The Gates of Vienna

Under the pretext of assisting Protestant Hungarian rebels against the Catholic Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor, Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire sent a massive army of over 200,000 to seize the southern gateway to Central Europe, the Austrian capital of Vienna. As in the Siege of Vienna in 1529, Emperor Leopold I assumed that the Ottomans needed to seize the fortresses in Hungary along the Danube in order to float their heavy artillery down the river to successfully besiege the city. He fortified and reinforced Vaag, Raab and Commore downstream from Vienna, only to have the Ottoman army under Grand Vizier Kara Mustapha Pasha surprisingly move overland from Belgrade and strike directly at the heart of Christian resistance to Ottoman expansion in Europe, Vienna. “The head of the snake”, in Kara Mustapha’s words.

In the late 17th century the Ottoman Empire was both simultaneously the splendid and all-powerful Caliphate of Islam, and showing the first signs of becoming the “Sick Man of Europe” as the Ottoman Empire was known later in the 19th century. In the late 17th century Ottoman society stagnated and further conquests had been checked and rolled back in the Northeast and East by an aggressive Imperial Russian Tsardom, in the Middle East by the Safavid Persians, in the Indian Ocean by Portuguese sailors, and in the Mediterranean by the galleys of Spain, Italy, and the Maltese Knights. Only in Transylvania, Hungary and the Ukraine had the viziers of the sultan had any success conquering territory in the name of Islam.

Kara Mustapha was the latest of a long line of the aggressive and competent Albanian Köprülü viziers, and he was by far the most ambitious. He recognized that the Ottoman Empire must expand or its internal governmental and organizational fallacies would bring the Empire down. He saw himself as the future ruler of the heartland of Europe in the name of the sultan. He boasted that he “would water his horses in St. Peter’s Square” and “turn the Basilica into a mosque”. Sultan Mehmed IV, who was enjoying the fruits of being the most powerful man in Islam (his personal hunting grounds were larger than modern day Bulgaria and his personal harem was in the tens of thousands) gave a green silk cord tied as a noose to Kara Mustapha: seize Vienna or strangle yourself. Kara Mustapha wore it around his neck, day and night.

By advancing overland, Mustapha gambled that he could take Vienna before reinforcements from the Empire’s Circles (Circles were an administrative unit of the Holy Roman Empire e.g. Franconian Circle, Bavarian Circle etc.) or a relief force from Poland arrived. Although the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was normally a staunch ally of the Holy Roman Empire’s arch rival, France, the Commonwealth’s elected King Jan III Sobieski signed the Treaty of Warsaw that spring and vowed to come to Vienna’s aid if the Turk’s besieged it, as Leopold was if the same befell Krakow. But Krakow was a long way from Vienna and it took time to assemble a large enough army to do battle with Mustapha and relieve the city. Kara Mustapha’s surprise overland move on Vienna would have been successful had it not been for three men: Prince Hieronim Lubomirski, Count Ernst von Starhemberg, and the Capuchin friar Marco d’Aviano.

When Mustapha’s Tartar foraging parties were spotted just two day’s ride from Vienna in early July, Emperor Leopold I hastily departed for Linz, entrusting the defense of city to Starhemberg, the military governor of Vienna, and Leopold’s spiritual advisor Marco d’Aviano. Although Vienna was unprepared for a siege, Starhemberg leveled Vienna’s vulnerable suburbs, quickly evacuated most of citizenry, tallied and secured the arms and stores, and tirelessly established the defense and organized the remaining civilians into a militia. The Imperial commander, Charles V Duke of Lorraine gave Starhemberg 1/3 of the Imperial army, about 12,000 men, to defend the walls and man Vienna’s 380 cannon, before he withdrew further into Austria with the remainder to await and gather further reinforcements. The first reinforcements were 3000 Poles under Lubomirski who immediately forced marched from Poland upon news of Mustapha departing Belgrade, and arrived in Vienna just before the Turks invested the town on 15 July 1683.

