The Siege of Vienna: July 14-September 11, 1683

Military Heritage Magazine & Warfare History Network

The Siege of Vienna; July 14-September 11, 1683

 Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

During the Battle of Vienna, Count Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg was outnumbered 5 to 1 against a sea of Turkish soldiers, led by Kara Mustafa.

Ever since Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 they became the relentless terror of Christendom. For centuries, the nations of Europe fought the Turks on land and at sea. There were great battles and victories and temporary peace treaties. At other times, internal political instability among both Europeans and Turks diverted their efforts elsewhere. Nevertheless the struggle between Islam and Christendom continued and the initiative remained with the Turks so that, by 1683, they controlled most of Hungary with only the upper portion remaining part of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), synonymous with the House of Habsburg and Austria.

Although there was currently peace between the HRE and the Turks, conditions seemed favorable for Sultan Mehmed IV to renew the war. Rebellious Hungarian nobles, angered by Imperial persecutions of Protestants, threatened the Empire’s sway over upper Hungary and were ready to side with the Ottomans. In addition, France, the Habsburg rival for European hegemony, urged the Sultan to go to war with the HRE. Thus encouraged, Mehmed demanded outrageous tribute and territorial concessions from Habsburg Emperor Leopold I. Negotiations broke down and the Second (Great) Turkish War of 1683-1699 had begun.

Outnumbered 5 to 1

Sultan Mehmed opted for a limited strategy that would strengthen the Ottoman frontier and support the Hungarians. The latter had already overrun most of Imperial Hungary in 1682. To ensure the security of their new ally, a vast army of Turks and provincial levies was assembled at Constantinople. Mehmed himself did not bother to lead his army, preferring to go on one of his lavish hunting trips. Command was instead handed to the Grand Vizier, the swarthy Kara Mustafa. Mustafa was to aid the Hungarian insurgents by conquering the Imperial strongholds of Györ and Komarno.

Reinforced by the horsemen of the Crimean Tartar Khan, Mustafa possessed 160,000 troops. To oppose Mustafa and his allies, Emperor Leopold could muster a mere 32,000 soldiers. The large size of his host and his boundless ambition induced Mustafa to disregard the Sultan’s orders. Against the advice of his commanders, he left only token forces to invest Györ and Komarno and marched straight for Vienna. On July 14th Mustafa appeared before the city walls.

Vienna 2
Image Credit: Peter Dennis

The Only Shelter Against the Invading Turks

To Mustafa’s chagrin, he found Vienna’s defender, Count Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg, prepared and determined to withstand a siege. Together with Duke Charles of Lorraine, Count Starhemberg razed the suburbs to the ground to deprive the attackers of cover, hastily repaired the once-debilitated walls, and brought in ample supplies from the countryside. Lorraine further reinforced Starhemberg’s garrison with 8,000 infantry and a burger militia was quickly assembled and trained. In addition to the 11 infantry regiments, militia, 400 artillery pieces and two lines of moats and walls with 12 bastions protected the city and its 60,000 remaining citizens.

At the time Vienna’s population consisted mostly of peasants who had drifted into the city from the countryside. For them Vienna would be the only chance of escaping the Turkish wrath. Others were not so lucky. Clouds of smoke rose from villages devastated by Turkish troops and their cold-blooded Tartar allies. In the village of Pectholdsdorf alone, more than 3,000 of the men were butchered and the women and children dragged into slavery. In contrast to the peasants and soldiers, Vienna’s upper class followed their Emperor’s example and fled the city to seek safety in the west.

From the towers of St. Stephens, Starhemberg beheld a sea of thousands of multicolored Turkish tents drawn up in crescent moon formation southwest of the city.

