Siege of Vienna (1683): Enemy at the Gates
Posted on 8th March 2021
The Siege of Vienna in 1683 would prove the decisive battle in the long struggle between the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires for the mastery of Central Europe but it was always more than a conflict over territory or between dynasties. It was a battle of ideas, of culture and most of all of faith – it was a clash of civilisations.
Situated as it was between the Alps and the Carpathians Vienna’s strategic significance could not be underestimated and it was viewed as the ‘Gateway to the West;’ and as it was every Sultan’s duty to subject the entire world to Islam the city was known as the ‘Golden Apple’ to be plucked from its tree and consumed before moving on to seize the ‘Scarlet Apple’ of Rome itself.
Although the Peace of Westphalia finalised in October 1648, had brought to an end the 30-year religious conflict that had devastated so much of Central Europe and left millions dead from war, famine, and disease the antagonism between Catholic and Protestant remained.
The Hapsburg Monarch and Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I was a firm advocate of the Counter-Reformation and was determined to eradicate Protestantism, if not from Europe, then certainly from within the borders of his own realm; and it was his clash with the Protestant Imre Thokaly, who had declared himself King of (Upper) Hungary with Ottoman support that served as the pretext for the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa to implement his expansionist geo-political strategy.
Kara Mustafa, Albanian by birth and an aloof, arrogant man not inclined to heed advice had convinced Sultan Mehmed IV that he could off-set territorial losses to the Russians in the East by conquest in the West and he would exploit the Protestant rebellion in Hungary and the rift between Leopold and the other great Catholic Monarch of Europe the French King Louis XIV, to do so. He assured Mehmed IV that he could succeed where his illustrious predecessor Suleiman the Magnificent had failed and not only capture Vienna but Rome also, and that he would soon stable his horses in the Basilica of St Peter.
The lure was too great to resist and hadn’t his Grand Vizier guaranteed him of success. In January 1682, the order was given for his army to gather.
But it was a complex and difficult undertaking; plans had to be drawn up, troops had to be summoned from across the empire, arms had to be manufactured, provisions stored, and transport requisitioned. It took time and Mehmed would have to refrain from declaring Jihad or Holy War until August. Even then his army would not be ready to march for a further eight months. During the intervening period Mehmed sent a series of letters to Leopold, they were not couched in the language of diplomacy and their intention was clear:
“We will destroy your little country with our army. Above all, we order you to await us in Vienna so we can decapitate you. We will exterminate you and all your followers. Your children will be exposed to torture. Your little empire I will take from you and all its, people I will sweep from the earth.”
He wrote again in February 1683:
“I declare to you, I will make myself your master, pursue you from East to West, to trample upon all that is pleasant and accessible to your eyes. I resolve to ruin you and your people and to leave your empire a commemoration to my dreadful sword. I will establish my religion and pursue your crucified God whose wrath I do not fear. I will put your sainted priests to the plough I will rape your women. Forsake your God, your religion, or I will order that you be consumed by fire.”
Unlike Charles V in 1529, Leopold l would not then be taken unawares by the Ottoman advance, although he chose not to impede it. Instead, he sought to create a defensive alliance but this was easier said than done for despite Islam posing a very real threat the Christian West remained, divided; a Lutheran Pastor in Germany or an Anglican Minister in England might pray for a Catholic victory over the Muslims from the East but they would not link arms with their Papist foe and fight for it.
On 31 March 1683, Leopold signed the Treaty of Warsaw with Jan Sobieski, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. Its preamble read:
“In view of the perfidy of the Turks who have broken the peace all Christians are in danger, we therefore promise that each will support the other with his army in the liberation of either Vienna or Krakow.”
So, each would come to the aid of the other should their capital be attacked - the following day the Ottoman Army began its advance on Vienna.
By May they had reached Belgrade, but Mehmed IV would not lead his army in person as Suleiman the Magnificent had 150 years earlier instead he departed for Istanbul thereby avoiding the ignominy that would surely follow should the campaign meet with disaster. Not that this was thought possible for his Grand Vizier was supremely confident of success and had said as much. He would return later for his triumphal entry into the city - Kara Mustafa would command the army. And a vast army it was 170,000 strong and supplemented by many allies - it was intended as much to intimidate as it was to fight..
The bulk of the Ottoman Army was made up of Turkish infantry but there were also 50,000 Sipahi and Tatar horsemen who with considerable brutality would pacify the country around Vienna and a great many Bashi-Bazouks, irregular forces drawn from all ethnicities across the empire who, fought for plunder and were deemed expendable. Unreliable though they were their reputation for slaughter, pillage and rape was such that it spread terror among those subject to their wrath if not always the forces that opposed them.
