Eugene of Savoy at the Battle of Belgrade by Johann Gottfried Auerbach.
Date: 15 June-22 August 1717 Location: modern Yugoslavia
There is no doubt that the blood which is going to flow on both sides will fall like a curse upon you, your children and your children’s children until the last judgment. GRAND VIZIER SILAHDAR ALI PASHA TO EUGENE OF SAVOY, APRIL 1716
Habsburg-Ottoman relations remained relatively calm following the peace treaty of Karlowitz (1699). Both empires waged wars on other fronts. The War of the Spanish Succession and the Hungarian insurrection of Ferenc Rakoczi II tied up Vienna’s resources. The Ottomans were fighting successful wars against the Russiansand the Venetians. Prince Eugene of Savoy, Imperial Field Marshal and President of the Viennese Aulic War Council, watched Sultan Ahmed Ill’s recent conquests in the Morea (Peloponnese) and Crete with great suspicion. On Eugene’s suggestion, the Habsburgs formed a defensive alliance with Venice in 1716, leading to Istanbul’s declaration of war against Vienna.
The war of 1716-17
The 1716 campaign resulted in major Habsburg victories. The Imperial army, 70,000 strong and commanded by Eugene, met the Ottoman army under Grand Vizier Damad Ali Pasha, the victor of the Morea campaign, at Petervarad (Peterwardein ), northwest of Belgrade on the right bank of the Danube. Without Tartar and Wallachian auxiliaries, even the paper strength of the regular Ottoman forces was hardly more than 70,000: 41,000 janissaries and 30,000 sipahis (Turkish cavalry). The battle of Petervarad (5 August 1716) ended with the defeat of the Ottoman troops with some 6,000 dead, including the Grand Vizier. Despite severe Imperial losses of 4,500 dead and wounded, Eugene decided to besiege Ternesvar, the centre of an Ottoman province since 1552 and a strong Ottoman fortress guarded by 12,000 men. Ternesvar’s defenders resisted the siege for 43 days, but eventually gave up the fortress on 16 October. During the winter, Eugene made preparations for next year’s campaign, the main objective being to recapture Belgrade, the strongest Ottoman military base that controlled the main invasion route against Habsburg Hungary.
The battle of Belgrade
On 15 June 1717, using pontoon bridges, the Imperial army under Prince Eugene crossed the Danube at Pancsova (Parceva), east of Belgrade. By 18 June Belgrade was surrounded and the Imperialists were busy building their protective entrenchments against the fortress (countervalation) and the approaching relief army (circumvallation). Eugene’s army had a paper strength of 100,000 men, over 100 field guns and a strong siege artillery train. Defended by the Danube from the north and the Sava from the west, Belgrade was guarded by 30,000 men and 600 cannons under San Mustafa Pasha. When the Ottoman relief army under Grand Vizier Haci Halil Pasha arrived on 27 July, Belgrade had been seriously destroyed by the Habsburg bombardment.
The paper strength of the Ottoman forces was well above 100,000 men. However, contemporaries noticed that regular troops composed only ‘a small proportion of their whole body. The rest… are a mob… ignorant of all discipline, and are neither armed nor trained sufficiently well to make a stand against a regular force.’ Knowing the weakness of his forces, the Grand Vizier chose not to engage Eugene’s army in an open battle. Instead, he kept up a deadly artillery fire on the Imperialists from his elevated position to the east of the city, against which the circumvallation gave little protection. The Imperialists were caught between the defenders’ and the Ottoman field army’s artillery fire. Eugene had to act quickly if he was to save his army, which was suffering not only from enemy fire but also from dysentery.
