Battle of Mohács

It was in 1526, the traditional invasion road that led into the Balkans was taken once again by the Ottomans. Most such annual campaigns had culminated in the siege of some Danubian fortress town, but this year was to be different. For the Hungarian army composed of King Louis II, his bishops, magnates, nobles and knights, had advanced to give battle.

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 Fall of Petervarad and Ujlak. The Ottoman Army Reaches the Drava

As already mentioned, on June 19, during the advance along the valley of the Morava, Grand Vezir Ibrahim was instructed by the sultan to capture Petervarad. According to Ottoman sources the castle was a “stumbling block” along the “highway of the holy struggle” by which we must understand that it closed off access to the Danube, hampering the movements of the fleet. Moreover, it could endanger the supply lines if by-passed and left in the rear of the Ottoman armies. Thanks to reconnaissance conducted by Bali Beg, the Ottoman high command obtained the following correct information about the Hungarians: on July 8 the king was still in Buda, over 1,000 troops were stationed at the castle of Petervarad, and the “accursed priest”, Tomori, was in the vicinity with 2,000 soldiers.

Ibrahim launched the siege of the castle on July 14 with the Rumelian army, the 2,000 janissaries assigned to him, the 150 artillery pieces, and the flotilla. Once under the castle they immediately started constructing the siege trenches and battery positions and soon, together with the artillery, launched a barrage. On July 17the Anatolian army joined the besiegers. The garrison of the castle held out bravely and made a few sallies. It repelled the assaults of the Ottomans repeatedly and inflicted on them significant losses. The Ottomans were able to take the castle on July 28 only after undermining and blowing up one of the bastions and storming it through the breach. With only a handful of men on the northern bank of the Danube Tomori could not come to the rescue of the defenders. By this time the troops of the bishop of Pecs, of the chapter of Esztergom, and of the abbey of Szekszard were all in his camp, to be joined later by Peter Perenyi and his banderium; yet his forces still numbered no more than 4,000.

It seems the Ottoman command wanted to present the union of the forces from Croatia and Transylvania with the royal forces by dispatching the army of Ibrahim with extraordinary urgency from Petervarad to Ujlak, the siege of which was launched as ear]y as August 1. It was undertaken with the same generous expenditure of materiel as that of Petervarad. The defenders of this much weaker castle were compelled to surrender in a week.

In the meantime, smaller units captured the castles of the Sremone by one, sometimes even without a fight, because the garrisons fled rather than await the arrival of the enemy. Thus the road towards the Drava lay open. Touching upon Sotin, Vukovo, and Borovo, the army reached Eszek on August 14. The ships arrived there at the same time or shortly thereafter, as we know from one of Burgio’s reports. The fact that the Ottomans began to build the bridge “in a great hurry” as soon as they reached Eszek also indicates important it was for the Ottoman command to advance as rapidly as possible. The bridge was ready by the 19th; the crossing began on the 21st, went on continuously, and was completed by the23rd. The bridge was dismantled or burnt down while the army was on its way to the river Karasso.

After the fall of Petervarad Tomori moved to Bacs. A few days later he proceeded to the mouth of the river Karasso and, crossing the Danube, stopped somewhere in the area of Baranyakisfalud and Hercegszollos, sending only smaller patrols on detail to the Drava.

Where to Fight the Battle? Conflict between Court and Notability

We have already mentioned that since the Hungarian government was well aware that it would not be able to hold up the Ottomans either at the Sava or at the Drava, it decided to fight a pitched battle. It may be assumed that Mohács had been selected as the battlefield from the start. The letters of Louis II indicate that he wanted to move further southward, leaving Tolna behind, and we also know that in the last week of June the palatine asked the king to send money and troops to Mohács.

