Historical Tales: 5—German - Charles Morris

The Siege of Vienna

Once more the Grand Turk was afoot. Straight on Vienna he had marched, with an army of more than two hundred thousand men. At length he had reached the goal for which he had so often aimed, the Austrian capital, while all western Europe was threatened by his arms. The grand vizier, Kara Mustapha, headed the army, which had marched straight through Hungary without wasting time in petty sieges, and hastened towards the imperial city with scarce a barrier in its path.

Consternation filled the Viennese as the vast army of the Turks rolled steadily nearer and nearer, pillaging the country as it came, and moving onward as irresistibly and almost as destructively as a lava flow. The emperor and his court fled in terror. Many of the wealthy inhabitants followed, bearing with them such treasures as they could convey. The land lay helpless under the shadow of terror which the coming host threw far before its columns.

But pillage takes time. The Turks, through the greatness of their numbers, moved slowly. Some time was left for action. The inhabitants of the city, taking courage, armed for defence. The Duke of Lorraine, whose small army had not ventured to face the foe, left twelve thousand men in the city, and drew back with the remainder to wait for reinforcements. Count Rüdiger of Stahrenberg was left in command, and made all haste to put the imperilled city in a condition of defence.

On came the Turks, the smoke of burning villages the signal of their approach. On the 14th of June, 1683, their mighty army appeared before the walls, and a city of tents was built that covered a space of six leagues in extent.

Their camp was arranged in the form of a crescent, enclosing within its boundaries a promiscuous mass of soldiers and camp-followers, camels, and baggage-wagons, which seemed to extend as far as the eye could reach. In the centre was the gorgeous tent of the vizier, made of green silk, and splendid with its embroidery of gold, silver, and precious stones, while inside it was kept the holy standard of the prophet. Marvellous stories are told of the fountains, baths, gardens, and other appliances of Oriental luxury with which the vizier surrounded himself in this magnificent tent.

Parliament house in Vienna


Two days after the arrival of the Turkish host the trenches were opened, the cannon placed, and the siege of Vienna began. For more than two centuries the conquerors of Constantinople had kept their eyes fixed on this city as a glorious prize. Now they had reached it, and the thunder of their cannon around its walls was full of threat for the West. Vienna once theirs, it was not easy to say where their career of conquest would be stayed.

Fortunately, Count Rüdiger was an able and vigilant soldier, and defended the city with a skill and obstinacy that baffled every effort of his foes. The Turks, determined on victory, thundered upon the walls till they were in many parts reduced to heaps of ruins. With incessant labor they undermined them, blew up the strongest bastions, and laid their plans to rush into the devoted city, from which they hoped to gain a glorious booty. But active as they were the besieged were no less so. The damage done by day was repaired by night, and still Vienna turned a heroic face to its thronging enemies.

Furious assaults were made, multitudes of the Turks rushing with savage cries to the breaches, only to be hurled back by the obstinate valor of the besieged. Every foot of ground was fiercely contested, the struggle at each point being desperate and determined. It was particularly so around the Loebel bastion, where scarcely an inch of ground was left unstained by the blood of the struggling foes.

Count Rüdiger, although severely wounded, did not let his hurt reduce his vigilance. Daily he had himself carried round the circle of the works, directing and cheering his men. Bishop Kolonitsch attended the wounded, and with such active and useful zeal that the grand vizier sent him a threat that he would have his head for his meddling. Despite this fulmination of fury, the worthy bishop continued to use his threatened head in the service of mercy and sympathy.

But the numbers of the garrison grew rapidly less, and their incessant duty wore them out with fatigue. The commandant was forced to threaten death to any sentinel found asleep upon his post. A fire broke out which was only suppressed with the greatest exertion. Famine also began to invade the city, and the condition of the besieged grew daily more desperate. Their only hope lay in relief from without, and this did not come.

Two months passed slowly by. The Turks had made a desert of the surrounding country, and held many thousands of its inhabitants as prisoners in their camp. Step by step they gained upon the defenders. By the end of August they possessed the moat around the city walls. On the 4th of September a mine was sprung under the Burg bastion, with such force that it shook half the city like an earthquake. The bastion was rent and shattered for a width of more than thirty feet, portions of its walls being hurled far and wide.

