25 September 1396

25 September 1396. At Nicopolis, now in Bulgaria, beside the Danube, a mostly-French army, including many of what can without blushing be described as the flower of high chivalry, is annihilated by the Turkish Sultan.  Barbara Tuchman’s excellent A Distant Mirror (still a standard history of the 14th Century almost 35 years after publication) closes with the battle and its aftermath.

The crusaders had put together what a later generation of English generals would, with equally high hopes and coupled with equally dismal results, term a “Big Push.” In the host are the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund (one of the last non-Habsburgs for several centuries, by the way), the Admiral of France, and dozens upon dozens of others. Some of them, such as the Comte d’Eu, were striplings who thought no more of the Turks than of the peasants back home and didn’t see why they shouldn’t be butchered with similar ease. Others, such as Enguerrand de Coucy VII, were senior statesmen who had under their belts more campaigns in the field and in the cabinet than they had hot meals on that last disastrous outing, and knew better. 

They were headed down-river to relieve the pressure on Constantinople, which their compatriots and fellow-Christians from all over Europe had managed, during the course of decades of intrigue, double-dealing, and steel hearts beating beneath stone heads so to undermine that little was left of the once-mighty Eastern Empire than the areas immediately surrounding the city, together with the odd colony or island fortress here and there. 

As if to emphasize how little they had learned since 1346 and the fiasco of Crecy, the French insisted on fighting as they had fought – and been beaten repeatedly by – the English. The French knights were to lead the field in a headlong display of what that same later generation of French generals were to call cran – guts. The Turks play them like a fiddle. Send out the hordes of lightly-armed conscripts to draw the crusaders out of their formations. Fall back in apparent (and some real) disorder, but in so doing draw the enemy into ever-deepening disorder, until over-topping a hill they see before them the might of Islam, unbloodied, in good order, and looking to do little more than wet their blades with infidel gore. 

And so it came to pass. The survivors were herded together and then, in retaliation for a similar act perpetrated on Turkish captives just before the battle, all but the most valuable hostages were slaughtered, one at a time, in the presence of the Sultan. The killing went on for hours. Then the pitiful remnant of European manhood was marched off into captivity from which many never returned, and those who did were greatly impoverished if not forever ruined. Nineteen years later at Agincourt the remnants of French knighthood were defeated by Henry V, and his son recognized as heir to the French throne. Would Agincourt have played out as it did, had France had on that field the men whose blood soaked the earth before the Sultan’s gaze? 

Nicopolis ended Christianity’s last large-scale organized effort to roll back the Ottoman tide lapping at Constantinople’s bastions. When the end came in 1453 there wasn’t much anyone outside could do any more. Another century of largely maritime war culminated in the two Christian victories of Malta (1565) and Lepanto (1571), and turned back the Turk from complete dominance of the Mediterranean basin. On land, Nicopolis ensured that further action would be fought on Christian territory, on the defensive, and with the intangible but very real disadvantage of facing an enemy that just didn’t do defeat in any lasting sense. Mohacs (1526), which saw Hungary thrown beneath the Turkish boot for 200-odd years, and the sieges of Vienna (1529 and 1683 respectively, both unsuccessful) were perhaps not “results” of Nicopolis in a strictly military sense, but Islam triumphant in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, in some cases for centuries to come, very much was. 

One of the magnificent features of European architecture is at least in part an echo of the aftermath of Nicopolis. The Turkish victory there ensured that Vienna remained an outpost city, that its role as fortress continued to transcend the mere protection of its inhabitants from the occasional rampaging army. It was, in the two sieges mentioned above, the point at which the Islamic tide from the east was turned back from Europe. The Imperial re-conquest of Hungary took until well into the 18th Century, ensuring that (i) Vienna’s role as a strategic fortress lasted well beyond the point at which such fortifications had lost much of their significance elsewhere (witness: a large number of Marlborough’s battles against Louis XIV in the 1600s and early 1700s involved formal sieges of fortresses; not many of Frederick the Great’s battles from the 1740s to the 1760s did), and (ii) the Empire was even more thoroughly bankrupt by the end of the Napoleonic wars than the other European powers, who were by any measure poor as Job’s turkey after 25 years of nearly constant war following (in reverse order) the Seven Years’ War, the War of the Austrian Succession, the War of the Spanish Succession, and Louis XIV’s continued attempts at continental hegemony. 

So that by the 1850s, when Austria under its youthful emperor Franz Joseph finally had the wherewithal and the security to abandon its ramparts, they were able to do it up right. The demolition of the Viennese fortifications created the Ringstrasse, a parade of self-celebratory architecture the concentration of which is seldom achieved elsewhere. If the imperial residence in the old town, the Hofburg, really is a “Burg” – a fortress in itself – the Ringstrasse is a girdle of hey-look-at-me-now! imperial magnificence. 

Seven years before Nicopolis there had already been one very disastrous defeat for a Christian people, and which the defeat of the mightiest army Christianity could field at Nicopolis pretty much assured would not be undone any time soon: the Battle of Kosovo, on the Field of Crows, on June 28, 1389 (although it might also have been on June 15 under the then-prevailing calendar, or June 23). The Serbian nation was cast beneath the Ottoman harrow for centuries. Whatever the date of the actual slaughter, June 28 became their national day. It became the day on which every Serbian worthy of the name burned with resentment at centuries of foreign rule, of far-distant alien emperors disposing of the lives and fortunes of the Balkan Slavs. It became a day on which great deeds were to be done, blows to be struck for South Slav freedom (in part to slaughter the non-Slavic populations of the region, to be sure, as we’ve seen in recent years). June 28 became perhaps the least-well advised day for the heir to such a foreign dynasty to insult the memory of Kosovo by parading in high state through the streets of a town called Sarajevo just across the border, during the blazing sunshine of mid-summer in the year that has become its own metaphor: 1914.


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