Belgrade 1717

Eugene of Savoy at the Battle of Belgrade by Johann Gottfried Auerbach. Eugene crowned his career with the battle of Belgrade, after which he retired as the most successful general of the Austrian Habsburgs.

National Trust; (c) Chirk Castle; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

There is no doubt that the blood which is going to flow on both sides will fall like a curse upon you, your children and your children’s children until the last judgment. GRAND VIZIER SILAHDAR ALI PASHA TO EUGENE OF SAVOY, APRIL 1716.

The Austrian defeat of the Ottomans in the Battle of Belgrade on August 16, 1717, led to the Ottoman cession of their portion of Hungary and much of Serbia. Ottoman military fortunes, in decline following the Ottoman rebuff before Vienna in 1683, revived in 1712 when the Ottomans defeated Russian czar Peter the Great’s army on the Pruth River. With the large force mobilized against Russia still available, Grand Vizier Damad Ali decided to wage war against Venice, a long-standing Ottoman enemy, that was then in decline and seemingly without allies.

In 1714 the Ottomans retook the Morea (southernmost Greece) from the Venetians; many Greeks welcomed the Ottomans as liberators, which made the task easier. Damad Ali miscalculated the reaction of Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, however. Charles signed a defensive alliance with Venice to oppose the Ottomans. The Ottoman army then headed north, crossing the Sava River and moving up the south bank of the Danube to Peterwardein (present-day Novi Sad). The Habsburg leadership, awed by the size of the Ottoman force and Damad Ali’s success in the Morea, was divided on the course to follow.

A number of Habsburg generals opposed a pitched battle and instead advocated a war of attrition. The brilliant Habsburg general Prince Eugene of Savoy carried the day, however. He respected the Ottoman soldiers for their bravery in assault but also recognized their weaknesses: antiquated weaponry, an inability to adjust to unforeseen tactics by the opposing side, and a tendency to panic in a reverse. Eugene urged an immediate offensive. The Austrians therefore marched to Peterwardein.

Damad Ali arrived there with 150,000 men to find Eugene with 60,000 Austrians drawn up to meet him. The battle occurred on August 5, 1716. The Janissaries (the Ottoman elite force) gained an immediate advantage in an attack on the Habsburg infantry in the center of the line. Eugene countered from the flanks, breaking the Ottoman formation with a heavy cavalry charge. Damad Ali galloped forward on horseback to try to rally his fleeing troops, but he was struck in the forehead by a bullet and mortally wounded. The Ottomans reportedly lost 6,000 men killed and a large number of wounded. The Austrians also secured all 140 Ottoman artillery pieces.

Following up his victory at Peterwardein, in August Eugene laid siege to Temesvar (Timiscoara), the last remaining Ottoman stronghold in Hungary. The Ottomans had controlled it since the days of Suleiman the Magnificent. Temesvar surrendered after only five weeks. This was the prelude to the siege of Belgrade the next year, which Eugene undertook with some 70,000 men.

Held by some 30,000 soldiers, Belgrade was the strongest Ottoman post in the Balkans. As Eugene prepared his forces for an assault on Belgrade, an Ottoman army estimated at 200,000 men under the Grand Vizier Khahil Pasha arrived on the scene. Eugene was outnumbered more than 3 to 1, and his position seemed critical. Ottoman overconfidence, however, and their failure to launch an immediate attack worked to his advantage.

On August 16, 1717, while elements of his forces repelled a sortie by the Belgrade garrison, Eugene took the remainder and, in a daring move that caught the Ottomans by surprise, stormed their main lines. Eugene was wounded in the attack (his 13th and last battle wound) but remained on the field.

