The high tide of Ottoman expansion to the west saw the Turks burrowing underground in an attempt to take Vienna. Not in the better known siege of 1683, but over 150 years earlier.
During the chill, rainy summer of 1529, they represented the gravest peril Europe had faced in a thousand years, worse even than Attila’s Huns in the 5th century. Attila’s hordes had been barbarian primitives – these new invaders were more advanced and sophisticated than the Western nations in many dangerous ways, particularly in the military sphere.
Named after their first sultan, Osman, the Ottoman Turks settled in what is now Anatolia, in Asia Minor. At a glance they seemed no different from other tribes of wild horsemen in that region. But the Turks possessed two outstanding attributes that made them natural conquerors: They were excellent administrators, and they were very fast learners. The first enabled them to absorb neighboring peoples. The second gave them a rapid grasp of whatever sciences into which they came in contact – engineering, architecture, medicine, astronomy and the use of gunpowder.
In the 14th century, the Turks crossed the Dardanelles Strait into Europe and proceeded to overrun the entire Balkan Peninsula. Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, Romanians and Albanians all came under their domination. And in the process they created what was probably the most remarkable armed force in history.
The Turks were fervent Muslims. But they allowed Christians and Jews in their realm complete freedom of worship, providing they paid a special head tax imposed on all “infidels.” The bitterly poor mountain folk of the Balkans had no money for taxes, so they were charged a “blood tribute” instead. This consisted of the biggest and strongest adolescent boys from each village, who were taken to the capital to become personal slaves of the sultan. What they actually became were janissaries (“new troops”).
The boys, who had grown up in miserable shacks and reared on dry bread and onions, were housed in palaces with carpeted floors and marble bathing pools, with the choicest delicacies as daily rations. Their filthy, verminous rags were exchanged for silken robes. As the Venetian traveler Marcus Stinetti wrote: “Those youths whom I chanced to address believed they had entered paradise by accepting slavery.”
But there was a reverse side to all this luxury. The young men were placed under the harshest possible military discipline and put through staged exercises nearly as fierce as actual battles. Every drill left dead bodies on the parade ground; the slightest show of hesitation was savagely punished. Within months the janissary recruits were turned into robots who would march in ranks over a cliff if ordered.
Though the boys were not compelled to change their religion, they soon learned that conversion to Islam might earn them unlimited promotions – all the way up to commanding general or grand vizier (prime minister). Slavery was no obstacle. They filled most government positions and often grew into fabulously rich slave owners themselves. Most of them converted readily and became more fanatical Muslims than the Turks.
The janissaries were so proud of their superior rations that they used cooking utensils as badges of rank and cauldrons instead of regimental standards. They also adopted a peculiar type of martial music: rolling drums accompanied by shrill, wailing flutes. This was the origin of the fife and drum bands, which Western armies later copied. By the 15th century, those sounds evoked sheer terror, even from a long distance, because the janissaries committed unspeakable atrocities among civilian populations. They were kept away from women in peacetime and forced to live like military monks, but campaigns meant freedom to do anything, especially to unbelievers. The results were mass rapes of young girls and boys, torture, massacres and the systematic devastation of entire countrysides. The sight of the blue tunics and tall, white woolen hats of the janissaries resulted in panicked flight wherever they appeared.
With these new soldiers, Turkey possessed the only regular standing army of the period, and an elite force at that. European countries still depended on mercenaries who had to be raised for every campaign, or feudal levies that were notoriously unreliable. The janissaries were all infantry, but to support them, the Turks built up an artillery arm such as the world had never before seen.
In 1453, the Turks moved on Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire and the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church – the “Second Rome.” Its citizens fought desperately while the Turkish guns pounded their walls to rubble, sending out frantic pleas for help to all Christian nations. None came – they were too busy warring among themselves to respond. Constantinople fell, and the sultan rode his blood-spattered horse into the venerable cathedral of St. Sophia, to proclaim the city his new capital – today’s Istanbul.