It is possible, however, that the king accepted this p]an only under pressure from the military council; in reality, along with his immediate entourage, he wanted either to avoid battle altogether, or to fight it much further to the north, awaiting the arrival of the forces from Croatia and Transylvania and of the foreign mercenaries. Naturally this line of thinking implied that the southern parts, or an even larger portion of the country, would have to be forfeited. It is impossible to arrive at a precise assessment of these different intentions because of the contradictions and the chronological inaccuracies in the sources available to us. At any rate all signs indicate deep divisions between the court and the nobility.

To begin with, the king’s decision to wait so long in Buda needs tobe explained. He left on July 20, according to Burgio, on the 23rd, according to Brodarics. He was supposed to have reached Tolna three weeks earlier. Presumably the reason for the delay was not merely that it took a long time to form the royal banderium because of a lack of funds, as Burgio maintains, or that the nobility likewise reached Tolna with considerable delay, but also the fact that the king and his entourage were becoming increasingly convinced that no battle must be fought before uniting all possible forces. Some nobles seem to have got wind of this dilatory plan, which caused unrest in their ranks. After describing the king’s lack of preparedness, Burgio’s report of July 5 read:

My opinion is rather that His Majesty will retreat, and we will end up by losing even the areas on this side of the Drava…. It cannot be denied that His Majesty’s life is in danger. If they do not go down to the battlefield he will fall into the hands of his own subjects, and that could end only badly, for no one would hesitate to blame him and his advisers for the fall of the country. But if His Majesty does go down to fight all the way to the Drava, he would be poorly equipped and ill prepared and I dare say that in addition to the dangers from the enemy his own subjects would also present a threat, because everyone is dissatisfied with him. Especially the voivode Szapolyai and his followers are against him and–it is strongly suspected–they are in cahoots with the Turks. So his Majesty will have no other recourse than to flee the country.

It is curious that Burgio wrote this report after the session of the diet at which the nobility unanimously backed the king, granting him plenipotentiary powers and leaving 0lerboczi in the lurch. Either Burgio was wrong or, if not, there was a sudden change in the mood of the nobility. The only thing one can think of is that the court’s military projects had aroused the distrust of the nobility. Incidentally, there is no foundation to Burgio’s remark about Szapolyai’s attitude and intentions. From our point of view what matters were the hesitations of the king: should he remain in Buda or go to war?

Nor can we know which party, the court or the nobility, was responsible for the delay of the assembly at Tolna. Brodarics wrote that the king advanced towards Tolna slowly, hoping that others would “join him along the way.” This, however, seems most unlikely, if only because most of the nobility, coming from different regions of the country, would not use the Buda-Tolna road. We also know from Burgio that the Palatine himself told the king that the nobility would go to war only once the king was on his way. In Burgio’s report of July 8 we again find hints that the court wanted the king to remain in Buda. Although the royal banderium was not yet outfitted, in Burgio’s opinion, “it would be better for the king to proceed than to await the arrival of the Turks in Buda.”

These clues jibe with the reluctance shown by the king to get involved in battle, and the fantastic project of a campaign against Bulgaria and Serbia which he entertained during these very weeks; only in the days immediately preceding his departure from Buda did he definitely give up on this project. Some light is shed upon the secret intentions of the king by Burgio’s report of August 5:

The king told me he will go down to Tolna and will prevent the Turks from crossing the Drava. Failing this he would like to withdraw to Slavonia, for two reasons: first, because the bishop of Zagreb and the ban of Croatia, Ferenc Batthyany, are in Slavonia and he considers them his most loyal men, and because this is where he has least to fear from the intrigues of his subjects, moreover, because in this province he and Archduke Ferdinand have a good many castles….

The king reached Tolna on August 6 and remained there until the 13th. .According to Brodarics, “they held protracted debates” there. Once again the palatine was instructed to hurry and to reach the Drava before the enemy to prevent his crossing. Some magnates, however, refused, while others referred to their privileges and their right, as great lords, to fight only under the banner of the king; in short, the idea of defending the Drava line was dropped. The palatine had already reached Mohács, while the others remained behind talking about privileges. Brodarics tells us that the king declared in the general assembly:

“I can see that everyone is using my person as an excuse…. I accepted this great danger personally exposing my own life to all the fickleness of fortune, for the sake of the country and for your welfare. So that none may find an excuse for their cowardice in my person and so that they would not blame me for anything, tomorrow, with the help of God omnipotent, I will accompany you to that place w here others will not go without me.” Then the king issued orders to set off on the following day, although there were some who, well aware of the dangers involved, tried to dissuade him from this undertaking, but in vain.

