Throughout human history, conflicts have been fought for land, resources, plunder, religion and power. It is an unfortunate reality that war has often been the greatest driver of history and decisions made and actions taken in the midst of conflict all too often shape the course of the future. The purpose of this series is to shine a spotlight not on certain conflicts that have determined the course of history, but on specific instances where the outcome of a single battle has defined the future not just for those directly involved, but for greater mankind.
**Just a word of warning. This article is a long one. Looong. You have been warned.**
This article covers a pivotal moment in European history when the forces of Central and Eastern Europe gathered to face the might of the Ottoman Empire, the Eastern superpower poised on the very doorstep of Europe.
The year was 1683 and it was the Battle of Vienna.
By the late 17th Century, the Ottoman Empire had been involved in numerous conflicts in the south-eastern European regions of the Balkans (which is actually the Turkish name for the region), Wallachia, Transylvania and Hungary since at least the early 15th Century.
Since the start of the 16th Century, however, their expansion westwards brought them into direct conflict with the eastern edge of the Holy Roman Empire, which at that time included all of what is now Germany, as well as parts of Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria and, at times, Hungary, Switzerland and Italy. Since 1452, the empire had been ruled by the House of Hapsburg, perhaps the most powerful dynasty in European history. According to Imperial tradition, the capital of the Empire was not fixed and moved depending on who held the title of Emperor. The Hapsburgs had been the Dukes of Austria before they were Emperors and so their Imperial capital was located at Vienna.
Quite apart from its significance as the Imperial capital, Vienna was also of great strategic value. Its location on the Danube river positioned it as a focal point for east-west riverine trade as well as the overland trade route from the Eastern Mediterranean into Germany. This strategic value had long made the city a tempting target for the Ottomans. In 1529, Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent, perhaps the greatest of all the Ottoman Sultans, launched a massive invasion against Vienna. In the siege that followed, just 15,000 men held at bay an Ottoman army numbering over 100,000 for three weeks before unseasonably cold and wet weather and a critical shortage of supplies forced the invaders to withdraw. The siege was celebrated throughout Europe as the triumph of pious Christians over the despicable Muslim invaders.
Vienna came to be seen as a great bastion in the east, protecting Christendom from the dreaded Muslim hordes on their doorstep. As long as the city remained in Christian hands, the Turks could not truly threaten Europe. However, it was not just in the eyes of Christendom that the city held great symbolic value. For the Ottomans too, Vienna was a prize to strive for.
Sultan Mehmet IV came to see Vienna as a means of securing his legacy for all time. The capture of that city would place him on par with the most illustrious of his ancestors, Suleiman the Magnificent and Mehmet II, the Conqueror of Constantinople.
Further, it was not just the Sultan who saw Vienna as an opportunity. The Grand Vizier (roughly equivalent to a Prime Minister), Kara Mustafa, also had his sights set on the Imperial capital. His adoptive family, the Köprülüs, had been serving as Grand Viziers for two generations, as a kind of secondary dynasty to the House of Osman. If he succeeded where even Suleiman the Magnificent had failed no less than three times, then none would ever doubt his position as the greatest Köprülü of them all.
However, there was great risk for both men in attacking Vienna. The massive military, financial and political investment required could either make their reputations for all time if it succeeded or break them if it did not. As such, the true objective of their campaign was a closely guarded secret, kept from all but the Sultan, Mustafa and his tight inner circle.
As of 1682, the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans were in the 18th year of a twenty-year truce, concluded in the Peace of Vasvár. While the peace allowed Emperor Leopold to turn his attention to the Empire’s old rival in France, in the interim the Ottomans began providing significant military support to the Hungarians and non-Catholic minorities in the parts of Hungary still controlled by the Hapsburgs. They were in open rebellion due to Leopold’s strident support for the Counter-Reformation and his hatred for Protestantism.
In August 1682, Mustafa used the escalating conflict in Hungary as an excuse to declare war. Orders were dispatched to the far corners of the empire. The Sultan had declared war against the infidel and the army was needed. However, the time it took to assemble such a great host meant it would take many months for the preparations to be made.