From then on, the Ottoman Empire spread with the speed of a forest fire. It reached from Egypt and the Sudan in the south to the Crimea and Ukraine in the north; from Syria, Mesopotamia and Palestine in the east to Bosnia in the west. Its subject peoples included Russians, Tartars, Arabs, Persians, Armenians and Jews, black Nubians and blond Dalmatians. The Turks themselves were a minority. With every new province the stream of tribute money and the number of available soldiers swelled; all were at the command of the sultan in Constantinople. The empire resembled an avalanche that grew in weight and velocity the farther it rolled.
Part 2. Suleiman II
The 10th sultan, Suleiman II, ascended to the Ottoman throne in 1520. The Turks called him “the Lawgiver,” but to foreigners he was Suleiman the Magnificent. His court, the Seraglio, comprised an entire town within the capital, housing approximately 9,000 people and boasting water fountains that danced to music and ponds of goldfish with tiny jewels attached to their fins. His harem contained 300 slave concubines representing every race and nationality in his realm.
Suleiman was the son of a Tartar harem slave. He spoke eight languages fluently, wrote exquisite Persian poetry and composed lute music as a hobby – none of which prevented him from being one of the most ruthless warlords of his age. He enjoyed battle as much as philosophical debate and led his armies personally on horseback. His grand vizier was a Greek slave named Ibrahim, an accomplished violinist who went on campaign with him and, it was rumored, frequently shared his bed. Suleiman, in other words, was the classic Renaissance prince, an Oriental counterpart to the Borgias in Rome, but infinitely more powerful.
The Venetian envoy Ottaviano Bon described Suleiman as “tall and thin, with a smoky complexion and an aquiline nose above drooping mustaches. His hands were finely boned but exceedingly strong, and it is said that he can pull the tautest bowstring in the army. On his head he wore a wide oval turban with an aigrette of peacock feathers, held in place by a clasp of diamonds. His voice was sweet and pleasing, though he never smiled during our discourse.”
Suleiman was kept fully informed about the bitter feuds among the Western powers, several of which secretly sought his aid. He also knew that the rise of Protestantism was tearing Christianity apart. The time seemed ripe for a final westward push by the forces of Islam.
The Turkish assault troops took the important border fortress of Belgrade with almost playful ease. Then Suleiman’s army, 100,000 strong, advanced into Hungary, the gateway to Central Europe. King Lajos II of Hungary was a brave, handsome and extremely stupid young man; he ordered the Turkish ambassadors hanged when they came to demand his submission. Calling for help from other Christian monarchs, Lajos scraped together some 25,000 noble knights and retainers. From his royal colleagues he received fair promises and not a single soldier. In August 1526, he met the Ottomans at Mohacs and was not so much defeated as obliterated. King Lajos and 24,000 of his men were killed in the battle. Hungary became yet another Turkish province.
Suleiman appointed a Transylvanian governor named Janos Zapolya as puppet king of Hungary, and it says a great deal about the state of that country that Zapolya and thousands of Hungarians fought fiercely for the Turks from then on. They had been so cruelly oppressed and impoverished by their own nobles that they felt better off under the sultan.
It took the Ottomans just three years to digest Hungary. Then Suleiman began preparations for the next meal: Austria. King Ferdinand I von Hapsburg of Austria had protested against crowning of the puppet ruler Zapolya. Suleiman sent him a brief and ominous reply via courier: “Tell the king that I will meet him on the field at Mohacs. If he is not there I will come to Vienna and fetch him.
In the spring of 1529, the bulk of the Turkish army started massing in Bulgaria. Joined by their auxiliaries, they comprised the largest armed force ever in Europe – more than 330,000 men, 500 guns and 90,000 camels. They included 20,000 of the crack janissaries and 6,000 Christian Hungarians. Suleiman led this mass, with Ibrahim acting as seraskier (field commander, as distinct from commander in chief). It was a signal honor, since grand viziers, being politicians, usually stayed home.
