The long War, Part 17 / the retaking of Tata castle with a “petard”
23 May 1597. The taking of Tata castle – the first use of a petard in Hungary
The 15-Year-War was reaching its limits in 1597 and all the participating armies were getting exhausted in the fights. As a result of the Battle of Mezőkeresztes (1596, the Turks won but please read my previous post), the Imperial forces were careful not to launch any counter-attacks against the Ottomans, at least they wanted to avoid the grand-scale battles in the open. In the Hofkriegsrat Court of the Habsburgs in Prague it was even suggested that if the Sultan came to Hungary in person, they should abandon all the Hungarian frontier castles and would rather concentrate their forces to defend Vienna.
The title for the Military Council, the “Hofkriegsrat” was first used in 1564. The Hofkriegsrat was in direct contact with the Imperial Chamber as the financial authority and the Imperial Chancellery as the political coordination point. Founded on 17 November 1556 in the reign of Emperor Ferdinand I, the Steter Kriegsrat (Permanent War Council) was a council of five generals and senior civil servants. It oversaw the entire Habsburg military system in war and peace and decided on fortress construction, army equipment, salary issues, and the purchase of supplies, as well as the planning and implementation of wars. It also handled civil and military administration of the border region of Croatia.
The Hungarian chief officers and high lords also joined the Military Council during the winter where it was suggested to take the city of Győr and to hold a battle there, not at Vienna, in case the Turks tried to attack. Especially Pálffy Miklós and Nádasdy Ferenc protested against this plan, saying that it would be dangerous to cede the entire Hungary without any resistance. Instead of this, they suggested attacking the castle of Buda because „it is better to fight the enemy in his home rather than bringing the enemy into our house”. Yet, Archduke Maximilian turned it down and this advice was cast away.
The Ottomans’ rule of Győr was disturbing the supply lines of the Imperial troops between the castles of Komárom and Esztergom so the retaking of Győr became a priority. The assault on Tata Castle was a preliminary step to take Győr Castle back. This way Győr could be isolated from Buda because at Tata there was a crossing place through the marshlands that reached the Danube river. As a result of this, the Pasha of Buda would not have been able to send reinforcement to Győr. More about Győr Castle here:
Pálffy and the plotters of the assault have collected all the information about Tata and they have also obtained a so-called „patara”, a petard, that had never been used in Hungary before. The application of this explosive is said to have been suggested by Johann Bernstein, the expert, and inventor of such devices and explosives. Bernstein visited Pálffy at Érsekújvár (Nové Zámky) on 20 May 1597 and the next day they went together to Komárom castle. (It is said to be likely that Nádasdy Ferenc didn’t take part in this military action.) The petard was at Komárom already and the soldiers of the campaign soon arrived, 2,00-3,000 men in all, Hungarians, Germans, and Walloons. They asked for 500 Hungarian Hajdú soldiers from Esztergom, too, but they were late to arrive. They had to wait for them because the assault couldn`t have happened without them. After all, the Hajdú soldiers were supposed to lead the assault.
Finally, the Hajdú soldiers arrived at the military camp of Almás on 21 May but the attack had to be delayed for the next day because of the exhausted soldiers. This delay was dangerous because their secret assault could have been discovered so they guarded the camp very tightly and stopped all the traffic on the roads. We will see why the Hajsús were so indispensable in this military action. You can read more about Hajdú soldiers, the infamous light infantrymen who were herders of Hungarian grey cattle between two wars:
It was midnight, 22 May when they set out towards Tata castle. Three Hajdú soldiers spoke Turkish very well, one of them was Rácz Illés, they were supposed to deceive the Ottoman guards. They were dressed as Turks and when they reached the gate of Tata castle, they engaged in conversation with the guards. They told them that they were from Győr and were traveling to Buda to get food for the Turkish garrison of Győr but they needed some rest because they got tired on the long road. The guards found nothing strange in this story because they knew that the Ottomans had a great shortage of food in Győr so they agreed and allowed the three riders to take a rest under the walls of the castle.
While they were talking with each other, the men of Bernstein pushed the carriage onto the bridge before the gate. The explosive was tied to the end of the carriage’s pole. Although the drawbridge was drawn up, they could push the long pole over the moat. The heavy explosive was hanging on its end and the men put some weight into the carriage to balance it. Bernstein lit the fuse and it was too late when the Turkish guards realized the peril.
The explosion tore the bridge to shreds along with the gate which was behind it. First, twenty Walloon and Spanish riflemen ran to the bridge and they threw an assault bridge over the moat. Their role was to keep the gate with their firearms. Then, the 500 Hajdú soldiers attacked and broke into the castle. The Germans were following them but instead of their long lances, they were given halberts and short spears because there was no room for the long lances. In the meanwhile, 300 Hungarian infantrymen tried to scale the walls in a different place. The Hajdú soldiers met only a weak resistance and quickly killed those who tried to fight them.
Those Ottomans who were still defending the castle got themselves into the palace but Pálffy couldn’t start its siege before dawn. Interestingly enough, the explosion didn’t call all the Turkish soldiers there. Pálffy turned the cannons of the bastion towards the palace in the morning but the defenders didn’t want to surrender. The Germans immediately began to scale the walls on ladders. Seeing this, the Ottomans wanted to surrender but the mercenaries were so much excited about the promise of booty that they disobeyed Pálffy’s orders. The small resistance was put down soon. Afterward, the gate was quickly mended. The Imperials left behind 450 Germans, 300 Hajdú soldiers, and 25 Hussars in the garrison of Tata. After the taking of Tata, the situation of Győr worsened but it became easier to send supplies to Esztergom. Unfortunately, the victory of Tata faded away because of the Ottomans’ counter-attack in October.
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