Eighteen thousand men. Fifteen thousand horses. Dead. In just 90 minutes. And this before bombs or weapons of mass destruction were invented. Twenty thousand men facing an opposition of one hundred thousand all the while knowing their fates of most were sealed. A rather hopeless situation in any era.
All this happened, in Mohács, on 29 August 1526 when Hungarian soldiers took on the might and force of Süleyman’s Turkish army in a fight for Hungary. The memorial site, with its visitors centre built to resemble the Crown of Hungary, marks the mass graves in which the bones of these soldiers lie undisturbed by time. Over a hundred wooden posts in various shapes and forms testify to the hopelessness of their plight. This video depiction will give you some sense of what took place.
Intricately carved by four Hungarian artists, they represent the people, the weapons, the armour, and the horses all lost to the battle. The young King Louis the II died that day, aged 20. It’s hard to imagine a 20-year-old today having to face what he faced or make the decision he made.
But he to battle he went: ‘So that no one can look at me as an excuse to his own cowardice, and so that no one can blame me, I will on the morrow go, with the help of the Almighty God, to the place others are loath to go without me‘.
Unlike traditional grave markers bearing names and dates of those interred, these carvings are more representative. Some are painted: in black for old people, in blue for children, and those having suffered a violent end are red. The paths are circular, with a rather labyrinthy feel. And as I walked around, I wished I had someone with me to explain what I was seeing. [The English guide we’d booked had been hijacked by another English-speaking group minutes before we’d arrived. Looking for a woman in a fur coat among the teeming masses was like finding a 10-forint coin in a bag of a thousand 50-forint pieces – not impossible but time-consuming.]
Although the site has been designed and well planned, there is no pattern to the placement of the poles. They’re scattered randomly, tilting this way and that in a manner that seems both deliberate and haphazard. It’s hard to decide whether they’ve been beaten down by wind and weather or placed this way on purpose. Perhaps it’s an artistic rendering of how the best laid plans in such a situation are subject to change.
Despite the crowds, there’s a sense of awe about the place, an almost hushed silence that hangs above the chatter of those wandering through. The death bell adds further to this sense of reverence. It’s said that to ring the bell is to salute those who perished.
It wasn’t unusual then for mothers to kill their sons rather than see them face a certain death in battle – capture by the Janissary(the elite infantrymen that were the Sultan’s bodyguards). History has it that the local lady of the manor (or rather Siklós Castle), one Dorottya Kaniszai, went straight to the battlefield when she heard of the defeat and once there, buried many of the soldiers herself. Amazing fortitude, these women. Not for the first time am I wondering how I’d have reacted had I been there. What would I have done? Sat home with my embroidery?
It all started because Louis II refused to pay tribute to the Sultan. Annoyed, Süleyman decided to visit Hungary, capturing Belgrade on his way. Louis managed to rally some 25 000 men and left Buda to meet the approaching Turks. He could have waited for reinforcements from Transylvania and Croatia but didn’t. It was an expensive decision. Süleyman continued all the way to Buda but then decided to go home, taking with him more than 100 000 captives, and beginning 150 years of Turkish rule and the demise of medieval Hungary.
The future would see Hungary divided between the Ottomans and the Habsburgs with only Transylvania remaining free. There territories belonging to Louis, who was killed in flight, passed to Ferdinand I, a Habsburg who later became Holy Roman Emperor.