Burgio, on the other hand, provides the following account:

the king sent Ambrus Sarkany from Tolna to Eszek to defend the castle and prevent the Turks from throwing a bridge across the Drava, by way of troops he ordered part of the papal infantry to accompany him. His Majesty also sent down Count Palatine Istvan Bathory, along with some lords, their banderia, and the soldiers from the provinces, while the archbishop of Kalocsa, who is now at Bacs, is to cross the Danube and join Sarkany and Bathory as well.

Two days later he wrote: “The only news since the thirteenth, when I wrote my last letter, is that His Majesty ordered those lords and noblemen from the provinces he had dispatched to Eszek previously, but had not gone, finally to get on their way; and now indeed they are moving.”

There is diametrical contradiction between the accounts provided by Brodarics and by Burgio; according to the latter the noblemen finally agreed to go–although almost certainly they did not go to the Drava, as we shall see. The problem common to both accounts is that there could have been no serious intent of defending the line of the Drava: as we have seen, at this time the Ottomans were much closer to the Drava than the Hungarians at Tolna. Thanks to his reconnaissance, Tomori knew with almost hourly precision where the Ottoman forces were and which way they were heading. Of course the court was kept duly informed.

While it is true that Brodarics knew precious little about military affairs, he was surely not that inept at comprehending military discussions. The debate must have been about whether or not to fight the battle. After all, in his very first sentence Brodarics states that the “king’s continued advance” was also mentioned. The last sentence of the king’s outburst–“I will accompany you to the place here others will not go without me”–points clearly to the fact that the main issue was whether to advance to meet the enemy, and not whether to defend the Drava. The contradiction is so blatant that one cannot help suspecting that Brodarics was silent about the essence of the debate because by describing the scene in such pathetic tones he meant to erect an immortal monument to the tragic fate of the young king.

Whatever was debated in Tolna, major decisions were not made until the discussions at Bata on August 16. The king summoned Tomori, who was stationed at the Karasso, and appointed him together with Gyorgy Szapolyai as commanders-in-chief, with the proviso that should Janos Szapolyai and Frangepan arrive, they would take over. The council also reached final decision about fighting the battle at Mohács. We know this partly because, according to Brodarics, “the leaders left” right after the debate “in order to designate a camp site near the town of Mohács.” Here we must add that it was probably not just a matter of finding a camp site, but rather to reconnoiter thoroughly the prospective battlefield and its vicinity. We also know, from Ottoman sources, that it was at Batathat they decided to fight the battle at Mohács. Suleyman’s clerk noted on August 19: “A scoundrel came here [to Eszek] from Buda, and brought the news that ‘at the fifth stage after crossing the Drava, you will meet with the evil king.” The battlefield was actually five days’ march from the Drava, and the Ottomans indeed reached it five days after their crossing.

It was also decided that the troops along the Karasso would be brought up to Mohács. After Tomori and Perenyi explored the field at Mohács they went to the Karasso. A strange scene took place there. It is reported by Brodarics as follows:

After he arrived here and called together his soldiers and the commanders of his units, he informed them about the king’s wish to pull back the camp, which was also his own wish. The soldiers, however, grumbled and objected to pulling back just when they were within reach of the enemy. They felt they had to confront the enemy and fight bravely, as true men ought…. They also insisted they knew that the formerly courageous and invincible army of the Ottomans had perished, first at the battle of Belgrade and then at the siege of Rhodes…. Let them isolate the king and all the brave warriors from the cowardly mass of priests and other war-dodgers bent on softening the king, so outstanding in body and in spirit, whom they wanted to spoil with their cowardice and their unmanly advice, in order to turn the brave youths into their own image.

