First posted 12 September 2003
In the summer of 1683 the Ottoman Turks advanced up the Danube, occupied Hungary, and, in July, laid siege to Vienna. They had 200,00 men and over 300 cannon. The defenders of the city numbered less than 22,000 only 6,000 of whom were regular soldiers; the remainder were civilians pressed into service at the start of the siege.
The relief of the city was complicated by European politics. Louis XIV of France hoped to gain German territory on the Rhine while the Hapsburgs were occupied in the east. To that end, he worked to create am anti-Hapsburg alliance with Hungary and Poland which would deny Austria aid against the Turks. (Incidentally, the Ottoman artillery were commanded by a Frenchman, a former Capuchin no less).
By September, conditions were desperate inside the city- low supplies, disease, and weakening defenses. The Hapsburgs had raised a relief army of only 21,000. But, fortunately, Poland had spurned Louis's maneuvers and sent an army of 24,000 under their King John Sobieski.
On September 12, the two relief armies and the forces inside the city attacked the besiegers. The critical moment came in mid-afternoon when Sobieski sent his cavalry into the heart of the Ottoman camp. The battle became a rout. The next day the Polish king wrote his wife: "the Vizer took such hurried flight that he had time to escape with only one horse."
He also noted the Turks "left behind a mass of innocent Austrian people, particularly women; but they butchered as many as they could." Separate from that slaughter, the Ottomans had sent 67,000 Austrians east as slaves and 14,000 girls to the harems of Constantinople.
Sobieski's troops captured the Ottoman battle flag ("The green standard of the Prophet") in the fighting. This he sent to the Pope with the message "Veni, Vidi, Deus Vicit" ("I came, I saw, God conquered").
The lifting of the siege is usually marked as the turning point for the Ottoman empire. For centuries they had advanced against Europe, conquering the Byzantium empire, capturing lands in the Balkans and islands in the Mediterranean. After 1683 they began 250 years of retreat. (Funny how many of these critical turning points find the Poles fighting on the right side).