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How Poland saved Europe from the Ottomans in 1683 and how Europe repaid it

Updated: Sep 12, 2021

On September 12, 1683, the King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Jan Sobieski, literally saved Europe when he personally led the one of the largest cavalry charges in history against the Ottoman army besieging the city of Vienna. The charge destroyed the huge Ottoman army and ended the Battle for Vienna in an overwhelming victory for the Polish and their allies. In the summer of 1683, the main army of the Ottoman Empire, a huge and well-equipped force commanded by the top Ottoman general, the grand vizier Kara Mustafa, surrounded and besieged Vienna. On July 14, the Ottoman army of roughly 150,000 soldiers set up camp in front of Vienna. An Ottoman envoy appeared at the gates with the demand that the Christians “accept Islam and live in peace under the Sultan!”. The Holy Roman Emperor Leopold and his court abandoned Vienna and retreated to Passau with all the treasure they could carry, but not before sending out a desperate a call for his allies, most notably to the Polish Lithuanian commonwealth, to come to his, and Europe's aid. The capture of Vienna was an extremely important object to the Ottoman empire. If the Ottomans had captured Vienna, they would have been able project their military might all over western, central and north Europe and launch invasions all across it.

Ottoman troops besieging Vienna.

The situation inside the city grew steadily more desperate as water ran low, garbage piled high in the streets, and little by little the familiar diseases of the besieged—cholera, typhus, dysentery, scurvy—took hold. Yet the defenders managed to hold out for two months. The Holy Roman empire capital was nearing the end of its ability to resist: but just as the capture of Vienna was becoming only a matter of time, a relief army of some sixty thousand men under the command of the Polish king King John III Sobieski came to its rescue. Sobieski and his army, which was comprised of Polish and their Austrian and German allies, crossed the Danube at Tuln, and marched through the Wienerwald—a mountainous no man’s land covered in dense forest—to approach the city from the west. The Ottomans, assuming that no relief army of any size could possibly penetrate the Wienerwald, had left it largely undefended. It would be a fatal mistake.

Jan Sobieski.

The following morning, the relief army swept down from the hills on the largely unprepared and poorly defended Turkish encampments below. Kara Mustafa rejected the advice of some of his officers to abandon the siege and concentrate his full attention on the substantial force to his rear. Instead, the grand vizier kept up the pressure on Vienna, diverting only an estimated six thousand infantry and twenty-two thousand cavalry, backed by six cannons, from the siege. At first that seemed to be enough as the Austrian and German elements of the relief force failed to break through the Ottomans lines, but all that changed as soon as the Poles joined the fight. At around 6:00 pm, In one of the largest cavalry charges in history, eighteen thousand horsemen came screaming down the forested hills, to the cheers of the German and Austrian soldiers. John III Sobieski, at the head of his 3,000 Polish heavy lancers (the famed "Husaria" or the "Winged Hussars", Europe's best and most feared cavalry units) led the cavalry charge straight down to the heart of the Ottoman army. Sobieski and the Polish "Husaria" smashed through the lines of the Ottomans, not stopping until they reahched Kara Mustafa's own command tent, and sent the whole Ottoman army into a panicked retreat, and won the battle. “We came, we saw, and God conquered,” wrote Sobieski to Pope Innocent XI, echoing Julius Caesar’s famous remark on the conquest of Pontus, in modern Turkey.

Polish heavy cavalry, the "Winged Hussars" or "Husaria"

The siege was ended. Those Turks who had not been killed or captured fled back toward Belgrade. Kara Mustafa succeeded in taking most of his treasure with him, but it would do him little good. As so often happened to those who had failed the sultan, he was strangled two months later.

The spectacular victory that The Polish army along with its European allies achieved in the battle for Vienna ended over 200 years of Ottoman expansion into Europe, and remains one of the most important battles in European history.

However, just over a 100 years later, the same European allies who were saved by Poland from an Ottoman invasion, together with Russia, would wage war, partition and finally destroy the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795. Ironically, the only major European power that refused to acknowledge the partitions of the Polish Lithuanian commonwealth was no other than the Ottoman empire. Read more on How Europe destroyed the first European constitutional democracy, the Polish Lithuanian commonwealth. Bibliography: "Jan Sobieski: The King Who Saved Europe.", Miltiades Varvounis. "Heart of Europe." Norman Davies. " Poland: A History." Adam Zamoyski.

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