For more than a month, the 1500 Knights of St John, Spanish and Italian knights, and Maltese militia held the exposed Fort St. Elmo across the harbor from the Maltese Knights’ main defenses at Fort St. Michael, Fort St Angelo, and the towns of Birgu and Senglea. Ft St Elmo was an anchor point for the great chain that blocked the harbor’s entrance and the Turks had to take it.
Forty great siege guns pounded the fort but the Knights were able to repair and reinforce St Elmo by boat at night from across the harbor. On 3 June 1565, Dragut Reis, the greatest of the Turkish commanders, managed to get trenches and guns to cover the water approach. Furthermore, he lashed galleys together and built a platform on the great chain over which he could pass small galliots packed with archers. This completely cut off the fort and made any resupply a major operation using resources the Knights could no longer afford. On 9 June, its commander said it would fall within days and asked that the position be evacuated. Jean Parisot La Vallette, the indomitable commander of the Order, knew that every day Fort St Elmo held was another day closer to the Spanish relief, wrote back, “If you cannot find it in yourself to die for Jesus Christ and St John, then I will send men who will.” The Fort of St. Elmo held strong for another two weeks.
The constant bombardment reduced Fort St Elmo to rubble, and repeated Turkish assaults captured its entirety except for buildings of the inner courtyard and church. On 23 June 1565, Pasha Mustapha, who replaced Dragut Reis when he was mortally wounded by a cannonball, ordered the final assault. The Janissaries assembled within yards of the Knights, just out of pike range, because the Knights had long been out of powder for their harquebuses. The Knights sold themselves dearly as La Vallette watched from St Angelo. The last thing La Vallette saw through his telescope, was the Italian knight Francesco Lanfreducci laying about with a massive two handed sword underneath the banner of St. John. Lanfreducci managed to light the fire signaling the imminent fall of the fort before being swarmed by Turks, and the banner was quickly replaced by the Ottoman standard.
That night, the Turks mutilated and killed any survivors, less several knights for interrogation, and only a few Maltese militiamen escaped by swimming across the harbor. Mustapha ordered 1000 bodies nailed to makeshift crosses in a grim parody of the Crucifixion, and floated them across the harbor to demoralize the remaining defenders. On the morning of 24 June, the feast day of the Order’s patron, St John the Baptist, the bodies came ashore near St Angelo. But it did not have the promised effect. The infuriated La Vallette ordered all Turkish prisoners marched to the walls and beheaded in full view of the Turkish siege lines. And then their heads were fired out of cannons into the Turkish trenches.
The Great Siege of Malta would not be a repeat of the relatively chivalrous and “civilized” Siege of Rhodes. Both sides knew the stakes involved and there would be no quarter.
After the capture of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Turks took up the banner of Sunni Islam and their jihad exploded across Europe, Asia, and Africa for the next 100 years. By 1565, Ottoman expansion by land had slowed considerably. After conquering the Balkans, the Ottomans ran into the powerful Hapsburg Empire and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to the north. To the south lay the Sahara Desert and jungles of Central Africa. And to the east were the powerful Shia Safavid Persians. These obstacles required more deliberate preparations. Only to the West, via the Mediterranean Sea, would an advance prove relatively easier. In 1564, the greatest of the Ottoman sultans, Suleiman the Magnificent, authorized the seaborne invasion of Italy.
The Eastern Mediterranean was already an Ottoman lake, but to cut off Italy from Hapsburg Spain (flush with gold from the New World) required the domination of the Western Mediterranean. Once done, the isolated warring city states and petty kingdoms of the Italian peninsula would be easy prey. There was only one problem: the tiny island of Malta. Malta was situated in the narrowest part of the Sea between Sicily and Tunisia, which blocked any real access for large fleets to the West. Malta was like a fishbone stuck in the throat of the Mediterranean, doubly so because it was the possession of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, or the Knights Hospitaller, the last of the crusading orders.
The Knights of Malta, as they were known, were Christianity’s rear guard in the disastrous crusades of the last 500 years. Created to protect Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land during the First Crusade, they were at the forefront of every major battle and present at every major retreat. They were thrown out of the Holy Land, off the island of Rhodes, and found their new home on the island of Malta, from which they continued the fight against Muslim expansion.
