The Defenders of Missolonghi
This was Rhigas' famous Greek war-song which urged men on to fight for their freedom, and which animated them during that fight in the Greek revolution. The war in Greece was the war of an oppressed people against a powerful ruler. The nation, "once first among the nations, pre-eminent in knowledge, pre-eminent in military glory, the cradle of philosophy, of eloquence, and of the fine arts, had been for ages bound down under a cruel yoke."
But at last, in the beginning of this century, the Greeks rose on their oppressors, rose as the people of Holland and the Swiss had risen before them, to fight for their religious liberty and for the freedom of their country.
The strength of the Greeks lay in the hearts of the people, and all the Greek patriotism seems to have centred itself within the walls of Missolonghi. Elsewhere men's hearts had failed them; the Turkish tyrants were too strong, hostilities had languished.
But brave hearts still beat in Missolonghi, where the citizens of a little town, the fishermen of a shallow lagoon, the peasants of an isolated district, sustained the vigorous attack of a determined enemy, withstood a twelvemonth's siege, and sacrificed their town only with their lives. An undisciplined population did the duty of a trained garrison; patriotic, warm-hearted peasants, the work of a trained army.
They were conquered in the end, their little town and their shallow lagoons fell into the hands of the enemy, but not till they had raised their voices for Greek independence, and laid down their lives for religious liberty.
Missolonghi had been besieged before, in 1823, and it was after the repulse of the Turks that the Greeks realized the importance of the place as one of the strongholds of the Peloponnesus, one of the bulwarks of Western Greece. They at once began to put it into a more perfect state of defence.
Now Missolonghi stands on a promontory at the entrance of the Gulf of Patras, in a plain stretching away from the sea-coast to the mountains. Toward the north rise forests of olives, while on the west and south a shallow sea laps against its walls; so shallow indeed is the water here that the smallest boats cannot come to within two leagues of the town.
The inhabitants soon set to work to build a great earthen rampart, faced with masonry, around the parts of the town not washed by the sea. This rampart was defended by bastions. In front of the rampart was a muddy ditch, separating the fortress from the plain. The bastions and towers were named after champions of liberty: there were the tower of William Tell, the battery of William, Prince of Orange, the tower of Rhigas, the tower of Lord Byron. For Lord Byron had died at Missolonghi only a year before.
"I have given Greece my time, my means, my health; and now I give her my life," the poet had cried almost with his last breath. And truly too, for he had helped to drill the peasants, had helped in the defence of the town, had died in the "dirty and unwholesome little city."
engaged in the glorious attempt to restore that country
to her ancient freedom and renown,"
they wrote up over his English grave, and ever in Missolonghi will his name be loved.
It was on the fifth of April, just a year after Byron's death, that news arrived of the enemy's approach. The Turks had already seized the pass of Makrynoros, which the Greeks had not defended. Everywhere the Greeks fled before them with their flocks and herds; and on the morning of the twenty-seventh the first division of the Moslem troops came in view of Missolonghi, followed some days later by Reshid Pasha, the Turkish commander, with more troops. He began the bombardment of the town without delay, in hopes of terrifying the garrison into an immediate surrender. He little realized the stoutness of the hearts that beat within the town.
The garrison of Missolonghi consisted of some four thousand soldiers and armed peasants, and one thousand citizens and boatmen, but including women and children there were some twelve thousand souls to be fed daily within the walls. At present they were well supplied with provisions and ammunition, and they were confident of success. Missolonghi had withstood a siege before; why not again? They were kept well informed of the enemy's movements; for the peasants of Macedonia and Thessaly, whom Reshid had dragged from their homes to toil in his trenches, were continually making their escape from the brutal Mussulmans, and carried news of the Turkish designs into the Greek camp. Accordingly, when Reshid cut down the olive trees in the forest and prepared for a general assault, the defenders of Missolonghi knew all about it, and were well prepared when, about two o'clock one June morning, a great noise was heard to the left of the ramparts, and a body of six hundred men was discovered within musket-shot. The Greeks opened a discharge of grape and balls upon them, and the Turks, who were advancing through the lagoons in the hope of taking the batteries by surprise, instantly turned and fled.