Kara Mustafa also had an artillery train of 155 guns though only 5 were heavy howitzers ideal for siege warfare and of his troops barely 12,000 were of the elite Janissary Corps but then it was not so much his intention to storm Vienna as it was to simply blow it up and within his army there were more than 5,000 sappers, much mining equipment, and many hundreds of barrels of black gunpowder.
On 7 July, it was reported that a large contingent of Tatar cavalry had been observed 25 miles east of Vienna. Believing this to be the advance guard of the main Ottoman Army Leopold hastily withdrew from the city along with his military commander Charles of Lorraine, 20,000 troops, and around 10,000 of its citizens.
Charged with defending Vienna was the 45-year-old veteran of previous wars against the Turks, Ernst Rudiger von Starhemberg but he had only 11,000 Imperial Troops and 4,000 locally raised Militia with which to do so. It hardly seemed adequate to the task but even so he had vowed to fight to the last man and the city had been greatly re-fortified since the previous siege of 1529.
Starhemberg did have more than 300 guns though fewer than half proved serviceable while the city itself was partially protected by a moat and the River Danube. Surrounding it was a ring of 12 Bastions connected by walls 50 feet high while a ditch 60 feet wide defended the main ramparts. There were also a series of Ravelins, or advanced gun emplacements before which the land had been levelled and any trees removed to create a clear field of fire. The Habsburg capital then was considered one of the strongest fortresses in Europe, even if some of its walls were crumbling and had to be shored up with wooden supports – the Grand Vizier was suitably unimpressed however, and with Vienna surrounded he issued his demand for its surrender:
“Hand over Vienna to me and you will all be protected from the least to the greatest; but if you refuse we will attack you and all from the least to the greatest will be killed.”
Starhemberg who had just received news of events at Perchtoldsdorf, a small town some ten miles distant, which had surrendered under terms only for the Turks to renege on the deal, burn the town and massacre its citizens, declined to respond.
In the meantime, a dispute had arisen within the Alliance over who should pay for it. Jan Sobieski made it plain that it was not his responsibility while Leopold was clearly reluctant to do so. It was Pope Innocent XI who stepped into the breach. He had long been seeking to create a Holy League to counter the spread of Islam. Indeed, he had despatched Papal Legates to the Royal Courts of Catholic Europe who though rebuffed in France did find willing allies in Bavaria, Saxony, Venice, and Savoy. Now the Vatican would take upon itself much of the financial burden and broker a deal between the Allies that saw all pay an equal share.
Charles of Lorraine would engage the Ottoman Army besieging Vienna regardless of Sobieski’s support, nonetheless the news that his army was on the march was greeted with a palpable sense of relief. The question was would it arrive in time? While the Austrian and Polish armies converged on Vienna from different directions the siege continued, and the pressure mounted.
By mid-August ammunition was running low and food was desperately short. The city’s cats and dogs had already been eaten and its rats would soon follow. The water supply had long been contaminated and dysentery was rife along with many other diseases while such was the exhaustion of his men that Starhemberg had ordered any found asleep at their post was to be executed.
Despite being made aware of the increasingly dire situation in Vienna by his spies in the city Kara Mustafa declined, much to the frustration of his Commanders, to order an all-out assault until the mines had been detonated and a sufficient breach made in its walls. Even so, the fighting at the Ravelins and around the Burg and Lobel Bastions had been fierce and constant.
Attacking from their approach trenches the elite Janissaries engaged in a brutal, merciless, and often hand-to-hand struggle in which no quarter was given by either side. Starhemberg had even refused a request from the Turks for a pause in the fighting to bury their dead.
On 4 September, the Turks breached part of the wall surrounding the Lobel Bastion and as their troops flooded through the gap to cries of Allahu Akbar and panic began to spread among the defenders it seemed as if the moment of decision had arrived; but Starhemberg did not panic and was quick to react summoning reinforcements from wherever they could be spared before leading them himself in a stubborn defence of the breach.
After a bloody struggle of savage intensity, the Austrians managed to repel the Turks forcing them to withdraw back to their trenches but it had been a close run thing. Had a similar breach also been made elsewhere in the defences the city would surely have fallen there and then.
The situation was desperate, and it was clear that Vienna could not hold out for much longer but Kara Mustafa, stung by the repulse refused to order any further attacks. Instead, having convinced himself that the breach made had not been large enough he decided that one more great explosion would bring the entire rotting edifice crashing to the ground. He ordered his sappers back to work - Starhemberg could not believe his luck.
The defenders of Vienna were aware that the Turks were tunnelling beneath the city and vigilance had long been their watchword, but they also knew that following the repulse of 4th September and with the Relief Force closing in another mine would be detonated soon, a bigger mine, and that it would precede the final assault on the city.
