Prince Eugene - George Upton

Eugene at Belgrade

After a few years of peace we see Eugene again taking up his sword against the Turks. The Venetians needed assistance against the Sublime Porte. At first it was thought that all difficulties could be settled by the pen, but the gentlemen in Constantinople assumed such an arrogant tone that it was impossible for Vienna to countenance it. Besides, the imperial house was much more powerful than in former days, when the Turks had advanced to the very gates of Vienna. Having vanquished the French, Austria was confident that she could conquer the Turks also. But the latter thought otherwise and were determined to regain what they had lost, at all costs. We shall see what happened.

Appointed imperial Governor-General of the Netherlands—no slight proof of the boundless confidence of his Emperor and master—Prince Eugene of Savoy prepared for a valiant defence against the grimmest foe of Christendom.

Surrounded by a group of heroes, including the daring Heister (called "the scourge of the Turks"), the excellent cavalry commander Palffy, Prince Alexander of Wurttemberg, the faithful Mercy, the expert soldier Starhemberg, and others, he left Vienna in order to join the army which was gathering at Peterwardein, in the Summer of 1716.

The Turks meanwhile had not been dilatory. Their army, numbering at least two hundred thousand men, was, according to Turkish standards, well fitted out and amply furnished with all requisites. Relying upon this, the Grand Vizier Ali wrote to the Field-Marshal General, Prince Eugene, among other things, these words: "The Ottoman Empire expects to win much glory and many victories in this campaign, whereas your shameful conduct will bring, not only upon you, but upon your children and grandchildren, misfortunes and curses and a shameful defeat." The Turks put on an air of innocence, but every one knew just what to expect from them.

It was not long before the two armies were standing face to face, for both sides appeared to be in great haste. Field-Marshal Palffy, with a small body of men, hazarded a bold ride in order to reconnoitre the enemy's position. Their expedition led them through ravines and ditches and demanded a great deal of courage. Suddenly twenty thousand Turkish horsemen fell upon Palffy's company of scarcely two thousand men. In this rough country retreat and advance were equally dangerous; it was a desperate situation. But their gallant leader did not lose his head. He and his men defended themselves bravely and the enemy were badly worsted in spite of their advantage in numbers; and Palffy got safely back to Eugene. It now seemed as though the Turks were preparing to besiege Peterwardein. They dug trenches, threw up earthworks, erected redoubts, and continually shelled Eugene's position.

He was not the man to put up quietly with these annoyances for any length of time. His plan was to attack the enemy before they had become established in their new position or had seized the means for an energetic defence. With his characteristic rapidity Eugene made all his arrangements for an attack. The fourth of August was to be the decisive day. The Turks must have noticed that something was about to happen. They were stirring very early; and as it grew lighter, one could see hill and valley covered with the countless ranks of their hosts.

At seven o'clock in the morning, Eugene's left wing commenced the attack. Prince Alexander of Wurttemberg led the first storming column. Without meeting with any particular resistance he took one of the enemy's batteries, while the imperial cavalry, which followed his infantry, put the Turkish horsemen to flight. The troops were overjoyed at this; but the hardest work was still to come. Simultaneously with this attack, the imperial infantry, which was occupying the other entrenchments, was to advance on the enemy. In the narrow passages of the earthworks this maneuver was not executed with the expected precision. It took longer to form the ranks outside the entrenchments than had been expected. Taking advantage of this, the Turks threw themselves on the advancing enemy in over-powering numbers. With fierce cries they drove them back, pushing forward with them into the first and second lines of entrenchments, but were quickly driven out again by the imperial cavalry, which came dashing up.

The infantry reformed their ranks and again rapidly advanced. There was another terrific encounter. The imperial cuirassiers held the advantage; whatever came within reach was cut down by their terrific blows. The light Turkish cavalry were scattered like spray before the wind. However, they still fought with iron endurance and were even successful here and there. One section of the imperial infantry was repulsed again and again. The Turks, with loud cries of victory, began the pursuit in the heat of the fight; but in doing so exposed both of their flanks.

This was the moment for Eugene to strike a decisive blow. With the rapidity of lightning he threw Heister's cavalry on the left wing of the enemy. The battalions of the Prince of Wurttemberg attacked them on the right and in the centre; the scattered columns were reforming for a new and victorious assault. Attacked from three sides at once with great fury, shelled by the cannon from the walls of Peterwardein, succumbing in bloody bayonet fights with their antagonists, and overthrown in a hand-to-hand struggle with the more powerful German soldiers, the Turks turned for a hurried flight. After them in furious haste stormed the German cavalry. Whole regiments were cut down and others taken prisoners. The Germans assaulted the last stronghold of the Turks, their wagon-barricade: further resistance was useless.

