The Battle of Palást (9-10 August 1552)
Hádim Ali, the Gelded, Pasha of Buda Castle was deep in his thoughts, stroking his long beard which was turning slowly white. He was quite satisfied. His mission was to cut the two infidel countries, Royal Hungary and Transylvania from each other to prevent their unification.
His army albeit suffering painful losses at Drégely Castle was penetrating deep into the northern lands of the Christians.
So far he has taken all the smaller forts of Nógrád County and his raiders were plundering lands that had never seen Ottoman blades until now.
It was a month ago when he took Drégely Castle and the two young pages of late Captain Szondy were still with the Turk army just as he had promised to that valiant infidel.
Bey Achmed and Ibrahim, whom Szondy released from his dungeon before making his last stand, were guarding the lads. The pages, Libardy and Sebestyén were free to walk only in the military camp, though.
“Even the heroism of Szondy served the interests of Allah,” Ali thought “because the proud Agha Arslan, the leader of the Janissaries was humiliated. Too many elite Janissary troops died by the swords of Szondy’s 146 men. It was a sign to everybody that the infidels might fight back with a terrible rage.”
Yet, Ali was a bit puzzled. He could clearly see that the approaching infidel army of General Teuffel two hills away from him wanted to crush him now.
“Were not General Teuffel and his 11,000 men idly watching the peril of Szondy? The cowards lit bonfires on the hilltops but did not dare to attack me. He must have received reinforcement and wants to improve his reputation by taking Drégely Castle back.” Ali concluded.
As if Allah had peered into his mind, a messenger appeared his tent, deeply bowing. He came from Agha Arslan. Ali made him report without allowing him any ceremonial niceties.
“Great Pasha, the infidel army is making camp for the night at the village of Egyeg and seemingly they have no idea that we are so close.”
“Could the noble Agha Arslan count their number?”
“Noble Blade of the Padishah, the Agha captured a few tongues. After some gentle prompting, they hurried to tell everything they knew. We learned that Erasmus Teuffel von Goundersdorf has 3,000 German and Spanish heavy cavalry under his flag and a further 3,000 German landsknechts, led by Dietrich von Marcel. Half of the Germans have long pikes and half of them have muskets. The best troops are the Italian mercenaries, 4,500 men, freshly recruited in Rome. Their commander is the wicked Sforza Pallavicini who had poisoned Cardinal Martinuzzi by the order of King Ferdinand. They have only six cannons altogether.”
“What about the Hungarian warriors?”
“They are there, too. Previously, some 300 Hajdu soldiers of Captain Jakusits fled to General Teuffel’s camp, abandoning the Castle of Ság to us some weeks ago. Now, the heavy Hussar units have arrived, 200 from Győr and 500 from the castles of Léva and Zólyom, their captains are Keglevich, Rátkay, Dessewffy, and the riders of Dombay and Sándory. The number of the lighter Hussars is 500 and their captains are Sárkándy, Székely, Rácz.”
“Are they renowned warriors?”
“All of them are infamous murderers of the true warriors of the Bright Faced Padisah, especially Takositch and Matasnay.”
“Is Captain György Thury among them or Captain Balassa?”
“No, great Pasha, those rabid dogs are not here this time.”
“There are 800 Czech mercenaries and 800 Hajdu footmen of little value as well. We are informed that there are 7,000 Hungarian noblemen assembled in Fülek Castle who can set out anytime to join General Teuffel or Devil Matthias, as the Hungarians call him. He is so conceited that he has not even placed sentries on the hilltops around his camp.”
The Pasha dismissed the messenger and ordered his water pipe to be lit.
While inhaling the cold smoke he was thinking hard about how he would attack the enemy before further 7,000 horsemen arrived from Fülek.
His men were greatly outnumbered already but he had his staunch Jannissary units and his Sipahis who were panting for revenge for their losses back at Drégely Castle.
Not to forget his excellent Topcus with their splendid cannons.
There was a crescent moon rising in the clear sky which filled his heart with hope.
“God has brought you, my dear son, I am gladdened to see you. Now that you have arrived I can see we will send the shaven-headed folks back to Asia.”