Part 3. Ottoman Invasion
That spring it rained as it hadn’t rained in living memory. Day after day, week after week the torrents came down, turning the countryside into one vast morass. The Balkan roads became quagmires, the rivers burst their banks and swept away what bridges existed. The camels – creatures of the dry desert – could not gain a foothold in the slippery mud, stumbled, broke their legs and lay down to die by the thousands.
There was no way Suleiman could transport his heavy artillery under these conditions. He therefore decided to leave the big pieces behind – all 200 of them – and push on with only the light field guns. Ibrahim warned him against that move and advised him to postpone the campaign until the following year. Suleiman would not hear of it. Determined to take Vienna that summer, he replied, “It is beneath my dignity to allow the weather to interfere with my plans.”
The sultan banked on the thousands of highly skilled Romanian and Serbian miners in his ranks to reduce the town through mining operations. It was his first – and fatal – mistake in the war. Another soon followed. Suleiman was suffering from hubris, the delusion of invincibility that has broken so many conquerors in the past and would undo so many more in future.
When his army reached Pest, opposite Buda on the Danube, the sultan offered its small German garrison a safe retreat if the soldiers would evacuate the stronghold.The Germans accepted and marched out between two lines of jeering janissaries. But from mutual insults the two sides came to blows, then to cold steel. Within half an hour the Turks killed every man of the garrison, then turned on the town and sabered most of the inhabitants as well.
Word of the massacre spread and acted as a terrible warning for the Austrians not to trust the sultan’s promises. For Suleiman the episode held a different, equally ominous warning – that he couldn’t control the janissaries once they went on a rampage.
Icy fear gripped Vienna as the Turks drew closer. Ferdinand – whose actual title was archduke of Austria, king of Hungary and Bohemia – appealed to his mighty brother, Charles V, emperor of Germany and king of Spain. But Charles was engaged fighting the French in Italy and did not have the resources for a two-front war. Ferdinand, probably remembering King Lajos’ fate, scuttled off to the safety of Bohemia, leaving the Viennese to fend for themselves.
Fortunately for the Austrian capital, some help did arrive. The most valuable came in the person of Nicolas Graf von Salm, a cool, thoroughly experienced professional soldier, 70 years old but steady as a rock. Salm was too low on the nobility scale to be given top command – that went to a Duke Frederick, who gladly let Salm do all the work involved. With him arrived about 1,000 German Landsknechte – formidable, well-trained mercenary pikemen – and 700 Spaniards who were armed with the new-fangled wheel-lock muskets, which fired faster than the old Turkish matchlocks.
Salm took charge of a garrison of 23,000 infantry and 2,000 mounted cuirassiers, plus a total of 75 cannons – a sorry handful compared to the Ottoman host. He inspected the defenses and found them in a miserable state. Vienna was not very large, consisting only of those inner city portions that are today enclosed by the chain of boulevards called “the Ring.” Near the center towered the ancient cathedral of St. Stephen’s, and all around clustered a maze of narrow, crooked, foul-smelling alleys, sprinkled with innumerable taverns and a few grandiose palaces. The city walls were 300 years old and in very bad repair. They were pierced by four gates, the obvious danger points.
Part 4. Defenses
Salm methodically set about preparing the city for a siege. He had fireproof magazines dug, threw up earthwork bastions for the defenders to stand on and used paving stones to erect a second wall of sorts. He tore the inflammable shingles off the roofs and heavily palisaded the four gateways. Every building beyond the walls that might provide cover for the attackers was demolished. For his command post he chose the looming spire of St. Stephen’s, an extremely risky location, but one that gave him the widest possible view of the battlefield.
In order to save precious food supplies, Salm ordered 4,000 women, children and old people evacuated from the city in an escorted column. That turned out to be a tragic error, for by then the Turkish advance horsemen were swarming all over lower Austria, and at the village of Traismauer they swooped down on the convoy. They spared only young women who could be raped and then carried off to be sold as slaves. All the rest, including infants, were butchered, some spitted alive on sharpened stakes. Among the worst perpetrators were Zapolya’s Hungarian scouts.
