The Threat to Vienna 1683 I

In February 1683 Quartermaster-General Haslingen drew up a complete list of Leopold’s troops and of the areas in which they were stationed. He counted seventy companies in Bohemia, forty-five in Moravia, and forty-eight in Silesia—with a complement, in theory, of 7,600 foot and 10,000 cuirassiers and dragoons. There were seventy-five companies in western Hungary and thirty-eight in Upper Hungary, although a comparison with another of his memoranda seems to show that he was here counting some regiments and companies twice over; nor could he, or anyone else, rely on the estimates of men serving in the various types of Hungarian militia. In the Inner Austrian lands (Styria, Carinthia and Carniola) Haslingen enumerated forty-three companies—5,600 foot and 1,200 horse; in Upper and Lower Austria forty companies—4,000 foot and 1,600 horse; and in the empire eighty companies of foot and one of horse—16,400 men. His figures for the number of companies were correct (except, no doubt, for Hungary); but on the premise that the full complement in foot and mounted companies was 200 and 80 men respectively, the grand totals of 44,800 infantry and 17,600 cavalry were no more than the roughest of guides to the size of the whole Habsburg force. They much exceeded the actual number of effective soldiers. However, the quartermaster could soon hope to add to it the bands of irregulars to be raised by Magyar magnates, three mounted regiments which Prince Lubomirski was commissioned to bring from Poland, and also the new regiments of the patentees nominated by Leopold during the winter.

The immediate problem, for the War Council, was to decide how many men could be safely moved east from the empire, in spite of Louis XIV’s aggressive policy, in order to reinforce the contingents sent south from the Bohemian lands, building up by this concentration the strongest possible force in Hungary to oppose the Turks. The decision involved some of the best regiments at Leopold’s disposal; it had also to take into account the treaty recently agreed with Max Emmanuel of Bavaria, which obliged the Emperor to leave 15,000 men always available for the defence of the Empire. In fact, about 7,500 infantry from the old regiments were finally ordered to march from the western front to a rendezvous at Kittsee, near Pressburg, to join there the great majority of the regiments recently quartered in Bohemia and the various Austrian duchies. In due course, 5,000 men from the new regiments were also available for the campaign in Hungary.

It was soon realised that one miscalculation had already been made. The troops, especially those in the Empire, took much longer than expected to make the long journey to the eastern front, and the date for the rendezvous at Kittsee had to be altered from 21 April to 6 May. Sixteen days were thus lost, and the chance of taking the initiative before the Turks could arrive dwindled fast.

Another difficult point was the appointment of a commander in the field. Leopold, unlike his father, unlike such militant contemporary rulers as Max Emmanuel and William of Orange or John Sobieski, never imagined himself a victorious commanding general. He had always to choose a deputy, after taking into account the ticklish animosities of the military and political grandees of his court. In the last war against France, Montecuccoli, by combining the presidency of the War Council with the supreme command in the field, had caused them the greatest offence. Enemies and critics of Baden, the new President, were determined to deny him the same monopoly of power and they relied on the pledge, previously given by Leopold, to appoint Charles of Lorraine commander-in-chief if war broke out again. This could not bind the Emperor. Circumstances alter cases, Charles had often been ill in recent years, while Herman of Baden certainly disliked and perhaps under-estimated him. In 1683, in spite of counter-intrigues, Lorraine’s party at the court persevered and finally triumphed, so that he was instructed to be in Vienna by 10 April in order to discuss the strategy of the coming campaign.

He duly arrived from Innsbruck and a council of war was held on 21 April. It took a great many decisions in detail, but the guiding proposal was to place the field army in the centre of the frontier through Hungary, around Komárom. The council wanted to leave General Schultz with a strong independent force farther north, on the River Váh; and to ensure that the lower part of the Mur valley far to the south (which guards the approaches to Graz) was firmly held by troops from Styria and Croatia. The gaps between were assigned mainly to the Magyars, under Esterházy along the lower Váh, and under Batthyány along the line of the Rába. Lorraine’s command of the field-army was publicly announced on 21 April.

