The Ottoman Empire had been expanding into Europe ever since Constantinople (Muslims renamed it Istanbul) fell to the Turks on 29 May 1453, and even before that. Wherever the Muslim armies went, they plundered cities, took slaves, turned churches into mosques, and converted many thousands of Christian captives to Islam at the point of a sword.
The Sultan’s armies overran Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia. They turned Protestant Hungary into a compliant vassal and made war repeatedly on Austria and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Ottomans had designs on Vienna, since the fall of the city would open the way into the heart of Austria and the rich principalities of southern Germany.
The Turks besiege Vienna. Having failed to take Vienna in the siege of 1529, the Turks prepared a second attempt in 1683. Under the leadership of the Grand Vizier, Pasha Kara Mustafa, and with their Tatar and Malaysian allies, they made their preparations and fought their way towards the capital, overrunning Austrian villages and smaller cities in their path and taking many captives.
As the Muslim hordes approached Vienna, King Leopold fled west with most of the citizens, leaving a garrison of about 11,000 soldiers and 5,000 citizen volunteers to hold the city against the Turks. The Viennese razed buildings in the area around the city walls in order to deny the enemy cover, and brought livestock and provender into the city to prepare for a siege.
On July 16th, 1683, the second siege of Vienna began. The tiny garrison in the city was no match for Kara Mustafa’s army of 140,000, but the Grand Vizier decided to starve the city into submission rather than attempt a frontal assault on its defenses.
One of the main reasons the Turks had had such success in the Balkans and Eastern Europe was that their Christian enemies were unable to unite against them. Since the Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire were one and the same thing, Islam experienced no such fractiousness, and it was a united horde that advanced inexorably through the mountain passes and across the plains towards Vienna.
Austria and Poland had long been traditional enemies, only lately coming to an alliance in the face of the common threat. Poland had traditionally been allied with France, but the French were devious even in alliance, especially under Louis XIV, the Sun King. Louis had designs on the German states along the Rhine, and conducted his diplomacy with an eye towards the main chance in Luxembourg or the Rhenish Palatinates.
All of these squabbling political entities were Catholic, and theoretically united under the leadership of Rome. Pope Innocent XI recognized the danger posed by the Ottomans, and, in the name of God and the Church, called on all the rulers of Central Europe to unite against the common foe and save Vienna.
Louis XIV declined to obey his pontiff, and continued his scheming. Jan Sobieski, on the other hand, was ready to answer the Pope’s call. However, in order to go to war, Polish law required him to get the unanimous approval of the Polish Diet. The French king’s ambassador plied members of the Diet with massive bribes to induce them to vote against Sobieski’s venture. Through most of the summer it seemed that Sobieski would be unable to ride to Vienna.
Fortunately for the Austrians, and for Christendom, Pope Innocent authorized the papal nuncio in Kraków to use the full resources of the Vatican. The nuncio was able to outbid Louis in bribery, but only barely. In the end the Diet reached unanimity and authorized their King to ride to the relief of Vienna.
Polish King Jan Sobieski’s March To Vienna
The Ottoman armies’ artillery pieces were of inferior design, and were unable to reduce the city walls, so the Turks had taken to tunneling. They had ample gunpowder, and their engineers dug mines under the walls and set off a number of charges that did serious damage and opened gaps in the walls. The Viennese rallied to build barriers in the gaps, and managed to keep the Turks out, but it was only a matter of time until Kara Mustafa succeeded. The Viennese garrison prepared for a last-ditch defense within the city walls.
It was then, at the last possible moment on the evening of September 11th, that Jan Sobieski arrived at a hill north of the city, leading a force of 40,000 Poles and their German and Austrian allies. The battle began soon afterwards, in the early morning hours of September 12th.
The Battle Of Vienna
The Austrians and Germans attacked the Turks first at the center and on the left flank. The Turks counterattacked, but held back a significant portion of their forces in anticipation of entering the city through a breach in the wall. That very morning the Grand Vizier had prepared a second and more powerful charge to be set off under the Löbel bastion, one that would throw the city open to the Turkish forces once and for all.
At about the same time the King of Poland, in the van with the fearsome Winged Hussars and with 20,000 men behind him, led a cavalry charge down the hill into the right flank of the Ottoman army. The Hussars were one of the most formidable fighting forces of the time, and the sound of the wind through the feathers of their artificial wings was said to unnerve the enemies’ horses and drive superstitious soldiers into a panic.
The battle was over in three hours. The King drove through the Turkish lines, and, seeing his success, the Vienna garrison sallied forth from the city and hit the Turks from the rear. Demoralized by these attacks and their failure to breach the wall, the Turks fled eastwards in haste, abandoning their tents, weapons, battle standards, provisions, and slaves.
The siege was broken and city was saved. Jan III Sobieski was received as the hero of Vienna. Though it was not evident at the time, the Ottoman tide had turned at the Gates of Vienna and was about to recede, beginning its long withdrawal through the Balkans and Greece into Asia Minor over the next two centuries.