In the sixteenth century, the Knights of Malta no longer went to war on horses, but in galleys. The white cross on blood red background was a feared sight to Ottomans, whose warships were given no quarter, and merchant ships were turned over to their newly freed galley slaves (which invariably meant the slaughter of the Muslim crew). Moreover, they were on the forefront of sixteenth century military efficacy. The Maltese Knights blended a unique mix of Western land technology and Eastern naval technology. Though few in number, they were the Pope’s and Christianity’s first and only reliable defense against the Ottomans in the Mediterranean.
In May 1565, the Knights of Malta were on their own. Their leader, the indomitable 71 year old Jean de La Valette amassed 700 Maltese Knights, 600 Spanish and Italian knights, 2700 men at arms, and 3000 armed Maltese civilians to defend island. They occupied the three forts, Fort St. Michael, Fort St. Angelo, and the exposed Fort St. Elmo, that guarded the all-important harbor on the north side of the island (Valetta Harbor today). On 18 May 1565, La Valette’s archrival, the Ottoman corsair admiral Dragut-Reis, arrived off Malta with Grand Vizier Mustapha Pasha and 213 ships and 48,000 warriors, including 8000 of the Sultan’s own Janissaries.
The last land battle of the Crusades had begun.
In 1704, Louis XIV reigned over France’s Golden Age. France was at its most influential, and he was easily the most absolutely powerful man on the planet. With the death of Spain’s Carlos V, Louis was poised to place his grandson, Charles, on the vacant thrown. This paved the way for a Franco-Spanish Union which would marry French military strength with Spanish New World gold and create the world’s first hyperpower. The rest of Europe could not allow this, and they declared war in what was called The War of Spanish Succession, or Queen Anne’s War (after the British monarch) in North America.
In the Spring of 1704, Louis ordered an invasion of Austria, one of the key members of the opposing Grand Alliance. Prince Eugene of Savoy, knowing his army could not face the Franco-Bavarian horde alone, asked for aid from his life long friend: John Churchill, the First Duke of Marlborough.
Through a simple deception operation, Marlborough disengaged from the French in the Low Countries and marched his Anglo-Dutch army 500 miles into Bavaria, picking up troops from allied German principalities of the Holy Roman Empire along the way. On 13 August 1704, Marlborough and Savoy’s Anglo-Austro-Dutch-German-Prussian-Imperial Army met Marshal Tallard’s Franco-Bavarian Army at the village of Blenheim on the Danube.
In the linear tactics of the day, the fight on the flanks was usually decisive, and Tallard reinforced his to the detriment of his center. Marlborough recognized the flaw and tied down most of the French with Savoy on the right and the rest pinned in the village on the left. By the afternoon, Tallard was sufficiently committed, and Marlborough struck at the center much as Napoleon would do 100 years later at Austerlitz. The French broke, Tallard was killed, and his army was destroyed.
The Battle of Blenheim was the turning point of the War of Austrian Succession. The war would be carried into France the next year. Louis would eventually fight the war to a draw and still place his grandson on the Spanish throne, but France’s power would be broken and Spain’s decline as a world power accelerated rapidly, giving rise to a global British empire. Finally, and most importantly, the Battle of Blenheim was the high watermark for Divine Absolutism as a viable form of government, at least until the rise of Socialist dictatorships in the 20th Century.
On 7 June, 1654, Louis the XIV was crowned King of France. Louis the Great would go on to rule France for 70 years, the longest of any European monarch. More importantly, he would have an assemblage of advisors and subordinates of such remarkable economic, military, and political ability and talent that it is only seen so very rarely in history. (Only the Diadochi, Genghis Khan’s generals, the Founding Fathers, and Napoleon’s Marshals come to mind.) His advisors included Cardinal Richelieu’s protégé Cardinal Jules Mazarin, the engineering mastermind Vauban, two of the best commanders of the 17th century the Great Conde and Marshal Turenne, the Queen-Mother Anne of Austria, and the diplomatic and financial geniuses of the Colbert brothers, Jean-Baptist and Charles. Led by Louis, they ruled France through her Golden Age. “French” would become the first “lingua franca” of Europe.
In the first half of the 17th Century, great changes were happening in Europe and the people wanted more say in how they were governed. In both England and France horrible civil wars occurred between those who supported royal power and those who supported parliamentarian power. In the English Civil War the Parliamentarians won and left a legacy of self-rule. But in France, the Fronde, as their civil war was called, the parliamentarians and their noble allies were crushed in 1653. A young Louis did not forget its lessons. He would be crowned king the next year.