From the city walls the sentries could see the smoke of burning villages all around them. The Turks were scorching everything in their path, slaughtering or carrying off an estimated half of the peasant population. But it was not until late September, two months behind schedule, that the main body of the Ottoman army reached Vienna.
Overnight the city found itself surrounded by a mass of white tents stretching as far as the eye could see, all the way to the heights of Semmering Mountain. It was an awesome sight and helped to disguise the fact that things were not well with the Turkish army. Roughly one-third of its troops were spahis, light cavalry of very limited use in siege warfare. Of the initial 90,000 pack camels, barely 20,000 remained, and those were in bad shape. The same applied to the men, who had been drenched to the skin for months and were coughing so loudly that the sound drowned out the camp preparations.
Suleiman dispatched couriers with a demand for surrender. “I expect to sup in the city on the last day of September,” his message ran. “If Vienna capitulates only my dignitaries will enter and all will be spared. If you resist, the place will be razed to the ground and all therein put to the sword.” Salm sent the couriers back courteously enough, but minus any reply.
At dawn the following day, 300 cannons opened up on the city, maintaining a steady fire until dusk. The Turkish gunners displayed exemplary discipline; they had managed to keep their powder reserves dry in the torrential rains, and they loaded and fired faster than any Western artillerymen. The bombardment, however, was fairly futile. The heavy pieces, left behind in Bulgaria, would have cracked the walls, but the stone projectiles of the light field guns simply splattered, though at high elevation they curved over the walls and damaged houses. Several lodged in the tower of St. Stephen’s, where they can still be seen by visitors. Salm remained calmly at his post, remarking to an aide, “These pebbles are like the little pills my medico bids me swallow.”
With the balls came showers of arrows fired over the walls. The crescent-shaped Tartar bows used by the Turks were vicious weapons that could propel their arrows through chain mail or iron helmets. But again, these were typical field armament – against fortifications they had only nuisance value.
The defenders’ response was a sudden sally by 100 cavalry that took the Turks by surprise. The horsemen, commanded by the daredevil Eck von Reischach, rode over two gun emplacements, cut down the crews and were back behind the walls before the besiegers could block their retreat. Vienna was holding its own ….for the moment at least.
Part 5. War Underground
The bombardment continued for days, without any sign of a massed attack. But on October 1, a Serbian engineer who claimed Christian parentage sneaked into the town and conveyed some very disturbing information. He said that the cannonade was merely a ploy to hide the real preparations that were proceeding underground. The Turks were digging mine shafts on both sides of the Carinthian Gate, intending to blow up the structure to open the way for their assault troops.
Salm knew all about mine warfare and immediately took countermeasures. He had drums scattered with dried peas and buckets of water placed in the cellars near the walls and posted sentries beside them. The moment the peas rattled or the water showed ripples, the guards sounded the alarm and squads of men began digging down. They found that the Turks were running six different saps, burrowing like moles with astonishing speed.
The counterminers shoveled until they struck the tunnels. Some were deserted, with huge bags of gunpowder stacked and ready to be exploded. The raiders carried them off as booty. In other shafts the work was still going on, and they became scenes of macabre subterranean combat. Neither side dared to fire a shot and could barely see each other by the light of shaded lanterns. The half-naked men fought with picks, spades, daggers and clubs, with bare fists and occasionally their teeth. Wounded men were trampled to death. Comrades killed comrades because they couldn’t distinguish friend from foe. The low, narrow shafts allowed no room to dodge, so every thrust or blow found a target. The survivors crawled back to the surface half crazed, black with earth and covered in blood, looking, as one eyewitness described, like “devils from the nether pit of hell.”
The defenders disarmed most of the saps, but new ones were being dug all the time and not all were discovered. On October 5, two mines exploded with ear-shattering roars at the Salt Gate, tearing holes large enough for a company to march through. The janissaries charged before the dust had settled but ran into a bastion behind the breach. On the bastion stood the Landsknechte armed with 12-foot pikes and halberds. Thrusting down with their long weapons, the pikemen had a distinct advantage over the Turks, who carried only their curved, razor-sharp scimitars. The attack was repulsed with heavy losses. The moment the Turks had withdrawn, the defenders were blocking the breach with sandbags and stone-filled baskets.
