The Battle of Vienna (German: Schlacht am Kahlenberg, Polish: Bitwa pod Wiedniem or Odsiecz Wiedeńska, Turkish: İkinci Viyana Kuşatması), Ukrainian: Віденська відсіч (Viděns'ka Vidsič) took place on September 12, 1683 after Vienna had been besieged by the Ottoman Empire for two months. The battle broke the advance of the Ottoman Empire into Europe, and marked the political hegemony of the Habsburg dynasty in central Europe.
The large-scale battle was won by Polish-Austrian-German forces led by King of Poland John III Sobieski against the Ottoman Empire army commanded by Grand Vizier Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha.
The siege itself began on 14 July 1683, by the Ottoman Empire army of approximately 138,000 men (although a large number of these played no part in the battle, as only 50,000 were experienced soldiers (Turks), and the rest less-motivated supporting troops. The decisive battle took place on 12 September, after the united relief army of 70,000 men had arrived, pitted against the Ottoman army.
King John III Sobieski of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been made Commander in Chief of
his own 30,000-man Polish forces (Lithuanians did not take part in the battle),
18,500 Austrian troops led by Charles V, Duke of Lorraine,
19,000 Franconian, Swabian and Bavarian troops led by Prince Georg Friedrich of Waldeck,
9,000 Saxon troops led by John George III, Elector of Saxony.
The battle marked the turning point in the 300-year struggle between the forces of the Central European kingdoms and the Ottoman Empire. Over the sixteen years following the battle, the Habsburgs of Austria gradually occupied and dominated southern Hungary and Transylvania, which had been largely cleared of the Turkish forces.
The capture of the city of Vienna had long been a strategic aspiration of the Ottoman Empire, due to its inter-locking control over Danubean (Black Sea-to-Western Europe) southern Europe, and the overland (Eastern Mediterranean-to-Germany) trade routes. During the years preceding the second siege (the first one was in 1529), under the auspices of grand viziers from the influential Koprale family, the Ottoman Empire undertook extensive logistical preparations this time, including the repair and establishment of roads and bridges leading into Austria and logistical centers, as well as the forwarding of ammunition, cannon and other resources from all over the Empire to these logistical centers and into the Balkans.
On the political front, the Ottoman Empire had been providing military assistance to the Hungarians and to non-Catholic minorities in Habsburg-occupied portions of Hungary. There, in the years preceding the siege, widespread unrest had become open rebellion upon Leopold I's pursuit of Counter-Reformation principles and his desire to crush Protestantism. In 1681, Protestants and other anti-Habsburg forces, led by Imre Thakoly, were reinforced with a significant force from the Ottomans, who recognized Imre as King of "Upper Hungary" (eastern Slovakia and parts of northeastern present-day Hungary, which he had earlier taken by force of arms from the Habsburgs). This support went so far as explicitly promising the "Kingdom of Vienna" to the Hungarians if it fell into Ottoman hands.
Yet, before the siege, a state of peace had existed for twenty years between the Habsburgs and the Ottoman Empire, as a result of the Peace of Vasvar.
In 1681 and 1682, clashes between the forces of Imre Thakoly and the Habsburgs' military frontier (which was then northern Hungary) forces intensified, and the incursions of Habsburg forces into Central Hungary provided the crucial argument of Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha in convincing the Sultan, Mehmet IV and his Divan, to allow the movement of the Ottoman Army. Mehmet IV authorized Kara Mustafa Pasha to operate as far as Győr (Turkish: Yanıkkale, German: Raab) and Komarom (Turkish: Komaron, German: Komorn) castles, both in northwestern Hungary, and to besiege them. The Ottoman Army was mobilized on January 21, 1682, and war was declared on August 6, 1682.
The wording of this declaration left no room for doubt what would await in case of Turkish success. Mehmed IV. wrote to Leopold I verbatim, "Primarily we order You to await Us in Your residence city of Vienna so that We can decapitate You... (...) We will exterminate You and all Your followers... (...) Children and grown-ups will be exposed to the most atrocious tortures before put to an end in the most ignominious way imaginable..."
The forward march of Ottoman Army elements did not begin until April 1, 1683 from Edirne in Thracia. The logistics of the time meant that it would have been risky or impossible to launch an invasion in August or September 1682 (a three month campaign would have got the Turks to Vienna just as winter set in). However this 15 month gap between mobilisation and the launch of a full-scale invasion allowed ample time for the Habsburg forces to prepare their defense and set up alliances with other Central European rulers, and undoubtedly contributed to the failure of the campaign.