Into the great breach made the assailants poured in an eager multitude. But the defenders were equally alert, and drove them back with loss. On the following day they charged again, and were again repulsed by the brave Viennese, the ruined bastion becoming a very gulf of death.

The Turks, finding their efforts useless, resumed the work of mining, directing their efforts against the same bastion. On the 10th of September the new mine was sprung, and this time with such effect that a breach was made through which a whole Turkish battalion was able to force its way.

This city now was in the last extremity of danger; unless immediate relief came all would soon be lost. The garrison had been much reduced by sickness and wounds, while those remaining were so completely exhausted as to be almost incapable of defence. Rüdiger had sent courier after courier to the Duke of Lorraine in vain. In vain the lookouts swept the surrounding country with their eyes in search of some trace of coming aid. All seemed at an end. During the night a circle of rockets was fired from the tower of St. Stephen's as a signal of distress. This done the wretched Viennese waited for the coming day, almost hopeless of repelling the hosts which threatened to engulf them. At the utmost a few days must end the siege. A single day might do it.

That dreadful night of suspense passed away. With the dawn the wearied garrison was alert, prepared to strike a last blow for safety and defence, and to guard the yawning breach unto death. They waited with the courage of despair for an assault which did not come. Hurried and excited movements were visible in the enemy's camp. Could succor be at hand? Yes, from the summit of the Kahlen Hill came the distant report of three cannon, a signal that filled the souls of the garrison with joy. Quickly afterwards the lookouts discerned the glitter of weapons and the waving of Christian banners on the hill. The rescuers were at hand, and barely in time to save the city from its almost triumphant foes.

During the siege the Christian people outside had not been idle. Bavaria, Saxony, and the lesser provinces of the empire mustered their forces in all haste, and sent them to the reinforcement of Charles of Lorraine. To their aid came Sobieski, the chivalrous King of Poland, with eighteen thousand picked men at his back. He himself was looked upon as a more valuable reinforcement than his whole army. He had already distinguished himself against the Turks, who feared and hated him, while all Europe looked to him as its savior from the infidel foe.

There were in all about seventy-seven thousand men in the army whose vanguard ascended the Kahlen Hill on that critical 11th of September, and announced its coming to the beleaguered citizens by its three signal shots. The Turks, too confident in their strength, had thoughtlessly failed to occupy the heights, and by this carelessness gave their foes a position of vantage. In truth, the vizier, proud in his numbers, viewed the coming foe with disdain, and continued to pour a shower of bombs and balls upon the city while despatching what he deemed would be a sufficient force to repel the enemy.

On the morning of September 12, Sobieski led his troops down the hill to encounter the dense masses of the Moslems in the plain below. This celebrated chief headed his men with his head partly shaved, in the Polish fashion, and plainly dressed, though he was attended by a brilliant retinue. In front went an attendant bearing the king's arms emblazoned. Beside him was another who carried a plume on the point of his lance. On his left rode his son James, on his right Charles of Lorraine. Before the battle he knighted his son and made a stirring address to his troops, in which he told them that they fought not for Vienna alone, but for all Christendom; not for an earthly sovereign, but for the King of kings.

Early in the day the left wing of the army had attacked and carried the village of Nussdorf, on the Danube, driving out its Turkish defenders after an obstinate resistance. It was about mid-day when the King of Poland led the right wing into the plain against the dense battalions of Turkish horsemen which there awaited his assault.

The ringing shouts of his men told the enemy that it was the dreaded Sobieski whom they had to meet, their triumphant foe on many a well-fought field. At the head of his cavalry he dashed upon their crowded ranks with such impetuosity as to penetrate to their very centre, carrying before him confusion and dismay. So daring was his assault that he soon found himself in imminent danger, having ridden considerably in advance of his men. Only a few companions were with him, while around him crowded the dense columns of the foe. In a few minutes more he would have been overpowered and destroyed, had not the German cavalry perceived his peril and come at full gallop to his rescue, scattering with the vigor of their charge the turbaned assailants, and snatching him from the very hands of death.