Mustapha sent the traditional offer of submission to Islam to spare Vienna, but Starhemberg refused, and would have even if he wasn’t just recently informed of the slaughter at Perchtoldsdorf, a town just south of Vienna which had accepted Mustapha’s offer, whose inhabitants were massacred anyway. The Turks then tried to bombard Vienna into submission, but without their heavy artillery, was outgunned by the numerous cannon protruding from Vienna’s Walls. Mustapha settled into a siege, and on the advice of his French mercenary engineers and artillerists, ordered his men to dig trenches and his sappers to dig mines. He aimed to break the walls of Vienna from below, the defenders with constant assault, and the will of the population with isolation and propoganda.

Marco d’Aviano was the rock upon which the morale of Vienna sat. Under his leadership, he and the Catholic priests of Vienna gave twice daily sermons to the troops and civilians in the city extolling the virtues of continued resistance. They were the front line in the war against treachery from within and broke up at least one plot to secretly open a small gate to a force of elite Turkish Janissaries. D’Aviano and Starhemberg took Turkish propaganda head on and read aloud leaflets proclaiming promises from Mustapha if the city was surrendered. They had only to point at Perchtoldsdorf and the other broken promises of the Ottoman Empire.

Most able bodied citizens were formed into a militia which Starhemberg skillfully intermixed with his Imperial professionals. Every day and night he visited the sentries on the walls. When Mustapha’s trenches crept closer and the countermining failed to prevent the Turks from breaching the walls, the tireless Starhemberg was there to plug the gap or oversee the repairs. One furious assault in early September was thrown back only because of a desperate countercharge by Starhemberg at the head of a company of shoemaker apprentices. Usually, at his side was the stalwart Lubomirski, whose Poles formed the shock troops that sealed the breaches from the inside. His men were used to the deprivations of a city under siege and provided a stoic example for the citizens of Vienna to emulate. More importantly, Lubomirski and his Poles represented a concrete manifestation of King Sobieski’s promise to come to the city’s aid. No matter how cunning and steadfast the defense of the city, Vienna would eventually fall without assistance from the outside.

In the beginning of September, King Sobieski arrived with his army at Hollabrunn, Austria, where he took command of the 24,000 strong Imperial army under the Duke of Lorraine and 28,000 Germans from Swabia, Bavaria, Saxony and Franconia under Georg Frederich, the Prince of Waldeck to form a united coalition to relieve Vienna. Though the Duke of Lorraine, as the senior representative of Emperor Leopold and the host nation, was entitled to the command (He also narrowly lost the election to the Polish throne to Sobieski years before), and Price Waldeck brought the most troops, both agreed that Sobieski was the most qualified to defeat the Turks. The Turks referred to Sobieski as “The Lion of Lechistan” for his victory at the Battle of Chocim and had defeated all comers, Islam and Christian, for the past decade and a half. Just twenty years before, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was subsumed by its enemies in a period known as “The Deluge”, when the armies of Sweden, Brandenburg, Austria, Transylvania, Ottomans, Cossacks, Tartars, and Russians completely overran the country. Sobieski was instrumental in the Commonwealth clawing back from that catastrophe. In the late summer of 1683, King Jan III Sobieski was at the head of a coalition army trying to save Christendom from the advances of the Islamic Caliphate.

On 6 September 1683, the army inexplicably crossed the Danube with no resistance at Tulin just 30km from Vienna, even though Mustapha’s Tartar light cavalry under his greatest cavalry commander, Khan Murad Giray of Crimea, observed their every movement. Any delay at this point would have been fatal. Just two days later, Mustapha’s sappers breached the wall and his Janissaries occupied the Burg bastion and the Burg ravelin, and were poised to break through the Löbel bastion. The final tunnels under the Löbel bastion were nearing completion; their detonation would doom Vienna. No matter how valiant the defense by Starhemberg and Lubomirski, the loss of two bastions would allow Mustapha to overwhelm the exhausted and beleaguered garrison. However, a Ruthenian noble under Lubomirski, Jerzy Kulczycki, volunteered to sneak through the Turkish lines to contact Lorraine and returned with news of Sobieski’s imminent arrival, which redoubled Starhemberg’s countermining efforts.