Lord Bishop János Bardelatti-Dudics was an old iron-clad knight, in charge of the provisions in the camp of Devil Matthias. He was shaking the other man’s hand, squeezing it with his powerful grip as if he had wanted to break his fingers. Anybody’s fingers would have been crushed but not György Thury’s. He stood out from the crowded camp with his height and his muscles made him look twice his size.
Genuine joy sparkled in his blue eyes when he received the old priest’s welcome.
“But look, Father, I am also shaven like them.” and he was playing with his long taft that was growing above his forehead and hanged down below his huge shoulders. Further jokes were exchanged about how his horizontally waxed mustache looked different from the Turkish fashion but finally, the young captain has come to the point.
“Father Dudics, I have to report to you that you cannot enlist the cannons of Zólyom Castle before a week. The roads are flooded with mud there and I rode here with the two hundred Hussars of Farkas Puchaim from Zólyom, leaving my five-hundred men at Bozók Castle to drag those bronze monsters as best as they can. On the way here, I met the riders of Gáspár Csuthy and János Krusits from Korpona. I saw Menyhárt Macska coming also from Végles, he had more than two hundred horsemen with him.”
“So you could not resist missing the dance, my son, well done. Once you are here, we won’t need those cannons. Anyway, who has ever heard of taking good use of them in an open battle?”
“Times are changing, Father. Alas, cannons were skillfully used by Suleiman at Mohács.”
“And how many decent priests died the martyrs’ death with saber in their hands there.” sighed the Bishop “Which saber did you bring here? The scimitar you took from that Arabic bey in your last duel?”
“Nay, Father, that is a toy. You know that I prefer the good old two-handed Italian swords in the melee,” said Thury. He climbed up on a wagon and looked around the forest of tents and the sea of soldiers completing their morning tasks like noisy, enormous ants. He remarked to Bishop Dudics:
“I can see some decent warriors from here. Are they any good?”
“Except the Hussars and the heavy Germans, son, there are no experienced soldiers here. The Czech and the Hungarian footmen are badly supplied with pitiful weapons. They will run at the first cannon shot. Fortunately, His Holiness, the Pope had recruited the Italians for us and they are cunning, old foxes but the rest has never seen Turks in their lives. The landsknechts are formidable with their pikes and muskets but they are greeners, too. I hope the Hungarian lords can catch up with us, I do not know why they are sitting around so long. Fülek is just a stone-throw-distance from here.”
“But we have the Devil Matthias with us.” Thury grinned.
“God save us, we have the Devil as our commander.” shuddered the old priest, crossing himself. Both of them knew that the Turks had not been beaten in a grand-scale battle since Mohács happened. And that was twenty-six years ago.
They would have been chatting about but frightened cries disturbed them.
The alarm was hardly sounded when one-thousand picked Sipahi riders appeared in a long line at the edge of the forest without any warning. Green flags were unfolded and the iron-clad horsemen bellowed a terrible battle-cry of „Allah Akhbar” and loosened the reins of their horses, making them fly against the Christians.
Many of the surprised mercenaries were spiked on spearhead or slain before the units stood up to answer the cavalry charge.
Thury immediately hurried to see to his men. Commands in many languages filled the air.
The Sipahis have turned and attacked three times before the German cavalry thundered out to trample them with their sheer weight.
After some minutes, the Turks turned the heads of their horses and withdrew into the forest. The Germans rushed headlong into the trees but they were greeted by the musket fire and the spiky halberds of the Janissaries who were hiding among the trees in their usual groups of four warriors.
The German heavy cavalry had to come back and while returning, the Sipahis were behind them again.
When the Germans chased them back angrily into the woods, everything started again.
The Hungarian Hussars thought it would be time to join in the game.
The fight was going on all morning long in this manner. Many German knights and armored men-at-arms had to bitterly realize a few seconds before their death that the heavily armored Sipahis despite their smaller numbers, were a perfect match to them. The cuirassed mercenary cavalry had never met with the fury of the Ottoman Sipahis and now they were heavily tolled.