That night a new type of raiding party struck the Ottoman camp. This time the raiders came on foot and in utter silence, wearing black cloaks. Each one carried two homemade bombs – earthenware containers filled with powder and chopped lead – which they hurled into the tents. The glowing streaks of the burning fuses were the only warning the sleepers had before the grenades exploded and the lead pellets tore into them. More than 2,000 Turks died in their shredded tents.
The mining and the charges that followed went on day after day, accompanied by gunfire. A huge mine went up under the Carinthian Gate and effectively demolished the twin guard towers. Again the Turks found a bastion already erected behind it, manned by pikemen, Spanish arquebusiers with their wheel locks and Bohemians wielding two-handed swords that could slice an opponent in half. The janissaries piled in, were cut down and climbed over the heaps of dead, only to be slaughtered in turn. When the attackers finally fell back they left a mountain of 1,200 bodies.
The fighting underground took on even more gruesome forms. The counterminers now used spades with sharpened edges, both as digging tools and weapons. A blow could take a man’s head off. The Turks employed short cavalry maces, designed to smash helmets and crack skulls. On one occasion a spark exploded the stored powder prematurely, blowing up friend and foe alike in one indistinguishable mass. Nobody knows just how many men died in these nightmarish clashes beneath the earth.
Part 6. Ottoman Retreat
Watching the battle, Sultan Suleiman could see that his mining operations were too unpredictable to be effective. Most of the mines were emptied before they could be blown. Sometimes the debris fell inward, creating new obstacles instead of clearing them. And the defenders were fighting like men possessed, fully aware that they were the last barrier of Christendom preventing the Muslim tide from flooding Western Europe. They had by now mounted their own guns on reinforced rooftops. Their fire was raking the Turkish camps, ploughing into troop formations and killing scores of horses. Several of their Viennese cannons were so-called royals, which outranged any of the besiegers weapons.
On October 11, the heavens opened again and more rain poured down. Thousands more of the camels subsequently sickened and died. The coughing in the Ottoman army swelled as the campsites became waterlogged. Entire units fell out with fever chills. To make matters worse, food supplies were running low. The Turks had so thoroughly devastated the countryside that it could no longer support hundreds of thousands of hungry men.
Suleiman held a war council in his tent and decided on one final all-out attempt to capture the city. He intended to winter there, then continue the westward march with the coming of spring, when dry roads would enable him to bring up his heavy ordnance. This time the assault formations were reversed. The bashi-bazouks, an inferior militia, would go in first and tire out the defenders by the sheer press of their bodies. Then the janissaries would follow to push through into the city. The attack would be thrice renewed, regardless of the losses. The sultan also decided on the unprecedented step of offering a cash bonus of 1,000 silver aspers for each janissary. This was unheard of – hitherto those elite troops had fought only for loot and for glory, confident that death in battle would gain them immediate entry into heaven.
The attack began on the morning of October 14. Seraskier Ibrahim himself joined the janissaries. The drive was aimed at two points: the ruined Carinthian Gate and a protruding bastion called the Berg. One of the mines failed to blow; the other went off with a thunderous roar, hurling bodies into the air. The Turks surged forward, howling like demons, only to run into more palisades and the terrible rows of long pikes. Count Salm left his lookout position and took personal command. Almost immediately he was hit in the side and leg by stone splinters and had to be carried off. The wounds eventually killed him.
The bashi-bazouks fell back, were whipped forward by their onbashes (sergeants), fell back again, and were again driven toward the menacing spears. Their dead and wounded piled up, but they made no headway. Then the janissaries took over, only to be decimated by musket fire from both flanks. The musketeers rested their weapons on forked stands, which gave them steady aim. The attackers had pistols, but couldn’t use them in the wild press. Those who did mostly hit their own comrades. They charged and charged again, breaking one line of pikes only to be confronted by another. Hand bombs with hissing fuses rained down on them, exploding with terrible effect. Two small field pieces positioned on the Berg spewed grapeshot into the attackers. Mounds of entangled bodies hampered the men advancing from behind, who had to climb over them while musket balls inflicted more casualties.
