Three hundred and thirty five years ago today, the city of Vienna teetered on the brink of capture and destruction, surrounded by its enemies, the few people remaining tired, hungry, and sick with dysentery and plague. Still they refused to surrender.
They had been under siege by an army of approximately 160,000 Turks and their allies for months. Vienna was a great prize they had failed to capture in earlier wars. With it they could control the waters of the Danube and its trade routes, and effectively split Europe in two. The Austrians had known the enemy was coming and had sought allies of their own. The Pope himself called for aid for the Austrians. But France's Sun King Louis XIV had his eyes on Austrian territory for himself. Few seemed interested in helping. In desperation the Austrians turned to an old rival, the Poles, and sought their aid. To what must have been their amazement, the Polish King, John III Sobieski, better known as Jan Sobieski, agreed.
But the Poles were nowhere to be found when the Turks crossed into Austria and marched on the city. The Austrian Emperor declined the Turkish invitation to stay in his bedroom and wait for them to behead him, and had fled Vienna, as did most of the population. The commander of the garrison in Vienna had between 10-15,000 men at his command. Knowing the Turks were coming, they razed all the buildings around Vienna's walls to deny the Turks cover, brought in as much grain and farm animals into the city as they could, and prepared to muster what defense they could.
Meanwhile, in Poland Jan Sobieski had a problem. While he was King of Poland, he could not order the mustering of the army on his own. That order could only be given by the unanimous vote of the Polish Diet. King Louis of France, wishing no aid to be given to the Austrians, had his embassy in Warsaw offer bribes to the members of the Diet. Hearing of this, the Pope in Rome gave his ambassador free rein on the wealth of Rome, and ordered him to bribe the council in favour of coming to Vienna's aid. Sobieski himself seemed to be motivated by his own sense of honour.
Sobieski had been a general before his election as king. He had waged many campaigns against Turkish invaders to his own land and had turned them all back. He had won many victories when he had been outnumbered greatly, and had won the respect of the Turks themselves, who called him the "Unvanquished Lion." He had travelled widely in Europe and had even spent some time in Constantinople. His travels had given him a sense of the importance of Christendom, and while the Austrians were his rivals, yet they too were part of Christendom, and he knew that if Vienna fell, Christendom itself was not far behind. He would not let that happen. At least, not without a fight.
In the end, the council had its unanimous vote. They were either bribed incredibly by the Papal envoy, or they had been swept up in Jan Sobieski's fervour to defend all of Christendom. There is a story that on the day of the vote Louis XIV's ambassador stood outside the council chambers, offering 100,000 ducats to anyone who would cast a veto. There were no takers. Jan Sobieski would take Poland to war.
Which is almost literally what he did. He mustered the entire Polish army and began the march. He left Poland almost completely defenceless. And yet, his own army was a few more than 40,000. He expected to meet with some allies on the way to Vienna, but even so he would still be severely outnumbered. That did not daunt him. He had been outnumbered before, and he had been victorious before. He began the long march, turning aside briefly to take the army to a shrine to Mary, where he put all his men, and all of Europe, under her care. Then he resumed the march to Vienna. Before him lay either victory or annihilation.
Meanwhile, in Vienna the situation had been deteriorating for the defenders. Unable to approach the walls openly, the Turks had taken to digging trenches to protect their men as they approached the walls. The defenders held slowed them down, but still they crept closer and closer. Below the ground, the Turks took to digging mines to try and bring the walls down from below. The Austrians dug counter mines, and stopped most of them, but the Turks kept coming. They had time and numbers on their side.
The horrors of siege war began to take its toll on the defenders. Rations grew short as the siege stretched on. The men were tired from the constant fighting and bombardments. Dysentery and other diseases set in, leaving the men in no shape to fight. By the beginning of September, perhaps 4,000 men were in any shape to continue the fight.
And they were losing. The Turks had captured the outer defensive works, driving the Austrians back to their wall. Some Turkish mines began to reach the walls, and a hole had been blown open. The city stood ready to fall.
And then something strange happened. The Turkish commander halted the assault. He sent word to the Austrian commander ordering him to surrender. The Turkish commander hoped to have Vienna surrender to him, so he could take the city intact and he could therefore claim all its wealth as his own. But if his troops sacked the city, they would be allowed to keep whatever they took for themselves. He felt certain the Austrian commander, his garrison dwindling, his walls breached, would capitulate. But the Austrian did not, and sent back defiance. The Turks prepared to continue the fight the next day, the twelfth of September. So fixed were their eyes on the city, none seemed to pay any attention to the campfires that began to burn that night on the hills outside Vienna, nor did they know what those fires meant: Jan Sobieski had come at last.
It was said he and his allied commanders looked upon the Turkish encampment from their vantage point. The others were dismayed by the size of the Turkish forces: that force outnumbered their own by at least two to one. But Sobieski, who had fought at a disadvantage many times before, laughed. "Look at how he has arranged his camp!" he exclaimed. "The man knows nothing of war!" The other generals wanted to wait and survey the situation before they began their attack, but Sobieski, perhaps believing in the advantage of surprise, insisted they attack at the first light.
As the Turks were prepared to end the siege that morning, all their forces aimed for the breach in the walls, when they found themselves under attack on their flanks. German and Austrian troops were attacking on one side, and on their rear Polish infantry were driving into their lines, wreaking havoc. The Turkish commander seemed to pay little attention to this. He responded to the attacks with less than half his forces. He kept the main body of his troops focused on the city. Yet the Christians were pushing them back and making more and more headway. And then, on their flanks, the Christian cavalry appeared. Over eighteenth thousand armed and mounted knights, the largest cavalry charge in history. pressed forward. At their head were three thousand Polish Winged Hussars, the finest troops of Poland, and at their head, leading the charge was the king himself. Jan Sobieski, the Unvanquished Lion, had come personally onto the battle field.
His appearance terrified the Turks. They ran and fled before his charge. The troops from the city, seeing the Turks falling into chaos, mounted a sortie from the city themselves, leaving their walls and fighting their foe on the field. And the Turks fled before them. They threw down their arms, and left their baggage and supplies behind as they fled the ferocity of Sobieski and his men.
In three hours the battle was over, the field was in the hands of the Christians and the Turks who had not fled lay dead on the ground. Sobieski sent word to the Pope: "I came, I saw, God conquered."
Sobieski was hailed the saviour of Christendom. The Pope named him Defender of the Faith. Accolades were rained down on him by the allies who had fought alongside him, and by his own men. The commander of the Austrian Garrison hugged and kissed him on the field, and called him his saviour.
That gratitude, unfortunately, did not last. The Austrian Emperor, for instance, paid little respect to Sobieski and was angered that Sobieski had entered Vienna in triumph before he arrived and without his permission.Sobieski's defeat of the Turks at Vienna marked a turning point in history. For the next hundred years the Turks were retreating, not advancing, before the Christian forces. A little over a century after Vienna they had been driven back into Turkey. But if the Turks were gone from Europe, so, too were the Poles, or at least, their country. A little over a century after Vienna, Poland had been annexed by Russia and Austria, the very Empire her greatest hero had saved.