They also paid a high price until they learned not to chase the enemy into the woods. Whoever ventured beyond the tree-line, was shot from close distance by the Janissaries or were pulled down from the saddle with the halberds and their blood painted the dry fallen leaves crimson.
The arrival of the Hungarian Hussars saved the situation because they knew one or two tricks about the Turks since even their great-grandfathers had learned their warfare. Individual duellers filled the terrain who were circling around their opponents like hundreds of whirling mythical beasts. The helmets of the Sipahis and the Hussars were hard to distinguish from each other, but unlike the Germans, they both wore flexible armor with wings attached. The Turk horses wore chainmail blankets and their bodies were painted in bright colors while the long and spiky shields of the Hungarians were usually decorated with red and white lines. As their lances had long been broken, the Christians used battle axes and heavy sabers against the Muslim scimitars.
There was a smaller pushing and shoving when Captain Desewffy went under because of a nasty cut and his men tried to salvage the injured body. He was luckily carried away but many Hussar officers died. Captain Sándory and Dombay got wounded and captured by the enemy.
The Sipahis were not able to bear the overpower of the Christians and began to weaken. Their officers fought in the first line but more and more were slain, the Bey Defterdar was among them.
Meanwhile, the Christian infantry could not get any near to the fight so they spread out in the valley which was widened into the field at Palást village.
The air of confusion was almost palpable but they stood firmly in their square formations.
Until the Turkish cannons began to play their dark music from the surrounding hilltops.
There were two high barren ridges on the left and on the right side of the valley where the Topcus managed to deploy their batteries while the Sipahis and the Jannisaries of Agha Arslan distracted the attention of General Teuffel.
Fourteen French-made cannons were shelling the mercenaries from both sides of the valley.
The Topcus were excellent marksmen and were able to see their target clearly from above, marveling at how precise and fast the new French cannons were.
Hot iron missiles cut corridors into the packed formations of the pikemen. The dense forest of lances was swaying to and fro in the savage storm of artillery fire.
It was the time when Sforza Pallavicini and Dietrich von Marcel finally were able to make Teuffel accept that he had been snared in a trap.
Valuable minutes were spent until they sounded the retreat and began to move inch by inch back behind the cover of the small hills behind them, exposed to the killing bullets and grape-shot for an hour.
The Italian pike-musket tercio was especially caught in a cross-fire so they had to spread out and hurry to the left side of the field of Palást where thick bushes and ditches offered some protection.
At a sudden, Captain Sforza found themselves separated from the main army by a thicket. He began to give thanks to the Virgin Mary because the Ottoman guns shifted their aim from them and began shelling the landsknechts with full force. He was wrong. The Turks stopped firing at them only because a strong Jannissary unit appeared from the left hillside of the valley and hoards of them ambushed the surprised Italians. The strength of a tercio lay in the smooth and skilled cooperation of the pikemen and the musket-men. Until they were together in their thick square formation, the forest of the long pikes could keep any attackers away until the musket-men reloaded and were able to fire their volleys.
Now, they had to spread out because of the terrain and the heavy cannonade. It was exactly what the Janissaries were waiting for.
Bitter hand-to-hand combat developed but Sforza knew that without their formation they would not be able to resist for long. Rapiers were drawn and musket butts were swung, yatagans and halberds rose and fell.
They were doomed.
“Hujj, hujj, hajrá! At them, at them!” cried Captain Thury who noticed the Italians’ plight and pulled together some loose Hussars, attacked the side of the Janissaries with a sweeping attack. Seeing his charge, the men of Captain Jakositch joined him, crying “Jesus, Mary”.
The heavy cavalry hit the elite troops of the Sultan off their feet and trampled them into a pulp in a few minutes. Thury was swinging his double-handed sword with delight, making a harvest in the thronged enemy. He was proud to show these Italians his skills he had learned from the school of Maestro Fiore. The Janissaries fled to the forest, leaving behind the wounded.
Captain Sforza crossed himself and his people greeted the Hungarians with cheers and loud applause.
But the day was lost.