By the beginning of May troops were arriving at the rendezvous, a flat plain round the village of Kittsee, near the southern shore of the Danube where the last spurs of the Leitha hills die away opposite Pressburg. While Lorraine himself rode east to inspect the position at Györ, his officers remained behind to supervise the assembling of regiments which were coming in from the north and west. It was rainy, windy weather which damaged a pontoon-bridge leading across to the town. The officers felt perturbed by the shortness of forage, they grumbled hard at the lateness of the spring, but enjoyed plenty of leisure to discuss uncertain news filtering through about the entry of the Ottoman army into Hungary, or alleged difficulties in the Habsburg negotiation with Poland. In Vienna the Emperor prepared to come to Pressburg. So did courtiers, foreign ambassadors, fine ladies and sightseers. Splendid ceremonial tents were made ready for the review. Then Lorraine returned from his tour of inspection, apparently satisfied by what he saw at Györ and elsewhere along the border. The Magyars appeared, led by the Palatine Paul Esterházy. They were only 500 or 600 at first, not the 6,000 promised, but a few days later their number increased to 2,000. About 32,000 men—21,000 foot and 10,800 horse and dragoons—were finally and elaborately assembled for a grand parade on 6 May when the Emperor crossed over from Pressburg to spend nine slow and crowded hours on the triple ceremony of a solemn Mass, an inspection of the troops, and a state banquet.

It was a brave show that day; but the summer campaign of the Habsburg army proved a dismal failure, due largely to the paralysis of the command. Lorraine, as the general in the field, was required to consult with his council of officers, and the Emperor in Vienna, and the War Council which was dominated by Herman of Baden. The personal rivalry of Baden and Lorraine remained intense, and they differed over the whole strategy to be followed in the period (of uncertain duration) before the Turkish army reached the Austrian frontier. Exasperated by the general unwillingness of many high-ranking officers to accept his proposals with any cordiality, Lorraine fell ill with worry and exhaustion. The theatre of war was a complete novelty to him—apart from one campaign in Hungary twenty years earlier—and his touch was very uncertain, as if he did not realise the distances involved or even the ordinary difficulties of transport in this waterlogged area. His main idea was clear-cut: an aggressive march eastwards, followed by the capture of an important point held by the Turks, stood a chance of compelling the Turkish grand army to spend the rest of the summer and autumn in trying to recover what they had just lost. A powerful attack of this kind, at an early date, appeared to him the one possible method of defending the Austrian lands; there is no hint that he ever gave the defence of Hungary a thought, except as an aid to the protection of more westerly areas. The target which he suggested, at the conference held in Kittsee on 7 May—with Baden and nine senior officers present—was Esztergom on the south bank of the Danube, or alternatively Neuhäusel which lies well to the north of the river. Both were important Ottoman citadels. The argument in favour of an aggressive start was duly marshalled. It would raise the Emperor’s reputation if a force were put into the field before the Turks were ready, and thereby strengthen his bargaining power in the Empire and in Poland; it would increase Turkish dissatisfaction with the Grand Vezir; and ‘fix’ the enemy, compelling him to concentrate on the recapture of a lost position in the coming campaign. Baden apparently demurred. Most of the officers agreed to the course proposed by Lorraine, although they preferred the idea of an attack on Neuhäusel—which was separated from the approaching Ottoman army by the Danube—to an attack on Esztergom. It was finally decided to move the troops eastwards to Györ and to Komárom, the outermost Habsburg fortress, and then to reconnoitre in the direction of Esztergom, subject always to the Emperor’s approval.

During the next fortnight the army, split into sections in order to ease a shortage of forage everywhere, marched and rode slowly across the enormous plain. By 19 May the infantry reached the outskirts of Györ, and on the next day continued on the route to Komárom. Camps were set along the right bank of the river. Lorraine himself reconnoitred Esztergom while waiting for munitions and artillery. He held firmly to his project of an attack, even though he felt disconcerted by his officers’ grumbling, by the indecisive instructions received from Vienna, and contradictory reports about the speed and direction of the Turkish advance. In spite of the council of officers, who met on 26 May and loudly opposed the move on Esztergom, Lorraine held firm and shortly afterwards ordered the troops to march. They had already left the camp on 31 May when Lorraine returned from a further reconnaissance and countermanded the order. His reason for this was apparently a disturbing message from Styria, that the Grand Vezir had already crossed the bridge at Osijek, so that a further advance by the Habsburg forces looked exposed to an early attack in open country against overwhelming odds. Lorraine was in despair when he got back to his base. Then, temporarily, the position seemed to alter. Less alarming intelligence reached him about the pace of the Turkish advance, and he received a letter from Leopold encouraging him to persevere with an attack on some Turkish stronghold before the main body of the enemy arrived on the scene. But Lorraine dithered, and his faithful secretary Le Bègue began to think that a return to the duchy of Lorraine on terms imposed by Louis XIV would be a better fate than the infuriating perplexities of supreme command in Hungary. On 2 (or possibly 3) June the general proposed, for the last time, an assault on Esztergom. The officers protested and he began to reconsider the alternative of an assault on Neuhäusel; this the officers, somewhat grudgingly, approved.