Maurice de Saxe famously describes a battalion of Imperial infantry getting cut up by Ottoman cavalry at Belgrade in 1717:

“… At the battle of Belgrade (August 16, 1717), I saw two battalions cut to pieces in an instant. This is how it happened. A battalion of Neuperg’s and another of Lorraine’s were on a hill we call the battery. At the moment when a gust of wind dissipated the fog which kept us from distinguishing anything, I saw the troops on the crest of the hill, separated from the rest of our army. Prince Eugene, at the same time discovering a detachment of cavalry in motion on the side of the hill, asked me if I could distinguish what they were. I answered that they were 30 or 40 Turks. He said: “Those men are enveloped,” speaking of the two battalions. However, I could perceive no sign of their being attacked, not being able to see what was on the other side of the hill. I hastened there at a gallop. The instant I arrived the two battalions raised their arms and fired a general discharge at thirty paces against the main body of the attacking Turks. The fire and melee’ were simultaneous, and the two battalions did not have time to flee for every man was cut to pieces on the spot. The only persons who escaped were M. Neuperg, who, fortunately for him, was on a horse, an ensign with his flag who clung to my horse’s mane and bothered me not a little, and two or three soldiers.

At this moment Prince Eugene came up, almost alone, being attended only by his body guard, and the Turks retired for reasons unknown to me… … Some cavalry and infantry arriving, M. Neuperg requested a detachment to collect the clothing. Sentries were posted at the four corners of the ground occupied by the dead of the two battalions, and their clothes, hats, shoes, etc., were collected in heaps. During this ceremony, I had curiosity enough to count the dead; I found only thirty-two Turks killed by the general discharge of the two battalions–which has not increased my regard for infantry fire.”

The Austrians won through the boldness of his assault and the superb discipline of their infantry, which advanced with colors flying and drums beating despite Ottoman artillery fire. Holding their fire until they were but a short distance from the Ottoman lines, the Austrians launched a bayonet charge that broke up the Janissaries and produced victory. Ottoman casualties were estimated at 20,000 men, while the Austrians suffered only 2,000 casualties. Five days later, on August 21, Belgrade surrendered to the Austrians.

As their main army retreated south, their other force abandoned the siege of Corfu, releasing pressure on the Venetians. Realizing it was now too late to attack Belgrade, Eugene turned northeast to besiege Timisoara, capital of the Banat and last Turkish enclave north of the Danube. Though an attempt to storm the place on Charles’s birthday (1 October) failed, the garrison surrendered two weeks later after a relief force disintegrated en route through desertion. By the end of the year, the imperialists had overrun most of Wallachia west of the river Olt (Aluta)-the so-called Olteria or Little Wallachia.

Though a successful campaign, it was now obvious that the Austrians had seriously underestimated Ottoman strength, but it was decided to continue the war the following year to consolidate the gains. The arrival of Bavarian and other reinforcements brought Eugene’s army up to 100,000, strong enough to attempt the siege of Belgrade, and, assisted by the Danube Flotilla, the city was completely cut off and subjected to a regular siege. However, Eugene was running out of supplies as an Ottoman relief force approached in August. A lucky shot detonated the city’s largest magazine on the 14th, killing 3,000 of the defenders. Realizing that a sortie was now unlikely, Eugene sallied forth from his trenches with 60,000 men to surprise the Turks in the early morning mist. Fortified by drink and keeping close together, the imperialists poured devastating musketry into the disordered Turkish ranks, routing them and sealing the garrison’s fate. With the fall of Belgrade on 18 August, the Turkish position in Northern Serbia collapsed and the Habsburg frontier advanced south of the Danube to reach the fullest extent achieved during the Great Turkish War.

Charles had no intention of going any further. The Austrians were already beginning to doubt the wisdom of pushing deeper into the Balkan wastelands, and it was clear the Turks desired peace. This was very welcome given that Rakoczi had just arrived in Edirne, raising the spectre of renewed trouble in Hungary. Meanwhile the Turks were suspected of trying to reach a rapprochement with the tsar, and Spain had launched its attempt to recover its lost Italian possessions. Following long negotiations with Anglo-Dutch mediation, peace was concluded at Passarowitz (Pozarevac) on 27 July 1717, confirming Austria’s recent gains. It was not a moment too soon. Austrian units were already departing for Italy, while five days later, the emperor concluded the Quadruple Alliance with France, Britain and the Dutch, thus committing himself to the war with Spain.

The short successful war considerably extended Habsburg territory, indicating that Austria was now a major European power and raising the emperor’s prestige in the Reich. Prince Eugene was a genuine folk hero, and even other generals became household names.

The Battle of Belgrade was a watershed. After the Battle of Belgrade they were firmly on the defensive, no longer expanding in Europe but merely seeking to retain conquered territory.