture explains why non-Western countries, even when armed with Western weaponry, are no match for the heirs of the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian culture.

Even in the time of Suleiman, the best Turkish soldiers were the Janissaries. The Janissaries were an elite unit of soldiers, consisting of boys conscripted at age 7 from Christian homes and molded into Muslim soldiers. Bradford says they were “Christian by birth, Spartan by upbringing, and fanatical Moslem by conversion.” (I refrain from commenting here on the absolute necessity of Christian education.) Politically, modern Islam has only puppet states, third world countries, and sheiks basking on oil reserves. Instead of the armies of the sultan, they rely on the terrorist camps of Bin Laden and company. Their weapons of war — car bombs, plane hijackings, terror networking — have changed. Their objectives are the same.

Europe is rather passively evolving into an Islamic continent. Europeans are depopulating themselves, while the Muslim population is growing by both begetting and immigrating. George Weigel’s book The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God is must-read on this topic. Spain was train-bombed into pacifism. Germany shed Nazism, but picked up pacifism and appeasement. France, well, is still France. By a mercy from God, Tony Blair, Labour Party Prime Minister of Britain, seems to have contracted a Churchillian virus from somewhere in the halls of Parliament, thus tipping the balance in his country toward war rather than appeasement.

While the Knights fought a war not for land but for faith, modern Europe has little or no Christian faith. Searching European cities for true Christianity makes the pilgrim long for an American Bible-belt city like Boston or San Francisco. Europeans have shed their Christian clothing with a brash zeal that would make a stripper blush.

Even in America, what Ronald Reagan called mankind’s last and greatest hope, many are blind to the lessons of history and the dangers of the future. John Kerry still pouts at having been denied the chance to fulfill Neville Chamberlain’s destiny. The Left still believes Chamberlain’s mantra: “We shall have peace in our time.” The culprit, once again, is America, and particularly the current American president. Americans go to war against an ideology that has tormented the world since AD 610, and we wonder why we can’t tame it by the 6 o’clock evening news.

La Valette was a man who knew how to identify an enemy and how to fight a war. He also knew the only options for peace: victory or death. Since American Christianity is often so effeminate and passive, we assume that most Muslims are really nice “love-your-neighbor”-type people too. If only we could just trade our Precious Moments Christian figurines (or are they theologians and pastors?) for sturdy Amish farmers, at least we would have a vision of Christian manhood. I wish for Scottish Covenanters, for English Puritan Roundheads, for Washington’s Continental Army, or for Robert L. Dabney, but that is too much.

Something Medieval is needed in this culture war. Our president falters, but he seems to instinctively understand the long war. Something that happened between that west Texas upbringing and the new birth gave him a vision of a God bigger than the Washington beltway or the United Nations. His advisors falter, but most of them at least understand what guns are for. When the Christian West fulfills Voltaire’s statement, “Nothing is better known than the siege of Malta,” I think the war will be won.

  • Ben House

Ben House is the author of Punic Wars & Culture Wars: Christian Essays on History and Teaching and the the editor of HouseBlog.

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