The Magnificent and the Mercenary:The Siege of Vienna, 1529

 

††††††††††† The Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1529, led by the renowned and militarily adroit sultan Suleiman II the Magnificent, was perhaps Europeís single most terrifying moment since the days of the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage.Rarely had Christian Europe been so directly threatened by an invading Muslim force.Even the Battle of Poitiers in 732 A.D. involved what was effectively a Muslim raiding party led by the Berber conqueror of Spain, Tariq; in contrast, Suleiman meant business, and he amassed an army reminiscent of the Mongol invasions three centuries before, with hundreds of thousands of troops and deadly janissaries supported by conscripted Balkan infantrymen, as well as thousands of war camels, horse-mounted cavalry, and the most advanced firearms munitions of the time.The spring and summer rains of that year were unexpectedly intense and provided the Austrians with a desperately-needed respite and some time to prepare and reinforce the Viennese defenses; furthermore, like the unusually heavy rains that would create a river of mud that practically smothered an entire British army at WWIís Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, the deluge of 1529 engendered a morass which delayed and frustrated Suleimanís vanguard, miring much of the cavalry and thinning the armyís ranks somewhat with desertion and disease.Yet most of Suleimanís strike force remained intact, and thus a formidable menace approached the city gates by the middle of the year.Many of the walled cityís leaders had fled in apprehension, and the defense of Viennaóand, to a substantial extent, of Europe in generalólay in the hands of a resourceful old German mercenary named Nicholas Salm (Nicholas, Graf von Salm), who had been hastily appointed to supervise the response to Suleimanís looming threat.Perhaps never before or since has a hired gun been so pivotally instrumental in the course of events, for had Salm failed (and there were many places where he could have), the history of at least southern and central Europe would have been radically altered.Austria, the southern German principalities, and the Low Countries may well have fallen under Ottoman hegemony, and the Papal States themselves would have been rendered vulnerable to attack.

††††††††††† The siege of Vienna is historically remarkable not only for its high stakes, but also for the historically unprecedented settings of the major clashes.Suleiman commenced a cannonade against the city walls, but this bombardment was in fact a clever diversion for Suleimanís shrewd plan to undermine Viennese defenses:surreptitiously constructing a network of tunnels to enable the placement and detonation of gunpowder keg mines beneath the Viennese gates and the bastion towers surrounding them.Having acquired intelligence about Suleimanís plan, von Salm implemented a crafty reconnaissance strategy which enabled him to discern the approximate locations of the subterranean passages.Von Salm then authorized the excavation of counter-tunnels by the defenders, whose mission it was to intercept the Ottoman miners and collect the mines before they could be transported and detonated beneath the Viennese fortresses.The result of this was the worldís first and perhaps only recorded instance of a pitched underground battle.The Austrians rapidly located and infiltrated the Ottoman subterranean corridors, and the two sides soon confronted each other in the dimly-lit caverns beneath the surface.Since highly combustible ordnance was stashed throughout the catacombs, the combatants were compelled to refrain from discharging their firearms and wage brutal hand-to-hand combat with their tools, ensuing in a ferocious and thoroughly bizarre battlefield throughout the underground pathways outside Viennaís gates.Most mines were detected and defused, but the Ottomans were eventually able to breach a crucial Viennese gate with a well-placed mine and topple the defensive tower in its vicinity, charging the urban center with cavalry and the lethal janissary vanguard.Von Salm, however, had prepared well for this eventuality, and his well-trained German/Spanish/Italian defensive garrison cut down the Ottoman attackers with deadly pike thrusts and grapeshot, forcing them back.Von Salm decimated the Ottoman forward ranks later than night with an improvised explosive attack on their tents, then thwarted yet another major series of Ottoman charges over the next several days.His infantry and cavalry depleted and once again beset by heavy rains, Suleiman retreated late in October, content to allow a future Turkish invasion force to try another day.In fact, that day did come in 1683, when yet another Ottoman invasion force under Kara Mustafa laid siege to Vienna much like Suleiman 150 years prior.But this time, a combined force of German, Austrian, and Polish soldiers, ably led by the cunning Polish king and cavalry commander John Sobieski, established a pincers on the Ottoman invasion force from three sides, occasioning a devastating defeat that would permanently halt Ottoman attempts to conquer central Europe.The Turks then turned their interests elsewhere, to central Asia and southern Russia, and central and western Europe were finally free of the onus of defending against Europeís nemeses from Constantinople.

 

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