Louis and his inordinately talented advisors spent the entirety of his reign expanding the power of the monarch. He blamed the Parliament of Paris for the Fronde and limited its power every chance he could, until he could abolish it permanently. He couldn’t do the same with the nobility so he neutralized them. He built the magnificent palace of Versailles, and then forced all of the heads of the noble families to live there. This effectively separated them from their lands and power, and prevented them from expanding any further. The competent ones he used to form Europe’s first bureaucracy, and the others he gave titles and duties, such as “The Royal Glovebearer” or “the Royal Cupbearer”. Louis kept the historically troublesome nobles close by, out of trouble, and carefully watched.
Louis the Great’s transition to absolute monarchy only succeeded because of his and his advisors complete dedication to France. He “gleamed like the Sun” through France’s Golden Age, but also sowed the seeds of its destruction. The Sun King slowed the development of parliamentary rule in Great Britain, and Louis’ dedication to France was not shared by his successors. The inevitable corruption and incompetence that results from absolute rule eventually brought about the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and the Napoleonic Wars.
After the Ottoman threat to the Hapsburg Holy Roman Empire diminished in the late 1680s, the Holy League turned its attention to Louis XIV’s France, who seized territory at the expense of the Christian nations of Europe fighting the Turks. They wanted to curb and roll back France’s expansion into the Low Countries and territories beyond the east bank of the Rhine, and solidify William of Orange’s victory in the Glorious Revolution to prevent Louis XIV from restoring James II to England’s thrown. To this end they formed the League of Augsburg, better known as the “Grand Alliance” in 1688 of the Holy Roman Empire, England, Scotland, the Dutch Republic, Sweden, and eventually Spain and the Italian state of Savoy. The War of the League of Augsburg, better known in North America as “King William’s War”, was fought over the next nine years and involved fighting on five continents and on the seas in between
Though Louis XIV’s massively expanded army won magnificent sieges and glorious battles, his marshals failed to reap any decisive reward. (Tis the problem with offensive operations by a force operating with interior lines of communication. See the Army of the Potomac after Gettysburg, spoiler: Lee escaped.) The Dauphin’s operations in Swabia in the spring of 1693 sputtered, and Louis’ advisors convinced the king to support newly promoted Marshal Catinat across the Alps in Italy. Catinat was then organizing an army to relieve the operationally vital city of Pinerolo in the Piedmont then invested by Duke Victor Amadeus II of Savoy, who was himself reinforced by Imperial troops. Louis agreed and sent his elite Gendarme galloping south.
On the morning of 4 October 1693, the Duke of Savoy lined up his polyglot army against the French relief force outside the village of Marsaglia. Savoy’s pan-European army included Milanese cavalry and Hungarian hussars (the first hussars in Western Europe, and soon adopted by all nations), Bavarian and German infantry, Savoyard, Spanish, Lombard and Neapolitan troops, Waldensian and Huguenot refugees, and Swiss, English and Flemish mercenaries. However, the language difficulties and uneven quality of Savoy’s troops allowed Catinat the time to organize his army so it could target specific points in Savoy’s line. Prior to the battle, Catinat meticulously arranged his line so there was overmatch by professional French units against lesser Allied formations. That morning, Savoy assaulted the French line, and was handily repulsed by the new regimental efficiency of the reformed French army.
Soon thereafter, the French counterattack broke Savoy’s army.
On the left, the heavy cavalry of the Gendarme under the Duke de Vendôme in a legendary countercharge scattered the Allies to their front in the midst of their own charge and then, without breaking stride, fell upon the Allied center in the flank. In the center, the Irish Brigade, consisting of Irish soldiers under French command by treaty (for an equal number of French soldiers fighting the English in Ireland), smashed through the Allied line. Concurrently, the entire French line surged forward in the first massed bayonet charge with socketed bayonets in history. Savoy’s army was destroyed in detail.