Throughout the last three weeks, at almost every camp, Lorraine had received reports from Vienna which emphasised his isolation in the distant world of court politics. He attempted to brief his supporters in the capital by letter, but far too many interests there were eager for his discredit by his failure as a general. Lorraine took it as an intolerable insult that Herman of Baden, returning from a tour of inspection to Györ in the middle of May, had not even stopped to confer with him. He resented and probably exaggerated the hostility of some of Leopold’s advisers, like the Bishop of Vienna and Zinzendorf. In any case their criticism had its justification. Laymen might be pardoned for thinking that the organisation of a defensive position along the Rivers Váh and Rába was the paramount concern. Certain of the professional soldiers, Baden or Rimpler, supported them. As things turned out, these experts completely underestimated the mass and weight of the Turkish attack but Lorraine made the greater mistake of wasting time and resources for six precious weeks. He had accomplished nothing at Esztergom; then he made the troublesome crossing of the Danube at Komárom and advanced towards Neuhäusel. All went well at first, although it was realised that more heavy artillery would be needed here. The outworks were quickly taken, and troops lodged in the island immediately opposite the inner defences of the Turks; and yet once again, by 8 June Lorraine was in despair. He was embarrassed by a letter from the Emperor which advised him to remain on the defensive, without positively forbidding an assault on a Turkish strongpoint like Neuhäusel. This he countered by a reply which asked for more explicit instructions. Then, during the night of the 7th, everything went wrong. The guns which the troops had with them were not sited in accordance with Lorraine’s orders, and he inclined to think that the error was a piece of deliberate obstruction by the officers concerned. Other, heavier weapons, on their way up from Komárom got stuck in the mud, and it soon became clear that they could not be brought into action against the enemy for several days. Finally, reports suggested that Tartars and some Turkish forces were assembling in great numbers near Buda to advance towards Neuhäusel. Confused and angry discussions went on all the next day at headquarters. In the morning Lorraine was still determined to go on with the attack. General Leslie arrived and joined the council of war. He supported the other officers, until Lorraine gave way and decided to return to Komárom without waiting for further orders from Leopold. His second attempt to take the initiative, before the grand army of the enemy arrived near the scene of action, had failed utterly.

On the next day the retreat began. A camp was set on the left bank of the Neutra opposite Komárom, from which it was easy enough to raid into country beyond the frontier for essential supplies. For ten days the army rested, motionless in this central position, while Lorraine expected Kara Mustafa to show his hand by committing himself to a definite line of advance. News from stray deserters and other miscellaneous arrivals at the camp disclosed that the odds were in favour of a Turkish move towards Györ, with a slight chance that very large Turkish forces might still be sent to fight north of the Danube. On 18 May he received in audience envoys from Thököly, who were travelling towards Vienna to give Leopold formal notice that their master was ending the truce between them. Their word was not of the slightest value, but when they announced that Györ was the first Turkish objective Lorraine at last felt disposed to agree. Certainly, on the following day there are real signs that he was preparing to break camp and move his troops. On the 19th some detachments crossed the Neutra. On the 21st he sent the dragoon regiments of Castell and d’Herbeville to reinforce Schultz up in the north, and the Dieppenthal dragoons to Gúta (another small fortified post which he himself inspected). Starhemberg and Leslie set out on their way to Györ. Turkish raiders had already appeared near the now deserted camp across the Neutra, and the guns of Komárom fired warningly over the water at them.

During the next few hours a strong gale blew up suddenly and broke the pontoon bridge over the Danube. Fortunately a quick repair was possible and soon the troops of the field-army (preceded by Lorraine himself) got back to Györ.

