What was the most brutal battle in history?

What was the most brutal battle in history?



    What was the most brutal battle in history?



    A battle that involved guns, germs and steel easily makes this list. A story that should sadden the heart of all who hear it. Especially considering how overlooked it is in many places of the world.
    It would be very easy to say Stalingrad, but perhaps in terms of shear tragedy I would be remiss not to nominate the Fall of Tenochtitlan.

    Arguably the first example of “modern” imperialism in the Americas, the Fall of Tenochtitlan represented the end of the Aztec Empire and the beginning of European conquests in the Americas. And it still stands as one of the bloodiest battles in the history of the hemisphere.

    Our story begins in April 1519. After the ambitious Spanish nobleman Hernan Cortes landed in modern day Mexico on an exploratory expedition/conquest, he stumbled into an empire. 
    The land was at the time ruled by arguably the most powerful civilization in the western hemisphere, the warlike Aztec Empire. After encountering several tribes subservient to the Aztecs, Cortes and his men began a march towards the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan.
     A city of hundreds of thousands, on a man made island on a massive lake, Tenochtitlan was one of the most prosperous and beautiful cities on the planet at the time. But soon all that would change.

    The Aztecs initially greeted Cortes with hospitality, though many were wary of these pale faced newcomers to their city with strange weapons and horses. After being introduced to the Aztec ruler, Moctezuma, the arrogant Cortes immediately took him hostage as a precaution to protect his vastly outnumbered men. 
    Cortes hoped to use Moctezuma as a puppet to seize control of the empire in what he wanted to be a lightning conquest. Naturally, this would end disastrously due to a series of unfortunate events.
    • What Cortes didn’t understand about Aztec society was that Moctezuma only had authority as long as he was seen as an effective ruler. Aztec leaders drew their power from the respect of the people and their ability to rule decisively. As a prisoner to Cortes, Moctezuma became weak in the eyes of his people and if they wanted to, could easily be replaced.
    • As a side note, it’s important to remember that the Aztecs (at least their leaders), did not actually think Cortes was a god. They thought he was either an emissary sent from the gods, or just another marauding barbarian. But certainly not a god.
    • Why Moctezuma did not immediately turn on Cortes is unknown. Perhaps he hoped to exploit Cortes, or feared his potential power? The truth, like many things, has been lost to history.
    • After taking charge of Aztec leadership, Cortes immediately acted against the Aztec’s traditional religion. He banned human sacrifices (a BIG part of Aztec culture). Naturally many amongst the Aztec capital became offended by the Spanish impressing their customs upon them. This ended in predictable bloodshed.
    • After Cortes was forced to leave the city to deal with a rival Conquistador, he left Tenochtitlan in command of his hot-blooded (and sociopathic) second, Pedro de Alvarado. During a celebration of one of their gods Toxcatl, Alvarado became offended by the “pagan ritual” and marched his entire garrison into the Great Temple where celebrations were being held. Thousands died in the ensuing slaughter, many of them Aztec elites. The few who survived turned the rest of the empire firmly against the Spanish.
    • By the Summer of 1520, Cortes returned to find his men besieged. Moctezuma had been slain (by the Spanish or by his own people, the account differs) and the Spanish position was untenable. Gathering as much pilfered gold as possible Cortes evacuated from the city, only for his retreat column to be ambushed by vengeful Aztecs. Hundred were butchered as the Spanish fled across a lone causeway in the dead of night in what would become known as “La Noche Triste”. The Night of Sorrows.



    Spanish flee the Aztecs
    With all his surviving men and native allies, Cortes retreated to lick his wounds and plan his next move. After defeating a force of Aztecs at the Battle of Otumba, Cortes and company concocted their next move. Gathering whatever Spaniards were left and a substantial number of native tribesmen who were tired of Aztec rule, the Conquistadors would march on the capital and take it by force. This plan would take months and it was lucky they never experienced a serious response from the Aztecs (who due to tradition, could not wage proper war until later that year).
    Meanwhile the Aztecs selected their next leader, Moctezuma’s younger brother Cuitláhuac. Immediately problems arose. 
    The new regime was fragile, as Aztec member states were divided between either doing nothing, supporting Cortes, or supporting Tenochtitlan. 
    Compounding this was an outbreak of Smallpox that was currently ravaging the population of the capital.
    It seems one of Cortes’ men had accidentally infected a member of the population. 
    The Aztecs, who had no immunity, died in droves. It’s believed up to half the population of the city died due to the outbreak. Hundreds of thousands succumbed or starved due to the disease wiping out productivity.