Several insights may be gained from this scene. First, it shows the lack of discipline among the soldiers, a lack, one should point out, which mirrored the anarchic conditions prevailing in society at large. Second, the soldiers, inspired resolve to fight is noteworthy. We already spoke of the high morale of the troops, especially those fighting in the border areas, and how superior they felt to the Ottomans. This morale was not due to lack of self-criticism or to overconfidence, but rather to an awareness deriving from the successful skirmishes fought in the border areas over several generations. The reference to the losses suffered by the Ottomans in the battles of the preceding year is also striking. Burgio’s report of May30 had already made the same claim, almost word for word:

The archbishop of Kalocsa advises the king to leave for the border areas immediately, and he encourages everyone by saying that the Turkish army is large in numbers only, but is not well trained, the troops being too young and inexperienced in war because the Turks lost the flower of their soldiery on the island of Rhodes (where they had been fighting against the Knights of Saint John), as well as in other wars.

This assessment must have originated with Tomori, the very Tomori who had felt that the struggle against the overwhelming power of the Ottoman Empire was hopeless and tried to talk the kinginto signing a peace. Most likely he meant to compensate for the news regarding the might of the Ottomans; while he could not increase the effectiveness of the Hungarian forces or improve its equipment, at least he could enhance its morale. We shall see that he would try to do so again at a critical moment.

From all this follows that the debates at Tolna centered not on the defense along the Drava, but whether or not to engage the enemy in a decisive battle, and, if so, when and where. We have seen the negative effect the court’s hesitation had on the mood of the nobility. The reports on the discussions at Tolna only exacerbated matters. The troops knew about the proposed delay, for–as we know from Brodarics’s communication–the discussions were held in a “populous assembly.” Thus when Tomori tried “to persuade them”—as Brodarics puts it–to draw back further, the troops were convinced that the king’s point of view had prevailed in the discussions and, even when Tomori assured them of his own commitment to the order, refused to follow.

Hence the forces under the command of Tomori and Perenyi remained by the Karasso, while the other part of the army marched southward to the field at Mohács, where more and more units were gathering. The king himself remained at Ujfalva, immediately to the north of Mohács. Then late one night the camp at Mohács, and eventually the king himself, received a report from reconnaissance that the bulk of the Ottoman forces had already crossed the Drava;at the same time the lords at the Mohács camp requested the presence of the ruler in order to discuss what was to be done. All this must have taken place in the night of the 23rd to the 24th, for we know the army of Rumelia and the janissaries of the sultan were onthe northern side of the river by the dawn of the 23rd; only the army of Anatolia and the baggage train had yet to cross. The person bearing the news must have left at this time; since his path was difficult, often across the swampy terrain, even a good horseman must have needed 12-14 hours to cover the distance of 70 km separating the Drava from the Karasso, and from there 20-25 km more to Ujfalva.

The battle

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.

The political vacuum caused by the slaughter of the Hungarian nobility on the field of Mohács would take some six years to sort itself out. The Habsburg Archduke Ferdinand (Charles V’s younger brother) and Sultan Suleyman each tried to absorb chunks of the ancient kingdom of the Magyars. This dispute over Hungary would culminate in the Ottoman siege of Vienna, which still echoes through the European subconscious, although the essential truth was that the two opponents were geographically too far apart to do each other much damage. It took the Ottoman army four months to march from Istanbul to Vienna in 1529, so there were only two weeks left for the actual siege. When you compare this with the six months that it took the Ottomans to reduce the city of Rhodes, the seriousness of the attack on Vienna is put in perspective. There was, however, another time for the Ottomans to show the Austrians how efficient they were as an army of engineers. The siege trenches were cut in double-quick time and artillery batteries established, but then it was time to pack up tools and return home. Nor was there any great disparity in armaments or siege-craft between the two sides. If anything, the Germans alone had a slight technical edge over the Ottoman janissaries, for they were the acknowledged world leaders in mining and smelting.