- James Houser
September 12, 1683 - The Siege and Battle of Vienna
Updated: Jun 13, 2021
September 12, 1683. The Ottoman Empire lays siege to Vienna with an enormous army, and after two months they are on the verge of victory. But the cavalry is on the way – literally. The “Holy League” of Christian powers is about to arrive under the leadership of John Sobieski, King of Poland. His army will launch the largest cavalry charge in history on the plains outside Vienna, spearheaded by his famous heavy cavalry – the Winged Hussars.
Ever since it had captured Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire had enjoyed a nearly unbroken string of victories. By the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566), they had conquered Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and southeast Europe. Suleiman himself overran and annexed Hungary, and his navies captured all of North Africa. Most of the Christian powers of Europe – Spain, Austria, Poland, Russia, and the Italian and German states – lived in mortal fear of the Sultan and his large armies. The Ottoman Empire was also the richest state in Europe. It dominated the east-west trade networks, sponsored great works of art and literature, and practiced remarkable (for the time, anyway) religious and cultural toleration. All in all, the Ottoman Empire was the premier state in the Mediterranean/European world in the 16th Century.
Even during its golden age, though, the Ottoman Empire had limits. On the sea, the Ottoman failure to capture the island of Malta in 1565 was compounded by their great naval defeat at Lepanto in 1571. The growing power of Russia to the north put pressure on their Muslim allies in Ukraine and the Caucasus. The Safavid Empire of Persia – Shi’a Muslims that denied the Sunni Ottoman claim to the title of Caliph – was always a threat. And finally, there was that one galling failure from their glory days, Suleiman the Magnificent’s only defeat in his brilliant campaigns – Vienna.
The Ottomans had tried to take Vienna in 1529, and to be honest they came closer to taking the Austrian capital in that year than they ever would in 1683. There was no relief army, no regular force to lead the resistance, and no glorious battle of deliverance. Instead, Suleiman was defeated by disease, weather, and time. He was forced to withdraw ingloriously before the onset of winter. This defeat would hang over his dynasty like a cloud: Vienna still stood, mocking them, defying them.
It was all the worse because Vienna was the capital of the Austrian Habsburgs – the Ottoman Sultan’s longest and most dedicated enemy. Throughout the 1500s and 1600s, the Ottomans and Habsburgs alternated between open warfare and bitter border conflicts throughout western Hungary and Croatia. Though these struggles tended to exhaust both parties, they fell heavier on the Ottomans in the long run, to the point that they couldn’t even interfere in the Thirty Years’ War because they were bankrupt and consumed by internal crisis.
As the years went on, the quality of Ottoman leadership began to decline; the martial sultans like Suleiman were replaced by closeted, soft men who never left the harem. Soon the Empire was practically in the hands of the Sultan’s top minister, the Grand Vizier, as the borders slowly receded under pressure from Austria, Poland and Russia. Something had to be done to recover the fading glory of the Ottoman Empire – and the new Grand Vizier had just the thing.
In 1682, Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha approached Sultan Mehmed IV and his court with a proposal. France and Austria were at war, and King Louis XIV was trashing the Austrian armies in Germany. Now was an excellent time to fulfill the old ambition, the long-forgotten dream, and put an end to the Habsburg menace once and for all. Kara Mustafa proposed that the Ottomans spend the rest of the year preparing, and in spring 1683 mount a full-scale operation to take Vienna, with all the might of the Ottoman Empire behind them.
The problems with taking Vienna were time and distance. The Ottoman armies would have to march up the Danube for several hundred miles before they could reach and invest the Austrian capital, and to do this would require months of planning, huge stores of food and provisions, and the gathering of troops from all over the empire. The core of the force would be the Ottoman standing army – the artillerymen, engineers, professional cavalry, and the famous janissaries – elite musket-armed infantry.* The Ottomans never went on a major campaign with the standing army alone, and they were accompanied by swarms of feudal levies, light cavalry, border irregulars, and auxiliaries from their vassal kingdoms. All in all, the Ottomans were able to put together almost 200,000 men for this enormous expedition.
*The janissaries are a whole post on their own. We have a story to tell.
1682 wore on, and Kara Mustafa began the enormous and detailed preparations for the campaign. Old roads and bridges had to be repaired and new ones constructed. The fleet was assembled to deliver grain to local ports on the Danube. Border fortresses were brought to high alert and repaired. The janissaries began to call in their reservists, and troops poured in from across the empire, moving in stages to the assembly point at Belgrade. Mehmed IV would go no farther than Belgrade. He was no military figure, and the troops would march under the command of Kara Mustafa. By spring 1683, the Ottomans finally brought their troops together and in early May they marched from Belgrade. The great host of the Ottoman Empire was on its way to Vienna.