The core of the great army was the famous (or infamous) janissaries, who numbered around 20,000. They were the elite Ottoman infantry and had been the mainstay of Ottoman hosts for two centuries. Accompanying the janissaries were the Sipahis, the elite heavy cavalry of the Empire. In truth, the sipahis were not dissimilar to medieval knights. They were heavily armed and armoured and rode powerful warhorses. However, unlike knights, the sipahis were also armed with deadly compound bows, which added a lethal ranged element to their repertoire. This professional core of the Ottoman host would be joined by contingents from every corner of the Empire. Even Christian Wallachia would send a contingent, though it was less than reliable. By May 1683, over 100,000 men, including 150 guns, had gathered at Belgrade in readiness for the coming campaign.
However, perhaps the most important part of the Ottoman host had yet to arrive. The Khan of the Crimean Tartars was an old ally of the Ottomans and when the Sultan called, he provided, and led, a host of 40,000 riders for the campaign. These warriors fought in the same manner and were just as effective as their Mongol ancestors. The Tartars were the true terror of the East, the nightmarish horde just beyond the fringe of Europe that struck fear in the hearts of everyone, from Emperor all the way down to the lowest servant. As light cavalry, the Tartars ranged ahead of the main Ottoman host, which was extremely cumbersome. They were able to cover up to 60 miles in a single day, where the main army could only aim for 12. They were masters of striking with unrelenting speed and ferocity, using their extreme mobility to outmanoeuvre their slow enemies. However, when it came to siege warfare, which was all the more common in the 17th Century, the Tartars were next to useless. Fortunately, the Ottomans were experts in conducting siege operations.
In contrast to the massive military strength of the Ottoman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire was fragmented and weak. For most of the 17th Century, the Empire had been ravaged by religious conflict. It had barely begun to recover from the ruinous Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which had begun as an internecine struggle between various Catholic and Protestant states of the Empire and later spread to involve most of the Great Powers of Europe. The wounds of that conflict were practically still bleeding, due in part to Leopold’s own policies, and, though he was Emperor, receiving military support from any of the imperial states was by no means a foregone conclusion. In many cases, it was extremely unlikely.
Perhaps in recognition of this weakness, Leopold concluded a pact with King Jan III Sobieski of Poland. There were only two possible objectives of the Ottoman campaign. Either they would strike against Vienna or they would attempt to bypass the Imperial defences and march against Krakow in Poland. In either case, each monarch would come to the aid of the other. The Treaty of Warsaw would prove to be a critical factor in the outcome of the battle of Vienna as well as the war as a whole.
In May 1683, the colossal Ottoman host began its long advance towards Vienna. To face this invasion, Leopold had an army of just over 30,000 men at his disposal. In command of this force was Charles V of Lorraine, an experienced and capable commander.
However, Lorraine was quickly faced with seemingly impossible odds. The Emperor had ordered him to advance to meet the Ottomans, but the sheer size of the Turkish host and the fact that it could quite easily surround his army without warning forced him to withdraw.
On July 7, Leopold, alarmed by the (false) reports of Turks in the woods outside the city, and the entirety of the Imperial court fled the capital, making for the secondary city of Linz, 135 miles upriver. In the panic that followed, over 60,000 Viennese fled the capital, certain that the city was doomed. An unintended side effect of this mass flight was that those citizens who remained were determined to fight to the last. There would be no fleeing for them. It was stand or die.
With the Emperor fleeing to Linz, Lorraine was forced to withdraw his own forces. He did not abandon the city, leaving some 15,000 troops to man the defences. He himself took his remaining forces across the Danube. There he situated himself so that his army could throw back any attempt by the Ottomans to push north of the river. If any such attempt succeeded, the war would almost over with no other force to resist the Turks in all of Austria.
Count Ernst Rudiger von Starhemburg led the defence of the city, with a garrison of 15,000 soldiers, only about 11,000 of whom were fit for combat, at his command, supported by thousands of civilian volunteers. He was an experienced soldier, a veteran of the Wars of Religion, and he was supported by able officers.
His plan was relatively simple. They would defend the newly rebuilt outer earthen rampart and palisade, then the trenches behind it, then the walls, then city-block by city-block until they made their last stand at St Stephen’s Cathedral. There would be no surrender.
Perhaps the only advantage the defenders held over the Ottomans was the fact that Vienna also acted as a supply depot for campaigns in Hungary, with warehouses full of weapons, ammunition, gunpowder and, most significantly of all, practically the entirety of the Imperial artillery arsenal. Almost 320 guns of varying size were positioned on the walls, dwarfing the 150 pieces, which notably did not contain any siege guns of significant size, the Ottomans brought with them.