The janissaries reeled back, though no signal for retreat had been given. Ibrahim used his horsewhip, then his saber to drive them forward, only to be ignored or cursed. For the first time in the 200 years of their existence, the janissaries refused to obey. They flooded to the rear, first in trickles, then in swarms, not stopping until they had reached their tents. Some even began to strike the tents without orders. There was no pursuit.
Part 7. Consequences
During that night the Turks packed up their campsites. The people in Vienna were kept awake by dreadful shrieks coming from the camps. The Ottomans were setting fire to the baggage they couldn’t carry and hurling their bound prisoners into the flames. Hundreds were roasted alive, but hundreds more managed to escape in the confusion and ran toward the city walls. They were hoisted up by ropes. The Viennese refused to open any gates. They couldn’t believe that the danger was over.
The following day the sea of tents around the city had nearly disappeared. Snow began to fall, far too early in the season. The weather that year, more than anything, had saved Vienna. The Turks marched off unhampered after Sultan Suleiman announced solemnly, “Allah, in His wisdom, has not yet permitted us to capture Vienna.” The Ottoman losses were estimated at between 18,000 and 25,000, several times higher than those of the garrison. But civilian casualties had been ghastly – lower Austria was virtually depopulated. In some villages the invaders left pyramids of human heads in place of inhabitants. Thousands of young girls were dragged off to the slave markets and never heard from again.
In Vienna the commanders were at first unable to believe their good fortune. They thought the Ottoman retreat was a feint to put them off guard. They also believed that the Turks had smuggled in scores of spies and saboteurs among the escaped prisoners. The provost marshal, a brute named Wilhelm von Roggendorf, had all the men examined to see whether they were circumcised, to confirm that they were Muslims. Those who bore the mark were hanged immediately. Others were tortured, and while their toes were crushed and their arms torn out of the sockets, a few poor wretches “confessed” to being Turkish agents. They were drawn and quartered in public while the audience cheered.
When the Austrians cautiously entered the Turkish campsites, they found some sacks filled with glistening black beans nobody had ever seen before. A Turkish prisoner explained that this was coffee, imported from Arabia and used by the Muslims as a stimulant, since the Koran forbade them wine. The Viennese brewed the stuff but found it too bitter for their taste. It was only after someone hit on the idea of adding honey that the new drink caught on, with a vengeance. A coffee house – the first such establishment in the West – opened in Vienna the following year.
In retrospect, the defeat at Vienna signaled the beginning of the decline of the Ottoman Empire. The invincible janissaries had been forced to retreat, and their morale was impaired. The Turks teamed the hard way how dangerous such elite guards can be to their own side. The janissaries grew more and more insubordinate, threatening and occasionally murdering their monarchs. Instead of the janissaries being slaves of the sultan, the sultan frequently became their prisoner.
For Suleiman, Vienna marked another kind of decline. He remained the Magnificent, but fell under the strange domination of a harem beauty. Little is known about her, not even her real name. The courtiers called her Roxelana, meaning “the Russian,” or Khurrem, the “Laughing One.” Her laughter, however, concealed a poisonous intent. Whatever the reason for the power she wielded over her master, she induced Suleiman to have his devoted grand vizier Ibrahim strangled, followed by his eldest son, Mustapha, a promising young heir. Roxelana contrived instead to gain the succession for her own offspring, Selim II. He was a warped creature nicknamed “the Sot,” a confirmed alcoholic despite the Islamic ban on liquor.
Selim took over after Suleiman’s death in 1566, and from then on the realm went steadily downhill. The Turks never produced another capable sultan, though there were many cruel ones. Their military prowess declined decade by decade as the Western nations rapidly improved their armaments and organization. The Turks still counted as a major power; they even staged another – disastrous – siege of Vienna in 1683. But as a menace to Europe they were finished the rainy night they folded their tents and retreated into the Balkans.