Duke Victor Amadeus II of Savoy lost 11,000 men compared to less than two thousand under Marshal Catinat. The Battle of Marsaglia was the single most lopsided victory of the War of the League of Augsburg and salvaged French martial prestige after a year of disappointment for Louis XIV. However, like most battles of the war, the French were unable to capitalize on the victory. The siege of Pinerolo was lifted, but since the battle happened so late in the fighting season, Catinat had to withdraw back across the Alps to winter in France. The Battle of Marsaglia did induce the young 29 year old Eugene of Savoy to seek reform of the Imperial armies, and he would become the Holy Roman Emperor’s greatest leader of men in the early 18th century.
However in 1693, the Battle of Marsaglia changed little – The War of the League of Augsburg/the Nine Years’ War/the War of the Grand Alliance/King William’s War dragged on inconclusively for another four years.
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.
In 1668, French King Louis XIV overran Spanish Netherlands (today’s Belgium) and Franche-Comté (Burgundy) in the War of Devolution but was shamefully forced to cede his conquests when the Triple Alliance of England, the Dutch Republic, and Sweden came to Spain’s aid. Louis XIV never forgave them and in 1672 invaded the Dutch Republic to chastise the merchant republic for interfering in the business of their betters. The Royal French Army, personally led by the king, reinvaded the Spanish Netherlands and on 13 June 1673, invested the fortress city of Maastricht. Maastricht was on the road from Liege to Cologne and critical to prevent disruption of his supply lines stretching back to France. Though Louis held overall command the architect of the siege was the 40 year old 17th century engineering genius, Sebastian Vauban.
By 40, Vauban had already had a long and glorious military career. The orphaned son of penniless minor nobility, Vauban was raised by his own peasants and fought with distinction against the king during the Fronde. Eventually captured, Vauban’s competence in military matters won him a commission and the eye of Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV chief advisor. Due to Mazarin’s benevolence, Vauban became a devoted soldier of the king. He rose through the ranks and his solid early childhood education in mathematics and geometry propelled him into the world of the royal engineers. Vauban had an uncanny knack for building fortifications, and even more so for bringing them down. Maastricht was his first command of a siege of a major city. It would not be his last.
Vauban’s mathematically precise and rational approach to sieges revolutionized siege warfare and its implementation for the next 200 years. “More gunpowder, less blood”, and dare I say, “more digging”, was his mantra. Once Vauban began, the reduction of the fortress was inevitable, unless of course they based on Vauban’s own designs. Maastricht was not so. Vauban ordered a series of parallel trenches dug connected by zig zagging communications trenches that prevented defenders from having a clear shot at the attackers. Once the trenches were close enough, mines could be dug and heavy mortars brought forward to reduce the city. In Maastricht’s case, this happened on 25 June 1673, and the assault on the Maastricht’s Tongere Gate was set for the next day.
The French assault was led by another of Mazarin’s protégés, Charles de Batz de Castelmore, the comte d’Artagnan. D’Artagnan was also a penniless minor noble. He arrived in Paris in 1630 to make a name for himself. Mazarin, who had a gift for talent management, took the young Gascon under his wing. D’Artagnan received a commission in the French Guards regiment, following quickly by a command in the king’s personal bodyguard, the King’s Musketeers. During and after the Fronde, d’Artagnan undertook many daring and successful covert and clandestine missions for the teenage Louis XIV, and the king never forgot. D’Artagnan was Louis’ most dedicated and loyal soldier. He rose to command the Musketeers and was easily identified across Paris by his burgundy, white and black livery, distinct from the blue and black of his men. D’Artagnan became one of Louis most trusted tactical commanders and assigned the most difficult missions. He rose to the rank of brigadier in command of several of the king’s most prestigious regiments. As the military governor of Lille, d’Artagnan longed to return to his men. The night Vauban announced that his trenches were complete, the 63ish year old veteran d’Artagnan volunteered to lead the assault.
The offer wasn’t vainglorious. Louis’ own Musketeers were to vanguard the assault. He trained those men and every one was like a brother or son. D’Artagnan wanted the assault to be the final crowning achievement of his career in the service of Louis XIV. It was.
On 25 June 1673, Charles de Batz de Castelmore, the comte d’Artagnan was shot through the throat leading the assault on Maastricht’s fortifications. He died later in the day. Louis XIV, deeply affected by the loss, arranged for a funeral mass to be held in his private chapel. The renowned French poet Saint-Blaize wrote a poem in honor of the old musketeer, the last lines of which were “d’Artagnan and glory share the same coffin.”
In less than a week, Maastricht surrendered to Louis XIV. On the battle he commented, “I lost d’Artagnan whom I trusted most completely and who was good to everyone.”
A few years later d’Artagnan’s life was fictionalized in Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras’ novel “Les mémoires de M. d’Artagnan”. 150 years later in the 19th century, that novel was read by a young French author, Alexandre Dumas. Dumas would further fictionalize d’Artagnan’s life in a newspaper serial. That serial was compiled and eventually became the novel, “The Three Musketeers”.
In 1643, the Thirty Years War raged across continental Europe for the past 25 years. In 1635, Catholic France joined with the Protestant Germans, Dutch and Scandinavians against their political rivals the Catholic Hapsburgs of Austria and Spain. The indomitable Cardinal Richelieu of France had been bankrolling Sweden and the Protestants for years, but after the disastrous Swedish defeat at Nordlingen, entered France into the war directly to prevent Hapsburg hegemony in all of its surrounding lands on the continent. In 1640, Richelieu started war against Spain “by diversion”, funding Catalan, Basque, Portuguese, and Dutch insurgents which he hoped would force Spain to sue for peace. By 1643, the plan was working.
Spain needed to defeat France quickly. Moreover, Cardinal Richelieu died that winter and Louis XIII fell horribly ill. So in the spring, a combined Spanish, German, Italian, and Walloon army marched on France through the Ardennes Forest to avoid the main French armies in Flanders, (I wonder if that would ever happen again…) and capitalize on the political confusion associated with the transfer of power and royal succession in Paris. The Spanish Army of Flanders under Francisco de Melo had invaded France through the Ardennes before and defeated the French at the Battle of Honnecourt in 1642. However, Melo decided not to proceed to Paris due to the training and suspect loyalties of his Walloon cavalry. He vowed not to make the same mistake again.
But this year the French were prepared. Melo stopped and invested the French fortified town of Rocroi to secure his line of communication back to Flanders. The garrison sent frantic messages that they could withstand the siege for but two days. Fortunately, the French army was at Amiens under the young 21 year old Louis II Duc d’Enghien and Prince de Conde, placed just so to stop any future penetration of the Ardennes (…). D’Enghien rushed to Rocroi to break the siege before a reinforcing column of Spanish arrived. During the march, D’Enghien learned via secret courier that the King died that evening, and the throne passed to four year old King Louis XIV and his regent, the Queen-mother Anne of Austria. He wisely kept the news from his men: the death of the king would shatter the morale of his army and a loss at Rocroi would send France into chaos.
On the evening of 18 May, both armies lined up opposite each other outside of Rocroi. That night, Melo infiltrated a thousand arquebusiers under his most trusted subordinate, General Baltasar de Mercader, to ambush the French when they inevitably attacked in the morning. However, D’Enghien might have been young, but he was not inexperienced. The Princes of Condé campaigned for the Bourbons since the day they could keep themselves in the saddle. D’Enghien encouraged deserters and exploited his coreligionist Spain’s use of Catholic Walloons, Germans, and Flemings in invading France, instead of fighting Protestants. The French were neighbors, the distant Spanish were not; one of the first signs of the rise of nation-state codified five years later in the Treaty of Westphalia. Deserters from Spain’s allies were rampant, and Melo’s ambush was discovered and annihilated before dawn. Those troops, and more consequently Mercader, Melo’s best infantry commander, were sorely missed the next day.
At dawn, the battle was joined. D’Enghien attacked with his pikemen, musketeers, and arquebusiers in the center, and with his cavalry on the right. The cavalry on his left he held back due to the marshy terrain. The infantry fight in the center devolved into a stalemate that favored the Spanish tercios. The Spanish tercios were the scourge of Europe for the last 150 years, virtually unbeatable on the battlefield in a head to head melee.
A tercio was a Spanish infantry formation that combined the defensive power of a phalanx of pikes with the offensive power of sword and buckler men and the firepower of protected arquebusiers. But the tercio required professional or highly trained troops to operate effectively, especially on the offense. After 25 years of constant warfare, the Spanish no longer had enough veterans, and had to rely on less disciplined and trained proxies to fill out their formations. This was compounded by technical advances in arquebuses, cannon, and the recent introduction of rifled barrels and early flintlock muskets.