In the week between the Emperor’s flight and the arrival of the Ottoman host, Starhemburg put the remaining population to work preparing the city for the coming siege.
On July 14, the Ottoman army arrived before the walls of Vienna and the city was quickly surrounded. The defenders looking out from the walls would have seen a massive ring of tents that stretched as far as the eye could see. Some of the more experienced officers were baffled by the fact that the Turks appeared to make no effort to fortify their enormous camp against potential external attack.
In a sense, the lack of defensive preparations made some sense. After all, it would be a bold commander indeed who attacked such a colossal host. However, the fact that Mustafa did not order such preparations be made regardless of the likelihood of attack speaks to his low opinion of the enemies he faced. He had witnessed the retreat of Lorraine’s army before his advance. He had seen the only force any significant size ‘flee’ across the Danube. He had heard of Emperor Leopold’s flight and the panic that followed. He believed his enemy was beaten and all he had to do was seize a sparsely defended city of infidels and his triumph would be complete. Some of the Turkish commanders that had experience fighting the Hapsburgs were not so quick to dismiss their enemy, but Mustafa waved off their concerns and gave orders for the siege to get underway.
Within a day, the Turks began their bombardment. While the invaders did not have the massive siege guns required to breach the walls, they still possessed many cannons and these launched shells just over the walls, targeting the taller buildings within. More frighteningly for the Viennese, Ottoman mortars lobbed explosive shells on steep parabolas, sending them high into the air before dropping down to rain death silently from above. The entirety of the city was within range of the Ottoman guns. Nowhere was truly safe.
Mustafa and his officers quickly identified a weakness in the city’s defences that could be exploited. As a result of the somewhat haphazard manner in which Vienna’s fortifications had been redesigned and expanded over the centuries, two of the major strongpoints, the Löbl and Burg bastions, were not able to properly provide fire support to each other. This was where practically the entirety of the Ottoman besieging efforts would be focused. While this was very much the logical place for the Turks to target, this almost singular focus allowed Starhemberg to concentrate much of his extremely limited manpower in a far smaller area.
In order to avoid the raking fire of the defenders’ many wall-mounted guns, the Ottomans dug extensive trench lines. In this way, the assault troops could approach the fortifications without being exposed to enemy cannon fire. When they did emerge into the open, they would be too close to the defenders’ position for the guns to fire without risking hitting their own men.
On July 16, the trenches reached the foot of the outer earthen rampart. Ottoman troops poured out of their trenches and struggled up the slope to the palisade, all the while under a withering hail of musket fire. When they finally reached the palisade, they were met by thousands of defenders armed with swords, spears and halberds, while grenadiers lobbed lethal grenades over the rampart and into the men leaving the trenches. The ferocious fighting along the fortification lasted for hours before the Turks were finally driven back. So ended the first of countless daily assaults on the palisade, all of them repulsed with huge losses.
While the fighting raged at Vienna, at Linz Emperor Leopold was scrambling to muster a relief force, sending emissaries to all the major states of the Empire to ask for aid. He had no troops of his own left, so any relief effort was entirely reliant on external support. However, even if the states did come to his aid, Leopold faced a dire problem. By early August, his treasury was virtually empty. He had no means with which to pay for any troops that might be offered, a condition imposed by the states in almost every case. Even Jan Sobieski of Poland, who was bound by treaty to come to his aid, demanded that Leopold cover at least some of the cost of his expedition.
Luckily for Leopold, he found a willing and able ally in the man who dwelt in the Vatican. Pope Innocent XI had long desired that the squabbling states of Europe do more to combat the Ottoman threat. Now the opportunity presented itself to put his ambitions into practice. On the condition that the funds he provided are used solely for the purpose of fighting the Turks, Innocent unlocked the vast resources of the Catholic Church and unleashed a virtual torrent of money for Leopold to spend.
The Emperor quickly began to assemble a multilateral army, lubricated by Papal funds. The first contingent, 11,000 troops dispatched by the Elector of Bavaria (Leopold’s future son-in-law), arrived on August 6 and set up camp on the northern bank of the Danube, just 50 miles from Vienna.