The Siege Begins

From the towers of St. Stephens, Starhemberg beheld a sea of thousands of multicolored Turkish tents drawn up in crescent moon formation southwest of the city. They included Mustafa’s opulent pavilion with his hundreds of concubines and slaves, exotic animals, and even a fountain erected by his engineers. Farther to the west and north stretched the Kahlenberg heights. Beyond that formidable wilderness, Charles of Lorraine had taken his remaining 10,000 cavalry to harass Tartar raiding parties, confront Hungarian rebels at Pressburg, and assemble the anticipated relief army in the Tulln valley. Starhemberg did not know when that relief army would come or if it would be large enough to defeat Mustafa’s army. What he did know was that Vienna’s walls must hold against the Turkish onslaught until help arrived, or else the streets would run red with Christian blood.

The Turks used throngs of Hungarian slaves to build siege works while their artillery pounded the walls. For his part, Starhemberg launched sorties to interrupt the Turks whenever possible. Fortunately for the Viennese, in his haste to reach the city, Mustafa had abandoned his cumbersome bigger guns. With his light calibers unable to reduce the city walls, Mustafa was forced to take the city using mines and assaults.

Tunneling Like Moles Toward the City’s Defenses

Masters in siege mining, the Turks tunneled like moles toward the city’s defenses. The Christian engineers in turn counter mined while above them their comrades defended against the fanatic assaults of the janissaries. The earth shuddered from explosions and cannonballs pelted against the walls. Turkish arrows rained upon the defenders and Christian musket fire ripped through the ranks of charging janissaries accompanied by the deafening blare of Turkish military bands. From behind battlements the Austrians swung halberds to tear through the armor, flesh, and bone of Turks who scaled the walls. No quarter was given or asked to the “hereditary” enemy. Both sides quickly lapsed into terror tactics; the Turks butchering peasants in front of the walls, the Austrians flaying captured Turks alive to mount their heads on pikes.

Battle of Vienna 1683 by Peter Dennis

The Grand Vizier directed the main attacks against the Hofburg (Imperial Castle), defended by fortifications called the Burgbastei (the Castle Bastion). Although this was the most heavily fortified area of the city, its higher ground prevented underground water from interfering with mining operations. On August 12 a Turkish mine collapsed part of the earthworks. The explosion filled the moat with earth, forming a causeway that permitted a direct assault against the main walls. Turkish troops at once poured across but were beaten off with heavy casualties to both sides.

Starhemberg could ill afford the losses; his garrison had already lost 1,200 men. At least the Turkish advances, though they reached ever closer to the inner defenses, were bleeding the janissaries white. Besides combat casualties, disease spread its ugly hand over both armies as heaps of rotting corpses, filth, and bodily waste and the hot August weather provided a perfect breeding ground for dysentery and other maladies.

Relief Finally Arrives

By the end of August most of the Burgbastei’s outer defenses lay in ruins. On September 4 the Turks nearly penetrated into the city through a 30-foot breach in the outer wall but were thrown back by an Austrian counter charge led by Starhemberg himself. During the night, Starhemberg lit the first distress rockets from the towers of St. Stephens. To the Turks the rockets foreshadowed imminent victory. In premature celebration they broke into the suburban Viennese wine cellars and set upon a drinking binge. For the next three days Mustafa drove his troops hard to break into the city but was denied victory through the almost superhuman efforts of the Austrian garrison.

Reports that a relief army was drawing near filtered into the Ottoman camp. Although Mustafa would not admit it to himself, his situation had become desperate. Fully 30,000 of his men had died beneath Vienna’s walls and most of them were elite janissaries. His army was still vast but their spirits were sagging while his large Tartar and Romanian contingents would be of doubtful value against a disciplined Christian army just as they had been next to useless in assaults on the city.

Ibrahim Pasha and 13,500 reinforcements were on their way from Györ but no help could be expected from the Hungarian rebels. The latter had been driven from Pressburg by Charles of Lorraine and now refused to come to Mustafa’s aid. On the 7th and then again on the 11th, fires and flares leaped up from the Kahlenberg heights. The relief army had arrived.

