Battle of Vienna 1683
News of the Turkish advance reached Vienna in garbled bulletins. Early reports of what was in fact a skirmish at the rear of the retreating Austrian army which had required the intervention of its commander, the Duke of Lorraine, came out as news of a ghastly rout. People began packing. The Emperor Leopold was very prone to take the advice of the last person he had spoken to; he now tried to determine whether his imperial duty was to remain in the city and risk the enemy, or to retire. When he was finally pressed to leave with the imperial family on 7 July, the royal party found itself sneaking along between the night-fires of Tartar encampments.
The city’s fortifications had been improved over the years, but not urgently; now stocks of grain in the city were examined, the crown jewels were removed for safe keeping, and the fortifications were reinforced by teams of city burghers and labourers. Money to pay the troops and men in the city was raised partly from loans made by departing grandees, partly by sequestering the assets of the Primate of Hungary, who was living safely elsewhere. On 13 July the city commander, Stahremberg, had the glacis, or outer wall, cleared of houses which had grown up around it over the years, in defiance of the law, in order to give the attackers no cover.
He was just in time. By the next day, Kara Mustafa was encamped before the city. Behind the glorious order of the camp, the magnificence of the tents themselves, and the quiet industry of the men, lay a brilliant feat of organisation, perfected over centuries; established now with such finality that to the men on Vienna’s walls it seemed as if the Turks meant to erect another city beside it. Vienna had taken a thousand years to grow; the Ottomans eclipsed it in two days. Kara Mustafa had a garden planted in front of his own quarters – a succession of tents, of silk and cotton, strewn with rich carpets, with lobby tents and sleeping tents and latrines and public meeting rooms, as gorgeous as any palace.
Immediately, the Turks began digging towards deep trenches, often roofed in timber and earth, which allowed them to approach the walls under cover. This digging made the siege memorable: the methodical extension, inch by inch, of a network of tunnels and trenches. The besieging army had very little artillery, and none heavy enough to penetrate the defensive walls: because the walls would have to be breached for an assault to succeed, all depended on laying mines. Meanwhile the Turks’ light cannon fired on the city. Stahremberg escaped serious injury when he was hit on the head by a piece of stone. The paving stones inside the city were dug up, partly to soften the effect of cannon balls falling in the street, and partly to help repair the walls. Yet even in these desperate circumstances, when it seemed the fate of Christendom hung in the balance, the commander found himself having to warn Viennese women from stealing out of the city and trading bread for vegetables with the Turkish soldiers.
To deal with the Turkish mines, the defenders resorted to furious sallies, in which a group of soldiers would rush out and attempt to damage as much of the enemy earthworks as possible. The classic response, though, was to countermine, and the defenders in this case had to invent the science for themselves, taking warfare away from noise and light and into the quiet bowels of the earth: listening for the sound of digging; making their own tunnels, hoping to break into the enemy tunnels – ghastly hand-to-hand fights in tight little holes underground. It was then, according to legend, that the city bakers saved Vienna: for early one morning, standing beside their bread ovens, they heard the tell-tale noise of Turkish tunnellers, and alerted the defence in the nick of time; which feat they commemorated by baking little crescent buns, or croissants.
And for those above ground, the waiting. On 12 August an eerie hush fell over the city and the camp; both sides waiting, listening. Early that afternoon there was a huge uprush of earth and stone as a Turkish mine silently laid beneath the outer moat threw up a huge causeway against the ravelin wall, up which fifty men could march abreast. Soon Turkish standards were planted on the wall. The fall of Vienna could not be long in coming.
Away from the city, Tartar and Turkish horsemen harried the countryside. The Austrians sent frantic pleas to the Polish king, Jan Sobieski, and to the German princes. Some of the princes struck good bargains – the Habsburgs, in effect, bought their troops, and saved them the expense of keeping standing armies at home. The Elector of Saxony made the mistake of promising aid before negotiating terms, and never forgave himself. In Poland, Jan Sobieski began a weary round of bargaining with his overmighty nobility, many of whom were in the pay of France, which viewed the storm breaking around its old Habsburg enemy with profound and scarcely Christian satisfaction.
As summer turned to autumn, the Christian coalition slowly came together: agonisingly slowly for the people of Vienna, who had been left with no means of communicating with the outside world – no system of flags or fires had been established before the Turks cut the lines of communication with the court and the army. But meanwhile the inaction of the Grand Vizier became curiously apparent. The outer walls were breached; the inner walls were crumbling; now, if ever, was the time for the blood-curdling general assault that Ottoman troops were accustomed to make as soon as a breach appeared: when eager volunteers would fling themselves forward, wear down the enemy’s defences, and, martyring themselves in their hundreds, provide a slippery footing for the fresh professional troops who closed in for the kill. Nothing of the sort was happening now; always the eerie, slow, methodical trenching and mining.