So sudden and fierce was the assault, so poorly led the Turkish horsemen, and so alarming to them the war-cry of Sobieski's men, that in a short time they were completely overthrown, and were soon in flight in all directions. This, however, was but a partial success. The main body of the Turkish army had taken no part. Their immense camp, with its thousands of tents, maintained its position, and the batteries continued to bombard the city as if in disdain of the paltry efforts of their foes.

Yet it seems to have been rather rage and alarm than disdain that animated the vizier. He is said to have, in a paroxysm of fury, turned the scimitars of his followers upon the prisoners in his camp, slaughtering thirty thousand of these unfortunates, while bidding his cannoneers to keep up their assault upon the city.

These evidences of indecision and alarm in their leader filled the Turks with dread. They saw their cavalry battalions flying in confusion, heard the triumphant trumpets of their foes, learned that the dreaded Polish king was at the head of the irresistible charging columns, and yet beheld their commander pressing the siege as if no foe were in the field. It was evident that the vizier had lost his head through fright. A sudden terror filled their souls. They broke and fled. While Sobieski and the other leaders were in council to decide whether the battle should be continued that evening or left till the next morning, word was brought them that the enemy was in full flight, running away in every direction.

They hastened out. The tidings proved true. A panic had seized the Turks, and, abandoning tents, cannon, baggage, everything, they were flying in wild haste from the beleaguered walls. The alarm quickly spread through their ranks. Those who had been firing on the city left their guns and joined in the flight. From rank to rank, from division to division, it extended, until the whole army had decamped and was hastening in panic terror over the plain, hotly pursued by the death-dealing columns of the Christian cavalry, and thinking only of Constantinople and safety.

The booty found in the camp was immense. The tent of the grand vizier alone was valued at nearly half a million dollars, and the whole spoil was estimated as worth fifteen million dollars. The king wrote to his wife as follows:

"The whole of the enemy's camp, together with their artillery and an incalculable amount of property, has fallen into our hands. The camels and mules, together with the captive Turks, are driven away in herds, while I myself am become the heir of the grand vizier. The banner which was usually borne before him, together with the standard of Mohammed, with which the sultan had honored him in this campaign, and the tents, wagons, and baggage, are all fallen to my share; even some of the quivers captured among the rest are alone worth several thousand dollars. It would take too long to describe all the other objects of luxury found in his tents, as, for instance, his baths, fountains, gardens, and a variety of rare animals. This morning I was in the city, and found that it could hardly have held out more than five days. Never before did the eye of man see a work of equal magnitude despatched with a vigor like that with which they blew up, and shattered to pieces, huge masses of stone and rocks."

Sobieski, on entering Vienna, was greeted with the warmest gratitude and enthusiasm by crowds of people, who looked upon him as their deliverer. The governor, Count Rüdiger, grasped his hand with affection, the populace followed him in his every movement, while cries of "Long live the king!" everywhere resounded. Never had been a more signal delivery, and the citizens were beside themselves with joy.

In this siege the Turks had lost forty-eight thousand men. Twenty thousand more fell on the day of battle, and an equal number during the retreat. It is said that in the tent of the grand vizier were found letters from Louis XIV. containing the full plan of the siege, and to the many crimes of ambition of this monarch seems to be added that of bringing this frightful peril upon Europe for his own selfish ends. As for the unlucky vizier, he was put to death by strangling, by order of the angry sultan, on his reaching Belgrade. It is said that his head, found on the taking of Belgrade by Eugene, years afterwards, was sent to Bishop Kolonitsch, whose own head the vizier had threatened to take in revenge for his labors among the wounded of Vienna.

The war with the Turks continued, with some few intermissions, for fifteen years afterwards. It ended to the great advantage of the Christian armies. One after another the fortresses of Hungary were wrested from their hands, and in the year 1687 they were totally defeated at Mohacz by the Duke of Lorraine and Prince Eugene, and the whole of Hungary torn from their grasp.

In 1697 another great victory over them was won by Eugene, at Zenta, by which the power of the Turks was completely broken. Belgrade, which they had long held, fell into his hands, and a peace was signed which confirmed Austria in the possession of all Hungary. From that time forward the terror which the Turkish name had so long inspired vanished, and the siege of Vienna may be looked upon as the concluding act in the long array of invasions of Europe by the Mongolian hordes of Asia. It was to be followed by the gradual recovery, now almost consummated, of their European dominions from their hands.