The Battle of Vienna; July 14-September 11, 1683,was originally published as a sidebar to “Islam at Vienna’s Gates,” in Military Heritage October 2002 and is also featured on the magazine’s website, Military History Network. The above version features additional images.

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The Army of the Ottoman Empire in 1683

 Military Heritage Magazine & Warfare History Network

The Army of the Ottoman Empire in 1683

 Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

Highly heterogeneous in nature, the Ottoman Empire army of 1683, led by Kara Mustafa, can be broadly categorized under various auxiliaries that differed greatly in quality.

Highly heterogeneous in nature, the Ottoman Empire army of 1683, led by Kara Mustafa, can be broadly categorized under various auxiliaries that differed greatly in quality.

The kapu kulu, made up of the regularly paid troops, provided the backbone of the Ottoman Empire army. It included topcu (gunners), lâgunci (sappers and miners), sipâhî (horsemen), and yeniçeri (Janissaries). Of these the yeniçeri and especially the sipâhî would see heavy action during the battle of the Kahlenberg. Drawn from the ranks of the richer nobility, the Istanbul sipâhî were made up of both light and heavy cavalry. They included the silâhdar, the Grand Vizier’s Imperial heavy cavalry bodyguard. Their weaponry was diverse, with lances, pistols, and carbines used in addition to the saber.

“New Soldiers”: the Ottoman Corps D’Élite

The yeniçeri (Janissaries) or “new soldiers” were the famous Ottoman corps d’élite. The Janissaries evolved towards the end of the reign of Orkhan (1326-1359) and during the reign of Murad I (1360-1389).  They originally consisted of prisoners of war. Later recruits were drawn from a child tax levied every five years upon Christian parents living within Ottoman domains. Raised from childhood in the strictest Islamic orthodoxy combined with a Spartan lifestyle and the most severe training, the Janissaries were the Islamic equivalent of the Christian Crusading orders.

Although the fanatical zeal of the Janissaries had somewhat diminished by the late 17th century, they were still respected and feared by the enemy. Wearing steel casques or mail armor and using round shields, their weapons included matchlocks, flintlocks, bows, sabers, handzars, and pistols.

In general the Turkish soldiers of the kapu kulu were physically fit and well nourished with a reputation for valor. They also suffered from poor discipline (excepting the Janissaries) and were prone to acts of extreme cruelty. Ottoman arms, especially their muskets and bows, were first-rate, although by 1683 their artillery pieces were poorly cast and suffered from a lack of a standardized caliber.

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The Toprakili & The Gönüllü

The toprakili consisted mostly of heavy cavalry drawn from the feudal nobility. The toprakili from European domains were similar to the Polish hussars, while those from Asia were lighter and armed with bows in addition to lances and sabers. The serhada kulu and the yerli kulu were troops supplied by provincial governors and government administrators. They included the heavy cavalry gönüllü (“volunteers”) of feudal aspirants and the seymen peasant militia. The auxiliaries of tributary nations, the Crimean Tartars, Wallachians, Moldavians and Hungarian rebels, of little use in battle, nevertheless provided manpower for such needs as bridge building and digging trenches, served as scouts and guards and above all supplied the Turkish camp by raiding and looting the countryside.

Unfortunately for the Ottoman Empire, the effectiveness of their troops was diminished by poor leadership, which suffered from inflexibility and lack of improvisation, relying instead on mass of numbers, bravery, and sheer force to gain the victory. There was little deviation from their standard tactic of the Oriental half moon, meant to envelop the foe by means of a pincer movement of the cavalry wings. On the attack or retreat there was no semblance of order; both were based on the principle of momentum that either carried the Ottoman army to victory or caused it to flee in wild panic. Because any real maneuver was out of the question, there was no regrouping or shifting of forces by which an able Western commander could snatch victory from defeat.

“The army of the Ottoman Empire in 1683″ was originally published as a sidebar to “Islam at Vienna’s Gates,” in Military Heritage October 2002 and is also featured on the magazine’s website, Warfare History Network.