The very next day, on August 7 and after three weeks of bloody fighting, the Turks finally breached the palisade outside Vienna. Beyond the earthen rampart, they found themselves facing a network of defensive trenches that was teeming with Hapsburg troops and beyond that loomed the city walls, bristling with dozens of guns.
Just as they had at the palisade, the Turks began launching daily assaults against the defensive fortifications, each of which was driven back with heavy losses. Each day over ten thousand men struggled in the narrow stretch of earth before the city walls. The fighting was some of the most savage and bitter yet seen in 17th century Europe and, in a century characterised by ruinous religious conflict, that was saying something.
Every night, the darkness was punctured by the flash of musket fire and the sound of steel on steel as the defenders sallied forth to raid the Ottoman lines and sabotage their siege efforts. The Turks, in turn, began counter-raids of their own.
Starhemberg’s men fought with dogged determination, but soon the Ottoman numbers began to tell. Inch by inch, the Turks pushed closer to the walls. Meanwhile, inside the walls, the population began to suffer the effects of the siege. Food became scarce and eventually, some people resorted to eating the cats and whatever small animals they could find. Disease soon ran rampant throughout the city. Every night, there was a sort makeshift procession to St Stephen’s Cathedral, where artillerymen would launch signal rockets from the bell tower high into the air. This was a message to Lorraine and anyone else out there. The people of Vienna expected relief to arrive soon. Every night, they waited for a reply. None ever came.
While the fighting before the walls continued, underground the Ottomans were making steady progress. Turkish sappers dug tunnels beneath the walls, where they began exploding mines in order to damage and eventually breach the fortifications above.
After three weeks of the most vicious fighting imaginable, Starhemberg was forced to withdraw his exhausted troops behind the walls. The situation was about to get worse. On August 29, the Ottoman sappers exploded the largest mine yet, blowing a ten-meter breach in the walls. The sight revived the flagging morale of the Turkish assault troops and they surged into the gap, while Starhemberg poured men into the breach to prevent the Ottomans from gaining a secure foothold. In the confined space of the breach, men were so tightly packed that often the dead were held upright by the press of fighters. It was more than two hours of butchery before the Turks withdrew.
That night, the defenders hurried to plug the gap with a makeshift palisade. The siege had reached a new level of ferocity and Starhemberg now commanded just 40% of the original garrison, while the Turks seemed to possess an endless tide of men.
Across the river, Lorraine could only watch helplessly as the capacity of Starhemberg’s troops to resist the Turkish onslaught gradually diminished. With the first breach opened in the walls, he knew the city had little time before it was overwhelmed.
While the situation at Vienna grew more dire by the day, upriver the relief force was finally taking shape. By late August, there were over 28,000 men encamped on the north bank of the Danube, including contingents from Bavaria, Franconia and Swabia. Perhaps the most notable of all was the 9,000 men provided by the Elector of Saxony (a Protestant state), especially since Leopold was renowned for his desire to crush Protestantism. Granted, many states, including Saxony, only provided troops because, in the event of Vienna’s capture by the Turks, their own territories would be laid open to invasion. This is borne out by the fact that Brandenburg, the most powerful of all the Electorates and located far to the north, sent no troops at all. However, regardless of their motivations, it was a momentous occasion and exactly the kind of thing Pope Innocent was hoping for. For the first time in almost a century, Catholic and Protestant states of the Empire put aside their differences and were militarily cooperating.
All of the troops provided by the various states were of the highest quality. Their armies had been forged in decades of conflict and the soldiers of the individual states were second to none in Europe. These troops were bolstered when Lorraine, having turned back every Ottoman attempt to push north of the Danube, now marched his remaining forces upriver to join the gathering relief army. Nearly two months into the siege, the host now numbered almost 48,000 men and more was yet to come.
On August 31, the Poles finally arrived.
King Jan III Sobieski reached the Danube at the head of some 27,000 troops. The greater part of this force consisted of cavalry, including 2000 men of the husaria. These horsemen were known as the Winged Hussars. They were the finest heavy cavalry in Europe and something of a relic of a bygone age, clad head-to-toe in steel and armed with a lance, mace, two swords and a brace of pistols. They were shock cavalry in its ultimate form, existing only for purpose of the mounted charge.
