September 12, 2008
Starhemberg, Lorraine, Sobieski, a City and a Battle
Duke Charles V de Lorraine
One of the turning points in history was the Battle of Vienna, which was fought on September 12, 1683, 325 years ago today. The victory freed Europe for more than three centuries from the Turks and their invasions.
The battle started in the early morning hours on September 12, after the city had been besieged by the Turks for more than two months. The Turkish army of roughly 90,000 men -- 12,00 Jannisaries and an observation army of circa 70,000 -- had invested Vienna on July 14 and on the same day, Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa, the commander-in-chief of the Turkish forces, sent the expected demand for surrender to the city.
Graf Ernst Rüdiger Starhemberg, leader of the 11,000 troops and 5,000 citizens and volunteers of Vienna, in possession of 370 cannons, refused.
As their 300 cannons were outdated and the fortifications of Vienna up to date, the Turks found a more effective use for their gunpowder. Tunnels were dug under the massive city walls to blow them up.
The siege cut Vienna off all food supply, and garrison and citizens suffered extreme hardship and many casualties. Fatigue became such a problem that Starhemberg ordered any soldier found asleep on watch to be shot. Increasingly desperate, the men holding Vienna were on their last legs when in August Imperial forces under Duke Charles of Lorraine beat the Hungarians at Bisamberg, north-east of Vienna.
On September 6, the Poles crossed the Danube 30km north west of Vienna at Tulln to unite with the Imperial forces and additional troops from Bavaria, Baden, Franconia, Swabia and, notabene, Saxony, who had answered the call for European Alliance, supported by Pope Innocent XI. Emperor Leopold I was deeply mistrustful of Duke Johann Georg III, Elector of Saxony, but in the face of the siege of Vienna, had called for help and the devout Protestant Johann Georg led a 10,400 man army himself against the Turks. Called "an honourable man of straight heart" by Polish King Jan Sobieski, the Elector of Saxony, at whose request the battle call had been changed from "Mary Help" to "Jesus and Mary Help", showed tremendous personal courage on the left wing in the Battle of Vienna, for which neither the Catholic Emperor nor his own Protestant estates ever thanked him.
Despite the multi-national composition and the short time, an effective leadership structure was established, which doubtlessly centered around the King of Poland.
It should be never forgotten as well that Louis XIV of France not only declined to join, but used the opportunity to raid cities in Alsace and other parts of South Germany.
During early September, Turkish sappers repeatedly blew up large portions of the walls, creating gaps of about 12m width. The Austrians tried to counter by digging their own tunnels to intercept the depositing of large amounts of gunpowder in subterranean caverns. The Turks finally managed to occupy the Burg ravelin and the Niederwall on September 8. Anticipating a breach in the city walls, Starhemberg and the remaining Austrians prepared to fight in Vienna itself.
The Alliance forces arrived on the "Kahlen Berg" (bare hill) above Vienna, signaling their arrival with bonfires. In the early morning hours of September 12, Mass was held for King Jan Sobieski of Poland and his nobles.
At 04:00, the Turks attacked to interfere with the deployment of the Alliance troops. Charles of Lorraine moved forward with the Austrian army on the left and the German forces in the center.
Mustafa Pasha launched a counter-attack with most of his force, but held back some of the elite Janissary and Spahi units for a simultaneous assault on the city. The Turkish commanders had intended to take Vienna before the Polish forces arrived, but time ran out. Their sappers had prepared another large detonation under the Löbelbastei to finally breach the walls. While the Turks hastily finished their work and sealed the tunnel to make the explosion more effective, the Austrian "moles" detected it in the afternoon. One of them entered and defused the load -- just in time.
Meanwhile, above, the Polish infantry launched a massive assault upon the Turkish right flank. Instead of focusing on the battle with the relief army, the Turks tried to force their way into the city, carrying their crescent flag.
After twelve hours of fighting, the Poles held the high ground on the right. The Alliance cavalry waited on the hills, watching the infantry battle for the whole day. Then at about 17:00, they attacked in four groups. One group was Austrian-German, and the other three were Polish. Over 20,000 men (one of the largest cavalry charges in history), charged down the hills. It was led by Jan Sobieski at the head of 3,000 Polish heavy lancers, the awe-inspiring "Winged Hussars", whose mere noise sent the Turks flying. The Lipka Tatars who fought on the Polish side wore a sprig of straw in their helmets to distinguish themselves from the Tatars fighting for the other side. The Polish charge broke the lines of the Turks, who were tired from the long fight on two fronts. In the confusion, the Polish cavalry headed straight for the Turkish camp, while the remaining Vienna garrison sallied out of their defenses to join the assault.
The Turks, tired and dispirited following the failure of both, the sapping attempt and the brute force assault on the city, were quick to retreat when the arrival of the Polish cavalry finally turned the tide of the battle against them. In less than three hours after the Polish attack, the Christian forces had prevailed. At 17:30, Jan Sobieski entered the deserted tent of Kara Mustafa and the battle at Vienna for the Christian West was over.
What happened later?
Graf Ernst Rüdiger Starhemberg was made field marshal by a grateful Emperor Leopold. Severely injured in a later war, he became President of the Hofkriegsrat and thus in charge of the organisation of the Austrian army, which he radically modernised, emphasising the importance of the artillery.
Charles of Lorraine went on to re-conquer Hungary, Slavonia and Transsylvania from the Turks. His death in 1690 made, according to Voltaire, Louis XIV of France say that the "grandest, wisest and most generous" of his enemies was now dead. And that man had a lot.
Jan Sobieski was looked upon as the saviour of Vienna and the whole Christian Europe. He died in 1696. It is part of the tragic history of the gallant and hapless Polish people that he wasn't able to carry forward a dynasty. Instead by his son Jacob Louis Henry Sobieski, he was followed by the Saxon king August the Strong. 256 years minus 12 days later, Europe refused to honour the huge debt they owed Poland and paid a high price for it.
It is said that, rushing into the Turkish camp, the victorious troops discovered a new drink still brewing on the fire: Coffee. So Vienna became the center of of the world's coffee culture.
The battle at the gates of Vienna broke the advance of Islam into the Christian West and granted Christianity roughly 300 years of respite, which weren't put to good use.
Edited to add on May 1, 2011:
In May 2011, the remains of Pope Innocent XI were removed from the chapel at the entrance of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome ahead of the beatification of the Koran-kissing Pope John Paul II on May 1, and moved to a less conspicious place.