|Posted on April 17, 2013 at 8:35 AM|
By the morning of September 12, 1683, 150,000 Turks had laid siege to the city of Vienna. They had captured their outer fortifications, and were tunnelling beneath the inner walls. Deep trenches had been built to shield the Turkish lines from Viennese archers, and the invading soldiers were now assaulting the city gates with cannon fire. But there was also a separate, subterranean battle being fought. Turkish sappers were attempting to burrow beneath the city walls, and detonate explosive mines, chipping away at Vienna’s defensive infrastructure. In response, Viennese soldiers were feverishly digging their own tunnels, in order to block the sneak attacks, and disarm active mines. Eventually the city walls were cracked wide enough for the Turkish army to charge through. The entered the city twice, but were repelled both times by the defending Viennese, who by now were exhausted from lack of food and sleep.
Here is a map of Vienna in 1683. Notice how the outer walls were built as jagged edges, like the shape of a star. This makes the city much harder for an offensive army to address, as attacking one wall, exposes their flank to another. It also allows many more defending archers to line the ramparts. Notice also that the cartographer has included markings for several Turkish barracks, and even cannon balls in flight, indicating that the map was drawn during the heat of the siege.
With the Holy Roman Emperor fleeing the city (along with several other wealthy citizens), it seemed as though Vienna would soon be taken, and Europe would be left wide open to Ottoman expansion. Pope Innocent XI saw the siege as a military and philosophical assault on Western Christendom, and induced the French and Polish armies to aid the crumbling city. The French King, Louis XIV, regarded Austria as his territorial rival, and promptly refused, but the Polish King, Jan III, agreed to help. A relieving army of 80,000 Polish, Bavarian, Saxon, and German troop was raised along the hills of Vienna. Their alliance was held together by loyalty to the pope, and a mutual fear of the invading Ottoman Empire.
This painting, by Juliusz Kossak, depicts the Polish cavalry, arriving at the battle. The Turkish troops are clambering up the hill to meet them. Behind them, we can see the Turkish tents. And in the far distance, we can make out the walls of Vienna, and the steeple of St Stephen’s Cathedral. King Jan led a fierce cavalry charge against the Turkish left flank, descending from the hills with 3,000 Winged Hussars. Imagine being a Turkish infantryman, to wake up one morning and find these things galloping towards you. The Polish Hussars were an elite military unit, famed for their skill at lancing. As you can see, their helmets were adorned with ostrich feathers, to signify their status. Besides looking intimidating, these wings also made a loud clattering sound which made the cavalry seem much larger than it really was.
Witnessing the charge, the Viennese abandoned their defensive positions, and lead a ground assault on the centre of the Turkish lines. The Turk’s maintained their position, and counterattacked, but their General held back significant portions of his strength in anticipation of entering the city. The field was quickly consumed by fighting. Though superior in numbers, the Turkish soldiers had endured months of stagnant siege, and were now being attacked from multiple angles. After three hours of fighting, the Turkish lines became scattered. King Jan seized this break in rank to lead another powerful cavalry charge, now regarded as the largest in military history. Demoralised by their failure to breach the wall, and shaken by this sudden explosion of resistance, the Turkish forces abandoned their tents and weapons, and fled eastward. The Polish Hussars continued to harass the rear of their host, until the retreat was absolute. Upon securing the field, King Jan was heard to remark: “We came. We saw. God conquered.” He was declared by the Viennese “savour of the city”, and by the Pope, “defender of Western Christendom”.