During the winter, the Habsburgs and Poland concluded a treaty in which Leopold would support Sobieski if the Turks attacked Krakow; in return, the Polish Army would come to the relief of Vienna, if attacked.
In the spring, the Ottoman army reached Belgrade by early May, then moved toward the city of Vienna. About 40,000 Tatar Forces arrived 40km east of Vienna on 7 July, twice as many as the Austrian forces in that area. After initial fights, Leopold retreated to Linz with 80,000 inhabitants of Vienna.
The King of Poland prepared a relief expedition to Vienna during the summer of 1683, honoring his obligations to the treaty. He went so far as to leave his own nation virtually undefended when departing from Krakow on 15 August. Sobieski covered this with a stern warning to Imre Thakoly, the leader of Hungary, whom he threatened with destruction if he tried to take advantage of the situation, which Thakoly did.
Events during the siege
The main Turkish army finally invested Vienna on July 14. Graf Ernst Rodiger von Starhemberg, leader of the remaining 11,000 troops and 5,000 citizens and volunteers, refused to capitulate.
The Viennese had demolished many of the houses around the city walls and cleared the debris, leaving an empty plain that would expose the Turks to defensive fire if they tried to rush the city. Kara Mustafa Pasha solved that problem by ordering his forces to dig long lines of trenches directly toward the city, to help protect them from the defenders as they advanced steadily toward the city.
As their 300 cannon were outdated and the fortifications of Vienna were up to date, the Turks had a more effective use for their gunpowder: undermining. Tunnels were dug under the massive city walls to blow them up with explosives, using sapping mines.
The Ottomans had essentially two options to take the city: the first, an all-out assault, was virtually guaranteed success since they outnumbered the defenders almost 20-1. The second was to lay siege to the city, and this was the option they chose.
This seems against military logic, but assaulting properly defended fortifications has always resulted in very heavy casualties for the attackers. A siege was a reasonable course of action to minimise casualties and capture the city intact, and in fact it nearly succeeded. What the Ottomans did not take into account however was that time was not on their side. Their lack of urgency at this point, combined with the delay in advancing their army after declaring war, eventually allowed a relief force to arrive. Historians have speculated that Kara Mustafa wanted to take the city intact for its riches, and declined an all-out attack in order to prevent the right of plunder which would accompany such an assault.
The Ottoman siege cut virtually every means of food supply into Vienna, and the garrison and civilian volunteers suffered extreme casualties. Fatigue became such a problem that Graf Ernst Rodiger von Starhemberg ordered any soldier found asleep on watch to be shot. Increasingly desperate, the forces holding Vienna were on their last legs when in August, Imperial forces under Charles V, Duke of Lorraine beat Imre Thakoly of Hungary at Bisamberg, 5km northeast of Vienna.
On 6 September, the Poles crossed the Danube 30km north west of Vienna at Tulln, to unite with the Imperial forces and additional troops from Saxony, Bavaria, Baden, Franconia and Swabia who had answered the call for a Holy League that was supported by Pope Innocent XI. Only Louis XIV of France, Habsburg's rival, not only declined to help, but used the opportunity to attack cities in Alsace and other parts of southern Germany, as in the Thirty Years' War decades earlier.
During early September, the experienced 5000 Turkish sappers repeatedly blew up large portions of the walls, the Burg bastion, the Label bastion and the Burg ravelin in between, creating gaps of about 12m in width. The Austrians tried to counter by digging their own tunnels, to intercept the depositing of large amounts of gunpowder in subterranean caverns. The Turks finally managed to occupy the Burg ravelin and the Nieder wall in that area on 8 September. Anticipating a breach in the city walls, the remaining Austrians prepared to fight in Vienna itself.
Staging the battle
The relief army had to act quickly to save the city from the Turks and to prevent another long siege in case they would take it. Despite the international composition and the short time of only six days, an effective leadership structure was established, indisputedly centered on the King of Poland and his heavy cavalry. The motivation was high, as this war was not as usual for the interests of kings, but for Christian faith. And, unlike the crusades, the battleground was in the heart of Europe.
Kara Mustafa Pasha, on the other hand, was less effective, despite having months of time to organize his forces, ensure their motivation and loyalty, and prepare for the expected relief army attack. He had entrusted defence of the rear to the Khan of Crimea and his cavalry force, which numbered about 30,000.
There are serious questions as to how much the Tatar forces participated in the final battle at Vienna. Their Khan felt humiliated by repeated snubs by Kara Mustafa and reportedly refused to make a strike against the Polish relief force as it crossed the mountains, where the heavy cavalry would have been vulnerable to such an assault from the lighthorse Tatars. Nor were they the only component of the Ottoman army to openly defy Mustafa and to refuse assignments.