While the imperial commander Prince Eugene, on horseback and exposed to all the hardships and dangers of the fight, had been directing the battle, the Grand Vizier Ali had not for a moment left his tent, where he had been standing immovable beside the sacred banner of the Prophet. The flight of his troops at last aroused him. With his naked sabre he went to meet the fleeing men and cut down several of them. He implored, he commanded, he cursed them. All in vain. The current of flight and defeat was not to be stemmed. He then placed himself at the head of his bodyguard, plunged into the tide of battle, and soon fell mortally wounded. His defeated and disorganized army hastened on to Belgrade. Temesvar was taken by the Austrians. Eugene had occasion once more to hold a thanksgiving service on the field of battle.

Eugene's victory at Peterwardein caused great enthusiasm throughout the whole of Europe. The Savoyard was the feted hero of young and old, aristocrat and humble citizen. While the blessings of the whole German people were following him on his path of victory, the monarchs of Europe were vying with one another in offering him tokens of their admiration and gratitude. The Pope presented him with a consecrated hat and sword, and Marshal Villars honored the famous hero of Peterwardein with a personal letter.

Although the defeat of the Turks had been so complete and so terrible, they could not rest until they tried their luck in a second campaign. The whole of Europe rejoiced over this news, not doubting that the old arch-enemy of Christendom would now receive his death-blow. Young nobles and the chief princes flocked to the imperial standards in order to join in the fight against the Turks and to study the art of war under Eugene's leadership. As usual, he was now prompt and ready. On the ninth of June, 1717, he set out from Peterwardein; on the fourteenth he was at Pancsova; and on the fifteenth and sixteenth the imperial army crossed the Danube. He purposed no less a feat than "to reconquer for the Emperor" the fortress of Belgrade, which was garrisoned by thirty thousand picked Turkish troops. This was an extremely hazardous undertaking, for two hundred thousand Turks under command of the Grand Vizier Chalis of Adrianople were already on their way to interfere with his plans. But in spite of this, the Christian army was in good spirits, and their confidence was absolute in their general, who was bold, as well as gifted, and seasoned in battle.

This occasion again brought into play all the resources of Eugene's genius. He had to prepare for defence in two directions: first, against a sortie of the garrison; and secondly, against an attack from the Turkish army of relief. For this purpose he protected his camp by quickly constructed fort-like walls, deep, wide trenches, earthworks, and rifle-pits. At the same time he caused exits to be made in the principal wall here and there, so that in case of danger from the outside, his men would be able to reach the open field quickly. He bridged over the morasses, caused the sconce of the Semlin bridge on the Banat side of the Danube to be garrisoned, the island in the Danube at Belgrade to be protected by redoubts—in short he did everything that fore-thought and care could suggest to hold off and if possible to crush an enemy possessing three times his strength.

In the midst of these extensive preparations for the battle Eugene was surprised by a fearful natural catastrophe. A mighty hurricane broke loose, tearing the heavy iron chains that bound the ships, as though they had been hempen ropes, destroying the bridges which had been constructed, and dashing the Austrian and Turkish vessels lying in the Danube into a confused heap. Taking advantage of this disturbance, ten thousand Turks crossed the Save to take the Austrian entrenchments. An unexampled confusion took possession of the Germans; but a Hessian captain, quickly gathering together his half company, threw himself against the numerous advancing foes. He had the courage and good fortune to be able to hold his ground until two grenadier companies hurried to the scene and drove back the enemy. While this event was taking place, the janissaries had fixed their attention upon the Austrian entrenchments. With resounding cries to Allah they were soon inside, massacring the bewildered Austrian soldiers, but were as quickly surprised by two hundred and fifty cuirassiers, who came dashing up to ride them down or drive them into the angry waters of the Danube. At the same time the imperial batteries opened a murderous fire on Belgrade. Large sections of the fortifications were levelled to the ground, and the waterfront of the city was laid in ruins. Then the news was brought to Prince Eugene that Chalis was approaching with reinforcements. At first, merely a rumor to which little credence was given, it soon turned out to be a fact. Hussars and Servians began to arrive at the fortifications, which had already been occupied by their forerunners, the light Turkish Cavalry skirmishers.

A few days later, Eugene had the foe before and behind him. Shelled from all sides, Eugene needed great coolness. Thousands would have lost their heads in such a situation. His resolution was taken. While a very small part of his army kept guard over Belgrade, with the remaining forty thousand men he boldly challenged the Grand Vizier Chalis. Eugene's situation at Belgrade recalls in many respects that of Werder at Belfort. The infantry formed the centre, the cavalry was posted on the wings. No one could deceive himself as to the seriousness of the situation. There were but two courses open; to conquer, or to die! And in a council of war Eugene said plainly enough: "Either I shall gain possession of Belgrade or the Turks will take me."

Prince Eugene at Belgrade


The officers were commanded to give their orders coolly and quietly, without shouting or showing impatience. Neither officer nor soldier was allowed to leave his appointed place, and no one on pain of death should seek for spoils or plunder. Lastly, the soldiers were reminded that they had to do with Turks, Tartars, and enemies of that sort, from whom there was little to fear if they were met with due coolness and firmness. Shortly after midnight the regiments moved out of the entrenchments to place themselves in battle array.

