Vienna and the Failure to Complete the Crescent II

The strategic plan was to take Vienna in the late summer of 1529, winter there and, drawing in reinforcements, proceed to a spring campaign for the preliminary conquest of Germany. Francis of France could be counted on to keep the empire busy on the opposite flank, the one Charles regarded as vital; Ferdinand, like young King Lajos, would have to depend pretty much on his own resources. Suleiman had observed that these Christian kingdoms lacked such unity of action as was conferred by the combined sultanate-caliphate.

On April 10, 1529, the sultan left Istanbul with more than 200,000 men. The Janissaries were sent up the Danube in boats; King John Zápolya would join with a contingent in Hungary.

Ferdinand, in addition to his title of King of Hungary, was also Archduke of Austria and King of Bohemia. As soon as he heard that Suleiman was on the march, with his ultimate destination the Rhine, meetings of the estates were called in all the dominions where Ferdinand had any authority. The leading limitation on all Central European monarchies of the date was that of weak police power. Austria voted to send every tenth man for the defense of Vienna, but could by no means enforce it, and Bohemia, where the estates valiantly declared in favor of mobilizing every man capable of bearing arms, actually sent only 2,000, and these not till late August. The Diet of the empire, which was assembled at Speyer, voted an assistance of 12,000 foot and 2,000 horse, but tacked on a provision that no troops at all were to move until a deputation had visited Hungary to find out whether this nonsense about a Turkish drive was really true; then went into a series of almost interminable debates as to who should command the imperial forces if it turned out that they were really needed. Charles V was in Italy, very much concerned about what the French were doing there, and Pope Clement VII was intensely occupied in re-establishing the Medici dukedom of Florence in place of the republic.

That is, nobody wished to believe there was any real danger except the men on the spot. Fortunately for Germany and Europe there were a couple of very good men on the spot. The better was a certain Graf Nicolas zu Salm-Reifferscheidt, all his life a soldier of the empire, who had fought at Pavia and personally wounded and been wounded by King Francis. Salm was already sixty-six at that time, and in the year of Suleiman’s invasion seventy; a man who had defended the Croat and Slovene lands against the puppet King Zápolya and who knew the country. He was too minor a noble to be named formally as commander; after its endless debate the Diet at Speyer gave this office to Duke Friedrich of the Palatinate.

Graf Nicolas reached Vienna in the early days of September; not long after his arrival word came through that Suleiman had taken Pesth, where the empire had a small garrison, and the Janissaries had slaughtered every man in the place. If any news were needed to stir the Viennese to work on their defenses this was probably it; but down to the coming of Graf Nicolas there had been nobody to take the lead, to tell people what to do. And there was everything to do; the city wall dated from approximately the time when Rudolph of Hapsburg made the place his capital in 1276, was only six feet thick and ruinous, enclosing the strictly limited area now known as “the Ring.” The outer palisade beyond the dry ditch was so weak that it bore and deserved the name of “city hedge”—Städtzaun; the citadel was an old building of brick and timber; the houses roofed with highly inflammable shingles. There were no magazines.

Graf Nicolas sent details out to scout the countryside for every kind of food, while in and around the city he built and destroyed. All the houses of the suburbs outside the ancient wall were pulled down or burned to deprive the attackers of cover, including the great city hospital, two churches, and three convents. There was no time to build new masonry walls or to extend the old ones; where they were weak, earthwork bastions were thrown up and stoutly palisaded. The bank of the Danube arm that swings past the city was also trenched and fitted with palisades. To avoid the ricochet of shot all the paving stones were taken up and most of them used for a new loose wall inside the old from the Stuben to the Kärnthner Gate—on the east side, along the creek that is called the Wiener Bach, where the old defenses were weakest.

