Vienna had been under siege for two months in the beginning of September of 1683. Count Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg, the garrison commander, had declared to the Ottoman Turks asking for his surrender that he would “fight to the last drop of blood.”
And blood was running out fast in Vienna those days. Disease, damage to the walls, the dwindling number of the defenders that up to that point had stopped 18 charges from the Ottomans, an army numbering approximately 170,000 compared to their 11,500; a number that by September had dropped to one-third of its original strength.
They were running out of time and options.
On the Ottoman side things were not better, at least when it comes to disease; they also had casualties from lack of hygiene, and feared that a Christian army would soon appear to lift the siege.
Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha hoped that he would be the conqueror of the city that was the Holy Roman Empire capital and important strategic location to capture, since it had interlocking control over Danubian (Black Sea to Western Europe) southern Europe and the overland (eastern Mediterranean to Germany) trade routes. Vienna was also the city where the last Ottoman attempt for expansion in central Europe had been stopped in 1529.
The Holy Roman Empire had a treaty of mutual help with Poland from 1683. Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I had left Vienna and called for help from his allies from Passau.
Thankfully for him and the city of Vienna, his cries for help were not left unanswered. By September 7, a relief force was formed in Tullin Valley, some 30 kilometers northeast of Vienna.
The armies composing the allied relief force were: John III Sobieski, King of Poland with 18,000 Poles, the Elector Max Emanuel of Bavaria with 11,000 men, Prince George Friedrich von Waldeck with 8,000 troops from Franconia and Swabia. Prince George of Hanover (the future King George I of England) arrived with a bodyguard of 600 cavalry sent by his father Duke Ernst August of Hanover, and there were 9,000 Saxons led by the Elector of Saxony, John George III von Wettin. Along with Imperial General Lieutenant Duke Charles of Lorraine’s 20,000 Austrians, the allied army numbered over 66,600.
Overall command of the force was given to Sobieski. Despite the fact that the king was past his prime and had some weight issues, he was considered a brave and competent commander.
The tactical plan, however, was the brainchild of Duke Charles of Lorraine. The idea was to march from Tullin Valley through the wooded area on to Kahlenberg Heights. From there, an assault on the Ottoman force would squeeze them against three obstacles: Vienna itself, the Danube river and the Vienna river.
The battle started at 0400 on the 12th of September with the attempt of the Ottomans to disrupt the Holy League’s formation for battle. They did this by moving the bulk of their forces to that flank. In response, Duke Charles of Lorraine moved in with his Austrian troops along with the Germans. At the same time the Polish King attended mass in preparation for the battle.
The Austrians stopped the advance by the Ottomans and established a line facing the Nussberg-Karpfenwald. The Ottoman Turks recognized the threat that the advance of the Holy League forces posed in gaining that position. They attacked viciously; both times they were repelled, the second time by the timely arrival of dragoons and the elite armored cuirassier heavy cavalry.
By noon, the Ottoman army had suffered considerable losses but the battle was far from over.
Mustafa Pasha launched a counterattack with a large part of his force while he launched a last-ditch attempt to capture Vienna with a smaller force. 10 mines were set on the walls, but they were found by the defenders and disarmed
Polish infantry moved toward the Ottomans’ right flank and a large engagement started there, but the Ottomans were more preoccupied with capturing Vienna than facing the advance from that side and the Poles made good progress capturing the village of Gersthof that would be the base of the massive cavalry charge that ended the battle.
Fighting since 0400, the Duke of Lorraine wondered if he needed to push or, since the day had gone well for the Holy League, to stop and reorganize and resume the push later. He held a war council with Saxon commanders and they persuaded him to attack. Field Marshal von Goltz said “God is pointing the way to victory … strike while the iron is still hot” and the Duke of Lorraine gave the command for his force to march forward.
While they were engaged with the Ottoman Turks pushing them towards Vienna, they saw the Polish and imperial cavalry getting into formation for attack. A roar was heard from the Holy League lines, cheering their comrades.
What followed must have been what gave J.R.R. Tolkien his inspiration for the riders of Rohan attack.
With the cry of “Jezus Maria ratuj” (Jesus Maria help”) the whole Polish line rode downhill towards the Ottoman Turks. John III Sobieski was in the lead of his 3,000 Hussars that were the spearhead, along with 15,000 more allied and Polish cavalrymen in one of the largest cavalry charges in history.
With their head-to-toe glittering polished steel armor, tiger and leopard pelts and the wings on their backs, the leading Hussar units coming downhill at full speed presented a frightening spectacle.
They hit the Turkish line like a tidal wave, dispersing the Ottoman Turks and capturing their guns.
Mustafa Pasha entered the battle personally at his formation’s center to save the Holy Banner from the hands of the Christians.
With the cavalry charge and the combined advance of the Holy League forces in the other flanks, the Ottoman Turks broke ranks and tried to save themselves. The dissolution of their army was such that the Vienna garrison came out to exact revenge on their former besiegers.
This marked the high point for the Ottoman Turk incursion in Europe. The wars between various kingdoms and the Ottoman Empire lasted a few hundred years after that, but the Ottomans never managed to pose such a threat to Europe again.
Unfortunately, the alliance went sour when Sobieski entered Vienna first, in a triumphal parade, before the Holy Roman Emperor, which was considered by many a grave insult. Combined with the fact that Leopold denied the hand of his daughter to the son of Sobieski, Jakob (who fought with his father in Vienna at the ripe age of 14), the relations of the two kingdoms were stained.
But Sobieski was honored by many people for his deeds: the Pope named him defender of the faith, and the Viennese erected a church on top of the high ground of where the Holy Alliance army made its appearance and saved them that day of September of 1683.
There’s also a cool metal song about the battle.
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