George Michaelowitz, emissary of the Austrian Emperor, courier and spy, described events:
“The Turks had exploded 41 mines, like rabbits and moles they were burrowing under our feet day and night. They could detonate a new charge at any time. Were they already preparing the next blast? We had a simple but brilliant idea, we put dried peas on a drum, if the peas moved then somewhere below us the Turkish sappers were at work. A new explosion was coming. Starhemberg had a rocket sent up into the night sky, our last desperate cry for help to the army of our Allies.”
Kara Mustafa appeared unconcerned by reports that the Army of the Holy League was approaching he had his plans in place and he was going to follow them to the letter. Turkish sappers had been digging for weeks beneath the Lobel Bastion which would be blown on 12th September providing for the final breakthrough and it was vital that it did for after 60 days encamped outside the walls of Vienna the condition of the Ottoman Army was little better than that of the besieged and morale was low.
He had also made a strategic error in not recognising the significance of the Kahlenberg Heights that dominated the Vienna skyline and from where the Allies could strike the Ottoman Army from the rear. The Hapsburg Commander Charles of Lorraine could see that no attempt had been made to occupy them and so devised a plan to do just that. It would for the Grand Vizier prove a costly mistake.
As Charles of Lorraine prepared his troops for battle there was still no sign of Jan Sobieski and his army. They were in fact still struggling through the thick undergrowth of the Vienna Woods. When they finally emerged in the dark of night, they lit bonfires on the Kahlenberg to announce their arrival and Sobieski ordered an open-air Mass be said. But there was little time for ceremony.
In Vienna, Starhemberg called upon George Michaelowitz to carry dispatches to the Polish King detailing the crisis in the city and urging him to come at once. To reach Sobieski on the Kahlenberg, Michaelowitz would have to pass through the Ottoman Camp. He later described doing so:
“Vienna could not be held for much longer so I set out on a dangerous ride through the enemy camp. It was the only way of taking Starhemberg’s appeal to the Commander of the Relief Force. I could see they had already reached the Kahlenberg, the Turks had spread out along its base – the warriors of Islam were keeping guard. No one suspected that I was on the side of the Infidels as they called us and was carrying secret messages. It was dangerous they had already discovered two spies and beheaded them.”
Michaelowitz delivered his dispatch to the King in person who then summoned his senior Officers telling them: “Generals, today we advance on the Turkish Camp. This morning will be decisive. I know your bravery and am in good spirits. Gentlemen, expect no further orders from me. God will lead us.”
Hurrahs followed and Michaelowitz was filled with good cheer before setting out on his perilous ride back to Vienna.
As the Turks were planting their mine so the Viennese were frantically counter tunnelling in a desperate attempt to find it before it could be detonated. When they stumbled across it the fuse had already been lit and had burned a considerable way. They extinguished it in the nick of time. When Kara Mustafa found out he was furious but ordered the attack to go ahead regardless.
The Turks planned to advance in three great columns, some 75,000 men, with the central column exploiting the chaos caused by the most recent detonation. That hadn’t occurred so instead they would seek to storm through the breaches already made.
In the meantime, Charles of Lorraine had already begun his advance on the Ottoman lines. He could not hope to relieve the city with his 30,000 men alone but was determined to take the fight to the Turks at the first opportunity. The attack went well as his disciplined Austrian and German Infantry overwhelmed the Turkish outer defences but as their resistance stiffened so the momentum was lost, and the attack began to stall - he prayed for Sobieski’s intervention.
In Vienna, Starhemberg had called upon every available man to hasten to the defence of the Lobel Bastion where the small gaps made in the walls were proving easier to defend than they were to penetrate and so with supreme effort they were able to hold off the overwhelming numbers set against them – but for how long? They were at the end of their tether, but their resistance was stiffened by the sight and sound of battle joined elsewhere..
By now realising the urgency of the situation beyond his camp Kara Mustafa began to withdraw troops from outside Vienna for a counterattack on the Imperial troops threatening his rear but even now he declined to withdraw his Janissaries from the attack on the city walls. His senior Commanders argued for the encirclement of the city to be abandoned altogether and the entire Ottoman Army turned on the aggressors beyond, but he refused to even countenance the idea.
Kara Mustafa’a position had been undermined by the failure of the Crimean Tatars to fulfill the role of screening the Ottoman Army against attack from the rear assigned them. Instead, they had been notable by their absence neither impeding Charles of Lorraine’s crossing of the Danube nor engaging the Polish Army as it emerged from the Vienna Woods. Now they would play little part in the coming events as like many of the Turks other allies they began to depart for home – it was the Ottomans who had lost the race against time.