Kara Mustafa has been roundly criticised ever since for this slowness to attack. Perhaps he was over-confident of victory; certainly he is said to have disbelieved reports of a meeting between Lorraine and the King of Poland, with their armies a few days’ march away. If Kara Mustafa had been a better general, or Stahremberg less energetic, or Sobieski less chivalrous, or if the French had rattled their sabres on the Rhine with a little more vigour to pin down the German princes, Vienna would have become an Ottoman bridgehead from which to soften and break down the resistance of Central Europe. When the King of Poland did see the Ottoman camp he wrote that ‘the general of an army, who had neither thought of entrenching himself nor concentrating his forces, but lies encamped as if we were hundreds of miles from him, is predestined to be beaten’.
The Grand Vizier seems to have believed that the city was on the point of surrender. A city stormed, according to Muslim law, was to be given over to plunder for three days and nights before authority stepped in – to take possession of the ruins. A city which surrendered, however, was inviolate, and everything in it belonged to the state. The Grand Vizier doubtless hoped to bring the wealth and revenues of Vienna and its dependencies into the service of the sultan, rather than squandering them on the soldiers and inheriting a desert. Meanwhile, however, the Christian allies were moving up, presenting poor Emperor Leopold with yet another difficult decision. Should he head the army? Would it not be better to avoid riding amongst all these warlike princes and remain, instead, imperially aloof? As ever, unable to make either decision, he took both at once, and so dithered on the Danube, halfway between Vienna and his new headquarters at Passau. It didn’t matter: the German armies were already ahead of him. By early September they had begun taking possession of the heights north and west of the city, from which the Christian troops could survey both the spires of Vienna and the gorgeous pavilions of the Turkish encampment.
On 4 September, a mine blew a big hole in the inner wall of the city; whole lengths began crumbling. Belated assaults were launched with increasing ferocity upon these breaches; but overnight the citizens did their best to repair the holes, and fought back with equal ferocity, although the effects of the siege were beginning to tell. Butcher’s meat had run out; vegetables were scarce; families sat down to donkey and cat. The elderly and weak began dying, and disease stalked the unpaved streets. Even Stahremberg fell ill.
Kara Mustafa should never have allowed the enemy to occupy the ridges surrounding his camp virtually unopposed, and he ought to have spared some of his sappers for digging trenches around the camp, to help break a cavalry charge and to give his own musketeers cover. Perhaps he relied on the broken ground, the endless dips and hollows and ravines which broke the hillsides.
On the night of the eleventh, the Germans were in position to the north of the city, with the Danube to their left. In the morning the battle began, the German infantry advancing from one ridge to the next in the wake of their big guns. Co-ordination was difficult. Whole companies of men vanished for hours on end into some ravine, and horsemen and infantry became hopelessly entangled.
The Turks put up an improvised but furious resistance, and the battle raged until noon, when a sort of lull occurred, occasioned partly by the expectation of the Poles’ arrival on the Christian right wing. At one o’clock a shout of triumph – or relief – came from the German wing as they saw the Poles emerge onto the plain through a narrow defile, and make their way forward against stiff Turkish opposition.
There was a brief discussion among the Christian commanders over whether the battle should be pressed today, or not; everyone was for going on. ‘I am an old man,’ said one Saxon general, ‘and I want comfy quarters in Vienna tonight.’
He got them: the Turkish camp, suddenly stormed, collapsed. Kara Mustafa himself fled, with most of his money and the sacred standard of the Prophet. The hapless sappers in the trenches turned to find themselves assailed from the rear. Sobieski at the head of the Polish army broke into the camp while the German regiments strove to catch up: Sobieski and his men secured most of the booty of that day. Never had a Turkish camp been so suddenly overthrown.
The besieging army was routed and chased down the Danube all the way to Belgrade, and the Ottomans suffered their first decisive loss of territory to a Christian foe. Kara Mustafa must have hoped to reach his sovereign in Belgrade, in order to explain the débácle to Sultan Mehmet in person. It was a bitter blow to learn that the Sultan had already departed for Edirne. Less than noble in defeat, Kara Mustafa blamed, and executed, scores of his own officers. It was from Edirne, a few weeks later, that an imperial messenger reached the Grand Vizier. Kara Mustafa did not wait to read the command. ‘Am I to die?’ he asked. ‘It must be so,’ the messengers replied. ‘So be it,’ he said, and washed his hands. Then he bowed his head for the strangler’s bowstring.
Kara Mustafa’s head, as custom required, was delivered to the Sultan in a velvet bag.
