Part II: Battle of Angora

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Part II: Battle of Angora

"Sultan Bayezid imprisoned by Timur," oil on canvas painting by Stanisław Chlebowski (1878)
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: July 20, 1402

Sultan Bayezid of the Ottoman Empire marched his army eastward to meet the invasion force of Tamerlane, Timurid ruler of much of the Middle East. The Ottomans had marched past the Timurid army, giving Timur the advantage of choosing his own ground for a battle. Timur's enginers dug two dams and canal to divert the local stream's course, cutting off water from the tired and thirsty Turkish army. Some historians claim the Turks fought out of a sense of desperation to get water. If that is so, then Bayezid took his own good time making his troop arrangements.

Dispositions of the Armies

At least 33 percent – possibly up to 50 percent – of the Ottoman army was infantry. The Turkish center included a unit of janissaries, the sultan's personal foot bodyguards who were superb archers. To their left was a body of azaps, lesser trained infantrymen sometimes used as cannon fodder. These two units were placed on a hill, with a good view of the battlefield. Stationed behind this hill was a large unit of sipahis, the heavy cavalry household troops of the sultan, commanded by Bayezid himself. To the rear of the sipahis was the Turkish camp, protected by an infantry reserve and commanded by one of Bayezid's sons, possibly Mehmed.

On the Turkish left were a large number of vassal troops. There were two bodies of Albanian infantry, as well as a body of Albanian horsemen. On the far left of the Turkish army were one unit of Serbian infantry and another of armored knights (variously stated at a strength of either 5000 or 10,000 men) commanded by Prince Stefan Lazarević. He had fought with his father against the Ottomans at Kosovo Field in 1389, but had been a loyal vassal of Sultan Bayezid since then. [The two men were, in fact, brothers-in-law as Bayezid had married Stefan's sister Despina.]

Turkish light horse archers (photograph courtesy of Perry Miniatures
Turkish light horse archers (photograph courtesy of Perry Miniatures

On the Ottoman right – commanded by the sultan's son Suleyman – were his Anatolian foot levies and mounted timariots, holders of fiefs at the sufferance of the sultan. On the far right of the line was a large contingent of Turcoman horse archers (sometime referred to as Tatars) who were tribal relatives of some of the Timurid troops. Their role in the coming fight was pivotal. The entire Ottoman army deployed in a slight crescent shape, one of their classic maneuvers which aimed to envelop an enemy army's flanks (this is why I believe the Ottoman army was slightly larger than the Timurid force).

Tamerlane's army was divided into a right and left wing, a vanguard, and a large reserve, each portion divided into three bodies of horsemen, except the vanguard. The vanguard comprised the war elephants and their foot escorts, probably with some light horsemen as further escorts. [There is some evidence to indicate that these foot escorts included naphtha throwing troops, but if they were present their effectiveness is questionable.] They were commanded by Pir Muhammad, Timur's grandson.

The left consisted of heavy cavalry, under the direction of Shāhrukh Mīrzā, Tamerlane's 24-year old youngest son, and Khalil Sultan, an 18-year old grandson. The right's heavy horsemen were under the leadership of Miran Shah, another of Timur's sons. Finally, the reserve was under the personal command of Timur himself, waiting for the right moment to enter the battle. The entire army was screened by units of light horse archers, firing clouds of arrows to harass the enemy.

Battle of Angora

The battle commenced at mid-morning, as the wings of the Ottoman army began a slow advance to envelop the wings of Tamerlane's army. At the enemy's approach, the Timurid horse archer units moved forward, spraying the front lines of the Turkish army with arrows. They were followed soon afterwards by the Timurid vanguard, the right and left wings. The first major action occurred on the Timurid right, as the Serbian knights charged into the Timurid horse archers before them. The impact of the Serbian horse brushed the light horsemen aside, bringing the Serbs into contact with the charging Timurid heavy horse of the right wing. After a brutal hand-to-hand fight which lasted over an hour, the Timurid right wing was temporarily thrown back.

Battle of Angora, Ottomans in red, Timurids in blue (North is at the bottom of the map) (The water course splitting the map, Çubuk Creek, was a dry bed when the battle commenced)
Battle of Angora, Ottomans in red, Timurids in blue (North is at the bottom of the map)
(The water course splitting the map, Çubuk Creek, was a dry bed when the battle commenced)

Things were going very differently on the Turkish right. Initially, the Timurid attack was checked. However, the Turcomans on the far right of the Ottoman line chose this moment – at some point around noon or the early afternoon – to change sides. Many of the Turcomans had been contacted by Timur's agents, offering them rewards for deserting the Ottomans and siding with their relatives. As a result, the Turcoman archers began to envelop the Turkish right, killing many of the Anatolian levies and routing others. In the meantime, the Timurid left hammered the Anatolian timariots, finally routing them after a long period of intense hand-to-hand combat.