    Cuitláhuac was paralyzed as he tried to organize a defense of the city, until he died due to Smallpox and was replaced by his cousin Cuauhtémoc. 
    This new leader would lead the defense of Tenochtitlan which at the moment was slowly being surrounded. 
    Cortes had his men slowly isolate the city, beating off numerous attempts to break the encirclement. By May 1521, the city’s water supply had been completely severed and the siege began in earnest.


    Aztec Eagle Warrior, the elite soldiers of the empire.
    On one side, Cortes had 1400 Spanish soldiers, approximately 80000+ native allies, a hundred horses and a dozen cannons. Facing him were over 100000 Aztec soldiers and the entire remaining population of the city. From the outset it was already clear what was going to happen.
    There was to be no quarter, no negotiation and absolutely no hesitation. It was a win or die scenario. If the Spanish lost, they and their allies would be sentenced to death and likely sacrificed to the Aztec gods. If the Aztecs lost, it was to be the end of their empire and slavery to the conquerors. Thus began an atrocious battle made necessary by the greed and ambition of Cortes.



    The Spanish first seized control of the lake surrounding the city. Aztec war canoes were quickly outclassed by hastily constructed brigantines bearing cannons. With the water in their hands, the Spanish then pressed their way across the primary causeway into the city. It was a bitter, slogging fight all the way.


    The Spanish pushed barricades up the causeways, fighting off daily and nightly ambushes by the Aztecs. Though many attacks were repelled, many other succeeded in temporarily driving back the Spanish. Several conquistadors were captured and later sacrificed at the top of the Great Temple, their hearts torn out and bodies mutilated in full view of their comrades below. This only enflamed the Spanish further and they continued their advance on the city.

    The Spanish finally reached the opposite end of the causeway and found a nightmare waiting. 
    The Aztecs may not have had horses, or guns, or steel armor and shields, but they had ferocity. 
    Whenever Cortes tried to establish a foothold in the city, he and his men were thrown back by a tide of screaming warriors defending their homes. Cortes was even almost captured during a failed assault. 
    The close quarters nullified the Spanish technological superiority, allowing the beleaguered Aztecs to engage the invaders on even terms.

    Robbed of an easy occupation and facing stiff resistance at every turn, Cortes resorted to the only strategy he had. Attrition. 
    He would send allied tribesmen into the city to draw out a counter force. Once the battle was joined, the Spanish would roll in and kill as many warriors as they could, before razing nearby buildings to the ground. This neutralized the Aztec advantage in CQC, at the cost of destroying the city bit by bit.
    Meanwhile for the Aztecs, the situation became increasingly desperate. Thousands were still suffering from Smallpox, while food and clean water provisions were being ground down. Reinforcements from tributaries never materialized. Slowly but surely, the heart of the Aztec empire was being starved and beaten into submission. Come August, the end had finally come. Cortes ordered a full push to occupy the city proper.
    Attacking from every direction, Cortes ordered assaults across all major causeways into the city and resistance finally began to collapse. 
    Pushed into the city center, the Aztecs were cut down and at the mercy of the invaders. Worst of all was the tribesmen that Cortes had recruited for his attack on the city. These people whom the Aztecs had oppressed for centuries finally had their due. So great was their fury against Tenochtitlan’s people that even the Spanish were horrified at the slaughter. After days of brutal fighting and massacres, the Great Temple was seized and the Aztec ruler, Cuauhtémoc finally admitted the city was lost. After failed peace negotiations, he was later captured trying to flee across the lake with his family and valuables. Any resistance in the city had ceased by August 13, 1521. 93 days after Cortes had begun his siege.


    The Spanish seize the Great Temple.
    The cost of the battle was enormous. Over two hundred thousand Aztec warriors and civilians had been killed in the fighting. Thousands more had died of starvation or disease, or were massacred when the siege was over. The Spanish lost 800 men taking the city, and their tribal allies had suffered as well, approx. 20,000 dead. Easily one of the costliest battles in the history of North and South America. These were numbers that would not be rivaled until the American Civil War over 300 years later.
    Though it would be years before the Aztec civilization officially collapsed, with one decisive strike Cortes had ripped the heart out of an empire and begun not only the Spanish conquest of Mexico, but the conquest of the entire western hemisphere. History itself would never be the same.
    And all it took was one of the death of an entire city.


    ridamohssine
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    writer and blogger, founder of INTHEPROF .

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