It was impossible to conceal these preparations, and all of the Ottomans’ Christian neighbors observed them with alarm. The long Ottoman preparation period, though, gave them time to prepare as well. While there were multiple guesses as to the Ottoman target – Poland or Venice, for instance, most correctly guessed that it had to be Vienna. Christian Europe agreed to band together in order to stave off the Ottoman onslaught, and in the 1683 Treaty of Warsaw Austria, Poland, Venice, and the Pope all agreed to come to the aid of whoever was attacked. This was the founding of the Holy League – and this agreement would save Vienna in the end.
The Austrians were not even CLOSE to ready for an attack. They were deep, deep in debt, still paying off the loans from the Thirty Years’ War, and they had the aggressive French King Louis XIV breathing down their necks to the west, forcing them to leave troops on that border as well. The Austrian army was just too small to go toe-to-toe with the Ottomans in 1683, so they would depend on outside help.
As the Ottomans made their way to Vienna, the Austrians made the critical decision. Just before the first elements of the Ottoman army arrived on July 7, the Emperor Leopold and his court evacuated the city along with a flood of civilian refugees. The main Austrian army also withdrew in order to defend the rest of the country and link up with the expected reinforcements. All that was left defending Vienna were 15,000 troops and 8,000 armed civilians under the Count von Starhemberg: 23,000 against almost 200,000 advancing Ottomans. In one critical way, though, the defenders had an advantage: they had over 350 cannon to only 130 Ottoman guns.
The Ottoman army finally laid siege to Vienna on July 14, 1683, after its initial calls for surrender were predictably refused. There were already reports of Austrian towns that had surrendered without a fight, only to be massacred anyway by the unruly levies and border ruffians that filled out the Ottoman ranks. The vast Ottoman army encircled the city with their force, cutting it off from the outside world. With little food to spare (these had been hungry years in Europe) the city was soon starving and praying for outside relief.
The Siege of Vienna was a hardcore battle all around, there’s no sugarcoating it. The Ottoman sappers slowly dug their trenches forward, defending them from Austrian raids by night and ceaseless bombardment by day. The enormous Ottoman guns blasted away at the walls, but were outmatched by more numerous and more modern European artillery. It became a war of mud and shovels, as the Austrians tried to shore up their defenses and the Ottomans tried to tear them down. Assault after assault washed over the outer fortresses. The early hand grenade was an important weapon, with the Austrians using almost 80,000 of them during the course of the siege.
Count Starhemberg’s leadership undoubtedly had a great deal to do with the defense. His measures were draconian – he ordered any sentry caught sleeping shot on sight, and erected gallows behind the defensive lines as a warning to any possible traitors. He leveled houses that stood in the way of his artillery, and led the defenses himself, sword in hand.
The critical phase of the siege arrived when Kara Mustafa decided that the assaults were taking too long; his infantry had failed in their assaults on Vienna’s walls and his guns were outmatched. He resorted to a grimy but effective stratagem that had been used since the times of Ancient Greece: mining. The Ottoman engineers and sappers began to dig long tunnels that would reach under the walls of Vienna; much like the Battle of the Crater in the American Civil War, they would pack the end of the mine full of gunpowder and blow the walls sky-high. This tactic posed a serious threat to Vienna, and soon Starhemberg realized what was up. He ordered every civilian to spend time in their cellars, listening for the sound of scratching.
The Ottoman mines crept closer, and the defenders of Vienna began to dig their own mines to intercept and defeat their besiegers. Nightmarish, brutal brawls took place beneath the earth when these parties ran into each other. Parties of hundreds of men could fight savage little battles of their own in the pitch blackness of their mines. When this didn’t work, the Austrians hammered tree trunks into the ground in front of the walls to block the Ottoman path. All this slowed, but could not stop the Ottoman mining operations – the 5,000 Ottoman regular army sappers were probably the best in the world.
By September 8, several of the mines had been detonated, and large chunks of the wall had been tossed aside like a child’s toy. The Ottomans had taken several key forts, and gaps in the main wall stretched as wide as 39 feet. The Viennese prepared to defend the inner city – to the death. The end of the siege was in sight, and the Ottomans were on the very cusp of victory.
The Holy League had not been idle. As soon as he learned that the Ottomans were advancing on Vienna, King John Sobieski of Poland began to muster a relief force. This took some time, and Sobieski had to call up virtually the whole Polish military – leaving his own country utterly defenseless. Sobieski brought 25,000 Poles with him, including the best cavalry in Europe: the 3,000 heavily armored, elite, legendary “Winged Hussars.”
