12 September 1683

The Polish-Lithuanian king John III Sobieski (1629-96) arrived at Vienna in September 1683 in time to defeat the besieging Ottoman armies. This print comes from The Gallery of Portraits with Memoirs by Arthur Malkin, published in London in 1833.

The battle that took place outside the Austrian capital of Vienna on 12 September 1683 marked a turning point in the history of European warfare. The victory by a Christian ‘Holy League’ composed of Poles, Germans and Austrians against a huge Ottoman army marked the end of the centuries-long expansion of Ottoman Turkish power in southeastern Europe and saved central European Christianity. After Vienna, the Ottoman sultanate did not inflict serious defeat on Western enemies again, and the Turkish Empire began a long decline.

The Ottomans had long harboured ambitions to capture Vienna and dominate the trade routes of eastern Europe. Buda, in Hungary, was an Ottoman city and to the south the Ottomans ruled as far as present-day Bosnia and Croatia. A restless frontier between the Austrian Habsburg and Ottoman empires ran through northern Hungary. The Ottoman sultan, Mehmed IV, decided on the advice of his grand vizier, Kara Mustafa Pasha, that it was time to launch a major campaign against the Habsburgs and to extend Ottoman suzerainty over the whole area of central Europe. Plans were made to strengthen roads, repair bridges and gather together a large army from among the vassal states of the empire. On 6 August 1682, war was declared on Austria, but the late season postponed the advance of the Ottoman army until the following March. The Habsburgs had plenty of time to prepare defences and seek allies. Emperor Leopold I reached an agreement with the King of Poland-Lithuania, John III Sobieski, for mutual aid in the defence of Christian Europe. This was to prove an inspired choice.

In the early summer, the huge Ottoman army, followed by herds of cattle, flocks of sheep, wagon trains of supplies and thousands of camp followers, moved north from Thrace, reaching Belgrade in May (where the sultan stayed to await results). The army was commanded by the grand vizier himself, who moved northwards to encircle Vienna by 14 July 1683. Leopold and 80,000 Viennese fled westward to Linz to avoid Ottoman conquest, leaving Count Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg with 16,000 soldiers and militia and 370 cannons to defend Vienna against the siege. For two months, the defenders endured disease, hunger and the constant threat that Turkish engineers would succeed in mining under the walls and blowing a gap in the defences. Kara Mustafa Pasha did nothing to rush the capture of Vienna. Short of heavy artillery, and confident that there was no prospect of relief, he waited until his miners had breached the walls. This long delay allowed the Christian Holy League to mobilize its forces, prepare the campaign and march to the relief of the city.

The League was made up of 47,000 Germans and Austrians and an army of 37,000 Poles and Lithuanians. King John III Sobieski was the key figure holding the force together. He was a remarkable commander, with a string of earlier victories against Tatars and Ottomans to his credit. He had been responsible for reforming the Polish army to create a modern force. He understood Ottoman military doctrine, having been an envoy in Istanbul, and he could speak all the major Western languages (plus Tatar and Turkish), a big advantage in a multi-national force. On 6 September, his army crossed the Danube and met up with Imperial forces under Charles of Lorraine, but two days later Ottoman miners succeeded in breaching the defensive walls. The Ottoman army was poised to enter the city.

The 85,000 Holy League troops moved into position on the Kahlenberg hills above Vienna and on 12 September they prepared for battle. There has always been some confusion over the exact size of the Ottoman force. The hard core of 20,000 warrior janissaries were supported by as many as 100,000 allied and vassal soldiers, but many were poorly armed or clothed, while the 40,000 Tatars were unreliable. The battle started at 4 a.m. with a spoiling attack by Ottoman forces, which was repulsed by the Austrians and Germans. During the morning, Kara Mustafa Pasha was determined to complete the capture of Vienna. He divided his forces between the city and the threat to the Ottoman rear, a crucial miscalculation. For twelve exhausting hours, the German-Polish infantry launched attacks against the two Ottoman flanks, while at the city walls Ottoman engineers prepared a final explosion to breach the fortifications. Ottoman troops were kept back in readiness to occupy Vienna, but an Austrian miner detected the Turkish explosive and defused it.

Ottoman strategy exposed the army to profound danger. At 5 p.m., John Sobieski gathered the combined cavalry of the relief force together on the hills above the battle. Judging the moment to be right after hours of infantry attrition, he launched the largest cavalry charge in history. Some 20,000 horsemen, including 3,000 of Sobieski’s famed ‘winged hussars’, swept down from the hills. The Ottoman forces, exhausted after fighting all day on the plain and on the walls of Vienna, collapsed in a matter of minutes in the face of this cavalry onslaught. By 5.30 p.m., Sobieski was standing in Kara Mustafa’s magnificent tent. The Turkish armies broke and fled, leaving 15,000 dead and wounded, 5,000 prisoners and the loss of all the Turkish artillery and great quantities of treasure. The Holy League had casualties estimated at 4,500. The victory ended any prospect of an Ottoman central Europe.

John Sobieski famously remarked ‘We came, we saw, God conquered’. Pope Innocent XI declared the feast of the Holy Name of Mary to be celebrated on 12 September throughout Catholic Christendom in commemoration. The Ottoman forces failed to return, and over the next decades Turkish rule was driven back in Hungary and Transylvania. The Habsburg-Ottoman war was finally ended with the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699. On 25 December 1683 in Belgrade, Kara Mustafa Pasha was ritually strangled with a silk rope. John III Sobieski died in 1696, Poland’s most famous king and military commander.