Seeing the Anatolians on the right breaking, Prince Stefan on the left decided that all was lost, and ordered his fellow Serbians to retreat. [This was more a move of self-preservation, as Stefan probably felt that the Ottoman Empire would now crumble, and the Serbian troops would be needed to keep his nation from being swallowed up by the nearby Balkan kingdom of Hungary.] The Albanians followed suit soon afterwards. With both flanks now gone, the Ottoman center stood alone. At that moment, the Timurid reserve moved forward to add their numbers to the attack on the Turkish janissaries and azaps. The janissaries resisted manfully, but the weight of the Timurid army ground them down. By late afternoon, Sultan Bayezid decided it was time to withdraw, accompanied by about 300 of his sipahis. This ended the battle of Angora.


Casualty figures cannot be given – after all, there was no agreement among historians as to the actual size of each army. However, it would not be unusual to say that at least 50 percent of the Turkish army was killed, wounded, or captured. Tamerlane's army probably sustained casualties in the 25 to 33 percent range.

Footnote #1: With this complete victory, Tamerlane had the Ottoman Empire at his mercy. However, he chose not to take advantage. He did guide his army to the shores of the Aegean Sea where he sacked the city of Smyrna, then under the rule of the Knights of St. John. Timur's attention was now drawn to his next conquest, which was Ming China. The preparation took up the next three years. As he was leading his army eastward in a rare winter offensive, Tamerlane died in 1405, at the age of 69. He was buried in a magnificent tomb in Samarkand. His empire hung on for over a century as individual emirates, but his children were not strong enough to hold the entire empire together.

Footnote #2: Shortly after fleeing the battlefield, Sultan Bayezid was captured by Timurid forces. Bayezid was brought before Tamerlane, some sources say in an iron cage. At first, Timur treated the captured Turkish ruler well. But, as he was making other plans of military conquest, Timur began to ignore Bayezid, or even treat him with a certain cruelty. One chronicler reports that Timur held a feast – with Bayezid present – and forced Bayezid's wife Despina to serve the guests completely naked. This was too much for the Ottoman ruler. He suffered a stroke, and died in March of 1403.

Footnote #3: For 11 years after the battle of Angora, the sons of Bayezid – who managed to escape the disastrous battle – waged a civil war that nearly tore the empire to pieces. Finally, in 1413, Mehmed I crowned himself sultan, and put the pieces back together. This allowed the Ottoman Empire to prosper once more; Mehmed is sometimes referred to as the "second founder" of the empire.

Footnote #4: In 1941, Russian anthropologist Mikhail Gerasimov exhumed Tamerlane's body from his tomb. He reconstructed the conqueror's appearance from his skull. He was 5'8" tall, very broad-chested, and had a hip injury which game him his nom de guerre, "Timur the Lame."

Reconstruction of Tamerlane's appearance
Reconstruction of Tamerlane's appearance

Footnote #5: There is an urban legend that when Tamerlane's casket was opened, there was an inscription inside that said, "Whoever opens my tomb, shall unleash an invader more terrible than I." Two days after the excavation of Timur's tomb began, Hitler's German army invaded Russia in "Operation Barbarossa." Coincidentally, when Timur's remains were reburied in November of 1942, Soviet Russian forces launched the battle of Stalingrad, which was the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany.

Footnote #6: Tamerlane's tactical brilliance on the battlefield could be explained by one simple fact: according to historians, he was a phenomenal chess player. In his leisure time, Timur would play any form of chess, even on round boards. There is even a form of chess called Shatranj Kamil, or "perfect chess. Tradition states it was invented by Tamerlane, but…

Initial set-up of Shatranj Kamil, also called Tamerlane chess
Initial set-up of Shatranj Kamil, also called Tamerlane chess

Footnote #7: The historian of Islamic Asia John Joseph Saunders summarized, "Till the advent of Hitler, Timur stood forth in history as the supreme example of soulless and unproductive militarism". Another historian estimated that Timur was directly responsible for the deaths of 17 million people, certainly a difficult figure to confirm.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.