Originally posted 2018-01-13 11:28:08.
The name of King Jan III Sobieski of Poland is one that every European should know and speak with pride.
In September 1683, the city of Vienna was near to collapse. For months, it had been under siege by the Islamic hordes of the Islamic Ottoman army. Every day now, starvation and surrender grew closer. The city had long since run out of horses and pets to eat and even rats were few and far between now.
Worse, the Viennese knew that other Europeans had been the instruments of their doom. Swiss Calvinists had begged the Turks to attack, so that they could sweep away Catholicism. It beggars belief that Christians could call down the hounds of Islamic hell on their fellow Europeans, but that they had, hoping, no doubt, to negotiate some deal, a reward for their treachery, that might spare them the scimitar or a lifetime of submission to the foul creed of Islam.
The city’s defenders, listening in its basements, could hear the scrape-scrap of pick and shovel as the enemy’s sappers undermined them. Soon they would plant another huge mine and blow up a section of the city’s curtain wall, breaching it and allowing the enemy in. Nobody in Vienna was under any illusion as to what would happen then: the men would be tortured and killed or enslaved, the women would be raped and killed or enslaved and the children slaughtered. The behaviour of triumphant Islamic armies was well known.
Today, the Twelfth of September, was the last. The government of the city knew it. The people knew it and worse, the enemy knew it. They were ready: their final attack was to come on the twelfth of the month. There was nothing left. Vienna would fall. Without a miracle, Vienna must fall, and with it, Europe.
King Jan III Sobieski had other ideas.
Months before, the city had sent out a call for help but none had arrived. Yet, despite the religious and political divisions within Europe, Catholic Vienna was crucial to its survival. It commanded the only route the enemy could use to invade the rich plains of Germany then sweep down through France. If that happened, all of Europe would fall. Yet nobody came, leaving the lonely and desperate defenders to doubt they ever would; to contemplate the butchery that would inevitably turn the River Danube itself red with their blood, and that of their children.
Vienna was the most heavily fortified city in Europe. It had two rings of curtain walls, with sharp-pointed salients that allowed defenders to rake their own walls with fire. To one side was the Danube itself, to the other a range of mountains. Its weakness was that it was not built on rock, but on the soft soil of the river’s alluvial plain. It was this very soil that the enemy was tunnelling through, this same earth that would betray the defenders to their doom.
But not all was lost; on the day before, the unthinkable happened.
A force of allied European powers finally arrived to relieve the city, including an army of 23.000 led by King Jan Sobieski III of Poland. In total the force was some 80,000, against the Ottoman army of 140,000, led by the Grand Vizier Pasha Kara Mustafa.
The Polish King regarded the battlefield and identified the enemy’s weakness. Mustafa was used to victory and had never had to deal with a siege-relieving counter-attack. So his forces were disposed adequately for the assault on the city, which he planned to launch immediately after his sappers’ mine reduced the city’s walls, but were not themselves ready to repel an attack from their rear.
Crucially, the Ottoman forces were close to the River Danube and facing them were the rampart-like mountains known as the Kahlenberg. Everyone, including both the city’s defenders and the Turks, believed that no army could use these mountains. They were simply a barrage, insurmountable, and their summit was only useful as an observation post.
King Jan had other ideas. By night, his troops manhandled his army’s cannon to the top of the mountain. The effort this took was huge but they succeeded. As dawn broke and with the enemy laid out beneath them, King Jan gave the order to open fire.
A devastating barrage of gunfire was poured into the Turkish camp while the enemy could only scurry. Yet there was no place to hide on the flat plain of the Danube. They were out of range of the city’s guns, but not of the Polish ones.
As the barrage pounded the Ottoman lines, a group of Viennese sappers heard tunnelling close by under the city walls. Fearing the worst, they scrabbled out enough earth to allow the smallest man in their party to get into the tunnel. To his horror, he saw a huge mine, made of barrels of gunpowder. Even worse, the fuse was lit and the mine about to go off.
The man quickly cut the fuse and extinguished it. He saved the city — and not a moment too soon. With this reverse, the Turks’ chances of storming the city fell; but now they had other problems to deal with.
For hours the were pounded by the allied cannon and could do nothing in response; their guns could not elevate enough to return fire. They were sitting ducks. Their attempts to storm the mountains were bloodily defeated by Polish musketeers.
Then, as the long miserable — for the Turks — day drew towards its close, the barrage, mercifully, stopped. The field was covered with dead, dying and bits of bodies. Round cannon-shot is a terrible weapon fired into densely packed humanity; it rips people apart, and then bounces and does it again. And most of the army had no defences. Their position was attacking, with their trenches facing the city and at right-angles to the Polish guns. Shot fell into them and men were bowled over like skittles, with no hope of escape. The carnage was incredible.
Sobieski’s Winged Hussars
Sobieski’s principal weapon, however, was not his artillery, but his cavalry, famed throughout Europe. At their head were the most feared horsemen of all: the Winged Hussars.
These were heavy cavalry, probably the heaviest fielded since Medieval times, when battles were fought between armies of armoured knights on chargers. They were the best of the best, the toughest of the tough, the bravest of the brave. They were horsemen without compare and their massive steeds were fiery and powerful. They wore bright shining armour and plumed helmets; but they got their name because every one wore, on his back, a pair of white-feathered wings. At the head of this impressive force was Sobieski himself, his armour golden, and wearing the largest wings.
Try to imagine what must have gone through the minds of the Turks as the last rolling echoes of the bombardment died down and the whizz of musket balls fell silent. There came a noise like thunder and a clamour of terrible, fell voices amid the sound of horns. Great clouds of smoke, from the cannon fire, still drifted thickly across the battlefield. But what was that noise? And what did it mean?