Little progress had been made on either side, when news arrived that Miaulis, in command of the Greek fleet, was coming with supplies. The spirits of the little garrison rose so high with this welcome news that they began to make frequent sorties. On the night of the second of July, signal having been given by the explosion of a mine right under the advancing posts of the Turks, the garrison rushed out on all sides and attacked the Turkish lines; they killed some two hundred, and returned with many prisoners and seven standards. Two days later the besiegers pushed their works yet nearer to the town; they destroyed all the houses on the plain for materials, cut down the olive trees, tore up the vines. Out of mere wantonness they destroyed the standing corn all over the country, laid waste the gardens, and burned the vines which they could not convey to camp.
In one of these sorties, a native of Missolonghi was taken prisoner, and was terrified by the Turks into revealing the position of certain underground channels which supplied the town with water. The supply was at once cut and for a time the people of Missolonghi were in despair, till they thought of digging wells, which kept them supplied even through the greatest heat of summer.
On the tenth of July the little garrison met with its first great disappointment. They were looking forward eagerly to the arrival of the Greek fleet, when, with the first rays of light, they saw in the distance the sea covered with vessels. Their joy reached the highest pitch. Reshid would be compelled to raise the siege in the face of such a fleet, when it slowly dawned on their minds that the fleet was too numerous and the ships too large for Greek ships.
Then the red Turkish flag became visible, and the broad white streaks on the hulls showed indeed it was no Greek fleet, but Turkish. Thirty-nine ships of war had arrived. This was heavy news to the defenders of Missolonghi.
Moreover, a number of flat-bottomed boats found their way into the lagoons, and the town was completely surrounded by land and by sea. Provisions and ammunition could now no longer find their way into the town.
Shouts of joy rose from the Turks as they pushed on their works with redoubled vigour. They knew that the garrison must soon feel the want of food, all communication being now cut off, and they were in hopes that they would soon capitulate. Each day some of them approached the walls of Missolonghi, and entering into conversation with the people, advised them to capitulate.
"But what are you waiting for?" cried the Greeks. "Your works are finished, your preparations complete, your fleet has arrived."
Still no assault; Reshid's plans were mysterious. While the garrison waited in hourly expectation of an assault, six Mohammedan chiefs came to Missolonghi and begged for a conference. They were brought before a council of Christian chiefs.
"Reshid," they said, "touched by the fate of the town which he was on the point of attacking, had suspended the order for assault. There was yet time to save Missolonghi. As friends of the brave men defending the town, they had interceded with Reshid, and induced him to offer honourable terms to the garrison."
If the Turks thought the terms honourable, the Greeks did not. With one voice the council replied, in a spirit worthy of the ancient Spartans—"War!"
On the return of the chiefs, preparations for the assault were carried forward more eagerly than before.
Yet once more a note found its way into the town, proposing a treaty. But the answer was in the same spirit as before:—
"Arms are the treaties between Greeks and Turks."
On the twenty-eighth of July, when the Turkish camp seemed quiet enough, a sudden cry was heard, the ground shook, a noise like thunder echoed through the town, and the bastion Botzaris was in ruins.
The Turks rushed forward through the breach to plant their standard on the walls; but the Greeks were too quick for them. They were forced to retire; the breach was quickly filled up with pillows and mattresses, covered with planks and earth; and while three hundred Turks were slain, and almost as many wounded, the Greeks only lost five men.
The cannonading was still vigorously kept up on the side next the sea, and Reshid went on erecting new batteries, determined to win the town. The courage of the brave defenders remained the same, but their ammunition and food were running short, and they saw that if not speedily relieved they must perish, but surrender they never would.
Again more propositions for a treaty arrived from Reshid, offering numerous advantages to the Greeks if they would but surrender. A few of the old Greek chiefs, seeing the famine that reigned in the town, were in favour of treating. The garrison was enraged at this idea.
"What, old men," they cried, "do you hold life so dear at your age, when we, in the flower of youth, would give it up?"
And they sent an indignant "No" back to Reshid. Yet again he dared to send a deputation to the Greeks.
"Mussulmans!" cried the Greek spokesman, "if the men of Missolonghi cannot defend their walls, they will defend their liberty. They will shut themselves up in three immense houses and blow themselves up—and you!"
"Unhappy Greeks!" replied the envoys, "your guilt is too great; divine vengeance urges you to despair. Farewell!"
"There shall be no capitulation so long as one of us remains alive. The Turkish standard shall not fly in Missolonghi till it has been carried over our dead bodies."
Still this brave determination would not satisfy Reshid. He suggested that the Greeks should allow five hundred of his soldiers to pass through one of the gates, while they were coming to terms!
Such a proposal was received with profound astonishment; even those chiefs who had suggested surrender could not restrain their feelings.
