Dec 13, 2012

The siege of Szabács (Шабац / Sabac / Šabac), 1476

As the press exquisitely asked not to publish the story written for the anthology (sadly for me and my fellow readers), I thought I would at least share the historical background to it.

Reconstruction drawing of the fort from 1790 by Imperial engineers

The siege of Szabács in 1476 was part of the propaganda King Mathias I Hunyadi of Hungary tried to convince the Western courts with, in terms of taking the Ottoman threat seriously. However, during all his reign, Mathias had the idea of Western conquest, and despite two sieges (Jajca in 1465 and Szabács in 1476) and destroying the invasion at Kenyérmező in 1479, he did not take any actions against the Turk territories on the Balkan: how wrong even the idea to attack was had been proven in the campaigns led by his father, János Hunyadi and King Vladislaus I of House Jagiello who lost his life at Varna in 1444, but we can also take the earlier example of King Sigismund of Luxembourg who, despite having an allied Crusader army of French and German knights, still lost the battle of Nicopolis in 1396 (although mostly due to his lack of military skill and not being informed how the French fight, but that is another story).

The fort was built by Turks and occupied a strategic position on the River Száva. The outer walls were built of earth-and ground works; this sort of palisade was a common tool against artillery in those years. Together with the inner fort built of stone it dwelt about 1,200 defenders. Contemporary woodcuts show four towers on the outer and eight on the inner walls, plus one inside. Both parts of the fort were surrounded by moat fed by the river, and on the ground behind the moat there was a huge swampland. 

Surroundings of the fort, same source as above.

Therefore, the only way to attack was from the river flowing nearby. King Mathias brought an army of 10,000 Hungarian and Czech ‘riders’ and about 6000 mercenaries (one source tells of more than thirty thousand but that is highly unlikely). The fleet carrying most of the army arrived under the walls in early January and started bombing the fort from the ships, then, with the use of a ’structure’, a multiple-level ferry with cannons and troops inside – a floating siege tower – the ’Black Army’ landed and set up positions beneath the outer walls. Bombardment from ground and the river continued for weeks and it seemed like the King is trying to delay a decisive strike regardless the superior numbers of his army.

Antonio Bonfini, biographer of the King tells us that the fort was taken by ruse: Mathias ordered a false retreat, and then took the walls by storm. Another account says the king himself, along with a soldier, rowed into the moat and found the weak spot of the walls. This story also mentions that the sentinels inside have spotted the boat and shot firearms at it, hitting the soldier but not the king. However brave these accounts sound, it is most likely as is depicted in the contemporal poem of ’Szabács viadala’, roughly translated to ‘The Fight of Szabács’: the fort fell by treason, as one of the insiders escaped and showed the king where to bomb the walls. The tougher outer walls thus fell, then the artillery disabled the eight towers on the stone castle (must have been a fun fireworks show). After the Turkish army sent to aid the insiders dared not attack the Hungarians and mercenaries, whom, hearing the news of their approach, quickly counter-marched and set foot on dry ground amidst the swamp in battle formations, the Turks called for negotiations and surrendered the castle. The besiegers lost about two hundred men, partly because of the mercenaries’ impatience whom, against direct orders, mounted an attack on the walls and had been repelled in a bloody combat. One of the instigators, the Czech lieutenant František Hag fell that day (he is one of the few men the poem names). All accounts tell about seven hundred Turkish casualties, most of them not being buried when the victors entered the inner fort. About five hundred defenders left the castle alive, and when the new occupants arrived into the stone fort, they noticed the Turks went 'underground', digging shelters and resting there, safe from the cannonfire.
As Mathias expected, the victory was well received in Western courts, and, in the end, those rulers didn't pester him about attacking the Pagans any more.