The Koprulu family, though, survived the disgrace, and two more scions of the dynasty were to be invested in office. The last to hold the vizierate, Amdjazade Huseyin Pasha, died in 1703, ill and despondent: he had cut unnecessary taxes and drastically reduced the numbers of palace men and janissaries on the payroll, combing the timar registers for irregularities; he had managed to steady the currency; but he left office beset by enemies who gathered around the Grand Mufti himself.
Hereditary rank was no substitute for the stern-minded meritocracy of former years. The Koprulu line had already grown degenerate when the bookish and etiolated Nuuman Koprulu became obsessed with a fly he imagined had settled on the end of his nose, ‘which indeed flew away when he scared it, but returned again immediately to the same place’. All Constantinople’s physicians made efforts to cure him of the delusion, but it was Le Duc, a French physician, who solemnly agreed that he saw the fly, and made the pasha take a few ‘innocent juleps, under the name of purging and opening medicines; at last, he drew a knife gently along his nose, as if he was going to cut off the fly, and then shewed him a dead fly which he had kept in his hand for that purpose: whereupon Nuuman Pasha immediately cried out “this is the very fly which has so long plagued me”: and thus he was perfectly cured.’
An inordinate number of places preserve the memory of the Turkish wars, like bladderwrack left by a receding tide. In Austria you may hear the Türkenglocken, peals which once were rung to warn of an impending akinci raid. In German museums you may find the whips and scourges by which wandering men allayed the Great Fear. In Transylvania, churches are built like fortresses, and it was the custom, well into this century, for every local family to deposit, each year, a flitch of bacon or sack of flour in the storerooms built within the walls, against the possibility of a Tartar raid.
Kosovo was so often a theatre of war that even now it rumbles with discontent, and the Albanians who moved or returned there after the great exodus of Serbs to Austria in the seventeenth century retain a prickly and dangerous hostility to the Serbs who govern them now. Men in the Serbian army that passed through in 1911 stooped to unlace their boots, and crossed it barefoot so not to disturb the souls of their fallen forebears. A huge pile of masonry, approached by 234 steps, now sits atop the pass at Sumla in Bulgaria, to commemorate the passage of Soviet armies in the spring of 1944; but its purpose was to evoke the memory of Russian armies in the autumn of 1779, when Diebitsch avoided the pass and wound his way around almost to Edirne, with a force that everyone supposed, from its martial confidence as much as anything, to amount to 100,000 men, so that the Turks sued for a disastrous peace whose terms gave rise to the Crimean War half a century later, while in fact Diebitsch led an army of perhaps 13,000, wasted by disease.
Often the scene of battle is softly commemorated, by people who have long since forgotten the terror of the day: in St Gotthard, the battle of 1674 is remembered in a café sign; and Vienna 1683, the great lost opportunity for Ottoman arms, is remembered in a croissant: the head of the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa, who besieged the city, lies somewhere in the vaults of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where it used to be displayed on a cushion, in a cabinet, before curators in our lily-livered age chose to hide it from the public gaze.
The sixteen years of war which followed the reverse at Vienna were full of military disasters for the Ottoman Empire. The Austrian armies expelled the Ottomans from Hungary. Venetian troops, led by that Morosini who had surrendered nobly at Candia, took the Peloponnese. In 1687 a defeat at the hands of the Austrians at Mohacs, the scene of Suleyman’s great victory in the previous century, rebounded on the pleasure-loving Sultan Mehmet IV, who was deposed in favour of another Suleyman, his brother. On 20 August 1688 the citadel at Belgrade surrendered to the Austrians; Nis a year later; and in this crisis, with the enemy circling for a push into the heart of the Balkans, the Ottomans rallied under a new Grand Vizier, brother to Fazil Ahmet, Fazil Mustafa. He managed to push the Austrians out of Serbia, but he died gloriously (if ineptly), sword in hand, at the battle of Peterwaradin in 1691. Suleyman II had died that year; his successor Ahmet II was to die of grief and shame in 1695; and at last, in 1699, the belligerents accepted a peace, mediated by the English ambassador to the Porte.
The treaty of Karlowitz was signed on the general principle of ‘uti possidetis’: that matters should be fixed as they stood. The Habsburg emperor was recognised as sovereign of Transylvania, and most of Hungary. Poland recovered Podolia and her fortress at Kaminiec. Venice retained the Peloponnese, and made gains in Dalmatia. Russia was a reluctant party to the peace: she kept the Sea of Azov behind the ear of the Crimea, and lands north, which she had seized in 1696. The empire which barely a generation earlier had challenged Vienna lost half its European dominions at a stroke; and what perhaps was worse, her cover was blown, her weakness revealed, and her importance, in the world’s eyes, was now almost wholly diplomatic.