Even so, with horns blaring, banners waving and to cries of God is Great the Ottoman advance made for an impressive sight but charging uphill and in open country exposed them to the raking fire of the massed ranks of the Imperial Infantry and their artillery. As the musket balls tore into them and the cannon shot cut swathes in their ranks they began to falter. Staggered by yet another fusillade of terrifying proportions they broke and ran.
Jan Sobieski witnessing the scene atop the Kahlenberg Heights knew the time had come. He had earlier seen a Polish cavalry charge bloodily repulsed by the Turkish artillery having ordered the attack prematurely and with too few men. He would not make the same mistake again.
It was already the twilight hour and darkness was beginning to descend when he addressed his men: “We go into battle for neither King nor Emperor, but for God.” Then with a wave of his sword above his head he gave the order to advance; 18,000 horsemen the greatest cavalry charge in history with the King’s Polish Lancers, the famed ‘Winged Hussars’ so-called because of the feathered wings they wore on either shoulder at the forefront.
Armed with a 20 ft lance, swords for both piercing and cutting and with a war hammer they were the most feared cavalry in all Europe and now once again in the heat of battle they would show why. Charging downhill they would sweep all before them.
A Turkish chronicler who was present described the scene: “They looked like storm clouds bristling with armour and weapons. It was like a tide of black pitch rushing downhill, burning and crushing everything in their path.”
The Turkish formations opposing them crumbled as the Polish cavalry overwhelmed their defences at the base of the Kahlenberg and were soon fleeing in disorder. Many were trampled underfoot, and others cut down while thousands more discarded their weapons and tried to surrender.
The defeat at the Kahlenberg spread panic throughout the Ottoman Army and the Imperial troops of Charles of Lorraine were now able to resume the advance on the Ottoman Camp which despite some initial resistance the Turks were unable to halt. Kara Mustafa had already folded up the Holy Banner of Allah and was preparing to flee:
“When the Champions of Islam saw the enemy advancing to attack they all lost the desire to fight utterly devastated by the terrible defeat which had occurred with the Supreme Will of Allah, Kara Mustafa took the Holy Flag of Islam and turned to flee. Fighting and shedding bloody tears everyone tried to escape with life and limb from the Infidel swine.”
The Turks had abandoned the field in such haste that near everything was left behind and the plunder was immense. As the heroes of the hour the Poles benefitted the most and Jan Sobieski more than anyone helping himself to the personal belongings of Kara Mustafa. He wrote glowingly to his wife of the beneficence of victory:
“Our treasures are unheard of, tents, chattels, sheep, cattle, and no small number of camels. It is a victory as no one has ever seen before, the enemy completely ruined, everything is lost for them, they run for their lives. General Starhemberg has hugged and kissed me, and called me his saviour.”
So laden with booty were Sobieski’s troops as they returned to Poland, they resembled more an Oriental Caravan than they did an army on the march.
The defenders of Vienna had lost 4,500 men killed during the siege, a death rate of 1 in 3. During the battle itself the Austrian and German troops of the Imperial Army suffered 2,200 killed, the Poles 1,300. Many more were of course wounded. The Ottoman losses were much greater 18,000 killed and 25,000 wounded along with 6,000 taken prisoner. They had also lost all their baggage, had to abandon all their guns while the damage to their prestige and that of the Sultan was immense.
Kara Mustafa returned to Istanbul on a donkey, a rare display of humility on his part but Sultan Mehmed was not inclined to be lenient. He ordered that his Grand Vizier be strangled to death with a velvet rope befitting his status. Perhaps, more in keeping with his character Kara Mustafa spoke disdainfully: “Am I to die? Then, as God pleases. Make sure you tie the loop properly.” Much to the satisfaction of those who had so recently been his enemy his execution was on Christmas Day.
For 60 days the fate of Christian Europe had hung in the balance. Now the tide of Islamic expansion had been rolled back and would continue to recede in the centuries to come as the Ottoman Empire was forced to accept the consequences of its defeat before the Gates of Vienna.
A further defeat at the hands of Jan Sobieski at the Battle of Parkany saw Hungary lost and a further 60,000 square miles of former Ottoman territory was added to the Habsburg Empire while Russia continued to advance West at their expense.
Jan Sobieski, meanwhile, was showered with honours and feted, at least across Catholic Europe (though all knelt in silent if secret prayer) as the defender of Christ and all his dominions. Charles of Lorraine yielded the glory without demur for the greater good and by doing so acknowledging the finality of that moment on the Kahlenberg Heights even if in its conception the idea had been his.
So, the glory at Vienna belongs to the Poles, they had saved Europe, some might even suggest not for the last time.
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