It had become urgently necessary to settle on a plan for the proper defence of this neighbourhood. Once again, Lorraine and his friends championed a forward position. A letter written some days earlier by Le Bègue, while he was still in the Schütt, shows that they wished to place their army in the angle between the right bank of the Rába and the Danube, in front of the fortifications of Györ. They held that the defences of the town were far too weak to hold out against heavy Turkish artillery. They believed that the alternative, sponsored by both Herman of Baden and by Leslie, of keeping a great majority of the forces in a sheltered position in the Schütt, would expose Györ to the risk of immediate capture. It would dangerously uncover the left bank of the Rába and possibly Austria itself. Once on the spot Lorraine personally surveyed the ground. He did his best to hasten the palisading of the counterscarp in front of the town, still far from complete, and soon 7,000 men were at work on it. He also started to fortify the heights at some distance from the town, across the Rába, in order to prevent the enemy from beginning their siege operations uncomfortably close to the main defences, which would have shortened the time needed by the Turks to prepare a final assault. The Lorrainers lamented that so little had been done at an earlier stage; but the engineer Rimpler disagreed and felt more confident, perhaps partly because he himself was responsible for much of the spadework carried out in and around Györ since 1681; and indeed, the Turks never took the place in 1683. Moreover Rimpler and other officers could not approve the plan to place the field-army in front of the works, and after detailed discussion the command decided on a new scheme of defence. It visualised a slight enlargement of the garrison in Györ and its outposts, while the greater part of the army was stationed along the left bank of the Rába. This decision was carried out amid scenes of hectic activity between 25 and 29 June. A redoubt and other works were built, to guard the fords immediately in front of the troops. Some cavalry and dragoons moved southwards, and others northwards over the Danube (into the Schütt), to ward off any movement by skirmishers in either direction. All the time different messengers were bringing in news of the Turks’ approach, while on the 28th Lorraine himself led a cavalry raid into the countryside in front of them, in order to strip it of any supplies which the enemy could use. Soon, smoke rising over the horizon revealed the first incursions of the enemy. On the 30th, pickets of guards protecting labourers in the outworks had their first brush with advance bodies of Turks; and on the next day, 1 July, with perhaps 12,500 foot and 9,500 horse prepared for action behind the Rába, Lorraine and his officers watched vast numbers approaching them from the east.

The Italian Marsigli, who earlier drew attention to the importance of the defences above Györ, had been sent on a special mission to this area. His letters made gloomy reading ten days before the Turks appeared. The Magyars, he wrote, were utterly scornful of the Habsburg army which behaved so feebly at Esztergom and Neuhäusel. On 21 June some Tartars, already reported to be in the neighbourhood, caused panic at one small bridgehead where the Magyars on the spot refused to destroy the bridge. Marsigli himself and his troop of 200 dragoons did succeed in breaking down two other bridges over the Rába, but he warned Lorraine that there were ‘three fords’ to be watched between the marshes—his own sector—and Györ. Unfortunately, while the Magyar leaders assembled their men on the ‘island’ and Lorraine prepared to fight in and around the citadel, neither party attended to these easy crossings of the river. The discord between Batthyány and Draskovich on one side, and the Habsburg authorities (who had never examined this stretch of the frontier with thoroughness) on the other, produced a fatal fracture in the whole system of the defence; and as Marsigli was later to insist, in the great book which he wrote on Ottoman military institutions, the Tartars were absolute masters of the art of fording rivers with their horses, baggage and even with prisoners.

That night of 1 July, the Turkish camps were set on the right bank of the Rába and in front of the town, over a large area of ground which extended several miles upstream. Many other forces took up a position along the Danube and on the higher ground a little farther off. At two o’clock on the next morning Lorraine was woken, and tried to take stock of the position. As it grew light he could see the dense, irregular formation of the Turkish encampments, with large hosts of fighting men apparently getting ready for action. He roused up his own troops and put them in order of battle close to the river; batteries opened fire, attempting to drive the foremost Turks back from the edge of the water. Christian observers were guessing confusedly at the numbers of Moslems and Christian auxiliaries opposed to them: there were 80,000 there were 100,000 there were 150,000! At all events here was the enemy, looking as formidable as the most pessimistic reports had ever anticipated, with individual troops or groups testing the fordability of the Rába and riding upstream out of sight, well beyond the right wing of the Habsburg army. This crowded and confused spectacle slowly began to disclose a more regular pattern. Many Turkish or Tartar tents were struck and more men moved away to the south. The area round Györ itself was strangely still. During the afternoon these Turkish and Tartar horsemen got safely across the river, some making use of the fords, others swimming. The thin screen of Austrians from Styrum’s regiment and the Magyar or Croat forces guarding this section of the front were completely outnumbered, and the accusation of treachery levelled against Batthyány the Hungarian commander makes little sense. Neither he nor Styrum could have stopped the foe. His own men quickly preferred to surrender while Styrum’s fell back in disorder. And not much later smoke was visible a long way to the west.

