Ottoman Siege of Vienna 1683

The relief of Vienna on September 12, 1683. In the decisive battle at Kahlenberg, the united imperial army succeeded in liberating Vienna after two months of siege at the hands of the Turkish army.

Plan of Vienna, with the Turkish approaches.

In June 1683 the Ottomans were at the gates of the city of their European dreams-Vienna. They had been battling the Habsburgs for centuries for dominance in the region, and Vienna was a strategic and cultural plum they had tried to take once before, in 1529. Now, with Vienna again under siege, an Ottoman draftsman recorded his own vision of the Imperial City-along with the offensive and defensive lines. As in 1529, the city had forewarning of the Ottoman advance, and Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor, had assembled an allied army of Habsburg, Polish-Lithuanian, Roman, and smaller regional forces. By mid- September, they were outside Vienna. On the heights of the Kahlenberg, in the Vienna Woods, the allies clashed with the army of Kara Mustafa Pasha. At one point Polish king John III Sobieski launched 18,000 horsemen at the Ottomans-the largest cavalry charge in history at that time. The Battle of Vienna not only freed the city, it stopped the Ottomans from advancing farther west, and it established Habsburg dominance in Central Europe.

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.

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Money without manpower was useless. Lorraine and Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg, military governor of Vienna from 1680, had immediately agreed that the infantry regiments marching up the Danube from Pressburg should move at once into Vienna. On 10 July, troops of the vanguard first appeared. More arrived on the following day, and on the 13th the mass of Leslie’s command completed their long journey from Györ; the great majority of his infantry regiments were sent over the river with the utmost despatch. Early that day, therefore, Starhemberg commanded 5,000 men. By evening he had some 11,000. The prospects were at least less dismal than the week before, when the Turks were expected to invest or storm a city held by no more than the ghost of a garrison.

Yet the foremost Ottoman raiders now appeared, and in the distance the smoke of burning villages in the neighbourhood rose skywards. Starhemberg did not dare delay in performing one of his most disagreeable duties: the speedy and forcible clearing of the glacis. Since earlier demolition orders had not been obeyed, he began—on 13 July—to burn down everything in the area outside the counterscarp which would obviously hamper the garrison. Most of all he wanted to clear the ground west of the city, where suburbs came closest to the moat. More smoke rose skywards. The sparks flew. They flew over the walls as far as the roof of the Schotten monastery by the Schottengate, where a fire broke out in the afternoon of Wednesday, the 14th; and it almost altered the course of history. The wind blew sparks against the neighbouring buildings, an inn, and from the inn to a wall of the Arsenal, where supplies of every kind were stored, including 1,800 barrels of powder. Nearby, other powder magazines adjoined the New-gate. If the defence-works here were seriously damaged by explosion, or the stores lost, resistance to the Turks was hardly thinkable. The flames moved along a wooden gallery into the Arsenal. Townsmen and soldiers gathered, there was a muddle about keys which could not be found, but soldiers broke through a door and cleared the points of greatest danger. A hysterical mob, looking on, smelt treason at once and lynched two suspects, a poor lunatic and a boy wearing woman’s clothes. It also destroyed the baggage which an inoffensive mining official from Hungary, then in Vienna, was trying to get out of a second inn near the Arsenal; and it panicked at the sight of a flag flying unaccountably from a roof close to the fire, fearing some kind of a signal to the enemy. More effectively, the wind then veered. Flames swept towards and into aristocratic properties on the other side, away from the Arsenal, and proceeded to burn out the Auersperg palace where the ruins went on smouldering for days. The crisis had passed before the arrival of the Turks; but the danger of yet more fires, set off by Turkish bombs or by traitors and spies inside the walls, was to be a constant nightmare in Vienna later on.

Starhemberg very properly ordered the municipality to requisition cellars for the storage of powder. It took over a number of crypts or cellars under churches and convents for this purpose.

On the same day, the 14th, Lorraine began pulling his cavalry out of Leopoldstadt and the islands. Breaking down the bridges as they went, they crossed right over the Danube and took up a new position on the north bank. Only the final bridge was left intact, guarded by a small force. Leslie’s infantry continued to move into the city. Stores, coming downstream by boat and raft, were still being unloaded by townsmen and units of the garrison.