Mustapha gambled again that his sappers could blow the Löbel bastion and take Vienna before the coalition army could relieve the siege. It was a good bet. Sobieski still had to make the approach, and then traverse the ravine and stream crossed Wienerwald (Vienna Wood) before he could attack. Moreover, as Sobieski was granted the position of honor in the line, the right, the Polish army had to climb the Kahlenburg, a steep, rocky hill that Mustapha assumed was impassable to cavalry and cannon.

On the 9th and 10th of September, Polish peasants and soldiers dragged their 131 cannon over the Kahlenburg not wanting to waste the horses on such an arduous task. Two ropes were tied to each gun with 20-30 men pulling on each while an equal number pushed the spokes of each wheel. It was painful and backbreaking work which even the nobles, including the King, participated in. On the afternoon of 11 September, the Polish army lit fires and shot flares into the air to alert the garrison of Vienna that salvation was near. That evening, Sobieski and his Poles came down the Kahlenburg, again without harassment from the Tartars.

Murad was held back by Mustapha, who was preoccupied with the sappers’ progress and refused to believe the Tartar reports. The Khan, offended by his treatment, took his men and rode home, on the eve of the battle.

At 4 am on 12 September, 1683, the Polish cannon with their commanding position on the Kahlenburg fired into the Turkish camp signaling the beginning of the Battle of Vienna. On the left of the coalition line, Lorraine’s Imperial troops were the first to engage, followed quickly by Waldeck in the center. The Poles, reorganizing after the trip over the Kahlenburg, engaged soon thereafter. The battle was a slow process as the ground was cut by vineyards and low walls, each of which was stoutly defended by the Turks. However, Mustapha held back his best troops, the Sipahi’s and Janissaries, from the battle in anticipation of the imminent breach of Vienna’s walls.

The coalition pounded forward. Nevertheless, the Turk’s still outnumbered the attacking Christians. The battle continued all morning and all afternoon. Sobieski counseled his commanders that the objective of the day was to establish an advantageous position from which to begin the next day’s battle. He informed them that no battle of this magnitude could possibly be won in a single day. The broken terrain they were fighting over must be cleared before Sobieski’s trump card, the famed Polish Winged Hussars, could be unleashed to break the Turks.

All afternoon Lorraine and Waldeck begged Sobieski to charge as the Turks begrudgingly relinquished yard by painful yard. Sobieski wouldn’t relent: a premature charge would waste the striking power of the Hussars, who so far had never lost a battle. In a land that prided itself on its cavalry, the Husaria were a cut above. Only the richest and most competent of horsemen could afford and handle the accouterments of the Husaria. Armoured in a thick Sarmatian breastplate and a Germano/Roman helmet on the heaviest warhorse in Europe, the Polish Hussars were dedicated to the shock value of the charge. Heavily armed with an 18ft lance, a longsword like the knights of old, a sabre like any good Polish nobleman, a battle axe or Cossack warhammer for the melee, and a carbine and a brace of pistols like their contemporaneous French musketeers, the Husaria were meant for one thing and one thing only – to break an army with their charge.

The Husaria’s most distinctive feature was not their armour or weaponry, but their panoply. On his back, the well-to-do Husaria could afford a bear, lion, tiger, or even an exotic leopard or jaguar skin. This exotic cape fluttered between wooden poles on which flew hawk, eagle, falcon, and even ostrich feathers: The “wings” of the Polish Hussars. The purpose of the Husaria’s wings are a subject of much scholarly debate. Originally it was thought that the whistling of the wings unnerved enemy troops and horses. Also, the wooden uprights to which the feathers were attached were thought to prevent Turkish lassos from pulling riders from their saddles. More recent scholarship has accepted that that they just looked bad ass and scared the living shit out of those they were about to break. Whatever the reason, when the Polish Husaria charged, the enemy that survived took notice and usually fled – that is a historical fact.