Graf Nicolas conducted a conscientious census, assembling as many of the useless mouths as he could, women, children, old men and ecclesiastics, for dispatch outside the city. On 21 September word came that the Turks were across the river Raab and had taken the outpost of Altenberg; two days later there arrived in the city 700 first-class Spaniards and about 1,000 German troops of the empire under the Pfalzgraf Philip, the second of the two good leaders in the defense. He said that the deputation from the Diet of Speyer had reported that the Turkish danger was indeed serious, and Duke Friedrich had come as far forward as Linz with the imperial contingent but, hearing that Suleiman was in great force, declined to risk ruin by advancing any farther.

That same day there was a skirmish outside the walls between a body of Turks and 500 cuirassiers under Graf Hardegg; the cuirassiers were driven in with the loss of seven prisoners, four of whom were presently sent to Vienna by the sultan, richly dressed, to bear his terms. He expected to breakfast in the city on the twenty-ninth; if it would surrender at discretion, none of his people but functionaries should enter and all would be secure; if it held out the place would be so utterly destroyed that no one would know where it had stood, and every living thing in it would be put to the sword. In view of the general proceedings of the Turks one could believe that; the word was that the light troops of their vanguard had come up with a convoy of 5,000 of the useless mouths at Traismauer and massacred every one of them.

Graf Nicolas had four Turkish prisoners dressed as richly as the cuirassier messengers and sent them to Suleiman. They bore no word in return. The garrison numbered 22,000 foot, 2,000 horse, and seventy-two guns of as nearly as many calibers and makes. The cavalry were stationed in the four main squares to rush wherever they were needed; a master gunner was assigned to each of the pieces. Pfalzgraf Philip outranked Salm, but cheerfully waived the fact and only countersigned his orders. There were nearly 350,000 of the attackers.

That summer it had rained. It rained with an intensity such as few people in that part of Europe had seen, day after day, one of the most remarkable meteorological events of the century. Suleiman would have thought it beneath him to be impeded by the weather, and in fact he did not allow himself to be. The horsemen who formed the largest numerical proportion of his army were not, and ahead of the main body there moved a corps of 20,000 of them, called by the Turks akinji, or “sackmen,” whose specific task was to devastate the country and destroy the inhabitants in preparation for Turkish occupation. They were the people who cut off the 5,000 non-combatants at Traismauer, and it is estimated that they got rid of two thirds of the population of the districts through which they moved, which cannot be much of an exaggeration.

The horsemen could thus move, no matter how wet it was. The camp followers, baggage, and women could move after a fashion in wagons, and it did not matter if they fell behind, because everything they supplied could be had by ravaging the countryside. The Janissary infantry and the light guns moved up the Danube in boats. But there was one force that could not move at all through those perpetual rains in a country largely wooded and with no metalled roads. That was the heavy artillery, the siege guns, which weighed all the way up to twelve tons apiece. Even the Danube flotilla could not carry such monsters, and they were left behind, to the number of 200.

In view of the number of his troops, the fact that he was joined at Mohács by Zápolya, who commanded certain Hungarian loyalties, and the skill of his engineers, this did not seem particularly important to Suleiman. He planned on mining operations if Vienna did not surrender easily, and some thousands of his host were experienced miners from Wallachia and Moldavia. When he arrived opposite the city on September 26 and set up seven great camps around it—tents visible as far as the eye could reach from the tower of St. Stephen, where Salm established his observation post—the first thing he did was to command regular parallels at the southwest side of the city and mining operations against the Kärnthner Gate area on the south side, accompanied by artillery bombardment and a ceaseless storm of arrows.

It was characteristic of Suleiman the Magnificent that while these arrows were so numerous that they made the streets near the walls unsafe, many of them were finished with costly fabrics and even inlaid with pearls. The Janissaries fired most of them from the ruins of the suburban houses. The results from the guns available were notably poor against Salm’s emergency earthworks; after the first day target was shifted to the taller buildings, notably St. Stephen’s tower, and it says something about the quality of Turkish gunnery practice that they could not even drive Graf Nicolas from his post. The artillery of the defense does not seem to have been much better in the beginning. Many of the embrasures in the old walls were so narrow that the guns would not traverse properly and there was no fund of experience in mounting pieces behind earthwork bastions. But Salm, or someone under him, had a highly judgmatical eye; some of the guns were removed to the tops of buildings, and for others platforms were built, after which they really began to hurt, especially in the areas along the river.