The tercios’ density gave it an unquestionable resilience on the defensive, but that same density limited the amount of troops able to engage the enemy. In contrast, the French, Dutch, and most famously the Swedes, experimented with line and block formations: lines of musketeers supported by blocks of pikemen. The line and block formations were relatively easy to control, and allowed a much greater percentage of the formation to engage, albeit at the expense of depth. The French flexibility and firepower offset the Spanish durability. Unfortunately for the Spanish, the proud commander of the center, Paul-Bernard de Fontaines was bed ridden and had to be carried on a litter. Without an aggressive commander to push them forward, the fight in the center stalemated, something that rarely happened to the tercios. The question became, who would break first?
On the left, the impetuous French cuirassiers attacked without orders through the marsh, became disordered and were smashed by a counter charge of German cavalry. However, the commander of the Spanish right wheeled his men to attack the French center, and exposed his own flank in the process. D’Enghien promptly dispatched his reserve and stabilized his left.
On the right, the French cavalry was under command of Louis XIII’s most experienced, energetic, and finest cavalry tactician, and mentor and kindred spirit to D’Enghien, Jean de Gassion. Gaisson crushed the suspect Walloon horse of the Spanish left. But instead of wheeling to attack the center as the Spanish had, Gaisson and D’Enghien led the superior French cavalry and charged the weak and novice German and Italian tercios of Melo’s reserve. The inexperienced tercios promptly routed and Gaisson seized all of Melo’s cannon. The Spanish center was surrounded.
Melo, rushing hither and yon about the battlefield trying to rally his broken cavalry, had to seek refuge among his tercios lest he be captured by the marauding French cavalry, who had free rein of the battlefield beyond the thrust of a pike around the Spanish center. Melo joined an Italian tercio, where he vowed to “die with the Italian gentlemen.” However, before they broke and he died, he led them away in a fighting retreat, and escaped.
Fontaines and the Spanish center was attacked on all sides by the French and was down to just one Burgundian and four Spanish tercios. Despite the merciless pounding they received from the French musketeers, Fontaines decided to stay and fight. His remaining men were the hard core of the Spanish Army of Flanders and they would die before breaking. Fontaine would fight it out and wait for the reinforcing column. The 6000 fresh troops would break D’Enghien’s weary men and rescue Fontaines. However, the reinforcing column stopped just three miles from the battlefield when it was met by the routed Germans and Walloons who told the commander the day was lost. Instead of confirming the information, the commander withdrew, leaving Fontaines to his fate.
An hour or so later D’Enghien brought forward all of the French and captured Spanish cannon and turned them on the remaining tercios. They pounded the unflinching Spaniards and Bugundians. Fontaines was shot and killed soon thereafter. The senior Spanish colonel offered D’Enghien terms to surrender, but when D’Enghien came forward under a flag of truce to negotiate, he was accidentally fired upon. This enraged the proud French whom massacred the offending tercio to a man. The remaining Spanish and Burgundians quickly surrendered to avoid the same fate.
The Battle of Rocroi signaled the beginning of the end of the Thirty Years War, and the weary belligerents signed the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. More importantly, the battle heralded French dominance in continental European affairs that ended only with Germany’s rise two century’s later. The Battle of Rocroi was seen as a good omen for the new king, the four year old Louis XIV whose ascendance to the throne was announced simultaneously with the victory by Richelieu’s replacement and protégé, Cardinal Mazarin. Fears of the Queen-mother, Anne of Austria being a Hapsburg puppet were ill founded. She was as dedicated to France as she was to her son, the future “Sun King”. Louis XIV would reign over France’s Golden Age. D’Enghien, soon named the “Grand Conde”, was one of his greatest commanders.
The destruction of the Golden Horde in the 15th Century by the Timurid Empire virtually swept from the map the last remnants of the Mongols’ conquest of northeastern Europe. All that remained was the Tartar Khanate of Crimea and a vast and deserted steppe that stretched from the Carpathian Mountains in the west to the Urals in the east. Into this void stepped two powerful kingdoms, the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Russian Kingdom of Muscovy.
Where the frontiers of the two states met opposite the Crimean Tartars along the river basins of the Dnieper, Don, and Donetz, the Poles and Russians encouraged settlers to the area to provide a bulwark against the slaving raids of the Muslim Tartars and Ottoman Turks. The settlers were not an ethnic group but fiercely independent homesteaders, frontiersmen, and adventurers known as Cossacks. The Cossacks formed “Sichs” (literally “cuts”, either of land or the logs that formed their stockades and forts) and were expected to defend the area in exchange for land and fealty.
