In the last days another, less-remembered anniversary occurred: on the 11 and 12 September 1683 a decisive battle was won to protect Vienna from a second Ottoman assault (a first siege had been attempted in 1529).
The Ottomans had arrived to Vienna (well protected, but badly manned) on the 14th July with an army 150,000 strong (butthey might have been up to double as much) and had asked for surrender. But this being the religion of peace, surrender was never a very safe matter: just some days before, the little fortified city of Perchtolsdorf had been destroyed after surrender, with many of his inhabitants killed or enslaved. The commander of the Austrian defenders, Count von Starhemberg, was not what you’d call a wimp. He refused to surrender and led the strenuous defence of the city for the following almost two months, a time marked by great deprivations and many a casualty and by a constant struggle against the tunneling attempt of the Ottomans and their attacks to single fortified towers; all this whilst the walls (modern ones, we must imagine, with inside earth walls to prevent their destruction through cannon fire) slowly crumbled under the explosions.
At the beginning of September, the heroic inhabitants of the city were preparing for a last desperate fight on the streets of Vienna, as it was generally acknowledged that the defences (already broken in places) wouldn’t prevent a massive attack for long.
But the Habsburg diplomacy had done a fine job during the preceding winter, in preparation of the military operations sure to begin in the coming months. A solid alliance was created, with Bavaria, Swabia, Saxony and – most importantly – the mighty Polish army ready to fight at their side. The Pope Innocent XI had encouraged the initiative and this became an alliance held together by religious, besides political, motives, called the Holy League. This cohesion was to prove decisive.
A massive relief army, more than 80,000 strong, arrived near Vienna on the 5th September, with the defenders now in a desperate situation.
Even being so varied and with so much potential for quarrel and discord, the leaders of the various armies, all united by their Christian faith, quickly took all necessary decisions and were ready for battle in just a few days under the command of the King of Poland, Jan III Sobielski.
A different picture presented itself on the opposite camp: the alliance of Ottomans and several (largely Protestant, as I understand) local potentates (the principality of Transylvania, Valachia and Moldavia) was not so united and actually the Christians among them not even so willing. Among the Ottoman warlords rivalries and jealousies were ripe and the Christian principalities already began to mistrust the Ottoman “liberator” and to resent the tributes it imposed and the interference in their internal affair it tried to exercise. How reliable the Ottomans were with their promises (one of them, to leave the conquered Vienna to their Christian allies) we have already seen in Perchtolsdorf. As so often in military history, a 150,000 strong army was not sure of victory against a much smaller but more motivated and qualitatively strong army (and with the Holy League disposing of the excellent cavalry of the Poles).
It began on the early hours of the 12th September, with the Ottomans attacking first to prevent the Christian army from orderly deploying their troops. The disciplined infantry of the Holy League bravely fought an entire day against a much stronger enemy, whilst overt or covert refusals to obey the orders of the Ottoman commander-in-chief, Mustafa Pasha, on the other side made the conduct of the Ottoman operations more difficult. The infantry battle raged for about twelve hours whilst the Holy League cavalry watched from a nearby hill, waiting for the right time. This hill was called Kahlenberg, and was to give its name to the battle.
At 5pm, with the Ottoman army now worn and dispirited by more than twelve hours of fighting, the probably greatest cavalry charge of all times was launched with four groups (one Austro-German, the other three exclusively Polish) simultaneously attacking the Ottomans. This proved decisive: the Ottomans lines were broken and they were dispersed. At dusk the battle was clearly won with the Ottomans in a rout.
The blow was a harsh one for the Ottomans. The human losses heavy (10% of the soldiers), but also with all cannons lost in the precipitous retreat. The Holy League losses were limited to around 5% of their own soldiers. The loot was unprecedented.
This was the battle that saved Europe from having the Ottomans right at the heart of Mitteleuropa and the one that marked the beginning of their decline. They never came anywhere near Vienna again, the ascent of the Habsburgs in the following decades put them more and more in the defensive whilst their corruption and decadence undermined their strenght from the inside; two hundred years later they survived courtesy of the European powers, weary of the wars that would erupt to divide the spoils of a giant now evidently so easy to slain.
Mustafa Pasha was executed fifteen months after the battle in Belgrade (he was strangled with a silk rope pulled by several men on each side, as was the custom of those people). King Jan III Sobielski reached legendary popularity. The Pope Innocent XI extended the feast of the Holy Name of Mary – until then celebrated only locally – to the rest of Christianity. The feast is celebrated on the 12th september.
Together with the battle of Lepanto and a few others (the First Crusade comes to mind), this is considered one of the greatest military achievements in the history of Christianity.
It is something worth remembering, because the rhetoric of peace must not induce us to easy complacency or, worse, wet pacifism.
Christianity still has enemies, and always will. But it also has brave soldiers of Christ, the Mother of God, St. Michael the Archangel and the promises of Christ.