The German, Imperial, and Polish infantry and cavalry pounded the Turkish lines, but still Sobieski would not release his hussars, much to the dismay of those who had fought face to face with the determined Turkish defense for almost twelve straight hours. At 4 pm, just an hour or so before the sun set which would bring an end to the fighting, the first breakthroughs occurred. Both Waldeck and then Lorraine reported that the walls and vineyards were cleared, followed closely by Sobieski’s own Poles. However, was there enough daylight to finish the battle before Mustapha’s sappers blew the mines under the Löbel bastion?

Sobieski, observing the disorganization in the Turkish lines and camp before him, gambled that there was. He ordered the Polish Hussars to charge, and every Pole, Austrian, and German with a horse to follow.

At 4:30 pm, 12 September 1683, 3000 Polish Winged Hussars, followed by 20,000 Polish Panzerini and Kozacy, Austrian and German Ritters, and any coalition fighter with a horse, charged the Turkish lines. The battle was in doubt for but minutes. The largest cavalry charge in history passed through the Turkish lines, then the Turkish camp, and didn’t stop until it was at the Gates of Vienna, five miles away. Upon seeing the effects of the charge, Starhemberg and Lubomirski sortied with the entire garrison and struck the elite Turkish Janissaries and Sipahis as they formed to stop the Husaria. The starving civilians of Vienna followed closely behind, fell upon the Turkish camp, especially the herds of cow and buffalo which they butchered on the spot, and ate their fill.

For but a brief moment, all of Christendom was united in celebration of the victory over the Ottoman Turks at the Gates of Vienna. King Jan III Sobieski was accompanied by Starhemberg and Lubomirski around the city to the rousing crowds of jubilant Viennese. The Viennese bakers created a fluffy crescent shaped pastry in honor of the victory over Islam which we know today as the “croissant.” And for the hardier folk, the Jewish bakers boiled some dough in a circle in honor of the stirrups of the Polish cavalry. Today, we call them “bagels”. Kulczycki would eventually go on to open Vienna’s first cappuccino café after the battle with 200 sacks of coffee beans captured from the Turkish camp. With the all the magnificent plunder about, no one wanted the beans but Kulczycki. Vienna had coffee cafés previously, but Kulczycki’s was the first to serve the bitter liquid with sweetened steamed milk. He opened the “Blue Bottle Coffee House” and it was an immediate hit. (The café is still there, and yes, I’ve been there.) Word of the victory sparked wild celebration in Rome, Krakow, Hamburg and Frankfurt, and even London and Paris. But it was not to last.

Lorraine quickly sent word to Emperor Leopold that he needed to return promptly so that Sobieski wasn’t recognized as the savior of Vienna. German and Austrian contemporary accounts and later German historians would roll Lubomirski’s exploits into Starhemberg’s, and excise him completely from the historic record. Leopold was offended at Sobieski’s triumphal parade through Vienna and forbade any monument dedicated to him in the city. Waldeck was relegated to a Hapsburg puppet, instead of the leader of a large contingent of fiercely independent Germans who took on the brunt of Kara Mustapha’s defense and allowed the Polish cavalry to seize the day.

The Christian participants went on to form the Holy League against the Turks and reconquered Hungary, Transylvania, and parts of Serbia from the Ottomans. The battle signaled the Ottoman Empire’s irrevocable decline and they would never again threaten Europe.

Kara Mustapha Pasha, the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, did not escape his green cord – the Sultan’s assassins strangled him in Belgrade on Christmas Day, 1683.

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