"If Reshid wants gates and batteries, let him come and take them," they cried. "It is only sword in hand that the Turks may ever expect to enter Missolonghi."
Reshid was frantic at his proposals being refused, and the firing on the town was resumed with increased fury. Balls and bombs fell without ceasing on the ramparts and into the town. Toward evening the Turks carried a number of scaling-ladders to the advance posts—everything pointed to a speedy assault. Calmly and bravely the Greeks prepared to meet it, preferring death a thousand times to the shame of yielding. The first rays of light had hardly appeared on the horizon, the stars of night were yet visible, when the trumpet sounded to arms, and the garrison was soon in readiness on the ramparts.
The increasing light showed the Moslem host ready for the assault. The explosion of a mine under the Franklin bastion gave the signal, and the Turks rushed through the breach and planted twenty standards on the bastion. Thus encouraged, the whole Turkish army rushed forward toward the walls. The thunder of the cannon and the volleying of the musketry pealed incessantly along the whole line, while clouds of smoke concealed the combatants from view. With furious shouts the infidels rushed on, certain of victory.
Calm behind their internal defences stood the Greeks, keeping up a constant fire. Some two hours later the smoke cleared away, the Turkish standards vanished, and five hundred Moslems lay dead! Reshid was so furious at this repulse that he had nine Greek prisoners brought forth and beheaded in his presence, to alleviate his wrath and his grief.
Notwithstanding their valiant repulse of the enemy, the brave defenders of Missolonghi were nearly at their last gasp. The utmost scarcity prevailed, their powder was reduced to two barrels, part of their walls was in ruins. If relief were long delayed, the stronghold of Western Greece must fall.
Where was the Greek fleet?
In the dead of night some Greek soldiers were sitting together discussing the dreary outlook, when suddenly in the silence of the night the report of distant cannon-shots fell on their ears.
"It must be our fleet," they cried joyfully.
The news spread quickly. With dawn, every eye was eagerly turned toward the sea. All day long the Greeks looked out to sea, away over the lagoons; but night came and passed, another dawn broke, the sky was dark and cloudy, and distant objects were indistinct.
When the mist cleared away a fleet was plainly visible, but was it Greek or Turkish?
"See, they are our brothers!" cried some.
"No, no; it is reinforcements for the Turkish admiral," cried others, in despair.
Suddenly in the midst of the dispute a young girl rose. "Look! I see the flash of artillery fire on board," she cried. "It is the Greek fleet."
Her cry was taken up. "It is the Greek fleet, the long-promised help has come at last"
"Glory to God in the highest!" they cried, with tears in their eyes.
A crowd of men, women, and children hastened to the beach, murmuring again and again the joyful words, "These are our ships, and here is Miaulis."
Bells rang from the churches, and hymns rose from the happy voices within.
The Greek fleet soon drove the Turks froth all the posts they occupied in the lagoons, destroyed their flotilla, and delivered over to the brave defenders of Missolonghi provisions and ammunition.
The gallant defence of the little town had fixed upon it the eyes of all Greece. Every messenger that arrived brought fresh testimonials of the admiration of the whole country.
"I call you sacred," said one of the public orators in an eloquent discourse on Missolonghi; "for you have been judged worthy to have for defenders the greatest men whose names shine in the history of Greece. You have the greatest general and best citizen of Greece—Botzaris. You possess the bones of Norman, who fought and suffered for our liberty; here, too, died the poet Byron, who, having chanted from afar the beauties of Greece, came over to take part in her battles, and died with the sweet name of Greece on his lips!"
On the twenty-first of September another assault followed. Reshid was getting nervous as to the result of this long-drawn-out siege. His Sultan's wrath weighed on his mind. "I will have Missolonghi or your head," was the message he had of late received. Reshid preferred to present the Sultan with Missolonghi.
Being again defeated by the triumphant Greeks, he determined to act on the defensive only. Indeed, famine threatened the besiegers, disease preyed on them, winter was coming on, and the rains would probably deluge the plain on which they were encamped.
Once more Reshid sent a letter demanding an interview, but the old answer was flung back:—
"The Greeks hold with the Turks no other intercourse than that of arms."
They had no idea of surrender now; their hopes were high, the garrison was numerous, its valour and patriotism well tested, the sea was open, and scarcely a week passed that some vessel did not arrive with provisions. So the months passed on; October came, November passed. In December the Greek fleet had quitted the waters of Missolonghi, when a new and formidable enemy now appeared before the besieged town.