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Kara Mustafa completed his investment of Vienna on July 15, 1683, and then commenced a heavy bombardment of the bastions, curtain, and town. The Ottoman bombardment continued for two months, which was longer than a comparable shelling by a European army would have taken because, after leading in siege artillery for generations, the Ottomans had finally fallen behind the European powers in the quality and hitting power of their siege guns. The Viennese replied with their more numerous wall and bastion cannon, but counter-battery and harassing fire against Ottoman sappers was severely limited by a shortage of powder and shot. Many batteries were ordered to fire only a few times per day, in order to conserve shot and conceal their location until the final assault by Janissaries and berserkers. Ottoman miners were highly skilled, and their saps steadily approached the town walls. On August 12th mines were detonated and Ottoman infantry broke through Vienna’s outer works. On September 2 they overcame several outer ravelins. Four days later engineers blew a huge mine beneath the “Burg bastion.” This cratered a section of wall, leaving a ten-meter gap. Into this Mustafa poured crack Janissaries. They were met by improvised barriers and lines of pikemen, behind which Austrian musketeers poured volley after volley into the Janissary ranks, driving them out of the breach. As these events were occurring, the Allied relief army approached and assembled northwest of Vienna. Some 40,000 assorted Germans joined 20,000 Imperials and 16,000 Poles, the latter led personally by their king. The Tatar light cavalry screen and other Ottoman scouts failed to detect this relief army or block it from transiting key mountain passes and river crossings. The fight that ensued marked the first time in history that a European army outnumbered an Ottoman army in a major field battle.

On September 12, the German, Imperial, and Polish armies, jointly led by Sobieski, destroyed the Tatar and Ottoman cavalry at Kahlenberg, in front of Vienna’s walls. Mustafa made the critical error of leaving most of his infantry in the siege trenches, sending 28,000 unsupported horse and insufficient field artillery (just 60 light guns) to meet the enemy in the field. That is the number most often cited by historians of the Ottoman military, possibly underestimating the extent of the defeat suffered in the baking heat that day. Similarly exaggerating the scale of the “Christian victory,” some European sources claim that as many as 50,000 Ottoman cavalry fought at Kahlenberg. In either case, the fight began at dawn, with heavy action first on the Christian left, where Charles of Lorraine commanded the Imperials and Saxons. The Bavarians and Franconians soon joined this attack on the Ottoman right, which spread to the center as the two armies fully engaged. Sobieski’s Polish cavalry and dragoons needed until 1 P. M. to traverse broken countryside as they approached the Ottoman left. But when they emerged and charged into the Tatars, they pushed them back in hard cavalry-on-cavalry fighting. Around 3 P. M., a massed Allied infantry and cavalry assault began against the Ottoman center, behind which Kara Mustafa looked on in disbelief at his misfortune and the size of the enemy army he faced. Fighting continued until about 6 P. M., when the Ottoman lines were wholly shattered and all their positions overrun. Christian troops moved over the battlefield as the sun set, sabering and shooting wounded sipahis and Tatars while Allied cavalry hotly pursued fleeing survivors. When it was over, 10,000 Ottoman and Tatar dead lay in the fields, with more bodies strewn across abandoned siege lines around the city and in overrun camps.

Kara Mustafa was forced into a desperate and disorderly retreat, following what had become a decisive rout. The Allies even captured part of the Ottoman baggage train that had been left behind in their haste to depart. The grand vezier’s retreat took him and the remnants of the siege army across mountainous and river-crossed Hungary just as the weather turned truly nasty in mid-October. Heavy rains slowed the withdrawal and cost the lives of more men, along with most of the remaining siege guns, pack animals, and supplies. The worst episode came while crossing the Leitha River, widened and swollen with flash runoff from the mountain rains. During the night of October 19-20, hundreds of draught animals became mired in mud along the river’s banks and nearly all remaining baggage was lost, including all tents. Along the way, Mustafa executed officers who were openly critical of his leadership. It did not avail: when he arrived in Belgrade, news of the catastrophe had preceded him, and he was strangled to death by order of the sultan. Mehmed survived in power for four more years, until deposed as part of the wider political aftermath within the Ottoman Empire of the catastrophe outside the walls of Vienna and at Kahlenberg.

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