It was a cold, clear night in August, so the Turks could observe the marching of the troops. It was not until nearly daylight that a fog covered the landscape, so dense that the nearest objects could not be distinguished. Enveloped in this gray veil the Austrians advanced on the Turkish fortifications. The fog was now so thick that in spite of all precautions Palffy's cavalry lost their way. As the infantry had orders to follow the cavalry, they also got too far to the right. In this way an empty space was left in the centre, which the Turks immediately filled out with several battalions, so that they were in the midst of the Austrian position.

Thus the battle began; and soon the whole right wing was involved in a bitter fight. Palffy's cavalry were worthy of all honor; every one of them fought like a hero, but against such overwhelming numbers their destruction was certain. It was General von Mercy who hurried to the relief of his brothers-in-arms; the gallant Starhemberg also, with his infantry, was not behindhand. With irresistible energy the battalions attacked the enemy at the front, and the cavalry fell upon his flank. Such an onslaught could not be sustained for any length of time. The Turks fled, leaving their batteries in the hands of the Austrians.

During this fighting on the right wing, the battle broke out gradually along the whole line. The fog had become still denser and more impenetrable. Both sides fired without being able to see one another. In slow marching order the Austrian infantry moved forward. Coming upon the Turkish trenches they took them quickly by storm and crossed over upon the corpses of their foes.

In other parts of the great battle-field the Turks were gaining the advantage. A large body of their troops, led astray by the fog, found itself again between the two separated wings of the Austrians. That meant some desperate fighting. Toward eight o'clock in the morning a light breeze at last scattered the mists which, until now, had hidden the battle-field.

A single glance over the confused panorama showed Eugene the fearful danger in which he stood. It was such moments as these, however, which demonstrated his greatness. With him decision and execution were one. The enemy must not be allowed to make use of their advantage. Prince von Bevern received orders to throw himself impetuously upon them with the second division; Eugene at the head of the united cavalry regiments stormed their flanks. The Turks defended themselves lustily, especially as they had now discovered, too late, their favorable position. There was no power to resist the tremendous onslaught of the Austrians, the Turks wavered, gave way; the battle line was once more established. And now the drums rolled, the horns pealed forth, and the flags waved aloft—the signal for a general attack on the Turkish camp all along the line.

There were many bleeding heads; there was no holding back on either side; they surged back and forth. Only one Turkish battery upon a hill was holding its own. From its eighteen cannon it poured forth death and destruction upon the advancing Austrians. This must be taken and silenced. Ten companies of grenadiers and four battalions whose wings were covered by squadrons of cavalry were assigned the task of taking the battery by storm. With flying banners and bands playing, marching close together, shoulder to shoulder as compact as a wall, the brave fellows pressed forward. They were met by a terrific fire, which tore deep gaps in their ranks. Regardless of their falling comrades, passing over their wounded and dead bodies, they pressed onward with loud cries of victory, and reached the top. Without firing a shot, with lowered bayonets they charged the enemy (mostly janissaries) like a storm-cloud, until all were cut down and the battery was taken.

It was exactly nine o'clock in the morning when the enemy left their fortified camp in great haste. The gradually decreasing thunder of the Austrian cannon accompanied them, but the light cavalry pursued the defeated Turks. It was a great battle and a great victory! The Turks lost about twenty thousand men, while Eugene's loss was but fifteen hundred. The trophies of war included nearly two hundred cannon, one hundred and fifty flags, and nine horsetails, not forgetting the captured treasure in the deserted Turkish camp, consisting of bejeweled weapons and other articles of luxury.

Eugene sent General Count Hamilton at once with news of the victory to the Emperor, Charles the Sixth. The anxious suspense of all minds had been so great on account of Eugene's dangerous situation that the rejoicings were unbounded. As Count Hamilton, according to the custom of that time, after having delivered his message to the Emperor, accompanied by the pealing tones of the six postillions of "the Favorite" who rode before him, passed through the Karnthner gate into the city, across the moat and by way of the Kohlmarkt to the Castle, the crowds were so great that the carriage could scarcely make its way through them. A few days later, Colonel Count Rabutin brought the news that Belgrade also had surrendered. Nearly six hundred cannon, the whole flotilla on the Danube, and a great deal of ammunition fell into the hands of the victors.

One year later, after the Turks had been defeated in several more small skirmishes and battles, Prince Eugene made peace with them, in the name of the Emperor, at Passarowitz. Banat, Slavonia, a part of Bosnia, Servia, and Wallachia passed over to Austria, not forgetting Hungary, which had been conquered before this. The strangest part of the affair was, that even the Turkish Sultan could not abstain from showing Eugene how highly he esteemed him. The Turkish ambassador was instructed to present the Prince with two Arabian horses, a costly sword, and a turban. At the same time he accompanied the presents with the explanation: "The sabre is the symbol of your valor; the others are for your keen wit, your wise counsel, and wiser execution."