Now that the army had gathered, it was now presented with the problem of who was going to lead such a multilateral host. With a number of proud, high-ranking nobles involved, not too mention a Polish King, it would be easy to assume that there were arguments about who would be in command. In reality, however, the issue was settled rather quickly. The overall command would fall to Sobieski, while Lorraine would be his second; an interesting development, given Lorraine was outranked by no less than a dozen aristocrats present in the army. However, he was a respected military commander and he knew the terrain around Vienna better than any other man present. In the end, they trusted he would not lead them astray.
While Sobieski commanded the army, it was agreed that the relief force would follow Lorraine’s plan of action, to approach Vienna via the fastest route. It should be noted that this was actually in defiance of wishes of Leopold, who thought they should be cautious in their approach. Instead, Lorraine’s meant crossing the Danube, marching over the highland area known as the Vienna Woods and attacking from north-west of the city.
Thus it was that, at long last, the relief army set out for Vienna on September 5, crossing the Danube and heading for Tulln, little more than 20 miles from the besieged city.
The next morning, however, the situation in Vienna grew even worse. Ottoman sappers opened a second breach, twelve meters wide, in the walls. The ferocious fighting there lasted a full day before nightfall forced the Turks to withdraw.
On the night of September 8, the regular procession to St Stephen’s Cathedral for the signal rocket launch, which by now had become a vain ritual, climbed the steps of the bell-tower.
As they watched, the signal rockets arched up into the sky before dying away as they had always done. However, just as the party began to disperse someone noticed a flash of light in the sky to the northwest. There, soaring over the Kahlenberg ridge, were five rockets launched in reply. Word spread like wildfire throughout the city. Finally, help was on the way.
However, for Starhemberg and the Viennese, things were about to get worse before they got better. The following day, a third breach was opened not far from the second. Two separate assaults on both breaches were just barely thrown back with heavy losses.
Though they had not yet succeeded in forcing their way into the city, Mustafa knew it was only a matter of a day or two before the defenders could no longer hold the breaches. Inside the walls, Starhemberg had reached a similar conclusion and began preparing to defend the city block-by-block, street-by-street. He, along with the remaining population, was determined that if the Turks emerged triumphant, they would have won only a city of ruins.
On the same day the third breach was opened, the relief army set out from Tulln. Salvation for the city was less than 20 miles away. However, the army made painfully slow progress as it struggled up the steep ridge lines of the Vienna Woods.
By this point, Kara Mustafa had learned from prisoners captured by Ottoman patrols that a Hapsburg army had crossed the Danube. However, he did not know from which direction the relief force would approach. Why he did not seek more information from his Tartar allies is not known.
Lorraine and Sobieski soon discovered that the Ottomans had established several observation posts along the Kahlenberg ridgeline, the last ridge before the terrain began its descent onto the plain on which Vienna sat. Fortunately, the Turks had not bothered to occupy or fortify the ridge. If they had, even a small force would have been more than capable of holding the entire relief army at bay almost indefinitely, dooming Vienna to capture by the Ottomans.
On the night of September 10, an advance force launched a night attack on the Ottoman outposts on the Kahlenberg ridge. The assault was successful but a few surviving Turks managed to slip away into the darkness. It was from these men that Mustafa learned that the enemy would attack from the ridge to the northwest.
Mustafa called a council of war with his commanders. Some officers recommended diverting the entire army to face the impending attack. They could always return to the siege later. However, Mustafa determined that the siege would continue while the cavalry, who had been idle since the siege began, and a significant portion of the infantry would move to face the new threat. Reinforcements arriving from Hungary that day, both infantry and cavalry and fresh supplies, were diverted to the force that would engage the relief army.
It is not known why Mustafa decided to continue the assault on the city even while the rest of the army fought a sizeable enemy host within sight of the walls. Indeed, the decision is somewhat baffling. If he won the battle it would not matter because he could resume the siege and bring it to its inevitable conclusion. However, if he lost the battle but took the city he would only hold it for a day or two at most before it was retaken, rendering the whole exercise pointless. In any case, troops that would be sorely needed to fight Sobieski and Lorraine were instead earmarked for an assault on a city that was on its last legs anyway.