Then, as they raised their weary bodies up, the besiegers at last saw them: the Winged Angels of Death themselves, screaming their fury, catapulting through the smoke at full gallop, their seven-metre lances, of hollow construction to make them more manageable, levelled. The flanks of their mounts were already slathered in sweat and saliva and their eyes rolled most terrifying. The autumn air already chill, the horses’ snorting breath condensed into steam around them, mixing with the smoke and causing them to appear to materialise from it, like dread hell-beasts.
Four Thousand Cavalry
Four thousand heavy cavalry, led by a thousand Winged Hussars, appeared like a dark magic, bringing fury and death on their lances. The clangour of their armour, the thundering of their hooves, were deafening and in addition came the weird cacophony made by their feathered wings, which were not merely for decoration, but were designed to terrify superstitious enemies with a bizarre rattle.
‘We saw it…. the hussars let loose their horses. God, what power! They ran through the smoke and the sound was like that of a thousand blacksmiths beating with a thousand hammers. We saw it…Jezus Maria!’ (“The Deluge”, by Henry Sienkievich.)
Panic spread through the Islamic ranks. How could this be? Vienna was ripe for the picking. Only last night they had been promised the riches of the city that they had waited so long to rape. And now they were attacked by smoke-breathing monsters with two heads, four legs and mighty wings? Were these a species of djinn? What sorcery, what dread magic could summon them into being? And where was Allah now, who had promised so much?
Indeed, in the face of this righteous force that came to cleanse the Holy ground of Europe and rekindle the almost-spent torch of freedom, Allah had already fled. As the terrifying horde rolled up the Turkish right flank, the Viennese defenders, seeing the turn in the battle, sallied out of the city and attacked the hated besiegers in what had suddenly become their rear.
The Muslim army broke and ran; it was routed completely, scattered, falling back in total disarray, every man desperate for one thing: to escape the screaming Death Angels with the white wings and the wrath of those they had starved for months and had hoped, this very day, to put to Calvary.
Sobielski’s trap was sprung. For there was nowhere for the Islamic hordes to run to: on the other side of the camp was the River Danube. The terrified Muslim hordes, who, that very morning, had been looking forward to drinking the blood of the Viennese and raping as many women as they could, were now trapped between the terrifying death-angels of Christian Europe and a much older and darker Goddess. Danu, who gave her name to the river they would drown in, welcomed the Turks into her icy embrace in their thousands.
Thousands more were trampled to death under the feet of their own fleeing comrades or the iron-shod hooves of the angels who brought their deaths, the awful Winged Hussars of Poland. The waters of the Danube did indeed run red that day and for days after, but it was not with the blood of Christians put to death by Muslim invaders, but of those invaders themselves, massacred in the most important battle in Western history. The Turkish army, including the feared Janissaries, was routed and fled, those who survived abandoning their weapons and everything they carried.
Europe had been saved.
Sobieski’s military genius is often forgotten. The European allies were outnumbered by the Turks, who were well dug in. Yet, surveying the terrain, he had at once grasped how he could use the weapons he had, his artillery, his musketeers and his heavy cavalry, to the maximum advantage.
He had seen how, by scaling mountains everyone told him could not be, he could pound the enemy for hours and receive no return fire. He placed his musketeers on the lower slopes where they could cut down any counter-attack by the Turks, aimed at capturing and spiking the Polish guns. And finally, with the last of the daylight, when the enemy had been thoroughly demoralised by being pinned down in the open under relentless cannon-fire for hours, he unleashed his hell-riders. The sheer brazen aggression of this strategy completely confounded the enemy, who broke and ran.
The Turkish army was annihilated. Its ruins fled back home, followed and harried all the way by European forces. The dream of the Ottomans, of extending the Islamic Caliphate to the Atlantic, lay broken, dead, the life crushed out of it by one of the most spectacular defeats suffered by any army, anywhere.
One last spiteful cut
Before it fled the field with its tail between its legs, the Ottoman army had one last act of hatred and spite to enact and further sully its reputation, if that were possible. It had taken thousands of European boys to act as sex slaves for the Muslim soldiers, this being to their taste. As the Turks finally left the battlefield, they slaughtered all those who were not deemed fit to be pressed into the Janissary corps. Some 8000 Christian boys died.
For three hundred years, Europe profited from Sobieski’s heroic relief of Vienna. At last the menace of the Ottomans had been thrown back, though many had lost their lives in Europe’s defence. Great empires — of Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands — rose up, made their nations rich, and then died back again. European culture blossomed through the Enlightenment and on, to the modern culture we know today which, though flawed, nevertheless is founded on those Enlightenment values of equality, liberty and free speech. Freedom, in other words.
Had Vienna fallen, none of this would have happened. Within months, the Turks would have been at the doors of Paris, and would have overrun the North German Plain. Britain — at that time not yet a united nation — if it had not been invaded, would have spent centuries defending itself, its shipping crippled by Muslim corsairs and slavers. There would have been no Empire upon which the sun never set, or rather, that honour would have gone to the Caliphate.
All the richness of Europe would have been their plunder and the slaughter of innocents would have made the heavens weep. Thanks to one courageous and determined man, the Islamic invasion did not succeed. Its army — feared everywhere — was slaughtered before the gates of Vienna. Sobieski diced it up into mincemeat. The Turk was halted and thrown back; and Europe was freed of its menace.
Please join me in the toast.
I raise a glass to that doughty King of Poland who led the charging Angels of Death, the Winged Hussars, against overwhelming odds and annihilated the enemy completely, in the name of freedom. It’s time we all led our own such charge.