By the 17th century, the Zaporizhian Sich along the Dnieper River was a semi-autonomous part of the powerful Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. However, the Orthodox Cossacks begrudged their Catholic Polish and Ruthenian (Russified Lithuanians) overlords, then at the vanguard of the Counter-Reformation. Additionally, they despised the increasing number of Poles, Ruthenians, and especially Jews who were settling the Sich. The Cossacks felt that the Szlachta, the pervasive nobility of the Commonwealth, and the Jews, which unlike the rest of Europe were welcomed in the Commonwealth, had more rights than the Cossacks (They were correct). Finally, the Cossacks resented the Polonization of their own quasi-nobility, particularly those that converted to Catholicism. Whenever the situation demanded or the Cossacks showed signs of rebellion, the Polish king usually declared a war against their Muslim neighbors. The war kept the Cossacks busy, and the loot kept them appeased. The Cossacks loved the king because he showered them with privileges as a counterbalance against the nobility.
In 1647, King Wladyslaw IV Vasa, the Swedish king of the Commonwealth (the Commonwealth elected its king, usually a foreigner to keep him weak; it’s complicated) ordered the Cossacks to prepare for a new war against the Ottomans. However, the Sejm (the parliament of nobles) vetoed the idea and ordered the Cossacks to prepare for a new war against the growing power of Muscovy’s successor, the Tsardom of Russia. This sent the Cossacks into a rage. The Russians were coreligionists and used Cossacks themselves. More importantly, those Russians on the Steppe were poor and the Ottomans were rich. Moreover, piracy on the Black Sea, contemporary pirates in the Caribbean had nothing on Cossacks in the Black Sea, was infinitely more lucrative and enjoyable than marching around the cold and endless Steppe. The Cossacks were on the edge of revolt, they just needed a leader.
Enter Bohdan Khmelnitskiy, a respected Ruthenian noblemen and veteran of nearly countless wars against the Ottomans and Crimeans. In 1645, Khmelnitskiy had a land dispute with a powerful Polish magnate (the upper tier of the Szlachta). The magnate’s starost (like a county commissioner) Daniel Czaplinski raided and seized Khmelnitskiy’s land. Khmelnitskiy protested to the king, but the king couldn’t take on such a powerful magnate. So Khmelnitskiy stole Czaplinski’s wife and was arrested. In late 1647, he escaped and fled to the Zaporizhian Sich with his Registered Cossack regiment. (A “Registered Cossack” was a Cossack that was officially in the pay of the king or a magnate.) With the Sich on the brink of rebellion, the charismatic Khmelnitskiy pushed them over. On 25 January, 1648, Khmelnitskiy had the Commonwealth’s administration in the Sich killed. The next day, Bohdan Khmelnitskiy was elected Hetman (warlord) of the Zaporizhian Sich.
Cossack rebellions had been attempted before, but were always crushed by superior heavily armoured Polish cavalry. Unlike in Napoleonic times when Cossacks were known for their superior light cavalry, in the 17th century they constituted the light infantry par excellence. They were akin to tens of thousands of Robert’s Rangers roaming the Steppe. The Poles and Ruthenians always provided the cavalry. So when the Cossacks did revolt, they were always crushed by a massive charge of Husaria and Panzerini, against which they could not hope to stand. In a tribute to Khmelnitskiy’s charisma, he convinced the Sich to make an alliance with their archenemy, the Crimean Tartars, who could provide the cavalry necessary to defeat the Commonwealth. The Crimean Khan dispatched his best general, Tugur Bey, with 18,000 Tartar horsemen to assist the uprising.
Khmelnitskiy’s Uprising would bring fire and sword to the Steppe, and eventually to the Commonwealth itself. Hundreds of thousands of Ruthenian, Polish, Jewish, and Cossack peasants, burghers, and nobles were killed, or sold into slavery to pay for Tugur Bey’s cavalry. Sensing Commonwealth weakness, by 1655 all of its neighbors, Russia, Prussia, Austria, Sweden, and the Ottoman Empire invaded in what is now known in Polish history as “The Deluge”. In 1654, Khmelnitskiy ceded the Zaporizhian Sich to Russia in the Treaty of Pereyaslav for continued military support against the Commonwealth.