Ibrahim Pasha with his Egyptians now advanced to attack the brave little garrison. It was the beginning of the end.
A piteous entreaty went out from Missolonghi begging for relief. The garrison was almost naked, and exposed to severe weather, ammunition was running short, provisions were scanty, the Egyptians were fierce foes to attack.
Throughout Europe sympathy was awakened for the brave defenders of Missolonghi, money was collected, clothes were sent. But by February the garrison was again reduced to its lowest extremity. They bad consumed the flesh of horses and dogs, they had subsisted on crabs fished up under fire of the enemy's boats, had fed on all sorts of marine plants. Yet though death was striding among them, they never dreamt of surrender.
Again they built their hopes on the appearance of the Greek fleet, but they were doomed to disappointment. The old Greek ships were no match for the Turkish fleet, and by the fifteenth of April Miaulis found that the Turks had closed up communication with the lagoons; hence he could no longer take provisions to the besieged, and there was nothing for it but to sail out to sea and leave Missolonghi to its fate. The fleet did not possess the same heroic patriotism that stimulated the brave defenders inside the town, or they would hardly have retreated without an effort to save them.
When the Greek fleet departed, the stores of Missolonghi did not contain rations for more than two days. The garrison had now to choose whether it would perish by starvation, surrender, or cut its way through the besiegers. It resolved to face every danger rather than surrender. Those who were unable to bear arms, the women and children, showed as much patience and courage in this terrible situation as the veteran soldiers hardened in warfare.
A spirit of Greek heroism, rare in the Greek revolution, rare even in the history of man, pervaded every breast.
After long consultation, it was resolved to force a passage for the whole population through the besiegers. Many must perish, a few might escape. Anyhow, it was no surrender! And it was their last resource. There were yet nine thousand persons in the town, of whom only three thousand were capable of bearing arms. Nearly two thousand men, women, and children were so feeble from age, disease, or starvation that they were unable to join in the sortie. They must be left to perish in the ruins. A few strong spirits refused to leave the town; they chose rather to wait till the enemy entered, and then blow themselves up.
Most of the women who took part in the sortie put on men's clothes, and carried arms like the soldiers. The children had loaded pistols in their belts, which many had already learned how to use.
It was shortly after sunset, on the twenty-second of April 1826, that a discharge of musketry told the chiefs in Missolonghi that some of their countrymen would attack the rear of the Turks, to divert them from the place where the bridges were being thrown across the ditch.
At nine o'clock the bridges were placed without noise, and a thousand soldiers crossed and ranged themselves along a covered way.
But, unfortunately, a deserter had informed Ibrahim of the Greek plan. He never for a moment thought that the whole population would attempt to escape, but he took every precaution to be ready.
When the people began to cross the bridges, their noise revealed to the Turks their whereabouts, and they at once opened on them a terrific fire.
Crowds rushed forward; the shrieks of the wounded and those who were forced into the water were unnoticed, and in spite of the enemy's fire the greater part of the inhabitants crossed the ditch in tolerable order. Many still lingered behind; it was no easy sacrifice to leave their homes and their relations to the hated Turks. Everything that could be of use to the enemy had been destroyed; printing presses had been broken up and types burned. That which had served to make known to the world the glorious deeds and immortal names of so many heroes should not be profaned by the touch of the barbarians.
Patiently the garrison waited for the last stragglers from Missolonghi. Then they sprang forward, and with a loud shout rushed sword in hand on the Turks. Never was there a more valiant charge.
But an accident happened at this moment which proved fatal.
A large number of Greeks were yet on the bridges, when a sudden cry of "Back, back to the town," rang out. No one knew why, no one knew the origin of the cry. It was taken up and repeated so loudly that it created a panic. Those on the bridges stopped, and supposing a retreat was ordered, turned and fled back into the town.
But the Turks had entered already. Eager for their prey they had sealed the walls, and now met the Greeks face to face in the streets. There was no place of refuge; women destroyed themselves and drowned their children to escape falling into the hands of the hated Turks. Throughout the night shrieks and yells were mingled with a continual roll of musketry, and constant explosions, as bastion and buildings were blown up.
True, some escaped, and dragged their weary limbs to the mountains, numbers died on the road, others fell into Turkish hands.
But through all they were consoled by the thought that they had not surrendered. They had held out till all had failed; they had shown their country that they loved her, even to death; and throughout the length and breadth of Europe the brave defence of Missolonghi is still spoken of with unaffected admiration.