Islam at Vienna’s Gates

Military Heritage Magazine October 2002

Relief came out of the woods and down from the heights

Detail from painting of 1683 relief battle of Vienna (Military Heritage Magazine, October 2002)
Detail from painting of 1683 relief battle of Vienna (Military Heritage Magazine, October 2002)

Islam at Vienna’s Gates

By Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

“For nearly two long months, from July 14 to early September 1683, Vienna endured the siege of a vast Turkish army. The Turkish Serasker (Supreme Commander), Grand Visier Kara “Black” Mustafa, demanded surrender but Count Ernst Rudiger von Starhemberg, commander of Vienna’s garrison spat back, “Let him come; I’ll fight to the last drop of blood.”

“The last drop of blood had almost been reached. Turkish mines and bombardment opened huge gaps in the city walls. Sewage, rubble, and corpses littered the streets and disease ran rampant.”

The Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I (1658-1705) had fled from Vienna.  A bookworm and music composer, the pious Leopold was not much of a warrior but he wasn’t going to abandon his capital to the Ottoman Turks either and feverishly petitioned German and Polish nobility to come to Vienna’s aid.

Leopold’s cries for help did not remain unanswered. By September a mighty relief army, over 66, 000 strong, had gathered in the Tulln valley…

“With so many prominent nobles, quarrels over command were unavoidable but were resolved through the selflessness of the Duke Charles of Lorraine. Although cursed with a pockmarked face and a limp leg, his proven combat history against both the Turks and the French, his personal courage, humility, and charm gained everyone’s affection and admiration. On Lorraine’s recommendation, Supreme command was given to Sobieski, King of Poland.”

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Commemoration in honor of John III Sobieski, King of Poland, supreme leader of the allied army, for the relief of Vienna and the saving of Christendom on the 300th day of the year 1683 (St. Joseph Church on the Kahlenberg , L. Dyck, 2013).

“The idea was to march the army from Tulln through the Vienna Woods to the Kahlenberg heights. From the heights a broad, sweeping descent would squeeze the Turks against the city, the Danube arm, and the Vienna River.”

Church of St. Leopold on the Leopold Berg, east of the Kahlenberg heights (L. Dyck, 2013).
Church of St. Leopold on the Leopold Berg, east of the Kahlenberg heights (L. Dyck, 2013).

“With the cry of “Jezus Maria ratuj (Jesus Maria help me) the whole Polish line rode down upon the Turks. Encased in glittering steel that covered head to thighs, with their tiger and leopard pelts fluttering in the wind and eagle wings fixed to their backs, the leading units of Hussars presented an almost unearthly spectacle. Armed to the teeth with a 19-foot pennon-tipped kopia lance, a curved and a straight sword, four pistols, and a battle hammer, and mounted on a powerful armored steed, the hussar was the epitome of the Polish cavalier.”

“In the Ottoman center, Kara Mustafa entered the fray personally to prevent the imminent capture of the Holy Banner by Waldeck’s steadily advancing Franconian-Bavarian foot. Flanked by sipahi and silahdar cavalry, the Grand Visier charged against a rain of German cannon and musket fire.”

Ottoman Turkish arsenal, note the famous re-curve, composite bows, Vienna Museum of Military History, L. Dyck.
Ottoman Turkish arsenal, note the famous re-curve, composite bows (Vienna Museum of Military History, L. Dyck, 2013).

“Islam at Vienna’s Gates,” Ludwig H. Dyck’s account of the 1683 battle for Vienna,  a battle on which hinged the fate of Europe, is featured in Military Heritage Magazine, October 2002.

Military Heritage Magazine June 2002, featuring "Islam at Vienna's Gates" by Ludwig H. Dyck
Military Heritage Magazine October 2002, featuring “Islam at Vienna’s Gates” by Ludwig H. Dyck