This left vital bridges undefended and allowed passage of the combined Habsburg-Polish army, which arrived to relieve the siege. Critics of this account say that it was Kara Mustafa Pasha, and not the Crimean Khan, who was held responsible for the failure of the siege. Also, the Ottomans could not rely on their wallachian and moldavian allies. These peoples had a significant hatred of the ottomans who were bleeding their countries dry of all their resources. In the years prior to the siege, the turks intervened many times to change the princes in these countries, so as to keep a tight grip on them. Knowing of the turkish plans, the princes of Moldavia and Wallachia try to warn the Habsburgs. Initially they tried to stand up to the ottomans and not join the campaign, but they were pressed-ganged into the joint strike force. There are a great deal of popular legends about the involvement and comittement of these principalities in the siege. Almost invariably, these legends describe the wallachian and moldavian forces loading their cannons with straw balls,so as to make no impact upon the walls of the besieged city.
The Holy League forces arrived on the "Kahlen Berg" (bare hill) above Vienna, signaling their arrival with bonfires. In the early morning hours of 12 September, before the battle, a mass was held for King Sobieski.
The battle started before all units were fully deployed. Early in the morning at 4:00, Turkish forces opened hostilities to interfere with the Holy League's troop deployment. A move forward was made by Charles, the Austrian army on the left, and the German forces in the center.
Mustafa Pasha launched a counter-attack, with most of his force, but holding back parts of the elite Janissary and Sipahi for the invasion of the city. The Turkish commanders had intended to take Vienna before Sobieski arrived, but time ran out. Their sappers had prepared another large and final detonation under the Labelbastei, to provide access to the city. While the Turks hastily finished their work and sealed the tunnel to make the explosion more effective, the Austrian "moles" detected the cavern in the afternoon. One of them entered and defused the load just in time.
At that time, above the "subterranean battlefield", a large battle was going on, as the Polish infantry had launched a massive assault upon the Turkish right flank. Instead of focusing on the battle with the relief army, the Turks tried to force their way into the city, carrying their crescent flag.
After 12 hours of fighting, Sobieski's Polish force held the high ground on the right. At about five o'clock in the afternoon, after watching the ongoing infantry battle from the hills for the whole day, four cavalry groups, one of them Austrian-German, and the other three Polish, totaling over 20,000 men, charged down the hills. The attack was led by the Polish king in front of a spearhead of 3000 heavily armed winged Polish lancer hussars. This charge broke the lines of the Ottomans, who were tired from the long fight on two sides. In the confusion, the cavalry headed straight for the Ottoman camps, while the remaining Vienna garrison sallied out of its defenses and joined in the assault.
The Ottoman army were tired and dispirited following the failure of both the sapping attempt and the brute force assault of the city, and the arrival of the cavalry turned the tide of battle against them, sending them into retreat to the south and east. In less than three hours after the cavalry attack, the Christian forces had won the battle and saved Vienna from capture.
After the battle, Sobieski paraphrased Julius Caesar's famous quote by saying "veni, vidi, Deus vicit" - "I came, I saw, God conquered"
The Turks lost about 15,000 men in the fighting, compared to approximately 4,000 for the Habsburg-Polish forces. Though routed and in full retreat, the Turkish troops had found time to slaughter all their Austrian prisoners, with the exception of those few of nobility which they took with them for ransoming.
The loot that fell into the hands of the Holy League troops and the Viennese was as huge as their relief, as King Sobieski vividly described in a letter to his wife a few days after the battle: "Ours are treasures unheard of ... tents, sheep, cattle and no small number of camels ... it is victory as nobody ever knew of, the enemy now completely ruined, everything lost for them. They must run for their sheer lives ... Commander Starhemberg hugged and kissed me and called me his savior."
This emotional expression of gratitude did not distract Starhemberg from ordering the immediate repair of Vienna's severely damaged fortifications, guarding against a possible Turkish counterstrike. However, this proved unneccessary. The victory at Vienna set the stage for Prince Eugene of Savoy's reconquering of Hungary and (temporarily) some of the Balkan countries within the following years. Austria signed a peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire in 1697.
Long before that, the Turks had disposed of their defeated commander. On 25 December 1683, Kara Mustafa Pasha was executed in Belgrade (in the approved manner, by strangulation with a silk rope pulled by several men on each end) by order of the commander of the Janissaries.