325th anniversary of the battle of Vienna

Slawomir Blaut

King John III Sobieski, commanding the Polish-Austrian-German forces, won a magnificent victory over the Turks at Vienna on 12 September 1683. The victory of Vienna, which historians regard as one of the most decisive battles in the history of the world, saved Christian Europe from the Turkish domination that had lasted for many years. Towards the end of March 1683 a huge Turkish army left Adrianopol and marched towards Austria. The army was commanded by Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa. Facing the Muslim invasion the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I inclined King John III to conclude a defence treaty. The invasion of the Ottoman Army was aimed at Christianity. That’s why Sobieski did not hesitate to help the Empire, especially that it was Pope Innocent XI that asked him to save Christian Europe. As early as at the beginning of his reign, during the first war council, John III said that he had begun preparing to a war with Turkey. The King declared to offer his possessions and life ‘for the defence of the whole Christianity, to serve this significant bulwark of Christendom (since the insatiable pride of the Ottoman Army left this only place to Christianity).’ Sobieski knew perfectly well that if the Turks had conquered the capital of the Habsburgs’ empire they would have approached the Polish borders and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth alone could not resist the Turkish power; he knew that it would be better to face the dangerous enemy far from his own borders and with the help of other armies than to wait for the attack of the enemy in the country. Before he set out he had sent a letter to Innocent XI, in which he wrote, ‘When the good of the Church and Christianity is concerned I shed my blood to the last drop, together with the whole kingdom. Since my kingdom and I are two bulwarks of Christianity.’

To the relief of Vienna

On 14 July 1683 about 80,000 Turks and 10,000 Tartars with guns appeared at the walls of Vienna. The city was defended only by several thousand Austrians and that’s why the emperor and the Pope sent to John III Sobieski desperate appeals to come to the relief of Vienna as soon as possible. Going through Silesia, Moravia and the Czech lands Sobieski managed to reach Tulln over the Danube on the first days of September, and his army united the Austrian troops of Duke Charles of Lorraine and the German forces of Field Marshal Waldeck. Sobieski, having the biggest experience in fighting against the Turks and being the winner in the battle of Chocim (1673) was asked to command the united forces. Duke Charles, an outstanding commander, wrote about Sobieski that ‘his very presence means as much as the arrival of the whole army.’ The outstanding expert in the history of wars the Prussian General Clausewitz, who mentioned Sobieski as the only Pole in his reflections on the history of the universal war art, included him as one of the most eminent commanders in the history of mankind. In the year 1683 Sobieski himself prepared a plan of battle against the Turks and the plan was realised strictly according to his orders.

The victory of Vienna

On Sunday, 12 September, at five minutes after six in the morning, the Polish-Austrian-German forces attacked the Turks who had laid siege to Vienna. Just before the battle, on the Kahlen Berg, Sobieski accompanied by his commanders had participated in Mass, celebrated by the special papal envoy Fr Marco d’Aviano. The King served during the Mass, zealously praying for a victory over the enemy of Christianity. Later a church with a monument to Sobieski was erected on the site of the altar field to commemorate that event.
On the day of the decisive battle the Turkish army had 90,000 men. The Christian army had about 70,000 men, including 22,000 Poles. In spite of the fact that the Turks outnumbered their enemy they could not feel self-confident. Being tired after having attacked the walls of Vienna, which had put up stiff resistance, they did not have an outstanding commander – their enemy had one. It was the Polish-German cavalry charge (the largest cavalry charge in the history of previous wars) that played a decisive role in the battle. At six p.m. about 20,000 heavily armoured cavalrymen, led by Sobieski himself, charged down the Vienna hills. The Polish heavy lancers, the famed winged hussars, who were experienced and reliable, paralysed the enemy. The Turkish resistance was completely broken. The defeated army of Kara Mustafa took to flight in a panic, leaving about 15,000 men dead in the battlefield. That defeat made the offensive power of the Ottoman Empire broken for good. The allied forces lost over 1,500 men dead. The relief came at the last moment since the defenders were on their last legs. King John wrote about his victory in his well known and translated into several languages letter to his wife Marysienka, ‘God and our Lord, be blessed for ever, gave victory and fame to our nation, about which the past centuries never heard. All guns, the whole camp, countless riches are in our hands … The Vizier fled and left everything so quickly that he had only one horse and one robe.’ It was a great day of John, not only as Polish king and commander but also as a Christian, a Catholic. He wrote about the victory to the Pope, paraphrasing the famous words of Caesar in the spirit of Christian humility, ‘Venimus, vidimus, Deus vicit’ (we came, we saw, God conquered).
The Muslim army was smashed at Vienna but it was not destroyed. On 9 October 1683 Sobieski conquered the remaining troops of the Vizier in the battle of Parkany in Hungary.

Quarrel over the victory

Emperor Leopold I, jealous of Sobieski’s victory, did not even thank the Polish forces for the relief of Vienna, trying to undermine our contribution in the battle of Vienna (the Austrian and German historians were also reluctant to Poland, questioning the true role of the Polish forces and of Sobieski in the great events of 1683, even to the point of slandering our soldiers). But the outrageous attitude of the emperor did not win plaudits in Europe. Almost all European monarchs sent congratulations to King John. The Polish king and the army of the Commonwealth were seen as winners who confirmed Poland’s role as the bulwark of Christianity. To commemorate Sobieski’s victory Pope Innocent XI announced 12 September the day of glory of the Holy Name of Mary and to show his admiration for the Poles and their king the Pope accepted the sign of the Crowned Eagle into his papal coat of arms. In 1683 the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania contributed to save Christian Europe against the flood of Islam and it also avoided a dangerous invasion on its territory. However, the victory over the Turks and the rescue of the Habsburgs did not bring Poland any advantages. The Commonwealth did not regain Kamieniec, the region of Podolia and the right-bank Ukraine (they returned to Poland after 16 year old war with Turkey). Yet, Austria was strengthened and it was one of Poland’s invaders in the 18th century. However, Sobieski could not foresee that. The posterity always remembered him with gratitude. King John III has been rightly associated with the greatness of the former Commonwealth and as a defender of Christianity and vanquisher of the Turks.

"Niedziela" 36/2008

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl