The Siege of Vienna - 1683

…on July 7, [Emperor Leopold] and his court abandoned Vienna and retreated to Passau with all the treasure they could carry, pursued by Tatar cavalry. Nearly sixty thousand Viennese also fled. On July 14, the Ottoman army of roughly ninety thousand effectives set up camp in front of Vienna. An Ottoman envoy appeared at the gates with the demand that the Christians “accept Islam and live in peace under the Sultan!”

Count Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg, who had been left in command with about twelve thousand soldiers, cut him short, and a few hours later the bombardment began. Within two days, the Turks had completely surrounded the city and, by one contemporary estimate, were within a mere two thousand paces of the salient angles of the counterscarp. The grand vizier (Mehmet himself had stayed behind in Belgrade) set up a magnificent tent in the center of what was virtually another city outside the walls. There, in the company of an ostrich and a parakeet, he dispensed favors in complete confidence of an eventual victory, and sauntered forth each day to inspect the Turkish trenches.

The situation inside the city grew steadily more desperate as water ran low, garbage piled high in the streets, and little by little the familiar diseases of the besieged—cholera, typhus, dysentery, scurvy—took hold. Yet the defenders managed to hold out for two months. The Turks, as Caprara had rightly observed, possessed very little heavy artillery; what they had could kill people and damage buildings inside the city but made little impact on the massive walls, bastions, ravelins, glacis, caponières, palisades, counterscarps, and the other paraphernalia of sixteenth-century fortifications that ringed Vienna.

The Turks assault the walls of Vienna

The Ottoman siege lines inched ever closer to the city walls, while miners dug elaborate caverns, hoping to place explosives that would blow gaps in the fortifications. In turn, the defenders dug countermines and occasionally exploded ordnance beneath Ottoman trenches. Eventually, mines were being set off daily, and the defenders fought hand-to-hand with attackers making desperate charges against the resulting breaches. Defenders also sortied outside the walls, but could not dislodge the Ottomans or spike their guns. In early September, Starhemberg had only about four thousand defenders left, and the city walls were imperiled at several points.


The Relief of Vienna - 1683

Meanwhile, a relief army of some sixty thousand men under the joint command of King John III Sobieski of Poland and the emperor’s brother-in-law, Charles Sixte of Lorraine, moved slowly toward the beleaguered city. It included forces from Saxony, Franconia, Bavaria, Bohemia, and Waldeck. Crossing the Danube at Tuln, they marched through the Wienerwald—a mountainous no man’s land covered in dense forest—to approach the city from the west. The Ottomans, assuming that no relief army of any size could possibly penetrate the Wienerwald, had left it largely undefended. It would be a fatal mistake.

The progress of the combined Christian army was slow, but by late Saturday, September 11, it had assembled along the ridges on the edge of the forest. The Ottomans had set up an observation post on the heights known as Kahlenberg, overlooking Vienna, but a small force drove them away and shot off a rocket, to alert the city’s defenders that help was at hand.

The Battle of Vienna

The following morning, the army swept down on the largely unprepared and poorly defended Turkish encampments below. Kara Mustafa had never been confronted by a relieving army bent on breaking a siege. He rejected the advice of some of his officers to abandon the siege and concentrate his full attention on the substantial force to his rear. Instead, the grand vizier kept up the pressure on Vienna, diverting only an estimated six thousand infantry and twenty-two thousand cavalry, backed by six cannons, from the siege.

They were not enough. Even though the Christian army could not get most of its artillery over the mountains and into place, its steady attack and greater numbers proved impossible to withstand. First, the Saxons and Imperial troops attacked from the Kahlenberg heights; then additional Imperial troops advanced on the Ottoman center. The Ottomans launched a counterattack, but in twenty minutes they had been beaten back. Because of deep ravines and other terrain problems, the Poles had been slow to engage, but when they came in on the Christian right, the battle was decided. At about 4 p.m., the various Christian forces advanced on all sides, Sobieski leading his “winged hussars” in what was a decisive charge against the Ottoman cavalry. By late afternoon, the Turkish lines began to waver. A desperate Kara Mustafa led his personal escort into the fray, hoping to withstand the Christian onslaught, but could do no more than rescue the flag of the Prophet.

The Turk, Kara Mustafa, confronts King John Sobieski of Poland on the battlefield

“We came, we saw, and God conquered,” wrote Sobieski to Pope Innocent XI, echoing Julius Caesar’s famous remark on the conquest of Pontus, in modern Turkey. The siege was ended.

Those Turks who had not been killed or captured fled back toward Belgrade. Kara Mustafa succeeded in taking most of his treasure with him, but it would do him little good. As so often happened to those who had failed the sultan, he was strangled two months later.

--Adapted from Worlds at War, by Anthony Pagden (2008), Random House.