The Ottoman Turks gained their first foothold in Europe at Gallipoli in 1354. In 1529 they reached Vienna and almost took the capital of the Habsburg Empire. They made a second attempt in 1683 and would have succeeded if not for the intervention of a cavalry relief force under the overall command of Poland’s King Jan III Sobieski.
In late 1682 Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV sought to take advantage of the political and strategic difficulties of Leopold I, the Habsburg ruler and Holy Roman emperor. Leopold was locked in a struggle for territory and power with France’s King Louis XIV, and both the French and Ottomans were supporting a Protestant revolt in the Habsburg portion of Hungary. When the Austrians moved to suppress the uprising, the Hungarians appealed to the Ottomans for military intervention. Seeing his opportunity, Mehmed sent an army of some 150,000 troops under Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha up the Danube to take Vienna.
The Ottomans reached the city on July 7, 1683. As they approached, Leopold, his court and tens of thousands of inhabitants fled. The defense of Vienna was left to the garrison of some 11,000 troops under Count Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg. The defenders demolished houses outside the city walls to clear fields of fire for their superior artillery. (The Ottomans lacked sufficient heavy siege pieces.) Supporting Starhemberg’s force was a 33,000-man imperial force under Charles V, Duke of Lorraine, which harassed the Ottomans outside the city walls.
Although vastly outnumbered, Starhemberg and his troops fought the Turkish besiegers to a standstill for two months. But time was not on the defenders’ side. Ottoman sappers had undermined the city walls and set off black powder charges, opening several breaches, and by early September Starhemberg’s force was down to half its original strength. In late August, however, relief columns originating from Munich, Dresden and Warsaw converged on Vienna.
Sobieski’s 30,000-man army completed the 350-mile march from Poland in three weeks flat, responding to an earlier mutual defense pact made with Leopold. The other allied columns comprised some 20,000 Bavarians, Swabians and Franconians under Prince Georg Friedrich of Waldeck and about 9,000 Saxons commanded by Johann Georg III, elector of Saxony. When the three allied columns linked up with Charles’ force in early September, Sobieski assumed overall command.
The allies deployed along the ridgeline north and northwest of the city, the left flank centered on 1,585-foot Kahlenberg, the dominant high ground of the entire battlefield. The Ottomans continued their siege but early on September 12 launched a failed spoiling attack against Sobieski’s forces. Later that day the Saxon and imperial troops swept down from Kahlenberg. The battle raged until early evening when Sobieski, at the head of his celebrated Winged Hussars, led the allied cavalry downhill straight into the Ottoman camps. Simultaneously, the Vienna garrison sortied outside the city walls and pressed the Turks from the other direction.
The Ottomans were in full flight by nightfall, but not before executing thousands of Christian prisoners. The allies suffered about 4,500 dead and wounded, while the Ottomans lost 15,000 dead and wounded and 5,000 prisoners. The following month Sobieski pursued the Ottomans into Hungary and handed them another serious defeat. The Muslim armies never again came so close to conquering Europe.
That was also the high-water mark of Polish military glory; the kingdom was already in decline. Sobieski felt the Austrians never fully appreciated his contributions at Vienna, and he was right. The strategic result was the strengthening of the Habsburgs at the expense of Poland. Little more than a century later Austria ruthlessly participated in two of the three partitions of Poland, wiping that nation off the European map for the next 123 years.
The battlefield today is difficult to discern, as little now remains of the siege lines or the old city walls. One place where it’s possible to get a feel for the battle is the Kahlenberg, which still affords a panoramic perspective of Vienna and the Danube. Although vineyards largely cover the slope today, visitors can appreciate the precipitously steep terrain down which Polish and imperial cavalrymen charged to overwhelm the enemy. St. Joseph’s Church, at the summit of Kahlenberg, serves to commemorate the battle. Supported by the Polish government, it rests on the foundations of the Church of the Camaldolites, where Sobieski received Mass before the battle. A small museum in the church holds one of the few original suits of Winged Hussar armor anywhere in the world.
Originally published in the July 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.