By midday on September 11, the relief army, with the exception of the Poles, had arrived on the Kahlenberg ridge. Looking out from the ridge, Lorraine now realized he faced another problem. The terrain was rough as it descended onto the plain, which would make it extremely difficult to maintain the integrity of the battle line as it advanced. In addition, the cavalry would have been careful as it picked its way down the slope. However, to the west, the terrain was less problematic. There the slope was relatively gentle and it descended onto a broad open plain that was ideal for cavalry. It was for this reason that, when the camps were laid out according to the plan of attack for the next day, Sobieski and his Poles were positioned on the right flank, furthest from the Danube. In the centre was the imperial contingent drawn from the states of the Empire, under the command of Prince Georg Friedrich of Waldeck. On the left flank, closest to the river, were the Austrians under Lorraine.
All of this preparation was visible by both the Turks and the Viennese. For the city’s beleaguered defenders, salvation appeared to be at hand.
Mustafa positioned his forces to defend against Waldeck and Lorraine’s contingents. His strategy revolved around occupying and fortifying a number of strongpoints in the villages between the two armies and in select locations on the rough terrain beneath the Kahlenberg. On the flat plain to the west, Mustafa relied on his numerically superior cavalry. However, he had no knowledge of the Poles, as their slow progress meant they did not reach their camp on the ridge line until just before midnight. If he had known of the Polish threat, Mustafa may have reinforced his cavalry with additional troops. In any case, he did not and it would prove a costly oversight.
Mustafa himself, accompanied by the Standard of the Prophet and his household troops, took up position on the rocky outcrop still known today as the Türkenschanz (Turk’s Redoubt) to better oversee the impending confrontation.
Just before daybreak on September 12, the men of the relief army slowly formed up along the ridgeline. However, before the Poles had finished moving into position, Turkish skirmishers, having approached under cover of night, opened fire on the Austrians. Suddenly under attack, the Hapsburg troops began to advance downhill. They easily overwhelmed the skirmishers but, instead of halting, continued their advance. The imperial contingent closest to the Austrians, the Saxons, followed their lead and began their own advance down the slope. Alarmed as the entire left flank of the relief force began its attack without orders, Lorraine hurried to regain control of the situation. In order to prevent the flank of the Austrian contingent becoming exposed, he ordered Waldeck to begin his advance. In only a few minutes, the entire centre and left of the army were moving down the slope, long before planned.
Fierce fighting erupted all along the battle line as the Ottomans rose to meet the oncoming enemy, with the famous ferocity of the Turks matched by their Christian adversaries. Around midmorning, the troops tasked with taking Vienna began their assault and the combat in the breaches was just as bitter as that on the slope to the northwest.
Despite determined Ottoman resistance, the Austrian and imperial contingents slowly but surely pushed the Turks back down the slope, taking several enemy strongpoints in the process.
Around noon, Lorraine called a halt to the advance. His troops used the time to rest and regain their energy after hours of relentless combat. As a strange lull descended over the battlefield, a huge cloud of dust appeared above the Kahlenberg ridge. All the while, the Ottoman assault on Vienna continued. Even having so far failed to stop the enemy advance, Mustafa still refused to suspend the attack on the city and re-deploy those badly-needed troops elsewhere.
Around 2 pm, the Polish host emerged from the dust cloud as it slowly made its way downhill. Cheers erupted along the battle line as the imperial and Austrian troops looked on at the stately progression of Polish cavalry.
By 4 pm the Polish army was formed up in a long line westwards on the open ground. Mustafa now realised the gravity of his peril. He was now faced with the possibility of being caught between Lorraine and Waldeck’s forces to his front and Sobieski to his rear. In addition, the Poles threatened to cut him off from both Vienna itself and his line of retreat to Hungary.
Almost simultaneously and independent of each other, both Lorraine and Sobieski decided it was time to strike the decisive blow. At Lorraine’s order, the Austrian and imperial contingents resumed their assault all along the Ottoman defensive line, while Sobieski ordered a series of small, probing cavalry attacks against the large force of sipahis facing his forces. These attacks were designed to gauge the strength and integrity of the Ottoman line.
Meanwhile, with Austrian and Saxon troops nearing his position Mustafa abandoned the Türkenschanz, retreating to his command post in the main camp and bringing the Standard of the Prophet with him. The apparent flight of their leader and the holy Standard triggered a collapse in morale among many Ottoman troops, with thousands abandoning their positions and fleeing towards the road to Hungary. The troops assaulting the breaches finally abandoned their attack and rejoined the rest of the army. With no defensive fortifications of any kind to fall back on, the remaining Ottoman contingents formed up on the open ground before the camp.
