The Ottomans and the Austrians tore much of Europe apart for three centuries. Today’s entry can be considered the apex of that conflict.
Name: The Battle Of Vienna (which followed the Siege of Vienna) also known as the Battle of Kahlenburg
The War: The Great Turkish War, part of the Ottoman-Hapsburg Wars
When: 11/12 September 1683
Where: Outside Vienna, Austria
Forces/Commanders: Circa 84’000 troops of the Holy League under King John III Sobieski of Poland and Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg against circa 150’000 troops of the Ottoman Empire (and its vassals) under Kara Mustafa Pasha
“Make sure you tie the knot tight”
-Kara Mustapha’s last words, before his execution for his command failure.
“We came, we saw, God conquered”
-King John III Sobieski
Vienna, throughout the early modern period, was a very important city. Politically it was the seat of the Hapsburgs and their empire. Religiously, it was one of the bastions of Catholicism. And economically, it had control over the Danube and east-west trade routes.
All of this made the city a very tempting target for the advancing Ottomans. They had attempted to capture the city once before, an aborted siege in 1529, hampered by poor planning and cold weather. In the early 1680s they decided to try again and commenced long preparations with the building of roads and forwarding of supplies.
With Ottoman backing, large parts of the Hapsburg lands were in near constant revolt and fights between the Emperor Leopold I’s army and these Ottoman backed rebels led to the mobilisation of the Turkish army and a declaration of outright war from the Muslim state.
From that time, it would take the Ottomans nearly 18 months to reach the gates of Vienna. This was due to the time it took to mobilize their full strength, wait for good weather to speed their march and to actually get from Thrace to Austria.
That 18 month period was not wasted by the Viennese. Led by Ernst Rudiger Graf von Starhemburg, they commenced a major reform of their defensive structures and went looking for diplomatic help. This they received in spades from the Papal States who helped organise a new Holy League to defend the city. Far more important though was the signing of a mutual defence pact with the King of Poland, John III Sobieski.
As Ottoman troops reached Belgrade and pressed on, Von Starhemburg ordered the evacuation of Vienna, including the Emperor, with the Count resigned to resisting a siege as the Hapsburg armies could not hope to hold back the 150’000+ troops heading towards them. The Ottomans, led by Grand Vizier Mustafa Pasha, included 20’000 members of the elite Janissary Corps, 40’000 Crimean Tartars, and Wallachian and Romanian vassals along with over 300 cannon pieces. The Viennese inside the city, roughly 10’000 men, 5’000 civilians and 370 cannons, stood ready to defend the walls, having destroyed all homes outside them so the Ottomans would have no cover on approach.
The siege began on 14 July 1683. Around the same time, the King of Poland began to organise a relief force to honor his terms of the agreement with Leopold. Following the wholesale slaughter of the population of nearby Perchtoldsdorf, Vienna was in no mood to listen to calls for surrender.
The siege was a simple and brutal affair. The Ottoman cannon met its match in the strong modern walls of the city. With an open approach to the city impossible without risking huge casualties, Mustapha Pasha ordered the digging of long lines of trenches leading up to the walls. With his gunpowder useless against the walls, he instead ordered it to be used from beneath, through the construction of mines and tunnels leading under the fortifications.
All food supply was cut off, but the Viennese inside, a reduced number due to the evacuation, were able to hang on, beating back any assault made. Seeing the obvious work being done digging tunnels, they countered with their own, seeking to intercept and destroy the enemy’s undermining efforts before they had a chance to detonate explosives under the walls.
In truth, the Ottomans did not press their attack on the city as much as their gigantic army could have. It is speculated that the Ottoman leaders wanted to capture as much of the city as possible intact and prevent a mass plundering. As a result, attacks were slow in coming and had little backbone in them. These delays and half-heartedness were to prove fatal.
The Viennese were able to stop many of the tunnels, but the Ottomans were still able to blow several holes in the walls, but never of enough size to lead to a breakthrough. As the siege carried on into early September, things came to a head. The exhausted and starving defenders were apparently close to the end as Ottoman troops occupied several parts of the wall and some of the burgs.
But things had already started to turn against the Ottomans in the opening week of September. Hungarian rebels, who were supporting the Ottomans and watching their rear, had been defeated by the Duke of Lorraine. Internal disputes within the Ottoman army had produced much discord, with allegations that Romanian and Wallachian troops were loading their cannon with straw while the Tartar cavalry refused to watch the Ottoman rearguard or attack approaching relief forces.
Those relief forces, who had crossed the Danube unmolested, were nearing the city from the north-west. Led by the King of Poland, numbering in the region of 80’000 men, it included troops from Saxony, Baden, Bavaria, Rome and Swabia many of whom had answered a call to arms from the Pope himself, Innocent XI. Sobieski had successfully formed his multi-national army into a single force, with a clear command structure, something his Ottoman counterpart could not claim. Morale was reportedly very high among the army, as they felt they were fighting, not for the Hapsburgs, but for Christianity with the battle seen as a way to avenge the Crusades: this time it was the Muslims fighting far from home against a determined, religiously devout enemy.
The Holy League arrived in the area on the night of 11/12 September, lighting bonfires to announce their arrival and embolden the defenders of Vienna. After a mass was performed, the battle began at around 4AM.
As the Holy League force were forming up, the Ottomans launched a preliminary assault, one that was easily beaten back. The Duke of Lorraine led the first of the Christian advances, with the Austrians on the left and Germans in the center. Sobieski elected to stay back and observe from a distance with the bulk of the Holy Leagues cavalry.
