‘Battle of Mohács’ from the Suüleyrnannarne of Arifi transcribed in 1558.To the right, the sultan is backed by a phalanx of tall-hatted janissaries. This was the human barrier against which the Hungarian cavalry dashed itself to pieces. The janissaries’ firepower proved decisive.
Between 8 and 28 August 1526, the 70,000-strong Ottoman army made its way along the western side of the Danube, finally reaching a plateau, where they turned to face the Hungarian troops below.
Thanks, to their position, the outnumbered Hungarians successfully routed the Rumelian cavalry, which was the first to arrive on the plain. Failing to capitalize on this early advantage, however, the Hungarians were then easy prey for the Ottomans whose highly skilled janissaries: finished off the battle.
After his accession to the throne, Süleyman the Magnificent turned against the Ottomans’ Christian enemies. Louis II, who failed to mobilize the country’s forces in time, was thrown from his horse and killed while escaping.
Date: 29 August 1526 Location: southern Hungary
The division of the Janissaries attacked the contemptible infidels (gavurs) three or four times with musket fire and tried to force them back. FROM THE CAMPAIGN DIARY OF SULTAN SÜLEYMAN, 1526
By the early 16th century the Ottoman Empire had emerged as a significant military power that controlled the Balkans, Asia Minor, the Black Sea littoral, the eastern Mediterranean and most of the Middle East. Compared to this vast empire of Süleyman I (1520- 66),Louis II of Jagiello’s (1516-26) Hungary, the only regional power in central Europe that in the 15th century had been capable of halting the Ottoman advance, was now a small and weak country. Resources of the Ottoman Empire and Hungary respectively in the early 1520s give a clear picture of their differences. Territory: 1,500,000 sq km (580,000 sq miles) v 300,000 sq km (116,000 sq miles); populations: 12-13 million v 3.1 -3.5 million; Central Treasury revenues:4.5-5 million gold ducats v 0.3million gold ducats; and potential mobilizable forces: 110,000-130,000 men v 40,000-50,000.
Recognizing that his father’s wars against the Safavids in eastern Anatolia could not be continued due to economic, military and religio-political reasons, Süleyman turned against the empire’s Christian enemies in Europe, where his major opponents were the Habsburgs and their Hungarian neighbours. By occupying Belgrade and Zimony (1521),Orsova (1522) and Szoreny(1524), the Ottomans had assumed control over the lower Danube as far as Belgrade by the mid-1520s, while the Hungarians lost the most important castles of their southern border defence system. The causes of the 1526 Ottoman campaign are hotly debated. Some historians claim that it was a response to King Louis’s’ provocations: the king’s refusal of Süleyman’s peace offers and the Hungarians’ interference in the sultan’s two Rumanian vassal principalities, especially in Wallachia, whose ‘voevode’ or lord repeatedly rebelled against the Ottomans with Hungarian backing. Others maintain that all these were mere pretexts – that the conquest of Hungary had been Süleyman’s main objective from the beginning of his reign and that he carried it out according to his plan of ‘gradual conquest: Given Süleyman’s pragmatic and often reactive policy, the empire’s multiple commitments and constraints, the insufficiently understood nature of Ottoman ideology, propaganda and decision-making, it is wise not to overstate the importance of religio-political imperatives with regard to Ottoman imperial planning.
The opposing forces
In the 1526 campaign the Ottoman army may have numbered some 60,000 provincial cavalry (the Rumelian and Anatolian troops) and standing forces (janissaries [the sultan’s elite infantry troops], cavalry and artillery) and perhaps a not her 40,000-50,000 irregulars and auxiliaries. Due to the long, four-month march, rainy weather and sieges, a good portion of this army must have been lost by the time it reached Hungary. Thus the estimate of Archbishop Pál Tornori, commander-in-chief of the Hungarian army, who, based on intelligence he received, put the whole fighting force of the sultan’s army at about 70,000 men, seems more realistic than the exaggerated figures of 150,000 to 300,000 men suggested by later historians. However, even this more modest estimate suggests a considerable Ottoman numerical superiority. Since the Croatian and Transylvanian forces, numbering some 10,000 to 15,000 men each, could not join the king in 1526, the Hungarian army that met the Ottomans south of Mohács – near the intersection of modern Hungary, Croatia and Yugoslavia – was only about 25,000 to 30,000 strong. A similar Ottoman superiority can be seen with regard to firepower: whereas the Ottomans deployed some 200 cannons, mainly small-calibre ones, the Hungarians had only about 80 cannons.
The battlefield was bordered by the marshes of the Danube from the east and by a plateau 25 to 30 m (82-98 ft) high from the west and south. The Hungarian command planned to charge against the much larger Ottoman army in increments as it descended from the steep and, given the heavy rainfall in the weeks before the battle, slippery plateau.
Facing southwest, the army lined up in two echelons. On the right and left wings of the first echelon stood the Hungarian heavy cavalry, facing the Rumelian and the Anatolian timariot cavalry of the sultan respectively. The 10,000strong Hungarian infantry stood ten ranks deep in the middle facing the janissaries. Louis II stood in the second echelon behind the Hungarian infantry, whereas Süleyman, guarded by his central cavalry, stood behind the janissaries. Ottoman cannons were placed in front of the janissaries.
However, this battle order evolved only gradually. The Hungarians initiated the combat when only the Rumelian army was on the plain. Süleyman and his cavalry were still descending from the plateau and the Anatolian troops of the right flank were further behind. The skirmishes of the light cavalry forces were already underway when the Hungarian artillery opened fire at the Rumelian army about to camp on the plain. It was followed by the cavalry charge of the Hungarian right flank that broke the resistance of the Rumelian cavalry. But instead of chasing the fleeing enemy, the Hungarians set out to loot. By then, the janissaries had arrived at the bottom of the terrace and inflicted major destruct ion on the Hungarians with their volleys. Although the Hungarian infantry and the left wing fought bravely, they were unable to break the obstacles erected in front of the cannons and janissaries and were slaughtered by janissary volleys. Contrary to general belief, it was not the Ottoman cannons (which shot beyond the Hungarians) but the insurmountable wall and firepower of the janissaries that figured decisively in the Ottoman victory.
The consequences and historical significance of the battle
Such a grave defeat had not been inflicted on the Hungarian armed forces since the battle of Muhi in 1241 against the Mongols. The king, most of the magnates and prelates, about 500 noblemen, 4,000 cavalry and 10,000 infantrymen perished. Hungary also lost its century-and -a-half-old struggle to contain the Ottoman advance into central Europe, More importantly for Europe, the battle led to the direct confrontation of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, for a group of Hungarian aristocrats elected Archduke Ferdinand of Habsburg, younger brother of Charles V, as their king (1526-64). However, Ferdinand was able to control only the north-western parts of Hungary, for the middle and eastern parts were under the rule of Janos Szapolyai, also elected king of Hungary (1526- 40), whose pro-Ottoman policy temporarily postponed the clash. Szapolyai’s death in 1540 and Ferdinand’s unsuccessful siege of Buda in the spring and summer of 1541 triggered the sultan’s campaign which led to the Ottoman occupation of central Hungary, and turned the country into the major continental battleground between the Habsburgs and Ottomans.