Beaten by inferior numbers, humiliated and outwitted by the Muslims, the army could barely withdraw behind the Krupina Creek that flow from the low hills into the field of Palást.
György Thury was cursing badly. As badly as only a Hungarian Hussar officer could or even worse. Hearing it, Bishop Dudics did not stop crossing himself so the old priest could barely refill the wine cups with his left hand.
“Let the Devil take this Devil Matthias for not having posted sentries. How many more valiant soldiers must perish because of his pride and cowardice.”
He stopped only to drain his cup and nervously motioned for some more wine.
“My son, you are the hero of the day, everybody talks about how you have saved those Italians. Perhaps, tomorrow morning we can shame this pagan Hadim Ali. Why is he called the ‘Gelded’, I wonder?”
“Ali was made a eunuch and he is a true-blooded Turk, unlike that cunning Albanian renegade, Pasha Achmed. This Hádim Ali is said to be a cruel man. Did not he make bloodshed in Szeged in March? Did not he take the Castle of Veszprém in June? Did not he promise safe conduct to the handful of surviving defenders? Were not they slain or enslaved immediately after opening the gates? A liar, he is, I tell you, Father. May the Devil take him and fry him together with Devil Matthias. Any more wine you have, Lord Dudics?”
“Drink, son, tonight you have to regain your strength. Gossip has it that after taking Drégely Castle, he gave a decent burial to Captain Szondy, God rest him.”
“The Turk pig did it just to humiliate his Janissaries, a captive said that. Father, Temesvár Castle is currently under siege. Pasha Achmed, the Second Vizier, the leader of the other Ottoman army may take it any minute. They say there are three thousand foreign mercenaries with good Captain Losonczy in the castle. I hope they are better than these landskhnects here. Father, what is next? Eger? Or Kassa? The Mining Towns?”
“My son, let us pray to God that we can stop them tomorrow. Or slow them down, at least . . . Even those four days which were bought on the price of Szondy’s blood are precious because the Turks never make war after the 17th day of October. They cannot stand the cold.”
They sank into their thoughts and drank on under the shining crescent moon.
“Great Pasha, the infidels are already up and ready. They have been standing in battle formation since dawn, all along the field of Palást.”
Hadim Ali, the Gelded, yawned and stretched his oversized body, his bones were creaking. He knew that his troops were also deployed and eager to repeat the success of the previous day.
“Let them stand and sweat in terror for a while. We have to attend the morning prayers before scattering their bones in the field for the feast of the ravens.”
So saying, he completed his divine morning chores, then broke his fast. From his tent, he was able to see clearly the deployment of the enemy.
He saw the German and Italian squares standing in the middle. Six cannons were placed in front of them, guarded by the Hungarian Hajdus and the Czech footmen.
At the first glimpse, he could recognize the flags of the Hungarian cavalry of Győr and Léva on the right wing and saw the German and Spanish cruassiered horsemen on the left.
He could hardly finish his coffee when he noticed the enemy stir.
As slowly as the pikemen could move in close formation, the entire enemy army came into motion. Ali smiled.
“After all, Devil Matthias has at least as many wits as to attack. It is the only way to give some spirit to his men after yesterday’s fiasco.” he thought and gave the order to answer the attack.
The Topcus fired their beloved cannons with lethal precision and smoke engulfed the field. Dozens of bloody paths were curved into the pikemen units.
When the thunder ceased, a mighty “Allah Akhbar!” roar went up and a confident, rested army rushed headlong into the midst of the disheartened enemy.
Captain Thury had a dark mood and after a few clashes, the Sipahis superstitiously gave way to him. No scimitar nor saber was strong enough against his powerful two-handed blows which fell with the speed of lightning from the most unexpected directions. His men could not follow him so fast and he had to rein in time to time so as not to get entangled into the Sipahis’s throng. He fought like a berserker, seeing the world in slow motion and his stallion was biting and kicking in the same manner. His flexible Hussar armor and his cloak hanging on his shoulder deflected the accidental hits and cuts he received but he knew that his lads kept an eye on him when his mad fury was on him. Time was not measured and perhaps hours or just minutes were gone, he did not sense. Death arrived among the Sipahis upon his cuts and thrusts whenever he could catch one unaware. The enemy was losing ground and Thury pushed on harder.