Mustapha Pasha was caught between two fights. Polish infantry launched a massive assault on the Ottoman right, and it was here that most of the fighting took place over a bloody 12 hour period as the two armies crashed into each, wheeled, rallied and counter attacked over and over again. Pasha kept his best troops, the Janissary’s and Sipahi’s, away from this fight. His sappers had set up an incredible amount of explosives underneath a key section of Vienna’s walls, and his plan called for these troops to storm through the resultant breach and take the city before the Holy League could save it.
As it was, a Viennese counter tunnel intercepted the Ottoman mine and stopped the detonation shortly before it was due to take place, one of those strange twists of fate in war. Robbed of the chance to easily enter Vienna, Pasha resorted to an all-out assault on its walls, favoring this operation over the continuing fight out on the field.
The day dragged on, with neither army able to inflict a decisive blow on the battlefield, and the Ottomans unable to take the walls. Around 4PM Sobieski made his move.
On the hills surrounding Vienna and the battlefield, the King of Poland had assembled a massive force of cavalry, mostly Polish with some Austrian German units. They numbered 20’000 men. With the battle at a crucial point, Sobieski personally led an assault with the entire force, the King with his famous Winged Hussars. It was the largest cavalry charge in history.
Exhausted from the two front fight, the Ottomans lines were smashed by Sobieski’s attack. The cavalry cut their way through the stunned Muslin army and headed straight for the Ottoman camp. While the infantry dealt with the few Ottomans who remained to fight, the Viennese sallied forth from their fortification to join the assault.
The Ottomans had been crushed and retreated to the south and west. As night fell, the city had been saved and a decisive victory had been achieved by the Holy League.
Why It’s Decisive – Effect On That War
The wars between the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans would continue for quite a while but this particular batch of them has this battle as its pivotal moment. The Ottomans suffered close to 20’000 casualties, the Holy League a quarter of that. The Turks were forced to retreat in disorder back to safer lands. Mustapha Pasha, as was the norm in the times, was executed by his own troops.
The Holy League got its hands on a huge amount of loot, while the Viennese got ready for a potential counter-attack. It never came. The Austrians spent the next 16 years reconquering parts of Hungary and the Balkans eventually signing a (temporary) peace treaty with the Ottomans in 1699. The Ottomans would never again advance so far into Europa and the defeat marked their high water mark of conquest.
Poland and the Hapsburgs seemed set on becoming sworn allies, but this did not last, with Austria joining Poland’s other neighbours in splitting it apart over the following century.
During the siege, France had taken advantage of Austria’s position, easily conquering large tracts of the western Empire. Such actions marked the constant problem that Germanic nations would face the coming centuries: wars on two fronts.
A mixed bag. The massive cavalry charge of Sobieski was a singular event in the history of war, a breathtaking attack that broke the back of the Ottoman army. Sobieski was able to hold back his horse until the crucial moment, identifying the key point when the attack was most needed. In the years to come, horse would remain a vital part of the battlefield, but the days of the mass charge were coming to an end.
The Viennese successfully demonstrated counter-mining techniques, techniques that saved the city from disaster as the battle raged outside. Moreover, Vienna itself showed that it was possible to have well-built walls that could stand up to cannon.
Morale wise, the Ottomans did everything wrong while the Holy League did everything right. The slow, plodding advance through eastern Europe, followed by a drawn out siege was not the way to embolden the Muslim army, while their adversaries developed an ethos of religious fervor, a fervor that proved invaluable on the battlefield.
Huge. The Ottoman conquests mark their reversal from this point as they slowly, inch by painful inch, removed from the continent (for the most part). The Hapsburg can also mark the battle as the beginning of a true period of European dominance for them.
If the Ottomans had defeated Sobieski, taken the city, or either, the effects would have been monumental. Combined with the French attacks to the west, the Hapsburgs would have the very real possibility of total defeat and elimination. The Ottomans would have had another stronghold to effect control over their conquered territories, dominance of the Danube trade lanes, not to mention the vast wealth of Vienna itself. From there, further conflict, and possible conquests, were inevitable. They could have continued west against the French, north against Germany and Poland, or south against the Italian states.
The balance of power in Europe would have been altered to an almost irrevocable extent.
In National Consciousness
Pretty big and in numerous ways. The battle is commemorated in song, in paint and in food with many legends pointing at the battle, and the celebrations that followed, being the birthplace of the croissant and the bagel with others claiming that the large amount of coffee captured from the retreating Ottomans started the caffeine business in Vienna.
Regards music, similar stories claim that some musical instruments, like cymbals and brass drums, were only introduced to Europe after they were captured on the battlefield.
Vienna has numerous monuments and plaques dedicated to the fight and have renewed them on every centenary.
The Catholic Church named the 12 September the feast of the Holy Name of Mary as a commemoration of the battle as Sobieski had invoked her to protect his troops before the fight began and is celebrated to this day. The Church continues to see the battle as a crucial point in the fight against the Ottomans.
A nearby church, a train route between Warsaw and Vienna and even a constellation are named in Sobieski’s honor. The King is remembered as a national hero in Poland with an impressive statue of him adorning a park in Gdansk.
In a conflict that can reasonably be said to have lasted from the Crusades to World War One, Vienna was one the defining moments.
For more of NFBs Decisive Battles, please check out the index here.