Strangely enough Lorraine gave ground at once. He never seems to have considered that, for the time being at least, he could disregard a host of irregulars riding rapidly west to fire the countryside provided that the great mass of the opposing army was still in front of Györ. Indeed, he also broke up his own force into smaller pieces. Another thirteen companies were sent to stiffen the garrison, accompanied by a few aristocratic volunteers, Leslie led the main body of infantry over the Danube into the Schütt, and Lorraine himself prepared to withdraw the cavalry. Baggage and artillery moved over the Rabnitz westwards almost immediately, and the cavalry followed as evening fell. The retreat continued overnight and during the next day. There were Tartars ahead of the Habsburg regiments, and Tartars at their heels. At one moment the rearguard was mauled, so that Lorraine himself had to turn back and go to the rescue. The enemy moved quickly, with small groups of horsemen dotted over a wide area. The Habsburg troops were divided into a van, a main body, and a rear, riding west in a tighter, more compact formation. Both protagonists were taking the same route, up the Danube as far as Ungarisch-Altenburg (although the Tartars obviously circled round the town itself), where Lorraine spent the night of the 2nd. Both then ascended the winding course of the Leitha. While the Tartars or Turks roamed over the whole stretch of country between the right bank of the river and the Neusiedler See, the Habsburg commanders kept between the Leitha and Danube, and headed for Kittsee and Pressburg again. They camped for two more nights in the plain at Deutsch-Jahrndorf, waiting and hoping for the situation to clear. At first the reports from Györ suggested that Kara Mustafa was settling down to besiege the place, while Lorraine hoped to recover the district round the Neusiedler See by sending off 800 horse under Colonel Heisler in that direction. Unfortunately, news then came through that large numbers of Turkish infantry were crossing the Rába, and at the same time Lorraine heard from Leslie, who announced that he intended to withdraw westwards with all the infantry under his command unless he was given distinct orders to the contrary by 4 July. Such a step appeared to mean leaving Györ to its fate, and the message was only received at headquarters on 4 July. Too late, Lorraine replied that Leslie must stay on the Schütt. Happily Leslie took no notice and began to retreat.

Lorraine rode ahead to Kittsee for a conference with the vice-president of the War Council, Caplirs, and on the 6th most of the cavalry camped round Berg. Here the plain ends, the ground rises abruptly some thousand feet. Pressburg and the Danube lie a little way off on one side, and on the other the Leitha winds out of the Leitha hills into the plain. Lorraine was back in the landscape made familiar to many of his soldiers and officers by the rendezvous five weeks earlier; with this difference, remarked by everyone, that dust and smoke now thickened the air over the plain, dust kicked up by the moving horsemen, smoke from the fired barns and houses. Between the Leitha hills and the sharp outcrop at Berg smoother country continues in the direction of Vienna. It was a relatively narrow passage through which any sizeable invading force would have to pass, and Lorraine hoped to control it.

At the same time there was talk of building new bridges just below Pressburg. When it became clear that Leslie had definitely begun to draw back across the Schütt, the command planned to bring his infantry over these bridges across the Danube again, in this way re-assembling the entire field-army for the defence of the area between the Leitha and Danube. It seemed possible, and it was certainly essential, to hold up the advanced units of the enemy at Berg. If his main armament moved forward, it too would have to be resisted at this point but Lorraine hoped that Kara Mustafa himself—engaged on the siege of Györ—would not push beyond the Leitha: at Ungarisch-Altenburg Habsburg detachments still guarded the bridge and the fords across it, together with large magazines of food and munitions. Much farther off, Györ was momentarily isolated. Across the Leitha and towards the Neusiedler See, an area of lesser strategic importance, the situation meanwhile looked completely out of control. Neither Leopold’s government nor his armies had any power to check the frightful course of devastation there, in the countryside once quietly ruled over by Esterházy and his peers.

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