Sobieski marched as quickly as he could, because he knew that time was of the essence. Even as the Ottomans were blowing up their mines, Sobieski and the Poles were arriving to link up with the German and Austrian forces that had assembled to relieve the city. Soon they had put together almost 80,000 men, paid by donations from across Europe – including a large sum of money from the Pope. With Sobieski in command, they began their final approach to Vienna on September 9.
Kara Mustafa Pasha knew of the Holy League’s approach, but was convinced he could take the city before they came knocking on his rear. To delay them, he dispatched the Crimean Khan and his steppe raiders. These raiders, though, were here for loot and plunder - not for a hard battle. They failed to stop the Holy League army and instead dissolved into panicked flight. This allowed Sobieski and his army to slip through the thick Vienna woods unhindered, and after some fighting on September 11 they ascended the Kahlenberg Hill overlooking the plains around Vienna. The Holy League army fired several rockets into the sky to signal to the city that help had arrived.
Austria had called for aid. And Poland (with a bunch of other guys) had answered.
Kara Mustafa faced a choice: realign his whole army to fight off Sobieski’s attack, or concentrate everything on one final effort to take the city. He chose both. The Ottoman sappers prepared their most devastating blow yet – ten separate mines - underneath the Lobelbastei fortress, set to blow on September 12. The elite janissaries would be sent in to finally take the Ottoman Empire’s most coveted target. As for Sobieski, he knew that there was no time to lose. He prepared to attack the larger Ottoman army.
The Battle for Vienna began at 0800 on September 12, 1683, as the Saxon and Austrian forces on the left launched their attack against the Ottomans. Most of the plain before Vienna was dotted with small villages and Ottoman-made obstacles, which had to be taken and cleared before the lethal Holy League cavalry could be used effectively. Soon the German and Austrian infantry units all along the left and center were pressing into the fortified villages, with several seesawing back and forth throughout the day. The morning battle was mainly an infantry battle, and the tough fighting by Saxon and Bavarian infantry nearly broke the Ottomans, but didn’t.
By early afternoon, Sobieski committed his Polish infantry to clear the way for his cavalry. This was where Kara Mustafa’s mistake became apparent: all his reserves were committed to trying to break into Vienna, leaving no one to stop the Poles from taking the key village of Gersthof. In trying to fight off the relief force AND take the city, he failed to do either. As for the siege, the defenders had found and defused the bombs at the last minute, and the final Ottoman assault turned into a bloody failure.
It was time. Sobieski gave the order. 18,000 German, Austrian and Polish cavalry emerged from the Vienna Woods to the cheers of the infantry and artillery. At their head were the 3,000 Winged Hussars, resplendent in their bright steel armor and slightly ridiculous with the wooden angel wings clacking around behind them. As the cavalry started forward, Sobieski himself took his place at the apex, leading his Hussars. The whole field shook as the massive wedge of horse, man and metal plunged forward, lances levelled and hooves smashing through the mud and blood.
It was the largest cavalry charge in history. That must have been something to see, right there.
The charge went through the Ottomans like they were made out of spam. Exhausted after fighting all day, the Ottoman infantry began to disintegrate, and the cavalry was totally insufficient to stop the flood tide. The Winged Hussars and their fellow horsemen went over and through the Ottoman army and beelined straight for Kara Mustafa’s camp. The garrison of Vienna, taken with the euphoria of the moment, sallied out from their walls to join in the victorious attack. The Grand Vizier fled, leaving his opulent silk tent with all its riches to be stripped apart by the Polish cavalry. The Ottoman army fled in total panic. Vienna was saved. Starhemberg rode out from the city, found Sobieski, and embraced and kissed the Polish King.
For the Ottomans, the defeat was total, easily the greatest failure of their history. While most of the army survived, it was ruined and demoralized beyond any hope, with all its guns and equipment lost. Kara Mustafa was executed by his enraged Sultan. The border was wide open. Over the next two decades, the Austrians would exploit the victory at Vienna to overrun most of Hungary, Serbia, and Croatia, with the Ottomans unable to stop them. The defeat at Vienna had consumed so many resources and so much money that they were crippled for years. Sobieski was given the title “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope, and a church with his name still sits atop the Kahlenberg Hill.
In a very real sense, the Battle of Vienna permanently ended the myth of Ottoman invincibility and began their long decline. Europe no longer feared them as the Great Turkish Menace, but increasingly saw them as a crumbling, ailing regime – the Sick Man of Europe. The long Christian retreat that had begun with the birth of Islam truly ended in 1683 at Vienna.
Also, if any of these events seem a little familiar, pretty much the entire climactic battle of “The Return of the King” was J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth version of the Siege of Vienna. So now you know.