Hoping that the besieged would not be able to fight for some days after the large explosion on 14 August, Eugene decided to attack the Ottoman army on 16 August. While he left 10,000 men in the trenches facing the fortress, Eugene unleashed his remaining forces in the early morning when the thick fog cleared that had concealed the Imperialists’ movements. Thanks to the courageous Bavarians and at the expense of over 5,000 dead, the Imperialists destroyed the Ottoman army, capturing all 150 pieces of the Ottoman artillery and the Grand Vizier’s camp. The Ottomans, who lost perhaps as many as 10,000 men, retreated towards Niş. A day after the battle the defenders of Belgrade, who – blinded by Windy weather conditions – had remained passive during the battle, surrendered. On 22 August, Eugene and his men moved into the city.
The Austrians won through the boldness of his assault and the superb discipline of their infantry, which advanced with colors flying and drums beating despite Ottoman artillery fire. Holding their fire until they were but a short distance from the Ottoman lines, the Austrians launched a bayonet charge that broke up the Janissaries and produced victory. Ottoman casualties were estimated at 20,000 men, while the Austrians suffered only 2,000 casualties. Five days later, on August 21, Belgrade surrendered to the Austrians.
As their main army retreated south, their other force abandoned the siege of Corfu, releasing pressure on the Venetians. Realizing it was now too late to attack Belgrade, Eugene turned northeast to besiege Timisoara, capital of the Banat and last Turkish enclave north of the Danube. Though an attempt to storm the place on Charles’s birthday (1 October) failed, the garrison surrendered two weeks later after a relief force disintegrated en route through desertion. By the end of the year, the imperialists had overrun most of Wallachia west of the river Olt (Aluta)-the so-called Olteria or Little Wallachia.
Though a successful campaign, it was now obvious that the Austrians had seriously underestimated Ottoman strength, but it was decided to continue the war the following year to consolidate the gains. The arrival of Bavarian and other reinforcements brought Eugene’s army up to 100,000, strong enough to attempt the siege of Belgrade, and, assisted by the Danube Flotilla, the city was completely cut off and subjected to a regular siege. However, Eugene was running out of supplies as an Ottoman relief force approached in August. A lucky shot detonated the city’s largest magazine on the 14th, killing 3,000 of the defenders. Realizing that a sortie was now unlikely, Eugene sallied forth from his trenches with 60,000 men to surprise the Turks in the early morning mist. Fortified by drink and keeping close together, the imperialists poured devastating musketry into the disordered Turkish ranks, routing them and sealing the garrison’s fate. With the fall of Belgrade on 18 August, the Turkish position in Northern Serbia collapsed and the Habsburg frontier advanced south of the Danube to reach the fullest extent achieved during the Great Turkish War.
Charles had no intention of going any further. The Austrians were already beginning to doubt the wisdom of pushing deeper into the Balkan wastelands, and it was clear the Turks desired peace. This was very welcome given that Rakoczi had just arrived in Edirne, raising the spectre of renewed trouble in Hungary. Meanwhile the Turks were suspected of trying to reach a rapprochement with the tsar, and Spain had launched its attempt to recover its lost Italian possessions. Following long negotiations with Anglo-Dutch mediation, peace was concluded at Passarowitz (Pozarevac) on 27 July 1717, confirming Austria’s recent gains. It was not a moment too soon. Austrian units were already departing for Italy, while five days later, the emperor concluded the Quadruple Alliance with France, Britain and the Dutch, thus committing himself to the war with Spain.
The short successful war considerably extended Habsburg territory, indicating that Austria was now a major European power and raising the emperor’s prestige in the Reich. Prince Eugene was a genuine folk hero, and even other generals became household names.
The Battle of Belgrade was a watershed. After the Battle of Belgrade they were firmly on the defensive, no longer expanding in Europe but merely seeking to retain conquered territory.
The Habsburg -Ottoman war of 1716-17 was the briefest of the military conflicts between the two empires. With the conquest of Belgrade and the Ternesvar region, Prince Eugene of Savoy crowned his career as the most successful military leader of his time. The following peace treaty of Passarowitz (1718) restored the ‘natural’ Danube borderline between the two empires.