Around 6 pm, Sobieski prepared to deliver the final blow. At his order, almost 18,000 horsemen, spearheaded by the Winged Hussars, thundered across the open ground. Few forces could withstand such a tsunami of men and horses and the Poles smashed through the Turkish lines. It was the largest cavalry charge in human history and it utterly routed the remainder of the Ottoman host.
Within three hours of Sobieski’s charge, the Ottomans had been cleared from the battlefield and a squadron of dragoons under Margrave Ludwig of Baden cantered through the city gates to the adoring cheers of the Viennese survivors.
The battle was over.
Mustafa had escaped along the road to Hungary, along with tens of thousands of fleeing Turks. The Ottoman host was shattered. It is estimated that the Turks lost some 20,000 men during the siege and as many as 15,000 more died in the battle against Sobieski and Lorraine’s army. The highest estimate of the relief army’s losses stands at around 4,500. The garrison and the Viennese population lost as much as half their original number during the siege.
Word of the victory quickly spread throughout Europe and the commanders were hailed as heroes throughout Christendom. In recognition of his triumph, the Pope granted Sobieski the title of Defender of the Faith and the Polish crowned White Eagle was added to the Papal Coat of Arms. To this day, Jan III Sobieski is considered among Poles to be the greatest of all the Kings of Poland and a national hero.
For his failure, Mustafa was later executed on the orders of the Sultan.
This was not the end of the war. Indeed, it was only just the beginning. Some of the coalition forces, such as the Saxons, returned home soon after the battle. The remaining forces formed the core of the new Holy League created by Pope Innocent. This was, in effect, a crusade by another name, formed with the goal of reclaiming those lands lost to the Ottomans in previous centuries.
How it shaped history
The Great Turkish War, as it was known, lasted for another 16 years, ending in 1699 with the Treaty of Karlowitz. By that point, the Ottomans had lost all of Hungary and Transylvania to the Hapsburgs, Podolia (part of modern Ukraine) to the Poles. Venice took Dalmatia along the Adriatic coast and claimed the Peloponnesian peninsula in Greece. For the first time in its history, the Ottoman Empire suffered a large loss of territory. While some of these, such as the Peloponnese, would later be reclaimed the rest would never be retaken by the Turks.
It was not the last war between the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans, but it was the last in which the Turks were the aggressors against an overmatched Hapsburg empire. The disaster at Vienna had brought Ottoman expansion in Europe to an abrupt halt, only briefly resumed for two months in 1716 before a crushing defeat at the Battle of Petrovaradin brought it to an end once and for all.
While it may seem strange to say that the first major battle of a 16-year war shaped history, the triumph at the Battle of Vienna was the launch pad that allowed the newly formed Holy League to pursue its goal of re-conquest. Without it, there would have been no hope of achieving such lofty ambitions. The fate of the peoples of Austria, Hungary, Poland and the Balkans were directly shaped by the outcome of the battle of Vienna.
Given the might of the Ottoman military machine (pre-battle) and the bitter dynastic rivalry between the weakened Hapsburgs and the Bourbons of France, which flared into open conflict in 1688 with the outbreak of the Nine Years War, it would not be unreasonable to say that had it not been for the victory at Vienna, Hungary and the Balkans may not have been recovered for centuries, if at all. Indeed, if the Turks had been victorious, who knows how far into Central Europe their reach would have extended?
In addition, the loss of so many men, including some of the best troops the empire had to offer, significantly weakened the Ottoman Empire. While the scholars of Europe had for centuries spoken (incorrectly) of Ottoman decline before Vienna, after the Great Turkish War the decline truly did begin, slowly but surely, until the empire that was dissolved at the end of the First World War was less than a pale shadow of its former glory.
In this way, the Battle of Vienna shaped history.
- Wheatcroft, Andrew. Enemy at the Gates. Basic Books, 2009
- Stoye, John. The Siege of Vienna: The Last Great Trial Between Cross & Crescent. Penguin Books, 2008.
- Tucker, Spencer. Battles That Shaped History: An Encyclopedia of World Conflict. ABC-CLIO, 2010.
- Hochedlinger, Michael. Austria’s Wars of Emergence: War, State and Society in the Hapsburg Monarchy 1683-1797. Longman, 2003.
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