By the second siege of Vienna in 1683, the Ottoman Empire was not as militarily powerful as it once was. In regards to terror, the Ottomans were still seen as the worst possible foe to ever fight against. The Kings of Europe however, were unaware of the declining quality of the Ottoman military, as they knew as much of the happenings within the Empire as the United States knew about the Soviet Union during the cold war.
As far as the European’s were concerned the Ottomans were just as powerful in 1683, as they were in the 15th and early 16th centuries. ”Europe’s Tragedy” by Peter H. Wilson, makes it clear that the Ottomans were in decline as they failed to capitalize on the massive war being fought in Germany, known as the 30 Years War. In fact, Casa D’Austria and the Ottomans had been in a stalemate since the failure of the first Ottoman siege of Vienna 1529. It is alright to speculate, however, that if the weather had been better for the Ottomans in 1529, they would have taken Vienna.
So, why did the Ottomans fail to take Vienna in 1683? There is multiple reasons as to why, some of the grand and some of them very small, yet all, in my opinion, very important. The Ottoman army that set out from Istanbul was a vast mixture of about 200,000 men. The army could be split into four categories in regards to troop types. The four categories are: Janissaries, Sipahis, Artillerymen, and vast amounts of irregulars from all over the empire.
The Janissary was the elite core of the Ottoman army. They were split up into a 300 man battalion called an “orta.” Each orta was split up into smaller groups of about 50-70 men who ate and slept together in the same barracks. The Janissary of 1683 was much different than of their brothers from 1529. Janissaries were now involved in business and marriage and invested less in war. In fact, the number of barracks in and around Istanbul was in decline as more and more Janissaries chose to marry and live outside with their families. The result was businesses backed by the power of the corps, which meant that the Janissaries had more trade power, and therefore political clout. Although the Janissaries were still a military force to be reckoned with, they were less focused on honing their military skills than a century ago. The Janissary corps increased involvement would eventually lead to the downfall of the Ottomans. For example, Selim III was believed to have been assassinated after a Janissary revolt for the attempt to reform the military. The creation of the “Nizam Cedit” was seen as a direct threat to the Janissaries’ way of life.
Regardless of all these things, the Janissary was still a fearsome soldier. The Ottoman’s did not have soldiers but rather warriors. Unlike the well disciplined dogmatic strata of the European musketeer, who stood in line with a steadfast demeanor, the Ottoman Janissary fought as an individual, not as a unit. Janissay battalions were admittedly hard to control once set upon the enemy. They were excellent shock troops, but not really meant to use tactics. In hand to hand combat, they were fearsome. At range however, they could not compare to the drilled musketeer.
The Janissary’s assortment of weapons spoke for how their masters fought. Every Janissary carried a sword, one or two knives, a number of pistols, and if they preferred a large musket. Indeed, the Ottomans were not just famous for having large cannons, but they also had larger muskets as well. The Janissary was always out for personal glory on the battlefield, they did not stand in line.
The more organized arm of the Ottomans was the Sipahis. The Sipahis were the European equivalent to feudal knights. A Sipahis would be given land by the state, and would be expected to provide their own men, as well as themselves, during times of war. The Sipahi was almost always on horseback. They would be arms with any assortment of weapons: lances, bows, pistols, swords, maces, a shield, and armor. The Sipahi also played a shock role, as all heavy cavalry does, but they were not as undisciplined as their Janissary allies. The Sipahis were considered so leathal, that while plate armor was no longer used in most of Europe, those who still fought against the Turks wore breastplates.
The Artillerymen were the backbone of the battlefield support system. In fact the engineer corps would be a better term for them. These were the men who operated the massive cannons and placed the mines under the city walls. During the siege of Vienna, the city inhabitants had a man placed in the basement of every house near the city walls. These men were to sit and watch a barrel with peas set on top of it. The Ottoman sappers were so quite that you could not hear them, but if the peas began to move, then you would be certain they were digging nearby.
Then finally we come to the irregulars. There are multiple groups: the “akincis” or light horse, the Tartar allies of the Sultan, and the tribesmen from all over the empire. The most notable are the Tartars. The Crimean Khanate had become a protectorate of the Sultan and so they were to provide about 10,000 of their horsemen to compliment the Ottoman army. The Tartars were the eyes and ears of the Ottoman force. They rode ahead to raid villages and locate possible threats. The brutality of the Tartars was that to rival their Mongol ancestors.
The monk, Matthew of Paris wrote of the Tartars:
"The Tartarian chieftains and their brutishly savage followers glutted themselves with the carcasses of the inhabitants, leaving nothing for the vultures but the bare bones."
The majority of these horsemen were armed with sabers and composite bows. Up against an organized enemy, these horsemen were useless. However, they were very effective raiders and scouts.
So then, the obvious weakness of the Ottoman army is organization on the battlefield. I won’t go into it, but I will say that no one can set up a tent city like the Ottoman army, but in regards to battle operations, the Turks were not very coordinated as their European foes.
The second and, I believe, most important factor in the Ottomans losing the siege of Vienna is Kara Mustafa. The Vizar was not exactly competent when it came to military tactics. Sure, he was an excellent administrator, but he failed to capitalized on the siege itself. Towards the end of the siege a massive mine had destroyed a section of the wall near the Hoffburg. The Turks had assaulted this breach multiple times, yet were held back. The Ottomans had them manpower to take more loses, the defenders had even less ammunition than they did manpower which was almost nothing at all. The fact was, that Kara Mustafa wanted to take Vienna intact. Had he of let his entire army loose on the city at the end, he would have taken it, but his men would have torn it to pieces as all armies do when they enter a city. He wanted the city to surrender. It was this reluctance that allowed the Polish King, John Sobeiski, to attack the Ottoman army while still encamped around the city. If you know anything of sieges, a besieger’s worst nightmare is to be attacked while laying siege. Suddenly you become trapped between a wall and a mobile enemy force.
The Ottoman defeat at Vienna in 1683 was the result, in a small part, to the declining and outdated military system, and in large part to their tactical inability as well as their poor battlefield leadership. The result of Kara Mustafa’s defeat would be the end of the Austro-Ottoman deadlock, and the birth of a European power: Austria. As for the Ottomans, they would never make an attempt on Vienna again.
All photos obtained through google:
Peter H. Wilson “The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy.”
Andrew Wheatcroft “The Enemy at the Gate.”
My German History Professor, Jay Lee’s, University of Northern Iowa.