This was to have a highly important result, but in the meanwhile the main event was a cavalry sally from the Kärnthner Gate, led by the Austrian Eck von Reischach on the twenty-ninth, the day Suleiman proposed to breakfast in Vienna. Von Reischach had spotted numbers of the Turks spread out among the vineyards on that side, and killed a lot of them before they could assemble. Through the next day it was all shooting, and at noon on October 1 the result of the good artillery practice along the river appeared in the form of a Turk who came out of the no man’s land created by the guns and said he was of Christian parents, bearing information.

He was turned over to the cavalry commander, Wilhelm von Roggendorf, who had him tortured a little to make sure he was telling the truth, and thus learned that the Turks were driving mines in an utterly unexpected spot—not where their parallels were, opposite the Berg, but right under the Wiener Bach, on both sides the Kärnthner Gate. Countermining was ordered at once; next morning a big mine under the gate tower was broken into and destroyed in a strange underground battle by torchlight. General Roggendorf gave the deserter substance for life; guards were placed in all the cellars, with drums scattered over with dried peas, where activity was suspected.

Suleiman’s technique of mining had failed to work by surprise; but there was no other means of getting into the city, so he turned to making it work by main force and superior numbers. More mines were dug in the Kärnthner Gate area and all along under the Wiener Bach. Twice countermines reached the Turkish powder chambers and as much as eight tons of explosive was carried off from one of them; three times in the stormy week between October 4 and October 12 mines did go off and made breaches in the walls, one of them wide enough for twenty-four men abreast. The always victorious Janissaries assaulted these breaches; but behind them were palisades, and behind the palisades Spanish arquebusiers and German Landsknechts with their long swords and huge halberds, quite as rough citizens as the Janissaries, and better armed for the conditions. There were 1,200 bodies in the breach on the afternoon of the twelfth.

Late that night there was a council of war in the Turkish camp. It was still raining, the food situation in the huge army had become distinctly serious, since provision convoys could not move. The losses had not been intolerable in numerical terms—the figures ran between 14,000 and 20,000—but their incidence was alarming, most of them falling on the aristocratic horsemen and the Janissaries. The latter proud troops were depressed and doing something they had never done before, complaining that their lives were being sacrificed uselessly. The vizier, Ibrahim, remarked that the law of the Koran had been satisfied by three main assaults, each three times renewed. But Suleiman the Magnificent was not satisfied. Three more great mines, one on each side of the Kärnthner Gate, one directly under the Berg, were just ready, and he wanted a really grand attack, the whole force of the army, supported by all its guns. He promised the Janissaries a donative of 1,000 aspers per man for this attack, with 30,000 aspers and promotion to the highest military rank for the first man inside the city.

On the morning of the fourteenth everything was ready. At nine the order to explode the mines was given and the sacred horsetails borne forward. The thing miscarried from the start. The mine at the Berg never went off at all (the Austrians had countermined it and robbed it of its powder) and though the Kärnthner Gate mines made a breach 130 feet across, the rubble fell outward, and the defense had a trench inside with new palisades, behind which waited the same nasty Spaniards and Germans with their long spits. From the walls the Turkish officers, including the vizier himself, could be seen trying to drive the men forward with whips and sabers. It was no use; for the first time in Turkish history an army refused to advance any farther, almost en masse.

Graf Salm was hit in the hip by the splinters of a stone ball during the attack, a wound from which he never recovered, but that night Vienna was kept awake by the light of fires, as the Janissaries burned everything not portable, and the screams as they threw their prisoners into the fire. Next morning they were gone. It snowed.

In the deserted camps the Austrians found some curious- looking brown beans. They boiled them; the beans themselves were not very good, but the soup that came from them proved quite potable. It was the first coffee in Europe.