It was when an explosion was heard. A huge one, somewhere from the middle where the Hajdus and the Czech fought. Screams of fright and further explosions followed suit. Thury felt his warriors were pulling back his horse and saw the gladdened faces of the enemy. Something was wrong. Very wrong.
He shook his head and cleared his vision from the killer’s frame of mind and rose in his saddle. Being a head taller than the rest, he could see the Hungarian and the Czech infantry flee headlessly, throwing away their rusty swords and makeshift spears. Black pillars rose from where the supply wagons of the cannons used to be.
The enemy roared and attacked with renewed frenzy and the morale of the Christians has shrunk. Thury was already not in control of his men, not even over his horse. The Turks sensed his wavering and closed on him angrily. Miklós Borsán, a Hussar officer threw himself bodily to receive the cut aimed at his leader’s head and slid off from his saddle. Farkas Suly, Thury’s trusted man was the second to give his life for him. He lost one more lieutenant, Kristóf Rozsony, before realizing the end.
“It is enough!” Thury cried and turned the head of his horse back and added: “Sound the retreat.”
The cavalry units quit the battle one by one, galloping past the tercios of the mercenaries who were equally shaken but still standing.
Dietrich von Marcel managed to keep his landsknechts together for a while but some soldiers in the rear ranks dropped their long pikes and sneaked away. Von Marcel cursed and shot one of them. The Janissaries were breaking the pikes with their halberds and some of them fell on all fours and were creeping under the pikes, with their short, inward-curved yatagans between their teeth. When they reached the Germans, the yatagans sliced ankles, and sinews, causing terrible destruction and havoc.
Before long, they all threw away their pikes and muskets and began to run madly toward the forest, with the savagely screaming Turkish riders at their heels, slaughtering them without mercy.
The Italians saw this and they knew what would befall them if they gave in to panic. The seasoned mercenaries from Rome gritted their teeth but stood their ground. Captain Sforza Pallavicini saw that they were the last tercio still fighting. “Virgin Mary, as only if we could retreat until the fringe of the forest in an impact formation.” he thought and gave out the orders to inch backward. These were the Italian units that survived the battle at Buda Castle ten years ago when the Ottomans defeated the German army. Then, Sforza could only make it by keeping their discipline firm and enduring the artillery fire with cold blood.
The forest was still painfully far away when the Topcus rolled out the cannons and took aim. The first volley killed his nephew, Hipolit Pallavicini. He saw his officers fall, Mark Tiburtino and Albert Castro. Sforza prayed like an Italian and cursed like a Hungarian at the same time. The second volley killed his friend, Vincent Altimori and people began to drop their pikes. The forest was just five hundred yards away and the Italians suddenly broke and ran.
Sforza was desperately looking around, waiting for the light Akinji riders to finish them off. In a second, the Akinjis did appear and Sforza, his thin rapier in hand, faced them alone because he preferred to receive the killing blow, not from the back. Then, he dropped his jaw in surprise because miracles usually do not happen twice.
“Mio Dio, it is that daredevil Thury again,” he muttered and watched with cow eyes how a small unit of no more than a hundred Hussars cut in the side of the Akinji riders, beating them back with ease.
Sforza quickly made after his men and they reached the shelter of the “green fortress” where they had that much brain to get assembled again.
The Hussars stayed not a minute longer and slid away when seeing a Sipahi contingent turning against them.
Among the trees, he was surprised to meet General Erasmus von Teuffel, busily changing into clothes he had pulled down from a corpse of a Landsknecht.
“I am not going to tell the rotten pagans who I am when they take me into captivity. They will not get rich from my ransom . . . ” Teuffel was raging.
Sforza turned away from him with contempt and shot his last orders to his mercenaries:
“Make a circle, musket-men are in the second rank, fire at my command. Lads, we can negotiate for a better condition only if we can demonstrate at least some strength. The Pope will ransom us, His Holiness had promised it. Avanti, move your asses.”
The next morning, the field of Palást was covered by the bodies of the dead and the injured. Asabs and Akinjis were browsing the land and collecting the wounded, finishing off the infidels still breathing. Some renegade pribéks accompanied them to go and severe the heads of the dead Ghiaurs. It was a greasy job, disliked by a true Muslim but the heads had to be collected, salted, and thrown on wagons. Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent was anticipating these kinds of trophies in Istanbul. Besides, he paid a gold coin for each. It was all right, King Ferdinand of the Ghiaurs paid the same price for Turkish heads in Vienna.
But the job had to be done. Bey Achmed and Bey Ibrahim, the two former captives of Captain Szondy, were in charge of a small unit of pribéks. They had long staffs and punished the pribéks who tried to steal a gold ring or a necklace from the corpses. The booty belonged to Pasha Ali and he had strict orders about it.
Libardi and Sebestyén, the pages of Captain Szondy, had to come along as they were put under the control of the two beys. The boys followed the pribeks with sullen faces, bloody up to their knees. They arrived at the camp of the Christians, the wagons had long been pillaged. Corpses and garbage covered everything.
“Look, Sebestyén,” cried Libardi “It is Father Dudics!”
Horrified, they saw the old Bishop of Vác lying on his back, his white mustache red. His fist was gripping a broken saber and six dead Janissaries surrounded him.
One of the pribéks stepped to him and probed him with his leg. When he proved to be not dangerous anymore, he grinned, spat on him, and rose his saber to cut the priest’s head off.
Libardi jumped. Oh yes, he had learned how to disarm a soldier with his bare hands. The pribék screamed and the young lad brought the wretch to the ground, breaking his arm with a loud crack.
In the meantime, Sebestyén threw himself on the body of Father Dudics and was shouting in Turkish:
“No, you cannot take his head, except you take mine, too. I appeal to Pasha Ali!”
Bey Ibrahim and Achmed had to use their wooden staffs and all their authority to keep away the angry Asabs who wanted to cut the lads into mincemeat.
The boys were ushered to the Pasha of Buda at once.
Hádim Ali was annoyed to see the two kneeling troublemakers in front of his tent. He ordered a slight punishment, twenty beatings with a stick on their bare soles but being righteous, he heard the pages out.
“Do you have anything to say?”
“Yes, noble Pasha” Libardi replied “First, I thank you for your lenient judgment and the light punishment. The dead man I wanted to save was the priest who had buried my late father and the one who sent me to serve Captain Szondy. I owed this much to him. Please, merciful and just Pasha, allow the decent burial of this man with his head staying on his neck. In return, I can tell you a secret.”
“What secret may you have? Be quick,” asked Ali, with obvious contempt.
“Great Pasha, everybody is looking for the corpse of General Teuffel or as we call him, Devil Matthias. The one who had been cowardly afraid to help my good lord Szondy. I happen to know that this enemy of yours is still alive, moreover, he is hiding in a mercenary’s disguise among the 4,000 captives you had taken, victorious Pasha because he does not want to pay a high ransom for himself. Everybody knows that Captain Sforza’s ransom is between 16-20,000 gold Ducats and Devil Matthias wants to cheat you and the Sultan with approximately the same amount. “
Hádim Ali was a cunning man, indeed. He grinned and told the page:
“Find him and show him to Bey Ibrahim but let Devil Matthias think he had misled us. Bey Ibrahim, I order you to follow Devil Matthias and Sforza and beat them with your long staff all the way until you reach the Sublime Port in Istanbul. There, he may uncover his identity before His Majesty, the Magnificent Padisah, and save his life from the slow and painful impalement.”
Libardi and Sebestyén were dismissed and after their punishment, they could not walk for a day but soon they limped with Bey Ibrahim to the camp of the prisoners. Not much later, Libardi pointed at a man who had a long, distinctive red beard and was sitting apart from the Italians who sent despising looks toward him.
“He is Devil Matthias, the real murderer of my poor lord György Szondy and his pride and cowardice have caused the perishing of many thousand good Christian soldiers. May he burn in hell.”
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