Various causes add up to the Turkish defeat at Vienna, one of the main ones undoubtedly Suleiman’s lack of those heavy guns that had battered holes in besieged places from Constantinople to Rhodes to Belgrade. The rains deprived him of the guns and also of the time to take the city without them, and the miners were not a particularly efficient substitute. They produced gaps in the walls, but their very operations allowed new defenses to be set up behind the gaps, and mass attacks were powerless against these defenses. Yet the breaking of the siege had a positive technical side as well as a negative; those resolute Spanish arquebusiers and German Landsknechts were something the Janissaries had not encountered before; and the West had at last developed a tactical force that could meet the standing army of the Turkish Empire on equal terms.

Yet it was the effects rather than the causes that made Vienna decisive. The unbeatable Janissaries had been beaten, and not only beaten, but broken in morale. They were only human after all, and now they knew it. Not only that; a main line of the story lies in that donative of 1,000 aspers per man to make them undertake an attack they would normally have urged upon their sultan. Vienna, in fact, marked the end of the Janissaries as the tribute-children fanatics founded by Ala ed-Din. They began by taking in their own children and making it a privilege to be a Janissary with the disabilities that accompany any hereditary caste, and there was eventually nothing left of them but the savagery that made them throw prisoners into the fire.

This development did not reach its peak at once, to be sure. The Janissaries were to turn into unruly Praetorian guards, who made and unmade sultans, and this was perhaps inevitable. But even determinism must admit that Vienna started them down the long slide. After they had been defeated there and were paid extra for being defeated, their basic morale broke and they were never the same. The marvelous Turkish military instrument had a crack in it.

So did the marvelous Turkish family of the Othmanli sultans. Suleiman had a son, Mustapha, universally and probably correctly reported as not inferior in ability to any in the line. He was reasonably friendly with the vizier, Ibrahim, but after his birth there had been brought to Suleiman the Russian girl known historically as Roxelana. After the defeat at Vienna she became for Suleiman something rare in Oriental history, a devouring passion which nothing could slake. She bore him two sons and a daughter, and it was elementary that she should want one of her sons to be the heir of empire. There were two barriers; and in spite of the fact that Turkish sultans usually kept their private and public lives separate, the defeat at Vienna made it quite easy for Roxelana to destroy the major hindrance, Suleiman’s friend, the almost genius, Ibrahim. He was executed for inefficiency, Roxelana married her daughter to a man whom she had no difficulty in getting promoted to the viziership, and started a deliberate campaign against Mustapha. One afternoon when he called on his father he was met by the seven mutes with their bowstrings, whom Suleiman watched at their work, urging them to hurry.

That was the end of the great line. Roxelana’s son Selim became sultan, but he was correctly known as Selim the Sot, and down to the time Kemal Ataturk overthrew the remains of the dynasty, the Othmanli never produced another able man. For some years the Turks made faces and horrible noises in Eastern Europe, but always on a declining scale, always steps going down. They even worked up to another siege of Vienna in 1683, but it was a matter of local politics and brought on them the combined forces of Venice, Poland, Austria, and Russia, and the end of it was that they lost most of Hungary and all of the Crimea. The real Turkish danger to Europe was ended for good on the morning of October 14, 1529.

And this was not all that was ended. When Martin Luther heard of the advance of Suleiman against the Hungarians, he declared it was a visitation from God in punishment for the sins of the Pope and his bishops; but after Suleiman started for the Rhine by way of Vienna, he rapidly changed stance and declared it the duty of every Christian to oppose the Turk. This had a double effect; for Charles the Emperor, already involved in a two-front war against France in Italy and the Netherlands, could not neglect the help of the north German Protestants. He therefore tolerated internal religious disorder for the sake of keeping out the external, and not a few of the stern halberdiers of Vienna were Lutherans. By the time Charles was ready to turn against the Protestants, they were too solidly established for even an emperor to cut them down.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *